Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of The Watchman and Other Poems, by L. M. Montgomery

Friday, September 20th, 2019

The Watchman and Other Poems

by L. M. Montgomery

Leopold Classic Library, reproduced from McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart Publishers, 1916. 159 pages.
Review written September 20, 2019, from my own copy

I’m rereading my L. M. Montgomery books in publication order, but never had found a copy of her book of poems, the eighth book she published. I found it in a reprint on Amazon and rectified that omission.

I am probably not the best audience for poetry. And these are old-fashioned in style, often using archaic language. They all rhyme, and many of the rhymes seem trite.

The story goes that when Maud Montgomery was a girl, she tried her hand at unrhymed poetry and read an example to her father. He said it didn’t sound like poetry.

She said, “It’s blank verse.”
He replied, “Very blank.”

And she wrote rhymed poetry forever after.

I wasn’t crazy about the format of the book, because it grouped poems about the sea together, and then poems about the woods together – and they began to all sound the same.

The poems I liked best were the poems that tell a story. Perhaps that’s because what L. M. Montgomery is good at is telling stories. The title poem, “The Watchman,” was about one of the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb when he was resurrected. Another poem, “If Mary Had Known,” told about the very bad and very good things her son would go through.

L. M. Montgomery likely suffered from bipolar disorder, so that gave a little extra light on “The Choice” – where she tells Life that she would rather “sound thy deeps and reach thy highest passion, With thy delight and with thy suffering rife” than have a boring life. “Wan peace, uncolored days, were a poor favor; To lack great pain and love were to lack savor.”

Another one I liked was “To My Enemy.” In it, she thanks not her friend, but her enemy for spurring her to do great things.

I had not scaled such weary heights
But that I held thy scorn in fear,
And never keenest lure might match
The subtle goading of thy sneer.

Thine anger struck from me a fire
That purged all dull content away,
Our mortal strife to me has been
Unflagging spur from day to day.

It’s possible that I will appreciate the poems about the woods and the sea more after I have actually visited Prince Edward Island. I think I’d better go find out!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

by Catherine Reid

Timber Press, 2018. 280 pages.
Starred Review

Hooray! This was the perfect book to discover shortly before my own long-awaited trip to Prince Edward Island! I finished reading it a few days before I set out myself with two childhood friends.

The book is full of full-color photographs taken on Prince Edward Island. Most of the spreads that don’t have one have a black-and-white photo that L. M. Montgomery took herself, or an illustration from the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.

The author does a nice job of getting across the basics of L. M. Montgomery’s life and how important Prince Edward Island was to her. She peppers the book with many quotations about the island from the Anne books, from Maud Montgomery’s journals, and from her book The Alpine Path about her career – and how important the beautiful landscapes of her home were to her.

At the back of the book there is a list of L. M. Montgomery sites to visit, and you can be sure I’m going to visit all of the ones on Prince Edward Island.

I wish these photographs could be printed on the pages of L. M. Montgomery’s books! Seeing how beautiful Prince Edward Island truly is made me appreciate much more her many descriptions where she hopes to explain that to the reader. She does a good job – but pictures verify that instantly.

The section about Gardens on Prince Edward Island pulled together gardens in her books and gardens she talked about in her journals – with photographs of the flowers she mentions and gardens such as the kinds she described. That chapter especially gave me new appreciation of what L. M. Montgomery was saying – since I didn’t even know what some of the flowers she names look like.

Browsing through this book is a delightful experience. There are enough well-chosen words to help you appreciate what you’re seeing. And for building excitement for an upcoming trip – it is absolutely perfect!

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Review of The Alpine Path, by L. M. Montgomery

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Alpine Path

The Story of My Career

by L. M. Montgomery

Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1990. First published in 1917.

I’m visiting Prince Edward Island in a few weeks (Yay!), and as part of my preparation, I’m rereading L. M. Montgomery’s books in the order they were published, so this short book about how she got started writing was up next.

In the Preface, the purpose of the book is explained:

In 1917 the editor of Everywoman’s World, a magazine published in Toronto from 1911 until the 1920s, asked L. M. Montgomery to write the story of her career. What she produced was published in six instalments, June through November, under the title she chose, The Alpine Path. It came from a verse that had been her inspiration during the long years when success as a writer seemed remote and only dogged determination kept her on

The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.

Now, I’ve read L. M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals and am currently reading her Complete Journals — so this little book doesn’t really contain any new information for me. Instead of focusing on just her writing career, Maud Montgomery writes a lot about her childhood. Though that part very much reflects how she came up with a child as imaginative as Anne and a child so in love with the natural beauty of Prince Edward Island – this is simply who she herself was.

She also finished up The Alpine Path by copying her journal entries from her honeymoon in Scotland. It’s not very pertinent to how she became a writer, and it feels like padding to make this long enough to be a book. Visiting Scotland is very interesting, yes, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story of her career. This time through the book I enjoyed that section much more, since I got to visit Scotland in 2003 and have been to some of the same places.

Since I am now reading her books chronologically, I did notice in particular how much of this story of how she got started as a writer she later used in her book Emily Climbs, as her heroine Emily of New Moon works and struggles to become an author – just as Maud Montgomery did herself. In fact, some of these scenes are pulled exactly and used for Emily, emphasizing how autobiographical a character she is.

I was also reminded that Maud Montgomery did her apprenticeship writing short stories. Here she writes about how her first efforts were spurned. But she persisted and started getting published by magazines that paid her in copies. And she persisted still more until she actually got paid, and eventually made quite a sum with her pen, even before she published a book. So Anne of Green Gables didn’t come from nothing.

This book does remind me that L. M. Montgomery is in her element writing about characters in a small town and incidents and interactions that happen with them. She knows the foibles and quirks of human nature and can draw people to great effect with her pen.

It’s also interesting that her career had just begun when she wrote The Alpine Path. She had published the first three Anne books, Kilmeny of the Orchard, the two Story Girl books, a book of short stories, and a book of poems. She would go on to publish fifteen more books in her lifetime. So it’s no wonder that this book talks more about how she got her start than on what it was like to continue to build a career as an author. I do recommend reading her journals to find out more about that!

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Review of The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery, edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

The Annotated
Anne of Green Gables

by L. M. Montgomery
edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Oxford University Press, 1997. 496 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 2, 2019, from my own copy.

This book is an obvious purchase for any L. M. Montgomery superfan like me. I ordered my own copy as soon as I learned of the book’s existence several years ago (though not as long ago as when it was first published in 1997). (Okay, it looks like now it’s out of print and expensive on Amazon. It’s worth looking for a used or library copy!)

I did not, however, get the book read very quickly. The content is marvelous and full of interesting tidbits, but the format is oversized. It’s a heavy book, not suitable for curling up with in bed, and not fitting easily into the books I pile up near my dining room table and read bits of daily. So I was making very slow progress.

However, this year I’m heading to Prince Edward Island with two dear friends – and that was enough for me to get motivated and finish reading this book. It’s also the perfect book to read for background on L. M. Montgomery and the book that made her famous.

The full text of Anne of Green Gables is included in this volume, but there’s a plethora of materials to go with it.

Yes, there are annotations with the notes written in the wide margins on the sides of the pages. We get insights on the books Anne refers to and notes on the sources of quotations used. We get definitions of words like “bush” (uncleared natural woodland) and “wincey.” (I once tried to use “wincey” in Scrabble because of Anne of Green Gables, but it wasn’t in a current dictionary.) We get explanations of household chores at the time like boiling the dishcloth before washing machines existed.

There are also an abundance of illustrations. Many are from early editions of Anne of Green Gables, but there are also photographs from L. M. Montgomery’s journals and other illustrations and photos from the time period.

The material at the front and back is particularly fascinating and helpful. There’s a Chronology of L. M. Montgomery’s life. I used it to update my list of her books in publication order, which I’d gotten from the internet and had a few small errors. There’s a short biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and notes about her writing of Anne. There are even Textual Notes detailing when the manuscript differs from the first published edition or the English edition, which had some changes.

The Appendices have a wealth of material. And this is the part of the volume that I finished up recently – so they were perfect reading just before my upcoming trip. They include “The Geography of Anne of Green Gables,” and much information about the times – orphan care, education, gardening, home life, and the “concerts” where music and elocution were demonstrated. They also list the complete text of many songs, literary works, and recitation pieces that are mentioned. And at the end are book reviews that came out when Anne was first published.

This book is for the adult Anne aficionado. I, for one, found many surprises – things I’d glossed over, thinking I knew what they meant – but now I have a more complete picture. This was so much fun to read – especially in anticipation of visiting the Green Gables Museum in a few weeks!

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Reckless Love, by Tom Berlin

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

Reckless Love

Jesus’ Call to Love Our Neighbor

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2019. 144 pages.
Starred Review

Reckless Love is written by the lead pastor of my new church, Floris United Methodist. I’ve been attending since July, and have been impressed by his consistent message that God loves everyone, and no matter how sinful, the image of God still shines in everyone. He challenges his listeners to love like Christ and stand with the marginalized.

I’ll admit it. This is the second time I read the book, and I wasn’t as impressed with it the first time, because it didn’t meet my specific expectations. (On the Newbery committee, we called that reviewing the book you want instead of the book you have.) But now that I’ve been sitting under Tom Berlin’s teaching and got a glimpse of his heart, I tried the book again, more ready to learn. The second time around, I was moved and challenged.

When I first read the book, I was attending a different church which was considering adopting a new “Christian Living Statement” that I didn’t agree with. You can read more about why I disagreed so strongly in the Transcending series I posted on my Sonderjourneys blog. I was thinking about visiting Floris United Methodist Church, so I read the pastor’s book. I was hoping that with a title Reckless Love there would be some mention of reaching out to LGBTQ folks. Then I’d be sure the church was as inclusive as I was looking for.

Well, LGBTQ folks are not mentioned in this book. But I visited the church anyway and learned they are mentioned at church. The pastor is leading the church to seek to take concrete steps toward being more inclusive of all ethnicities, all abilities, and all sexual orientations. He talks about standing with the marginalized as Jesus did. And he clearly means to apply toward LGBTQ people the challenges to love found in this book.

Taking the book together with his sermons, I’m freshly challenged to open my heart toward people in need, to be curious about people, and to work to see people. I work in a public library with many homeless customers, and it’s easy for me to overlook or dismiss some of the people I see every day. This book challenges me with the example of Jesus.

The six chapters are based on the acronym BE LOVE: Begin with Love, Expand the Circle, Lavish Love, Openhearted Love, Value the Vulnerable, and Emulate Christ.

Thinking about churches being more inclusive, I appreciated this section in the “Expand the Circle” chapter:

One look at the group Jesus first assembled as his followers tells us that something is lost when sameness is the defining characteristic of a church. Jesus’ example teaches us that something is wrong when we leave out people who differ from us and only feel at home when everyone is the same. His goal is not to make us more of what we are, but help us to become what we can be. That requires us to expand our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Christ shows us that the only way to learn the greatest commandment is to have people in our lives who we personally find so difficult to love that we have to get up every morning and pray to our Creator for a love we could not produce on our own. The first disciples had to ask God to expand their hearts so they could overlook the past sins of the tax collector, put up with the ideological torpedo the zealot launched at breakfast, ignore the angry brothers’ latest argument, or figure out if it was time to confront the group treasurer they were beginning to think was embezzling funds.

As I am thinking about how Jesus wants us to love rather than to judge, I was especially challenged by sections like this in the “Value the Vulnerable” chapter:

I would like to love other people enough to go to extraordinary measures to open the door and invite them in, rather than passively allow the door to close, go on my way and keep them out. Jesus said, “I am the gate. . . . All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:7).

Jesus encouraged his followers to become door openers rather than gatekeepers. He hoped that once people experienced the goodness of God, the love of God, and the grace of God, they would reside in it and be free to share it with others. This is why people who were sinners, outcasts, and poor loved Jesus and felt such joy in his presence. They were unaccustomed to being loved by someone who was talking about the ways of God. They knew that Jesus valued them, that he saw their worth, not one that they had earned or instilled within themselves. He saw their intrinsic value, the image of God that was imprinted upon their lives.

How does one become a door opener who leads others to the joy of Christ rather than a gatekeeper who judges others? Observing Jesus enables us to see how to value a vulnerable person.

This book can challenge you if you let it. I love the emphasis that God loves us and placed his image in us, and that’s why we can love. Here’s a section from the very end, challenging the reader to go out and apply what they’ve learned:

We must see this clearly, or we will miss the point of our life in Christ. Christ’s followers today receive the same calling and commission. If we miss this, it will have consequences. Rather than be witnesses to Christ in the way we love God, others, and ourselves, we will begin to think that Jesus came to make us nicer or a little more thoughtful, the kind of people who remember birthdays and select more personal Christmas gifts. Rather than tell others about God’s grace or offer mercy, we will believe that living a Christian life is about feeling forgiven of our sins. Rather than telling others about the habit-changing, bondage-breaking, turnaround-making power Jesus can have in our lives, we will cultivate a relationship with Christ that is so personal that we never share it with anyone else. Rather than speaking out and working for justice with those who hold position and power in our community and society, we will spend our time telling the already convinced how much better the world would be if it were not exactly as it is. Rather than offering acts of solace to those who grieve, comfort to the sick, or kindness of conversation with prisoners or returning citizens, we will simply offer thanks that we are not in such predicaments ourselves.

Jesus takes us on a journey so that he can deploy us on a mission. He offers his love to us so that we will share it with the world. He does this because he loves us. The first disciples knew they were beloved, not only because of what Jesus did for them, but because Jesus believed in them when he called them to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He knew what they could do for him. Jesus believed in them more than they believed in themselves. He saw more potential in them than they ever thought possible in their lives. He forgave them for what they were not, just as he celebrated all that they were. All of this is what is at the heart of being beloved by another. When we are beloved, we gain the confidence another has in us and make it our own. That confidence transforms how we think of ourselves. It guides the journey that, in the end, leads to who we become. Such love, once extended, is what stirs up a new sense of possibility in our lives.

This is the love God has for you, and the belief God holds in you. We must have faith that God believes in us, in our ability to love our neighbor, to treat ourselves properly in this life, and to worship the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

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Review of Histories of the Transgender Child, by Julian Gill-Peterson

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Histories of the Transgender Child

by Julian Gill-Peterson

University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 262 pages.
Review written August 9, 2019, from a library book

This book is dense and written for academics, and it took me a long time to read. However, what I could understand was fascinating.

The big point of this book is that there’s a false narrative circulating that transgender children are some kind of new phenomenon. The author looks at medical histories of transgender children throughout the twentieth century, which was when medical science began getting involved in sex organs and hormones. We learn about attitudes toward transgender children and attempts to “cure” them or force them into preconceived ideas of what they should be.

Here’s a section from the Introduction:

Yet an even more fundamental assumption about trans children that floats this contrast has yet to be challenged: that they are, in fact, new and future-bound. The narrative that we are in the midst of the first generation of trans children is so omnipresent as to be ambient. It is repeated ad nauseam in the media, online, by doctors, and by parents. Trans children, these various gatekeepers say in unison, have no history at all. Trans children are unprecedented and must be treated as such, with caution or awe. What happens if this consensus turns out to be baseless? The bleached and medicalized image of the trans child circulating as unprecedented in the twenty-first century is actually prefaced by an entire century of trans children, including black trans children and trans children of color. And trans children played a decisive role in the medicalization of sex and gender, rather than being its newest objects. These are two of the key ruptures that Histories of the Transgender Child uncovers. If the contrasting effect of contemporary figurations of black trans and trans of color life, placed next to trans childhood, is so damaging in its staging of an antinomy between negativity and futurity, this book argues that the twentieth century provides a surprising archive of trans childhood that undoes them from the inside.

Histories of the Transgender Child rewrites the historical and political basis for the supposed newness of today’s generation of trans kids by uncovering more than a century of what came before them. From the 1910s, children with “ambiguous” sex were medicalized and experimented upon by doctors who sought in their unfinished, developing bodies a material foothold for altering and, eventually, changing human sex as it grew. In the 1930s, some of the first trans people to seek out American doctors connected their requests for medical support to reports that “sex changes” on children were being regularly performed at certain hospitals. In the 1940s and 1950s, five decades of experimental alteration of children’s sex directly led to the invention of the category gender, setting the stage for the emergence of a new field of transsexual medicine and the postwar model of binary transition. And in the 1960s and 1970s, as that field of medicine became institutionalized, many children took hormones, changed their names, attended school recognized in their gender identities, and even underwent gender confirmation surgeries. Trans children not only were present but also were an integral part of the transgender twentieth century and the broader twentieth-century history of sex, gender, and race in medicine.

The material is dense, academic, and full of detail from medical records. This isn’t for everyone curious about the history of transgender children. I did wade through it and understood some of it. After that process, here are some thoughts that stuck with me:

Transgender children are not new. When medical science began to have a way to get their bodies to match their gender identity, that’s when they made themselves known, in hopes of getting treatment. But that wasn’t when they began to exist.

There are a hugely wide range of intersex conditions. Some of them are life threatening, which is why medical science began to get involved in sex and gender. Medical procedures used on intersex children then were requested by transgender people, and children were seen as the perfect object of study.

These stories made utterly clear that gender isn’t nearly as binary as we’d like it to be. If intersex children exist for a wide variety of medical reasons (and they do), it’s not logical to doubt the legitimacy of transgender children, who may be transgender for a physical reason in their brains that we can’t see.

I also have a better realization that for decades, doctors tried to “cure” transgender children. The truth is, it did not work. If being transgender could be changed, the folks in the twentieth century surely would have figured out how to do it. They gave it prodigious effort.

And this brings us to one of the main conclusions of this book:

Histories of the Transgender Child asks us to turn against and away from figurative thinking about trans children in general. Trans children must no longer bring us to some new knowledge of trans life or sex and gender, making them a means to some other abstract end. Rather, through the twentieth-century history of the chapters that follow I propose an ethical relation that calls upon adults to stop questioning the being of trans children and affirm instead that there are trans children, that trans childhood is a happy and desired form – not a new form of life and experience but one richly, beautifully historical and multiple.

Transgender children exist. Transgender adults exist. Medical doctors have been studying gender for more than a century. Gender as it occurs in humans is nowhere near as binary as some would like to think it is. Transgender people do not need to be “cured.” Those who believe medical treatment will improve their lives should be allowed to get it without stigma.

This book isn’t for everyone and is definitely not light reading. But if you’re curious about the history of how transgender children interacted with the medical profession and how attitudes toward them changed, this book is an valuable resource.

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Review of The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr

Monday, August 12th, 2019

The Universal Christ

How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe

by Richard Rohr

Convergent Books (Penguin Random House), 2019. 260 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from my own copy, ordered via

This book hit the spot for me, and came my way exactly when I needed to read it. I had recently switched churches because my former church had adopted a policy that declares transgender people are wrong to change their gender and that opposes same sex marriage. As a universalist, I already had some disagreements with their theology, so I’ve been thinking about theology and inclusiveness, and was very ready for this book.

I will freely admit that some of the ideas went over my head. There’s a lot of mysticism here, a lot of talk about insubstantial things. But I marked fifty passages to put in Sonderquotes, and I’ll be going over these ideas again. Maybe after a few times through, more will sink in. And I’m sure of this: These are uplifting and beautiful ideas. They’re based in Scripture and I believe they honor God. I’d like to put these concepts into my life.

This book is about trying to grasp – with experience and with our spirits, not necessarily our minds – the concept of Christ, who has been present much longer than the human Jesus.

Here are some questions from the beginning of the book:

Across the thirty thousand or so varieties of Christianity, believers love Jesus and (at least in theory) seem to have no trouble accepting his full humanity and his full divinity. Many express a personal relationship with Jesus – perhaps a flash of inspiration of his intimate presence in their lives, perhaps a fear of his judgment or wrath. Others trust in his compassion, and often see him as a justification for their worldviews and politics. But how might the notion of Christ change the whole equation? Is Christ simply Jesus’s last name? Or is it a revealing title that deserves our full attention? How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’s? What does Scripture mean when Peter says in his very first address to the crowds after Pentecost that “God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)? Weren’t they always one and the same, starting at Jesus’s birth?

Here’s another paragraph from that first chapter:

A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal. The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. (We should not be surprised that the word we translate from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one, or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed!) Many are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (1 John 1-2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18ff). We are still in the Flow.

As I said, I read this book at exactly the right time. Many of the ideas resonated beautifully with other books I’ve been reading, indeed, some of those books were quoted. But they were all brought together in a new way, taking things I’d been thinking about and going further.

An especially lovely resonance happened on Monday this past week. I was looking up a George MacDonald quote to insert in my blog series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, and when I found it, discovered that my favorite George MacDonald Unspoken Sermon, “Justice” is available online, and I had a lovely time rereading it. This sermon explains why George MacDonald does not believe God’s justice and God’s mercy are opposed to one another and why he finds the idea that Jesus had to save us from God’s wrath utterly abhorrent.

Well, I read that sermon in the afternoon. Later that same day, I picked up this book to read the next chapter – and the chapter was called “Why Did Jesus Die?” and also explains the problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation. Now, there is no doubt that both Testaments are filled with metaphors of atonement, sacrifice, expiation, ransom, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. But these are common temple metaphors that would’ve made sense to a Jewish audience. Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if you just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for you in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.

There are so many inspiring tidbits in this book. They are big ideas, and I’m going to need to go over it all again to try to grasp it better.

Overwhelmingly, this book is about the love of Christ, all around us and within us. And changing our lives and our vision.

Mostly, we must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered, which is called “Gnosticism.” The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient, and helps us to recognize that other traditions – and other people – have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, the head (Bible), heart (Experience), and body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

This book is not about doing or achieving, and I’m finding words like these freeing and inspiring:

Once the real inner journey begins – once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine – the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded. (The ego does not like this fundamental switch at all, so we keep returning to some kind of performance principle, trying to climb out of this messy incarnation instead of learning from it. This is most early-stage religion.)

His idea of the Universal Christ is fundamentally BIG:

To be loved by Jesus enlarges our heart capacity. To be loved by the Christ enlarges our mental capacity. We need both a Jesus and a Christ, in my opinion, to get the full picture. A truly transformative God – for both the individual and history – needs to be experienced as both personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. He became cozy and we lost the cosmic. History has clearly shown that worship of Jesus without worship of Christ invariably becomes a time-and culture-bound religion, often ethnic or even implicitly racist, which excludes much of humanity from God’s embrace….

For you who have loved Jesus – perhaps with great passion and protectiveness – do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. Why oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” to pass for the substantial self, which is always “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.

It’s tempting to keep finding bits to quote, but stay tuned to Sonderquotes, and you’ll see many more inspiring words from this book.

Try it out – perhaps the timing will be as lovely for you to hear these inspiring words as it was for me.

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Review of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

by Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau (Random House), 2014. 336 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 6, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to the Racial Reconciliation Group at Floris United Methodist Church for choosing this book for a book discussion. I confess, I did not read this book in time to participate in the discussion, but their choice brought it to my attention, and the book blew me away.

This book is the story of a young lawyer who in 1983 did an intensive course on race and poverty litigation, met some prisoners on death row, saw their humanity, and began working for people who didn’t have a voice and were not receiving either justice or mercy.

After talking about his first experience visiting a prisoner on death row, here is how Bryan Stevenson introduces this powerful book:

This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. . . .

After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillan. In this book you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly – not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness.

Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonment – prison staff – have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful.

I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity – seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

This was a difficult book for me to read. As a white woman who’s never had a personal encounter with the justice system, I’d like to believe that our justice system in America is fair and above board, and if you do no wrong, you won’t have any trouble with it.

Bryan Stevenson does highlight the story of Walter McMillan, telling about his case in alternate chapters. Walter was an African American on death row for a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed – since it happened the same time as a barbecue he attended, and multiple witnesses saw him there. The story of how the murder was pinned on Walter is complicated, involving plenty of racism, sentiment against him because he had an affair with a white woman, a strong desire to pin the crime on someone, pressure on the unreliable witness who testified against him, and a public defender who didn’t make much of an effort, among many other factors.

Even working hard on Walter’s case, there were still numerous obstacles to vindicating Walter, and he ended up spending six years of his life on death row, causing layers of pain to his entire community, since their testimony hadn’t been heeded.

The chapters in between the ones about Walter’s story tell about so many other people who needed justice. Some wrongfully accused and convicted, some harshly punished out of proportion to the crime. I learned that death by electrocution can be horribly painful. I’d had no idea. In view of recent law changes, especially heart-wrenching were stories of women who miscarried when alone – and then were convicted of murdering their newborn infant. This happened despite how much the women wanted to have a baby, and even to a woman who miscarried so early, there’s no way a baby could have survived.

So this book filled my heart with sadness and disillusionment – yet the focus is hope. And the book is written by a man who’s fighting for justice and making good progress at changing laws and helping folks wrongly imprisoned be set free.

In the Epilogue, Bryan Stevenson tells us some things he learned from Walter:

Walter had made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.

This was an amazing and powerful book that shook up my worldview. I hope many more people will read it, and it’s consistently on hold, which is a good sign. It was because I was reading this book that my heart sank when I read the news that federal executions are going to begin again. This book will change your perspective. Highly recommended.

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Review of The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

The State of Affairs

Rethinking Infidelity

by Esther Perel

Harper, 2017. 320 pages.
Review written June 3, 2019, from a library book

I’m not completely sure why I read this book. A library customer had me put it on hold for her, and it sounded interesting to me, so I put it on hold, too. And then it wound up on the top of my huge nonfiction-books-to-read stack, and it really did fascinate me.

Of course, my initial reason to be interested in the topic is that my own marriage ended after my ex-husband had an affair for a year and a half. The number of lies it took to pull that off ended up shaking my whole sense of reality when I finally found out.

I’m not sure this book gave me a whole lot of insights about that affair, though I did have the ability to understand a little better why some people have them. The fact that I could read this book at all without being overwhelmed by pain or anger says to me that I’ve come a long way in my healing process!

You won’t be surprised when I say this book is not written from a Christian perspective. From my perspective, adultery is wrong, and that’s pretty much all there is to say about it. It deeply wounds someone you’ve promised to love. However, because this author approaches it without judgment – she can find out much more that’s going on under the surface.

She doesn’t judge, but she still doesn’t recommend having an affair. She put it this way:

While I prefer to sidestep flat-out condemnation to allow for a thoughtful inquiry, I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly. I sit with the devastation in my office every day. Understanding infidelity does not mean justifying it.

In the Introduction, the author convinced me that it was worth reading on:

There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity: an affair. Yet this extremely common act is poorly understood….

Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships – what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They offer a unique window into our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment. Through examining illicit love from multiple angles, I hope to engage you, the reader, in an honest, enlightened, and provocative exploration of modern relationships in their many variations. I would like to stimulate a conversation between you and your loved ones about issues such as fidelity and loyalty, desire and longing, jealousy and possessiveness, truth-telling and forgiveness.

I’m afraid she does destroy the idea of an “affair-proof” marriage. And she’s even looked at open marriages where affairs happened. She says that wherever humans set up rules, others will get a thrill from breaking them.

This reminded me of a concept I learned in the book Forgive for Good, by Dr. Fred Luskin: Unenforceable rules. He says that we make rules for our loved ones that we can’t enforce. Instead of saying, “My spouse must not cheat on me,” which you can’t enforce at all, he suggests, “I hope my spouse will not cheat on me.” Then your spouse’s faithfulness becomes a loving gift, rather than meeting a demand. Either way, though, I was reminded in this book – you can’t actually make your spouse do anything.

She explores many different sides of affairs in this book and how it plays out for all parties involved, in many different situations. At the end she’s got a section with the heading, “What Can Marriage Learn from Infidelity?” I’ll finish with some paragraphs from that section:

Some relationships die, some survive and revive. What are the lessons of infidelity, for all of us who love? I hope these pages have served to illustrate that affairs are many things, but at best they can be transformative for a couple. I began this book with the analogy that while many people have positive, life-changing experiences as a result of terminal illness, I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer. What many people want to know, then, is what they can learn from affairs without necessarily having to go through one. It comes down to two questions: How can we better fortify our relationship against infidelity? And how can we bring some of the erotic vitality of illicit love into our authorized union?

The answer is counterintuitive. The impulse to protect your marriage is natural, but if you take the common “affair-proofing” approach, you risk heading back down the narrow road of stifling constraints. Outlawing friendships with the opposite sex, censoring emotionally intimate confidences in others, nixing water-cooler conversations, curtailing online activity, banning porn, checking up on each other, doing everything together, cutting off exes – all of these homeland security measures can backfire. Katherine Frank argues persuasively that the “marital safety narrative” creates its own demise. When a couple tries to safeguard their relationship through various forms of surveillance and self-policing, they risk setting themselves up for the exact opposite: the “enhanced eroticization of transgressions.” The more we try to suppress our primal longings, the more forcefully we may rebel….

Rather than insulate ourselves with the false notion that it could never happen to me, we must learn to live with the uncertainties, the allures, the attractions, the fantasies – both our own and our partners’. Couples who feel free to talk honestly about their desires, even when they are not directed at each other, paradoxically become closer….

We also learn from affairs that for most, the forbidden will always hold an allure. The ongoing challenge for steady couples is to find ways to collaborate in transgression, rather than transgressing against each other or their bond….

For Viola and Ross, it meant creating secret email accounts through which they could conduct private, X-rated conversations during meetings, playdates, and parent-teacher conferences. For Allan and Joy, it was occasionally leaving the kids with her mom and going out with no curfew. Dancing all night with a sense of unboundedness is the opposite of the regimentation of family life. Bianca and Mags can’t afford to go out, but they want to affirm that they’re not just parents. So once a week they put the babies to bed, light candles, dress up, and have a date at home. They call it “meeting at the bar.”…

Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew – or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment; rather, it mandates an active engagement that long-term couples often lose. The realization that our loved ones are forever elusive should jolt us out of complacency, in the most positive sense.

On reflection, I was one of those people who thought that an affair could never happen in my marriage – and I was completely wrong. It’s tempting when I think about starting a new relationship to try to go into it with lots of “safeguards” in place. I think that’s something of what I gained from reading this book – a deeper understanding that people are people. I can’t make someone I love behave a certain way. But a deeper understanding of marriage and what people want out of it and what an affair does to that – is not a bad thing to have, not a bad thing to process.

In the end, this book is fascinating reading about people and relationships.

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Review of Educated, by Tara Westover

Thursday, July 11th, 2019


by Tara Westover
read by Julia Whelan

Penguin Random House, 2018. 12 hours on 10 compact discs.
Starred Review
Review written June 11, 2019, from a library audiobook

This audiobook is not for the squeamish. Tara Westover tells the story of her childhood in the mountains of Idaho. Her family were radical Mormons, her bipolar father not trusting the world on the outside and convinced that the government would come after them, and they were going to be prepared. They stockpiled food and weapons and made their own medicines. They didn’t trust the medical establishment or schools, all those being of the devil.

The reason the book is not for the squeamish is that the family did plenty of physical work, running a junkyard and doing building projects – and had some terrible accidents. Accidents for which they did not see doctors. I’m going to tell you ahead of time that everyone survives the accidents described in this book, and maybe that will make it easier to hear about them. I don’t fault the family for calling the various healings miraculous. There are a lot of accidents described, and some of them are horrific.

But that’s only part of the story. There’s also some violent abuse going on at the hands of her older brother, but the family is invested in denying it ever happened. With the help of another brother, Tara makes a partial escape by studying to pass the ACT and going to Brigham Young University.

Once at the university, she tries to hide that she has never been to school before in her life. She has major gaps in her knowledge, such as not knowing about the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement. Her whole way of thinking has to adjust.

One thing leads to another, and Tara travels to Cambridge and to Harvard, continuing her education but also trying to deal with her past and present. When she refuses to deny the abuse, she has to choose between her family and her own perception of reality.

This is an amazing and mesmerizing story. It’s a story of growing up and having your whole perspective on the world undergo a dramatic shift – and doesn’t minimize the cost of that.

This book came out when I was on the Newbery committee, so several of my friends read it before I did. They universally declared that it wasn’t one to miss. Now that I’ve finally joined the crowd of readers, I completely agree with them.

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