road trip reads
any minute now, we’re piling in the red wagon and pointing it south, straight to louisville, kentucky, the state of grace in which i was born. we’re headed down for a memorial for a beloved uncle who died at 91 earlier this summer. he was known as “secretary of the interior” in blue-grass country, and they didn’t mean affairs of domestic geography so much as affairs of chintz and raw silk and impeccable antiques culled from trips around the world. more than 40 such trips circumnavigating the globe. a lifetime procuring the beautiful, as head of interior design for decades at louisville’s grand old department store.
despite the fact that it’s my beloved architecture critic’s birthday tomorrow, he insisted he was driving my mama and moi and devoting much of his day to interstates and trucks barreling past him, passing as they often do on the left. by sundown tonight, though, we’ll be checking into a sublime historic hotel, the brown hotel, and that alone will make this a trip to remember.
while we’re motoring i thought i’d leave a few books here on the table. i’ve not kept up with posts from my tribune roundups of soulful books. so here, a culled list of favorites from the last two distillations, a potpourri of books i particularly loved.
Buechner 101 by Carl Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Center, 170 pages, $15.99
Maybe once a generation, or once every few generations, someone is born with gifts literary and sacred in equal measure. A translator, perhaps, of the highest calling. One who can at once lift our souls and our sights by virtue of the rare alchemy of the poetic plus the profound. Therein lies the prophet. Therein lies Frederick Buechner, at 90, one of the greatest living American theologians and writers.
In these collected works, “Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner” — including excerpts from his Harvard Divinity School lectures, “The Alphabet of Grace”; a searing essay on his daughter’s anorexia; a seminary commencement address on the hard truths of pastoring a flock of believers, doubters and everyday sinners — we are immersed in the depth and breadth of this rare thinker’s gifts.
Anne Lamott, in her introduction, admits to being blown away by Buechner’s capacity “to be both plain and majestic” at once. She ranks him side-by-side with C.S. Lewis, then declares, “No one has brought me closer to God than these two men.” That alone might make you rush to pore over these pages.
This world sorely needs a prophet who reminds us to not give up our search for holiness amid the noise and hate and madness all around. Buechner, though, says it in words that shimmy through the cracks, burrowing deep within us, reverberating long after the page is turned. He writes: “We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to us out of their depths. It is the function of all great preaching, I think, and all great art, to sharpen our hearing precisely to that end.”
And it is that very sharpening that we find, paragraph upon paragraph, page after page, in Buechner 101.
Our Father by Rainer Oberthür, illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 58 pages, $16
The questions are pure. The questions, profound. From the child’s script, the surest path to heaven. And from the start, “Our Father,” a breathtaking peeling back of a foundational prayer of so many Christian religions, shimmers with a simplicity that can’t help but catapult our sacred questions to the highest heights.
Before beginning a line-by-line, word-by-word, meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s often called, this extraordinary picture book frames the prayer in the context of how it responds to the most essential — and possibly unsettling — questions: Where did the world come from? Why does it exist? Why am I here? Why do people die? What happens afterward?
In a voice that exudes comfort and heart-to-heart closeness the reader is told that these really are questions about God: Where is God? Why can’t I see God? How can I talk to God?
Are these not the very questions pondered by legions of theologians? And yet, the answers found here — in a children’s book from a Grand Rapids, Mich., publishing house with a long tradition of searching the globe for particularly illuminating children’s text and illustration — are perhaps among the clearest ever penned.
Which is what makes this a book for the soul young or old or anywhere in between. Each line — alongside charming illustrations that beg to be studied closely — becomes a prayerful exegesis, unfurled in words that speak to the pure heart of the child. It’s a book that will lull you into the sure and safe cove that is a building block of faith. And, chances are, you’ll never again murmur mindlessly the words of “Our Father.” Instead, you’ll be awakened to the depths of its timelessness and its capacity to enfold the answers to all our deepest questions.
Circle of Grace by Jan Richardson, Wanton Gospeller Press, 182 pages, $16
Blessings, an ancient literary form, “illuminate the link between the sacred and the ordinary,” Jan Richardson writes in her breathtaking “Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons.” Often poetic and pulsing with the rhythms of invocation and incantation, blessings “use ordinary language in ways that can become extraordinary, offering words that arrest our attention and awaken us to how the holy is at work in our very midst.”
Before carrying us through the liturgical year, blessing by blessing, Richardson writes in her introduction that a good blessing “shimmers with the mystery that lies at the heart of God.” And then, she unspools “good blessing” upon “good blessing,” one after another shimmering, in ways that might make you weep, so tenderly, so astonishingly, do they slip into the hollows of the soul.
Richardson, a writer, artist and ordained Methodist minister, belongs among the most treasured spiritual lights on the bookshelf. Her words trace that thin line that courses the topography of the soul. She knows the way into the deepest interiority, into the mysteries of life, of grief, of wonder. Your breath will be taken, again and again. And you will return, again and again, to these pages, pulled by the magnetism of her words, her capacity for imbuing the everyday with the sacred.
A blessing, she writes, “is something wild. It leads us where we did not imagine to go, and never in a straight line.” It does so, in Richardson’s hands, by lifting the quotidian hours of our lives — the waiting for night to end, the unimagined grace of coming home — and making abundantly clear a profound holiness.
Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett, Penguin Press, 288 pages, $28
If you, like me, read with a pen at the ready, you’ll likely run out of ink on this one. If you measure the worth of a book by the volume of scribbles you pen in the margins, the stars emphatically drawn, and the sentences underlined, Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” — a compendium of wisdom, at once intimate and expansive — stands a serious shot of emerging both splattered and cherished.
Tippett, the Peabody Award-winning radio host and National Humanities Medalist, is a master of what she terms “generous listening,” an act “powered by curiosity,” and a “willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.” Sadly lacking in the modern-day public square, it’s an art Tippett has practiced and honed in her years hosting National Public Radio’s “On Being,” a program and podcast launched in 2003 as “Speaking of Faith,” in which she’s generously listened to — and deeply questioned — some of the most luminous minds on the planet.
From this lifetime of rich conversation, Tippett elicits a poetic inquiry, interwoven with memoir. What does it mean to be human? What matters in a life? What matters in death? And, in the end, wisdom is what Tippett seeks. “Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself,” she writes.
The book, called “a master class in the art of living,” draws from conversations with poet Elizabeth Alexander, physicist Brian Greene, civil rights veteran John Lewis, physician Rachel Naomi Remen, chef Dan Barber, playwright Eve Ensler, and humanitarian Jean Vanier — to name only a partial roster of her fellow seekers of wisdom.
what titles top your summer reading list?