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Winter books: The ‘Me! Me! Memoir’ edition

(RNS) — Writer Tom Wolfe famously declared the 1970s the “Me Decade,” but judging by the slew of memoirs released just in the last year, gazing inward is a lasting obsession. Here are nine memoirs — plus a bonus memoir — that blend the spiritual or religious with politics, mental health, death and dying, marriage, motherhood, divorce, academia and founding a business. They take readers into Christianity, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam and a dash of paganism and Voodoo, in each case through the eyes of a single person. All were published in the past year.

Finding Magic: A Spiritual Memoir” by Sally Quinn (Harper Collins)

Quinn, the D.C. social maven and journalist who founded The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, outlines her journey from atheism to Episcopalianism (which, in some circles, is an extremely short journey). Along the way, she exposes the steamy details of her love affair with the legendary WaPo editor Ben Bradlee. “What I felt for Ben was so transcendent, so sacred, so divine,” she writes. “It was magic. … I merged with another being, another soul.” It was also a scandal — Bradlee was on his second marriage, 20 years her senior and her boss. Just as scandalous to some reviewers are Quinn’s revelations, in the book, that her current embrace of religion includes Voodoo and neopagan beliefs. Reviewers are having a field day. “Hoo boy, is it a doozy,” The Weekly Standard chirped, while Commentary’s review said it all in the headline: “The Ruling Classless.” Writing for The Washington Post, Connie Schultz said, “Had Sally Quinn stayed true to the promise of her book’s whimsical title, she might have led readers on a journey of self-exploration as she shared her stories of hope and the many faces of faith in the aftermath of despair.”

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age” by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh (Simon & Schuster)

Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of, never heard a racial slur directed her way until the Twin Towers fell and her life as a 9-year-old Jersey girl changed forever. Her father’s warning — “They’re going to blame us” — comes true, but rather than let Islamophobia shut her down, Al-Khatahtbeh carves out her own Muslim American Girl identity. Kirkus Reviews awarded the book a star, and Sheba Karim, writing for The Rumpus, said, “The book feels less like a conventional memoir and more like a Muslim Girl manifesto, a slim volume that successfully educates readers on the insidiousness of Islamophobia while furthering the media-savvy author’s brand.”

An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice” by Khizr Kahn (Penguin/Random House)

How did a Pakistani farm boy make his way to America and find himself center stage at the Democratic National Convention, his wife by his side and a pocket copy of the Constitution in his hand — one of the most talked-about moments of a very talked-about 2016 presidential campaign? The answers are in this memoir by Gold Star father and American Muslim Khizr Khan. Reviews have been generally swoony. “Khan’s book is also a story about family and faith, told with a poet’s sensibility,” reviewer Linda Chavez wrote in the New York Times Book Review. ” … Their faith imbues every facet of their lives; but it is a tolerant, modern Islam, the kind practiced by most Muslims living in the United States and around the world.”

“Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of Evangelicalism” by David Gushee (Westminster John Knox Press)

Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics and a former columnist for Religion News Service, makes his way from born-again Southern Baptist to evangelical outcast for his acceptance of LGBT Christians. He sets his story against that of American evangelicalism, which moved from the fringes of society to the halls of political power — a kind of reverse trajectory from his own. “There’s not a lot of God talk or biblical stuff in the book,” Zachary Houle said in a review of the book on Medium. “This is simply a man’s life story in the church that lays down the groundwork for where we are as a Christian community today. It is a revelatory work of the highest order.”

“The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival and Hope” by Tracy McKay (By Common Consent Press)

A drug-addicted husband, a divorce, single motherhood and an autistic child. Out of this mess McKay, who converted to Mormonism when she married her husband, created a widely read blog, Dandelion Mama. In this book — her first — she charts her reliance on God amid the ruins of her marriage and the many ways her adopted Mormon community came together to help her. Writing for Religion News Service, Jana Riess called McKay one of her “favorite voices” and described the book as “beautiful.”

If All the Seas Were Ink” by Ilana Kurshan (St. Martin’s)

Kurshan turned to Daf Yomi, a seven-year course of coordinated, daily Talmud study undertaken by Jews around the world — at a time of great upheaval in her life and read steadily through divorce, remarriage and the births of three children. Along the way, she progressed from an unhappy 27-year-old wife to a 35-year-old, happily married mother of three, with the Torah her most constant companion, ready with context, wisdom and comfort. Jeffrey Rubenstein, Skirball Professor of Jewish Thought and Literature at New York University, told Tablet magazine, “I know of no other book that brings the Talmud to life by making its traditions so relevant to modern times.”

“Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love” by Marissa Moss (Conari Press)

Moss is a young adult author who is best known for her whimsical “Amelia’s Notebook” graphic novel series. But in “Last Things,” she uses the stark black, white and gray of the graphic format to explore the dark angles of her husband’s eight-month struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease before his death. Moss has acknowledged that illness, grief, sorrow and loss do not make for an uplifting memoir — “That wasn’t our story,” she has said — but she also believes it is a book about the power of life. Moss is Jewish, and Judaism is addressed in the book, but it is not a major theme. “Moss’s deliberately naive drawings effectively accompany her painfully direct text,” Publishers Weekly said in its review. “The fact that the family does endure is impressive, and this book demonstrates how art can transmute suffering into literature.”

Madison Park: A Place of Hope” by Eric L. Motley (Zondervan)

Motley — director of the Aspen Institute, a sort of incubator for ideas —  recalls his roots in a small Alabama town founded by freed African-American slaves. Church and Christian faith are at the center of Madison Park life, both of which Motley credits with his eventual rise to special assistant to President George W. Bush. “His story is inspiring, but it often reads like a list of anecdotes featuring people from his life he wishes to thank,” Publishers Weekly said. ” … Nonetheless, this book will leave readers nostalgic for a place most have never visited and will intrigue those interested in how faith can strengthen community bonds.”

“Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith” by Lily Burana (Thomas Nelson)

Writer Lily Burana has lived enough for four lives — she’s been a Greenwich Village street kid, punk rocker, stripper, military wife, mother and, throughout it all, a person with chronic depression. In this memoir — her third — she describes how she went from ace Sunday school student to the streets and back again in a successful search for a way to live with her depression. Reviewing the book for RevGalBlogPals, the Rev. Lia Scholl called Burana’s approach to faith “layered, complex, innocent, and sometimes even a little jaded” and likened her writing to Anne Lamott’s.

Bonus book:

“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” by Joe Biden (Flatiron Books)

Sure, this is mainly a political memoir about the year Biden considered running for president. But it’s also a deeply personal memoir by a father who lost a son who was also his best friend. Though it is not a major theme of the book, Biden relates how his deep faith — he is, famously, a Roman Catholic — helped him through every parent’s greatest nightmare, which coincided with one of the most critical periods of his long political career. Reviews have been laudatory. Biden “decided to give us full visibility into the agony and strangeness of that period,” Jennifer Senior writes in The New York Times, “showing just what it was like to care for his son — and then mourn him — while simultaneously fulfilling his duties as vice president. The book is a backstage drama, honest, raw and rich in detail. People who have lost someone will genuinely take comfort from what he has to say.”

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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