The First Christmas: A Story of New Beginnings by Stephen Mitchell

Book Cover

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, St. Martin’s Essentials

Date of Publication: November 9th, 2021

Genre: Christian, Religion

Purchase Links: Amazon | Audible | B&N | WorldCat

Goodreads Synopsis:

“I love The First Christmas. What a charming way Stephen Mitchell has found to tell my favorite story of all, the Nativity, character by character (I love the donkey and the ox), with wise and thrilling interludes about God, reality, truth.” -Anne Lamott

In The First Christmas, Stephen Mitchell brings the Nativity story to vivid life as never before. A narrative that is only sketched out in two Gospels becomes fully realized here with nuanced characters and a setting that reflects the culture of the time. Mitchell has suffused the birth of Jesus with a sense of beauty that will delight and astonish readers.

In this version, we see the world through the eyes of a Whitmanesque ox and a visionary donkey, starry-eyed shepherds, and Zen-like wise men, each of them providing a unique perspective on a scene that is, in Western culture, the central symbol for good tidings of great joy. Rather than superimposing later Christian concepts onto the Annunciation and Nativity scenes, he imagines Mary and Joseph experiencing the angelic message as a young Jewish woman and man living in the year 4 bce might have experienced it, with terror, dismay, and ultimate acceptance. In this context, their yes becomes an act of great moral courage.

Readers of every background will be enchanted by this startlingly beautiful reimagining of the Christmas tale.

First Line:

It was snowing again as they arrived, the man and the girl. They had been on the road for six days, traveling fifteen miles a day except when she felt too unwell to continue.

the first christmas: a story of new beginning by stephen mitchell

When I agreed to read and review The First Christmas, I didn’t know what exactly I decided to review. I thought I would read a book about The First Christmas from the blurb that the author told from the POV of an ox and donkey. Then I reread the blurb and saw that the author would tell it from the ox and donkey and Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. At that point, I had already downloaded it from NetGalley, so that I couldn’t change my mind.

I did think that The First Christmas was an imaginative retelling of Christ’s birth. But, honestly, I could have done without the interludes in between each chapter. Not that they added insight (because they did), but I thought it dragged the book in parts. I didn’t care about the historical information behind each chapter. I also didn’t care about the “what ifs.” As I mentioned, I thought it made the book drag in places.

My favorite chapters were the ones with the Ox and the Donkey. They were two different animals with different views on the stable and the visitors. Those two chapters made me smile because animals are so innocent and pure. I liked the donkey’s history behind seeing angels. I did get a little laugh out of that.

The author did an excellent job of bringing this book to life. Each character had an individual voice and personality.

The First Christmas is not a book that I would usually read, and I probably will not read again. But, saying that, it was an interesting read, and I did enjoy reading it.

I would recommend The First Christmas to anyone over the age of 13. It is a clean book (no sex or swearing).

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen

An Unorthodox Match: A Novel by [Ragen, Naomi]

4 Stars

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Date of publication: September 24th, 2019

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Religion

Where you can find An Unorthodox Match: Barnes and Noble | Amazon | BookBub

Book Synopsis:

California girl Lola has her life all set up: business degree, handsome fiancé, fast track career, when suddenly, without warning, everything tragically implodes. After years fruitlessly searching for love, marriage, and children, she decides to take the radical step of seeking spirituality and meaning far outside the parameters of modern life in the insular, ultraorthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. There, fate brings her to the dysfunctional home of newly-widowed Jacob, a devout Torah scholar, whose life is also in turmoil, and whose small children are aching for the kindness of a womanly touch.

While her mother direly predicts she is ruining her life, enslaving herself to a community that is a misogynistic religious cult, Lola’s heart tells her something far more complicated. But it is the shocking and unexpected messages of her new community itself which will finally force her into a deeper understanding of the real choices she now faces and which will ultimately decide her fate.

An Unorthodox March is a powerful and moving novel of faith, love, and acceptance, from Naomi Ragen, the international bestselling author of The Devil in Jerusalem.

First Line:

Leah Howard sat there facing Rabbi Weintraub’s empty chair, rehearsing what she was going to say to him.

An Unorthodox match by Naomi Ragen

My Review

When I got the invite to review An Unorthodox Match, I almost didn’t accept it. I do not read books that are straight, religious books, even those that are masked as women’s fiction. But the blurb caught my attention, and I decided to read An Unorthodox Match.

Having grown up in a community that was Jewish, I assumed that I knew a lot about the religion. I always knew that there was an Ultraorthodox part of the religion but knew nothing about it. Then I read An Unorthodox Match, and my mind was blown. There was so much that I didn’t know and so much that took me by surprise. It was learning about the Ultraorthodox religion that made this book for me.

I liked Lola/Leah. But I do wish that her backstory had been told better. I got a little irritated because her backstory was broken up. The author did say at the beginning of the book that Lola/Leah had been through a lot as a child and an adult. But after that, it was fragmented and drove me nuts. It wasn’t until that important scene with Yaakov at the end of the book that everything was put together in chronological order. I also thought that Lola/Leah was too lenient with Shaindele after what that twit put her through. But I will get to that in a little bit.

I liked Yaakov and felt awful for him. I guessed what had happened to his first wife early in the book. His grief and guilt came off the page. I wanted to hug him and tell him it wasn’t his fault. I liked that the author made him human. He had three children at home who he needed to take care or and provide for. He did what he had to, which included giving up his studies, to care for them. That included going to someone to help find a wife (which is done in this religion).

I do have to mention Shaindele, Yaakov’s oldest daughter because she played a massive part in Lola/Leah and Yaakov’s relationship. I didn’t like her. I found her behavior disrespectful throughout the book. I did feel bad for her. Losing her mother the way that she did and not being told the truth about how/why she died was traumatic. But it did not excuse how she treated the younger children or Lola/Leah. Which is why I was surprised that Lola/Leah talked Yaakov out of doing what he wanted to do.

I did find how hard it was for Lola/Leah to be accepted into the enclave fascinating. I had no idea that it was so hard for converts to be accepted into the Ultraorthodox enclaves. I had no clue that even if they did marry, that their children would never be accepted. The prejudices were outlined perfectly in this book. There was a point where I thought Lola/Leah was fighting a losing battle.

The romance angle of the book wasn’t up and in your face. Lola/Leah and Yaakov had to overcome a lot even to meet. But once they met, I could see the attraction. What I liked also is that there was zero sex. No kissing. Per the religion, Yaakov couldn’t even touch Lola/Leah. So kissing her was out of the question. I loved watching their romance develop without that. It was refreshing.

The end of An Unorthodox Match pulled at my heartstrings. It was a typical HEA that made me tear up. What I appreciated was that the author included a glossary with all the Jewish and Yiddish terms that were used in the book. I was getting a bit frustrated and ended up googling 90% of those terms. I wish I had known about it earlier. It would have saved me a whole lot of frustration.

I would give An Unorthodox Match an Adult rating. There is sex. There is mild language. There is violence. I would recommend that no one under the age of 21 read this book.

I would reread An Unorthodox Match.  I would recommend it to family and friends.

**I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book**