Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of A Game of Birds and Wolves, by Simon Parkin

Monday, July 6th, 2020

A Game of Birds and Wolves

The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II

by Simon Parkin

Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 310 pages.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Game of Birds and Wolves is the story of how Great Britain used an elaborate war game to strategize and win the war against the U-boats during World War II.

I hadn’t realized how important the Battle of the Atlantic was. Britain came perilously close to starving. During World War II, 2,603 merchant ships and 175 naval vessels escorting merchant convoys were sunk. More than 30,000 merchant seamen and more than 6,000 Royal Navy sailors died in the Atlantic, mostly because of attacks from U-boats.

The subtitle is a little bit misleading. This book is mostly about the man, Gilbert Roberts, who developed the giant board game and taught it to British naval officers. But his staff, the people running the game, were indeed women, officers in the Wrens, the branch of the British navy for women.

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s nonfiction, so I did get impatient with the extreme level of detail in this book. We hear about the establishment of the Wrens, about specific ships getting sunk in the Atlantic, about the glamorous lives on shore of U-boat commanders, and how Gilbert Roberts had been rejected by the navy. It seemed like the first half of the book was establishing the many, many different characters and the situations for both the Germans and the British.

But the tension does heighten as the WATU – the Western Approaches Tactical Unit – begins deducing the strategies that U-boats were using and developing ways to combat it. At the same time, we read about an admiral asking for more U-boats and finally getting them. It all builds to a dramatic battle where one of the Wrens charting the position of the ships in a giant sea battle is aware that her fiancé is in the thick of things.

As a gamer, it made sense to me that playing strategy games helps admirals devise effective strategies in real-life scenarios. They developed a 6-day course and captains coming in from time at sea would go through the course. They simulated visibility at sea by putting the captains behind a canvas screen and plotting the positions of small models of ships on the linoleum floor. They used green chalk for the U-boats, which couldn’t be seen from an angle. They made a dramatic simulation before computers could be used to do it.

The Wrens on staff were responsible for moving the models and marking the courses of the ships and U-boats involved. I enjoyed the scene where they had a young Wren play a scenario against a high ranking naval officer. She was experienced with the game and soundly defeated him.

It all gives an interesting side of World War II that I’d never heard about before.

simonparkin.com
littlebrown.com

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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 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 Defying Gravity, by Tom Berlin

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

Defying Gravity

Break Free from the Culture of More

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2016. 108 pages.
Review written January 9, 2020, from my own copy

This little book was given to me when I joined Floris United Methodist Church, where the author is the lead pastor. It’s a book about giving generously, which might make you suspicious coming from a pastor. However, Tom Berlin tells a personal story of how giving changed his life – and he expresses that he hopes that others will find the same joy.

He told the story when I went to the membership information night of how his young bride insisted that they give a tenth of their income – much to his dismay. But as the years went by, her example eventually changed his attitude, and he discovered that an attitude of generosity can set you free from the gravity of this world and this culture, that you need to hoard and you always need more.

The book is short, with only four chapters. They talk about the pull of money in our lives, and how to break free of financial gravity and realize that we are stewards of God’s money.

So it may be short, but these are big lessons. I’m still absorbing if there are some changes I can make to be more generous.

All of us can defy gravity. It doesn’t take lots of money. It does take time. It takes sacrifice. It takes a shift in our view of the world. We must learn to see our lives as belonging to God and trust that God will direct our lives in a generous way that will bring us joy and significance.

God longs for us to experience a life in Christ that will make us generous in all ways, with our kindness, compassion, and love as evidenced in the use of our time and money. Such a life enables us to break free of the world’s gravity and enjoy the pull of God’s kingdom so that the Spirit of God will be evident in our own.

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Review of So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo
read by Bahni Turpin

Blackstone Audio, 2018. 7 hours, 41 minutes.
Review written June 17, 2020, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I wish I already knew the things talked about in this book. I wish the topic wasn’t so timely in 2020. And I wish it hadn’t taken timely current events to get me to listen to this book. However, all things taken together, I’m very glad this book exists to educate me about issues of race and how black people in America have many very different experiences than I do. And I’m glad I finally listened to it.

This book is a black person telling things like they are. She doesn’t hold back to spare your feelings. So much of what she says was eye-opening for me. I hadn’t thought much about how the world responds to black people, because the world doesn’t respond to me that way.

I was surprised by how long the book was. It turned out that she had plenty of things to cover, and covered them well. Whatever else I was feeling as I listened to this book, I wasn’t bored for even a second.

I liked the way she approached explaining privilege. She first talked about ways in which she herself is privileged. One of those ways is by having a college degree. Yes, she worked hard for that degree. It did help that she was born into a family that valued education. But once she got the degree, she was able to get better-paying jobs, even when they didn’t use anything she learned while gaining the degree. Just having the degree got her a higher income. Then she encourages the listener to consider their own privilege.

Something disturbing happened during the week I was listening to this book. There have been many protests going on, and some friends of mine actually posted things that exactly fit what Ijeoma Oluo had talked about. One was accusing protesters of “making everything about race.” Another said “I want my country back!,” and yet another posted a video of a white man who’d traveled across America and said what good people he’d found throughout this country and that we should all calm down. That story was nice, but he seemed completely oblivious to what I’d just learned, that if a black man traveled throughout this country, he couldn’t count on a positive and helpful attitude in every neighborhood where he shows up as a stranger. The very idea that black people and people of color have very different experiences in America than white people do was an insight I became much more aware of from listening to this book.

I still have a long way to go. This author, like others, said that you’re going to make some mistakes. But better that than continuing on my oblivious path. And she finished the book with some practical steps those of us with privilege can take.

ijeomaoluo.com

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

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Kindness and Wonder, by Gavin Edwards

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Kindness and Wonder

Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever

by Gavin Edwards

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 248 pages.
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book.

Kindness and Wonder is a biography of Mr. Rogers, followed by ten lessons from his life, with anecdotes. I like the biography. I had tried to get through the much more detailed biography, The Good Neighbor in audio form, and hadn’t ever finished it. This one gives you the basic facts and the basic story of his life without getting bogged down.

The ten lessons are:

Be deep and simple.
Be kind to strangers.
Make a joyful noise.
Tell the truth.
Connect with other people every way you can.
Love your neighbors.
Find the light in the darkness.
Always see the very best in other people.
Accept the changing seasons.
Share what you’ve learned. (All your life.)

Some of the stories presented alongside these lessons weren’t what I expected. For example, the “Love your neighbors.” chapter told how the lives of Andy Warhol and George Romero paralleled the life of Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure I cared about them!

But mostly, this book tells about a man’s life who saw his ministry as using television to reach children, and who took children’s developmental needs very seriously.

As a children’s librarian, of all people, I need to learn everything I can from Mr. Rogers. I like the way this book points out the lessons from his example.

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harpercollins.com

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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 Open Borders, by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith

Thursday, May 28th, 2020

Open Borders

The Science and Ethics of Immigration

written by Bryan Caplan
artwork by Zach Weinersmith

First Second, 2019. 249 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 6, 2019, from a library book

This is a graphic novel about the case for, yes, open borders. And yes, it’s got science and ethics and statistics to back it up.

I’ve long said about children’s nonfiction, that the graphic novel format is a fantastic way to get facts across. It turns out to also be true about facts and current issues for adults.

I’ll admit up front that I was leaning toward advocating for open borders – because from my perspective it certainly seems the more Christian thing to do. But I wasn’t sure about answers to the various objections.

This book is written by a professor at George Mason University (down the road from me), and he has answers to a whole lot of objections. He also has ideas for opening up immigration that fall short of open borders, but that are still better than our current situation.

It would be easier to make a case against open borders if the United States hadn’t had almost open borders (“with infamous exceptions”) until the 1920s. In fact, my own ancestors came to America long before the 1920s, so they didn’t have to worry about legal or illegal immigration. In fact, most of my ancestors came before the United States existed. They came to English colonies, a lot of them looking for freedom of religion. Many of them did not, in fact, speak English. I have a copy of a will from an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. His will was written in German. (No, he didn’t come to fight. He was one of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”)

No, that’s not covered in this book, but that explains my leaning toward allowing immigrants today to do the same thing my ancestors did – come to America looking for a better life.

The author begins by talking about “global Apartheid.” The reason people from poor countries don’t emigrate to richer countries is that the richer countries don’t allow it. He takes a hard look at the ethics of that.

Then he uses statistics and studies to show that immigration helps the world. Immigrants are more productive in first world nations, and everyone benefits. Global productivity dramatically goes up when everyone can live where they want.

But he does proceed to take on arguments against immigration. He uses statistics to show they’re misguided. I especially like the section on Numeracy where he shows that the fear of criminal immigrants is flat-out innumerate.

Another chapter I like is where he looks at utilitarianism, egalitarianism, libertarianism, cost-benefit analysis, meritocracy, Christianity, and Kantianism – and shows that all of these world views can be used to support open borders. In the Christianity section, the author asks, “And who is my neighbor? People on my street? My town? My state? The whole country?” Jesus says, “Funny, you’re not the first person to ask. Let me tell you a little story about a Samaritan.”

But don’t take my word for it. Like I said, the graphic format is a very effective way to make an argument – but you do need to see it for yourself.

Open borders are not only the ethical thing to do. They have a dramatically net positive effect for everyone.

bcaplan.com
smbc-comics.com
firstsecondbooks.com

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Review of Everyday Ubuntu, by Mungi Ngomane

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

Everyday Ubuntu

Living Better Together, the African Way

by Mungi Ngomane
foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Harper Design, 2020. 240 pages.
Review written April 13, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s granddaughter, and it’s full of wisdom learned and demonstrated in South Africa as they worked toward healing their country after Apartheid.

Here is how Desmond Tutu explains ubuntu in his Foreword:

Ubuntu is a concept that, in my community, is one of the most fundamental aspects of living lives of courage, compassion and connection. It is one that I cannot remember not knowing about. I understood from early on in my life that being known as a person with ubuntu was one of the highest accolades one could ever receive. Almost daily we were encouraged to show it in our relations with family, friends and strangers alike. I have often said that the idea and practice of ubuntu is one of Africa’s greatest gifts to the world. A gift with which, unfortunately, not many in the world are familiar. The lesson of ubuntu is best described in a proverb that is found in almost every African language, whose translation is, “A person is a person through other persons.” The fundamental meaning of the proverb is that everything we learn and experience in the world is through our relationships with other people. We are therefore called to examine our actions and thoughts, not just for what they will achieve for us, but for how they impact on others with whom we are in contact.

At its most simple, the teaching of this proverb and of ubuntu is similar to the Golden Rule found in most faith teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” But one who has ubuntu goes a step beyond that. It is not only our actions we are called to keep track of, but our very being in the world. How we live, talk and walk in the world is as much a statement of our character as our actions. One with ubuntu is careful to walk in the world as one who recognizes the infinite worth of everyone with whom he or she comes into contact. So it is not simply a way of behaving, it is indeed a way of being!

The format of the book is simple. After an Introduction, there are fourteen Lessons involving ways you can embody ubuntu. These lessons include stories that illustrate the idea and exercises at the end of the chapter. Each lesson has a different title spread in a bright color with African patterns as the background – it’s an attractive book as well as a meaningful one.

Here are the titles of the fourteen lessons explored in this book:

1. See Yourself in Other People
2. Strength Lies in Unity
3. Put Yourself in the Shoes of Others
4. Choose to See the Wider Perspective
5. Have Dignity and Respect for Yourself and Others
6. Believe in the Good of Everyone
7. Choose Hope Over Optimism
8. Seek Out Ways to Connect
9. The Power of the F-Word – Forgiveness
10. Embrace Our Destiny
11. Acknowledge Reality (However Painful)
12. Find the Humor in Our Humanity
13. Why Little Things Make a Big Difference
14. Learn to Listen So That You Can Hear

You can see that mastering these lessons would indeed make you a better person as you live among other people. The true stories from South Africa’s healing help make these lofty ideals seem possible.

It all adds up to an inspiring and uplifting book. In this time of crisis, it’s all the easier to see that we need to cultivate ubuntu to come together past the difficulties.

hc.com

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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 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 Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, by Leonard S. Marcus

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Helen Oxenbury

A Life in Illustration

by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick Press, 2018. 288 pages.
Starred Review
Review written 02/20/2020, from a library book

This big, beautiful, heavy book tells the story of the career of the amazing picture book artist, Helen Oxenbury. I was delighted to read it, because Helen Oxenbury’s Tom and Pippo books were a huge favorite of my firstborn child, who is now almost 32 years old.

The pages are as large as a picture book, the paper is thick, and there are almost 300 pages. There’s a decorative ribbon, so this is suitable for a coffee table book, which is where I kept my library copy while I was reading it – but I’m afraid that meant I didn’t get around to it very often. By far the majority of the pages are filled with paintings, and when there is text it isn’t long. So this book doesn’t take a long time to read if you sit down and look. Every time I thought I should give up because I wasn’t getting around to it, I’d read another chapter and be so delighted that I didn’t have the heart to part with it until I was done.

It’s a beautiful book and filled me with nostalgia especially about the books I’d read to my kids. But I also enjoyed the wonderful art from books I hadn’t been familiar with. It’s arranged in a way that you can see Helen Oxenbury’s strengths and her growth as a writer. The story of her career is fascinating, too. She met her husband, the noted illustrator John Burningham, when they were both in art school. She began her own career in the 1960s and continues to this day.

This wonderful book looks in great detail at her many illustrated books and celebrates her life. There’s a Bibliography at the back as well as testimonials from authors she’s worked with. So much fun if you or your child have ever loved a Helen Oxenbury book. And if you haven’t, you’ll discover ones you must find and enjoy.

At the back of the book, we discover that Helen Oxenbury is the one who created the Walker Bear, also used by Candlewick Press. The book finishes with a quote from Deirdre McDermott, the Publisher of Walker Books:

So it is that the story of Helen Oxenbury’s astonishing contribution to children’s books is intrinsically woven into the fabric and legacy of Walker Books and Candlewick Press. She is as steeped in our history as we are in hers. Helen’s beautiful, iconic bear has illuminated the creative path for the thousands of stories that we’ve published, and shines a way forward for the many, many more to come.

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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 Waking Up in Heaven, by Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Waking Up in Heaven

A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again

by Crystal McVea
and Alex Tresniowski

Howard Books (Simon & Schuster), 2013. 245 pages.
Review written February 1, 2020, from a library book

In December 2009, Crystal McVea died in a hospital room and spent time in the presence of God. While there, he showed her his unconditional, overwhelming love for her.

To show us how significant and earth-shaking that revelation was, Crystal tells her life story. She was abused in her childhood beginning at three years old. As a teen, she had an abortion. She didn’t feel remotely lovable or forgivable.

But in heaven, Crystal saw a beautiful little girl and her heart filled with love for her. Then God showed her that girl was herself.

And then another understanding passed between God and me, and I knew this is what He’d been trying to show me all my life. He’d been trying to show me how very much He loved me.

I knew God was allowing me to see myself as He saw me. And in His eyes I was an absolutely perfect creation, and I always would be. All the things that happened to me on Earth, all the bad decisions that caused me to hate myself – none of it mattered. I had believed God couldn’t possibly love me, not after what had been done to me, not after what I had done. But this belief was a lie, and God blasted the lie by showing me the intensity of His love for me.

I believe intellectually that God loves each of us like that. But this story put it into emotions, helped visualize that kind of love.

Since then, Crystal has been telling her story and letting other people know how much God loves them.

I read this book slowly, a little bit at a time, as I do with most nonfiction. I think I might have enjoyed it more and kept the thread of the story better if I had read it more quickly. But the overall message is powerful – that God has His hand on our lives, and God loves us.

SimonandSchuster.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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 Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

Living Buddha, Living Christ

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Riverhead Books, 1995. 208 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 17, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to my friend who recommended this book to me. (Actually, he mentioned it as if I would have read it. I checked it out.) It ended up fitting nicely with another book I was reading, The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr.

In this book, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, looks at the wisdom that Christians and Buddhists can get from each other’s traditions and teachings.

He talks about his own encounters with Christians who embody the teachings of Jesus. He sees the coming together of people from different religions as the work of peace. This book explains many of the things we have in common.

Here are some thoughts from the first chapter:

When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her tradition, you also touch your own. This quality is essential for dialogue. When participants are willing to learn from each other, dialogue takes place just by their being together. When those who represent a spiritual tradition embody the essence of their tradition, just the way they walk, sit, and smile speaks volumes about the tradition.

In fact, sometimes it is more difficult to have a dialogue with people in our own tradition than with those of another tradition. Most of us have suffered from feeling misunderstood or even betrayed by those of our own tradition. But if brothers and sisters in the same tradition cannot understand and communicate with each other, how can they communicate with those outside their tradition? For dialogue to be fruitful, we need to live deeply our own tradition and, at the same time, listen deeply to others. Through the practice of deep looking and deep listening, we become free, able to see the beauty and values in our own and others’ tradition.

To be honest, I’m not sure I understood a lot of what was said in this book. But I was challenged, and some new ideas were presented to me. I do believe that some of these ideas can deepen my own faith.

Here’s an example of a section that challenges me to live out what I believe in community:

The church is the vehicle that allows us to realize those teachings. The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha is the hope of the Buddha. It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings come alive. Communities of practice, with all their shortcomings, are the best way to make the teachings available to people. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit need the church in order to be manifested. (“Wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I am.”) People can touch the Father and the Son through the church. That is why we say that the church is the mystical body of Christ. Jesus was very clear about the need to practice the teaching and to do so in community. He told His disciples to be the light of the world. For a Buddhist, that means mindfulness. The Buddha said that we must each be our own torch. Jesus also told His disciples to be the salt of the world, to be real salt. His teaching was clear and strong. If the church practices well the teachings of Jesus, the Trinity will always be present and the church will have a healing power to transform all that it touches.

It was good for me to admit and realize that I can learn spiritual truths from a Buddhist. And there’s much to learn in this book.

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Review of Listening for Madeleine, by Leonard S. Marcus

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Listening for Madeleine

A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices

by Leonard S. Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 367 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 5, 2019, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com

I’ve long been a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, both for children and adults. This book is an exploration of her life, composed of interviews with 51 people who knew her. Some only met her once or twice, but others knew her from childhood.

Here’s an overview from the Introduction, which also presented an outline of Madeleine L’Engle’s life story:

In pursuit of a fully rounded portrait of Madeleine L’Engle from living memory, it seemed essential to hear not only from as many as possible of the people who knew her most intimately but also from some whose more fleeting encounters were representative of those of the thousands of students, teachers, librarians, aspiring writers, neighbors, and others who crossed her path in the course of a richly complex life enacted largely in public view.

The portrait that emerges is – and was bound to be – impressionistic in nature. The principal reason for this is that L’Engle casually departmentalized her vast and densely populated universe. People important to her in one sphere of her life typically did not meet those important to her in the others. The inveterate fan and sometime practitioner of the mystery genre knew very well how to scatter the clues to her own story, an overwhelmingly admirable tale that at times, however, bore scant resemblance to the placid domestic idyll of A Circle of Quiet and its sequels, as a controversial profile of L’Engle published in The New Yorker, in April 2004, made clear. Some of the most deep-seated family conflicts also proved to be among the longest lived. Regrettably, L’Engle’s adopted daughter, Maria, was among the few people approached about an interview for this book who declined.

Most of the interviews are only a few pages. They’re divided into sections by the way the interviewee encountered Madeleine: Madeleine in the Making, Writer, Matriarch, Mentor, Friend, and Icon.

The result is indeed impressionistic, but you’re left with what feels like an exquisitely detailed portrait of a remarkable woman.

I highly recommend this book to all Madeleine L’Engle fans.

leonardmarcus.com
fsgbooks.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but 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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