2017 Reading: American Stories

In looking over the books I read in 2017, it’s apparent that I somehow got on a kick of reading books that told stories about the history of the United States.

Maybe it had something to do with the four 1000+ mile road trips across the country that I took. At any rate, if you too are interested in American stories, I think you’ll enjoy these 7 books (hopefully as much as I did):

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, by Robert D. Kaplan

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

I think this book would have to be at the top of a list of best books I read last year. It’s the story of the growth and development of the western US, and the crucial role that geography plays. It was particularly meaningful to read (listen, actually) to this book while driving west toward and over the Rockies in April. In fact, I liked this book so much that when I got home I ordered the physical book so I could re-read it and take notes. I admit it; I am a geography nerd!

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission, by Brett Baier

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission

Baier tells the story of Eisenhower and his presidency through an analysis of the final speech he gave to the nation before the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

This is the stuff of nightmares, with descriptions of bodies piled in the streets of eastern cities. It’s a bit heavy on medical details, but push through all that and the story is riveting.

Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out, by Annette Atkins

Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out

Just trying to learn more about the history of my home state!

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Teroux

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

I read (listened to) this after returning from our southern road trip in November. It’s typical Theroux — lots of stories and wordy descriptions. But an interesting look at the uniqueness of southern culture.

How the Post Office Created America: A History, by Winifred Gallagher

How the Post Office Created America: A History

It may be fashionable to malign the post office these days, but it played a significant role in the history of the nation. As they say, “who knew?”

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, by Andrew Ferguson

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

Ferguson, in a way that will make you chuckle, writes about the quirky sub-culture of Lincoln buffs. My favorite was his story of attending a national convention of Abe “presenters,” people who make a living (or try to) giving speeches “as” Abe Lincoln, one of whom was short, fat, and bald!

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Recommended Reading: Non-fiction

I recently saw someone on Twitter ask for non-fiction book recommendations. I promptly made a list of some of my favorite non-fiction books; however, since I’m generally hesitant to jump into Twitter conversations, I decided to share my list here.
Bottom line: I love reading non-fiction, and as you will see from this list, I gravitate towards history and travel writing!
So if you’re looking for some non-fiction books to read, why not consider one (or all) of these. They are in no particular order other than the order in which they popped into my mind! And keep in mind that there are just a few of my favorites.
Balkan Ghosts A Journey Through History
Part travel writing, part historical-political analysis, this book takes a look at the Balkan states in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

Learn why it matters that so many of our major river systems flow diagonally across the continent! Note: if you like geo-political analysis, read anything by Kaplan. As you can tell, I am a big fan!

Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure

In 1943 the author, along with most other foreigners in northern China (including Beijing and Tianjin) were rounded up by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp in Shandong Province (Shantung). The guards, in essence, said to the prisoners: “we will manage the walls and gates, but you have to organize yourselves into a functioning society.” It should be required reading as a history textbook, and political science textbook, a sociology textbook, and anthropology text book, and a psychology textbook.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

This book recounts the story of the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north between 1915 and 1970, as told from the perspective of 3 different families. How is it possible that this wasn’t taught in school? I hope it is now.

Thunder out of China, by Theadore White

Thunder out of China

Teddy White reports from China during the Civil War (1940’s), during the time the Communists and Nationalists had formed a tenuous alliance to fight off the Japanese. The first time I read this book I was living in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, so was particularly gripped by his vivid description of a famine that had taken place there in the 1940’s.

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, by Rob Gifford

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power

NPR Correspondent  Rob Gifford hitch-hiked across China from Shanghai to the border with Kazakhstan, talking to people along the way. The stories he tells reveal some serious social, economic, and political fault lines. Even though the book is now more than ten years old, the fault lines are all still present, and perhaps in even more danger of slipping.  You can read my review of this book here.

Freedom at Midnight, by Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre

Freedom at Midnight

In August of 1947, the Union Jack was lowered in British India. But rather than leave behind an independent India, a line was drawn on the map and two new independent nations were created: India (predominately Hindu) and Pakistan (predominately Muslim). As the day of independence approached Hindus and Muslims on the “wrong” side of the new border tried to get to there “right” side. The bloodshed was horrific.

Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie

Nicholas and Alexandra

This is the story of the last Romanov Czar of Russia and his family. Since we know how the story ends, it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

In Xanadu: A Quest, by Willam Dalrymple

In Xanadu: A Quest

Dalrymple hitch-hiked from Jerusalem to Xanadu, Kublai Khan’s ancient capital (near Duolun, Inner Mongolia) in the 1980’s. This book inspired my own quest to find the city. You can read about that here.

Tent Life in Siberia: An Incredible Account of Siberian Adventure, Travel, and Survival, by George Kennan

Tent Life in Siberia: An Incredible Account of Siberian Adventure, Travel, and Survival

Imagine it is 1865 and you have been dropped off on the frozen coastline of the Kamchatka Peninsula on the east coast of Siberia. Your mission: find a route across Russia to string a telephone line. And you live to tell about it. One of my all time favorite books, hand’s down!


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Twin Bells?

The second bell that Noël Piper and I found in China was at a church in Ya’an, Sichuan Province. Like the bell we had found the day before, this one was cast in a foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio. The pastor didn’t know what had happened to the bell during the Cultural Revolution, and how it had survived. She did know, however, that it had been taken from the old church building (no longer standing) in the 1960s and returned in the 1980s.

BW yaan bell

Inside the main entryway of the downtown campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis sits a giant black bell tucked unceremoniously in the corner. Unless you’re paying attention, you will probably not even notice it. But as you can see, there is a striking similarity to the bell in Ya’an. Hmm…

BW bbcbell

Is that just a coincidence, or is there an actual link between the old bell at Bethlehem Baptist Church and the one in Ya’an? In order to learn the answer to that question, you’ll have to read my book, The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China OR come on out to the north campus of Bethlehem on Saturday, February 11 at 6:30PM.

I will be telling the story of these bells as well as few others I found in China. As fun as the stories are, however, the bells also serve as vehicles for telling the story of God’s faithfulness to the church in China.

And speaking of fun, here’s a bonus photo of a very young Pastor John Piper with the old Bethlehem church bell! (Thanks, Noël!)

old bbc bell

Event details:

Bethlehem Baptist Church (north campus)
5151 Program Ave.
Mounds View, MN
Time: 6:30PM

If you’re in the Twin Cities, come on over!

Bell Talk and Book Signing

I have two “Bell Talk and Book Signing” events coming up in the Twin Cities this weekend and next weekend.

The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China

Here are the details:

Saturday, February 4 @ Bethlehem Baptist Church (downtown campus)
720 8th Ave. S. Minneapolis
Time: 7:15PM (following the evening service)

Saturday, February 11 @ Bethlehem Baptist Church (north campus)
5151 Program Ave., Mounds View
Time: 6:30PM

Noël Piper will be my special guest; we will share background on the genesis of the book and some of the stories..

Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:

Pastor Zhao fetched a ladder but refused to let Noël or me climb up there. He was happy that we were there, but no way was he going to risk having two injured foreign women on his hands! Ben, who is younger and much more athletic, grabbed his flashlight and scampered up to get a good look at the inscription. It was from this perch, high up in the steeple, that he read the inscription to us.

I will have copies of the book to sell, and will even sign them if you want!

If you’re in the Twin Cities, come on out! If you can’t make it to these, I’m hoping to have more such events schedule in March.


Recommended: “The Dust of Kandahar”

On a mid-April day in 2013, I heard a news report about an attack on US State Department personnel in Afghanistan in which 5 Americans were killed. I held my breath and said a prayer because a friend of mine from childhood, Jonathan Addleton, was at the time a diplomat in Afghanistan. In due time details of the attack emerged and I learned that, although he had been in the group that was attacked, he was unhurt. Unfortunately, however, his interpreter, a fellow diplomat, and 3 soldiers were killed. I was relieved that he was OK, but grieved for those who had lost their lives.

Jonathan has written about his year in Afghanistan in a book titled,  The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors in Afghanistan.

The Dust of Kandahar: A Diplomat Among Warriors in Afghanistan

Here’s the description:

The Dust of Kandahar provides a personal account of one diplomat’s year of service in America’s longest war. Ambassador Addleton movingly describes the everyday human drama of the American soldiers, local tribal dignitaries, government officials and religious leaders he interacted and worked with in southern Afghanistan.

Addleton’s writing is at its most vivid in his firsthand account of the April 2013 suicide bombing attack outside a Zabul school that killed his translator, a fellow Foreign Service officer and three American soldiers.  The memory of this tragedy lingers over Addleton’s journal entries, his prose offering poignant glimpses into the interior life of a U.S. diplomat stationed in harm’s way.

This book is not about the policy or politics of the war in Afghanistan; rather it is a an account of the people who all play their own role in the unfolding events.

We often imagine that the life of a diplomat is glamorous, but what comes through in this book is a certain ordinariness of duty. His days are filled with meetings, briefings, and trips on Blackhawk helicopters. The duty brings sadness as well; most days end with ramp ceremonies to honor those who have been killed in action.

For a fascinating glimpse into the life of a diplomat, I highly recommend this book.

Thanks, Jonathan, for your service to our nation!

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One More Photo

Friday Photo: Xishiku Catholic Church

This is one of the churches that I write about in my book The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China. The Xishiku Catholic Church was founded in 1703 and was originally christened The Church of Our Savior.

Xishiku Catholic Church

My fellow bell-hunters and I somehow convinced the priest to let his assistant take us up into the towers to see the old bells. We climbed up the dusty stairs into the east steeple (on the right in the photo) to see the bell hanging there. But where was the second bell?

It was in the west tower, which meant in order to see it we would have to climb into the space between the sanctuary ceiling and the roof of the cathedral and crawl across some ancient dust-covered beams. Spring did her best to talk me out of it, fearing that I might fall through the ceiling and land on the parishioners praying in the sanctuary. But I was not to be thwarted; I was determined to see this bell, her pleadings notwithstanding. (p. 76)

You can read the whole story in the book!

The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China


Published: “The Bells Are Not Silent”

For a long time, friends and colleagues of mine have urged me to write a book about China. “You lived in China for nearly three decades,” they say. “Surely you have something to say.”

My standard reply has been that there are so many books written about China each year; I don’t want to write one until and unless I have something new to say — some angle or perspective or story to tell that hasn’t been told.

In March 2012, I travelled with my friend Noël Piper to Sichuan Province. We dubbed our trip “The Esther Expedition” because we were researching the life and work of Esther Nelson, a woman from our church who had served as a missionary in that region from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was during that trip that I stumbled onto an untold story.

It was the story of an 126-year-old American bell hanging in the steeple of a church in a remote city of Sichuan. If you were reading my blog then, perhaps you remember my post about that discovery.

In the months between that discovery and moving back to Minnesota, I travelled around China looking for more bells. I found bells from Germany, France, and Russia hanging in Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Well, it has taken me almost five years, but I have finally put the stories of these bells into a book: “The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China.”

The Bells Are Not Silent: Stories of Church Bells in China

Here is the description from the back cover:

When Joann discovered a 126-year-old bell hanging in a church in southwest China she knew that there was a story to tell. Who had decided to ship it? How had it been transported? How had it survived the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s? She also knew that if there was one bell, there must be others. Over the course of eight months she travelled around China looking for old church bells, finding ones from France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. This book is a collection of stories about those bells. But more importantly, they are stories of God’s faithfulness to his church in China.

It is now available on Amazon in both print and kindle editions.

Additional photos and information can be seen at my public Facebook page. Click on over and give it a “like.”

Homesick for Manchuria

Since I lived in Beijing for the last 15 years of my time in China, it’s not often that I get nostalgic for Changchun, the city in Northeast China that was my home for most of the 90s. Recently I found myself thinking of my time there and the experiences I had. I am, dare I say, homesick for Manchuria.

I blame (well, give credit to, really) Michael Meyer and his book In “Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

Here’s the description from Amazon:

For three years, Meyer rented a home in the rice-farming community of Wasteland, hometown to his wife’s family. Their personal saga mirrors the tremendous change most of rural China is undergoing, in the form of a privately held rice company that has built new roads, introduced organic farming, and constructed high-rise apartments into which farmers can move in exchange for their land rights. Once a commune, Wasteland is now a company town, a phenomenon happening across China that Meyer documents for the first time; indeed, not since Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth has anyone brought rural China to life as Meyer has here.

Amplifying the story of family and Wasteland, Meyer takes us on a journey across Manchuria’s past, a history that explains much about contemporary China–from the fall of the last emperor to Japanese occupation and Communist victory. Through vivid local characters, Meyer illuminates the remnants of the imperial Willow Palisade, Russian and Japanese colonial cities and railways, and the POW camp into which a young American sergeant parachuted to free survivors of the Bataan Death March.

I particularly enjoyed his forays into the history of Manchuria, a place that most in the west have never heard about. Derived from the Chinese word Manzu (满族), which refers to the Man people group, Manchuria as a “nation” was a puppet state established by the Japanese during their occupation of the territory during World War II. Today the region is known simply as Dongbei (东北) – the Northeast.

Meyer (who, I might add, is a fellow Minnesotan) captures so well the sights and sounds of the region that I had begun to fade: wide-open spaces; the uniqueness of the northeast dialect; the blunt communication style, and glimpses of history at every turn.

If you have lived Dongbei, are planning to live in Dongbei, or perhaps simply know someone who does, this book is a must-read!

(Note: this post was originally published at ChinaSource)

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