Review of Call Us What We Carry, by Amanda Gorman

Call Us What We Carry

Poems

by Amanda Gorman

Viking, 2021. 228 pages.
Review written September 20, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

I don’t purchase a lot of poetry books, but I was so happy with this one, and I’ve spent the last few months reading a poem or two a day most days.

Amanda Gorman was the 2021 Inaugural Poet, and the stirring poem she recited that day, “The Hill We Climb,” is the final poem in this book.

The book is full of poems as moving and insightful as that one. Amanda Gorman has a way with words. The poems are full of rhymes and alliteration and word play, turning words as if they are pieces of glass, reflecting light in different ways.

These are poems about current times. Written during the thick of the pandemic, there’s plenty about pain and death and healing.

Here’s a small stanza where I underlined the middle line:

Perhaps our relationships are the very make of us,
For fellowship is both our nature & our necessity.
We are formed primarily by what we imagine.

There’s lots that’s lovely here, and lots that made me pause in meditation.

I’ll be honest — there’s a big section in the middle with “erasure poems” — poems made by erasing parts of a document, using what is left. I didn’t enjoy those poems as much. For me, they didn’t have the resonance and didn’t roll off the tongue as well. But I think she was going for the significance of the documents she chose — documents about slaves and about indigenous people treated horribly — and they definitely still have punch.

Altogether, this is a book of poems I’ll want to come back to. I’m glad I got my own copy.

We are enough,
Armed only
With our hands,
Open but unemptied,
Just like a blooming thing.
We walk into tomorrow,
Carrying nothing
But the world.

(p. 205, from “What We Carry”)

And from “The Hill We Climb”:

When day comes, we step out of the shade,
Aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it,
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

theamandagorman.com

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Review of Braving the Thin Places, by Julianne Stanz

Braving the Thin Places

Celtic Wisdom to Create a Space for Grace

by Julianne Stanz

Loyola Press, 2021. 170 pages.
Review written August 19, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

Here’s how author Julianne Stanz introduces the idea of a “thin space”:

Each of us stands at the threshold of a thin place, and we are its gatekeeper.

Have you ever held a loved one’s hand as they slipped from this life and into the next? Birthed a child and felt the thin edges of God’s presence inside your being? Beheld such beauty that it took your breath away? Or been moved to tears by an image or a piece of music? If so, you have stood at the edge of a thin place, a place where God and humanity meet in a mysterious way. These moments open us to places of rawness and beauty. Something seems to break open inside us, and words are inadequate to describe what we are experiencing. We feel a sense of breakthrough as we break free of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.

This book is about making room for thin places and embracing them. The author was born in Ireland and brings the idea of thin places from the Celtic tradition.

The Celts, known for their love of threshold places at the edge of life, such as Sceilg Mhichil, a crag off the coast of County Kerry, were never afraid to explore God in the known or in the wild, barren edges of life. We should not be afraid either. The Celtic imagination considers sacred places to be “thin,” or places where the veil between the worlds of heaven and earth seems especially permeable, and the worlds discernibly close to each other. Thin spaces exist between the now and the not-yet. Entering thin spaces is an opportunity that we don’t normally have — to slow down, to pause, to look with fresh eyes, to recover a sense of wonder about the world. The pace of life moves too fast for many of us over concrete and inhospitable ground, and we are searching — for joy, forgiveness, healing, completion, and peace. God is all around if only we recognize his presence. And for those wwho do, that this space is one of rejuvenation and renewal.

This book works for personal meditation and devotional use, and it would also work for a church small group to go through together. There are 11 chapters and an Introduction. Each chapter has some open-ended questions at the end, under the headings “Breaking Open,” “Breaking Through,” and “Breaking Free.” And they start with an Irish proverb.

Julianne Stanz makes this a personal journey, illustrating it with stories from her own life. The book builds toward getting through difficulties and making a space for grace.

To be honest, I read this book when everything in my life seemed to be wonderful — having just gotten my dream job and enjoying working in it. But I know hard times will come, and I think this lovely and encouraging book will be especially helpful to take up and explore when one of those times comes. Yes, happy times can be thin places, too — but I don’t need as much help finding a good perspective on them. I enjoyed the book, but I think that if times were tougher, it might be a lifeline. I will keep it on hand.

loyolapress.com

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Review of The Intellectual Lives of Children, by Susan Engel

The Intellectual Lives of Children

by Susan Engel

Harvard University Press, 2021. 219 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from a library book

How do children form ideas? When do they become able to think abstractly? What is going on in their heads when they ask questions? When do they learn to imagine? When do they learn to invent? How can we support kids’ ability to form ideas?

This book by a developmental psychologist explores all these questions. Many examples are given, and we’re told about experiments done to determine what things change as a child ages.

It was refreshing and surprising to read a book focusing on children’s thought processes. Here’s a section from the Prelude:

While children are busily gathering information, mulling things over, and speculating about the world, the adults around them are, for the most part, unaware of all that mental activity. Much of the time, they treat children as if they don’t have ideas at all. Focused on whether children are learning to behave well, acquiring skills and facts, and feeling happy, they give little consideration to children’s thoughts, or the puzzles that intrigue them.

And anyone who is around children can help nurture their ideas. This is also from the Prelude:

Outstanding capacity and extraordinary opportunity are not essential for toddlers and preschoolers to grow into children and adults who pursue ideas. Far more important is the sheer time and attention a child gives, and is encouraged to give, to the consideration of ideas. Every child can learn that building ideas is as tangible, accessible, and alluring as making things with modeling clay. It begins with opportunities to collect information — whether about candy, movie stars, or oceans. And it begins in every kitchen, sidewalk, and kindergarten.

The main chapters are “Inquiry,” “Invention,” and “Ideas.” Reading them helped me realize how much goes into a child’s thought processes. The final chapter, “The Idea Workshop,” talks about making space for groups of kids to create and generate ideas, along with some amazing examples.

I’ll be honest. It took me an awfully long time to get through this book. There is small print and long chapters, and the writing is dense. I was going to describe it as academic, and then I noticed it’s published by Harvard University Press, so of course it is! All those things are true, but when I would sit down and focus on the book, it was fascinating. There are plenty of stories of children and their ideas, and they made me think about my own experience with children. So mainly I think my slowness to finish was more about not taking the time to pick up the book than it was being interested once I’d done that.

And I do recommend this book for parents and teachers and anyone who works with children. It will get you thinking about where ideas come from.

hup.harvard.edu

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Review of The Art of Biblical Poetry, by Robert Alter

The Art of Biblical Poetry

by Robert Alter

Basic Books, Revised and Updated 2011. Original edition published in 1985. 296 pages.
Review written June 8, 2021, from my own copy

I purchased a copy of The Art of Biblical Poetry after reading the author’s book The Art of Bible Translation. That one was written for a more general audience and is about Bible translation in general, but it made me want more in-depth information. I’m writing a not very academic book about Psalms, so I wanted to know more about the original language.

I learned so much! I knew that biblical poetry has parallelism, but this book showed me nuances in that parallelism I hadn’t been aware of before. I also learned that there’s a rhythm to Hebrew poetry, a certain number of beats per line, which can’t always be translated well.

The author covers all different types of biblical poetry – and before reading, I hadn’t realized that different types even existed. The beginning looks more deeply at parallelism and has a whole chapter called “Structures of Intensification,” looking at how parallelism is used. He looks at sections of narrative poetry that tell a story, and then moves on to looking at the poetry in different books of the Bible – first Job, then Psalms, then the prophetic books, then Proverbs, and then Song of Songs. Finally, there’s a summary chapter.

In the summary chapter, he makes the case that the poetry in the Bible isn’t often studied as poetry.

The aim of my own inquiry has been not only to attempt to get a firmer grasp of biblical poetics but also to suggest an order of essential connection between poetic form and meaning that for the most part has been neglected by scholarship. For if I have used the image of brushing away deposits from a beautiful surface to describe the task at hand, I should add that poetry is quintessentially the mode of expression in which the surface is the depth, so that through careful scrutiny of the configurations of the surface – the articulation of the line, the movement from line to poem, the imagery, the arabesques of syntax and grammar, the design of the poem as a whole – we come to apprehend more fully the depth of the poem’s meaning.

The choice of the poetic medium for the Job poet, or for Isaiah, or for the psalmist, was not merely a matter of giving weight and verbal dignity to a preconceived message but of uncovering or discovering meanings through the resources of poetry. In manifold ways, some of which I try to illustrate here from chapter 4 onward, poetry is a special way of imagining the world or, to put this in more cognitive terms, a special mode of thinking with its own momentum and its own peculiar advantages.

Throughout the book, he looks at specific passages in depth, looking at those things he mentions – “the articulation of the line, the movement from line to poem, the imagery, the arabesques of syntax and grammar, the design of the poem as a whole.” This isn’t light reading, and it took me a long time to get through the whole book, but I did gain a new appreciation for these passages as works of poetry and a new appreciation for what was going on in the original language.

This is not light reading, and I don’t recommend it unless you’re ready for an intense academic work. But if you know what you’re getting into, this book is full of insights that will add to your appreciation and understanding of the Biblical text.

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Review of Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, by Sarah Bessey

Miracles and Other Reasonable Things

A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God

by Sarah Bessey

Howard Books (Atria), 2019. 222 pages.
Review written September 6, 2022, from my own copy
Starred Review

First, a big thank you to my friend Amanda who recommended Sarah Bessey’s writing. I purchased this book shortly after it came out, on her recommendation. When I finally got around to reading it a few years later, I wondered what took me so long. I loved it!

First, Sarah Bessey has a way with words. Her writing is lyrical and lovely. This book is full of stories that pull you into the scene and keep you reading. She also finds ways to interweave emotions and thoughts about God that get you thinking as well.

This book begins with a very bad car accident. One that significantly messed up her health.

In the middle of the book, she receives a miraculous and dramatic healing. But although that healing was real, other parts of her body were still in bad shape. She had to grapple with the miracle that did come and the miracles that didn’t come. And she explains that journey in a way we can all relate to.

Here’s a paragraph that I love, when she was talking about a way God had reached out when she was discouraged and told her she was not forgotten:

I have never gotten over that moment, that word of knowledge, and I hope I never do. My mantra was disrupted, and I had a new path to walk, a path I still walk to this day. If God had not forgotten me — and clearly God had not — and yet I was still part of the company of the unanswered prayers, perhaps that meant that I had misunderstood something about God. Perhaps the problem wasn’t God; perhaps the problem was the God I had created and the God I had been given.

In the miracles and the lack of miracles, she looks at what she needed to unlearn and relearn about God, and she takes the reader on that journey with her.

I also loved the chapter where she visits Prince Edward Island. I was there in 2019 with two of my best friends. I’m always happy to read the thoughts of an L. M. Montgomery fan! And yes, I can’t think of a better place for a spiritual retreat.

I’m going to look for more of Sarah Bessey’s writings. Like me, she comes from a Christian background, but some of her beliefs have changed as an adult. I appreciate her stance of not being certain that she has all the answers.

sarahbessey.com
SimonandSchuster.com

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Review of Jane Austen Cover to Cover, by Margaret C. Sullivan

Jane Austen Cover to Cover

200 Years of Classic Covers

by Margaret C. Sullivan

Quirk Books, 2014. 224 pages.
Review written July 25, 2022, from my own copy, given to me as a gift.
Starred Review

First, a great big huge thank you to my coworker Pam Coughlan, who gave this book to me as a parting gift when I got transferred so I was no longer her supervisor. What a delightful treat it is!

The book tells the history of Jane Austen’s publications — with pictures of covers along the way.

They started out quite plain, but it’s fun to watch fashions in cover design change over the years. Some of the covers are almost funny when a Jane-lover realizes how little they have to do with what’s inside the book.

The chapters cover distinct time periods: 1811-1818 — while Jane Austen was alive, and shortly after; 1832-1920, 1920-1989, and 1990-2013 (Yes, there has been a revival). After that, there’s a chapter with book covers that use stills from movie adaptations, and then a chapter of foreign language editions.

It’s peppered with Jane Austen quotations, especially ones appropriate to scenes shown on the covers, and plenty of information about the different editions featured.

Above all, it’s super fun for any Austenite to browse through. I’m keeping this one in my coffee table to pull out for browsing. (It’s a glass-topped coffee table with a drawer.) So much fun!

quirkbooks.com

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Review of Freeing Jesus, by Diana Butler Bass

Freeing Jesus

Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence

by Diana Butler Bass

HarperOne, 2021. 285 pages.
Review written July 25, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review

In Freeing Jesus, Diana Butler Bass tells us her life story — and how her life experiences affected the way she looked at Jesus.

She goes through six names for Jesus, which fit how she saw him during six stages of her life. I thought it was interesting that they were the same six names — even “Way” and “Presence” — my pastors used in a sermon series on names of Jesus.

Her journey had many similarities to mine, about a decade before me. I know the Christian college she refers to, because I went to a nearby Christian university that was a sports rival with it.

But it also got me thinking about the ways my views of Jesus have changed — and many of those ways were similar to the journey she describes. I like reading about her wrestling with the theology she was taught, because I’ve wrestled with some of the same ideas. Here’s a passage I marked because I love the way she expresses these transcendent ideas:

Jesus was born a savior, and he saved during his lifetime. “Fear not!” “Peace on earth!” He did not wait around for thirty-three years and suddenly become a savior in an act of ruthless, bloody execution. Indeed, the death was senseless, stupid, shameful, evil. It meant little other than silence without the next act — resurrection — God’s final word that even the most brutal of empires cannot destroy salvus. This is no quid pro quo. Rather, Easter proclaims that God overcomes all oppression and injustice, even the murder of an innocent one. At-one-ment means just that. Through Jesus, all will be renewed, made whole, brought back into oneness, reunited with God. Salvation is not a transaction to get to heaven after death; rather, it is an experience of love and beauty and of paradise here and now. No single metaphor, not even one of Paul’s, can truly describe this. We need a prism of stories to begin to understand the cross and a lifetime to experience it.

I love this concept she spells out at the end of her book:

We know Jesus through our experience. There is no other way to become acquainted with one who lived so long ago and who lives in ways we can barely understand through church, scripture, and good works and in the faces of our neighbors. In these pages, I have shared six Jesuses whom I experienced through something I call “memoir theology” (not theological memoir). Memoir theology is the making of theology — understanding the nature of God — through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus.

This spoke to me because I’m working on a book about Psalms that uses my own experiences to illuminate the different types of Psalms. But she demonstrates with this book how much richness is added to her insights by looking at them through the lens of experience.

And after she said that, she points out that even though many church “fathers” wrote theology in the context of memoir, it was taken seriously because only certain (mostly male) perspectives were taken seriously. But she points out that all our experiences matter:

There is an old Berber proverb: “The true believer begins with herself.” Your experience of Jesus matters. It matters in conversation with the “big names,” when you argue with the tradition, and when you read the words and texts for yourself. It matters when you hear Jesus speaking, feel Jesus prompting, and sink into despair when Jesus seems absent. It all matters. The Jesuses you have known and the Jesus you know matter.

Read this book to think about who Jesus is in the light of one woman’s life story, with inspiration to reflect on how Jesus has touched your own life story. Think about who Jesus is and how he has touched your life.

dianabutlerbass.com
harpercollins.com

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Review of The Bible and the Transgender Experience, by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Bible and the Transgender Experience

How Scripture Supports Gender Variance

by Linda Tatro Herzer

The Pilgrim Press, 2016. 126 pages.
Review written May 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is for Christians who want to understand what the Bible says about accepting transgender people. And who are willing to think about interpretation and context.

Now, I am all too painfully aware that some Christians are not willing to think about interpretation and context or the consistency with which they apply principles of interpretation. I have a transgender daughter, and less than a year ago, I left a church with a broken heart because of this issue. Most of the people there had their minds made up, and I wish I thought they’d listen to the words in this book more carefully than they listened to my words. (I did a blog series with the title “Transcending.”)

I’m not going to present all the author’s points, because those points deserve to be heard in their entirety. But she does tackle verses that are used to say that transgender people are sinning and explains why that’s a huge stretch. She also looks at passages that strongly suggest that God wants his people to be accepting and welcoming of gender variant individuals.

I’ve also read and reviewed Transforming, by Austen Hartke, which is another look at this same topic. There is not only one set of arguments, so you’ll get some new ideas and perspectives here. The study guide at the back of the book seems especially helpful, and the author is gentle and instructive for people who don’t know anything about gender variance but want to learn how to be respectful and supportive.

I especially love the way the author closes out the main text of the book (before appendices with information to help you make your own church or group more trans friendly).

On a personal note, I am grateful for the gifts of honesty and courage I have seen manifested by gender variant people. They have inspired me to be as honest as they are about who God has created me to be, challenging me to ask myself, “Who am I vocationally? What are my unique, God-given gifts, aptitudes, and interests? Am I honoring and using them to their fullest? Who am I spiritually? What sort of spiritual practices work best for me, given my divinely created temperament and proclivities?”

Next, gender variant friends and congregants inspire me to live my answers to the preceding questions as courageously as they live their truths. Let’s face it, all of us are subjected to peer, parental, familial, societal, and even religious expectations about how we are and are not supposed to act. So to act in ways that are true to who we are but that may be contrary to people’s expectations of us takes great courage – for all of us! Watching transgender people courageously live their lives has been a huge inspiration to me to exercise the courage I need to live my divinely created truth each and every day.

Given the ways that gender variant people inspire me daily, and all the gifts I have seen them bring to the church and to the world, I close with two prayers.

My prayer for all gender variant people is that you will let the light of your vast and varied gifts continue to shine brightly. My prayer for all nontransgender people is that, in the same way we delight in the dusk and dawn of each new day, may we also celebrate the dusk/dawn light of gender variant individuals and the many gifts they bring to the church and to the world.

Amen! May it be so.

TransformationJourneysWW.com
thepilgrimpress.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 Collective Wisdom, edited by Grace Bonney

Collective Wisdom

Lessons, Inspiration, and Advice from Women over 50

edited by Grace Bonney

Artisan, 2021. 399 pages.
Review written July 23, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

This gorgeous volume of photographs and profiles is a perfect coffee table book to read slowly.
I’ve been reading one profile per day for many months now, and I’m inspired. Yes, in my case I used a library book and simply kept renewing, but this would be a lovely investment to enjoy all over again even after you’ve been through it once, especially since 50 percent of the profits are to be divided among the women featured in the book.

There are 80 profiles in this book, all accompanied by full-page photographic portraits. Most of the profiles are of individual women who are over fifty, but also pairs of intergenerational friends, and some featuring groups of older women who have found community together. The majority of the individual women featured are in their seventies and eighties. These are accomplished women, and there were several writers whose work I knew about and admired. There’s great diversity in the profiles, with I think the majority being BIPOC, and queer and transgender women included as well.

I love rereading the Introduction after having read the whole book, because I think Grace Bonney has succeeded in meeting the goals she expresses there. Here’s a sampling from that:

Since the beginning of time, women have been the keepers of stories, traditions, and wisdom. And for too long, the powerful conversations women have with each other have been overlooked, because society often devalues women, age, and knowledge that is spoken rather than written. Collective Wisdom seeks to rebalance these scales by valuing women who have lived long and complex lives — and the experience and perspective that come with that.

My goal with Collective Wisdom is twofold. I want to gather and share stories and advice that we can all return to, over and over, whenever we need help finding our way. But I also want to remind anyone reading that the most powerful and life-changing tools we all have access to are the connections we form with other women….

In sharing and celebrating the stories and the lessons the women in Collective Wisdom have learned, my hope is that anyone reading will feel uplifted, less alone, inspired to reach out to women who are older or younger than they are right now, and moved to nourish and celebrate the relationships they already have. Your whole world can change when you change whom you listen to. Mine has changed from listening to everyone here.

The editor has met that hope in me with her wonderful book!

Another thing she’s accomplished is that listening to the repeated questions and hearing answers from so many different women, I’m mulling over how I, another woman over fifty, would answer them. Questions like: “What does your current age feel like to you?” “What are you most proud of about yourself?” “What misconceptions about aging would you like to dispel?” “When do you feel your most powerful?” “What role do you feel your ancestors, or the women in your family who came before you, play in your life?” “How has your sense of self-confidence or self-acceptance evolved over time?” “What would you like to learn or experience at this stage in your life?” “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and tell your younger self?”

There’s so much beauty and wisdom in this book! I love the way the large photographic portraits show that each woman is fabulously beautiful, including those wrinkled with age. This book uplifted, inspired, and encouraged me from start to finish.

artisanbooks.com

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Review of Playing with Myself, by Randy Rainbow

Playing with Myself

by Randy Rainbow
read by the author

Macmillan Audio, 2022. 7 hours, 2 minutes.
Review written July 21, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I love Randy Rainbow! If you lean at all liberal politically, or maybe if you just enjoy show tunes, I hope you’ve seen his parody videos. They usually deal with current issues, but often include other fun content. He has a new one out, written with Alan Menken, called “Pink Glasses” about being willing to be yourself, using his trademark pink glasses as a symbol.

If there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe that some people are born gay, this audiobook is solid refutation of that world view. From childhood, Randy Rainbow (Yes, that’s his real name.) loved Broadway show tunes and dressing up and acting out the female parts. This is the story of his unconventional route to fame — making parody videos in his bedroom.

In the audiobook, Randy’s mother makes a special appearance as he interviews her about his childhood. I thought that chapter was especially fun.

But I found the whole thing adorable and inspiring. Yes, there’s profanity peppered throughout — at a similar level as in his videos. Also a touch of adult humor here and there. But overall, it’s a story of a kid who was bullied in school for being gay and overweight and having a funny name — going on to smashing success in part because of his exhaustive knowledge of Broadway show tunes.

It’s fun hearing about his unlikely path to stardom and his unbridled joy in getting appreciation from his idols such as Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. This audiobook felt like hearing a friend tell his story and just made me so happy for him as he found a true expression of his unique talents and a way straight into people’s hearts (well maybe not exactly straight), including mine.

randyrainbow.com

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