Kelly Blewett

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As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.

Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.

Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.

This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.

Read more: Keith Gessen brings a sense of reassurance to the audiobook for Raising Raffi.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.
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Julissa Arce, who charted an unlikely course from banker to writer, doesn’t want to be seen as a model immigrant. Sure, now she has los papeles and owns a home, but she can’t help asking, “What is the real cost of success?” For her, it was not being able to visit her dying father in Mexico because her immigration proceedings were not yet complete. It’s reading textbooks that omit any mention of the roles Latinx people have played in American history. It’s boxes on the U.S. census that erase entire ethnicities and prompt many Latinx people to choose “White” as their race. In You Sound Like a White Girl, Arce argues that now is the moment for Latinx people to reject assimilation and its attendant misconceptions.

These misconceptions, what Arce calls “the lies we’re told,” concern whiteness, English and success, which are all presented as essential to American identity. In the face of this fallacy, Arce wants to recenter Latinx history, identity, culture and language within America. She has thought carefully about not only how assimilation has impacted her—prompting her to modify her name so that her white teachers could pronounce it more easily—but also how such erasures function on a larger scale, causing Latinx folks to miss out on histories that could empower and embolden them. For example, as a girl, Arce wanted to be a cheerleader in Texas. At the time, she was totally unaware of the history of Chicana cheerleaders in Texas or of student protests in 1968, during which students held up signs that read “Brown legs are beautiful.” Without these stories to ground her, she felt isolated among her white teammates. When she went back to her middle school to speak after the publication of her first book, My (Underground) American Dream, she told this story, hoping to speak many such histories back into existence for the next generation.

Ultimately, through these acts of reclamation—of history, language, identity and culture—Arce argues that the very definition of what it means to be an American can shift. On a Christmas trip to Mexico, Arce recalls asking her nephews what they pictured when she said “un americano.” They imagined “a tall white person with blond hair and green or blue eyes.” She replied, “What about me? I am a U.S. citizen. Am I American?” This question, intended to make her nephews think a bit more deeply about their assumptions, is a relevant one for anyone seeking to shed narrow notions of American identity in favor of something truer and more just.

By centering Latinx history and culture, memoirist and cultural critic Julissa Arce boldly challenges narrow notions of American identity.
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The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.


Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by author Susan Cain.

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.
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Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.
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Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days, reinforces what many longtime fans like best about her writing: its levelheaded appraisal of what is good in the world. In one essay, she describes a photo of herself as “joyful.” She had given this photo to the Academy of Arts and Letters when she was inducted, and it brightly contrasted with the somber photographs of her colleagues. The photo was appropriate, however, since reading Patchett’s work does inspire a kind of joy—tempered by an awareness of what can be lost. When Patchett does convey fear or regret, it’s because she knows that life can change in an instant and that precious things need to be guarded. For instance, after Patchett became unexpectedly ill after a bad experience with psychedelic mushrooms, she apologized to her husband “for being careless with our lives.”

She writes in the introduction that what interests her at this stage in life is exploring the things that matter most. For Patchett, that means essays about friends and family (“Three Fathers” and “These Precious Days” are especially wonderful) and about reading (specifically, the works of Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo). She also pulls back the curtain on the writing life, letting readers see her daily habits (early-morning walks with the dog, restorative dinners, occasionally demanding travel), her work with publishers and her intense privacy while composing. She could write a novel, she says, without showing anyone a single page.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into upheaval, Patchett found the work of a novel too overwhelming. Essays, though, were approachable, and she found herself returning to the form again and again. Though readers will cheer when her next novel emerges, this collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

Ann Patchett's tender essay collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.
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Episodic, quirky, absurd: These are a few of the words that describe Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety. Pritchett, best known for her work on “Succession” and “Veep,” writes in short bursts that pull the reader in with a manic sort of energy—but just as quickly push the reader away. This writing style echoes Pritchett’s anxiety, which is central to how she experiences the world.

Everyone in My Mess Is a Bit of a Life has a nickname. Pritchett’s mother is not her mother but The Witch. (She had a penchant for black hats.) Her father is The Patriarchy. Initially it’s hard to feel a close connection to the narrator because the vignettes fly by so quickly, even though they are zany and tilt-a-whirl fun. The memoir gains traction, though, as Pritchett transitions to her tentative forays into comedy writing. She describes climbing her way up and stepping around Oxford-educated men in a series of fascinating stories about the (somewhat familiar) experience of being the only female writer in the room. Pritchett’s natural reserve and distance served her well in those rooms; public criticism only made her more determined. With time, her steel began to shine through, though it was always tempered by sensitivity, kindness and a kind of off-center oddness that she treasured, protected and shared in her work.

Where I personally became fully immersed in the memoir was after Pritchett had her son, who has autism. She was told he wouldn’t speak. When she sent him to school, she sensed she was “putting him in a cupboard,” so she took him out of school and worked out a Plan B. Her poignant honesty in describing what she and her sons have experienced together, coupled with her fierceness and creativity, made me a true fan of the book, which is one that readers will not soon forget.

“Succession” writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir is an episodic, quirky ride that readers will not soon forget.
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What do Tony Bennett, Dolly Parton and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life have in common? They’re each the focus of new books that are guaranteed to inspire, advise and entertain.

Tony Bennett’s Life Is a Gift will be a hit with anyone who loves anecdotes about famous people (and, let’s admit it, that’s all of us!). From Cary Grant to Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga, Bennett’s famous friends span the century, but readers will recognize them all, and his stories about them have the ring of someone who truly cares. Subtitled “The Zen of Bennett,” the book also offers nuggets of advice on many topics, including maintaining good relationships, insisting on a quality product and having fun. There are also a few surprises: Did you know that Bennett is an accomplished painter whose work is hanging in the Smithsonian? Did you know it was Bob Hope who coined Bennett’s stage name? This book is full of joyful appreciation for the life Bennett has lived and the audiences he’s served. His loving and happy attitude will linger in your ears like the sweet notes of his treasured music.

Dolly Parton keeps Dream More short and sweet—and very funny. There are four core pieces of advice the “Dolly Mama” (as she sometimes calls herself) offers: dream more, learn from everything, care for everyone and be more. These principles also guide the Imagination Library, an organization she founded that provides free books to children, first in the Smoky Mountains and now across the country. This book makes you want to cheer for Parton. For instance, she doesn’t just give books away to lower-income kids, but rather to any child in a participating community who signs up. She knows from experience that charity only directed to the poor can make the receiver feel “less than.” Parton dedicated this book to her father, who, as she puts it, “never learned to read and write, paid a dear price for that, and inspired me not to let it happen to others.”

Speaking of everyday heroes, Bob Welch’s new book celebrates one of America’s favorites, George Bailey, whose life forever changes his hometown of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. From this classic Christmas film, Welch pulled 52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life. Be prepared to find morals in moments you might not even remember, like the transformation of George’s mother-in-law. These lessons are cut from the same life-affirming cloth as the film itself, and stitched lovingly together by an author who is clearly an affectionate fan.

What do Tony Bennett, Dolly Parton and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life have in common? They’re each the focus of new books that are guaranteed to inspire, advise and entertain. Tony Bennett’s Life Is a Gift will be a hit with anyone who loves anecdotes about famous people (and, let’s admit it, that’s all […]
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Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys.

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, to raise her eyes to the heavens and murmur some words to a Higher Power. Never one to get caught up in religious specifics, Anne Lamott offers a variety of hilarious titles by which her friends have referred to God, such as “Howard,” “Mother” and “H.P.” She celebrates the divine, and poetically explains why we frail humans are in such desperate need of it. Of the three essential prayers, help seems to be the one closest to Lamott’s heart. Fans of her previous books such as Bird by Bird will again enjoy candid conversation from a writer who feels like a friend.

While Lamott’s book may be characterized as a book about faith for doubters, Heaven Changes Everything by Todd and Sonja Burpo is a book about faith for believers—and a follow-up to the best-selling Heaven Is for Real, which related the story of their four-year-old son’s visit to heaven. Here the Burpos share more about Colton’s miraculous experience and what it’s been like for their family since making it public. Organized into 40 short, devotional-style readings that open with a quote from Colton and close with an action point, it is sure to please readers eager for the next chapter in the Burpos’ story.

In What Would Jesus Read?, Joe Amaral takes readers through the Scripture in the way Jesus might have read it: in short portions that combine a selection from the Torah (the first five books of the Christian Bible) and the prophets (a number of Old Testament books). Each week, Amaral assigns a portion of the Bible and offers daily insights on the reading. These insights are very brief, conversational and theologically non-denominational. As a Christian who lives in Israel and guides tour groups through the Holy Land, Amaral is in a unique position to help American readers understand the perspective of the Middle East and the traditions of the ancient Jewish world.

For readers interested in learning more about the world of Jesus, In the Footsteps of Jesus is another good place to begin. Published by National Geographic, this full-color and visually impressive book offers a more scholarly perspective on the world Jesus walked through and how we experience it today. The scope of the book—which combines political history, anthropological context, biography and an exploration of the contemporary Holy Land—is truly ambitious. Illustrations include photographs of artifacts, paintings, pull-out quotations and richly detailed maps. This worthy book could be read alongside the Gospels or could stand alone as a historical work.

Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, […]
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For five writers from varied points on the Christian spectrum, God transforms dramatic circumstances into spiritual gain. From moving across the country to facing death itself, these authors amply illustrate that resurrection stories—far from being a thing of the past—are happening all around us.


For Steve Sjogren, author of Heaven’s Lessons: Ten Things I Learned About God When I Died, a near-death experience in 2000 led to an unexpected destination in his faith. Sjogren’s story is a humbling one. While pastoring a megachurch in Cincinnati, he went in for a standard hospital surgery that went horribly wrong. On the operating table, God told him that from now on he would “walk with a limp.” Following the surgery, Sjogren lost his position at the church, faced severely diminished health and was forced to re-examine some of the fundamental things he believed about God. He’s divided this book into 10 resulting lessons. “Though my experience with God in my near death experience was life changing, what followed it was depressing to me,” he writes. “If there is an option for a fast route, it seems I still always end up being placed on the l-o-n-g way forward.” This book offers readers the opportunity to benefit from Sjogren’s journey and to see how God turned a tragedy into a transformation. Sjogren, ever the pastor, is quick to provide applications of the book’s lessons to the reader’s life.


In Beautiful Nate, Dennis Mansfield explores how his son’s drug addiction forced him to confront unwelcome truths about evangelicalism. Even though Mansfield tried to raise his son “by the book,” relying on experts like James Dobson, his boy still repeatedly rebelled and ultimately—in his 20s—died after an adverse drug reaction. Mansfield, a former Focus on the Family employee and lobbyist, loves Reagan, rhetoric and his family. His passions come through clearly, as does his pain. As Nate faced prison and life beyond, his father describes a softer side of their relationship: impromptu visits, staying up all night to watch movies and (most movingly) writing a novel the pair jointly penned during Nate’s incarceration. To his father, Nate was a follower of Jesus Christ forever torn by competing desires. While Beautiful Nate is certainly a sad story, Mansfield is consistently grateful for his son and the lessons learned about faith, parenting and life. He writes, “My hope is that you found [this] to be a poignant account of the realization that . . . things often turn out very wrong—and yet can turn out eternally right.” This is a good book for parents of faith who want to heal imperfect circumstances through the mercy of a perfect God.


In Landmarks: Turning Points on Your Journey Toward God, author Bill Delvaux describes a series of unexplainable choices that yielded satisfying results. He left a ministry position for teaching, and left his teaching position to write and speak about faith. A thoughtful writer, Delvaux was asked by a colleague to explain how his spiritual journey developed through these counterintuitive decisions. Delvaux responds that though he never knew he was going in the right direction, his Heavenly Father provided certain “landmarks” along the way. For frequent readers of evangelical nonfiction, the landmarks may seem unsurprising—giving up idols, addressing old wounds, seeking sexual purity. Yet Delvaux’s way of addressing these topics gives this slim book both gravity and purpose. When discussing idols, for instance, Delvaux shares his own former insistence that the details of his life be in order, right down to his junk mail. He realized that grasping toward perfection was ultimately idolatrous. As he reveals his own story, readers are gently guided to consider their own. A movie fan, Delvaux situates many of his lessons within the context of popular films. A small book that leaves a big impression, Landmarks tells how one man was transformed by embracing the principles he’d been teaching his whole life.


For spiritual seeker and standout writer Beverly Donofrio (author of the memoir Riding in Cars With Boys) the pursuit of faith led to life in a small Mexican town replete with margaritas at sunset, yoga and plenty of time for writing. Yet Donofrio, a Catholic, felt herself drifting from God. Committed to rededicating herself, she planned an ambitious tour of monasteries around the country. Then a man broke into her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. In her new book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, Donofrio ponders the significance of the timing. What does the rape reveal about God? How do trials figure into God’s plan for our lives? What does it mean to heal and grow? Donofrio spends much of the next year completing her monastery tour and offering tentative answers to these questions and more. A nontraditional thinker who accepts parts of the “Jesus myth” and rejects other parts, Donofrio’s journey around the country and into her inner life is compelling material beautifully written. Perpetually humble, searching, honest and wry, Donofrio is a fine companion for a spiritual journey.


Jack Perkins, best known as a longtime reporter for NBC News, left a successful journalism career to move to a remote island in Maine. In Finding Moosewood, Finding God, Perkins traces the spiritual lessons he learned, recounts favorite stories from his journalism days and offers a wholly appealing personal glimpse into his family life. In the wilds of Maine—reading the journals of Thoreau and following his spiritual impulses—Perkins’ personal journey with God truly begins. By rejecting the consumerist culture of Los Angeles, Perkins and his wife Mary Jo find what seems to be an incomparable happiness in island living and creative pursuits. Both read voraciously and explore their new home with enthusiasm. By embracing the blessings of God—in a sunset, in the view of the water at night, in spotting a passing lobster boat—the couple begins to appreciate His divine character. This fresh and invigorating story will help the reader appreciate her own life and, better yet, feel that anything is possible.

While these books vary in points of view, trials faced and solutions suggested, they share a common belief that God is in the midst of our circumstances. This divine God who resurrects new life from death is, they agree, more real than the world before our eyes. As Perkins writes in one of his poems: “Henceforth this is my plan: / Believe much more in what I can’t see, / Much less in what I can.”

For five writers from varied points on the Christian spectrum, God transforms dramatic circumstances into spiritual gain. From moving across the country to facing death itself, these authors amply illustrate that resurrection stories—far from being a thing of the past—are happening all around us. LIFE-CHANGING SURGERY For Steve Sjogren, author of Heaven’s Lessons: Ten Things […]
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Whether written by an iconic Southern author in 1947 or compiled from emails written by a young pastor to the president in 2010, these gift books explore the enduring themes of spirituality and faith, reminding us that contemplating the divine can confirm our very humanity.

Spiritual thinking has been with us from the beginning, as The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained reminds readers in its opening sentences. While it may be difficult to come up with a definition for the concept of religion, “cave paintings and elaborate burial customs of our distant ancestors and the continuing quest for a spiritual goal in life” indicate its timelessness. This book offers a remarkable overview of major world religions through recorded time. Though the introduction acknowledges the difficulty of covering such an unwieldy topic, the subsequent pages are easily comprehensible, and even feel nearly comprehensive. Organized chronologically, the book opens with prehistory, moves through the ancient and classical beliefs (devoting the longest sections to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and closes with a selection of modern religions (such as Mormonism and Scientology). The material is both dense and broad, yet the book’s reader-friendly layout and clever graphics invite lingering. An impressive board of contributors (mostly academics) shaped this content. The result is a book at once egalitarian and open-minded, ideal for a visually oriented student of religion or anyone interested in scrambling up the mountainside of human spirituality and taking in the panoramic views.


We move from the lushly panoramic to the intensely personal with Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal. Penned by the Southern Gothic legend when she was just 22 years old and a student at the University of Iowa, these pages reveal O’Connor at the very beginning of her professional writing career. She prays to get something published, to understand God better and to be free of an ever-present concern that she is simply mediocre. Anyone interested in creative writing or literature will be thoroughly charmed by lines like this: “I am too lazy to despair. Please don’t visit me with it Lord, I would be so miserable.” Though O’Connor is delightfully glib, she worries about some of the big questions of faith and finds few answers. The journal illustrates her complexity of feeling. She criticizes certain sentences because they sound “too literary” and strikes out others altogether. A facsimile of the original diary in O’Connor’s own hand lets readers in on her process and makes the book feel very intimate. The volume is quite short, but that isn’t a drawback. The material that is here is well worth reading. I especially loved the last lines, written in September of 1947: “Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”


During a 2011 retreat in Utah, a group of Jewish artists and writers found themselves hotly discussing Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Several admitted, though, that it had been a long time since they had really read a biblical text. Dialogue ensued and, luckily for us, so did Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett. After the Torah was divided into 54 sections—which reflects the annual reading pattern of many synagogues—each contributor created his or her own Dvar Torah (“word of the Torah”) for an individual slice. Their creations range from short stories to poems, from personal essays to imaginary recipes for “bloody guilt offerings.” There’s even a drawing detailing how the Tabernacle could fit in modern-day Manhattan. (Spoiler alert: It would have to be tilted on its side.) I especially like when contributors cleverly juxtapose the Torah and their response, as in Aimee Bender’s piece on the Tower of Babel. She celebrates how language defines individuality rather than lamenting the loss of shared consciousness. Brief biblical summaries preceding each Dvar Torah feel contemporary and edgy, and unify the collection. In short, these artists and writers can certainly now say that they’ve read—yes, even wrestled—with a biblical text recently, and readers can be counted among the lucky beneficiaries.


The President’s Devotional began as correspondence between a White House staffer and President Obama, and has since become a public daily devotional. Obama appointed author Joshua DuBois to be the executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership in 2008. Since then, DuBois has emailed Obama a spiritual reflection every morning. The book pulls content from the best of these, providing readers one for every day of the year. DuBois opens each month with a personal essay. Some of these tell heartrending stories about our nation’s leader, as in DuBois’ account of Obama’s interaction with families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings. Other essays are more personal, as when the president encouraged DuBois to propose to the nice girl he’d been dating (he did). The devotions themselves are a diverse bunch. Some feature national heroes like Jackie Robinson and Johnny Cash, while others take inspiration from theological texts. The reader cannot help but wonder what was going on in the nation when certain devotions were emailed—like the one that extols the value of having a well-prepared army. Whatever the initial context, faith-filled fans of the president will want to add The President’s Devotional to their nightstands.

Whether written by an iconic Southern author in 1947 or compiled from emails written by a young pastor to the president in 2010, these gift books explore the enduring themes of spirituality and faith, reminding us that contemplating the divine can confirm our very humanity. Spiritual thinking has been with us from the beginning, as […]
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There is something irresistible about a talented American woman in Paris. She feels sexy and alive while strolling the city’s streets, confident the world will unfurl in her hand like a blossoming flower. 

Such young women are featured in new books by Kate Betts and Christine Sneed, and both tell wonderful stories—one true, one fictional—about taking risks and pursuing dreams abroad.

Betts’ memoir, My Paris Dream, recalls her years in the city of light after graduating from Princeton in the 1980s. Her Paris was a ladder whose climb began with freelance writing assignments for travel magazines and culminated with a position as a fashion editor and associate bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. Betts, who later became the editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is an instantly likable storyteller. She takes you to the Parisian boulevards and describes in terrific detail what people were wearing. Perhaps occasionally too much detail. “Only the French could invent seamless stockings that stay up with a rubber sticky band that grips the upper thigh,” she writes. As a young woman looking to make a good impression, she bought several pairs. “Fashion is tribal,” she explains. “It’s not about who you are but where you belong.” This is a story of how one American woman came to belong in the fashion capital of Europe, and how she wrote about that world for an American audience. Along the way, Betts made some terrific friends, fell in love and witnessed the world of style up close during a time of major transition. Full of slangy French, delectable food and swoon-worthy fashion, Betts’ memoir is well worth the read.

If Betts’ Paris is a ladder, then Sneed’s is an escape hatch. Jayne Marks, the protagonist of Sneed’s novel, Paris, He Said, is an aspiring artist in New York who can’t find time to paint. Then she meets gallery owner Laurent Moller. Decades older and maybe a little too suave, Laurent sweeps Jayne away to Paris to be his girlfriend and to live in his luxurious apartment. In her new life, Jayne has hours each day to paint, cook and work in Laurent’s French gallery, which is located on the same street as the Louvre. “I am closer to my twenty-year-old self here,” she thinks, “closer than I am at home.” Yet she finds it hard to settle into such a decadent existence. Can she maneuver the complexities of Laurent’s social world? Will her paintings ultimately be any good? Is Laurent being totally faithful to her? And why can’t she stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend in New York? Sneed, whose previous novel, Little Known Facts, drew considerable acclaim, expertly keeps the pages turning in this delightful novel. Paris, He Said offers readers, too, an entertaining escape from the mundanities of daily life. With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when all one’s deepest wishes come true.


This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

There is something irresistible about a talented American woman in Paris. She feels sexy and alive while strolling the city’s streets, confident the world will unfurl in her hand like a blossoming flower.

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