Archive for March, 2019

Review of What the Night Sings, by Vesper Stamper

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

What the Night Sings

by Vesper Stamper

Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 266 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 27, 2018.

Wow. This is a Holocaust novel. They tend to be powerful. But not all of them have me closing the book saying, “Wow” – stunned by hope.

To be fair, the book begins as World War II is finishing. Gerta Rausch is in Bergen-Belsen as the British are liberating the camp, holding her bunkmate, sick with typhus, in her arms:

The soldiers begin removing the dead. There are so many. How could I not have noticed them lying right next to me?

And suddenly – Rivkah, too, is gone.

I feel her final breath wisp across my lips. They pull her from me, but I can’t let her go. She is my last connection to the living world. I clutch her arm, her hand, her fingers. I sing the lullaby after her, my foster mother. I know no one else in all of Bergen-Belsen, either from Auschwitz or Theresienstadt. Everyone has come and gone, piles of shells pulled in and out of waves, and I’m still here, a skeleton of a sea creature, dropped in this tide pool, living, watching, still living.

This book is about living – and trying to figure out how to make a life – after the war. Gerta is sixteen years old and in a displaced persons camp on the site of the old concentration camp. Her only family – her Papa – died during the war in the furnaces.

Gerta had trained to be an opera singer like her stepmother, her stepmother who watched while she and her papa were taken to the cattle cars. Gerta did manage to bring her papa’s viola with her – and got assignments to play in the camp orchestras. They played while people were sorted, for life or for death.

Part of the power of this book is that it includes illustrations. The book size is larger format than most novels, and many of the illustrations take up entire double-page spreads, though some are next to the text. The picture that hit me the hardest was a picture of a smokestack on the side with smoke going all the way across the top of the two pages. Those pages conclude with these words:

“Come with me,” the woman says softly, pragmatically. “You’ve been sent to the orchestra, yes? Well. Join your very lucky sisters. Music has saved your life today.”

“Where’s my papa?” I plead with her. “I want my papa!”

She signs and points ahead. “See that chimney?” she says, still softly, but so that I will clearly understand. “See that smoke? There’s your papa.”

But I said that it’s a book that left me with hope. Though the book does explain the dark setting, Gerta must make the hard choice to keep living. And to love. And it’s not easy.

I especially appreciated the Author’s Note at the back, because it put a bow on why the book felt so applicable to my life – I, who had never experienced anything remotely like the Holocaust. She explained that in high school she developed a deep identity as a musician.

There’s a problem with that, however. When you decide early on who you “truly are,” it can trick you into thinking that you were destined to live by a certain script. And when you’re out on your own and you realize that there is no script, you might panic.

Several years ago, I was rear-ended by a texting driver, which resulted in my arm being partially paralyzed. I completely lost the ability to play guitar – I had been a touring musician – and it took me a full year of rehab before I could reliably draw again. I had to relearn everything, even how to lift a fork to my mouth. This wasn’t in the script. A huge element of my deeply ingrained identity had been smashed. Like Gerta, I had hinged my future on a set of expectations, which depended on life’s machine running with no glitches. Being disabled cast a pall over every area of my life: my ability to drive, hold a baby, cook, hug or shake hands, let alone create art and music. How could I live my life? Without my script, who was I?

Perhaps that puts all the more power into Gerta’s story – and the art Vesper Stamper created to go with that story.

A stunning book about starting over when everything and everyone is gone. About finding joy again, about choosing life and choosing love.

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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 Planting Stories, by Anika Aldamuy Denise

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Planting Stories

The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

by Anika Aldamuy Denise
illustrations by Paola Escobar

Harper, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 13, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a picture book biography of Pura Belpré, who has a children’s book award named after her for outstanding works of literature by Latinx authors and illustrators.

In 1921, Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. She was hired to find books and create programs at the Harlem branch that would appeal to the neighborhood’s growing Spanish-speaking community.

Since Pura didn’t find any stories from Puerto Rico on the library shelves, she told the stories herself. She ended up creating puppets to go with them and authoring several books based on those stories.

This book, with particularly beautiful illustrations, celebrates the difference a librarian made to an entire community, while telling more of the background of her life.

I was glad to discover the story of the person honored by the award. Yes, she was someone who got stories into the minds and hearts of Latinx children.

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Review of Creation and the Cross, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Creation and the Cross

The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril

by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Orbis Books, 2018. 238 pages.
Starred Review
Review written March 18, 2019, from my own copy, purchased via

I’ve been reading several books on theology lately. I think I heard of this book on a twitter thread after following some other authors I liked. I’m especially interested in the theology of the cross. I don’t like the Satisfaction Theory, and am reading about alternatives.

This book has a focus on a theology that cares about the entire created world. However, along the way, she writes a lovely explanation of why Anselm’s satisfaction theory made sense in feudal times, but doesn’t really match with what the Bible teaches and doesn’t make as much sense with our mindset today.

In the Introduction, the author gives us the questions that drive this book:

Many theologians have written of human redemption. But how in our day can we understand cosmic redemption? At a time of advancing ecological devastation, what would it mean to rediscover this biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation? What would it mean for the churches’ understanding, practice, and prayer to open the core Christian belief in salvation to include all created beings?

Now, I attended Biola University, and I know I learned about Anselm, who proposed the Satisfaction Theory for understanding the cross. But I hadn’t thought about what Elizabeth Johnson points out — that this theory wasn’t proposed until a thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The author takes on Anselm’s theory head on. She’s looking for a theory that embraces creation, and his theory “simply swept away concerns about creation’s groaning.” Her entire first section is called “Wrestling with Anselm,” and she adapts the format of his writings to use in this book – writing the chapters as a series of conversations with a student, just as Anselm did.

My fundamental reason for reading this book was dissatisfaction with Anselm’s theory (even though I was only vaguely aware that it came from him), so I especially liked that part of the book.

She puts Anselm’s theory in his own cultural context:

By the eleventh century European society had shifted from the law of the Roman empire, wherever it had extended, to a feudal system of justice. In the absence of the central authority of national states, the authority of a local ruler grounded and safeguarded the order of a whole region. His word was law. Violations of the law were more than simply disobedience to a rule; they were an offense against the dignity and honor of the feudal overlord. The crucial point is that these insults had an impact on society. Disobedience to the lord’s word created disorder in the social fabric, or as we might say today, disruptions to the common good. To restore order, the law-breaker either had to be punished or had to pay compensation to rectify the situation. In Anglo-Saxon regions a graduated system of fines was actually devised whereby the offender paid due recompense for his or her criminal offense. This payback, called satisfaction, restored the honor of the lord, which in turn returned society to a peaceful, orderly operation.

The pattern ran through all levels of society. The amount of satisfaction required corresponded to the social status of the offended party, so that if one insulted a milkmaid less was due than if one somehow offended the lady of the manor. But in either case the requirement to restore the social order by means of some payment was non-negotiable. By Anselm’s time the practice of satisfaction had become an integral part of the powerful feudal structure.

The author quotes Anselm, showing how he brought these ideas into his theology.

But that’s not how Jesus presented his Father! I love this paragraph:

All four gospels depict how in his teaching and practice Jesus revealed a different, non-feudal picture of the way God deals with sin. Think of the parables of the shepherd going after his lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin, both rejoicing with their neighbors when they find the one who has strayed, no satisfaction needed. Remember the parable of the forgiving father who runs out to embrace the returning prodigal son, throwing a party to welcome him back, no payback required. Recall the paralytic who, after Jesus assured him that his sins were forgiven, took up his pallet and walked away, no atonement given. Call up the story of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple; when the publican prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he goes home justified, nothing more required. Keep in mind Luke’s depiction of Jesus himself, forgiving his executioners as his life ebbed away, no satisfaction needed.

Elizabeth Johnson points out additional problems with the Satisfaction Theory. First and probably most important, it makes God morally repulsive.

Anyone who understands love intuits the mistake preachers make when they say God, when offended, needs to be appeased by someone’s death. This goes against the best instincts of the human experience of love, and sets an appalling example.

A second problem is that it focuses entirely on the death of Jesus, as if his resurrection weren’t important.

In the presence of Jesus, the Crucified One who is now the Living One, his disciples proclaimed the good news that evil does not have the last word. Hope is born for a future for all others who have come to grief, for all the defeated and the dead, even as crosses keep on being set up in history. Talk about salvation!

Besides that, it also leaves out the life and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’ preaching of the coming reign of God, by turns joyful and challenging, refreshed people’s social situations as well as their relationship to God. His healings, exorcisms, inclusive table fellowship, and partisanship for marginalized people, interpreted by his preaching, already offered an anticipation of the world in which God will reign, a world without tears. Violent death was the price Jesus paid for this prophetic ministry, to which he was faithful with a tenacity that would not quit. Historically it was neither foreordained nor accidental but was carried out by the power of empire to which his movement posed a threat. He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor.

She explains a significant fourth problem is that Anselm’s theory sacralizes violence.

By turning the historically unjust execution of Jesus into some kind of necessary good, the theory has offered a subtle but real religious justification for the evil of violence. Given the way divine honor is recompensed, it sets up violence as divinely sanctioned. Politically this translates into a blessing on the use of force, specifically the use of aggressive force by powerful people. The thinking runs this way: God used violence for a good purpose, so why shouldn’t we? Such reasoning turns a manifest evil, the torture and execution of an innocent person, into a “good” that continues to harm other people. In a word, the atonement paradigm sanctifies violence.

I hadn’t ever noticed before that this view glorifies suffering.

I have heard homilies where the suffering of Jesus gets connected with obedience. For example, he had to go to Jerusalem to fulfill his Father’s will that he should suffer and die. We are supposed to imitate him in his obedience. You already covered the problem of the disastrous image of a God who wills suffering to compensate for offended divine honor. But this makes it worse. I have to say that obedience to a male authority figure is not a big value in my life, let alone obedience to a male authority that wills my suffering. As a spiritual path, this is downright toxic.

Here’s another point close to that one:

A sixth criticism is the introduction of an ethic of submission in the face of injustice. Take away the resurrection and the public ministry of Jesus, bring forth suffering, perversely, as a good in itself, and the cumulative effect is to allow actual injustice on the earth to continue without challenge. Edward Schillebeeckx offers a sharp insight about how this happened. When theology pondered the cross as a free-standing event, suffering became a way of avenging God’s honor to our benefit, instead of the price Jesus paid for fidelity to his ministry. It appeared that God was pleased with the evil of killing an innocent person. God’s act of overturning the judgment of the authorities by raising Jesus from the dead disappeared from view. In these ways the satisfaction theory “tamed” the critical force of the crucifixion, making it into a tool that integrates wrongful suffering into the way things necessarily are. While this may not be the exact significance that Anselm gave to his theory, it is the way it was preached and written about in many spiritual books. People were encouraged to suffer and endure injustice without resistance rather than challenge existing wrongful circumstances. Both Catholic and Reformation traditions have walked down this path.

The author points out how this was used to teach slaves to submit to slavery and still has impact today:

Feminist theologians have criticized the debilitating psychological effects fostered particularly on women by the satisfaction theory’s interpretation of the cross. In a strange way the innocent Christ who suffered willingly on behalf of others has traditionally been held up as a model for women in a way different from men. It is women who are supposed to serve silently, obediently, without question, in imitation of the Crucified One. Such glorification of passivity undermines the agency that rightly belongs to women as adult human beings, all the while giving traditional expectations of women and their gendered roles in church and society a powerful divine gloss.

This kind of theology can prove intensely dangerous when domestic situations turn abusive, since holding up passive submission to victimization as a virtue undermines women’s rightful ability to protect themselves from violent, battering partners. In this vein women have also critiqued the satisfaction theory for the kind of parent-child relationship it seems to portray. A psychological pattern of needing to placate an angry parent, of buying love and forgiveness through sacrifice, is debilitating to healthy child development. Furthermore, the notion of a father who needs the death of a son is abhorrent, no matter what benefit might accrue to others. Salvation is no excuse for child abuse on a cosmic scale.

And the final criticism she lists fits well with her theme.

A seventh criticism highly relevant today is the ecological silence maintained by Anselm. Given its focus on human sin and the need to restore divine honor, the satisfaction theory obviously neglects God’s salvific presence in the rest of creation. It assumes a view of the natural world as merely a stage on which the important drama of human salvation is played out. Thus it fails to build up faith convictions that lead to ecological commitments.

By contrast, as we will see, biblical themes of the community of creation, God’s covenant with all creatures of flesh on the earth, incarnation, resurrection, and hope for a renewed heaven and earth where justice dwells open up a tremendous vision of salvation not only for humans but for all creatures who are other-than-human and the ecological niches in which they dwell and interact.

So, having looked closely at Anselm’s theory, she is then able to move to the true focus of the book:

For Christian theology, the specific focus of seeking understanding about this matter gravitates toward Jesus Christ. We come then to the question on which this whole work rests, a question that is as rife with assumptions as is Anselm’s and every other theology of salvation. The question is this: How can the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be understood as good news for the whole created world, including human beings, to the praise of God and to practical and critical effect?

Now, I’ll admit – my focus in reading the book was not the same as the author’s focus in writing the book. But I exquisitely loved what she showed about the God of the Old Testament in developing her theology – He is a God of overwhelming, abundant, forgiving love. Yes! This matches what I read in the Old Testament.

Now I’ll start quoting some passages I marked:

The God of Israel is not a generic God but one whose character bends toward those who suffer injustice, with intent to save. Israel knows its God by this name, a name attached to freedom: “I am YHWH your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ps 81:10). . . .

Divine identification with the plight of the dispossessed in the event of the exodus makes understandable the constant return throughout the Bible to themes of God’s special concern for poor, powerless, oppressed, and marginalized persons. Gracious and merciful, God acts to make a new future possible. Such compassionate concern also undergirds the great biblical ethic of hospitality: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21); and more positively, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). The people liberated from slavery must act in like manner as the Holy One who delivered them. . . .

It flowers in psalms of praise: “YHWH is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. YHWH is good to all, and compassionate toward all he has made” (Ps 145:8). It appears also in psalms where a person in trouble cries out to God for rescue: the insolent rise up against me and a band of ruffians seeks my life, “But you, O YHWH are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Based on the revelation flowing from the event of the exodus, these adjectives bear witness to YHWH’s bedrock, reliable goodness and commitment that are everywhere assumed.

But what about the wrath of God?

The real issue, though, is how to understand divine anger in the context of overwhelming graciousness and mercy. The danger is that within a patriarchal, punitive setting, speaking of a wrathful God has been used to justify holy wars and torture, hostility to outsiders, and debilitating guilt in sensitive consciences. But righteous anger is a different breed of cat. It is profoundly ethical. It waxes hot in moral outrage because something good is being violated. Arising from love, it awakens energy to act to change the situation. . . .

In the context of God’s graciousness and mercy, divine anger functions for justice. It bespeaks a mode of caring response in the face of what harms beloved human beings or the created world itself. “The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God it is a disaster,” writes Abraham Heschel. Divine wrath is a worthy response. True, it lasts but a moment; true, it is instrumental, aimed at change and conversion. But it stands as an antidote to sentimentality.

And she looks at the strong theme of redemption – in the Old Testament.

The idea of a God who redeems Israel and who therefore can be called the Redeemer became firmly fixed in Israel’s religious imagination well before the disastrous exile in Babylon. In the dynamic way that language works, the technical meaning of redeem broadened out over time to include connotations of God’s helping, rescuing, liberating, restoring, forgiving, showing steadfast love, comforting, taking away fear, and especially caring for the poor and defenseless. The language of redeeming also became associated with the act of saving. While in the same general family of meaning, the latter carries a distinct sense of healing from sickness and restoring to health, the opposite of which is perishing.

I love the part where she looks at many, many instances of the God of Israel proclaimed to be Redeemer in Second Isaiah. Yes! Anyone who reads Isaiah will pick up on this theme of comfort.

There is a crucial point to be gleaned for the theology of accompaniment we are working to establish as an alternative to the satisfaction theory. Let me state it as plainly as possible. More than five hundred years before Jesus’ death on the cross, Second Isaiah proclaimed that the God who created heaven and earth was redeeming and saving Israel and forgiving their sin out of the infinite depths of divine compassion. This God is forever faithful and does not need anyone to die in order to be merciful. It is strange to contemplate how Christian preaching in the tradition of the satisfaction theory seems to assume that some seismic shift suddenly changed the divine character, so that Jesus’ death was necessary to win favor for sinners. One hears that he came to die, and without the cross we would not be saved, as if at some point the flow of divine mercy were shut down, needing Jesus’ death to start it up again. As we will discover, however, rather than making a necessary gift to placate divine honor, Jesus’ brutal death enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God with all who die and especially with victims of injustice, opening hope for resurrection amid the horror. If ever a healing balm could reach the depth of Christian soul wounded by the satisfaction theory, a close reading of Second Isaiah might begin the treatment.

She also looks at many Psalms, full of forgiveness.

At the cost of repeating myself, I want to note that in all these psalms there is no need for anyone to die. When a person turns to God from a wrongful path, divine forgiveness of sin is a gift generously given, pressed down and overflowing, because of the goodness of the God who loves them: “as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12). No satisfaction is needed.

And Jesus didn’t preach a different God!

The early church’s expanding Christological interpretations of Jesus led the community to view the God of Israel in light of its own relationship to Christ, which in turn led to new insights and formulations about God in Trinitarian terms. Nevertheless, the First Testament’s view of the God who creates and saves shaped the early church’s interpretation of Jesus in an intrinsic and irreplaceable way. The God whom Jesus revealed and even embodied as self-expressing Word is none other than the God of Israel. “In times past God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. . .” (Heb 1:1). It is the same God who speaks, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Since Elizabeth Johnson is not ignoring Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection, there’s more about those and how they connect with creation.

It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. Why ever not? No future existed before the world began; no future exists for a dead person. But divine creative action that occurs “in the beginning” continues to act through time and up to the end, which becomes a new beginning. It is the same loving, creative, divine action.

The author calls her view a “theology of accompaniment.” I love that! She’s talking much about accompaniment with all creation – but it also applies as God with us, each individual.

What our trek through the scriptures gives us instead, to use alternative language, is a theology of accompaniment. It fosters the idea of salvation as the divine gift of “I am with you,” even in the throes of suffering and death. Redemption comes to mean the presence of God walking with the world through its traumas and travail, even unto death. This theology entails a double solidarity, of the actual Jesus who lived with all who live, suffer and die, and of the resurrecting God of life with the ministering and crucified Jesus.

Expanding further on that idea:

The double solidarity of Jesus with those who suffer and of God with Jesus structures a theology of accompaniment so that it brings the presence of God who saves to the fore. Keep in mind that we are talking here about the same God who creates and delights in the world; the same God who sides with slaves against the might of Pharaoh, with exiles against their imperial captors, and now with a crucified prophet against the Roman empire; “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7). We are talking about the same gracious God, “your Savior and your Redeemer” (Isa 49:26), whom Jesus called father, whose compassion flashed out from the picturesque parables Jesus made up, and was tasted in the challenge and joy of his multiple interactions. Toward the end of the New Testament we read the bold statement that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). This is a pithy summary of all that has gone down in the history of revelation up to that point. God loves the world and, like any good lover, wants the beloved to flourish.

In talking more about this theology of accompaniment Elizabeth Johnson, like other authors I’ve read, points out that the New Testament writers used an abundance of metaphors.

Virtually every commentator points out that the New Testament has no logically articulated theory of salvation. No one composed a systematic explanation of how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let alone the cross taken by itself, redeemed the world. There is no single doctrine. There is no Anselm in the first century. There are no theories, syllogisms, or tightly reasoned arguments. New Testament texts were not written in objectively academic language.

While the disciples did not theorize, what they did do was find metaphors in holy scripture as well as everyday life that illuminated their religious experience of the good news and helped them communicate it to others. Their writing is like poetry, a brief phrase here, a more extended reflection there, a flash of discovery here, a whisper of insight there. All the vivid metaphors hold that the saving God had acted through what happened to Jesus, but none try to rationalize precisely how this works. When pushed to their logical limits, the illuminating metaphors inevitably break down.

This is a good word of caution when we try to make one metaphor the final word on what Jesus’ death was all about.

The author does go on to look at many of the metaphors used. And she draws beauty and insights out of those metaphors and shows us how they apply to all creation, not humans alone. I love this joyous summary after looking at many types of metaphors:

Talk about creativity! The disciples drew ideas from the scriptures, especially Genesis, Exodus, the psalms, and the prophets. They made analogies from temple worship and the annual cycle of Jewish feasts. And they crafted new metaphors from everyday spheres of life.

Many of these metaphors speak dynamically of an experience of a changed relationship to God thanks to Jesus Christ. They describe the grace of going from sick to healthy, from enemy to friend, from estranged to reconciled, from bound to free, from indicted to not guilty, from slave to beloved child, from lost to found, from poor to rich, from oppressed to liberated, from alien to citizen, from old creation to new creation, from death to life. The metaphor of blood from animal sacrifice bespoke purification, forgiveness, rededication. Isaiah’s servant was reconfigured to the cross with the intuition that one person’s suffering can heal others of their infirmities.

The penultimate section of the book develops the theology of accompaniment by looking at the promises made to all creation, celebrating God as the God of all flesh. She calls it “deep incarnation.”

So if we take flesh at its most inclusive meaning, the flesh assumed in Jesus Christ connects the living God with all human beings; this has been said for centuries. But it also connects the creating God who saves with all biological life and the whole matrix of the material universe down to its very roots; this is the new vision.

In the final section, she talks about how this theology can change our view of the world and its creatures.

To sum up, the living God, gracious and merciful, always was, is, and will be accompanying the world with saving grace, including humans in their sinfulness, and humans and all creatures in their unique beauty, evolutionary struggle, and inevitable dying. The cross does not change this truth, or occasion a shift in God’s attitude from betrayed honor to willingness to forgive. It does make the compassionate love of God’s heart blazingly clear in an historical event. “The death of Christ becomes an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life as well as the victims of social competition,” to recall Gregersen’s insight. In Jesus Christ crucified we are gifted with an historical sacrament of encounter with the mercy of God, which impels us toward conversion to the suffering earth, sustained by hope for the resurrection of the flesh of all of us.

As always when I quote so much from a book, I’m running the risk of giving you the impression I’ve covered everything she has to say and am presenting her complete arguments. This is only a taste – but enough of a taste to remind me what I read. In fact, I wrote such a long summary in hopes of retaining more of her points in my own mind.

But as always, I hope that those who find these selections inspiring or challenging or thought-provoking will read the book themselves. Highly recommended.

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Review of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Saturday, March 16th, 2019

Becoming Mrs. Lewis

by Patti Callahan

Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), 2018. 406 pages.
Review written March 16, 2019, from a library book.
Starred Review

It was good to again have a novel keeping me up late at night reading (we’re talking 3 am), and since it was a novel for grown-ups instead of all the children’s books I read last year for the Newbery – it kept me up late more than one night. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing – except that it was nice to be pulled into the world of the novel that thoroughly.

This book tells the same story as one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins, but of course the book went into much more detail. It’s the story of Joy Davidman and how she fell in love with C. S. Lewis and married him. But they didn’t have long together, because she got cancer.

I don’t feel like I’m giving away too much, even though the marriage happens at the end of the book – because anyone who knows that C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed about his much loved wife will know this is coming. And, oh yes, the book is called Becoming Mrs. Lewis. So it’s not a surprise that they fall in love. The story is in the exquisite way they fall in love.

The book opens with Joy Gresham’s salvation experience. Although she’d been an atheist, in a moment when she was feeling desperate, stranded at home after a call from her drunken husband, thinking he was either committing suicide or with another woman – she suddenly felt the presence of God.

God didn’t fix anything in that moment, but that wasn’t the point of it all. Still I didn’t know where Bill was, and still I was scared for his life, but Someone, my Creator it seemed, was there with me in all of it. This Someone was as real as my sons in their beds, as the storm battering the window frames, as my knees on the hardwood floors.

After she became a Christian, she had many questions about her faith, and then read an article about C. S. Lewis which led her to read and reread all of his books (the ones written by 1950). She talked to the professor who’d written the article, and he urged her to write a letter to C. S. Lewis, thinking he could answer some of her questions about her relatively new faith.

And so began their long and avid correspondence.

The book includes excerpts from their letters, though I was disappointed to learn at the back that we don’t have existing copies of the actual letters. Patti Callahan used his other writings and talks to simulate their correspondence. But she did have a set of poems of longing that Joy had written during that time and dedicated to Jack. Some lines from the poems are at the head of each chapter.

In so many ways, this is a novel of longing. Because Joy fell in love with Jack long before he fell in love with her – but their friendship blossomed from the start. First, it was in their letters. They each found a correspondent who understood and to whom they could really open up.

Joy and her husband were both writers and were having trouble getting work finished. Joy had some health troubles and decided to go to England. She could stay with a friend who was living in London, research a book she had begun on King Charles II, and even get her teeth fixed and get medical care she’d been putting off because medical care in England was almost free even to tourists, and she couldn’t afford it in America. Her cousin Renee and her two daughters had been staying with them since her divorce, so Renee could hold down the fort while Joy tried to get back on track in England. And she could finally meet Jack, to whom she’d been writing for three years.

And in England her friendship with Jack deepened. And her husband ended up having an affair with Renee.

But it’s all told in much more exquisite detail than that. Joy already had a firm and deep friendship with Jack on that first trip to England. She went back to her home in America to get her sons and straighten things out – and file for divorce.

But divorce wasn’t easy to get in the 1950s. She was still technically married when she moved back to England with her boys. After the divorce did go through, the authorities had extended her visa too often, and she was going to have to move back to America. A civil marriage in name only to Jack allowed her to stay. In the Shadowlands movie, this was her idea. In this book, it’s Jack’s idea, because he doesn’t want her to leave. She was typing his manuscripts for him and essentially collaborating with him on the book Till We Have Faces.

But even after her divorce had gone through, the Anglican church still wouldn’t permit their marriage – and Jack scrupulously wouldn’t allow himself to fall in love with her. He’d written The Four Loves by then, and was keeping things as philea brotherly love. Even though she was obviously precious to him.

There’s a wonderful chapter where Joy comes to peace with this. She has long loved him, and he’s not loving her back. They’ve written Till We Have Faces together.

It was as clear as if someone had walked into the room and ripped the veil off my soul, forcing me to stare into its darker depths. Much of what I’d done – mistakes, poems, manipulations, success and books and sex – had been done merely to get love. To get it. To answer my question: do you love me? Even as I gave love, was I trying just to gain it? Had it really taken the fictional Orual to show me the truth?

In my bedroom, I fell to my knees on the hard floor and rested my head on the edge of the mattress, pressing my face into the softness.

The face I already possessed before I was born was who I was in God all along, before anything went right or went wrong, before I did anything right or wrong, that was the face of my true self. My “bareface.”

From that moment on, the love affair I would develop would be with my soul. He was already part of me; that much was clear. And now this would be where I would go for love – to the God in me. No more begging or pursuing or needing. It was my false self that was connected to the painful and demanding heart grasping at the world, leading me to despair. Same as Orual. Same as Psyche. Same as all of humanity.

Possibly it was only a myth, Jack’s myth, that could have obliterated the false belief that I must pursue love in the outside world – in success, in acclaim, in performance, in a man.

The Truth: I was beloved of God.

Finally I could stop trying to force someone or something else to fill that role.

The pain of shattered illusion swept through me like glass blown through a room after a bomb.

All had been turned around. No longer was the question Why doesn’t Jack love me the way I want him to? But now Why must I demand that he love me the way I want him to?

I was already loved. That was the answer to any question I held out to the world.

This was a beautiful time in my life to read this. I’m divorced and have an empty nest. After finishing the Newbery reading, I decided I no longer have an excuse not to go back online – but for various reasons I’m not setting my heart on quickly finding a good match there.

So to read about the peace she got, loving this good man who didn’t think it was right to love her back – that peace passed on to me. Yes. I, too, am loved. I, too, am doing my work, living my life, caring about my friends – all under God’s hand.

And when did C. S. Lewis finally come around? When did he finally marry her before God? After she was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live.

But this book is not a tragedy. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve read in a long time.

And though I’ve told a lot of what happens, because it’s really not a secret (And watch the movie Shadowlands if you haven’t already!) – the beauty of this book is in how it all happens, the beautiful details along the way. You’ve got wise gems from C. S. Lewis as they discuss their faith – and lots of wisdom from Joy Davidman as well.

It’s an exquisite and slowly unfolding love story between two remarkable people, but it’s also full of wisdom about life and about God’s working in the world and observations about what it was like for a strong woman to make her way in the world in the 1950s. I’m afraid the worst effect of the book was that it made me want to pack up and just move to England. (Finding an Englishman to marry me might be a problem, though.)

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Review of The Girl with the Dragon Heart, by Stephanie Burgis

Friday, March 15th, 2019

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

by Stephanie Burgis

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 277 pages.
Review written March 9, 2019, from a library book

This book is a sequel to The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart and technically you may not need to read the first book first, but I think you’ll enjoy this one more if you do and you’ll better understand what’s going on.

In the first book, the young dragon Aventurine was turned into a human girl who learned that she loved chocolate and making chocolate. This book features Aventurine’s friend Silke, a fast talker who lives by the river, running a stall with her brother. Now Silke works in the chocolate shop with Aventurine as a waitress and publicist.

In this book, we learn more about Silke’s background and how she lost her parents six years ago when they were refugees and went through the country where the fairies live underground.

Now the fairies are coming to the city of Drachenburg. They invited themselves as a delegation to talk with the crown princess. She isn’t sure what they’re up to – and asks Silke to infiltrate the palace talks and act as a spy to learn why the fairies are really there. Since that fits perfectly with Silke’s desire to learn what happened to her parents, she quickly agrees.

Silke thinks it will all be easy for a storyteller like her. But right away things don’t go according to plan. And the fairies’ intentions are quickly revealed to be sinister indeed.

This book has adventure, magic, and spying. The story isn’t as simple as the first book (in which a dragon becomes a human girl and hijinks ensue), but it ends up being a fun yarn. And like the first book, I was compelled to eat some chocolate along with my reading.

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Review of Monkey Time, by Michael Hall

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

Monkey Time

by Michael Hall

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2019. 48 pages.
Starred Review
Review written March 9, 2019, from a library book

Here’s what I like about this picture book: You can use it in multiple ways.

On the highest level, you can use it to teach children to tell time. There are “minutes” lined up around the tree like a clock. Diagrams in the back show what it looks like for all the multiples of 10 minutes up to 60. Twelve branches on the tree are positioned like the numbers on an analog clock.

There are also some rain forest animals pictured. They are named at the back.

You can also use this book to practice counting – all the way to 60. Or to count by tens.

But I’ve got a Mother Goose Storytime for babies on Pi Day this year – and I think I’m going to use this book on the very simplest level – as words that are fun to say. It will introduce them to the idea of a clock while I’m at it.

Here’s how the book begins (over several pages):

Psst! Wake up, Monkey!
It’s time to play.

Wheee! I bet you can’t
catch a minute, Monkey.

Chase me over.
Chase me down.
Chase me all the way around.
Faster, Monkey, faster.

Hop! Pop!
Ha-ha. You missed me.

Little round “minutes” keep running around the tree, and Monkey keeps trying to catch them. The tree fills up when sixty minutes have come out. (Don’t worry, the text doesn’t closely follow all sixty minutes.)

This clever little picture book reminds me of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by personifying a concept and making a story with them that’s fun to say.

A simple and fun way to introduce the concept of telling time.

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Review of Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman

Monday, March 11th, 2019


Arc of a Scythe Book 2

by Neal Shusterman

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018. 504 pages.
Review written January 25, 2018.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Teen Speculative Fiction

This book was a bad choice to bring to Silent Book Club — I wanted to shout when I got to the last page. I did NOT see that coming! (And it’s perfect!) And I doubt that any reader will see it coming, even if I warn you.

But let me back up. This book is a sequel to Scythe. One thing I liked about Scythe was that I wouldn’t have even known it was a Book One if the flap cover hadn’t said so. It wrap ups nicely, and you think good is winning.

Ummm, let’s just say that Good has many setbacks in Book Two.

This series is set in a future earth where mankind has conquered death. They have also eliminated government, and the world is run by the Cloud – which is now known as the Thunderhead. And the Thunderhead is a perfect ruler.

But because it’s not sustainable to have the population keep growing forever, some people need to die. They didn’t want to leave that choice into the hands of a machine, so that’s why the Scythedom was developed. Scythes must hold themselves to high standards and ten commandments. Their responsibility is to glean people and end their lives.

There is strong separation between Scythe and State. So even though the Thunderhead knows something is going terribly wrong with the scythes, it cannot intervene directly.

This book shows that something is indeed going terribly wrong.

I used to tell people that besides apparently having a grim reaper on the cover and being about two teens becoming apprentice scythes, the first book was more thought-provoking than grim. The second book, I’m not going to say that! Some truly horrific things happen in this book, as well as some enormous surprises.

But they are all brilliantly done and I really really really want to read the next book!

Since I won’t be able to post this review until a year after I write it, maybe the next book will be out and I can finally find out how this all turns out. (If this ends up being longer than a trilogy, I may scream.)

Added in March 2019: Nope, not yet! No next book yet. I want to add that this was probably the best-plotted book I read in 2018. In my opinion, though, it is not a children’s book. Teens will enjoy it, yes, but the book appeals to the part of them that is becoming an adult. The characters have chosen careers (grim ones) and are living on their own or with a mentor. And again, they are dealing with some truly horrific events and choices.

But wow! For young adults and old adults – this series will make you grapple with lots of big and profound life-or-death right-or-wrong questions you might never have even thought to propose before.

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Review of The Boo-Boos That Changed the World, by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Chris Hsu

Saturday, March 9th, 2019

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

A True Story about an Accidental Invention (Really!)

by Barry Wittenstein
illustrated by Chris Hsu

Charlesbridge, 2018. 32 pages.
Starred Review
Review written March 5, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a fun picture book that tells about the invention of Band-Aids.

It turns out they were invented by a guy named Earle Dickson who worked for a hospital supply company and whose father was a doctor. But that wasn’t enough. The reason he invented Band-Aids was that he had an accident-prone wife.

When Earle’s wife Josephine cut her fingers, it was hard to wrap the wounds in a way so that she could still use her hands. So Earle thought of attaching a piece of sterile gauze to adhesive tape. Then she could easily tape a strip over her cuts and scrapes.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. They still needed to manufacture the new adhesive bandages and then convince people to buy them.

At first, they sold them in big rolls, and you had to cut off a piece before you could put it on a cut. They were also difficult to manufacture. Even when they got the idea of individually-wrapped bandages, it still took time to catch on.

In fact, it was giving free samples to Boy Scouts and the military fighting overseas during World War II that made Band-Aids a household necessity.

I like the way this picture book looks at the entire process of a relatively simple invention and explains how it was developed in a way that children can understand.

I’m planning to booktalk this book in the elementary schools this summer. It has the hook of being a fun story about something everyone has used, and it also teaches what goes into making an invention popular.

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Review of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter, by Diane Magras

Friday, March 8th, 2019

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter

by Diane Magras

Kathy Dawson Books (Penguin), 2018. 280 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 7, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Historical Children’s Fiction

As this book begins, Drest tries to warn her brother and her father that she sees boats coming to their lair, but they’re convinced she’s dreaming. They know different when attackers burst upon them.

Her father, the war band leader, gets her to flee and hide. But she sees him and all her brothers taken away. She is determined to save them – even if it means reviving the knight who got thrown down a cliff by one of the other knights.

This is a wonderful historical fiction novel – set in medieval Scotland about a young girl who’s small but fierce and resourceful. Her brothers have trained her well. But she only has six days to get to the castle to save her family, and her journey is not uneventful.

You come to love Drest’s fierce, fighting spirit, which is tempered by compassion for those who need help.

Here’s where Drest approaches the knight at the base of the cliff:

Tears sprang to Drest’s eyes. “Your toad-witted people took my da and my brothers. And I didn’t throw you down here; one of your own men did.”

The young knight’s voice quivered. “What a filthy lie. Those are my most faithful men.”

His despair gave Drest courage. She crept closer. “Maybe some of them, but not the one who was up on the cliff with you. I watched him fight and push you down here.” The mist was thickening around them. Drest looked back to find the trail. “Do you know where they’ve taken my da?”

The young knight’s eyes widened. “To Faintree Castle. Do you even know who we are?”

“Nay,” said Drest, “why should I?”

“Everything in this part of the lowlands – including this headland – belongs to Faintree Castle.”

“Is that the truth? Strange. I’ve always known that my da owned this headland and all the lowlands.”

That’s only the beginning of Drest’s surprising adventures.

Fair warning is that while this book finishes at a good stopping-place, not everything is resolved, so I trust there will be more adventures to come. But this book has enough to make this lass become a legend.

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Review of The Stuff of Stars, by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

The Stuff of Stars

by Marion Dane Bauer
illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Candlewick Press, 2018. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 25, 2018, from a library book
2019 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 General Picture Books

The Stuff of Stars is a gorgeous and glorious book.

The book is an extra large square, so it’s got a weighty presence. All the pages use marbled papers in swirly patterns. The front cover has the title in gold-sparkled lettering like star clusters.

Here’s how the book begins, on black paper with other dark swirled colors and one white dot:

In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No up,
no down,
no edge,
no center.

It goes on to poetically talk about the Big Bang on the third spread. And slowly how the stars and worlds formed. Christians, there’s plenty of room to explain to your child that God’s responsible for that Big Bang.

I like when it talks about what isn’t there yet:

And throughout the cosmos
stars caught fire.
Trillions of stars,
but still no planets
to attend those stars.
And if no planets,
then no oceans,
no mountains,
no hippopotami.
No violets blooming
in a shady wood,
no crickets singing
to the night.
No day,
no night.

Next, planets are formed, and even Earth, “one lucky planet, a fragile blue ball.” And it talks about the creatures that were formed on earth, from mitochondria to sharks, daisies, and galloping horses.

And then there’s a shift of gears:

Then one day . . .
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.

Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.

And it builds to the cozy image of two people cuddling together, the same as on the cover.

The random list of earth’s creatures combined with the glorious swirling images is a perfect pairing.

and the velvet moss,
the caterpillars,
the lions.

You and the singing whales,
the larks,
the frogs.

and me
loving you.
All of us
the stuff of stars.

A marvelous and wondrous book.

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