Book Chat: Books about following God’s call, writing and getting organized

February 11, 2009 | 38 comments

Here are quick reviews of three great books I’ve read recently…


Magi by Daniel L. Gilbert

Here it is, that book I referenced here that is the first fiction book I’ve been able to get into in years: Magi by Daniel L. Gilbert. I discovered it when our priest mentioned it in a homily — one those sermons that couldn’t have spoken more directly to me if the priest had mentioned me by name — and I went immediately to the bookstore after Mass to look for it.

One of the reasons it appealed to me is because it’s a historical fiction about the “wise men from the east” who brought the child Jesus gifts as described briefly in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. I’ve always wondered about the logistics of that: I mean, in the days before you could hop a flight and take a cab from the airport, how did people travel long distances? What sign was it that drew them to Christ? Obviously we can’t know for sure, but I enjoyed Gilbert’s imaginings of the arduous journey these men undertook. If nothing else, I found the insights into the logistics of ancient middle eastern caravan travel fascinating. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the story is based on more than 10 years of historical research, considering how vividly Gilbert paints the picture of the journey.

The main reason I loved this book, however, is because it’s the story of something all believers can relate to. The back cover describes it as a “Christmas book, ” but I think that that’s a much too confining description: it’s the story of following a call. I loved how the author portrays these people as real people with the all-too-human struggles that we all face, even when (perhaps especially when) we’re trying to do something we think God wants us to do.

For example, the main character, a Parthian priest named Ramates, is excited to undertake this mission because he truly wants to pay homage to the Messiah…yet he also can’t help but have his motives influenced by the fact that, if he actually were to find the Messiah, it would undoubtedly mean great fame and status for him back in his homeland. He also has moments of doubt where he wonders if this entire journey was a mistake, that he misinterpreted God’s message about what he’s supposed to do. And he goes in expecting that God’s plan for him is rather glamorous, imagining presenting his gifts to the Messiah amidst the applause of royalty and Jerusalem’s highest priests, only to find out that those were just projections based on his own selfish wishes, and that God’s plan was something much more humble. Needless to say, I could really relate this character.

If you have any interest in historical fiction or stories about following God’s call, you’ll love this book. And it’s short — I got through it in just four days! I highly recommend it, and think that even non-Christians would find it to be an interesting, enjoyable read.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

HOW did I not know about this book? I can’t believe I’ve been writing for so many years and just now discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (thanks to blog readers telling me about it).

I knew I was going to love this book when, only twenty-something pages in, she explained the importance of giving yourself permission to write a bad first draft…and then admitted that when she does she’s often consumed with fear that she’ll die before she has a chance to edit it and people will think that this was the best she could do. You mean I’m not the only one who’s had that thought?!

The book is full of other heart-felt, practical wisdom like this:

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.

Another thing that made this book great is that, unlike so many of the “writing advice” books out there, Lamott is a bestselling author herself. She’s able to shed some insight into what it’s like to actually achieve the classic writer’s dream of having an acclaimed, bestselling book — and her insights on that are helpful and surprising. She writes of publishing her first book:

I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. But writing is…That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

I’ve read a lot of books about the craft of writing, and this is definitely at the top of the list. It’s humble, hilarious and full of wisdom. If you have any interest in writing at all (and can stomach a little profanity), go buy this book right now.

Organizing Solutions for People with Attention Deficit Disorder by Susan C. Pinsky

I read this book a few months ago, and it’s had a big impact on the way I approach organizing my home. Even though I’ve never been diagnosed with ADD (despite a trip to a fancy psychologist at the adamant insistence of my elementary school teachers), I have enough ADD tendencies that these tips were really helpful.

Susan Pinsky wrote the book after years working as a professional organizer who specializes in helping people with ADD (in addition to being the parent of a child with ADD). The fact that she has so much hands-on experience really shines through in the book — you can tell that she’s learned the hard way what really works for the long-term (and what doesn’t) for people who are easily distracted.

The overall idea of the book is that, in order to get organized, people with ADD need to drastically reduce clutter and create extremely simple systems that cut out every possible step. At first I thought her emphasis on cutting out even the smallest steps seemed extreme (e.g. not having lids on daily-use storage boxes)…and then I caught myself going to put some old toys in a box, feeling a little overwhelmed about getting to it since it had a tight lid and was covered by another box, and in the split second of hesitation that ensued I somehow ended up thinking about a new way to get stains out of the laundry and absent-mindedly placed the toys on the couch as I wandered off to grab the laundry basket, only realizing later that I never put them away. So, yeah…eliminating even the simplest steps is really helpful.

Though I found that many of the specific tips either weren’t necessary for me or wouldn’t work in my household, I found the concepts to be extremely helpful, and even the tips that didn’t work for me offered great food for thought.

Even if you don’t technically have ADD, if you tend to have a “Ferrari brain with Chevy brakes” (as the author puts it so well), if you constantly find yourself overwhelmed and distracted while trying to tackle even the simplest household tasks, you’ll find this to be a really helpful book.

Those are my recent reads. Anyone else read anything good lately? Any thoughts on these books?

38 Comments

  1. Tiphaine

    Nothing religious here but I just finished yet an other Roal Dahl (Henri Sugar and 6 other stories), it’s fiction, it’s not moral or immoral, just recreational, and I loved it 🙂
    Some bloggers are also going to start “till we have faces” (CS Lewis) to comment all together about it.

  2. sara

    I read Bird by Bird years ago and liked it very much. I just now, reading this post, realized that it was written by Anne Lamott! It would have made no difference to me at the time as I had no idea who she was until a couple of years ago, but still… If I’m able to conquer this Internet addiction any time soon, I might just reread that book.

  3. Anonymous

    Hey Jen,
    I’m a long time reader, but this is my 1st comment. You might like the fictional books “The Red Tent” and “Mary, Called Magdalene” also. The “Mary” book I found especially interesting since it dealt with what it was like to have to choose between your family and Jesus, and how difficult it would have been. Both give a good idea of what family life must have been like in the periods the story occured in, and the reason I became interested in them is because I asked my spiritual mentor for books that focused on the lives of women in biblical times. Just thought I’d toss those names out there to anyone! Thanks for your blog, each entry is a blessing to me.

  4. Rodrigo

    I’m reading and having my students read and write journal reflections on Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire. It’s an edited collection of radio sermons that give a great homiletical introduction to Catholic faith and culture. The sermons are 6 pages on average, so you can easily read one in 10 minutes or so. Fr. Barron is an accomplished theologian whom Cardinal George asked to preach missions around the archdiocese of Chicago, and in these sermons he does a great job of popularizing without dumbing down.

  5. Anonymous

    Just a thank you for turning me on to “Word of Scriptures”. It is simple with lots to think about. I enjoy it everyday.

  6. Kaycee

    I just put Magi on my wish list, thanks for the suggestions.

  7. Kelly @ Love Well

    I’m putting “Magi” on my list. I’m very picky about fiction, but that sounds terrific.

    I picked up “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan over the weekend, and I’m LOVING it, partially because its speaking directly to what the Holy Spirit is teaching me right now. I’m forcing myself to only read one chapter a day, so it has more time to absorb.

  8. Sarah

    If you liked Bird by Bird, read “Traveling Mercies”, also by Lamott!

  9. Roxane B. Salonen

    I loved “Bird by Bird.” Two other “must-reads” of mine related to writing are “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg and “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.
    Enjoying your blog and looking forward to the day I hear from you on mine. 🙂

  10. Bridge

    I love all Lamott – but most especially Bird by Bird. My second favorite of hers is Operating Instructions – which is a memoir of the first year of her son’s life. I don’t agree with her all the time (or maybe even most of the time), but she knows who Jesus is and she believes Him – and her writing is just so fantastic.

  11. Diana

    I’ll definitely pick up the first one. And the third one would be great for my unorganized ADD husband – if I could get him to read it. 🙂

  12. Lisa

    The Red Tent is one of my all time favorite books. I read Anne Lamont’s book Thoughts on Faith (or something like that) and enjoyed it, but not earth shattering. Thanks for the suggests.

  13. Amy Jane (Untangling Tales)

    Oooo! Look! More unsolicited additions to your reading list!

    Here’s something short. 😉

    If you can get your library to set aside “The Faith of a Writer” by Joyce Carol Oats (It’s not referring to our faith in the title, BTW), I really think you will appreciate her ability to articulate her points in the essays, “What sin to me unknown…” and Notes on Failure.

    She talks about the writing life and then makes a parenthetical comment that I like to take and exchange the word artist for the word mother:

    “A study should really be done of artists’ private systems, that cluster of stratagems, both voluntary and involuntary, that make daily life navigable. Here we would find, I think, a bizarre and ingenious assortment of Great Religions in embryo— a system of checks and balances, rewards, and taboos, fastidious as a work of art. What is your schedule, one writer asks another, never What are the great themes of your books?— for the question is, of course, in code, and really implies Are you perhaps crazier than I– and will you elaborate?”

    Blessings on your day! :o)

  14. Rachel Gray

    About the logistics of the inner and outer journeys of the Magi: T.S. Eliot’s poem is really good.

  15. lvschant

    I’ve been reading Mother Benedict, by Antoinette Bosco. A parishioner who likes our Gregorian chant at Mass brought me the book to read. I have zipped through it and have found it absolutely fascinating. The founding of the Regina Laudis Abbey at such a turbulent time in history and the wonderful way Mother Benedict handled it was very inspiring.

    Magi sounds very good… I’ll put it on my list. Thanks!

  16. Jess

    I find it interesting that you like Ann Lammott so much. I have read a couple of her books now and various articles on the ‘net at Salon.com and the thing that is frustrating to me about her is that I find her very readable but I don’t think I would actually like her if I met and knew her in real life. That sounds terrible, I know. But her books (of essays) are really quite personal and I assume they offer a pretty clear glimpse of what she perceives her life and relationships to be like and I just find her off-putting and self-centered.

    What does that say about me?! I need to be more charitable I suppose. I haven’t read this writing book of hers, maybe I should try it.

  17. clairesd

    I know you liked the film “Into Great Silence” and “He leadeth me” by W. Ciszek. This one is right up there with those two: “Testimony of Hope” by Francis Xavier Van Thuan.

  18. Anonymous

    Hi Jen,

    I too am a long time reader coming out to comment on this.

    My new favorite book is Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. It’s based it on the story of the two missionary priests who founded the diocese of Santa Fe, and is very much in line with the theme of following God’s call. The entire work is absolutely beautiful, both in Cather’s writing and in her probing examination of the nature man. The Amazon reviews are far better than mine though, if you need convincing.

    And thank you so much for your blog.

    In Him,
    Carrie

  19. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    Oh my, yes! Bird by Bird was my first “required reading” on writing back in my undergrad days. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Anne and what she shares there that helped me to know words need not be perfect the first moment they hit the page. LOVE IT.

    Someday, in your copious free time, you may want to look into Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Reflections on Faith and Art. I was skeptical at first, I’ve not read any of L’Engle’s fiction works as her genre isn’t my cup of tea, but her thoughts on God and the Artist give breath to my heart.

    This passage from that book was life-changing for me:

    “Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses…”

    Great stuff!!

  20. Cathy Adamkiewicz

    If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to hear these words today!

    I am going to get this book ASAP. Thanks for sharing this!

  21. lissla lissar

    If you liked Bird By Bird I also recommend Travelling Mercies and Operating Instructions: The Journal of my Son’s First Year. I know you’re a veteran Mom, but it’s hilarious and beautiful, and every mother I’ve quoted it to has loved it.

    I thought of the T. S. Eliot poem, too.

    “All this was a long time ago, I remember,
    And I would do it again, but set down
    This set down
    This: were we lead all that way for
    Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
    We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
    But had thought they were different; this Birth was
    Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.
    I should be glad of another death.”

  22. Julie C

    I would like to know what is so great about Flannery O’Connor. I have read Wise Blood and am currently reading The Violent Bear it Away. I am still trying to figure out why people rave about her.
    I really dislike short stories, but perhaps her stories are better than her novels. Jennifer, I saw you mention her in one post, so thought you might have some ideas on this. Julie

  23. mom huebert

    I just finished reading “The Story of a Soul” by Terese De Lesieux (or however you spell it). It was very thought-provoking, and also encouraging for me, because I am not a flashy person called to a flashy ministry, and have had no great supernatural experiences. But even so, I can, like her, love and love and love some more, and thereby please God.

  24. Pam H.

    Just finished Louis de Wohl’s The Spear – the passion and death of the Christ, from the point of view of the Roman soldier who pierced His side with a lance. Very moving.

    Today I’ve been re-reading, for the I don’t know how many-th time, The Hidden Face by Ida Friederike Gorres. Wonderful, wonderful life of Therese of Lisieux. My favorite, after her own telling.

    I also liked He Leadeth Me by Walter Cizcek, and its companion book, With God in Russia.

  25. clairesd

    Oops, that’s Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Sorry about that.

  26. heartafire

    Accckkk…
    Love your blog—-can’t stand Anne Lamont. I am glad to know she’s a Christian (sort of) but her brand of Christianity is damaging to the kingdom IMO. I’ve read everything she’s ever written, because she’s such a fantastic writer—-It’s just discouraging to see her promoted on a Christian site…
    In fact, i don’t think she was a Christian until maybe “Traveling Mercies,” but nonethetime in the Bible reading and less writing about her warped brand of Christianity. I have the feeling she’ll get there, because her need is so real and so clear, and I think she’s honestly seeking…but I worry about those that she’ll influence with her super liberal abortion-loving message.

  27. heartafire

    I loved “The Red Tent” too—one of the best “you are there” historical religious novels ever, as was “Mary, Called Magdalene. ” Along those lines, a really terrific book called {I think} Redeeming Love” or “Redeemed Love”—the story of Hosea. Brilliant. Great themes of redemption and grace in the midst of human fallenness.

    Great love story (since it’s Valentines) would have to be Sheldon vanAucken’s “A Severe Mercy”—what a terrific book.
    Best marriage book ever: “The Mystery of Marriage” by Mike Mason.

    I too am going to look up “Magi.”

  28. Rachel Gray

    I have to disagree with The Red Tent recommendation. It was a great concept– tell the story of Jacob’s family in Genesis– but disappointing in the execution. As I recall (it’s been some years since I read it), instead of emphasizing the action of the one true God, the author emphasizes her heroines’ naturalistic polytheism. Oh, and that part in Genesis where Dinah gets raped and her brothers take revenge? Turns out she and her man were just enjoying themselves and her chauvinist family ruined it all.

    But putting aside the fact that the author didn’t tell the story I wanted her to tell, it’s also just not well-written. She tells instead of shows what her characters are like, and then doesn’t do much with the interplay of the different personalities she’s described. I admit I wouldn’t have minded the shallow writing so much if the story had been more to my taste.

    But if you liked The Red Tent, you’re obviously not alone, so don’t mind me. 🙂 I like all sorts of stuff that others don’t…

  29. Shannon

    I’ll add Anne Rice’s latest book to the pile–not because I liked it so much, but because it is about her journey from atheism back to Catholicism. It’s “Called Out of Darkness.”

  30. Natalia

    I am so looking forward to seeing whether my library has this book. In the meantime, I’m wondering whether you’ve checked out the other two books on the subject (listed on the Amazon link you gave): “4 Weeks to an Organized Life with AD/HD”, and “ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life” and if you have, how you feel they compare.

    I’m so glad for this recommendation as I’ve never even seen a book like this and it just might rescue me out of my confusion! So, thank you.

  31. Isabel

    I’m glad someone else here mentioned that Anne Lamott is pro-abortion. Vehemently so — check out her op-ed on the subject in the L.A. Times. Sample paragraph:
    “Maybe I could have presented my position in a less strident, divisive manner. But the questioner’s use of the words “murder” and “babies” had put me on the defensive. Plus I am so confused about why we are still having to argue with patriarchal sentimentality about teeny weenie so-called babies – some microscopic, some no bigger than the sea monkeys we used to send away for – when real, live, already born women, many of them desperately poor, get such short shrift from the current administration.”

    Got that: Teen weenie so-called babies.

  32. heartafire

    Thank you, Rachel Gray—-I read it several years ago, but based on your comments, I’m going to check it out again, and see what it looks like to me now….

    I always appreciate critical thinking about books I like…

  33. heartafire

    Julie C,

    Immerse yourself in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories with a mind toward the {brilliant!} themes of redemption and atonement.

    I defy any Christian to not fall deeply in love with this writer and her message.

    Also, there is a wonderful collection of letters from her to various people that was collected and published by her longtime editor (Sally….something) that shed more light on her amazing gifts—both her writing and her faith.

  34. Pam H.

    I believe I understood that, in spite of partial conversion, Anne Rice is still pro-abortion. Approach with caution.

  35. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Julie C. –

    I actually haven’t read any O’Conner yet. I did mention her a few posts back as someone I admire for her dedication to the craft of writing — and I’ve come across some quotes from her that I love — but I haven’t read any of her work yet.

    Isabel –

    Wow. That LA Times article is really loathsome. I hadn’t seen that (or if I had I didn’t remember). Thank you for sharing.

  36. The Scooper

    I’m so excited! I totally need those last 2 books you mentioned.

    Maybe that book can help me!

    Love your blog. Just recently came over here.

    It’s fantastic.

  37. Kate

    Bird By Bird is my absolute favorite book! It’s been awhile since I read and I’ve been thinking it’s about time to pull it out again. Now you’ve convinced me!

  38. Sarah Reinhard

    Oh, Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books. I read it before I truly admitted that I was a “writer” (whether or not I’ll ever have a published book…”writer” is a personality trait with me).

    And I am adding Magi to my to-read list. ALWAYS looking for good fiction. Have you tried The Alchemist? (also about responding to a call) (caveat: I haven’t read it in a lonng time, so…).

    As for what I’ve been reading…on the fiction front I just finished a friend’s manuscript and started a totally mindless novel (which I will finish before the heavy work of Lent). I’m also reading a book about book marketing and another one about spiritual perfection (recommended by my spiritual director/priest and, after two chapters, I’m finding it VERY helpful).

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