Soulful Books of 2011


I actually thought about something “devotional” and / or inspirational for the New Year. But I was not devoted and / or inspired to write it.

So, I give you books! Books make great companions. What a great way to hang out with make believe people, or past presidents for that matter. I ran into a few people I didn’t like being around, but overall, books were my 2011 passion.  Each book brought a particular passage of Scripture to my soul and I share the verses herein.

Three Novels (or close to) that Touched My Soul

3. The Brothers K by David James Duncan

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else,

for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself,

because you who pass judgment do the same things. Romans 2:1  

 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this…Romans 14:13

This is a huge novel about family, and families can be complex; it’s a book is about life, all of it. I found the magic of The Brothers K in watching six children of Hugh and Laura Chance grow, and I fell in love with the family, not because I could relate to them, but because Duncan made me care about them.  Parts of the story made me smile and parts were agonizing.  Papa Hugh Chance, a ‘coulda-been’ baseball all-star and his devout Adventist wife, Laura raise six kids that couldn’t be more different. More than once I found myself becoming extremely emotional as I fought alongside members of the Chance family trying to resolve conflict. It was life, existential and moving. I found myself empathizing with each character especially when they were at odds with one another.

This story struck me as authentic, no kooky plot twists or author’s indulgent inventions.   We see the four Chance boys grow up before our very eyes, watch as their characters age and become…  it’s a life experience and death experience — and we see the birth of hopes and dreams, and we see death, or worse.  This book is a big`ole juicy steak. Cut it up and savor each bite. This is not “book-lite” — This is book weighs in at nearly 700 pages. Who has time for that? I’m thankful that I made the time and highly recommend The Brothers K. (I’ll throw in a PG rating because I did  find that many novels ought to have some kind of classification — e.g. I read Water for Elephants and enjoyed the book, but um…R!)

2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. 30 The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus *said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. Matthew 21:28-31

It took a while to hook me, but this gem certainly did. Verghese transported me to a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and offered gave me a whole new perspective on meaningful work. While I am fully aware of my own limited worldview, my experience with Cutting for Stone helped me understand just how much. I found myself leaning back to clean the lens of my world-viewing goggles. In particular, I was knocked to my heels when a mission sponsor from Houston, Texas visits the small hospital in Ethiopia to see donors’ contributions at work saving souls. But he finds himself in the mire of harsh, gritty ministry and the conversation becomes both agitating and heart rendering; it is a scene that actually forced me to make a major life decision.  Vignettes in the narrative are contemplative and the characters; the characters are thinking characters, and I thought with them.

Throughout this magnificent novel, the question of caring for an “unfortunate neighbor” transcends most anything I’ve ever heard in church. This is one of the most outstanding books I have been privileged to read. Verghese is a skilled writer and draws upon his own medical experience to give the book authenticity.  The characters are formidable and interesting.  I need a friend to read this book because I really do need to talk about this story.

1. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.”  Proverbs 4:5-7

What can’t be helped must be endured.”  Jayber

Traveling around town in Oklahoma City you will see quite of bit of OKC Thunder Wear. Kevin Durant’s image is most popular as fans a fairly benign form of hero worship. T-shirts are banners for rock stars, sports champions, and idols we admire. If I were

American artist, Norman Rockwell

to wear a shirt with someone’s image it would be of Wendell Berry, he is the Michael Jordan of writing, or a better comparison, Berry is to writing what Norman Rockwell is to painting. When I grow up I want to write like Berry.

Berry gives us stories from the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. It could just as easily be Apache, Oklahoma. Jayber Crow, the town barber, may be the most interesting, dull character I’ve ever embraced. At this point I’ll offer a disclaimer, yes I am the son of a barber and it’s  conceivable that a bias has moved Jayber Crow to the top of my list. But I can assure you, some children of bankers and truck drivers love it too.

The story is about Jayber growing up lonely and looking for something. He sees people for their value and vulnerability. He is a student of life, a great observer and listener. Over the course of his life the watchful Jayber participates in the stories of other people, often as a side-kick companion, and sometimes only in his mind. The brilliance of Wendell Berry is taking a character like Jayber and channeling thought, prayer, hope, and love through him. Jayber is a man who didn’t mean to be so wise, he just was.

I think Jayber Crow could be a story about the goodness of man — or the despicable nature of the human race. It turns out to be a book about the Kingdom of God, but only between the lines.

For me the prose of Wendell Berry became more beautiful than any poetry I’ve ever come across. Rather than pretend to be a review writer, I’ll offer several quotes from the book.  Taste and see, it’s good.

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

“They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works…” (Jayber’s thoughts on the preachers he heard)

“Young lovers see a vision of the world redeemed by love. That is the truest thing they ever see, for without it life is death.”  Jayber

“If the devil doesn’t exist… how do you explain that some people are a lot worse than they’re smart enough to be?”  Jayber

“As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.”  Jayber

“I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it’s being ruined is hard.”  Jayber

“…I was a young man. I hardly knew what I knew, let alone what I was going to know.”  Jayber

“He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.” Berry’s wise barber

Next week I’ll continue my list of books. I’ll tell you about three books that fed my soul. Here are some of the nominees.

The Gospel Driven Life by Michael Horton

Generous Justice by Timothy Keller

A Million Miles in a Thousand Yearsby Donald Miller

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson

Knowing Christ Today by Dallas Willard

The King’s Cross by Tim Keller

The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders

THE BIBLE –  Let’s be honest, I can’t be the “Faith Guy” of Red Dirt Chronicles and exclude the Holy Bible from my list. I’m contractually obligated to Red Dirt Kelly to make this numero uno on all Simple Sabbath book lists, so I’ll just announce that right now. But, I can tell you why this Book of books continues to change my life. I look very much forward to doing so. Here are a few more lists:

Three People (via the book) that Inspired My Soul

3.  Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

2.  Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

1.  Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand

Three Books That Indulged My Soul (wink, wink)

3. The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

*** Both 2.and 1. are books about a heroine named Katniss and a movie that comes out in March. I’ve seen the trailers and am giddy.

I love to read and it’s my hope that you’ll pick up one of these gems and savor it as I have.




3 thoughts on “Soulful Books of 2011”

  1. A comment about your writing about Jayber Crow. You say you are not a writer but you’ve captured the essence of Jayber Crow in your recommendation. You put it so well. I put this book at the top of my list and Berry as one of the best wordsmiths I’ve ever encountered. As a public librarian I am very careful who I recommend this book to because I want them to love it as much as I do and I think it takes a certain type of person to appreciate such a fine book. I loved all of his “Port William” books and I hold them close to my heart. 2/21/2012

    1. Thank you Pam. I very much relate to your line, “…I want them to love it as much as I do…”

      Currently I am re-reading 1776 by David McCullough. I look forward to re-reading Jayber Crow this summer.

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