Tag Archives: Holy Ghost Girl

Top Ten Book Club Picks

I’ll admit, I’ve never been good about attending a book group. But I usually follow along, reading each selection in the quiet of my own home. So I’ve never before offered recommendations.

If I did, however, I would look for books that have a lot of complexity, so that there will be many angles to approach a discussion about the book. They also have to be memorable–the kind of books you can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve put them down.

10. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
This is a quintessential D.C. book (my review here); more than simply preserving familiar sights, Mengestu captures the feeling of a D.C. community caught between two worlds, which would in itself make for very interesting discussion. But the main character’s experience—as an immigrant, a man, an American— and his place in society also leaves a lot open to interpretation.

9. Push by Sapphire
Push is not an easy book to read or even talk about. But it’s totally worth it. Sapphire exposes the pain of abuse and neglect, but more importantly, she presents a strong black heroine who takes her own life into her hands. This book came highly recommended from many of my friends, and it is guaranteed to get a reaction from book-group readers.

8. Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson
In her memoir (my review here), Donna Johnson offers insight into the complexity of faith and why people choose to follow charismatic leaders, all without without being judgmental—a seemingly Herculean task that Johnson manages without even breaking into a literary sweat. Book group members will enjoy teasing out the complexity of the black-and-white world of big tent revivalists.

7. Faith by Jennifer Haigh
In Faith, Jennifer Haigh reveals an entangled world of secrets and beliefs, pain and joy, identity and desire, and the enduring ties of family and faith. She tackles a difficult topic, but she does so with grace and aplomb (my review here). This is a timely book that is sure to inspire a meaningful conversation.

6. Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
Next to Love is moving and beautiful, rich with the pain and the joys of vivid and believable men and women (my review here). The book delicately handles sweeping topics such as war, love, grief, and equality, which almost certainly lead to a great conversation.

5. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
Tatjana Soli paints a vivid picture of 1960s Vietnam in The Lotus Eaters (my review here), and her prose reflects the jarring hardness of war, the allure of obsession, and the tenderness of love in turns. I think Soli’s exploration of the emotional and physical effects of the war on all sides—Vietnamese and American, soldier and civilian—would elicit strong reactions from all ages.

4. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
Brockmeier’s characters are painfully insightful and wonderfully human, and I think readers from all walks of life will identify with some, if not all, of them. (I did.) The journal that passes from person to person makes them greater than they were—a brilliance greater than their loneliness and pain.

3. Camp Nine by Vivienne R. Schiffer
In Camp Nine, Vivienne Schiffer shows readers a hidden side of the Delta, when racial tensions cracked the surface of a small town’s placid surface (my review here). Schiffer expertly teases out various themes of family and history in a world where little is forgotten, and her portrayal of the vast chasms within its society in the forties is fantastic. I think I would’ve enjoyed the novel even more if I’d discussed it in a group; it’s a short book, but there is a lot at play in the story.

2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’s account of her less-than-idyllic childhood is a must read, and I would love to get a group together to talk about this engaging memoir. Her story inspires pity and incredulity at some points and joy and optimism at others. This book was highly recommended by several women I know, and after I tore through it, I passed it on to other women, all of whom agree that Walls is a powerful storyteller. I’d love to hear a guy’s perspective, too.

1. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
This book covers so much ground–race, class, women’s rights, war—without feeling sluggish or heavy. As I described it in my review, “It’s as though Little House on the Prairie grew up and developed a racially and culturally aware conscience.” Weisgarber offers many topics for discussion while also crafting a thoroughly enjoyable story.

Creating this list makes me wish I were a more active part of a book club. What do you think–should I finally start taking attendance seriously?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

I receive a very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links to Indiebound. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

“Holy Ghost Girl” by Donna M. Johnson

Title: Holy Ghost Girl
Author: Donna M. Johnson
ISBN: 9781592406302
Pages: 288
Release date: October 13, 2011
Publisher: Gotham
Genre: Memoir
Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 5 out of 5

Win this book!

I’m giving this book away to one lucky reader in the United States or Canada! Just leave a comment below and you’ll be entered to win. I will be choosing a winner at midnight on October 31.

Donna Johnson had an unusual childhood. Her mother brought Donna and her younger brother, Gary, into the inner circle of David Terrell, a very popular big tent revivalist in the 1960s and 70s. Donna spent her childhood under the wing of the charismatic and megalomaniacal minister; the only home she knew was under the “largest tent in the world.”

At first, the tent families scrape by, dodging creditors, living in dingy homes, and eating not quite enough food. Johnson comments, “I wondered from time to time why miracles performed under the tent were perfect and complete, while in our daily lives God left things half finished.”

Her mother and the other religious leaders instill in the children—both directly and by example—that they are different. And they are; Donna and the other children move around so often, they have very little in common with other children, whom she ironically dubs “outsiders”:

Everything about outsiders—their clothes, speech, habits—seemed to belittle us, and that put us on the defensive. . . . There was only one way to be in the world, one right way anyhow, and that was the way we were.

However, Donna does not stay with the tent all the time. At a young age, Donna and her brother Gary are left, for months and sometimes years, in the care of religiously rigid—and sometimes fanatically cruel—believers, while their mother tours the world with Brother Terrell.

As the years pass and Terrell gains in popularity, he begins amassing cars and property—and secret families. By the time the IRS catches up to him, he has two families—including one with Donna’s mother—in addition to his public life with his other kids.

Johnson has a front-row seat to Terrell’s hypocrisy and delusion, but she maintains an even hand in her account, telling also of his powers of healing and the positive effect he had on his followers’ lives. She captures the cadence of a southern revivalist perfectly–his tone, his openness, his unwavering faith—all of the things that form a powerful charisma:

He was the healer and prophet plucked by the hand of God from the Alabama countryside and given a worldwide ministry of faith and deliverance. He was a son of God, crying out in the wilderness. Oh, hallelujah, he knew who he was, and the devil couldn’t take that away from him.

Is David Terrell a con man? A prophet? A performer? “I had spent a lifetime deciding,” Johnson writes, “and each time I thought I knew, the answer proved too small to encompass my experience.”

Her account of her unusual life is surreal but convincing, powerful without seeming overwrought. Johnson ably demonstrates the complexity of faith, commenting that “Belief, like love, can go underground. It can become part of our operating system, without our knowledge or approval.”

She is insightful without being judgmental about why people choose to follow charismatic leaders:

In him they saw a more powerful, dazzling image of themselves. He came from the same grim poverty that had shaped them, but it did not cling to him. . . . He was them without the shame. He was them without the hopelessness. And oh how they loved him for it.

As Donna struggles to reconcile the disparities between her different identities—the person she was, the person she has become, and the person she wants to be—I saw my own struggle. I loved this book so intensely because it helped me understand myself—my past, my present, and my hoped-for self.

I was raised in a very religiously strict environment. My father believed—and believes—that he was chosen for the evangelical work of God, and my mother acquiesced to that immovable faith for many years. My eight siblings and I lived in a remote, rundown farmhouse and were homeschooled for much of our lives.

Though the details of my upbringing were drastically different from Johnson’s, the underpinning beliefs, doubts, and struggles are identical. This book hit countless familiar notes for me. The long, hot nights spent fidgeting on hard chairs, the joyfully exuberant music, the passion and eloquence of evangelical ministers instantly transported me back in time.

There were times I laughed out loud at the similarities between the way we were raised; when Donna tells her mother that she is afraid of the dark, Carolyn replies firmly, “If you’ve been good, there’s no reason to be scared.” Instead of monsters under their beds, Christians have demons in the corner.

There were other times, however, when Donna’s insight made me feel as though she were writing my inner monologue and deepest secrets:

For a long time I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person, flat and one-dimensional, propped up with a plastic stand, nothing behind me. I watched the students, teachers, employers, friends, and colleagues around me and picked up cues on how to be in the world: Look them in the eye, firm up the handshake, file down the emotion, read good books, wear good shoes, dark colors, the best haircut you can afford. Fake it till you make it. Gradually, the years between me and the tent stacked up until they had formed a wall of experience that separated me from my former self.

Despite the way she is treated and the hypocrisy she witnesses, Donna finds it impossible to reject the religion that has formed such a large part of her life. It is so ingrained in her, she feels guilty for not accepting it wholeheartedly:

What I knew but could not articulate was that sometimes I felt so awful, so sinful, that I wanted to pull everything down around me, wanted in fact for everything to fall on me like the dead weight of a felled tree and crush me into the ground.

Johnson is a superb writer and storyteller. The honesty and warmth of her story reminded me of one of my favorite memoirs, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Through her tumultuous and unique upbringing, Johnson manages to pick out themes of identity, belief, and desire. She teases out the complexity of a black-and-white world.

Holy Ghost Girl is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and it is certainly one of my favorites from 2011.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

October 4: Joyfully Retired
October 6: Bermuda Onion
October 7: Colloquium
October 10: Chaotic Compendiums
October 12: A Fair Substitute for Heaven
October 13: In the Next Room
October 14: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
October 17: Raging Bibliomania
October 18: Amused by Books
October 19: Book Addiction
October 20: Books Like Breathing
October 24: BookNAround
October 25: Life in Review
October 26: Sara’s Organized Chaos
October 27: Broken Teepee

Or, of course, leave a comment below to win the book and find out for yourself!

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