Nonfiction Roundup, January 2018

Quick reviews of my latest nonfiction reads, from the political to the religious to memoirs. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s time for another nonfiction roundup! It has been a while since I posted one of these, and part of the reason is that many of these books were kind of difficult, for one reason or another. Still, I think you’ll find some good ones here, covering everything from politics to religion to American culture.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn’t sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment–a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Pursuing a different virtue each month, Evans learns the hard way that her quest for biblical womanhood requires more than a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It means growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period.

See what happens when a thoroughly modern woman starts referring to her husband as “master” and “praises him at the city gate” with a homemade sign. Learn the insights she receives from an ongoing correspondence with an Orthodox Jewish woman, and find out what she discovers from her exchanges with a polygamist wife. Join her as she wrestles with difficult passages of scripture that portray misogyny and violence against women.

I’m always a fan of Rachel Held Evans, and since feminism and religion are both things that are important to me, I was really excited to read this book. I found some of the things that Evans did a little bit… silly (and I questioned how she made it to the age of 30 without cooking, cleaning, or sewing on a button–no matter what your gender, I feel like these are basic skills that every adult picks up to some extent). But on the whole, I loved how she looked at groups from the Quakers to the Amish to the Jewish people and more to figure out how we have interpreted biblical womanhood in the past and how we can interpret it now.

Evans looks closely at the text and the way different Christian and Jewish traditions have interpreted the Bible’s teachings on women and invites us to do the same. Despite a little corniness that seems to come with any book that revolves around a year-long project, I really enjoyed this book. It gave me plenty of food for thought.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask

What have you always wanted to know about Indians? Do you think you should already know the answers—or suspect that your questions may be offensive? In matterof-fact responses to over 120 questions, both thoughtful and outrageous, modern and historical, Ojibwe scholar and cultural preservationist Anton Treuer gives a frank, funny, and sometimes personal tour of what’s up with Indians, anyway.

• What is the real story of Thanksgiving?
• Why are tribal languages important?
• What do you think of that incident where people died in a sweat lodge?

White/Indian relations are often characterized by guilt and anger. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask cuts through the emotion and builds a foundation for true understanding and positive action.

This book answers a lot of questions about Native Americans that I never even thought to ask–everything from economics to education to history to politics to culture. It’s amazing (and depressing) how little I know about the present-day lives of the first residents of this country. (In case you’re wondering, Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe people, prefers the term “Indian” rather than “Native American,” “indigenous people,” or “first people,” for reasons that–again–never would have occurred to me.)

If you want to learn more about Native Americans/Indians and their culture, perspectives, and frustrations, this book is a great starting point. If any of you have suggestions about books by and about members of native tribes, I would love to hear them!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The View from the Cheap Seats

An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.

This book offers a collection of speeches, introductions, and articles Neil Gaiman has written. I know some of the authors and awards; others were unknown to me, but they were all pretty interesting. It’s amazing how many famous and influential authors Gaiman has interviewed, worked with, or become friends with! I love listening to Neil Gaiman read his own work, so I recommend you listen to the audio book if this collection catches your interest.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

White Trash

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery.

Reconstruction pitted “poor white trash” against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.Marginalized as a class, “white trash” have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

I realized after I started listening to this book that the subtitle refers to “400 years of history,” and I strongly wish that weren’t the case. Although I did learn some new things about the history of class in America, I was not unaware that class is still an issue in our supposedly classless society, and the book seemed to drag on much longer than I thought necessary. The epilogue discusses how the issue of class affects us today, but I wish the whole book had been that, with only a little history interwoven. I know plenty of people have greatly enjoyed this book, and you might too. I just wanted less history and more modern-day application on this topic.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.
Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

I finally read this book because my book club was reading it, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Cheryl faces outer and inner struggles (bears, aching feet, a too-heavy pack, the death of her mother, her divorce from her husband) as she traverses the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an amazingly difficult trek, and it was satisfying to read about how Cheryl overcomes the obstacles that constantly pop up. Despite the questionable and sometimes outright dumb decisions Cheryl makes as she continues her journey, I found myself rooting for her.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically | Newbery and Beyond
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Next up is The Year of Living Biblically, written by A.J. Jacobs.  The author is Jewish, but only just (he says he is as Jewish as Olive Garden is Italian).  He took a whole year to, as the subtitle says, “follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  This meant animal sacrifices (just once!), not wearing mixed fibers, letting his beard grow out, eating kosher, avoiding lust, celebrating Passover, writing Scriptures on his door frame, and so on.  Along with attempting to follow all the rules in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments, but with a focus on the Hebrew Bible), Jacobs visited several Jewish and Christian groups and places–the Amish, Hasidic Jews, snake handlers, and even the Holy Land.

This book is funny–Jacobs did not grow up in a practicing Jewish or Christian home, and his shock at some of the stranger rules in the Bible brings fresh life to it for those of us who are (or who think we are) intimately familiar with the Bible’s contents.  However, although Jacobs describes himself as an agnostic and was not converted to either Judaism or Christianity by the end of his year-long experiment, he is surprisingly respectful to both faiths and to those who believe and follow the Bible.  He genuinely seems to have wanted to learn, and although he did give up most of his practices at the end of the year, he did find that he found peace in the Sabbath and in prayer, and liked the sacredness that following these rules lent to everyday things like washing, eating, dressing, etc.  For me, as a Christian, I appreciated Jacobs’ respectful approach and his desire to learn, and his insights gave me renewed desire to follow God’s laws myself.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Have you read this book?  Have any suggestions for what I should read next?  Let me know in the comments!

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