• Archive of "Book Reviews" Category

    Review: Torn/God and the Gay Christian

    July 20, 2015 // No Comments »

    god-and-the-gay-christianI’m finally getting around to writing a review of Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. The short and sweet is that Vines does a fine job walking the reader through all the Bible passages dealing with same-sex behavior, as have other authors before him. What’s new here, and what I enjoyed most about the book, is how well Vines presents the dilemma the church faces if it chooses to reject all gay relationships and prescribe celibacy for all non-heterosexual church members.

    For most of the church’s two thousand years, celibacy has been understood as a free choice in response to a gift from God. Jesus emphasized this, as well as the difficulty of living out that gift, when he said, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given … He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matt. 19, emphasis mine). Apparently, Jesus saw celibacy as a gift that not everyone had and that not everyone was able to accept.

    The Apostle Paul seemed to love the gift of celibacy that he had, and wished everyone else had it too, but he somewhat regretfully acknowledged that they did not. “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7, emphasis mine).

    The so-called church fathers affirmed this understanding of celibacy, as a free choice in response to God’s gift. The Reformers were adamant about it as they objected to mandated priestly celibacy, and indeed in our own time we can see the problems of forced celibacy in the sex scandals of the Catholic Church. But even here, it’s important to note, the Catholic Church asserts that celibacy is a gift from God that the priest freely accepts upon entering the ministry. Celibacy is not a sentence, therefore; it is a grace received and entered into by an act of one’s own volition.

    Until the late 1800s, when the concept of sexual orientation developed, it was assumed that everyone was capable of heterosexual desire and that homosexual desire was the result of lusts out of control. The prescription was not celibacy, but reigning in those desires and channeling them in a “normal” (i.e., heterosexual) manner. Even after the 1800s, once it was clear that some people simply are not wired for intimacy with the opposite sex, the assumption was that a rewiring was possible. Homosexuality was a disorder, something that went wrong in childhood, and with the right therapy and a good dose of determination, the homosexual person could develop their heterosexual potential. This was called reparative therapy. Different versions of it sprouted and gained popularity throughout the twentieth century, and wild claims of change and healing were purported. Only in 2012 did the last major so-called ex-gay ministry shut its doors, announcing what the psychological community had said for decades, that reparative therapy doesn’t work. In the last few years, most of the church has accepted this. But that’s put the church in a place it hasn’t been before: what to do with people who don’t have a “heterosexual potential” but also don’t have a gift of celibacy? One of two things has to change, and Matthew Vines does a good job illustrating the choice the church has.

    We can embrace gay relationships and maintain a traditional view of celibacy, or we can change our understanding of celibacy and keep a traditional view of gay relationships. But we cannot do both. Christians who hold, as I do, to a high view of Scripture must decide which tradition to modify.

    From there, Vines walks the reader through a historical understanding of the six Bible passages referencing same-sex behavior and demonstrating why these verses should not be understood as condemning the type of mutual, covenantal gay relationships we see today. A lot depends on whether you buy his interpretation, but again, the question is not if tradition must change, but which tradition must change.

    All in all God and the Gay Christian is a wonderful introduction to the gay debate within Christendom. It’s concise—just 224 pages—but fairly comprehensive, and with an accessible style that doesn’t require you be a Bible scholar to follow along. Having just released last year, it’s also one of the most current books on the topic.

    For those Christians who worry that altering our tradition regarding gay relationships means overturning the fundamentals of the faith, Vines offers a spirited defense of the traditional understanding of the Gospel and illustrates how it is perfectly consistent with embracing covenanted, lifelong gay relationships.

    If I were to quibble with anything in this book, it would be that sometimes Vines writes as though his conclusions are obviousTorn-book once we simply read the Bible with an understanding of its historical context. But many readers, even after understanding what Paul was likely addressing regarding same-sex practices in his time, may feel uncertain what conclusion to reach regarding gay relationships in our own time. This was true for Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. Lee writes,

    After going through all the passages, I felt like I was back where I had started, confused and frustrated. Once more, I reviewed the evidence.

    I was torn.

    On one hand, yes, there was a potential explanation for each of these passages that meant it wouldn’t apply to a modern-day committed gay relationship.

    On the other hand, every explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible was negative.

    How to resolve the tension? At the risk of sounding like clickbait, in chapter 12 of Torn, Lee takes us through the famous Bible passages dealing with same-sex practices, but what he does in chapter 13 is one of the most brilliant things I’ve read in my twenty-plus years as a Christian. And it’s so simple that you’ll wonder how you’ve missed it for so long. I won’t give it away. You really ought to read it for yourself. I’ve recommended Torn before, and it remains my favorite book on the topic as a good introductory volume. Read Torn alongside God and the Gay Christian, and you’ll have a good foundation for making a decision regarding gay relationships in the church.

    Some critics of these books have objected to the authors’ ages (Lee is 37 and Vines is 25). How can they know so much when they’re so young? “How can we trust these youngins?” I’ve never understood this concern. Honestly, it sounds like jealous snobbery to me on the part of those who wonder how these young whippersnappers could know something the aged don’t. But Jesus died at 33. Do we discount his ministry because it didn’t happen in his 60s? Mozart, likewise, was a genius who died at 35. Should we look askance at his powerful Requiem because he composed it at 35, not 65? Sheer jealous snobbery, I tell ya. Read these books. They’re good. The value of a book’s contents has nothing to do with its author’s age.


    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Book Review: The God Delusion

    July 7, 2015 // No Comments »

    god delusionI’m glad I waited to read this book till at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing so just to disprove it for myself and other good Christian people. Having watched a nearly intolerable degree of religious irrationality splashed across news sites for the past few years as the country has addressed gay marriage, my frustration with most things church-related was at an all time high when I cracked The God Delusion. I was primed for Dawkins’ attacks on faith. In the end, I found the ardent atheist’s conclusions to be a mixed bag.

    Does God exist? Dawkins is insistent repeatedly that he does not, even though his reasons would seem to require at least an incredulous agnosticism. One chapter is titled, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” Even if I bought Dawkins’ arguments that followed, that pesky word “almost” would demand I hold out at least the unlikely possibility of God’s existence. Dawkins does not and will not. He says, “… We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

    For Dawkins, evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of a complex supernatural creator. The fact that everything moves from its simplest state to a progressively more complex form renders as nearly inconceivable the possible existence of an unfathomably more complex Creator at the start of it all. I see his point and understand how he got there, but in the end he’s making an argument from the absence of evidence, every bit as much as the religious man or woman is. Perhaps predictably (and tragically, to Dawkins mind, I’m sure), I just couldn’t get where he was. Too much of a leap.

    Dawkins is more successful making his case against religious expression than he is against God’s existence. He takes to task fundamentalists of the world’s three major Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–by simply reading to them their own sordid history of oppression and willful ignorance. It really is a devastating case he presents. “The will of God” has given men and women throughout time all the license they felt they needed to commit horrific crimes with absolute certainty of divine blessing.

    Yes, Dawkins overreaches at times, as when he says, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” That may be true of more fundamentalist believers, but I know plenty of very thoughtful Christians who are happy to add to their knowledge of the universe and will trade a literal understanding of Scripture for a metaphorical one if evidence demands it, as in the case of the creation accounts in Genesis. These people of faith do not see science and the Bible in conflict, and they don’t reflexively defend their scriptural interpretation when science objects. Dawkins is working off a caricature of believers when he suggests otherwise.

    And Dawkins fails to convince that the world without religion would be markedly kinder or gentler than the world with religion. As Dawkins admits, two of the twentieth century’s greatest villains, Hitler and Stalin, were unmotivated by religion (Stalin was even an Atheist).

    Still, I kept thinking as I read, I wish I could put a copy of this book in every Christian’s hands and know that they would read it seriously, not simply in an effort to find the holes. The holes are there, but they are in nearly every book on every subject. Put aside the holes, I would say, and take to heart the lessons we can learn from Dawkins, the lessons that we need to learn. We need not agree with the author on the matter of God’s existence to reap good things from his book. Consider the terrible trail of misery the major world religions have left behind–Christianity very much included. Absorb the author’s extensive retelling of the sometimes-outrageous stories in Scripture, and the inconsistencies within the Bible, and honestly ask, “What do I do with these things? How do I interpret these stories? How do I derive a set of moral values from them?” (For what it’s worth, there’s a wonderful chapter in The God Delusion that makes the argument that none of us, not even the fundamentalist, derives his or her values from the Bible.)

    Much has been made by the author’s friends and foes alike that Dawkins is something of a bully in his writing, that he’s rude toward and dismissive of anyone who disagrees. I have to say, I was rather surprised by the degree of civility he maintained. I know from experience how hard that is to do when you are convinced of someone else’s stupidity. Yes, Dawkins gets sassy. Yes, he’s more terse and condescending at times than he should be, and I suppose that will hurt his credibility in some minds, but I didn’t think he was harsh. He very deeply believes that religion is damaging, and his tone bears that out. I can’t fault him for that.

    The God Delusion is neither the first nor last word on atheism, and perhaps not even the best, but as a book of its genre and subject, it holds up well, and is worth the reading, whatever you think of its conclusions.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Recommendation: “The Bible Tells Me So”

    March 20, 2015 // No Comments »

    peter ennsScores of Christian authors have written long works through the centuries attempting to smooth over or explain away apparent inconsistencies in the Bible–moments where the four Gospels don’t agree, two consecutive proverbs that give contradictory advice, perceived variances in the creation account(s), and just the over all sense that God’s personality changes as the timeline of Scripture progresses. Christians often get defensive when a skeptic challenges them on these very problems of Scripture.

    In The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, author Peter Enns invites us to consider that the problems of Scripture are not problems at all. Not that they don’t exist, but that God isn’t worried about them and so neither should you be. God doesn’t need off the hook for errors in the Bible because he’s fine with them in there. Our attempts at defending the Bible, Enns argues, as this perfect (inerrant) work of God beamed down to us in perfect form from heaven are actually keeping us from reading the Bible as God gave it to us: God-approved imperfection that is constantly being reinterpreted by pilgrims on a journey to better understand their Creator.

    If this sounds like a bunch of liberal, wishy-washy hog dung, you may be just the person Peter Enns wants to talk to. He presents his case with the Bible writers themselves as evidence, showing how even Jesus and Paul (especially Paul) reinterpreted and even jettisoned parts of Scripture in light of their growing understanding of what God was up to. His main point: the Bible is not now, nor ever was, the final word from God; Jesus is, and every other word must be continually reevaluated in light of that ultimate Word.

    It’s not a new concept, but I did find his approach somewhat novel and worth reading, especially if you’re skeptical or outright disbelieving of the whole idea Peter Enns is presenting. Read it before you dismiss it. Even if you don’t totally agree with Enns, he raises questions worth every Christian’s asking. My only quibble with the book is over style, not substance. Enns, presumably wanting to appeal to the masses and not sound stuffy and overly academic, continually interrupts himself with “humor” that often falls flat and sometimes even irritates. But again, it’s only a quibble, and one forgivable in light of the book’s other qualities.

    Posted in Book Reviews

    Review: A First-Rate Madness

    January 19, 2015 // No Comments »

    first rateI’m not finished yet, but I’m so enthusiastic about what I’ve read so far, that I wanted to go ahead and recommend A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

    According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that,

    “… The very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis.”

    To make his case, Nassir brings to bear biographies of some of history’s most important and effectual leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. His chapter on Lincoln is fascinating. I knew ol’ Abe had struggled; I had no idea how much. Nassir quotes Lincoln:

    “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

    Nassir beautifully illustrates how Lincoln’s pain may have been the very thing that provided him with the necessary realism and empathy to successfully lead a fractured country through a brutal Civil War.

    It almost doesn’t matter whether Nassir’s main thesis is correct, that a little crazy in our leaders may be better than none. Readers who know the pain of a severe mood disorder will find plenty of solace and, I think, profound hope in the life stories told here: what if our suffering will in some way make us better, and better for the world, than if we’d been well?

    Readers without mental illness may walk away wishing they had a touch! And they’ll certainly walk away better understanding and appreciating the many among us who have struggled this way. A First-Rate Madness offers one of the best symptomatic descriptions of depression and mania I’ve ever read and explains why these maladies are so much more than simply elevated sadness or happiness. I remember writing my own book on depression, Losing God, and thinking, “How in the world do I describe this for people who’ve never felt it?” Nassir finds a way over and over again. Quoting a patient of his, Nassir says,

    “Depression is a terrifying experience … knowing that somebody is going to kill you, and that person is you.”

    I highly recommend this book, both for those who just want to understand mental illness better, and for those who understand it all too well.


    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    Recommendation: Bible, Gender, Sexuality

    November 19, 2014 // No Comments »

    9780802868633I had the privilege a couple weeks ago of hearing Dr. James Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, speak in Washington, DC, on the topic of the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality in particular, how the Bible might inform our thoughts on the relatively new phenomenon of gay covenanted (married) relationships. I was so impressed with Brownson’s careful, thorough approach, combined with a calm demeanor that eschewed the often pitched emotionalism surrounding this issue, that I decided to read his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality.

    I have to say it’s one of a very few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that I thought added anything new and meaningful to the discussion, and it rightly earned its starred review from Booklist. Brownson spends roughly 300 pages asking not just what the Bible says regarding gender and sexuality, but why. What is the moral logic behind what the biblical authors say, because only in rightly understanding that will we know how to apply scriptural teaching to our own cultural context today.

    Along the way, Dr. Brownson offers gentle but strong critiques of previous works on the topic from both sides of the debate. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: Brownson seems to have read everything out there on the topic prior to his own book. I can’t think of a single argument on either side that he leaves unaddressed. True to his non-combative style, Brownson classifies the various positions of previous authors, not as “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terms that incite more than they describe but as “traditionalist” and “revisionist.” And he is balanced in calling into question some approaches from both camps. (Particularly devastating is his analysis of traditionalist Robert Gagnon’s focus on the gender noncomplementarity of gay relationships. I mean, there is just nothing left of Gagnon’s argument when Brownson is finished, and it all unfolds in the most scholarly, respectful manner.)

    What I think I appreciated most about the book is what Brownson doesn’t say. He doesn’t conclude by telling churches what they must believe. He ends by explaining why churches must wrestle. Yes, Brownson is now affirming of covenanted (married) gay relationships (a change from his previous position), but you never get the sense that he’s insisting that you must be. And so the book wraps with an exhortation to think about these things in new ways, always asking not just what the Bible says, but why. This is a book for anyone who wants to delve into the thick of the church’s most urgent moral discussion. And it’s a book that every church leader, regardless of his or her position on the matter, should rush to read.

    Posted in Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

    Recommendation: “Changing Our Mind” by David Gushee

    November 11, 2014 // No Comments »

    David-P-Gushee-Changing-Our-Mind-front-coverDr. David Gushee has been for many years the leading conservative Christian ethicist, a friend to Evangelicals, with some twenty books to his name and another releasing next year. But now he’s gone and done it, announcing recently that he has switched his view of gay covenantal (marriage) relationships. Gushee now says the church should embrace gay marriages as fully as heterosexual marriages, and LGBT Christians as full members of the church.

    Not surprisingly, that has earned Gushee more than a few friends-turned-enemies. In his latest book, Changing Our Mind, Gushee gives a brief explanation of himself, how his mind changed and why he thinks the church universal needs to do some serious rethinking (and repenting) vis-a-vis the gay issue. I won’t retell his story here; I’ll leave it to you to read the book. But here are a few things I think commend this book to a broad audience.

    1) It’s short, only about 125 pages, so anybody can get through it.

    2) The style is accessible, not academic as with many of his other works. It reads more like a journal than a scholarly tome, so you won’t be wondering what in the heck he’s talking about.

    3) Gushee is a sage among straight, conservative Christians, so he can’t be easily dismissed. Some Evangelicals have objected to similar works by gay Christian authors such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines because, well, the authors are gay and, therefore, naturally prone to having a gay-affirming position, but also because they’re young and not credentialed. This has always seemed unfair and snobbish to me, but it has been a problem. Gushee is straight, seasoned, and credentialed. He’s tough to ignore.

    4) Changing Our Mind offers exhortation to folks on both sides of the debate. Gushee cautions gay-affirming Christians not to charge all those opposed with hate or fear. Many traditionalists are motivated simply by a desire to be faithful to the biblical texts, which they read as critical of gay relationships. Disdain and homophobia are far from their minds. But Gushee also admonishes his critics for, at times, behaving more like Pharisees than the Savior, seeking to enforce rules without any concern for how those rules affect real people.

    5) The whole book just feels balanced. Gushee writes, “If what we are talking about is blessing an anything-goes ethic in a morally libertine culture, I stand utterly opposed, as I have throughout my career. But if what we are talking about is carving out space for serious committed Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian, to participate in society as equals, in church as kin, and in the blessings and demands of covenant on the same terms as everyone else, I now think that has nothing to do with cultural, ecclesial and moral decline, and everything to do with treating people the way Christ did” (p. 117).

    6) Gushee is humble. He repents, and when he does, you sense his grief. He makes a point of “apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here. I look forward to continuing the journey together in your company, if you will have me” (p. 126).

    The book is too short to satisfy all of the objections of its author’s critics, but I suspect Gushee is not trying to convince anyone. I think, as his apology suggests, he’s simply clearing his conscious. And maybe he’s asking his adversaries to consider, just to consider, “What if I’m wrong? What then?”

    Click here to read a transcript of a recent speech Gushee delivered at a conference of The Reformation Project in Washington, DC.

    Posted in Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

    A call for sanity

    November 13, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    Today I’m participating in a synchroblog calling for sanity among Christians in the discussion of faith and homosexuality. This called-for sanity would cover all aspects of the topic: Is homosexuality sin? If so, why? If not, why? Should gay marriage be legal? Should churches ordain gay ministers?

    And any other question you can think of. Click here to read some of the other entries in the synchroblog.

    There must be a way for Christians of varying viewpoints to discuss this stuff without getting all cray-cray. Let me suggest one simple but often painful thing we could all do.

    Begin with the humble acknowledgement, “I could be wrong.”

    It’s hard to be too defensive, angry, nasty, and generally unloving when you’ve already said to yourself and others, “Hey, obviously I think my view is sound or I wouldn’t hold it, but I’m human, and therefore flawed, and therefore potentially wrong.” Several days ago, I got into a back-and-forth on Facebook (not a good place to discuss anything) with a guy who felt the redefinition of marriage was undermining the family. When it was clear neither of us were buying the other’s points on the matter, I suggested we agree to disagree and move on. The other fella agreed, but not before adding this little postscript:

    “Last statement…to state my case. Homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says it is … Please don’t use the Bible as a reference allowing homosexuality…it doesn’t.”

    Instantly, I wanted to throw rocks at the guy, and every other Christian who says stuff like that. (I know, I know: not a sane approach.) Statements like the one above are the death of any meaningful discussion. When you say something like that, all the other person hears is what I heard: “I’m right. You’re wrong. Period. Regardless of the fact that I’ve done little or no research on the historical context of the passages in question, and regardless of the fact that many Bible scholars who have done such research have come to a conclusion different than mine, I’m right, and you’re wrong. And all of those scholars are too. Just because. The Bible doesn’t say what you say it says. If you try to suggest that it does, you’re ‘using’ the Bible.”

    What arrogance. There’s no way I’m wrong. There’s no way you’re right. So just stop talking. If we go at this issue that way, people will rightly tune us out. That’s not a sane approach to discussing one of the most contentious moral issues of our day. Sanity says, “Hey, I could be wrong, so let’s talk.” Cray-cray says, “I’m right, and you’re not, just because, so what is there to discuss?”

    Speaking of sane approaches, I’d like to plead with you that you buy a copy of “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate” by Justin Lee. It’s the most reasonable approach to the whole issue that I’ve ever read, and it’s in stores and available online today in hardcover and ebook formats. It won’t take you long to read it, and I think you’ll get something good from it, regardless where you fall on the issue of faith and homosexuality. Please, please, please: read it.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General, More Gay Stuff

    “TORN”: The best book you’ll read this year

    May 12, 2012 // No Comments »

    You need to read TORN: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. (For my fellow nerds, that’s TORN, not TRON.) Gay or straight, for or against gay relationships, you need to read it. If you feel like this issue matters to the church, you need to read it. While TORN doesn’t release until November, as I write this it’s available for pre-order at almost half-off the retail price at Amazon.com.

    How do I know you need to read it? How do I know it’s the best book you’ll read this year? I’ve read the manuscript. Shhh. Don’t tell. It is hands down the best book I’ve read on homosexuality as it affects the Christian faith. You’d have to read thousands and thousands of pages in dozens of other books to get get what author Justin Lee has managed to condense into one 272-page book.

    From the publisher …

    TORN provides insightful, practical guidance for all committed Christians who wonder how to relate to gay friends or family members–or who struggle with their own sexuality. Convinced that “in a culture that sees gays and Christians as enemies, gay Christians are in a unique position to bring peace,” Lee demonstrates that people of faith on both sides of the debate can respect, learn from, and love one another.

    And while I’m copying and pasting, here’s the “About the Author” section from Amazon.

    Justin Lee is the founder and executive director of The Gay Christian Network (GCN), a nonprofit, interdenominational organization working to increase dialogue between gays and Christians and support people on both sides wrestling with related issues.

    A passionate Christian from a conservative evangelical background, Justin thought he knew everything there was to know about the Christian approach to homosexuality-until unexpected events turned his world upside down and forced him to reconsider everything he believed. Today, his organization works with individuals, families, and churches to stop the debate from tearing people apart.

    Justin’s work has garnered national attention and praise from gays and Christians from across the theological spectrum. He has been featured in numerous print, radio, and television venues including Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper 360, the Associated Press, and a front page article in The New York Times. He is the director of the 2009 documentary Through My Eyes about the debate’s impact on young Christians, and the co-host of popular long-running podcast GCN Radio. Justin lives in Raleigh, NC.

    Hopefully, as we approach November, I’ll have an interview with Justin here on my blog.

    Did I mention you need to read TORN?

    Posted in Book Reviews, More Gay Stuff

    My NY Times best-selling friend

    May 4, 2012 // No Comments »

    A few years ago, my friend Kiera Cass wrote a book for young adult girls called The Siren, featuring a mostly lavender cover with fanciful script font and a pic of a woman in soft focus wearing a flowing white dress standing by some gentle water. It was the very image of masculinity, so I bought a copy. No. I bought a copy because Kiera is my friend, and I wanted to support her. I even promised to read the book on an upcoming trip I was taking. Obviously, I could not be seen in public toting such a thing, so I manned it up with some camo duct tape. 

    And are those condescending thoughts I remember having?

    Oh look, Kiera SELF-published a book. Not quite like getting a publisher (or two) to publish your book(s), but good for her!

    That was 2009. Today, one of my books is already out of print, and Kiera Cass just became a New York Times Best-selling author. So there ya go. Her teen fiction novel, The Selection, published by Harper (yes, the one and only), debuted (!) in the top 10. Do you realize how few people ever accomplish that? It is an extraordinary achievement.

    I wanted to know how Kiera did it and how she is dealing with it, so I exchanged messages with her the other night. She gave me permission to share her thoughts here.

    MATT: First, how are you handling the madness around you?

    KIERA: I guess I’m handling everything … ok? I don’t know! The funny thing is that even though it’s this huge deal and I’m super proud, nothing has changed. Tonight, I still had to run to my church small group, and my son Guyden is demanding milk and bananas, and there was laundry to fold. You know, same old same old. So it’s kind of funny.

    MATT: Ok, so HOW did this madness happen? I mean, obviously, the book is good or people wouldn’t be buying it, but how did it get so big so fast? How did you get an agent, when almost no one does? How did you get a big publisher, when almost no one does? How did your book break through to the top of thousands, when almost no one’s does. I mean, this is incredible, and you did it without any major connections, right?

    KIERA: I’m not 100% sure myself how it happened. My editor specifically warned me that the chances of this happening were SUPER slim. Not because the book is bad, but because there are a lot of other great young adult books out there that probably wouldn’t budge. And I know my sales were good for an unknown debut, but when I called my agent to tell her the news, her first reaction was, “I didn’t even think we had enough books printed to make the list!” So, you know, my reaction was, “Are you punking me?”

    I got my agent the old fashioned way, sending out queries. For The Siren, I sent out 80+ queries, had 10 agents read it, and no one wanted it. For The Selection, I sent out 13 queries, 2 agents wanted it, and I got to pick. Until I got her, though, I didn’t know my editor already had a few bestsellers on her hands. And she’s been promoted twice since I’ve been with her. 

    Some of this has to do with timing, I think. The Selection has been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, which is huge right now. But when I queried, The Hunger Games wasn’t The Hunger Games, ya know? My book just happened to come out at a time when people want something that gives them that same buzz, I guess? My book isn’t that much like The Hunger Games to me, but I know that the comparision has interested a few people, so that might be part of it, too.

    So, honestly, it just kind of happened. I don’t think I could have made it happen this way if I tried. Crazy, yes?

    And I can’t even dance around because I have edits due Monday on the next book that I am WAY behind on. And I’m off to work on that now! 

    So, there ya have it folks, from Kiera herself. Oh, and did I mention CW is making a TV show out of her book? Yeah.

    Congratulations, Kiera! You rock. Very, very excited for you. And when I write my teen girls fiction novel, I know who to go to for connections.

    Posted in Book Reviews, General

    REVIEW: “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

    January 12, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    Anyone who enjoys writing should read Bird by Bird. It’s one of the most intriguing books on the craft I’ve read. It’s a quirky mix of practical advice and motivational speech that almost always works, and while Lamott’s humor becomes predictable in places–you get pretty good at guessing when she’s going to throw in a zinger–the fact is, her one liners and random asides are really funny.

    While describing a vineyard in Autumn, Lamott says,

    “The grapes are so incredibly beautiful that you can’t help but be thrilled. If you aren’t–if you only see someone’s profit or that in another month there will be rotten fruit all over the ground–somone has gotten inside your brain and really fucked you up. And you need to get well so you can see again, see that the grapes almost seem to glow, with a light dusting of some sort of powdery residue, like an incredibly light snowfall, almost as if they’re covered with their own confectioner’s sugar.”

    Fun, funny, poignant, practical, motivational.

    I appreciated her attitude toward the slow, hard work of writing:

    You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

    Definitely worth the time and money to get and read this book.

    Posted in Book Reviews