Book Reviews

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn WardSummary: Sin begets sin, systems feed on those around them, history matters to the present.

Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves its praise. This is not a genre that I traditionally read. If it involves ghosts, I probably have not read it. I tend toward fiction that is more oriented toward fantasy, science fiction or mystery in general. But ghosts here make a lot of sense. They bring history into the discussion of the black experience.

I realized with The Darkest Child that part of what makes Black fiction powerful and often difficult to read in its tragedy is its embrace of the cascading nature of sin. Sin begets sin so that there is often the choice only between whom the harm is going to hurt.

Sing, Unburied, Sing follow several different narrators. Jojo is a 13 year old trying to be a man. The primary caregiver of his toddler aged sister, he is being raised primarily by his grandfather, Pop. His grandmother is dying. His father is in jail. His (White) grandfather refuses to acknowledge his existence. His uncle was killed by his (White) father’s cousin. His mother, Leonie, is trying to do what she can, but she also escapes into drugs.

The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips

The Darkest Child by Delores PhillipsSummary: Tragic story of brokenness begetting brokenness in the midst of systemic evil. 

I am not sure where The Darkest Child caught my eye. Maybe it was just browsing at my library. I have been on the waitlist for it at my library for months. I expected a young adult book, but this is a book with young adult characters and adult themes and realities.

Tangy Mae Quinn is one of 10 children, all of different fathers. Her mother, Rozelle, was first pregnant at 13 and found herself on her own. Set in rural Georgia early in the civil rights era, Tangy Mae and her siblings are surviving as best they can. Tangy Mae is bright, top of her class, despite missing a lot of school.

The Darkest Child is a brutal story. There is rape, forced prostitution of children, lynching, death, racism, wanton cruelty and much more. But there is also love and with almost all of the characters, even the cruelest and basest behaviors, have a glimmer of understanding that gives the reader sympathy or understanding for the position they have been put in, even if the act is clearly wrong.

What comes through clearly is the interrelated nature of sin. One sin, begets another, which impacts someone else, and the impact cascades throughout a community. But also hope and light also can come from one act that leads to another and another. The interrelatedness of sin and hope is real. We are never only in a space of sin without God’s light and we are never only in God’s light without the reality of sin breaking through in this life.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming by Michelle ObamaSummary: A memoir, including her years as First Lady, but not particularly focused on the politics. 

I have heard a number of people commend Becoming to me, so I assumed it would be well written and I would enjoy it. Becoming was not over hyped. I have read a number of political memoirs, and I think this is probably the best of them, although that may be in part because she is not running for anything and she is not a particularly political person.

Becoming is primarily focused on her early years, and her life before becoming First Lady. The two years before Obama took office and the two terms in office are roughly the last third of the book. I was both more interested in her early years and in her as a person than the politics, so this was great for me.

I used to live in Hyde Park. Barak Obama was my State Rep then State Senator before being elected to US Senator right before I moved out of Hyde Park. I met Barak only one time, when he was a guest lecturer for a class in the spring of 1998. I went up to talk to him after class because I was having a problem with some non-profit work I was doing for my job and he was happy to talk through it briefly and let me know he would be happy to help if I needed help. I remember going home to my wife and saying I had met a future president.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi EdugyanSummary: I am not sure how to summarize this book.

Washington Black was on a number of best books of 2018. It finally got to be my turn from the library this past week and I quickly read it. I am still not sure what I think of it frankly.

Washington Black is a young slave boy working the fields with his caregiver Kit in the sugar cane fields of Barbados in the 1830s. Seemingly at random, they are ordered into the master’s home to serve the relatively new master and his brother’s dinner. That chance led to Washington Black being conscripted into working for the master’s visiting scientist brother, Christopher (Titch). Titch is a quiet abolitionist, but still takes advantage of the slave labor he has access to and uses the wealth of the family (from slaves) for his scientific investigations. Over a short period of time, Washington (Wash) learns to read and more importantly with his access to pencil and paper and books he discovers that he has a talent for drawing. Titch eventually discovers this and their relationship, while still Master and Slave becomes more complicated.

Due to a plot detail, the two of them leave the island and so starts the story of the next 10 years of Wash’s life. There is loneliness, isolation, a semblance of freedom, romance and love. But also a lot of really strange random events that are pieced together to make up the story.

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior by Nnedi OkoraforSummary: Sunny Nwazue, an American born Nigerian teen discovered in the last book that she has both powers and dangers she couldn’t dream about, the story continues.

Akata Warrior is the sixth book by Nnedi Okorafor I have read in the past couple of years. Okorafor is a fantasy author that occasionally mixes science fiction ideas and grounds her books in African folklore and culture. Her stature is rising and I have heard frequently over the past few weeks about her being mentored by George RR Martin. I am frankly more interested in her ventures in the comic book world, where she is both writing her own comic and one about Shuri, the Black Panther’s sister, than I am about her relationship to Martin.

I was first introduced to Okorafor through Binti trilogy and then Who Fears Death. The Akata series is the third story line. I have enjoyed all of them, and they are all different, while feeling like they are by the same author. Okorafor is writing with a distinctly African folklore and cultural background, while being accessible to others. She has lived in the US on and off for decades. The African (Nigerian mostly I believe) folklore gives a unique voice to fantasy and science fiction that tends to be based most often on British or at least northern European cultural roots. And Okorafor also focuses on female protagonists in a genre that is decidedly male focused as a whole.

I approached the first book in the series, Akata Witch as a young adult book. I think I probably still would classify the series as young adult, but I am not sure. Young Adult tends to have some themes that are about coming of age, growing independence, relationship to parents (or not), and some limits on how much sex or violence or language is included. The content is appropriate for young adults, but I am not sure that the story is really a young adult story as much as it has young adult characters. This second book seems older.

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H Cone

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H ConeSummary: A explication of the theological roots of spirituals and the blues. A good example of why White seminary students need to be reading Black and other authors of Color. 

Over the past couple years there have been several minor controversies in US seminaries about assigned texts. Masters Seminary (started by John MacArthur) about a year ago had a former student write about the fact that he had not read a single book by a Black author during his seminary studies. That prompted a response by another former student that was (is?) a staff person at the seminary. The response includes this quote:

“I don’t mean to be dismissive of their contribution, but African-American Christians are a small portion built upon the main foundation, that just so happens to be, according to God’s providence, a white, Western European/English one.”

A more recent controversy came up because in the context of a NY Times article about racism in the church, an SBC seminary professor talked about assigning James H Cone and that created calls for the professor to resign, which prompted this response from him. It is yet another example of the systemic problems within the Evangelical church that is ignorant about non-White culture and because of that lack of cultural understanding and a lack of good history, perpetuates a belief in White cultural superiority as the quote above does.

I first read James H Cone during my seminary years almost 25 years ago. But within the past couple years I have read four of Cone’s books and continue to think that White Evangelicals need to grapple with the theological contributions of Black and other theologians outside of the White Evangelical space. I am continually surprised that the case needs to be made for this, but at the same time, I know that personally it is easy to fall into reading the same White, mostly male, authors. This is part of why I have been attempting to keep my reading to no more than 1/3 White authors this year. It takes attention because it is easy to fall into reading what others around me are reading or reading what is most recently on sale, or the new thing that everyone is talking about. And that is probably a White guy.

All of that long introduction brings me to Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues. You cannot read more than a few pages in any of Cone’s books without finding a reference to music. Someday I would like to put together playlists to accompany each of Cone’s books that would put the original songs in order so that readers can hear the songs in full context as they read.

The Spirituals and the Blues is a short theological book that takes seriously the historical context of the music that has shaped the Black church and then theologically explicates the themes of the music. This is a brief book, only about 150 pages.

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)Summary: A year after Robin was nearly killed by a serial killer, both Robin and Strike are still trying to figure out how to work together and deal with their respective relationships, and attraction to each other.

I think Lethal White is the best book of the series so far. Robin is really the central character, although Strike is certainly present. Galbraith/Rowling has finally stopped trying to make the crimes more lurid and allow the focus to be on the main characters and not the bad guys.

Lethal White was probably a bit long if you were reading primarily for the mystery. But I don’t read mysteries for the mystery, I read them for the characters, and this is a book that is primarily focused on character development. Robin is suffering PTSD from nearly being killed by a serial killer in the previous book (on top of her earlier rape and other near death experiences). This book has her going undercover multiple times and allows her to grow as an investigator.

Strike is still pretty much Strike. His leg is his main limiting/humanizing feature. If not for a prosthesis, he would be nearly a superhero. And while I do get annoyed with how often his leg hurts in the book, I think this is the only way to really show weakness.

The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau Bell

The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau BellSummary: Memoir and thoughts on life by Kamau Bell

One of the things that I really love in this book was how subtly that important content can be shared. Kamau Bell sucks us adults by talking about TV and comics from when he was a child and the role that his love of superheroes played in his identity development. But that just primes you for his adoration of Doc McStuffins as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV. Not just important for Black girls to see a character that looks like them on TV, but one that is also for my children (who also love Doc McStuffins) and help break down the concepts of white normativity. White kids need to see that not everything is designed just for them.

I had a long twitter conversation the other day about the importance of diverse authors and subjects in seminary education. It didn’t work, after spending way longer than I should, I gave up because the guy simply did not see how representation matters. I think that if I had previously read this section, and he had been willing to read it, I think this would have far better communicated the importance of representation than I did.

That is one little story from The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau Bell, but I think it is a good illustration of the strength of the book. Bell is telling his story, but he is also talking about what is important to him as a comedian and as a person.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David BrooksSummary: A flawed, but worth reading argument for pursuing meaning and rejecting hyper-individualism.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick The Second Mountain up. I watched several interviews with him and many those interviews were interesting, but they seemed like they were talking about a couple different books, they range from personal self help book, to ‘an extended graduation speech’, to a version of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Having finished the book, I understand all of those descriptions, but none of them were quite right. And while I am glad I read the book, I do think that is part of the problem of the book.

I was also reluctant because while I generally liked his last book Road to Charater, I thought there were significant weaknesses with the book and I did not want to relive a ‘do better’ encouragement book. Once I decided to pick up The Second Mountain, I was pleased that he offered an apology for the weaknesses of the The Road to Character that roughly addressed my issues.

There are many great quotes in The Second Mountain. They are often even better in full context than as stand alone quotes. Like, “Happiness can be tasted alone, but permanent joy requires an enmeshed and embedded life.” He riffs off of CS Lewis’ and others distinction between happiness and joy. The whole book is really about pursuing joy and the other deeper things in life and not just happiness and the other fleeting things in life. It is not that the fleeting things are unimportant, but that they are not fulfilling.

The book is really in two parts. The first part is making his argument for this concept of the Second Mountain. The first mountain is success in life while the second mountain is the pursuit of meaning. If you have read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward it is a similar, but not exactly similar point.

The second part is the four commitments that lead to the Second Mountain, but also are those things that fight against the hyper-individualism that is really the underlying theme of the book. The four commitments are to Vocation, Marriage, Faith (or philosophy) and Community.

Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity

Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and ChristianitySummary: Seven essays on Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. 

I appreciate Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I was intrigued when I saw this book because Coates is a vocal atheist. I think he is respectful of Christianity, but he rejects Christianity largely because of its followers. It is a position that I easily understand, even if I do not reject Christianity for the same reason.

Books that are collections of essays are hard to do well. They are almost always uneven in their writing quality. And rarely hold together and build on one another well. And most of the time the sum is less than the individual parts.

I think there were two or may be three essays here that were pretty good. None of them were awful. But in general, while there was thoughtful aspects of to Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity, I would recommend just reading Coates directly.

One of the aspects that I know has irritated Coates and because it keeps coming up, has begun to irritate me as well, is the issues of Coates’ ‘hopelessness’. There were two essays directly about this and two more mentioned it. (Spread the essays out, two essays, both about Coates and Hope right at the end was odd.) Coates has said that he doesn’t believe he is hopeless, he believes that he is a realist. Reinhold Niebuhr led a movement of ‘Christian Realism’ that to me feels more like what Coates is trying to communicate.