Book Reviews

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds

Miles Morales by Jason ReynoldsSummary: Miles Morales is Spiderman in an alternate reality.

I am not really a comic book guy. But I like the idea of superheroes even if I have not spent a lot of time reading about them. I did spend a lot of time watching the cartoons when I was a kid, and while I am years behind, I do watch the Marvel movies.

My wife took a children’s literature course over the summer for her grad school and read Jason Reynolds and I have been meaning to read something by him for a while. So with the movie coming out (this is not a novelization of the movie) and it being written by Jason Reynolds and it being available at my library on audiobook, I picked it up and finished it in two days.

There are aspects of the original Spiderman story. Miles Morales is a teen, bitten by a spider and he becomes Spiderman. But aspects are different. His parents are both living, and married. His dad is the one that instills in him the responsibility for the community and the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ that is traditionally from Peter Parker’s uncle Ben.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel TaylorSummary: An English lit grad school dropout is working as a researcher investigating the death of his former advisor. 

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist was recommended by someone that I do not remember, but a fair chance it was John Wilson. Wilson review is in the Amazon description:

”One part academic satire, one part mystery, and one part theological investigation, this pleasingly disorienting novel packs a wicked punch. Like life itself, Daniel Taylor gives us a story in which all sorts of incongruous elements are jumbled together. (Reality is not fastidious.) But is there–could there be–a pattern nonetheless, a great design amid all the confusion?”

And really that is a great short description. It is academic satire making fun of literary theory, while actually understanding it. There is a real mystery at the root of the story. While the protagonist grew up a Christian and has theological reflections throughout the book, this is not a Father Brown mystery. It feels a little like Mark Berstrand’s Roland March Mystery series. Roland March was a real detective and there was not any academic satire, but both have an approach to Christian fiction that eshews most of the standard Christian fiction tropes.

But I suspect like Berstrand, this probably has not found a wide audience. It is well written, I understand why it has had so many good reviews, including winning Fiction book of the year in Christianity Today’s 2016 Book Awards. But it is niche. Christian fiction does not have a lot of room for either academic satire or mystery fiction. 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonSummary: Memoir of a childhood, in verse. 

It was not really intentional, but I read Brown Girl Dreaming right after I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I read them together because the holds at the library came one right after the other.

But I have to assume that Jacqueline Woodson was influenced by Maya Angelou. Both are writing beautifully lyrical books about their childhoods. Both were expertly narrated by the authors. But Brown Girl Dreaming was entirely in verse. I am not sure I have ever read a book of narrative verse quite like this.

I listened to the audiobook, so I missed out on the visual nature of the verse, although I did use Amazon’s preview feature to read a couple pages of the verses. This is a book I am going to buy so that I can read it again in print.

I have a lousy background in poetry. Other than an excellent class in college on Emily Dickinson. And an excellent class in high school on Shakespeare, I do not think I really studied poetry. I am far from an expert, but the flow of this was extraordinary. I learned from my Emily Dickinson classed how important proper reading of poetry is. My professor knew how to properly read Dickinson and it mattered. Woodson knows how to read her poetry and it matters to the way it flows to the ear.

Reading back to back two memoirs of childhood by two Black women a generation apart, I could not help but reflect on the role of being Black plays in these two memoirs. I cannot think of a memoir of a White author that seriously thinks about what it means to be White except for a couple that were expressly about racial issues. I cannot think of a memoir that I have read by a non-White author that does not include a reflection of what it means to be Black, Asian, etc.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya AngelouSummary: Beautiful writing, made better by her distinctive and haunting narration.

There can be no criticism about a book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, not just because it is the writing is so beautiful, but because it is distinctive and ground breaking.

Angelou was 41 when I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and she had already been a popular singer with albums, an actress and playwright, a director and producer of a documentary, worked directly for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, lived outside the US for several years and much more. Writing was a later career for Angelou, and she is probably best known today as a poet and writer, but she won a Tony for her acting and three Grammies.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first book of Angelou’s that I have read. It is an autobiography of her early life (until she was 17.) It is not strictly chronological, but story oriented. The stories are mostly in chronological, but there is some jumping around to accommodate different threads of a story. According to Wikipedia, there are at least some who want to label Angelou’s autobiographies as Autobiographical Fiction. After having read Sarah Arthur’s biography of Madeleine L’Engle, I basically assume that many authors are fictionalizing at least parts of their biography both for literary values and to smooth out the story.

I am also not at all surprised that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has both been widely assigned in high school and college literature classes and the subject of campaigns to ban it. Angelou, frankly and clearly, describes her rape at the age of 8 by her mother’s then boyfriend. And then later describes her own exploration of sex which resulted in pregnancy and the birth of a son, three weeks after she graduated from high school at 17.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved by Kate BowlerSummary: Tragic, often hard to read, but important reminders that the problem of evil is not easily solved.

The phrase, ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ along with a dozen or so other ‘phrases of comfort’ need to be permanently removed from every Christians vocabulary. If this was what everyone took away from the reading of this book, that would be a great result. But there is more here. (There is an appendix that lists additional phrases that need to be removed from Christian vocabulary.)

Kate Bowler is a Christian History Professor at Duke. She has specialized in the study of the Prosperity Gospel movement. I am looking forward to reading her book Blessed on the prosperity gospel. But what has brought her to wide readership is this book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. First it was difficulty with her arms as she was writing her dissertation, then difficulty getting pregnant and carrying to term, then a serious diagnosis of liver cancer.

Because I knew this going in, I have been reluctant to pick up Everything Happens for a Reason. No one really wants to deal with pain. As Bowler says toward the end of the book, ‘I want a world where there is no need for pediatric oncology, UNICEF, military budgets, or suicide rails on the top floors of tall buildings.’ (Kindle Location 1501) Pain, when possible, is ignored.

Fairness is one of the most compelling claims of the American Dream, a vision of success propelled by hard work, determination, and maybe the occasional pair of bootstraps. Wherever I have lived in North America, I have been sold a story about an unlimited horizon and the personal characteristics that are required to waltz toward it. It is the language of entitlements. It is the careful math of deserving, meted out as painstakingly as my sister and I used to inventory and trade our Halloween candy. In this world, I deserve what I get. I earn my keep and keep my share. In a world of fair, nothing clung to can ever slip away. (Kindle Location 160)

Part of what makes Bowler’s story and theological reflections so important is her work in prosperity gospel. Many Christians may explicitly reject prosperity gospel theologically, but practically and implicitly accept it.

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean StefancicSummary: An introduction to the concepts, critique and future of Critical Race Theory.

Opposition to Critical Race Theory has moved into the forefront of the critique of modern racial justice movement. It was specifically mentioned in the Dallas Statement on Social Justice as one of the aspects of the social justice movement that is incompatible with the gospel. But I suspect that many that are most critical of Critical Race Theory have little familiarity with it.

The first problem is that it is a framework more than a specifically defined approach. The Wikipedia post isn’t a bad summary. Wikipedia cites UCLA School of Public Affairs definition:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.

But then Wikipedia cites Critical Race Theory: An Introduction and gives twelve themes such as: A critique of liberalism, storytelling focus, revisionist interpretations of civil rights law, intersectionality, bias toward white supremacy, etc to flesh out that simple description from UCLA School of Public Affairs.

Honestly, while I did find Critical Race Theory: An introduction very helpful, I do wish there were a simpler and clearer definition. But what was clear is that universal arguments against Critical Race Theory probably do not understand it fully, or at least are over generalizing.

I actually think that Al Mohler’s argument against critical race theory as a whole, but affirming aspects of it in his discussion about the Dallas Statement was helpful, although I did not agree with Mohler’s overall approach. As I read Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, I can certainly see aspects that I disagree with. But I also see a number of areas that I find very helpful in approach and that support Christian concepts of sin and theology.

The most helpful is the concept of intersectionality. This is often mischaracterized by opponents as trying to add up victimhood points. But as I understand it, intersectionality is simply the concept that different types of oppression work differently, and that when you layer oppressions together, the result is different in kind not just quantity. The classic origin is the intersection of race and gender. Black women working in an office or factory are discriminated against because they are black women. But traditional solutions that address their race or their gender separately may not be effective because the racial solution may be targeted toward Black men and the gender solution may be targeted toward White women and therefore neither address the particular concerns of Black women.

Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric Mason

Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice by Eric MasonSummary: A Church that is asleep to injustice and racism is blind to the heart of God. 

Honestly, I do not understand the current movement today within the church that suggests that justice is peripheral and actually against the gospel. The Dallas Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel has united many  against it, from Al Mohler to the more traditionally justice oriented progressive Evangelicals.

I did not need to be persuaded that seeking justice is an important of what it means to be the church. There is, certainly, differences in method and strategy. What types of justice that an individual or church seeks after will matter based on calling, geography, demographics, etc. And, of course, the church should not be partisan in its approach to justice (although it will likely be political).

Eric Mason did not need to convince me of the biblical calling toward justice, or of the history of the church being on the wrong side of justice. But I am still glad that I read Woke Church. Woke Church is organized around four themes, ‘Be Aware. Be Willing to Acknowledge. Be Accountable. Be Active.’

Mason walks through awareness and acknowledgement. Blind spots are real. If we are blind to both injustice and how it works, and has work historically, we cannot even start to right injustice. The early historical and biographical sections of the book were strong.

The strongest section of the book for me was the discussion of the prophetic. Mason charges the church with being properly prophetic. He walks through the Old Testament prophets, both how they called the people toward justice and how they were received. Prophetic does not mean unaccountable and it does not separate the concept of prophetic from the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Done rightly, we are proclaiming the gospel and Lordship of Jesus Christ as part of a prophetic call.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #14)

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #14)

Summary: Gamache, Myrna and a guy neither of them knows, are called to be executors of a will for someone that none of them knows. 

I am a huge fan of Louise Penny’s Gamache novels. Not all of them are perfect, but 14 books in, three of the five best books in the series are the most recent three books. That is impressive.

Part of what I like about the Gamache books is that they are about things. There is a mystery, The plot revolves around the mystery. But there is more to the books than just the mystery. There are ongoing characters. Those characters are smart, thoughtful, morally complex, flawed and generally likable.

The main theme moral question for the past several books has been around the idea of when it is acceptable to do morally and ethically questionable things, for a greater good. This is spoiler-y if you have not read the previous books, but in the last book, Gamache let drugs into the country so that he could lure in the higher up in the drug organizations and shut them down. He wanted to deal a fatal blow to the whole drug infrastructure. But in the process more drugs came into the country and some communities were harmed. Because of his unauthorized operation (because he was at the same time still smoking out dirty cops and politicians), he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Prydain Chronicles #1)

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (Prydain Chronicles #1)Summary: Classic children’s fantasy. I think probably the best children’s epic fantasy series.

Reading the excellent Gateway Chronicles this year has made me a little nostalgic for the fantasy that I read in my youth, mostly Prydain Chronicles and L’Engle’s Time Quintet. (There is much fantasy that I read in my youth that I have no desire to revisit.)

First I picked up Black Cauldron when it was on sale for Kindle, then I saw that the audiobook for Book of Three was available at my library.

Revisiting Lloyd Alexander I am always struck by how short these books are. When I was reading them as a teen/pre-teen, they did not feel nearly as short.

Taran is a young sheltered early teen. He lives with two men that are the only family he can remember. Dallben, a very old wizard who teaches him and a blacksmith/farmer, Coll, who cares for the the farm he lives on and teaches Taran all of the practical things of life. Because he knows nothing else, he assumes the rest of the world is glorious. He wants to have adventures and glory.

Weight of Glory by CS Lewis

Weight of Glory by CS LewisTakeaway: Lots of classic Lewis here.

I went through a period when I was reading a ton of CS Lewis (either by or about). I looked today and if I counted correctly I have finished 19 of Lewis’ books, many of them multiple times and started but did not finish another 4. But it has been a little while since I read Lewis. Unless I missed something the last books I read about Lewis was the joint biography of the Inklings in Feb 2017. And the last books I read by Lewis was Screwtape Letters in Nov 2016.

I picked up the audiobook of Weight of Glory because it was super cheap and I needed something ‘light’ to off set a lot of other heavy things I have been reading/listening to. That is to say I was probably not as engaged as I should have been. Weight of Glory is the favorite Lewis book of several people I know. It is not that for me. Not because it is bad, but because it is near the end of Lewis’ library for me.