Back Porch Book Chat: Gina Dalfonzo (Writer, Book Reviewer)

Back Porch Book Chat: A casual, virtual conversation about books. Join us as we chat with book lovers like ourselves about a topic we all love! Our guest today is Gina Dalfonzo, currently on staff with Christ and Pop Culture. Check out her bio after the interview for more about Gina. Interview conducted by Betsy.

Getting to Know Gina

Before we begin, Gina, tell us what iced beverage you’d like as we sit in our rocking chairs on this late summer day: Sweet tea? Lemonade? La Croix? Ice water?

I’ve been practically living on Celestial Seasonings peach iced tea all summer! It’s so refreshing during the hot days, I can’t get enough of it. I’ve been drinking it nearly every day since May or thereabouts. 

Yum! Iced tea is definitely the way to go this time of year.

Gina, we know you’re a fellow avid reader. Tell us what your reading life looks like day to day: do you have a favorite routine or reading spot? Do you eschew TV for reading or squeeze reading into your commute time?

There really are so many books and so little time! So I just make time for reading whenever and wherever I can: first thing in the morning, last thing at night, during breaks from work, between tasks around the house on weekends. I frequently listen to audiobooks when I’m on the treadmill or when I’m driving, or sometimes when I’m making breakfast in the morning. I do squeeze in some TV here and there, but books get the bulk of my free time.

Your reading habits sound a lot like mine!

What books have you most enjoyed reading this year? Any particular favorites that hit that “right time, right read” sort of feeling?  

This year I’ve loved A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry and The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu, both of which expertly combine history and fantasy. I’ve also loved Dream, Plan, and Go by my friend Rachel McMillan, a wonderful little travel book that has me longing to hit the road . . . just as soon as it’s doable! I recently discovered and loved Fontamara by Ignazio Silone, the first in a trilogy of novels set in Abruzzo, a region in Italy where some of my ancestors came from. For my book club, I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, an amazing and sobering piece of history. Finally, since this year marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, and he’s my favorite composer, I’ve been reading all the Beethoven books I can get my hands on. I’ve just finished Beethoven’s Shadow by Jonathan Biss, and I’m currently reading Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary by John Clubbe, as well as The Woman in the Moonlight by Patricia Morrisroe, a new novel about the woman to whom the Moonlight Sonata was dedicated. 

We love getting new book recommendations, and I haven’t read any of those you mention. I’m especially intrigued by the Beethoven books.

Gina’s Experience with World Children’s Book of the Year

Our readers may not know that the Redeemed Reader staff has been reading alongside you for a number of years on the same book award committees. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience on the World Children’s Book of the Year committee over the past few years? Any year’s collection of winners really stand out as exceptionally notable? What do you like about reading a title with a committee? What is frustrating to you?

Honestly, there are so many good ones every year—which is really encouraging. There are a lot of people out there who think that no good children’s books are being written any more, and I love to be able to tell them, “No, wait, here are some!” and to point them out. But if I had to pick just one year, I think there was truly a bumper crop vying for the 2017 award, the second year I was on the committee. The Secret Keepers won that year, and it was a worthy winner, but there were many worthy runners-up, too!

As for the experience of being on the committee, I believe it’s been good for my character, because I’ve had to learn to accept that other people sometimes feel differently about books than I do, and I can’t always have my own way all the time! Seriously, it’s always so interesting and educational to read other people’s comments, to go back and forth with them, and to gain some new perspective on a book from listing to them.

I couldn’t agree more, Gina. Those behind-the-scenes conversations helped me be a better reader and also helped me understand better what any award-winning book represents. Even if I don’t like it, there must be something there that the committee grappled with and found worthy.

Gina’s Online Writing

Gina, in addition to “reader,” you are also a writer and editor. We’re going to dive into your books in just a minute, but can you tell our readers a little bit about your other platforms?

I’ve written for The Atlantic, Christianity Today, The Weekly Standard, First Things, and a host of other magazines and websites. But my absolute favorite venue to write for is Christ and Pop Culture, where I’m a staff writer. They have a wonderful community of writers offering unique and informed perspectives on all sorts of cultural and theological issues. It’s a privilege just to get to contribute something there. 

I also have a little blog of my own called Dickensblog, which is, as the name suggests, all about Charles Dickens! I’ve run it since 2009, and it’s built up a great, loyal following.

I didn’t realize you wrote for Christ and Pop Culture! That is such an interesting website.

Gina’s Book: The Gospel in Dickens

You have two books coming out this fall: Dorothy and Jack, which we are reviewing this week, and The Gospel in Dickens. All three of those authors are beloved by many. Let’s talk about the Dickens title first. You’ve edited a collection of his works that feature particular selections from the Dickens canon. How did you decide to tackle this project, and how did you go about selecting the portions you chose?

It all started with my admiration of Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, which has been going for a number of years now. Subjects have included Leo Tolstoy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a number of others. About a year and a half ago, when I was between jobs and looking for some projects to take on, I started thinking that they really needed a Dickens entry in the series, and that just maybe I could be the one to put it together! Charles Dickens is one of my three favorite writers (we’ll get to the other two in a moment), and I’ve always been interested in his religious beliefs. I contacted Plough and they were very enthusiastic—they’d actually been making some plans for a Dickens entry, so I happened to get in touch with them at just the right time. So it seems it was meant to be! 

I think the timing turned out especially great because, now that many parents are starting to homeschool or to help their kids with online schooling, The Gospel in Dickens could be a useful supplement to their literature classes. It features many selections from his works, with notes and commentary to help explain them and also to discuss their religious content.

There’s a good deal of debate about what Charles Dickens really believed, so in tackling this project, I went back to his writings—both major and minor works—and mined them not just for the biblical references he included, but also for the spiritual principles that he was trying to convey. He wasn’t a great fan of religious institutions and organizations, and this book is honest about that, but at the same time, he was a believer in and an admirer of the Jesus he saw in the Gospels, and he consciously showed that belief and admiration in his works, in various ways. He took his “love Jesus but not the church” attitude a little too far, but he did consider himself a believer, nonetheless, and I’ve found that faith fascinating to trace and to explore. It’s clear both from the way he uses religious language and imagery in his novels, and some of the things he wrote to his correspondents, that many of his most passionate beliefs—for instance, his advocacy for the poor—were tied to his belief in Christ. 

I need to track that book down. I’ve had some interesting conversations over the years about Dickens and whether his books are “Christian.”

Gina’s Book: Dorothy and Jack

Dorothy and Jack is a different sort of book than your Dickens title. What drew you to chronicle their friendship? Do you love both of their works equally? {ha! such a hard question!} How did you decide to focus on the two of them out of the general Inklings group?

Sayers and Lewis are my other two favorite writers, so I’ve loved getting the opportunity to publish books about all three of my favorites this year! (I didn’t expect that they’d be released only a month apart, though! It’s been a bit wild trying to promote them both at once, but as the saying goes, that’s a good problem to have!) I’ve never been able to pick one of the three as my very favorite, so yes, I would have to say I love all of them equally.  

The friendship of Sayers and Lewis has long been hiding in plain sight, you might say. It’s generally known that Sayers had a connection with Lewis; they’re both among the group of British Christian writers whose papers are kept and studied at The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, and many people think of Sayers as an “honorary Inkling.” But the nature and depth of their friendship isn’t nearly well known as, say, the nature and depth of Lewis’s friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien. I knew about it because I had read Sayers’s collected letters, and some of Lewis’s, and I had really enjoyed reading their correspondence with each other. They had a lot in common and yet they also had a lot of differences, which kept things lively but also helped both of them change and grow and learn. I eventually came up with the idea of writing a book that would focus on that friendship, which throws such an interesting light on both of them, and readers have been so intrigued and delighted to learn about it!

I know Hayley really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to reading it, too!

Gina, you also wrote a book on singleness in the church. Can you tell us a little bit about your publishing journey? 

Yes, One by One came out in 2017. That was a very different process from what happened with my new books. I had been working on and off at that book for many years; it was just sort of a shapeless mass of words that I added to sometimes. At some point I finally decided to try turning it into a couple of chapters and finding an agent and a publisher. It did work out in the end, because I got a book deal, but I have to say it’s easier—and goes much more quickly—when you have a clear goal and a deadline, as I did with these two current books!

Final Advice from Gina

Like the Redeemed Reader staff, you enjoy classics (such as the works of Dickens, Lewis, and Sayers), but you also read contemporary literature as well. You also thoughtfully engage with the culture around us. As we close, what advice would you have for those working with teens, in particular? How should we disciple our teens as they learn to read discerningly and grapple with the different worldviews around them?

In a way, I’m learning that as I go along. I’ve always been interested in children’s books—I even ran a Web page/newsletter about YA books for a time—but these days it’s personal. I have three godchildren, ages 14, 12, and almost 10, and I’m constantly buying books for them and doing research to find the best ones out there. 

I strive to find the balance between books that will help strengthen their growing faith, and books that will open up their mind to the world around them, full of people with differing perspectives and beliefs and backgrounds. I want them to discover and love characters they can relate to and characters who are very different from them. In short, I want books to teach them the meaning of that popular saying “All truth is God’s truth,” to show them that, even when the world seems full of darkness and danger, there are glimpses of God’s goodness in unexpected places. And I want them to know that there are books that may not be good for them, but I don’t want them to be afraid of those books. Instead, I want them to have a faith and a love for God and a commitment to truth that are strong enough that bad books can’t hurt them. 

I can’t think of a better note to end on! That sums up much of our goal here at Redeemed Reader as well.

Related Reading from Redeemed Reader

Readers, this is not Gina’s first time on Redeemed Reader. Check out some of her contributions below:

What is Virtuous Romance? A Discussion with Rea Berg and Emily Whitten (and Gina, of course!)My Jasper June and Pay Attention, Carter Jones (a Newbery Buzz discussion from this year)Gina was part of our discussion panel for our 2014 summer reading challenge. Don’t miss our review of Dorothy and Jack this week as well as some more Inklings-related coverage later this week. You can find the rest of our Back Porch Book Chat series here.

Gina Dalfonzo is the author of One by One, a columnist at Christ & Pop Culture, and founder and editor of Dickensblog. Her writing has been published in The Atlantic, Christianity Today, First Things, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Guideposts, Aleteia, Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal, In Pursuit of Truth: A Journal of Christian Scholarship, Literary Life, and OnFaith, among others. She earned her BA in English from Messiah College and her MA, also in English, from George Mason University. Dalfonzo lives in Springfield, Virginia.

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