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

Nonfiction that Will Make You Think

Quick reviews of the latest nonfiction I've read that will make you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I read a weird hodgepodge of nonfiction, usually including memoirs, history, and personal development. Today’s nonfiction revolves around the theme of books that will make you think, whether about religion, feminism, or adoption. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Evolving in Monkey Town

Rachel recounts growing up in a culture obsessed with apologetics, struggling as her own faith unraveled one unexpected question at a time.

In order for her faith to survive, Rachel realizes, it must adapt to change and evolve. Using as an illustration her own spiritual journey from certainty to doubt to faith, Evans challenges you to disentangle your faith from false fundamentals and to trust in a God who is big enough to handle your tough questions.

As I mentioned in my review of Searching for Sunday, I find reading Rachel Held Evans’s writing kind of surreal. This book is especially so, as she talks specifically about her time at Bryan College, my alma mater, taking worldview classes and talking about the same issues that we still discussed during my time at Bryan. Additionally, I continue to find that Rachel’s journey in her faith mirrors mine in certain aspects, even if I don’t always come to the same conclusions she does. Her thoughts on Christianity, faith, apologetics, and having all the answers were really helpful to me, and I think they would be to anyone who has struggled with the hard questions of the Christian faith and had their questions ignored or pushed away.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dear Ijeawele

A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a dear friend from childhood, asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response.

Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions–compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive–for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can “allow” women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

Adichie‘s latest book (if you can call it that–it reads like a long essay) features suggestions on raising a child as a feminist. I liked the suggestions and agreed with most of them, but I was already familiar with and planning to use most of them. If you’re looking for a quick primer on raising children as feminists, this might be the book for you. But if you’re already well versed on feminism and stocked up with theories on raising children, you might be able to skip this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption

Prior to 1990, fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2011, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption. Yet these agencies do not often or adequately prepare either adopting parents or birth parents for the road ahead of them! The adult parties in open adoptions are left floundering. There are many resources on why to do open adoption, but what about how? Open adoption isn’t just something parents do when they exchange photos, send emails, share a visit. It’s a lifestyle that may intrude at times, be difficult or inconvenient at other times. Tensions can arise even in the best of situations. But knowing how to handle these situations and how to continue to make arrangements work for the children involved is paramount.

The Open-Hearted Way offers a powerful look at how we can use open adoption for raising a whole child. As someone who looks forward to adopting at some point in the future, I’m always looking for more information, more ideas, better ways of making adoption work. This book filled that need for me. Lori and Crystal, an adoptive mother and a birth mother in an open adoption, share their two sides of the adoption story and give helpful tips on how to make open adoption work for both sets of parents, and most importantly for the child.

If you’ve been interested in adoption and felt too afraid to look at open adoption, please read this book! It will answer your concerns and questions with warm, practical, clear-eyed but optimistic advice.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

An Exploration of Christian Books

Today's post takes a deep dive into the Christian books I've been poring over recently. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In an attempt to better understand where I am in my faith and to reconcile the things I believe about Christ with the things I see many Christians doing and saying, I’ve been drowning myself in books about the Bible, modern Christianity, and Christianity in the US in particular. This post is meant to give you a taste of some of the most interesting and influential books I’ve read on this topic, so if you’re not into reading about Christian books, today’s post is not for you. But if you are also interested in exploring diverse views on faith, read on! I have some amazing books to share with you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Biblical scholars Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O’Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways. Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

If you’re only looking for the highlights, this is one of my two “must reads” on this list. (I’ll let you know when we get to the other!) Misreading Scripture illustrates the “things that go without saying” in our own Western culture, in non-Western cultures around the world, and in biblical cultures, and explains how that affects our reading of the Bible. This book has made a powerful difference in the way I read the Bible, especially the stories and parables that are so familiar to those of us who grew up in the church. The book is not meant to explain every part of the Bible (although I sometimes wished it would!) but rather to give modern, Western readers a framework for understanding Scripture in the way it would have been understood by its original readers.

In college I did some cross-cultural studies in preparation for time spent overseas, so you would think I would be able to make the leap concerning the shame/guilt dichotomy or the individualist/collectivist societal differences on my own, but no, I was not. Understanding how these very different, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking change the way Western readers understand verses written for a collectivist society is one of the most powerful things I took away from this book. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the authors do a great job of explaining these concepts. Because the authors have both spent time living, working, and ministering in cultures very different from the US, they have first-hand accounts and stories to illustrate their points.

If you’re serious about studying and understanding the Bible and are concerned that you’re missing something because of our very different culture, you must read this book. This book is compulsively readable (at least it was for me) and steers clear of technical jargon that theological books often fall into, so whether you have a ministerial degree or are simply trying to learn how to read the Bible better, you will get something out of Misreading Scripture. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Everything Must Change

How do the life and teachings of Jesus address the most critical global problems in our world today?

In “Everything Must Change, “you will accompany Brian around the world on a search for answers. Along the way you’ll experience intrigue, alarm, challenge, insight, and hope. You’ll get a fresh and provocative vision of Jesus and his teachings. And you’ll see how his core message can infuse us with purpose and passion to address the economic, environmental, military, political, and social dysfunctions that have overtaken our world.

This book offers an interesting look at Jesus as a political figure. The author talks about the “peace insurgency” and how Jesus thinks about social justice, global warming, violence, and other hot button issues that we normally think of as political. I certainly didn’t agree with all of his theology (in fact, I found this book the most theologically questionable of the group), but I wish more of the church would read his conclusions.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Searching for Sunday

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

Reading this book was a bit surreal for me. I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans, but her father was a professor of mine in college, and I know almost every school and church in the tiny town that Rachel grew up in. I felt like Rachel’s journey–her frustration with the church over social and political issues–was very close to mine. As with most of these books, I don’t agree with all of Rachel’s viewpoints, but I resonated deeply with her experiences. This book is more of a memoir than most of the other books on this list, but I think it could be very helpful if you are also feeling the disconnect between your faith and your social beliefs. It certainly made me feel less alone.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reconciliation Blues

What is the state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches today? Are we truly united? In Reconciliation Blues journalist Edward Gilbreath gives an insightful, honest picture of both the history and the present state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches. He looks at a wide range of figures, such as Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and John Perkins. Charting progress as well as setbacks, his words offer encouragement for black evangelicals feeling alone, clarity for white evangelicals who want to understand more deeply, and fresh vision for all who want to move forward toward Christ’s prayer “that all of them may be one.”

This book, written by an African-American writer in the evangelical Christian world, talks about the many ways Christians have messed up in regards to creating a multicultural, multiracial church. To me, as someone who has thought and read a fair amount about this, the author’s tone sometimes seems too gentle. I wanted Gilbreath to leave less room for white Christians to say, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me.” Still, I think this gentle tone is a good way of talking to people who need to hear this message and maybe haven’t been exposed to it before. Definitely an important read for white Christians, though I’m sure Christians of all races and backgrounds will get something out of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Ragamuffin Gospel

Many believers feel stunted in their Christian growth. We beat ourselves up over our failures and, in the process, pull away from God because we subconsciously believe He tallies our defects and hangs His head in disappointment. In this newly repackaged edition–now with full appendix, study questions, and the author’s own epilogue, “”Ragamuffin” Ten Years Later,” Brennan Manning reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. The Father beckons us to Himself with a “furious love” that burns brightly and constantly. Only when we truly embrace God’s grace can we bask in the joy of a gospel that enfolds the most needy of His flock–the “ragamuffins.”

This is a classic in the Christian world, and I can’t believe I had never read it before now. I loved Manning’s emphasis on God’s love and grace, even during his darkest times. This book is powerful, and I definitely suggest reading it if you’re feeling far from God or stuck in your faith.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The 7 Experiment

Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say that our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by a child who was living in poverty, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. This study will lead you through this same experiment, at whatever level you choose, in seven key areas: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

What s the payoff for living such a deeply reduced life? It s the discovery of a greatly increased God a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence.

This book is Jen Hatmaker’s Bible study follow up to 7. If you want to enact some of the things Jen did in her original book, you should check this one out. It provides a clear and sometimes painful look at how our levels of consumption are causing people around the world to suffer, but it also gives concrete ideas on how to change the way you think about your time, money, possessions, food, technology, waste, and more. Jen backs everything up with biblical passages and discussion questions for your Bible study group.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Irresistible Revolution

Many of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive believers. We can write a check to feed starving children or hold signs in the streets and feel like we’ve made a difference without ever encountering the faces of the suffering masses. In this book, Shane Claiborne describes an authentic faith rooted in belief, action, and love, inviting us into a movement of the Spirit that begins inside each of us and extends into a broken world.

Shane’s faith led him to dress the wounds of lepers with Mother Teresa, visit families in Iraq amidst bombings, and dump $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute wealth. Shane lives out this revolution each day in his local neighborhood, an impoverished community in North Philadelphia, by living among the homeless, helping local kids with homework, and “practicing resurrection” in the forgotten places of our world. Shane’s message will comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable . . . but will also invite us into an irresistible revolution. His is a vision for ordinary radicals ready to change the world with little acts of love.

If you’ve been waiting for the other book on this list that I consider a “must read,” this is it. This book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels stifled by traditional Christianity, for those who are tired of only hearing about orthodoxy and want to talk about orthopraxy. Shane’s views may rub some people the wrong way, but his idea of being an “ordinary radical” and showing great love to everyone is powerful. He spends time with Mother Teresa and the lepers in India; he travels to Iraq only a short while after 9/11; he opens his home to the homeless. And while this might sound extreme to some readers, Shane argues that this is the Christian life that Jesus wanted us to live.

To be completely honest, I’ve been struggling more and more with how much American Christianity has become intertwined with American politics, patriotism, and war. I’ve thought and talked and prayed about how we can return to the simple, painful path of radical generosity and love that I believe Jesus modeled for us. Even though I disagree with a few of Shane’s ideas, I was captivated by his vision of that radical love, and it has influenced my thinking on how to spend my time and money and skills. If you are at all disillusioned with the modern American church, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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