What are your favorite books?
By mia hinkle
The first book I remember reading was when we were still on the farm so I might have been 9 or 10 years old. It was called Gopher Tails for Papa written by Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud and my mother and I read it together. It is a heartwarming look at the early days of North Dakota settlers and it gave my mother a chance to reminisce about how similar things were where she grew up in Grant County, Minnesota. The plot line of this little book involves the collection of gopher tails by the Lutheran church where the protagonist’s father was the minister. The tails were turned in for bounty payment and the money was used for an organ that would replace the accordion being used. During the pandemic homeschooling of 2020, Christian and I read this together. It was tough to explain the “gopher tails for bounty” concept to this city kid born in the 21st century; in fact, he was pretty freaked out. But not as freaked out as he was when I described singing hymns in church with an accordion as the only accompaniment!
The next book that stands out in my memory is one I read in junior high school. It was called Manchild in the Promised Land and is a 1965 autobiographical novel written by Claude Brown. When the rest of the girls in class were reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, I was reading Brown’s coming-of-age story set in the poverty and violence of Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. The New York Times praised the book, saying that it is “written in brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people, in language that is fierce, uproarious, obscene and tender, but always sensible and direct. And to its enormous credit, this youthful autobiography gives us its devastating portrait of life without one cry of self-pity, outrage, or malice, with no caustic sermons or searing rhetoric.” For me, I just knew it opened my eyes to a place and time I knew NOTHING about. My friend, Nelly Schoen, loaned it to me, but not before it suffered a little water damage. It seems she was reading it in the bathtub and her mom walked in and surprised her. Nelly quickly hid the book from her mom, by briefly sitting on it under the water. I didn’t care. I read it cover to cover.
In college, I remember picking up East of Eden by John Steinbeck. To be clear, I picked it up and could not put it down! That’s really saying something for a 608-page book! It is a masterpiece of Biblical scope and indeed has the power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. The term “east of Eden” appears twice in Genesis (3:24 and 4:16); both accounts denote an instance where man experienced a separation from the blessings that God had intended for him. He says in Chapter 34, “We have only one story. All novels and all poetry are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” My son, Jackson (30), recently listened to this novel on Audible and told me it’s his favorite book of all time, the movie is crap, he added, but the book is amazing!
Somewhere along the way, I read Giants in the Earth by Norwegian-American author Ole Edvart Rølvaag. This novel follows a pioneer Norwegian immigrant family’s 1873 struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. He writes of snowstorms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land. I found this book fascinating and learned a lot about my Norwegian heritage as my people on both sides came to America during the late 1800s.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are two of my favorite books. Traveling Mercies introduced me to the art of memoirs and Bird by Bird is a book full of writing advice. Traveling Mercies is a collection of autobiographical essays in which she explores her life without God, her road to faith, and her continuing struggle to live a life worthy of the beliefs she holds. I remember reading it while on vacation with some friends in Florida. I read it on the beach, by the pool, on the veranda, and in the condo. I read to myself and got uncontrollable giggles. I read parts of it out loud to the others until I thought they would vote me off the island!
Bird by Bird is Anne Lamott’s advice on writing and getting published. Bottom line, LaMott says, write the things that are important to you, whether you ever get published or not. Just write for the fun of it. Write for the therapy of it. The art of writing is its own reward.
When our boys were little, I began to read a lot about the African American experience. My two favorites are The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride and The Content of our Character by Shelby Steele. Both excellent. Both are well worth your time.
The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up the son of a black man and a white mother during a time in our history when families like his were rare and even illegal in some states. It is a haunting meditation on race and identity. It is a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son. We learn that Ruth McBride Jordan is a self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut. At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia and settling in New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all-black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. When James was a little boy and becoming more conscience of race, poverty, and inequality, he asked his mother, “What color is God?” She replied, “God is the color of water. When a person looks into a pail of water and sees his reflection, that is the color of God.” Ruth McBride taught her children great values, firmly convinced that life’s blessings and life’s values transcend race. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth’s determination, drive, and discipline saw her dozen children through college–and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University. Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty and his eventual self-realization and professional success. I loved this book!
Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White by Brent Staples is interesting to me because my kids are biracial. In this evocative memoir, Brent Staples poses some compelling questions: Where does the family end and where does one’s self begin? What do we owe our families and what do we owe ourselves? What part of the past is a gift and what part a shackle? As the oldest son of nine children, Brent grew up in a small industrial town near Philadelphia. Scholarship opportunities pulled him out of the black world where he had grown up into a world largely defined by whites. This narrative, it could be argued, parallels the narrative of my kids, as we raised them in largely white suburbia. Again, I learned so much from this book, as painful as it was to read.
I have two friends who have had their work published. Jackie Schmidt (aka Gypsy Moon) was in my original Scribes group and she wrote Done & Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos. Jackie’s book is one of the only primary resources on American hobos, who are clearly a part of the history of railroading in America. Jackie Schmidt (Gypsy Moon was her hobo name), who was later elected a Queen of the Hobos at their National Convention in Britt, Iowa, has collected their stories. She has also teamed up with modern-day hobos to ride the rails in search of adventure and self-knowledge. Her book gives us a history of hobos, a collection of fascinating stories, and an account of what it is like for a middle-class woman to take to the dangerous pastime of hoboing. Jackie’s dad was himself a hobo in his younger years and Jackie (well into her 70s now) recently married a man who has been riding the rails since he was 11 years old. Funny side note: I remember my mother had a little wooden plaque hanging on our front door depicting an image of a cat, which was a sign of hospitality to strangers and friendship to the migrant workers passing by.
My friend, Pat Johnston, published a collection of poetry entitled Perspectives on a Grafted Tree: Thoughts for Those Touched by Adoption. Pat is an infertility and adoption educator and author from Indianapolis. She offered me much-needed instruction and encouragement at a critical juncture in my life, i.e., the point where Karl and I were grappling with our own infertility issues and beginning our journey to adopt trans-racially. The collection includes works written by all sides of the adoption experience: adoptive mothers, adoptive dads, birth mothers, birth fathers, and grown adopted persons. Some poems are written from a place of joy. Others from a place of anguish. All are written from the heart. You know that old saying … You don’t even know what you don’t even know? That was me. I guess all we have is our own paradigm. This book helped me expand my consciousness about adoption, the process, and the people.
Two books I loved about middle eastern issues were The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef. Son of Hamas was written by the son of one of the founding members of Hamas. Born a Palestinian, Yousef worked undercover for Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet from 1997 to 2007, where he was considered to be its most valuable source within the Hamas leadership. The information Yousef supplied prevented dozens of suicide attacks and assassinations of Israelis, exposed numerous Hamas cells, assisted Israel in hunting down many militants, and incarcerating his own father, Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef. In 1999, Yousef converted to Christianity, and in 2007 he moved to the United States. This is a riveting account of one man’s encounters with three vital cultures: Palestinians, Jews, and Christians. He offers a deep perspective into the things that drive conflict in the middle east and throughout the world. I must admit, I have never understood why these groups can just agree to disagree and get on with life. This book opened my eyes to the complexities of their histories together.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini tells the story of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul. The story is set against a backdrop of turbulent events, from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet invasion, the exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the rise of the Taliban regime. It is a father-son relationship story with themes of guilt, redemption, and atonement running throughout. This book is so beautifully written, it really makes you care about the characters a world away. The power of regret is a strong power.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War. It is based on his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division. I did not think I would like this content because it seemed so dark and sad. However, I was taken by the first chapter and could not stop reading. In war, there are no winners. That’s what you will take away from this book. It is a timeless message, from the wars in Viet Nam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Ukraine. There is nothing new under the sun, as it says in Ecclesiastes. This book was required reading for Walker in his junior year at University High School and I can see why.
A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch are memoirs written by Indiana native Haven Kimmel. I have read some of her fiction, but it doesn’t hold a candle to her real-life stories. When Kimmel was born in 1965, Mooreland (near New Castle) was a sleepy little hamlet of three hundred people. Nicknamed “Zippy” for the way she would bolt around the house; this small girl was possessed of big eyes and even bigger ears. Laced with fine storytelling, sharp wit, dead-on observations, and moments of sheer joy, Haven Kimmel’s straight-shooting portrait of her childhood gives us a heroine who is wonderfully sweet and sly as she navigates the quirky adult world that surrounds Zippy.
She Got Up Off the Couch focuses on her mother, her depression, anxiety, and the day she finally got up off the couch and enrolled at Ball State where she finally took control of her own destiny. I love a good memoir so I loved this book! USA Today writes, “Almost dreamlike in some of her elusive storytelling, she pulls off a feat that’s harder than it looks: write for adults from a child’s perspective . . . Zippy’s parents must have done something right to produce a girl who could write such a simple and lovely book.”
And finally, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible is called The Message. Growing up there was one Bible in our house and it was the King James Version. Since then, many varying choices have been published. But the one I like best is The Message which is the Bible in contemporary language. It falls on the extreme dynamic end of the dynamic and formal equivalence spectrum. It is very easy to understand and follow. Sometimes the ever-so-formal King James version — not so much. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Great literature always includes the salvation story dressed up in different words. There is always some form of sacrifice and reward, death and rebirth, a journey, or a homecoming. The Bible offers much wisdom and insight and comfort and challenge for everyday life. The more you know about people, the more you see the principles of Scripture in living form.