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This Blessed Earth: Book Review

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Ted Genoways quotes John Steinbeck as the epigraph for his book on a year in the life of a Nebraska farm: “Now farming became industry …” The year begins in October 2014 and ends in November 2015, harvest to harvest, tracing the crop year through planting and spraying and irrigation, with stops along the way for cattle branding and weaning and mending fences. The farm is a family farm, with the fifth generation handing over the reins to the sixth, and an epilogue welcoming the birth of the first of the next generation. Continue reading


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 (Still) Becoming: A Life Well Written


“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

Michelle Obama writes that she is and always will be “Michelle Robinson from the South Side inside this larger sweep of history.” That perspective informs her life and her memoir, a fascinating story that takes us with her from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton and Washington and the world. Continue reading

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Cuz: Book Review


Danielle Allen’s thoughtful recounting of her cousin’s life and death, in and out of prison, is a fascinating read as a memoir. She goes beyond the storytelling, however, to delve deeper into the social, racial, and criminal justice systems that shaped his life.

In particular, she paints a detailed picture of the damage done to the country and, especially, to the black community by the War on Drugs, explaining that”The illegal drug economy overburdens our judicial system, increases prosecutorial workloads, and drives down homicide clearance rates, leading to a phase shift in levels of violence in urban areas.”

On a personal level, Allen provides an unflinching look at how and why her path in life and her cousin’s path diverged.

I found this book especially compelling because of my own experiences with family members in the criminal justice system, but its rich storytelling will make it a good read for anyone.

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Dream Country: Book Review

dream country

Beginning with a Liberian immigrant family in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota in 2008, Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country zig zags through time and space, telling stories from Liberian colonization and civil war to African American and Liberian American present day. Each segment focuses on an individual within a family, showing not only the individual struggle but also the inextricably linked family dynamic. The individual story segments bring to life the historical settings and events, from Liberian colonization to civil war to diaspora.

Dream Country, the publisher says, is a young adult novel. Don’t let that fool you: Shannon Gibney respects her audience too much to write down to them or to soften the emotional and historical facts in any way. Her audience may include young adults, but this is a novel for all adults, as intense and troubling as any novel on the various book award and best seller lists.

For me, Angel’s words sum up how the five separated but interrelated family stories come together and why this book tastes like life:

“The truth is fluid and fungible and untrustworthy and won’t abide by any one telling. And sometimes, in inventing truth, we can discover something deeper. We can find our place in the story, because that, at least, is one thing that we can make for ourselves. A story.”

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Advent Riffs: Fourth Sunday, Walk (and Work) Toward the Light

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Photo by Alex Harden, licensed under Creative Commons.

Why does Mary leave her home and set out “with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth? Is she afraid of being found pregnant? Is she afraid of her coming marriage? Is she simply in need of her cousin, her friend, one who understands her deepest thoughts and fears and longings?

That is Elizabeth. Her cousin. Her friend. Who tells Mary:

Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

You are right, Elizabeth says to Mary. You are right to believe. You are right to hope. You are right to know yourself as good and chosen and important.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that you are good and chosen and important in this world? Do you believe you can make a difference and you will make a difference? Can you believe that? Can I? Can we believe it of ourselves and of each other? Continue reading

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Advent Riffs: Third Sunday, Repent and Act

Advent candles, Third Sunday

Advent candles, Third Sunday, photo by Melly95, used under Creative Commons license

This Sunday brings us powerful words from John the Baptist.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

We are not to sit stewing over sins, but to repent and to act, to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

And the crowds ask him: How? What can we do? We are here in the desert, with you.

He tells them:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Anyone who has none. Anyone who does not have enough food, does not have a coat, does not have a shelter against the storm.

Jakelin Caal.jpgAnyone who has none. Surely that includes the desperate migrants at our southern border. Jakelin Caal was seven years old when she died after crossing the border on December 6. She walked from Guatemala with her father and a hundred other people, desperate families seeking life and hope and safety. Instead, she died in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, dehydrated and in shock after the journey. Continue reading

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Advent Riffs: Second Sunday, Healing the Earth

IMG_6126John proclaims a baptism of repentance:

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John is the voice of one crying in the desert. He tells people to prepare for the Messiah, that the King is coming, that the Messiah will overthrow the wickedness of the world and conquer all, with a winnowing fork to clean the threshing floor and an inextinguishable fire to burn up the chaff.

I love the resonance of these verses, and the shiver-inspiring Godspell invocation of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”

And yet—John is wrong as much as he is right. Continue reading

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