Leaving Cloud 9 by Ericka Andersen

I’ve known Ericka Andersen for over a decade going back to my days as a conservative blogger/online activist type.  Over the years I have been impressed with her career as she became an expert in social media marketing, digital influence and communications.  She works hard, has a lot of energy and works for some great organizations.

I was equally impressed when she moved back to Indiana to be closer to her family and to start a family herself.  And although I followed many of these changes via Facebook, we weren’t particularly close friends and my busy life and own family meant I only saw bits and pieces when I happened to catch them in my feed.

So when I heard that she was publishing a book, Leaving Cloud 9, about her husband and his remarkable life story I was intrigued.  I try to make a point of reading books by people I know (even if only online).  The dramatic nature of the story she would tell grabbed my attention even more.  I was lucky enough to be able to get a review copy from NetGalley and dove in.

As I have mentioned on social media a few times, Leaving Cloud 9 is not an easy book to read.  It tells the story of abuse, neglect, and abandonment; of PTSD, bipolar, social anxiety, divorce and depression.  But it is also a story about love and redemption; about beating the odds and rising above the most challenging environment to find faith, hope and love.

The book reads like a memoir in the sense that it recounts the life of Rick Sylvester but it does so through the voice and eyes of his now wife Ericka.  Along the way she folds in social sciences research and public policy issues related to the problems and issues Rick faced.

As I read through the traumas Rick and his sister suffered through and their continued attempts to simply survive when everything in life seems stacked against them, I couldn’t help but thinking 1) what a harsh reminder of how some people live and how blessed I am, even with challenges of my own family and 2) how did the @#$% did Rick survive?

And that is what the book drives at; that question looms throughout.  Andersen’s answer is a combination of Rick’s own refusal to give up, a few people and circumstances at key points, and God’s saving grace.

Rick showed an amazing determination to just keep trying; to keep pushing forward. He joined the military after high school which gave him discipline, solidarity and friendships.  It was not a smooth experience and he didn’t find the military his ultimate vocation but there were important elements of adulthood that were gained.

There were a few key people who helped Rick survive.  First and foremost was his sister.  They clearly relied on each other their whole lives and just having some else there with you as you went through hell meant something important.  And later his sister would play a key role in helping Rick keep trying and moving forward.  One of his mom’s boyfriends also helped Rick see that there were adults who cared about him and who could serve as role models, no matter how flawed.  Just a glimpse of love and support meant a lot. And of course, Ericka is in many ways the final necessary piece to his healing process.

God is the other thread that is weaved into the whole story.  Ericka and Rick are not shy about their belief that God is the ultimate reason that Rick has come through the incredible traumas he faced and found a life of stability, love and support.  This foundational belief that God was moving in Rick’s life and in Ericka’s and that the only path to salvation was faith in Jesus Christ; both in the abstract theological sense and in the very real life sense.

You may or may not agree with this theological perspective.  You may have nagging questions about the existence of evil and the role of faith; may wonder how Rick is different from the many other children who didn’t find a happy ending.  But you can’t question the role it played in their respective lives and, as Ericka relates, how Rick truly found healing in the church and through his faith.

And as these threads begin to connect in the book’s closing chapters what struck me was the amazing love Ericka obviously has for Rick and the deep faith required to believe that 1) the real Rick was not reflected in his problems, his anger and social anxiety 2) that God was calling her to something important in this relationship. I don’t mean to imply that Ericka took on Rick as some sort of mission project but rather she understood that their relationship could be a true reflection of the redemptive love of Jesus and that would be a beautiful thing.  To see through all the challenges and truly believe that God could make something beautiful out of all of the suffering, and of Ericka’s life, struggles and experiences, etc..

It is truly an incredible story.  Not just that Rick could overcome incredible odds and graduate college, find stable employment, find a lasting love, and begin to create a loving family of his own, but that he and Ericka could meet in Washington, DC and create a bond that would lead to love, marriage and parenthood.  Even having children was an act of faith and another example of how they persevered through love and faith.

So the question that lingers in many people’s minds has to be why write a book like this and why read it?  Ericka and Rick took the risk to tell their story because they believed it would give hope and faith to those who might be struggling with the same or similar issues.  They want to spread the message that you can survive and even thrive.

And in the same way reading it is a stark reminder of the incredible hardships many American’s face every day and that faith, hope and love are needed more than ever.  Ericka and Rick’s story is inspiring and humbling.  For many who read it, like me, it will be a reminder to count your blessings and an opportunity to reflect on the importance of faith and family.

And that is a message we all need to hear.

 

Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children by Erick Erickson

One of the weird things about my lingering inability to post book reviews with any sort of consistency is that I have continued to read; often quite a lot.  Last year I read/listened to 100 books!

One of those was Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children
by Erick Erickson.  Like so many, I never got around to posting a review of the book here.  Well, today is his birthday so I got the idea that maybe I should finally offer my thoughts on his book.

It is not easy to review books by people you consider friends; even if the friendship is mostly online rather than in person. I have known Erick for many years, and consider him a friend even if we have met only on a couple of occasions. Although our politics are both conservative, we bring quite different perspectives to blogging and politics.  But I have always appreciated the passion and insight Erick brings.  Plus, he is famous and I am not … So take that for whatever it is worth.

What struck me about this book was how personal it is. It has the flavor of a memoir rather than an advice book. And then there are recipes at the end. But it makes sense somehow because you can tell how much joy cooking, eating and entertaining give to Erick.

Erick offers insight into how he became the person he is today not in terms of his political philosophy but in terms of personality and interests. His childhood, in the US and in the Middle East, made a big impression on him. He recalls with relish and joy his experiences. At times you might wonder what it all means and how it ties together. But I think it is just something that Erick believes made hims who he is. And he is trying to capture that for his children and for readers who might be interested.

The other aspect that comes through is how increasingly Erick is viewing his life through the lens of his faith and his community rather than through politics and elections. He stresses over and over again that what he wants for his children is that they love God, love their family and seek to be part of a community that reflects the Creator; that they love their neighbors and serve others.

This is not a radical idea from a Christian perspective, but for those who only know Erick from partisan politics, and the world of talking heads and talk radio, this might seem oddly communitarian and localist. As tribalism, and with it a toxic public square, has come to dominate our politics Erick has clearly felt called to something different. Admittedly, he struggles with how that looks like day-to-day but his preference for something different comes through clearly in this short book.

His family’s medical challenges, his career path in the often unstable world of political commentary, and his growing fame online, on TV and on the radio, all provide opportunities to learn and grown.  Erick walks the reader through these events and seeks to pull our pearls of wisdom to offer his children.  There is nothing particularly profound but there is also plenty of advice worth taking.

I always used to joke online that the biggest secret about Erick was that he was a really nice guy involved in an often ugly business. This book brings that “secret” out into the open. Erick’s mantra might be boiled down to faith, family, friends and food. Seek community and connection in these, he tells his children, and you will find purpose and meaning. 

I doubt a lot of people who disagree with Erick’s politics have or will read this book.  Which is a shame because we could do with a world where more people got to know each other who disagree.  And this book will help you understand Erick Erickson the person rather than Erick the talking head or Erick the radio host.  It won’t change your mind but it might change how you see pundits and those in the news. 

Plus, if you happen to be a foodie or cook, you get the added bonus of what sound like a bunch of delicious recipes.

Quick Review: I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman

Been on a bit of a Howard Norman kick of late (What Is Left the Daughter, Next Life Might Be Kinder reviews coming) so decided to listen to I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place; an autobiography of sorts wherein Norman recounts memories from five places he has lived. (My second memoir with a connection to Canada and art as it turns out.)

The NYT Sunday Book Review outlines the book:

The book is divided into five sections, each organized around an unsettling episode or spurring event over the course of Norman’s life: the accidental killing of a swan; the death of a girlfriend; the murder of John Lennon; a case of flu that lasted for months; and, finally, a filicide/suicide committed by a house sitter in Norman’s own home. Another memoirist would foreground the violence or drama of these incidents; Norman instead uses them as occasions for explorations of daily life. Over the course of the book, a coming-of-age story emerges, as well as a loose portrait of the artist, but the main project here is to explore the mysteries that live alongside us, unnoticed. Norman quotes the poet Paul Éluard more than once: “There is another world but it is in this one.”

I was pulled in  from the start because of the connection to the city of my birth (Grand Rapids, MI).  It was also interesting to think about Norman’s novels and ruminate on themes, perspectives, and plot hooks potentially related to his personal experiences. Not to psychoanalyze or anything but just to think about how his life and personality contributed ingredients and ideas to his fiction.

Kirkus notes the connections:

Norman’s novels tend to circle around a tight range of themes: gloomy Canadian backdrops, coincidence, death and a love for wildlife (particularly birds) that gives his work a quirky, musical vocabulary. These essays suggest the mood of the author isn’t very distinct from that of his fiction, and sometimes the connections are explicit: One piece is about an affair in his 20s that ended when his lover died in a plane crash, a story echoed in his 2002 novel, The Haunting of L.

It was like a series of evening conversations with the author where he told stories about his life. And the ingredients are interesting enough, and the teller skilled enough, to hold your interest.

Norman’s literate, slightly odd, but ultimately humane style makes for easy and thought provoking listening on the daily commute. It was both captivating and relaxing; even if unsettling at times.

Donna Seaman at Booklist captures it well:

Fluent in strangeness, versed in ambiguity, Norman combines rapturous description with meticulous restraint as he potently recounts these feverish, eerie, life-altering events and considers the profound and haunting questions they raise.

Review: Rumours of Glory: A Memoir by Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn is one of my favorite musicians/artists. His lyrics are poetry and often profound and deeply moving. I own almost all of his albums and have listened to his music for decades. We come from polar opposite perspectives when it comes to theology and politics but I am still a huge fan.

So when I realized, a little after the fact, that he had published a memoir, I had to read it. Rumors of Glory was fascinating and engaging because, despite my fandom, I know very little about Cockburn the person (perhaps because I didn’t want to get into his politics too much for fear it would ruin his music – not that he hides his politics, particular in later albums).

What really comes through is his honesty and free spirit. You also get to see how his life and music line up; where certain songs and lyrics came from and how they reflect his life and experiences; chronology and discology.

His lyrics remain beautiful poetry and I enjoyed reading them scattered throughout the book and following the chronology.

I will admit I did struggle a bit with the politics, however, and occasionally the theology. I appreciate his passion and his compassion but was a little frustrated just how one sided it was.

He castigates and lambasts conservatives, right-wingers, and corporations endlessly and with vitriol and occasionally with near rage. But he never really questions his basically socialist, and often seemingly utopian, perspective. He never questions the left, or their sources, never seems to give the American government the benefit of the doubt or admit the myriad of benefits the free market can bring. He never delves into the corruption and kleptocracy of socialist and communist countries around the world. The corruption, fundamental amorality, and basic incompetence of the UN never comes up either. American politicians and multinational corporations are always to blame.

That said, you can’t help but be depressed and frustrated with the devastation, despair, and destruction that Cockburn has witnessed around the globe and for which he offers a sort of tour.

Unless you are a blind ideologue, you can’t help but be frustrated and angry with the greed and violence that has produced nearly endless wars across the globe. America does have much to answer for and American corporations and their allies in government do to. When you count the cost in lives lost, money spent, and the environmental degradation it is hard not to feel sympathetic to the pacifist perspective.

Cockburn’s personal life also proves to be fascinating and a little depressing. He honestly discusses how he was closed and cut off from true intimacy and communication early in his life and how his relationships suffered as a result. But he also relates how part of his personal and spiritual journey was trying to resolve this flaw and how even his tragic experiences led to growth and understanding.

His spirituality and faith start out somewhat conventional (he was introduced to the faith and became a Christian as a result of his relationship with his first wife) but ends up almost a pantheistic (or universal search for the divine in life). But even so, he remains committed throughout to faith in God; he prayers and writes with depth and power about faith. His determined search for truth and beauty and his commitment to loving God and loving his neighbor are always there. This I can respect and appreciate no matter the heterodoxy.

Anyone with an interest in Cockburn and his music will want to read Rumors of Glory. Anyone interested in the interplay between life, art, music, and politics would also find this memoir engaging and insightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Review: Rumours of Glory: A Memoir by Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn is one of my favorite musicians/artists. His lyrics are poetry and often profound and deeply moving. I own almost all of his albums and have listened to his music for decades. We come from polar opposite perspectives when it comes to theology and politics but I am still a huge fan.

So when I realized, a little after the fact, that he had published a memoir, I had to read it. Rumors of Glory was fascinating and engaging because, despite my fandom, I know very little about Cockburn the person (perhaps because I didn’t want to get into his politics too much for fear it would ruin his music – not that he hides his politics, particular in later albums).

What really comes through is his honesty and free spirit. You also get to see how his life and music line up; where certain songs and lyrics came from and how they reflect his life and experiences; chronology and discology.

His lyrics remain beautiful poetry and I enjoyed reading them scattered throughout the book and following the chronology.

I will admit I did struggle a bit with the politics, however, and occasionally the theology. I appreciate his passion and his compassion but was a little frustrated just how one sided it was.

He castigates and lambasts conservatives, right-wingers, and corporations endlessly and with vitriol and occasionally with near rage. But he never really questions his basically socialist, and often seemingly utopian, perspective. He never questions the left, or their sources, never seems to give the American government the benefit of the doubt or admit the myriad of benefits the free market can bring. He never delves into the corruption and kleptocracy of socialist and communist countries around the world. The corruption, fundamental amorality, and basic incompetence of the UN never comes up either. American politicians and multinational corporations are always to blame.

That said, you can’t help but be depressed and frustrated with the devastation, despair, and destruction that Cockburn has witnessed around the globe and for which he offers a sort of tour.

Unless you are a blind ideologue, you can’t help but be frustrated and angry with the greed and violence that has produced nearly endless wars across the globe. America does have much to answer for and American corporations and their allies in government do to. When you count the cost in lives lost, money spent, and the environmental degradation it is hard not to feel sympathetic to the pacifist perspective.

Cockburn’s personal life also proves to be fascinating and a little depressing. He honestly discusses how he was closed and cut off from true intimacy and communication early in his life and how his relationships suffered as a result. But he also relates how part of his personal and spiritual journey was trying to resolve this flaw and how even his tragic experiences led to growth and understanding.

His spirituality and faith start out somewhat conventional (he was introduced to the faith and became a Christian as a result of his relationship with his first wife) but ends up almost a pantheistic (or universal search for the divine in life). But even so, he remains committed throughout to faith in God; he prayers and writes with depth and power about faith. His determined search for truth and beauty and his commitment to loving God and loving his neighbor are always there. This I can respect and appreciate no matter the heterodoxy.

Anyone with an interest in Cockburn and his music will want to read Rumors of Glory. Anyone interested in the interplay between life, art, music, and politics would also find this memoir engaging and insightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Jesus Is Better than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt

Twitter led me to Jonathan Merritt.  During a recent dust up in the seemingly never-ending culture war debate surrounding gay marriage I came across a rather heated debate in my Twitter feed.  It included Merritt along with supporters and critics. I was vaguely familiar with his work as a journalist and columnist but hadn’t read any of his books.  With this as a background Jesus Is Better than You Imagined intrigued me:

jesus-is-better-than-you-imaginedAfter following Jesus for nearly two decades, Jonathan Merritt decides to confront the emptiness of a faith that has become dry, predictable, and rote. In a moment of desperation, he cries out for God to show up and surprise him, and over the next year, God doesn’t disappoint.

In JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, Jonathan shares vulnerable, never-before-shared stories of how he learned to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways. Through a 60-hour vow of silence in a desert monastery, he experiences Jesus in silence. When a friend dies of a rare disease, he sees Jesus in tragedy. Through confronting childhood sexual abuse, Jonathan discovers Jesus in honesty. In an anti-Christian-themed bar, he finds Jesus in sacrilege. And when he’s almost kidnapped in Haiti by armed bandits, he experiences Jesus in the impossible.

Though Merritt finds himself in places he never dreamed of, he doesn’t lose his way. Instead, these experiences force him back to the Bible, where he repeatedly offers fresh, sometimes provocative, interpretations of familiar passages. Along the way, he throws back the covers on the sleepy faith of many Christians, urging them to search for the Holy in their midst.

Conveniently, I was able to get a review copy from NetGalley so I could read it on my Kindle.  I found it to be an earnest and heartfelt exploration of Merritt’s spiritual journey but also an odd blend of Southern Baptist evangelical culture and progressive attempts to rework faith in light of modern experience and perspectives.

In some ways I can relate to the author’s perspective and exploration. I too grew up in an conservative evangelical household, although not a pastor’s son like Merritt and in the Midwest rather than the South, and often felt both attracted to and suffocated by that culture and world. Notably, I don’t share Merritt’s history of abuse which I am sure in some important ways colors all of his experiences.

The good: the honesty and good will that comes through. Merritt is sharing his journey and is willing to admit his faults, temptations, weakness, etc. I think many readers will find this refreshing and helpful; particularly if they have struggled with similar issues. Merritt clearly has a big heart and writes well about his experiences.

The bad: it struck me as another example of modern evangelicalism’s focus (particularly the progressive variation) on individual psychology and experience with all of scripture and faith seen through that lens. It is also often a rehash of the other obsession of modern evangelicalism: legalism versus grace. In his defense, if you grew up in this culture and time you can’t help but be engaged in the debate to some degree. But it strikes me as rather stale at this point.

This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, nor did I expect it to be, but I nevertheless found some of the discussion oddly vague; particular when he is “reinterpreting” various Bible stories and passages.

For example (and admittedly this might be just an unfair offshoot of my peculiar biases and interests), Merritt offers no awareness of how something like the New Perspective on Paul, and the resulting debates, might change the discussion about the Pharisees, hypocrisy, and legalism. His approach is all mid-twentieth century southern evangelicalism.

And that is the problem I had.  It is an heartfelt, winsome, and at times engaging memoir but this short work feels a little thin by the end. If you like the author and/or his writing style, or wrestle with similar challenges, it is an easy read.  But I am not sure it ads much insight or clarity to theology, ecclesiology, or spiritual practice.

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

I am not a big reader of memoirs.  Just not something I usually enjoy. Short biographies of historical figures? Yes. Memoirs, no.

But when asked about Rapture Practice I was intrigued.  Mostly because the author’s childhood seemed similar to my own:

Aaron Hartzler grew up in a home where he was taught that at any moment the Rapture could happen. That Jesus might come down in the twinkling of an eye and scoop Aaron and his family up to heaven. As a kid, Aaron was thrilled by the idea that every moment of every day might be his last one on planet Earth.

But as Aaron turns sixteen, he finds himself more attached to his earthly life and curious about all the things his family forsakes for the Lord. He begins to realize he doesn’t want the Rapture to happen just yet–not before he sees his first movie, stars in the school play, or has his first kiss. Eventually Aaron makes the plunge from conflicted do-gooder to full-fledged teen rebel.

Whether he’s sneaking out, making out, or playing hymns with a hangover, Aaron learns a few lessons that can’t be found in the Bible. He discovers that the best friends aren’t always the ones your mom and dad approve of, and the tricky part about believing is that no one can do it for you.

In this funny and heartfelt coming-of-age memoir, debut author Aaron Hartzler recalls his teenage journey to find the person he is without losing the family that loves him. It’s a story about losing your faith and finding your place and your own truth–which is always stranger than fiction.

My own family was not quite as fundamentalist (for lack of a better term)  but the culture and language were very similar. I too went to church whenever it was open. I went to a private christian school. I wasn’t allowed to go to movies or listen to rock music. My church was also caught up in the rapture focus with the books and movies of Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth and Larry Norman‘s music (ironic connection between rock music and rapture theology).  I too rebelled and pushed against the rules and culture of this world. In fact, for a big chunk of my senior year I moved out and lived with friends. I wasn’t into music and theater at quite the same level, although I did participate in both, but the environment was very similar.

So I can relate and I will admit this background colors my reading but it also might give me a good perspective.

Continue reading

Home and Away by David and Nancy French

David French picked up the newspaper in the comfort of his penthouse in Philadelphia, and read about a soldier – father of two – who was wounded in Iraq. Immediately, he was stricken with a question: Why him and not me?

This is the hook at the heart of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War by David and Nancy French. David (“a 37-year-old father of two, a Harvard Law graduate and president of a free speech organization”) didn’t just think about it or write about it he did something about it.  He went to Iraq and served his country on the front lines or as close as he could get.

The book tells the story of the impact of this decision, and all its ramifications, on him and his family. Nancy tells the home front side and David the enlisted side. Together they allow the reader to get a glimpse into life if someone in your family was called up and sent to war for a year.

David explains his motivation, and the thought process leading up to his enlistment and getting called up, while Nancy offers her response and experience while he was gone.

We see what it is like to live and work in a war zone; the bonds built and the tragedies that unfold – events that permanently change a person.  We also see the difficulties and emotional strains of being a single parent while your spouse is overseas in a war zone. How you interact with friends and family; the social interaction in the larger community that can become difficult; the ways you change and your relationships change.

And for this alone I think it is a valuable book.  Both David and Nancy offer honest and emotional insight into how they experienced this challenge and how it changed their lives. And this offers readers the ability to put themselves into that experience.

Two potential drawbacks: politics and style.  Politically and culturally the Frenches are conservative Republicans and Southern evangelicals. If you do not share this perspective there are points that might get under your skin.  David is clearly engaged in push-back against critics of the war in Iraq and in particular seeks to defend the soldiers and their conduct.

Understandable? Sure, and honestly and well articulated. But it might rub some the wrong way. And politics plays a large role in Nancy’s life as well – her relationship with the Mitt Romney presidential campaign (v. 2008) in particular.

And this ties into the style issue.  David and Nancy are in important senses both professional writers and the book is well written, often thought provoking and frequently entertaining. But they have two very different styles and the alternating chapters don’t always blend together well.

David has a straightforward logical style. There are often powerful emotions involved but he mostly just tells it like it is – here is how I see it, felt it, understand it, etc.  Nancy has a more sarcastic, self-effacing Southern humor style. Going back and forth between these two styles can be jarring and it undercuts the narrative energy at times.

Nancy’s sections in particular feel like a series of vignettes rather than a coherent story or timeline. Her trip to Utah and interaction with the Romney’s was rather bizarre and out of place (I understand it was an important aspect of her life but is felt odd to me). At the end I felt like I knew David better than Nancy and understood what his life was like better than hers.

But as I said, overall it is an interesting story that offers a unique and valuable perspective for our times.  Your tastes, perspective and attitudes (and perhaps gender) will obviously have an impact on your enjoyment of various aspects but it is an honest and entertaining look at something many of of us probably don’t think all that much about: what it means to send a spouse to a war zone for a year.

And if it can get us to think about the Americans who are going through this every day a little more, then it is worth it.