Book Reviews

Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse

Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen BackhouseSummary: Helpful introduction to both Kierkegaard’s life and work.

To the best of my memory I have never studied or read any Kierkegaard. I have heard several people commend Kierkegaard: A Single Life and when I saw it on sale on audiobook I picked it up.

This is a brief, but good overview of his life. And because Kierkegaard is important primarily for his writing, there is good context for that as well. At the end of the book, there was short descriptions of each piece (1-3 pages) which was much more helpful and interesting than I would have suspected going in.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John HendrixSummary: Brief graphic novel about Bonhoeffer with a very good understanding of the German context and Hitler’s rise to power. 

Bonhoeffer is one of those subjects that I am continually fascinated by. I have read a number of books by and about Bonhoeffer including two others this year. I did not walk into The Faithful Spy blind.

Even though I know it isn’t necessarily true, I tend to think of graphic novels as oriented toward young adult readers. In other words, a simplified perspective. But like Hendrix’s book on John Brown, the presentation of Bonhoeffer is complex.

Despite my long reading list about Bonhoeffer, I honestly, think that The Faithful Spy may have more clearly laid out how Hitler rose to power than any other book on Bonhoeffer that I have read. (Or at the least, I actually understood it this time.) Because Hitler has been talked about a lot lately I was paying attention to how The Faithful Spy told the story of Hitler’s rise. A meme on Facebook recently was talking about Hitler being voted into power, but as Faithful Spy makes clear, that is a partial truth. Hitler was elected, but only after he had stolen power and circumvented the democratic process that was in place.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

SWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okoraforummary: The child of a violent rape in a post-apocalyptic future Africa is named Onyesonwu, or Who Fears Death.

Who Fears Death seems to be Nnedi Okorafor’s best know book. But that may be surpassed with her recent Binti trilogy. This is the fifth of Okorafor’s books I have read in the last 18 months or so. The books are not the same story, but there are elements where I can see her style and perspective carrying through. I cannot help but compare her to Octavia Butler because I am two books away from reading all of Butler’s fiction. Both Butler and Okorafor write strong Black women as their protagonists. All of Okorafor’s settings are future Africa, but there is a mix of fantasy and science fiction elements as well as Magical Realism.

I am not sure how I fully feel about Magical Realism. There are times when it appears that the magical realism is science that can be controlled. But other times when it is magic that based on cultic beings or maybe elemental structures that are not quite scientific. And still others times the magical realism feels more like a method of describing religious beliefs or beings.

Who Fears Death is not my favorite of the Okorafor novels, but it is a solid novel that was worth reading. One of the reasons I have continued to try to be intentional about reading diverse authors is that the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds means that I am exposed to different methods of story telling and assumptions. I cannot really describe Who Fears Death as Dystopian YA in the sense that Hunger Games, Divergent, the Giver or Maze Runner are Dystopian YA. I am not even sure if it is really YA, although it is the story of Onye, focusing primarily on her life from 16 to 21.

The culture and assumptions are foreign to me. Veils, ritual genital mutilation, caste systems and different senses of shame and independence from community help me to see how much my own western cultural assumptions are a lens that I make normative and how much I need to decenter my own perspectives to work on empowering others.

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales

Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley HalesTakeaway: As Christians who believe in embodiment, we are Christians in a place, not just abstractly.

When I was in college I thought I was called to the city. I had a mentor prophesy over me that I was called to the city and pray that I would fulfill that calling. That mentor was later found in significant sin and left (quietly) in disgrace. I loved Chicago, where I spent more than than any other place in my life and where I still work. But in 2006 I moved to suburban Atlanta and now have lived in this house longer than any other home I have lived in. I honestly doubt that I will ever live inside a city like Chicago again. In large part because I have family. It isn’t that I would not take my children to a city, but that extended family structures matter and I am in an extended family structure that is suburban.

Over the past few years I have been changing in my attitude toward suburbs. In part DL Mayfield has given voice to some of why I have changed. She lives in community with recent immigrants and those in poverty in suburban Portland OR. In Portland, and much of the rest of the country, the suburbs are increasingly where the poor live. Nationally, more poor people live in the suburbs than either urban or rural areas. In addition, suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse. My county school district is now predominately minority. And while that is not reflected in the population as a whole, the population as a whole in my county is also booming more diverse. As DL Mayfield has said, she is in the suburbs because that is where the poor, the immigrant and the needy are likely to be found.

Being Disciples: Essentials of The Christian Life by Rowan Williams

Being Disciples: Essentials of The Christian Life by Rowan WilliamsTakeaway: “Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the things we believe, but a state of being.”

I am a big fan of Rowan Williams little books. There are a lot of them. Most of them grew out of lectures and so are short (around 80-100 pages) and pack a lot of punch. There are a number of them that would make excellent small group discussion books because they could be covered in 4 to 6 sessions (what I think is an optimal length for small group discussions).

Being Disciples is a follow up to Being Christian. Being Christian focused on four practices that are central to being Christians, baptism, bible, eucharist and prayer. Being Disciples about attitudes or virtues or approaches to how we live. The chapter titles are Faith, Hope and Love, Forgiveness, Holiness, Faith in Society, and Life in the Spirit.

Williams is a real scholar and theologian and I have had some difficulty with some of his longer more academic books. But these shorter ones are are have a simple presentation without being simplistic. One of the reviewers of Being Disciples on Amazon said, “the simple presentations was made on the basis of deep understanding of theology and the human condition”.

Williams is a theologian, but a theologian that centers practice. He does not minimize theology, but suggests that how we live as Christians really matters to becoming more like Christ. The knowledge of theology is not unimportant. But we do not become like Christ through our knowledge, we become like Christ through our practice. (I read this right after finishing the Dangers of Christian Practice, so that was on my mind, but I still think that Rowan Williams is basically right here.)

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin by Lauren Winner

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin by Lauren WinnerTakeaway: Spiritual practices are not magic bullets. 

Over the past few years I have become a disciple of spiritual practices. I have a spiritual director. I regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. I really do think that the eucharist and baptism should be central to worship. This makes me the target audience of Lauren Winner’s new book, the Dangers of Christian Practice.

The rough thesis is that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses that need to be paid attention to. Just like the church is made up of human beings that are sinful and make every church community less than perfect, good practices that are commanded by God and advocated throughout history also have some weaknesses.

The easiest illustration and the best chapters is about prayer. Keziah Goodwin Hopkins Brevard is the main illustration. She is a 57 year old widowed owner of two plantations and over 200 slaves. She left extensive journals both of her thoughts and of her prayers as fodder for Winner’s discussion.

As Winner recounts, Brevard prays for pliant slaves, she prays for the death of slaves that lie to her, she prays that Heaven will have a separate location for abolitionists and slaves away from her. (Note the political and rhetorical implications of a separate heaven.) She prays to be a good master and for a heart open to God.

Winner notes that the subjects of our prayers have long been a concern for Christians. Aquinas and others cited have thought and written about praying for things that are sinful or out of distorted desires. But the very nature of prayer is part of the problem. It is not just intercessory prayer, but teaching prayer to others and how public prayer is often not solely directed at God. Prayer can easily become gossip, self justifying or deluded. But even out of bad prayer, there can be  good aspects.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David BlightTakeaway: Well written biography of a fascinating man.

I first came across David Blight when I listened to a podcast of his Yale College History class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I have not read any of his books previously, but based on my enjoyment of that class and my interest in (but completely lack of knowledge about) Frederick Douglass I jumped on an advanced copy. I did not adequately leave enough time for this very long book and bought the audiobook.

It is hard to be too glowing about Frederick Douglass. Largely self taught, Douglass eventually wrote three autobiographies, was a publisher of two different newspapers for roughly 20 year together. Douglass was the first Black man appointed to a job that required Senate approval. He was later appointed minister to Haiti (roughly equivalent to ambassador). He may have spoken in front of more people than any other single person in the 19th century in the United State. And after the death of his first wife, he married Helen Pitts, a White woman, making theirs the first really prominent interracial marriage.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is the only large biography of Frederick Douglass that I am aware of. David Blight is well qualified. He has written introductions to Douglass’ autobiographies. Blight has written about slave narratives (former slaves writing about their history as slaves and/or their escape) as well as the underground railroad. Blight also won the Bancroft Prize (one of the most prominent awards for history writing) for his Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. That book that is largely about historic memory is especially evident as Blight discusses how Douglass remembers himself and his life and how that changes over time.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is not just about an interesting character of history, but it is a complex portrayal of Douglass. One of the points that was made in Harriet Tubman’s biography, Bound for the Promise Land, was that Tubman, as many other historical characters, is easily minimized to the one thing that people know about them. Frederick Douglass is known as a former slave and abolitionist. Some people may know about his autobiographies and maybe even have read one of them. But Blight presents a much more complex character, with Douglass’ strengths and weaknesses. And there are lots of both strengths and weaknesses.

The Bone Whistle by KB Hoyle (The Gateway Chronicles Book 6)

The Bone Whistle by KB Hoyle (The Gateway Chronicles Book 6)Summary: The final chapter. 

Writing about the final book of a series is always difficult. I assume most people reading this have not necessarily read the previous five books in the series. (But you should and they are The Six, The Oracle, The White Thread, The Enchanted, and The Scroll). I want to give enough detail to interest you in reading the series, but not include a bunch of spoilers. So like my review of The Scroll, I am splitting this review into two parts. The first part is my general, non-spoiler thoughts. The second part will be more discussion about the book directly and assume you have read the previous books.

After having finished the whole series, I am even more impressed about the construction of the books and the plotting. This is a series that has layers and references and subtlety so that it can be read multiple times. The characters grow and mature, not suddenly or because the plot suddenly needs them to, but naturally in a way that we can see as readers. And while this is a book that is written for young adults, as a well read adult, I was kept engaged throughout the series. There were no weak books.

The Bone Whistle is the final in the series. It reaches a conclusion. As a warning to the reader, this book is structured a bit differently. One of the plot points is that Darcy forgets something and only recovers her memories slowly later in the book. We as the readers do not know what that is, so there are places where we readers are a bit in the dark. I actually went back and re-read the end of the Scroll because it had been a few weeks since I had finished it and based on what I was reading at the start of The Bone Whistle, I thought that I had forgotten the end of the Scroll. I had not, The Bone Whistle jumps into the middle of something and we are supposed to be confused. That will happen a couple times in the book. Go back and re-read if you need to (and I did in a couple places) but then keep reading, the plot will resolve itself.

John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John Hendrix

John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John HendrixSummary: Nuanced children’s history for a difficult figure.

A couple weeks ago a friend posted on facebook about a new graphic novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was interested and while looking at the author’s other books, I saw a used copy of John Brown: His Fight for Freedom. I had just finished reading the section on John Brown in the new biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight and was interested.

John Brown is a difficult figure and I was interested how he would be handled in a children’s book. (Ted Olsen in a twitter response to this review, suggested that he thought of this an illustrated biography for adults and not a children’s book. Which does make sense. He also suggested that Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War as a follow up book.)

I have not read any extensive works on him, so the sections on John Brown from Frederick Douglass’ biography that I just read and the Harriet Tubman biography that I read earlier this year are my main sources outside of Hendrix’s book.

John Brown was a religious zealot and radical abolitionist. You cannot talk about John Brown without understanding that he felt it appropriate as a Christian to use violence on behalf to freeing slaves that he felt were being held sinfully in slavery.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle

Summary: What does it mean to be a Christian artist? What is the Relationship between faith and art?

Walking on Water is a book that it is hard not to hear about if you are in circles where you interact with Christian who write professionally. I have been hearing about the book for years, but Sarah Arthur’s recent biography of L’Engle reminded me again about how many writers (and other artists as well) were impacted not just by L’Engle’s art, but by her speaking and writing about the role of art in the Christian life.

In many ways Walking on Water is like a fifth volume of the Crosswick Journals. It is not as full of personal stories as the Crosswick Journals, but it was first published in 1982, between books three and four of the Crosswick Journals (Irrational Season in 1977 and Two-Part Invention in 1988). Walking on Water has a similar sense of listening to an older friend share wisdom about life. It is more focused on writing, but there are definitely overlapping themes with A Circle of Quiet (first book in Crosswick Journals).

Writing is more of a means of processing than as an art form for me. I do not edit as much as I should. So the thoughts on writing were not really my focus. This is a book that was written to be read and re-read. There is wisdom here, but like a lot of books of wisdom, there is some vagueness where the reader has to read into the text.