Book Reviews

This is a composite of book reviews featured on this blog or posted on another website  – written by Marian Longenecker Beaman (most recent appear first)

 

Book Review
Book Reviews

You can also find more of my book reviews on the Riffle Books website @ https://read.rifflebooks.com/profiles/136032 

 

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Go Away, Home by Carol Bodensteiner, 2016

Memoirist and now novelist, Carol Bodensteiner has crafted a powerful work of fiction from the rich soil of the Mid-West she knows so well. Having read her engaging memoir Growing Up Country, I was familiar with her experience as a farm girl, which plays well into her detailed description of Iowan agricultural life, including, early on, the miraculous egg-laying process.

The book begins on the eve of World War I in an America on the brink of social change including woman’s suffrage, expectations about marriage, and career choices. The author’s meticulous historical research provides a sturdy scaffolding for the plot line of the book and carves out a keen sense of place. With the writer, readers can explore the impact of the Spanish flu nationwide and how the patriotism of German immigrants was questioned during this era. Intimate letters woven into nearly every chapter add depth and detail to the development of the main characters, Liddie, Joe, and Amelia.

This work of historical fiction is no less a love story rich in sensory detail as in this excerpt: Joe went ahead and reached down to steady her up the last steps. It took several moments for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Dust motes floated on shafts of sunlight streaming through cracks in the barn walls, golden arrows in the darkened recesses of the loft. The mingled scents of hay and dust and livestock evoked a flood of pleasant memories. (222)

Echoing the chant in the bread-baking motif the author uses in both the beginning and ending of the novel — “outside to inside, outside to inside” — Liddie grows from a 16-year old girl into a mature woman in her early twenties, one who allows adversity to expand, not limit, her life choices. As the title promises, she did “Go Away” both literally and metaphorically and come “Home” again, recognizing the place with new eyes.

In the end, we cheer for the woman Liddie has become and marvel at the strange way of her arrival. I can imagine this book as a made-for-TV period movie of prairie life in the context of American cultural change.

 

Hutterite Diaries: Wisdom from My Prairie Community by Linda Maendel, 2015.

Frugality, simplicity and a strong faith are qualities I identified with growing up Mennonite in Lancaster County, PA during the 1950s. Linda Maendel has painted in bold colors a realistic picture of life in a similar culture, her Hutterite colony in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mennonites and Hutterites both have Anabaptist origins in Europe, value close family ties, and oppose war.

Using blog posts, newspaper articles, and historical research, Maendel recalls the hard work and strong sense of community that keeps the Elm River Colony thriving. Before reading this book, I had only a vague idea of Hutterite life. However, I learned that cooperation makes their world go round, basing this belief on the New Testament teaching in Acts 2:40-47. While the colony members do not have personal bank accounts, colony leaders distribute funds to individual families and pay all Canadian government taxes. They are skilled at re-purposing too. The author’s stories of fashioning an old desk into something new and creating lap quilts from patches are heart-warming.

Reading Linda’s memoir felt calming. As Valerie Weaver-Zercher mentions in her book Thrill of the Chaste, readers are drawn to stories like these because of the moral innocence exemplified, “chaste residents in a defiled world,” as she puts it. I found it interesting that my friend Weaver-Zercher was Maendel’s editor during book publication.

Maendel is a consummate storyteller, a quality students in her German and English classes must relish. Through wit, humor, and an authentic voice, Linda Maendel is giving her Hutterite community a legacy to savor and to those yet to come a roadmap to follow.

Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie by Beth M. Howard, 2012.

Using the delightful metaphor of pie, journalist Beth Howard writes a memoir alternately sweet, tart, and even sometimes flaky. The author, writing with warmth and wit, shows how she courageously triumphs over tragedy one mile at a time in her trusty RV. As she mourns the untimely death of her beloved husband Marcus, she takes to the road in an odyssey that includes filming a documentary about pie making and handing out free slices on the streets of Los Angeles. She documents both her geographical journey and the grief bursts that often accompany it with unswerving honesty.

The book concludes with Beth traveling back to her roots in Iowa and living in the American Gothic House, immortalized by the famous Grant Wood painting. Thus she unites two great American icons: the legendary Iowa farmhouse and her famous apple pie. Ostensibly a story about pie, this memoir is ultimately a tale of hope, healing, and recovery from loss and from the guilt that often accompanies it.

 

The Chosen Shell: A Young Woman’s Journey Toward Love by Katherine Sartori, Kindle e-Book, 2012.

Reading Katherine Sartori’s The Chosen Shell felt at once familiar and strange. The author’s brilliant novel, with parallels to her own life as a young adult in a convent, transported me back to my Mennonite origins in Lancaster County, PA where I too chafed at restrictions while struggling to make sense of God’s calling in my own life.

I understood the push/pull of rigorous rules of the Augustinian Order, to which Celie the main character, had pledged herself. As I read the details of her nun’s habit and the restrictive daily ritual, I could definitely relate to her experience myself, particularly as a teacher at Lancaster Mennonite School. Coming of age in this same era though, I recognize that both institutions, Mennonite and Catholic, were in a state of flux, leaning toward relaxing rules and granting greater freedom. Yet not enough to capture the lifelong commitment for either of us.

Sartori is a master-storyteller with the awesome ability to portray characters in four dimensions: their thoughts and emotions as palpable as their sensory descriptions. I could also visualize the settings her characters moved in: from the austere Immaculate Mary Convent to the lush terrain of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Each scene was fully drawn. I will never forget the description of Celie’s first meal at the convent where silence and sacrifice reigned. Yes, silence at first, but lots of conversation followed as the story unfolds. The novelist’s mastery of dialogue is enviable.

Given Celie’s growing need for self-expression and disenchantment with the flaws and failings of her Superiors, the ending is inevitable, yet readers are enticed to read on because we have come to care for the character.

Sartori is also a poet, her inspired lines woven seamlessly into the prose of the plot:

Simplicity shell. Only one half, Bleached pure white inside and out. Outside — rough and ribbed, ridges curved, forced into parallel paths. Inside — satin smooth, sea-shaped, cupped Ready to hold – What?

I highly recommend this book, fast-paced and insightful. I read it in 3-4 sittings; it is definitely a page turner.

An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-year-old panhandler, a busy sales executive, and an unlikely meeting with destiny by Laura Schroff, Howard Books (Simon and Schuster), 2011

“Excuse me, lady, do you have any spare change? I’m hungry.” Those were the first words out of the mouth of Maurice, as Laura Schroff, a publishing executive at Time Inc, rounded the corner from Broadway to 45th Street in New York City. She passed him by, but something special in his eyes halted her and she turned on her heel and, nearly killing herself in traffic, went back. Thus their paths converged and the story of a thirty-year relationship began.

No, Miss Laura did not give Maurice spare change but on the spot she took him to McDonald’s for a Big Mac, large fries, and milkshake. Then over the years they met every Monday night often at her luxury apartment where Maurice learned about ritual and rules for living: sitting down to eat a meal, showing up on time for school. Laura’s cozy nest provided a safe haven, an escape from his one-room hotel room, a den of violence where 10-12 assorted needy “friends” and family flopped to sleep off a drug binge or cook crack to deal on the streets.

Not until Chapter 8 does the reader learn about the tug on the other end of the invisible thread – the unspeakable violence in Laura’s middle-class childhood home where a father in drunken rages would fling full liquor bottles against the wall and destroy his son’s sports trophies.

She admits, “I couldn’t help but think that the terror and uncertainty we faced as children because of my father was similar to the chaos that Maurice now had to endure.” (107)

Laura’s memoir, reminiscent of The Blind Side, interweaves three dynamic narratives: The first, the story of Laura and Maurice’s growing relationship. Secondly, Laura’s back story as both victim and then survivor of her dysfunctional home. And finally, Maurice’s maturation into an adult with a family of his own, reflecting what Joseph Campbell calls the hero’s journey often fraught with obstacles and setbacks. (The Power of Myth)

I began reading the book because I was intrigued by the disparity between an accomplished woman in Manhattan and a smelly young boy from Brooklyn. I was compelled to read on because I wanted answers: Why would a young woman who helped make USA Today and InStyle successful publications risk all to build trust with a young man who had nothing to offer in return? How did a ill-kempt beggar boy, who has since developed a career in construction, enrich that woman’s own life?

In the end, Author Schroff realizes that both she and Maurice had been together on a voyage of self-discovery. Her message: “This is a book about how, if we learn to let go of fears and burdens and expectations, we can find ourselves plunged into the sweet, unplanned blessings of life” (book blurb).

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, Virago Press, 1986 edition
(My review also posted in Rifflebooks.com)

I’ve seen the film “Enchanted April” more than once. But just recently I have read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, the novel on which the movie is based. Both media tell the tale of four disenchanted women who travel from dismal London weather to San Salvatore, a castle high above a bay on the sunny Italian Riviera. Two of them, Rose Arbuthnot and Lottie Wilkins, wish to escape stifling marriages, a widow, Mrs. Fisher clings to her venerated, Victorian past, and young Lady Caroline Dester just wants to sun herself away from male admirers who grab, grab, grab, grab. There are actually five main characters in the book if you count bountiful nature, “piled up in heaps” of blue irises, lavender, olive, fig and cherry trees, peach and cherry in blossom, both backdrop and sustenance for the weary women.

Writer Von Arnim delivers plenty of clever dialogue with wit that saves the book from sentimentality. “’But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, ‘so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,’ she enquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavored to pretend she did not hear, ‘how difficult it is to be improper without men?’”

As the beautiful, golden days drop gently into weeks among the gladiolus, narcissus, and acacias, the women shed both years and self-centeredness, form bonds, and eventually come to tolerate, even appreciate their differences. Mrs. Fisher’s famous walking stick appears to transform into a magic wand as even she succumbs to the conclusion of Lottie Wilkins, angel-in-training no doubt, that they’ve all “got to heaven,” a heaven on earth in fact. Overall, the novel has a golden glow, burnished with the patina of a measure of Victorian propriety.

Critic Terence de Vere White, who wrote the introduction to the 1986 edition of the book, makes this observation: “The novel is the lightest of omelettes, in the making of which the least possible number of eggs get broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level.”

Unfolding like a fairy tale, The Enchanted April is a good read any time, but especially for readers in late winter who live in climes where spring can’t come soon enough. Indeed, it’s a vacation for the mind and soul — quirky, charming, and refreshing. Oh, and of course there’s romance. As the curtain falls on the drama, love abounds and the characters exit in pairs, just like in a Shakespearean comedy.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Viking Press, 2014
(My review also posted in Rifflebooks.com)

A full-page spread advertising Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work of historical fiction recently appeared in the New Yorker, which tells readers something about the stature of this work. Set in Charleston, SC, the novelist creates parallel stories representing two strata of early nineteenth-century America, alternating chapters with the voices of two engaging characters: the aristocratic Sarah Grimke and the hand-maid (creative name for slave) assigned to her, Hetty Handful Grimke. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. Over the next thirty-five years, both strive for a life of their own “forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love” as one reviewer characterizes it. Woven into the fabric of this novel is the alliance of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who advocate for the equality of slaves and the rights of women.

While the unfolding plot intertwines other historical figures, both factual and imagined, Kidd held my attention with her metaphors and other descriptions. I was particularly intrigued with the exquisite quilts Handful’s cunning mother Charlotte fabricated, often using the image of blackbird wings as a triangular motif in the design. In the acknowledgements section, the author mentions too her reference to the American black folktale, from which she drew inspiration about “people in Africa being able to fly and then losing their wings when captured into slavery.”

The two main characters in this book effectively invent their own wings, Sarah by tirelessly advocating for human rights and Handful by staging her own escape to freedom. Her often repeated refrain:

If you don’t know where you came from, you have to know where you’re going.

Ever Faith to His Lead: My Journey Away from Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler, Bloomington, IN: Open Books Press, 2014

Kathy Pooler’s memoir Ever Faithful to His Lead is a smooth read but with a tale that is often tumultuous. Her memoir unfolds like a novel with pleasing dialogue and silky descriptions of her prom dress and her hand-made wedding gown in stark contrast to the rocky road she travels to become a strong, assertive woman.

In the course of her journey, Kathy earns several academic degrees among them the distinguished Certified Family Nurse Practitioner qualification. Yet she stumbles with poor choices in love, choosing one wrong partner after another in her search for a stable marriage like that she imagined her parents’ to be. In fact, she admits early on that she can trace her “inability to discern dangerous situations to a lack of exposure to anything out of the ordinary.”

Readers can applaud the resilient woman emerging from the frightened person who hid from her first husband in her hallway closet to a woman who is finally able to trust her own instincts. Her candor and vulnerability appear on every page. Kathy often pulls the reader aside to contemplate her motivation, as for example: “I was always second-guessing myself, quickly shoving doubts aside to paint the picture of what I needed the world to be.”

When you as reader want to snatch the blinders off the writer’s eyes and yell “Stop!” into her ears, you know the author has succeeded in pulling you into her world. This memoir is a cautionary tale for anyone on an elusive search for Mr. Right. For anyone already in an abusive relationship, Kathy’s story offers courage and hope. Admitting it is time to make big-girl choices, her last chapter promises, “Raw, hopeful, ready to dance to my own song—my new faith waiting patiently in the background.”

The book concludes with nine discussion questions for book clubs and a “Share the Hope” section with the notation that each purchase contributes toward the National Coalition of Domestic Violence Awareness Association. Author Pooler is already at work on a sequel: Hope Matters.

Marriage to a Difficult Man (Part I) by Elisabeth D. Dodds, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971

Posted on July 5, 2014

The marriage under the microscope is that of Sarah Edwards to the famous colonial theologian, Jonathan Edwards, best known for his fire-and-brimstone-sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

You may surmise that the title comes from the mouth of a fed-up wife to her biographer. However, the book is Elisabeth Dodd’s commentary on the unique union of Jonathan & Sarah Edwards often using primary sources like diaries and letters to show the personal, human side of this towering figure of faith. The blurb from Amazon touts this 1971 classic on the domestic life of Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, the most famous theologian of colonial America, as a “tempting blend of family guidance, sociological study, . . . and devotionally-oriented American historical biography.”

According to Dodds, Jonathan was a “moody, socially bumbling, and very shy young man of twenty” already a college graduate and professor at Yale, when he first met the vibrant thirteen-year-old Sarah, who had “burnished manners, and skilled at small talk.” Completely smitten by Sarah, Edwards

. . . took to walking past her her house at night for a glimpse of a candle flickering behind an upstairs shutter. When a boat came into Long Wharf with a cargo from England, he would manage to be around as it was unloaded. Almost every ship from England brought a box for the Pierreponts, and there was a chance that James [Pierrepont] would bring a daughter down with him as he checked his orders […]. Edwards even tried to improve his social dexterity, and admonished himself, “Have lately erred, in not allowing time enough for conversation. (16)

Both avid readers and nature lovers, Jonathan and Sarah married and raised a family of eleven children, in whose education both parents were heavily invested. At the end of the day this firebrand preacher and proponent of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, took off his jacket and wig and, smoking his pipe, devoted a full hour to his children and took them on trips with him individually.

What about Sarah though? It’s true, when he wasn’t preaching, Edwards was usually holed up with his books, but he often “read aloud to her from his skull-cracking sessions in his study,” recognizing her as his intellectual partner. (164)  And Sarah knew he would reserve time for her alone away from the house, often spent horse-back riding.

Why is this Puritan Preacher called difficult then, as the book’s title would suggest? Actually, I get the impression he was more eccentric than harsh, more odd than obstinate at home as this quote suggests:

Edwards was less than helpful as a host,  for he was still a light eater and would often finish his meal before the others did. He would then slip out to his study, returning to the table only when he was alerted that the others had finished and he was needed to preside over the grace which was always said at the end of meals as well as at the beginning.(56)

Peculiar in his eating habits, Edwards was also either eccentric or just being practical in recording his sermon notes. “He kept old bills and shopping lists, stitching them together into handmade notebooks in which he copied out his sermons on the unused side of the papers. Because his sermons were saved, we have a record of the everyday details of his family’s life together.” (31)

One reviewer comments that “Suffering was a part of Sarah’s life, too. Her husband’s brilliant mind and heart were never adequately recognized until shortly before his death. An insane man once spread false accusations about him.” Their teenage daughter Mary died of tuberculosis. Money was sometimes scarce.

Sarah herself went through a short period of mental breakdown, “nerves stretches like an over-tuned viola.” (72)  Her support and comfort, Edwards persuaded her to take a trip to Boston with him, taking her away from the fish-bowl of the parish and the constant demands as mother and hostess to a steady stream of visiting preachers.

Nevertheless, Sarah herself a woman of heart, intellect and purpose maintained a contented home, a home that produced healthy, well-balanced children all of whom carried on the genius of their parents. As author Dodds implies, a trust in the living God runs as a common thread throughout Sarah’s life story, giving her strength to carry on.

Marriage to a Difficult Man, (Part II) by Elisabeth D. Dodds, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971

Posted on July 9, 2014

Sarah’s Flair for House-keeping

She was the kind of woman who took the trouble to tie her hair with a ribbon for breakfast when many wives came down tousled; who spent an extra minute to stamp a design on a block of home-churned butter; who knew how to give a flourish to simple dishes with parsley, spearmint or sage, all grown in a square of herbs by the kitchen door; who, when she had a bowl of peas to shell, would take it out into the sunshine in the garden. She put in day lilies, hollyhocks, pansies, pinks–the flowers women loved to plant on the frontier, for it gave them a sense of putting down roots.  (31)

Reviewer Elliott muses further of Sarah’s homey housekeeping, efficiency tempered by composure:

She knew how to keep a house clean at its vitals, without stuffy cupboards left unaired or parlors sealed off. The house was open, used, full of clues that the family living in it had vivid interests. Books were left on tables, actually being read, not used as parlor props. There would be needlepoint on a rack by a sunny window and a lute in a corner. Esther, singing, might be putting up a hem for Sukey [Susannah] while a boy did his Latin lesson. It was the opposite of the kind of house where things were preserved in mothballs in locked boxed. Its ambience was of windows flung open, of easy access.

Key to Harmony in Their Uncommon Union

Contrary to popular belief, the author of the fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” observed quiet passion in the pulpit but also preached on grace and redemption. And he treated Sarah “as a fully mature being, as a person whose conversation entertained him, whose spirit nourished his own religious life, whose presence gave him repose.” (35) Likewise, Sarah, “let him be sure of her steady love, and then freed him to think.” (66)

A woman of charm, practicality and tact, Sarah like her mate was strong as iron, realizing that “she had chosen to marry the sort of man who did not give in when he believed a matter of deep principle was at stake.” (112)

Edwards’ Parting Words to Sarah

Remembering the love of his life, the charming but stalwart Sarah, who wore a pea-green satin brocade with a bold pattern” to their wedding (24), Jonathan Edwards spoke these words “not about heaven or hell, or about books or theories. He spoke of Sarah:

Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.  (201)

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Woman: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on a Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master

Posted on March 19, 2014

Author Rachel Held Evans one of the foremost thinkers and writers in evangelical circles today has appeared on Oprah and The View and spotlighted by NPR, the BBC and The Washington Post. Her spell-binding book will stir you to see women, biblical and otherwise, in a new light.

If your comfort zone is just too cozy to leave right now, you can read about a gutsy woman who ditched her comfy life-style, visiting “an Amish schoolhouse in Gap, Pennsylvania; a pig farm in Cochabamba, Bolivia; and a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama.” Admitting to being domestically challenged, she took up knitting and baking even working her way through the recipes in Martha Stewart’s Cooking School.

Rachel Held Evans characterizes herself as a liberated woman, but for one year she became an Old Testament woman who admits she “spent an afternoon on my rooftop, adopted a computer-baby, camped out in my front yard during my period,” and left eight pounds of dough to rise in my bathroom.”

Intrigued by many of her friends who abandoned their careers for traditional gender roles in the home, “Evans decided to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year,” sometimes pushing them to their literal extreme. The result is A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master,” a New York Times best-seller.

Each chapter records a month in which Evans focuses on a biblical virtue: October – gentleness, November – Domesticity, and so on.There is nothing starchy about her subtitles with chapters like February/Beauty “My Breasts are Like Towers” and March/Modesty “Hula-Hooping with the Amish,” who she mentions don’t wear white for their weddings because it’s worldly and don’t marry in June because that’s worldly too!

The end of each chapter “month” features a character study of women like Eve or Mary Magdalene, but includes more obscure women like Junia, the Apostle or Huldah, the Prophet. That’s where Evans’ astute scholarship is most evident. With two unanswered questions, author Evans plunges into astonishing biblical research as her 8 pages of documentation verify: What does God truly expect of women? Is there a prescription for biblical womanhood? She admits:I took my research way too seriously, combing through feminist, conservative, and liberal commentaries, and seeking out Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on each issue. I spoke with modern-day women practicing ancient biblical mandates in their own lives—a polygamist, a pastor, a Quiverfull daughter, an Orthodox Jew, an Amish grandmother. I scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse I could find about mothers, daughters widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes.

But Rachel had divine help along her pathway: Ahava, an orthodox Jew she met online who advised Rachel on all things Jewish. Guys in the food aisles at a Wal-Mart in East Tennessee who helped her search for Kosher ingredients for her Seder celebration. And her ever-accommodating husband Dan, whom she praises with a home-made sign at the city gates of Dayton, Tennessee, near where they live.

Evans’ book is definitely a page-turner. I read her 310-page book in under 3 days. As one reviewer exclaims; “An unexpected, laugh-out-loud then turn the page and tear up, enjoyable and poignant read.” Another agrees that Rachel Evans tackles “the most sacred cows, willing to ask the trickiest questions” and observing fresh perspectives. For example, she reminds readers that it took the defiance of two queens to save the Jews—Esther by appearing before the king, Vashti by refusing to.”

Valerie Weaver-Zercher, The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels

Review in the form of a Q & A posted November 2, 2013

Browse the inspirational-fiction section of most bookstores, and you will find cover after cover of comely young women wearing dresses with capes, and often pensive expressions . . . .  Occasionally a male figure lingers in the background, his face obscured by a hat, but more often the Amish maiden is alone in her pastoral reverie, gaze averted and thoughts inscrutable.

So begins Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, an in-depth analysis of the appeal of Amish fiction. She looks closely at writers, readers, and the cultural changes at the heart of this phenomenon. And a phenomenon it truly is: 95 new Amish romance novels were published in 2012, at “the rate of about one every four days.” (4)

I met Valerie at a lecture she presented at Eastern Mennonite University in October 2013. She noted that some view Amish romance novels as fluff, nostalgic but formulaic concoctions. But novelists like Beverly Lewis, Linda Byler, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall must have tapped into the deep yearnings of many readers. Why else would their books fly off the shelves of bookstores?

Are you curious too?”

“Okay, I thought so.”

Since her lecture, I have communicated with Valerie to bring you the essence of her lecture in a crisp Q & A format.

MLB: Why is Amish romance fiction so popular?

VWZ: As I talked to readers of Amish fiction, I heard lots of things about why they like Amish novels. But they mentioned two reasons over and over again. First, for loyal readers of the genre, the books offer a vacation, of sorts, to a “slow and simple life.” Many people articulate their love of Amish fiction as inversely related to the spiraling nature of modern life: that is, as contemporary life feels more and more sped up, chaotic, and complex, they are more drawn to narratives of a people who have apparently escaped the craziness. While the readers with whom I spoke didn’t use this term, they were expressing a thought similar to an idea French theorist Gilles Lipovetsky introduced in 2005: hypermodernity.  He defined hypermodernity as “the frenzied escalation of ‘more, always more’ [that] has now infiltrated every sphere of collective life.” This hypermodern context is characterized by the high speed of technological change, information transfer, consumption, social change, individualism, global capitalism. Many of us experience it simply as the feeling that life is moving at a pace that we simply can’t keep up with. So Amish fiction, in an age of hypermodernity, offers readers the means through which to take a temporary vacation.

Second, readers said they like Amish novels because they are “clean reads”: that is, books devoid of the sexualized content that permeates much of popular culture products. Sociologist Kenneth Kammeyer employs the term hypersexual to describe a situation in which “sexual discourse, erotica, and pornography are present in almost all aspects of society.” Other observers have used terms like pornified, raunch, and striptease to characterize twenty-first-century culture, evidenced by thongs and push-up bras marketed to elementary-school-aged girls. So readers, many of whom are evangelical Christian women, find in Amish novels a respite from the feeling of being bombarded by hyper-sexualized culture.

But there are other reasons too. Some of the reasons have to do with the fact that publishers can get more books into the hands of more readers more quickly than ever. So the fact that there are more Amish novels being published likely means that more readers are finding them. That is, there’s a greater demand for Amish novels than ever; there’s also a greater supply.

MLB: What are these novel readers seeking?

VWZ: As I said above, I think there’s a great appeal for many readers in the feeling of a temporary, imaginative vacation from hypermodern, hypersexualized life. The novels allow readers to vicariously participate in an Amish life without actually having to give up their Kindles and their life insurance and their cars. The more technologically saturated our lives become, the more intrigued we are, I think, by people who have escaped at least some of it.

MLB: Do these stories reflect real Amish life?

VWZ: That’s a complex question, actually, and one that is difficult to answer. I have a whole chapter in my book about that question. Some of it depends whether you’re talking about the genre as a whole or about the work of a particular novelist and whether you’re talking about the tangible details of Amish life, or the more intangible cultural and religious sensibilities of the Amish. Also, there are so many different ways of being Amish these days that if readers think that reading a novel set in one community—even a quite accurate novel—makes them knowledgeable about the Amish: well, they’re probably wrong.

Overall, I would say that most readers likely learn more that is correct about the Amish than information that is incorrect. Having said that, there are lots of misperceptions about Amish life that circulate in the novels and get passed on to readers, especially related to shunning and rumspringa. And then there’s the larger question of whether we as outsiders can understand Amish life from the inside-out well enough to craft a narrative that accurate reflects the internal life, spirituality, understanding of the church and family, etc., of an Amish person. That is, a novel might get all the “facts” of Amish life right, but still miss the more abstract, intangible feel of looking at the world from an Amish perspective. So that’s not a very good answer; but those are some of the reasons that the question is a hard one!

MLB: Obviously you read some of these novels during the course of writing your book. Did you enjoy reading them?

VWZ: I enjoyed some of the novels and disliked others. I actually don’t read a ton of fiction in general; I tend to read more nonfiction. I’m now working as a book editor for the Mennonite publisher, Herald Press, and I have really enjoyed editing a historical Amish novel entitled Jacob’s Choice by Ervin R. Stutzman. It comes out in February 2014. It’s based on actual events in the mid-1700s: an attack on the Amish Hochstetler family during the French and Indian War. I’m a descendant of the Hochstetler family, as are many Swiss-German Mennonites and Amish in Pennsylvania and other states, so I and many other readers have a special interest in reading this novel. It’s the first of three in the Return to Northkill series.

MLB: In general, readers of inspirational fiction are evangelical Christian women. Who else is included in the demographic of Amish romance novel readers?

VWZ: I talked to men who love Amish fiction, Catholic women who love it, and African Americans who read it. And as I did my research, I kept hearing about more and more people who don’t fit the evangelical female demographic. Old Colony Mennonites (both men and women) in Bolivia, for example. Old Order Mennonite readers. Amish readers. A missionary doctor. A librarian. An at-home mom. The readership is diverse, even as evangelical Christian women still constitute the bulk of the audience.

MLB: How do Amish readers themselves respond to these novels?

VWZ: I have a whole chapter on that question too! I also reflect on that question in this piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Amish people I interviewed had opinions all over the map. Most were at least semi-critical of the novels, especially the fact that most are being produced by outsiders.

MLB: Your book, which you dub “narrative scholarship,” is a marvel of research with a 9-page bibliography, which includes books, magazine articles and interviews. Though well-documented, the book is witty and often reads like a story. How much time did this project require?

VWZ: Yes, I spent a lot of time on the research and writing of this book. I researched and wrote over the course of about a year, and then spent about six months working on revisions of various kinds. But I loved the entire process, despite moments of being unconvinced that I’d be able to pull it off. The variety of things I got to do—talk to readers, visit a book group, chat with Amish folks, read novels, read theory, and of course write—was just lovely. It was indeed very hard work, but very fulfilling. I loved the challenge of blending a narrative nonfiction voice with an analytical/scholarly lens.

MLB: You are busy mother of three young boys and an author husband. How did you manage to write this book along with your family obligations?

VWZ: It wasn’t easy. But I was freelancing at the time, so I was able to decline editing projects or just take on the ones I had time for and then devote the rest of my time to research and writing. Our kids are all in school now, so I wrote during the day while they were at school and sometimes early in the morning or occasionally (very occasionally!) late at night. I do much better getting up early to work rather than trying to stay up late. Also, I got a fellowship from the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College during the fall of the year I was working on this book, and that helped me to prioritize the project and begin to wrap up the writing.

Shirley Hershey Showalter     Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

Posted September 25, 2013

Shirley Hershey Showalter’s Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World sings the song of her early life as a Mennonite girl in 250 pitch-perfect pages. Born into a family of Lancaster County Swiss Mennonite parents, the author recounts the story of the first 18 years of her girlhood on an 100-acre dairy farm in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The book delivers in its promise to play out her memories of  school, church, and home, “the three legs of my childhood stool,” as she puts it. “Each carried both sweet and sour memories” of ways this plain girl fit in and ways she stood out as different.

Her melody line bravely hits the sharps and flats of her experiences. She grabs her reader by the hand to walk into their farm meadow as she and her brother Henry play amid the Holstein cows and fragrant bluebells by the creek on a cloudless, spring day. We learn secrets of good Pennsylvania Dutch cookery in her mother’s kitchen and are privy to recipes of delicious dishes in an appendix to the book. She lets us hear the congregation joyously singing hymns of the faith a cappella in 4-part harmony though in a sex-segregated sanctuary. But her song turns to a minor key as she vividly describes the sudden death of her infant sister, her by turns affectionate and adversarial relationship with her conflicted father, and later in a brush with a rigid Mennonite bishop.

This memoir abounds in artful motifs. In the preface the author is sitting on the sandstone stair-steps on the way down to the arch cellar of The Home Place, now known as Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast. She describes the arch in this cellar as the entrance to a storehouse of provision for her parents and grandparents against the want of the Great Depression and a bunker of bounty during the Cold War. Indeed, the book succeeds as documentation of major political currents and cultural icons of the era: Eisenhower and later Kennedy, the Studebaker Lark, the Phillies, Elvis. Other visuals include a map of the Lititz environs, her family tree, along with beloved family portraits and snapshots.

For me as a reader, the most endearing arch in her story is the rainbow in her mother’s invented story of “The Magic Elevator,” which she, a diarist and aspiring writer herself, wrote at age fifteen and has adapted for her children and grand-children through the years. Her mother, Shirley’s first mentor, challenged the norm in a story she recounts early in the book: Although the Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster County Mennonite Conference condemned worldly weddings, including carrying a bridal bouquet, Shirley’s mother Barbara Ann craftily transformed the family’s plain living room into a fancy bower of flowers and palms for the ceremony. After all, at church we sing fervently of beauty in “This is My Father’s World,” she must have reasoned. Evidently, Shirley was not the first Mennonite in her family with moxie.

Shirley’s story sings because it rings true. And, yes, Shirley, you did go home again. The Oh! at the center of her story leads readers to a fresh discovery of home, where one’s heart is nourished and where, as T. S. Eliot puts it, we can all “arrive where we started / And know the place for the very first time.”

There are many ways to arrive at a place, many of them unimaginable at the beginning of the journey.    BLUSH

Karen Leahy, The Summer of Yes: An Ex-Nun’s Story  posted October 30, 2013, Amazon reviews

I loved this memoir! As one reviewer exclaims, “It is a work of art.” From the very first paragraph I was drawn in by the author’s sensory imagery: seeing, smelling, hearing. Following the story arc was effortless as readers observed the writer’s growth from feeling lost to finding herself, from repression to expression. I also enjoyed the musical and literary allusions, particularly the Zora Neale Hurston passage that I recall from teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God to college students.

Except for reading about Karen Armstrong’s early life in The Spiral Staircase, I knew little of convent life before reading Leahy’s book. I do remember as a 7-year-old tonsillectomy patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital being ministered to by a nun in full regalia. I appreciated how the author in this memoir gave details of all the parts of her “armor,” including the wimple, scapular, and tunic. I too wore outer garments like the prayer veiling and caped dress that set me apart from the rest of society as a Mennonite growing up in Lancaster County, PA during the 40s and 50s.

This memoir is exceptional. However, some readers may object to some of the details of the daring lifestyle the author depicted after leaving the convent. A journey of transformation, this memoir records unflinchingly the author’s search for “authenticity, intimacy and meaning.”

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