#6 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Heartland

Yes, Sarah Smarsh was clearly making a shameless bid for a Top Ten spot on the Heartlands list with the title of her memoir: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. But the editorial staff here at Heartlands can’t be won over by gimmicks. It takes good writing to do that, and Smarsh has that in spades.

Heartland takes a strange conceit–writing in the second person to a child she never had–and turns it into a personal, poetic narrative of growing up poor in Kansas. Smarsh has some fascinating characters in her family tree along with all the anxieties and struggles that go along with rural poverty. She combines that with some great sociological insight about what’s going on 2018 America.

In sum, it’s right up the alley of a website devoted to understanding the current Great Divide and the realities of rural America.

Look for the full Heartlands review, coming soon.

#7 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: The Thin Light of Freedom

History books are always going to find a way to my reading stand. One of the reasons is that I had one of the country’s greatest historians as a professor back in the day. Ed Ayers told the story of the United States, particularly of the American South, with an eye for conflicts, resilience, and human progress through resistance.

Fortunately for all of us, he still does and his latest history, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, is another master work. Starting in the middle of the war and moving through Reconstruction, Ayers uses two communities — Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania — to show how the conflict that was exploding on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Petersburg didn’t end with Appomattox in 1865, but only transformed into a new type of conflict, one that bears uncomfortable resemblances to our current Great Divide.

The Thin Light of Freedom makes it in at #8 on the Heartlands list this year, and not just because Ayers is my old advisor and one of my favorite people to talk to. This is great history everybody ought to read.

My full review is here and you can also read my 3-part interview with Ayers beginning here.

#8 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Chesapeake Requiem

IMG_3692Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. CNN did a report that got the mayor, Ooker Eskridge, an audience with the President. A social media storm naturally followed. And now Earl Swift has written a magisterial account of a year on the island.

I should probably have mentioned in the criteria for Heartlands Best Reads that writing about the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where I live, will get you points in the rankings for the year-end list. And I may not have found my way to Swift’s book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, if I hadn’t lived here and known Swift. But this is a book that has gotten note far beyond what regional interest would have reckoned. Just this week, The Bitter Southerner ran a feature on Tangier (accompanied by some glorious photos) because of Chesapeake Requiem.

It’s a book that will touch your heart, make you wonder about climate change, and immerse you in a unique and precious community. Plus it’s just fine writing.

Read my full review by clicking on this link.

#9 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: The Sarah Book

In my last post, we began the countdown of the Heartlands Best Reads of 2018. Check out that post for the criteria.

The Sarah Book is a crazy book, continuing author Scott McClanahan’s life goal of making West Virginia look even more offbeat than most folks already believe it to be. It’s scandalous, shocking, heart-breaking, and laugh-out-loud funny, usually all in the same chapter. Be forewarned, but be prepared to see the realities of Appalachia and of the lives of its people in a new light that is as much humane as it is profane (which it is).

Click the link on the book’s title for my full review.

#10 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: Turtles All the Way Down

What does it take to be a Heartlands Best Read of 2018?

—Alex has to have read the book. This is a big limitation right from the get-go, but, hey, it’s reality.

—Excellent writing. Good stories, good prose, good poetry. You won’t get there on the ideas alone.

—A strong sense of place.

—Preference is given to books published in 2018, though a good book from the past will make the list if I’ve read it this year.

—Books that highlight the broad themes of the Heartlands site. This began as a place to explore what’s happening in America, particularly focusing on life and ministry in rural areas. In light of the Great Divide, we now talk about that as “knowing the country whole.” A book that helps illuminate the country as it is or could be is going to get a leg up in this.

–I liked it, even if it didn’t meet any of these criteria. Hey, it’s my site.

So, let’s start the roll out! 

51j8ClOJzoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Coming in at #10 is Turtles All the Way Down by John Green. If I do say so myself, I loved my headline summary of this book: Teenager Abuses Hand Sanitizer, Finds Self: The Beauty in Turtles All the Way Down. That’s about the size of this Young Adult book. Putting us in the head of a character struggling with OCD and invasive thoughts was a daring choice, but by the end of this story Green has us rooting for Aza and her friends. There are also some big scale meditations on life, the universe, and everything.

Click on the link for the full review.  And look for #9 soon.

Godsend and Our Capacity for God

“I lack the spiritual gene,” the New York Times’ Dwight Garner says in reviewing John Wray’s new book, Godsend: A Novel. “I can grow resentful of novels that lead me into a cave of superstition and wished ignorance and then seal the entrance.” Not that he didn’t like the novel. Garner, (perhaps the leading book reviewer of our day), calls it “a significant literary performance.” But he’s not alone in wondering at themes of spiritual questing in modern literature. 

Our reviewing class seems to be losing its capacity for God.

Hannah Pittard confesses at the beginning of a review of Samantha Harvey’s new historical mystery, The Western Wind, that the novel “is concerned…with man’s relationship to God,” and, as an atheist, Pittard feels unequipped to “speak to Harvey’s religious or political leanings.” The review settles for celebrating Harvey’s obvious writing gifts.

Earlier this year, Garner also failed to fully grasp the theme of religious desire running through Jamie Quatro’s excellent Fire Sermon, seeing the protagonist’s spiritual hunger as merely being “starved for religious talk” and her meditations on sexual and religious desire as exercises that “set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind.”

With all due respect to the great Garner, to get at what’s going on in these books the reader needs to abandon the cingulate gyrus, “the top of one’s mind,” and get to the brain stem. Maybe the gut. That’s where you can really feel the impulse to faith.

Having said all that, you could read the remarkable Godsend as a story of the failure of faith. It’s right there in the title: Is Aden Sawyer, the California-born jihadi at the center of this story, the ‘godsend’ that her new mentors call her? Or rather is her ultimate disillusionment a sign of God’s end—the last of a string of failed guides?

What John Wray captures well, and plays with so well, in this taut coming-of-age novel are the themes of adolescent vulnerability and idealism, courage, and the tragic way in which conflicts perpetuate themselves long after their origins are forgotten. In this case, it is Pakistan and Afghanistan circa 2001 that provide the backdrop for Aden’s journey into radical Islam.

Before leaving the U.S., Aden is scandalized and suffocated by her wealthy, troubled parents, particularly her father who teaches Islamic studies with a scholar’s sterility. Her way out is through Islam, to which she commits herself fully. Ultimately she jumps on a plane to Karachi with her friend, Dexter, who has some family connections there. 

Disregarding the danger, she wraps her chest with a bandage and, Yentl-like, passes for a boy to enter a remote madrasa to study the Quran. The war across the Afghan border seeps into the school, divides Aden and Dexter, and ultimately leads her, quite willingly, into the ranks of mujahideen. But there’s something different about Aden, or Suleyman, as she’s called among the fighters. 

Despite her willingness to do brutal acts in support of the cause, Suleyman is suspected of being effeminate, perhaps a “Kandahar boy,” with all the salaciousness that implies. She is at constant risk of being exposed.  A relationship with Ziar, a charismatic warlord, offers her some space for honesty and protection, but the walls continue to close in, culminating in all sorts of revelations during an American bombing run on an Afghan town as the U.S. response to 9/11 begins.


John Wray

Wray has forged this story from reporting he did on John Walker Lindh, a figure you may have forgotten even if you followed coverage during the early days of the Afghan War. Like Aden, Lindh was an American convert who found his way to the battlefields of Afghanistan. If you remember him at all, perhaps what lingers in your mind are the post-capture photos of a dazed, bearded young man apparently resigned to his fate. Lindh experienced the full range of horrors to arrive in those pictures.

Aden experiences horrors, too. But the biggest journey she takes in Godsend is an inner one. Wray respects her gritty resilience, her vision of where she wants to go, and her willingness to sacrifice everything to get there. He also recognizes the way her faith motivates her and the characters around her. The Islamic leaders she meets are as varied and morally complex as people the world over are.


John Walker Lindh

But ultimately neither Aden nor Wray can find the God that they seek. There are beautiful descriptions of snow and sun on far-flung mountains, the quiet rhythms of ancient communities, and the wild swings of adolescent relationships. But is God in the mix? 

Dwight Garner may be off the hook for not getting the spiritual fervor here. For all of its importance to the plot, Wray seems not to be too interested in the religious quest. But enjoying this incredibly well-written story of an American abroad in the midst of one of the world’s most difficult conflicts, you will sense that God is not far from the page.

As God is not far from any story of what it means to be alive.