Book Reviews

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis SpuffordSummary: When New York City was young, a mysterious stranger comes to town with money.

Francis Spufford is an author that authors that I love, love. Alan Jacobs yet again yesterday expressed his admiration for Spufford. And this novel in particular has been talked about for a couple of years. (It was published in the UK in 2016 and Jacobs had an advanced copy of it.) Wesley Hill, John Wilson and others I follow on twitter have also lavished praise on it. It was also on a number of best of 2017 lists (NPR, WSJ, Washington Post, Kurkus, Library Journal, etc).

Because it is on sale on Amazon for the month of January 2018 for only $1.99, I immediately picked it up and it was the first book I finished this year.

Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City. A mysterious young man comes to New York with a letter of credit (as would be common at the time so that a traveler would not have to carry a lot of cash) for an extraordinarily large amount of money but a resistance to telling anyone what he was interested in doing with the money. The book follows his story for several months. I won’t really give much more detail about the plot other than that.

It has been several days since I finished Golden Hill because I was not sure how to write a review. The longer I wait the more I like it. Spufford has a way with words. One of the things that is most impressive is that the book, especially the letters within the book, are written to mimic the 18th century, but it is still quite readable for a modern reader.

Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church by Edward Gilbreath

Reposting this 2015 review because the Kindle Edition is currently on sale for $3.99. Also on sale is Gilbreath’s earlier book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity . Also a number of other IVP books on race are also on sale for $3.99: Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation by David P. LeongBeyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic JourneyRoadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and JusticeThe Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change,

Summary: King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail as well as the whole Birmingham campaign still have something to say to the modern church.

I have known about this book since it came out. The author is the brother in law of a friend of mine and we have several other mutual friends, although I have never met him. But like many books on difficult subjects, I found one reason or another to not pick it up.

But after re-reading King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail this past MLK day, I decided it was time to stop delaying. And I am glad that I did.

Edward Gilbreath is a journalist, editor at Christianity Today, founding editor of Urban Faith magazine and has worked with Promise Keepers and other Evangelical organizations or magazines. So it is helpful that this is not an abstract history of the Birmingham campaign and exploration of the content of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but also a personal reflection both as an African American and an Evangelical.

I have found that reading the history of Civil Rights in the US is more effective when told in the first person. Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s memoir of her life during and after the Birmingham campaign would not have had nearly the power if it was just talking about the 16th Street church bombing. It had power because it talked about the bombing of a church and the death of her four friends in a bathroom that she had just walked out of right before the bomb went off and her life as a survivor after that point.

Gilbreath does not insert himself into the narrative, like me he was too young to have lived through it. But he does interview a number of people that did live through it and he reflects not only on how he is inspired or how things have changed (or not changed) since then, but also how he is challenged.

Birmingham Revolution revolves around the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, but it is also a larger history to give context to the letter. King was the author and face of the Birmingham campaign, but he was not the leader. King was reluctant and against the children’s marches. But those children’s marches, along with the publicity that came from news coverage and King’s own national appeal to the church in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail were a real turning point in Civil Rights.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas BlackmonSummary: Approximately 70 years of slavery from the 1870s to the 1940s have largely been unknown or ignored.

Part of what has been important for me to recognize as I read history is earlier examples of current problems. There may not be a direct connection with those similar issues, but we need to acknowledge that there may be connection. For example, one of the issues brought up in this book is local control of school funding. Many small government advocates today advocate local school control, which in itself is not bad. But local control was used to get around rules for disproportionate funding of White and Black schools during Jim Crow era and beyond. And today, local control is the root of school funding and quality disparities.

Another example is different sentencing levels of Whites and Blacks (including higher likelihood of being arrested and charged, more severe charges when charged, and more severe sentences for the same charges when sentenced). And then there is the example of Ferguson, Missouri using fees, largely enforced against Black residents for funding of city services to keep tax rates lower.

It is not that there are direction connections between today and earlier in the three examples above, but when there are similar examples, we should investigate whether the issues that gave rise to those similar examples really are similar.

Slavery By Another Name is primarily about the system of convict leasing. Convict leasing was the practice of leasing convicts to private businesses or individuals as laborers. The local or state government then was relieved of the requirements for housing and feeding convicts, made money from those convicts and was able privately fund much of the salaries of law enforcement and the courts through fees instead of taxes.

Much of the work done by convict leasing was dangerous or excessive work. Records were often poor, but in some cases there was as much as a 30% annual death rate among convicts. Convicts were purchased for $30 to $75, roughly $1000 today, compared to the approximately $1000 purchase cost of slaves a generation earlier (what would be today roughly $30,000). There was little interest in moderating the effects of work or punishment because of the low cost of investment. Working convicts for 20 hours a day 7 days a week with low rations and high rates of punishment with lash or waterboarding or hanging by thumbs was common.

The crimes were often minor, swearing in front of a woman, disrespect, leaving an employer without permission, selling goods at night, etc. It was commonly thought at the time that African Americans would only work with the threat and reality of lash and other beating. (The idea of the lazy Black worker continues today, but is a derivative of this earlier era.) The descriptions of beatings throughout the book is one of the hardest parts of reading/listening to the book.

Kindred the Graphic Novel by Octavia Butler adapted by John Jennings

Kindred the Graphic Novel by Octavia Bulter adapted by John JenningsSummary: Graphic adaptation of the best of Octavia Butler’s books.

Over the past couple years I have begun to appreciate the art and promise of the graphic novel. Not as a ‘children’s version’ but as something that can be a true art form to itself. I do not think that John Lewis’ memoir in the March Trilogy would be as good in narrative text. The graphics of the March trilogy were essential to making it so good. But I am not sure that the graphic novel of Kindred is up to that standard.

It is not that Kindred is a bad adaptation or a bad graphic novel. It stayed pretty close to the original in story and I liked the art. But the novel was, in my opinion, the best novel of a very good novelist. Octavia Butler captured not just the horror of slavery for the slave, but the horror of slavery for everyone involved. I think some of the nuance of the novel was (necessarily) lost in the graphic novel adaptation. A graphic novel, even one that is over 200 pages, can’t really tell the same story as a 300 page novel.

Tales of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

Tales of Earthsea by Ursula Le GuinSummary: Several long and short stories that serve as background and a bridge between books 4 and 6 of the Earthsea cycle.

I have not read the later books of Earthsea properly. The first three books I read as a teen multiple times. Then five years ago I picked up Wizard of Earthsea, the first in the series. Which lead me to read the sixth book (The Other Wind) of the series. I thought I had read the fourth book (Tehanu), but I have no record of reading it.

So I am all wrong about reading this series. I have picked up the threads of the story and I think I mostly know what is going on. But if I were recommending it, I would tell you to read the series in order and not spread out by 30 years. (Although it was over 30 year spread from the start to the completion of the series.)

There are six stories here and a description of Earthsea. The stories range from 130 to 25 pages. Not unusually, I liked the longer ones more than the shorter ones. The first two and last I think were the best. Throughout the book there was an exploration of why the wizards were only celibate men. A history that shows that the founding of the school at Roke was not by only celibate men. And the final story is about a woman that comes to the school to learn to be a wizard.

A Recounting of 2017 Reading and Plans for 2018

I am ambivalent about posting a best of 2017 list. My books are not, for the most part books that were published in 2017. And what is best, or most important for me, is unlikely to be the best for anyone else. So this is a recounting of what is important, but not really what was ‘best’. I would probably come up with a slightly different list on a different day. Overall I read 101 books in 2017, roughly two-thirds were non-fiction.

Two rough themes emerge as I looked back on the year. One is an exploration of race and history in the United States and the other is a seeking out of wisdom in memoirs.

The memoirs are far easier to look at. Madeleine L’Engle, over a 20 year period wrote four memoirs that are together called the Crosswick Journals. They will be books that I read again in the future. I have appreciated L’Engle as a great young adult author, but I had not really explored the range of her writing. Many of her books have been out of print and over the past year have been reissued in ebook versions. It is because of these new editions that I stumbled across the Crosswick Journals.

They start with A Circle of Quiet, which is roughly about creativity, writing, family, and seeking wisdom from life. The second, The Summer of the Great Grandmother, is her memories of her life that are brought about by the dying of her mother. The third, The Irrational Season, is a riff off of the liturgical year and what that structure has brought to her life. The last, Two Part Invention, is about her husband and their life together as he grew sick and eventually passed away. I also read three of her fiction books. The best of which I think was A Live Coal in the Sea, but none of which I think were among her best books.

The other two memoirs that were worth reading are Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura, which yes, was on last year’s list of most important books. But I read it again and then read his Culture Care, which is also worth reading. Fujimura’s focus on what art and culture bring to life and faith are important. And it is largely because of his work that I want to read more about the concept of beauty this next year.

The other memoir that was worth reading is Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child. Part of what is important in this memoir is the reminder that as much as a person may be doing important things or thinking great thoughts, they are still human and still likely have regular human failings and problems. Hauerwas’ long marriage to a severely mentally ill wife had an impact on this theology and work in both positive and negative ways. But without a memoir or some other writing by him about it, only gossip or maybe a future biography would prompt me to remember how much brokenness is part of our life as Christians in the same way. (This is still on sale for $1.99 on kindle.)

The exploration of race and history is a much harder picture to paint. Race matters today and it matters today in large part because of the history of our country. What I never did write up, but it part of my history this year is a David Blight’s Yale history course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Listening to the 20+ hours of lectures on the civil war and reconstruction in combination with Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction and Edward Baptist’s exploration of slavery and the development of the American Economy and Amar’s biography of the Constitution and the fictional Underground Railroad gave some historical context to the problems of race in the United States.

On the modern side, Intervarsity has been publishing a number of books about race that are worth reading. The Myth of Equality and White Awake are good primers for Whites to explore how race matters to our current day. Both are written by white men, which is part of the discussion. But also we need others voices. So I read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Fire Next Time for some mid 20th century context. And then a trio of books by Michael Eric Dyson, The Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, The Black Presidency (which is more about what is means to be Black in the US than about Obama) and the not quite as good, but still interesting April 4, 1968.

Ta’Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power fit well with the previous books, but it is a series of essays that I had mostly previously read. So it was the introductions to those essays about why they were important and why he wrote them that were more interesting to me.

Coates is clearly an atheist and is famously not particularly hopeful about racial issues in the US. It is an interesting pairing to have read Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr and who did a lot of the background theology that gave rise to the Civil Rights era. I have picked up Thurman’s memoir and I will read that this year. Thurman’s books also was an interesting pairing with James H Cone’s memoir My Soul Looks Back. Cone and Thurman are in quite different places theologically, but have quite a bit of overlap in the diagnosis of the problem. The black authors I read this year were born in 1899 (Thurman), 1924 (Baldwin), 1936 (Cone), 1944 (Alice Walker), 1945 (John Perkins), 1957 (James McBride), 1958 (Dyson), 1969 (Colson Whitehead) and 1975 (Coates). That 76 year spread is interesting because of what seems to be similar and what changed.

Part of what I know is important is to keep listing to different voices. No one person can be the voice of a race. I did not read a lot of minority women (Color Purple and Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ I think were the only books I read by minority women this year.) I also did not read much by non-black voices about racial issues. Although Aliens in the Promise Land as a book of essays was excellent about including a range of voices beyond the standard Black minority voice. And Still Evangelical, which won’t be published until later this month also had several Asian voices talking about racial issues within the Evangelical church world.

The two books that I haven’t yet mentioned but I think need to be at least quickly referenced are: How to Survive the Apocalypse, which was an excellent book about theology and philosophy using pop culture as a teaching tool. And Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch about the need for the theological left to embrace the concept of Satan was well worth reading. Both of these books talked about Charles Taylor a good bit and at some point I will get around to reading Taylor.

I didn’t read much fiction this year that I was blown away with. Color Purple was very well written and very difficult to read. I thought Underground Railroad was worth reading in context of my other reading but I thought was too much of a concept book that didn’t quite live up to its hype. The latest of the Inspector Gamache books, Glass Houses, is among the best of the series, which is impressive for a series that has 14 books. The two Binti books, the novella Binti and the longer novel Home were refreshingly original. And I look forward to reading the conclusion of the trilogy that comes out in a couple weeks.

2018 Reading Goals

I am not much of a goal setter. My reading is usually focused on whatever happens to catch my eye right now. But I have tended to set some rough goals most years. I have four goals this year. I am a bit over half way through Subversive Gospel about Flannery O’Connor. And because of that and the biography of her I read a couple weeks ago I want to read the two novels and the rest of the short stories that I have not previously read.

My second goal is to work toward finishing a couple of author’s books. There are two novels of Octavia Butler that I have not yet read. I am not sure I will ever read all of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, but I want to read at least three more L’Engle books and at least three more of James Baldwin’s books. I have not yet read any of his fiction. So at least two of those I want to be fiction.

My third goals is to continue to explore racial issues and history and expand my reading to include more women and additional voices that I have not yet read.

The final goal is to read some formal books on the concept of Beauty in Christian theology. If anyone has some suggestions in that area I would love to hear them.

I have a goal every year of reading more fiction. But I tend to not read as much fiction as I want to because I get lost in the information. But fiction, in part because of its ability to communicate beauty is important and I hope I will move closer to even ratio of fiction to non-fiction this year.

Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William Webb

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by William WebbSummary: How do we understand the relationship of culture to scripture and what in scripture is cultural and what is transcultural?

Several years ago I spent a few months reading widely on hermeneutics, the concept of what it means to read and understand scripture. It wasn’t until I was burned out on hermeneutics that I heard about William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. I did read his more introductory book on Corporal Punishment and Parenting that was well worth reading about four years ago.

I finally picked up Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals as part of my reading about how different people are approaching homosexuality in the church. I have been roughly alternating books on different positions up until this point, I think the two books that are the best I have read on each side is People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle and Changing Our Mind by David Gushee, although I think both are far from perfect and neither will change many minds.

Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals is more about culture and hermeneutics than the particular issues of homosexuality and women in the church. The basic project is for Webb to chart out 18 points to evaluate how the church should understand scripture and theology in regard to a cultural issue. He takes these three areas to give illustration to the idea.

First, he assumes that most Christians now agree that slavery is sinful. He charts out this change briefly (Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis does this is greater detail.) But the general assumption is that most readers agree with him on this and he is using slavery as a ‘neutral’ example. Then the other two examples are Women (pro) and Homosexuality (against). For women, Webb is trying to show why egalitarian (men and women are equal in position and calling within the church) or ‘ultra soft patriarchy’ (there is difference in calling, but women and men have equal worth before God) is how we should read scripture now because the patriarchy of scripture was culturally bound. And then he uses homosexuality as his negative example because he believes that celibacy is the only option for Gay Christians and that the proscriptions against homosexuality are transcultural.

An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth by David Guretzki

An Explorer's Guide to Karl Barth by David GuretzkiSummary: If you are looking for how to approach Barth, this is your book.

The more you read, the more you realize what you do not know. And one of those things that I do not know enough about is Barth. I started reading Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Bathasar’s Preoccupation by Stephen Long a while ago and I gave up around the 60% mark primarily because I just did not have enough background on either one to really understand what I was reading. I have since read one of von Balthasar’s books and dabbled in two others and attempted a Barth reader that was so badly converted to ebook that it was unreadable.

IVP’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth by David Guretzki was a good introduction to Barth. I still want to read a good biography and at least one of his books or maybe a reader before I attempt Saving Karl Barth again.

An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth is probably going to be read by students most often. It opens with why Barth is important before giving a rough biographical sketch. But most of the book is either a tour of Barth’s theology or a tour of Barth’s books. This is a guide to help you discover Barth for yourself, primarily by helping the reader to see how to approach Barth’s own work and read it yourself.

Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning

Still Evangelical?- Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological MeaningTakeaway: The meaning of the word evangelical is complicated. The groups it refers to still are present, even if there is reform necessary.

I am ambivalent about the word Evangelical. Theologically I am a bit on the edge of the term, depending on how it is defined. Sociologically, I am a bit further away from the term if it is used to describe a political grouping (Religious politically conservative Whites.) Historically, I grew up in an Evangelical section of a mainline denomination while participating with solidly evangelical youth groups of friends before heading to Wheaton College before going to seminary at a decidedly non-Evangelical institution (University of Chicago Divinity School). I currently am a member at an evangelical non-denominational mega-church. So I have some historical background, theological bias, but politically I am a Democrat and incredibly frustrated with the political definition of Evangelical, especially around racial issues.

I initially wasn’t going to read Still Evangelical. But I appreciate Karen Swallow Prior even if I disagree with her at times. In spite of my reluctance I picked up a review copy and expected to be mostly frustrated. It is not that I wasn’t occasionally frustrated. But I also really appreciated the choice of authors and the directness of the discussion about the weaknesses of the Evangelical movement, especially locally within the United States. It is a rare collaborative book like this that is actually well put together and balanced. Still Evangelical really is balanced. It has very pointed and direct criticism, but also a lot of love for and hope for the church as a whole and the Evangelical church in particular.

The subtitle is ‘Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning’ (of the word Evangelical.) And these are insiders. Not every name is a household name. But all of them have paid their dues and are solid Evangelicals by history, by institution, and by love of the church.

It is a rare book published in the Evangelical world that is has as many chapters by minorities and women as by White males. The diversity of the authors matters to how positively I feel about the book. After the introductory chapter by Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary and the editor of the book, only one of the first five chapters was by a white male, although three of the five last chapters are by white men. (Two additional names are listed in the Amazon description that are not in the pre-release edition that I have.)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasSummary: A teen watches her friend get killed by a cop during a traffic stop and her life and the lives of those around her spiral out of control.

The Hate U Give has had a lot of hype. It was nominated for a National Book Award, it won two awards in the Goodreads Readers Choice awards, and Audible.com’s Editor Choice for book of the year among other awards.

One friend on goodreads said she read it with a question about whether The Hate U Give was really a great book or whether it was a book that matters because of the moment. In the end she decided the later and not the former, but I am not sure. It does matter because of the moment. Young adult and other fiction readers are asking for more books by and about people of color. And there is a need for realistic portrayals of difficult ethical situations. But I also think it was well written.

Starr is 16. She lives in Garden Heights, a poor neighborhood of New York City but attends school in a wealthy suburban private school. She lives a double life. Her father is an ex-gang member and black power advocate that is committed to helping people in the neighborhood. Her mother is a nurse, equally committed, but also concerned about the impact of their neighborhood on the lives that her children live.