Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

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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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 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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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 Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman

Friday, June 28th, 2019

Art Matters

Because Your Imagination Can Change the World

by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Chris Riddell

Review written March 25, 2019, from a library book
William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2018.
Starred Review

This little book consists of four essays by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations on every page by Chris Riddell. I’m pretty sure I’d read my two favorites before, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” and “Make Good Art.” They are wonderful, and I was eager to read them again, in illustrated form. In fact, I so much wanted to hear these ideas again, I checked out and listened to the short audiobook, narrated by Neil Gaiman. I love his accent and can listen to him forever, so it was all the more wonderful to hear his inspiring thoughts read with his own voice.

Then after listening, I checked out the print book so I could catch some quotes for Sonderquotes.

This book contains inspirational thoughts about the power of ideas, about reading and libraries, about procrastinating, and about becoming an artist who makes good art. It doesn’t take long to read, but it will leave you inspired.


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Review of More Glimpses of Heaven, by Trudy Harris

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

More Glimpses of Heaven

Inspiring True Stories of Hope and Peace at the End of Life’s Journey

by Trudy Harris, RN

Revell, 2010. 204 pages.
Review written May 30, 2019, from a library book

I don’t remember what I read that prompted me to check out this book, but I’m glad I did. My mother is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and recently a dear friend from college died of colon cancer – and this book is deeply comforting.

I read this book in small doses, a couple of stories per day. It’s a collection of true stories from hospice nurses – including Trudy Harris herself – about people finding peace at the end of their lives. Many of the stories have an element of the miraculous – some surprising vision or amazingly perfect timing – but many of the stories don’t, and are simply stories of how someone found peace and love around them as they faced their own death.

I haven’t read Trudy Harris’s first book, Glimpses of Heaven, but intend to do so. This second book was written after other hospice professionals showered her with letters telling her about their own experiences similar to what she had shared.

Here’s what she says about the stories:

Each one is a real-life account of a patient who was dying, and in each instance, the caregiver sensed something greater than themselves at work. These stories lend credence to the belief that when our time arrives, we will not be alone. I remember well hearing these stories told by many of the nurses when we gathered for Hospice team meetings in the past. I am most grateful to them for recounting their experiences here for you.

In these stories you will find God’s loving presence reflected in both the lives of those He is calling home to Himself as well as those caring for them. Look for the compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and tenderness of Jesus’s own heart. Do you recognize Him in those who make life easier and more peaceful for others as they are both living and dying? Do you see His humanity and humor reflected through their kindness? He shows us His face in our everyday lives, and if we pay attention, we will see and hear Him. He is inviting us to become part of the kingdom of God here on earth – and what a wonderful invitation it is!

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Review of Shade, by Pete Souza

Thursday, May 9th, 2019


A Tale of Two Presidents

by Pete Souza

Little, Brown and Company, October 2018. 240 pages.
Review written February 19, 2019, from a library book

Pete Souza was the official white house photographer when Barack Obama was president and has already published the wonderful book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. In this book, he uses some of the same pictures to throw some shade.

He explains what he’s doing in an introduction. Let’s just say that he was struck by the contrast between things our current president was doing and saying and things a competent president whom he knew well had done. So he began posting photos on Instagram that directly contrasted with things the new president was doing. People loved it, and some said he was “throwing shade,” so he tried to figure out what they meant. Here’s what he says about it:

So, finally, I googled “throwing shade” and Merriam-Webster explained it to me: it’s a “subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone – sometimes verbal, and sometimes not.”

Yup, that’s what I was doing – throwing shade. And I kept it up for the first 500 days of the new administration, and I plan to keep going long after you’ve read this book. My comments are often humorous, and I’d even say they are more or less respectful. They are certainly more respectful than the tweets coming from this president.

I also try to make subtle comments with my Instagram posts without directly revealing what the current president has said or done. Many people tell me they see my posts and then try to find out what they missed in the news.

In this book, I take a turn to full transparency and let it all hang out. In the pages that follow, you will see adaptations of my original posts matched up directly with what inspired them – a presidential tweet and/or the news that caught my attention in the first place. You can call it shade. I just call it the truth.

I hope you laugh, and maybe even cry, as you read this book. During the past 18 months, outrage has bubbled up inside me. I have become more and more appalled at the person that we, with help from Russia, elected to represent our nation. With this book, I’m standing up and shouting out. I can’t be subtle any longer.

Obviously, this is a book for fans of Obama. I loved the book and indeed laughed over it. I managed not to cry – but it does add to my frustration with the present situation to remember how a president should act.

A few examples. On one side of the page there are headlines about Trump’s Muslim Ban. On the opposite page there’s a photo of Obama talking with young refugees at a Dignity for Children Foundation classroom in Malaysia. There are a couple of times with headlines about how Trump got along with foreign leaders contrasted with pictures of Obama with them (both allies and Putin). There’s a headline about Trump denying climate change contrasted with Obama talking with a scientist on the site of a melting glacier in Alaska. There’s a headline with a Trump attack on the media contrasted with a picture of an Obama press conference – lots of smiling faces in that one. A “Fake news” headline from Trump is contrasted with the range of newspapers and news magazines presented in the Obama white house daily.

Our current president has broken norms over and over again – it’s good to be reminded how a president should actually approach the job. To be honest, I think a photographer could have come up with contrasting photos using almost any other president, not just the outstanding one who came just before Trump. May things go back to normal very soon. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy reading this book.


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Review of A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz

Friday, April 19th, 2019

A Bigger Table

Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

by John Palovitz

Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 192 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 11, 2019, from a book purchased via

A Bigger Table is all about Christians reflecting our God, who pours out his great love on everyone. John Pavlovitz talks about a bigger table that includes radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community.

He begins by telling his story, about his upbringing in the Catholic church and how he eventually became an evangelical pastor. But he had made some LGBTQ friends and his brother came out as gay, and when he started to question the church’s attitude toward them, he got fired. Now he talks about that as the best thing that ever happened to him.

A lot of churches are not welcoming. He talks about that in the beginning section, “Big God, Small Table”:

There are many reasons the local church is so vulnerable to such all-or-nothing extremism; not least among them is the way so much of our Christianity has been immersed in relentless us-vs.-them culture-war rhetoric. Scaring people into the kingdom by enlisting them for combat has been the evangelical church in America’s bread and butter for the past fifty years, and it’s worked out pretty well. It’s been a reliable way to generate urgency among the faithful and to get people worked up, but ultimately it’s also been costly. Frame the spiritual journey as a stark good-vs.-evil battle of warring sides long enough and you’ll eventually see the Church and those around you in the same way, too. You’ll begin to filter the world through the lens of conflict. Everything becomes a threat to the family; everyone becomes a potential enemy. Fear becomes the engine that drives the whole thing. When this happens, your default response to people who are different or who challenge you can turn from compassion to contempt. You become less like God and more like the Godfather. In those times, instead of being a tool to fit your heart for invitation, faith can become a weapon to defend yourself against the encroaching sinners threatening God’s people – whom we conveniently always consider ourselves among. Religion becomes a cold, cruel distance maker, pushing from the table people who aren’t part of the brotherhood and don’t march in lockstep with the others.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter where he talks about getting fired:

It’s easy for religious people to be intimidated by those seeking a bigger table. This was always the Pharisees’ struggle. It wasn’t a lack of faith or lack of love for God, but a resistance to the idea that God could speak in new ways, could come packaged differently than they expected, and could exist outside the box they built for God. When we dare to step outside that box, when we ask the most difficult questions, and when we unearth our own spiritual junk, others are reminded of the unattended longing in their own hears. Christian people rarely get angry at theological claims I make in my blog posts or when I’m speaking somewhere, but almost always at the questions I ask, because they are forced to entertain those questions themselves whether they care to or not. Those questions press against the tender spots where their doubt sits buried just below the surface.

Then he talks about building a bigger table. And it’s all based on the ministry Jesus had.

One of the most powerful examples of Jesus’ table ministry is recorded by all four of the Gospel biographies. Jesus has been teaching in a remote spot and the place is packed. It’s getting late and those gathered, miles away from the nearest Chick-fil-A, are getting hungry. Jesus, drawn to the need by his disciples, responds by feeding the whole lot of them with the small bit of food present. As the story goes, thousands have their bellies filled and some get to-go boxes. As so often happens when reading these stories, we can easily be tripped up by the miraculous aspect of the moment, preoccupied by the mechanism rather than the meaning of it all. If we see this meal as merely a how story, we will be forever burdened with intellectually explaining the exponential multiplication of the bread and fish, trying to wrap our minds around the physics and food science involved – and we will be doomed to miss the point gloriously. But if we view this as a who story and a why story, we will find the clear invitation for we who seek the ways of Jesus. We can see the heart of God for hungry people. We can see the tremendous challenge of expanding the table. This is where the miracle takes place.

I can’t fathom the transformation of a basket of food to accommodate a multitude (heck, I’m not even sure how our toaster works), but I can see the boundless compassion of the open table and endeavor to re-create that on whatever spot I stand at any given moment and with the people in my midst. Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. And as striking as what he does is, equally revelatory is what he doesn’t do here. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table. Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us.

I like his metaphors. One is about showing people the ocean:

For me, going to the beach is always like meeting God. There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk farther, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. And you breathe. It never fails to level me. It is never commonplace. It is always holy ground. If you’ve been to the beach, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t – well, you just won’t. That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it, no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it, no one needs to. The love of God is this way. For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve talked about a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus. We’ve talked and talked and talked – and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears. They receive our condemnation. They know our protests. They experience our exclusion. They endure our judgment. They encounter our bigotry. And all of our flowery words ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea as delivered through our daily encounters with them not compelling enough to pursue for themselves. Our commitments to hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and community can be empty words, too, if we don’t put them into practice.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean, and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it. The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As they meet us, they need to come face-to-face with radical welcome, with unconditional love, with counterintuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

He also talks about gaining new eyes:

I want you to think about your eyes for a moment. I want you to think about the way you see the world, especially if you’re a person of faith. When you encounter war, poverty, violence, addiction, human trafficking, and all the other things that horrify you, what story do you tell yourself? Usually we fall into one of two camps. Some Christians look at the dysfunction, injustice, and discord around them as sure signs of a fallen creation: proof of a sinful, rebellious culture rejecting God and paying the price. They see suffering as the by-product of wickedness, the unpleasantness they rub shoulders with every day clear symptoms of the moral decay of everything. These followers of Jesus primarily see sin, and the lens through which they view the world around them and the people in their path. With this as their primary filter, they tend to respond with a burden to save souls. The answer to everything becomes conversion, salvation as eternal rescue from the cancer that afflicts us all. It is next-life focused. Or they see Jesus as an instant, magic cure-all for the behavior in others that they find objectionable or uncomfortable. They imagine that simply “coming to Jesus” will eliminate all the immorality that may or may not bother Jesus – but that certainly bothers them. Apparently they’ve come across more fully perfected Christians than I have.

Other followers of Jesus see something different when they look at the mess in front of them. They see pain. They see need. They see longing. They see an opportunity to bring restoration here and now. They are focused as much on this world as they are on the next. These, I’ll contend, are the eyes of Christ, and these are the eyes of those who would build the bigger table. We are learning to see differently than we once did.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus looks upon the crowd gathered before him and is deeply burdened by what he sees, not because of what they are doing or not doing, but because of what is being done to them and what it is creating in them (9:35-38). He is moved in that moment, not by some moral defect but by their internal turmoil. Just as when he feeds the multitudes, Jesus is not concerned with behavior modification, as we so often imagine; he is most concerned with meeting the needs that prevent people from knowing their belovedness, and he offers an expression of God’s provision. Matthew records that Jesus, seeing those in front of him, notes not their conduct, but their condition, observing that they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This realization prompts a passionate, public appeal for those who would do the work of restoration and healing in the name of God. The distinction between seeing sin and seeing suffering is revelatory if we really let it seep into the deepest hollows of our hearts. Jesus’ default response to the fragile humanity before him is not contempt but compassion.

That gives you a taste of what’s in this book – an effort to follow Jesus and be like Jesus in making our churches more welcoming to more people, of sitting down together and listening to more opinions and caring about more people.

I especially like the chapter where he talks about the Mama Bears – because that’s a Facebook group I’m part of, a private group for Christian mothers of LGBTQ kids. The group is wonderfully supportive, and they are where I first heard of John Pavlovitz, since the group reached out to him after he wrote a blog post, “If I Have Gay Children,” talking about how what is important is loving those children. So, yes, the bigger table involves welcoming LGBTQ folks, too.

The expanding of the table isn’t an effort to abandon our Christianity or to reject the Church. It’s an attempt to jettison everything else but that which is essential to reflecting Jesus in the world and to sharing in redemptive community with people in a way that is so loving, so embracing, and so open, that it seems queer to the rest of the world. And that will be what brings revolution.

Of course, as a universalist, I especially like the chapter called “Fear Less.” He doesn’t call himself a universalist, but he does say things like this:

One of the great comforts in my travels to build a bigger table and to right-size God has been a simple reality that I’ve embraced, one that I hope seeps deep into your heart whatever your theological leanings are: God is not out to squash you. This is an incredibly difficult truth to claim if you’ve experienced religion through the lens of fear that told you otherwise. . . .

For much of my life, this guilt, pressure, and fear of exposure had left me fairly exhausted. But I am slowly but surely walking into a new story, gradually but most definitely jettisoning those things that don’t ring true anymore and traveling much lighter. My reverence for God has never been greater, my wonder never more full, my desire to know my Maker never stronger. The difference is, I now see God through the lens of one who is beloved, not one who is beloved with conditions. Life now is not a test to try and reach God, but an opportunity to notice God. I am seeking Jesus more deeply than ever – not to escape punishment, but to discover life as it is best lived. My faith is not about fleeing something horrible, but running toward something beautiful. I am daily responding in gratitude for the beauty of the gift of this world, not in the hope I can eventually escape it. I come to the Scriptures now not as divine dictation, but as the journal entries of those who came before me and who have walked this road of asking, seeking, and knocking. . . .

I return again and again to this place, to the belief that God is fully aware of the road you and I are on, that God is far more merciful and forgiving than we would ever be with one another or with ourselves. My prayers are different now because of it.

After all, this is God we’re talking about. If God is everything we’ve been led to believe God is, God has such patience with us that, were we to embrace it, it would make us rightly fearless. And once the fear of “getting it wrong” departs we can be completely ourselves, sharing the full contents of our hearts – hopefully with God’s people, but at the very least with God.

This book contains a lovely vision of reaching more people by demonstrating the amazing love of God for all people. Encouraging and inspiring.

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Review of Joyful, by Ingrid Fetell Lee

Thursday, April 4th, 2019


The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness

by Ingrid Fetell Lee
read by the author

Hachette Audio, 2018. 9.5 hours on 8 CDs.
Starred Review

I listened to this in audio form, then put the print book on hold so I could pull out the main points for this review. I’m finding I want to read it again.

I’ve read other books on finding joy, most notably Champagne for the Soul, by Mike Mason. This one is very different, not looking at joy from a spiritual or emotional perspective, but from a design perspective. It turns out that certain objects and certain sights can actually spark joy. In this book the author categorizes the types of things that bring joy and tells about visiting places that embody this. It’s a fascinating book and will give you plenty of ideas to try in order to bring joy into your everyday life.

This is a perspective on joy that I never thought of before, and I love it. In the introduction, she talks about finding joy in physical things.

I noticed many moments when people seemed to find real joy in the material world. Gazing at a favorite painting in an art museum or making a sandcastle at the beach, people smiled and laughed, lost in the moment. They smiled, too, at the peachy light of the sunset and at the shaggy dog with the yellow galoshes. And not only did people seem to find joy in the world around them, but many also put a lot of effort into making their immediate environment more delightful. They tended rose gardens, put candles on birthday cakes, and hung lights for the holidays. Why would people do these things if they had no real effect on their happiness?

A body of research is emerging that demonstrates a clear link between our surroundings and our mental health. For example, studies show that people with sunny workspaces sleep better and laugh more than their peers in dimly lit offices, and that flowers improve not only people’s moods but their memory as well. As I delved deeper into these findings, joy started to become less amorphous and abstract to me and more tangible and real. It no longer seemed difficult to attain, the result of years of introspection or disciplined practice. Instead, I began to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I could turn to at any time. I found that certain places have a kind of buoyancy – a bright corner café, a local yarn shop, a block of brownstones whose window boxes overflow with blooms – and I started changing my routines to visit them more often. On bad days, rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I discovered small things that could reliably lift my spirits. I started incorporating what I learned into my home and began to feel a sense of excitement as I put my key into the lock each evening. Over time, it became clear to me that the conventional wisdom about joy was wrong.

Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us.

The liberating awareness of this simple truth changed my life. As I started to share it with others, I found that many people felt the impulse to seek joy in their surroundings but had been made to feel as if their efforts were misguided. One woman told me that buying cut flowers lifted her spirits for days, but she felt like it was a frivolous indulgence, so she only did it on special occasions. It had never occurred to her that for the price of one of her weekly therapy sessions, she could buy a bunch of flowers every other week for a year. Another described how she had walked into her living room after repainting it and felt an “ahhh” feeling – a sense of relief and lightness that made her wonder why she had waited so long to do it. I realized that we all have an inclination to seek joy in our surroundings, yet we have been taught to ignore it. What might happen if we were to reawaken this instinct for finding joy?

As she studied joy and sought out the aesthetics of joy, she was able to make connections and put them into ten categories.

In all, I identified ten aesthetics of joy, each of which reveals a distinct connection between the feeling of joy and the tangible qualities of the world around us:

Energy: vibrant color and light
Abundance: lushness, multiplicity, and variety
Freedom: nature, wildness, and open space
Harmony: balance, symmetry, and flow
Play: circles, spheres, and bubbly forms
Surprise: contrast and whimsy
Transcendence: elevation and lightness
Magic: invisible forces and illusions
Celebration: synchrony, sparkle, and bursting shapes
Renewal: blossoming, expansion, and curves

The ten chapters of the book delve into these ten aesthetics in lovely rambling detail. They give ideas for how you can build them into your own life, but in many cases tell about someone who has indulged in this particular aesthetic in a big way – with striking results.

The final chapter in the print book wasn’t included in the audiobook (unless there were extra files I didn’t notice) – a Joy Toolkit with worksheets to fill out to help you fill your own life with joy.

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