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Pastrix

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint
Nadia Bolz-Weber

The first word in Pastrix is a four-letter one. If you find that offensive, go ahead and put the book down now. If, however, you find it challenging or intriguing, keep reading.
In Pastrix, Nadia tells the story of how she found her way from a very conservative Christian background (where women were not even allowed to teach Sunday school to teen boys) to being the pastor of a church (with many gay, homeless and otherwise non-traditional congregants.) She spent years as an alcoholic and, after sobering up, felt most at home as a Wiccan. But her husband (then a seminary student) introduced her to the Lutheran liturgy and she began to understand God- and grace- like she never had before. Eventually she felt the call to ministry and attended seminary- with her parents blessing.
I also grew up in churches even more conservative than the ones of Nadia’s childhood. I still haven’t sorted out everything I believe about women in the pulpit, or gays in the church, or lots of other things. But I loved this book!
In Pastrix, Nadia explains grace better than almost anyone I’ve ever heard. Its easy to look at others and judge them;  its a lot more challenging when the Holy  Spirit convicts you of being proud, judgemental and not loving your neighbor.
Nadia and I probably disagree on a lot of theology, but we agree on the big points. Being a Christian- or pastor- isnt about having all the right theology. Its about saying with the blind man healed by Jesus, “I do not know; but one thing I do know: that I was blind and now I see.” (John 9) Being a Christian- or pastor- isn’t about being better (or swearing less) than someone else. Its about saying, “I found water in the desert; here it is.”
Pastrix, in the end, isn’t really about Nadia, or how she looks, or the language she uses. Its about Jesus. And it was like a cool drink of water in a hot, dry place.
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Stage Daughter

Stage Daughter
Sheryl Sorrentino

The author of this book sent me a copy for review. I was hesitant, because I could see it was a small press or self-published book, but the plot seemed interesting, so I agreed. I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed this book. The story, writing and editing were better quality than I anticipated.

Razia is a girl on the edge of adolescence, the bi-racial daughter of a single mother, Sonya. Razia is attending an arts school because her mom wants to see her dreams of being an actress lived out in her daughter, but all Razia wants to do is draw. Sonya is a strong, feisty woman with a big inferiority complex stemming from being the adopted bi-racial daughter of a Jewish family. Her tough life as a single mom has only made her more independent, prickly, and resistant to help or love.
The drama rachets up when Razia insists on meeting her Kuwaiti father Aziz, an unfortunate one night stand whom Sonya refers to as merely a sperm donor. Aziz struggles to explain Razia to his wife and children. His efforts to introduce Razia to his Muslim faith don’t go over well with either Razia or Sonya.
Razia’s struggles with her family and identity lead her to make risky choices with boys and drugs. Sonya’s habitual fierce independence causes problems in her family, her relationship with Aziz, and her friendship (or could it be more?) with another art school single mom named Nanette. If only the two of them could open their hearts to change, acceptance and, most importantly, each other.

The strongest part of this book is the female characters, in all their different forms. Curly hair and dark skin; hijab-covered hair and gold skin; even short hair and white skin are all celebrated as beautiful. Sonya, while limited by her own needs, is well-intentioned. Razia, while disobedient, wants to do what’s right.
The ending is short, but I felt like it got to a good place. Everyone in the story was able to grow and accept something that they initially resisted. I felt hopeful that all of them- Razia, Sonya, Aziz-  could have loving relationships with one another and the other people who mattered most to them.

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Life After Life

Life After Life
Jill McCorkle

(Another book with the same title, by Kate Atkinson, came out around the same time. It received more buzz, but I like this one better.)

Johanna has been married several times, and even in love a few times, but has never found happiness. She returned to her hometown when her father died. Now she manages the hot dog stand he left her, and serves as a hospice volunteer at Pine Haven retirement home. Johanna is struggling to rebuild a relationship with her childhood friend Ben, whose selfish wife Kendra is planning to leave him and their unhappy young daughter Abby, who is grieving the loss of her puppy, Dollbaby. Johanna has taken under her wing a single mother named CJ, who works at the hot dog stand and also is a beautician at Pine Haven.

The cast of characters at Pine Haven is just as varied and complex. Sadie is a kind retired teacher who uses film and glue to help others journey wherever they wish. Toby is also a former teacher, and a lesbian, only she alternates between calming yoga breaths and dispensing blunt advise. Rachel is a Jewish widow and once successful lawyer who has moved to the town seeking the memory of a forbidden love. Stanley- my favorite, the saddest of all- Stanley has hatched a plot to keep his son Ned from being too attached, but it quickly gets more complicated than he ever imagined.

The narrative storyline is interrupted by pages from Johanna’s journal relating the lives and deaths of people she has attended. Each of her accounts is followed by a few lines from the dying, as death takes them back to their happiest moments of life.

Life After Life has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots woven in and around the story. It is a testament to the author’s skill that each character appears vivid and compelling on the page- some sketched in only a few lines, and some fleshed out. The story is narrated from many people’s perspectives, and their views of themselves and others make the different characters come alive.

Life After Life is necessarily a sad book, because its about people dying. But its a good book, because its about the impact our lives have even once we are gone. And its a hopeful book, because its about the things we do for love. For love, Johanna marries a dying man named Luke so she can sign over his belongings to his partner David. For love, CJ sacrifices herself for her son Kurt. For love, Stanley makes a fool of himself to give Ned a chance. For love, Johanna sits with the dying and gives them a chance to tell their stories of life.
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You might like: Me Before You, Jojo Moyes. The Bakerton Stories, Jennifer Haigh.