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Tag: Joe Mackall

My Top Five 2021 Nonfiction Reads

More than half of the books I read in 2021 appear to be nonfiction (tracking and math are not precise) which kind of surprised me.  But I did have a goal of reading a great many books on Saint Paul of which more anon, as they say.  So what were my favorites?

Here are five of the non-Paul focused nonfiction that stood out to me from 2021 (books I read, not that were published last year):

A book that is hard to say “I liked it” given how depressing and challenging it is. I am far from an expert on these things but I found it all too persuasive in its underlying argument about decadence. The chapter Waiting for the Barbarians was particularly depressing. I wish I had a brilliant answer as to how to get out of the seeming cul-de-sac we find ourselves in but, alas, I do not. 

An insightful and challenging book that forces you to acknowledge the challenges our culture presents for people of faith and those who seek to pass on that faith to the next generation. While there is a tad too much jargon in places, and it is also earnest at times, it really is a great outline for thinking about encouraging and inculcating deeper faith in young people and adults alike. The idea of call, community, creed and hope for the future is something I will be chewing on and working out for some time. If you have an interest in youth ministry, church revitalization or just faith in the modern world, highly recommended.

A discursive, and sometimes elusive, meditation on freedom that touches on evolution, history, science, sociology, economics, and psychology, among other things. Thought provoking and a bit haunted.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America. At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

Honest, playful, melancholy, at times dark, yet hopeful Mackall packs a lot into this short volume. Wonderful exploration of family, history, stories and their impact on our lives. Both a book to read for the content and for the writing itself.

 

Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish by Joe Mackall

I first heard about Joe Mackall at an event at Ohio State this past summer with Dinty Moore.  I like what I heard and so picked up both Last Street Before Cleveland and [amazon-product region=”us” text=”Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish” type=”text”]0807010650[/amazon-product].  I had some interest in the Amish as I had once worked for a State Senator who represented the area in which the book was set and had has some interaction with Amish issues.
Plain Secrets
It turned out to be a fascinating book and much more than just a story about how the Amish live.  Sure, Mackall offers real insights into the way the Swartzentruber Amish that are his neighbors live; what they are like as people, friends, neighbors, etc.

But it is more than that.

For those unfamiliar with the subject here is some useful background from the book’s website:

Joe Mackall has lived surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish community of Ashland County, Ohio, for over sixteen years. They are the most traditional and insular of all the Amish sects: the Swartzentrubers live without gas, electricity, or indoor plumbing; without lights on their buggies or cushioned chairs in their homes; and without rumspringa, the recently popularized “running-around time” that some Amish sects allow their sixteen-year-olds.

Over the years, Mackall has developed a steady relationship with the Shetler family (Samuel and Mary, their nine children, and their extended family). Plain Secrets tells the Shetlers’ story over these years, using their lives to paint a portrait of Swartzentruber Amish life and mores. During this time, Samuel’s nephew Jonas finally rejects the strictures of the Amish way of life for good, after two failed attempts to leave, and his bright young daughter reaches the end of school for Amish children: the eighth grade. But Plain Secrets is also the story of the unusual friendship between Samuel and Joe. Samuel is quietly bemused—and, one suspects, secretly delighted—at Joe’s ignorance of crops and planting, carpentry and cattle. He knows Joe is planning to write a book about the family, and yet he allows him a glimpse of the tensions inside this intensely private community.

If I had to pick a word to descirbe Mackall’s writing it would be “honest.”

In our day and age the concept of “real” has become a cliche; part of a hokey phrase like “keeping it real.” But there is something very real about the way Mackall writes and the stories he tells.  The relationships he explores and the way he communicates them reflects both an honest curiostiy but also a deep respect for the people involved.

Mackall gives the reader a basic overview of the this particular Amish community and helpfully provides context for the larger Amish culture.  He does this with care by intentionally avoiding sensationalism.  But at the same he xplores his own feelings about this unique community and what this says about our culture and theirs – and how the two interact. This deep respect for his subject matter and a continuing sense of introspection makes for a much deeper story.

Those with an interest in the Amish are probably already well aware of Plain Secrets.  But if you have ever wondered about Amish life this would be a great introduction – not because of the technical details but because of the real sense of how they live.  But really, anyone who enjoys well written narrative non-fiction would enjoy this engaging book.

The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall

For some reason if a book doesn’t get reviewed relatively quickly I struggle mightily to get around to it at all.  This habit vexes me to no end and this year I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to be better about not allowing books to get lost.

Joe Mackall’s [amazon-product region=”us” text=”The Last Street Before Cleveland” type=”text”]0803232551[/amazon-product] was one book that got lost in the shuffle somehow and sat in the “To Be Reviewed” pile for months.  So this week I resolved to write about it and check that off the list.

So what exactly is the book about?  Despite the books brevity (150 pages) it is not easy to summarize.  It is about trying to go home again; about overcoming depression and finding faith; about memory and nostalgia; about the dying blue collar world; etc.

The publisher describes it this way:

The old neighborhood was the place Joe Mackall left. It was a place where everyone’s parents worked at the factory at the dead end of the street, where the Catholic church and school operated like a religious city hall, and where a boy like Joe grew up vowing to get out as soon as he could and to shed his blue-collar beginnings and failed, flawed religion. When the mysterious death of a childhood friend draws him back to the last street before Cleveland, however, he discovers that there is more to “old haunts” than mere words—and more to severing one’s roots than just getting away.

The titular “last street before” Cleveland is the street Mackall lived on in Parma, Ohio just outside of Cleveland; one street up and you were in Cleveland proper.  Which is not all that far away from where the author lives now in Ashland, Ohio where he teaches English and journalism at Ashland University.  But culturally and metaphorically it is a different world.

So when he returns to the geography of his youth it is a disorientating experience and it takes him in directions he never anticipated.  This memoir takes the reader along for the ride.

For my belated thoughts click below.

The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall

For some reason if a book doesn’t get reviewed relatively quickly I struggle mightily to get around to it at all.  This habit vexes me to no end and this year I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to be better about not allowing books to get lost.

Joe Mackall’s [amazon-product region=”us” text=”The Last Street Before Cleveland” type=”text”]0803232551[/amazon-product] was one book that got lost in the shuffle somehow and sat in the “To Be Reviewed” pile for months.  So this week I resolved to write about it and check that off the list.

So what exactly is the book about?  Despite the books brevity (150 pages) it is not easy to summarize.  It is about trying to go home again; about overcoming depression and finding faith; about memory and nostalgia; about the dying blue collar world; etc.

The publisher describes it this way:

The old neighborhood was the place Joe Mackall left. It was a place where everyone’s parents worked at the factory at the dead end of the street, where the Catholic church and school operated like a religious city hall, and where a boy like Joe grew up vowing to get out as soon as he could and to shed his blue-collar beginnings and failed, flawed religion. When the mysterious death of a childhood friend draws him back to the last street before Cleveland, however, he discovers that there is more to “old haunts” than mere words—and more to severing one’s roots than just getting away.

The titular “last street before” Cleveland is the street Mackall lived on in Parma, Ohio just outside of Cleveland; one street up and you were in Cleveland proper.  Which is not all that far away from where the author lives now in Ashland, Ohio where he teaches English and journalism at Ashland University.  But culturally and metaphorically it is a different world.

So when he returns to the geography of his youth it is a disorientating experience and it takes him in directions he never anticipated.  This memoir takes the reader along for the ride.

For my belated thoughts click below.

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