Rise Up! Poems of Protest, Poems of Praise, by Andrew Wilbert Fitz and Mari Fitz-Wynn

Call and response: a powerful form of protest. Andrew Wilbert Fitz was the child of a couple born into slavery, the middle of eleven children. He lived through two world wars, went to college, patented new inventions, and wrote poetry. His granddaughter, Mari Fitz-Wynn, has curated a collection of his poems and added her own, responding to his call across a century, sharing his sorrow at our human sins and reflecting his strong Christian faith with her own.

Mari has arranged this collection so that her grandfather speaks first with his poems, then Mari presents a poem of her own, sometimes on the same theme. Using various verse forms, the poems are often meditations on scriptural passages, and Mari, in particular, has structured several of her poems as liturgies that could be used in communal settings. Praise for the beauty of creation is woven throughout, from the exultation of “Creation and I” to the joyful skipping verse in “Nature’s Symphony.” There are poems of encouragement, motivating the reader to use their God-given gifts and to generate ideas that will further the Kingdom on earth. One of the most powerful selections is “Dead Soldier,” which Andrew addressed to the young men in their graves, saying, in part:

“… tell of the heartless heads of government,

the kings, the princes, and the presidents,

who sent you forth to die for an empty cause

despising God and all His sacred laws.”

Throughout this collection are poems of lament, an outpouring of sorrow rarely heard in white churches today, although the Hebrew scriptures are filled with lament, particularly in the Psalms. Throughout the millennia, believers have cried out to God in private grief, but also in communal prayer that God would acknowledge injustice and send healing and comfort. Andrew’s parents spent their early years in bondage, and later he went on to serve in World War I and live through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century. He saw that the government enforced these evil laws and that the white church rationalized the terror from the pulpit. He asks, “How long shall prejudice be mixed with prayer?” Mari, lamenting that our world still labors in sin, responds with her “Hands Up—A Litany,” asking for freedom from fear and concluding with praise.

I had the pleasure of working with Mari Fitz-Wynn at our library, as well as with her two grown children, Kiefer and Rooney, who wrote an afterword to this book. They are all kind and quiet souls, and her kids have gone on to pursue brilliant careers. After her husband passed away fifteen years ago, Mari began speaking at home education conferences and other venues and participating in creative entrepreneurial projects. In addition to this volume of poetry, which contains a foreword written by the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Mari has published two books and many articles.

This inspiring collection may be purchased on Amazon or from Faith Journey Publishing, a company dedicated to giving a voice to mature Christian women of color.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book, given to me by the author. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. I do not receive remuneration from the purchase of this book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

Star Child, by Ibi Zoboi

Octavia Butler’s parents were married for sixteen years before she was born, and her father died less than four years later. Born in 1947, after her father returned from fighting in World War II, she was a true Baby Boomer, and she was brought up by her mother and grandmother. Her mother was Octavia Margaret, but she named her baby girl Octavia Estelle: Star Child.

Octavia Estelle grew up in Pasadena, so she never experienced segregation, but that did not mean that her school years were happy. Since she was tall, Octavia was placed in third grade when she should have been in kindergarten, and since she was later diagnosed with dyslexia, learning to read was a struggle. She was a slow and dreamy child, the kind with an imaginary world inside her, and even as a young child, she carried around a pink notebook in which she wrote horse stories at first, and then later, science fiction. Although her mother was a very religious woman, Octavia was not, but we can see the biblical influence in many of her themes and in the very names of her books: The Parable of the Sower, The Parable of the Talents.

Ibi Zoboi, the author of this biography, is herself an accomplished writer. Her first novel, American Street, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Zoboi studied Butler’s novels in college, and later had the privilege of meeting her on a couple of occasions before Butler died in 2006. They share a June 22nd birthday. In this volume, Zoboi uses concrete poems, haikus, and other verse structures as well as prose narration to tell the story of this remarkable woman whose works she admired. She was encouraged that they both started writing at a young age, though she was in awe of the fact that Butler had had the courage to submit her stories to publishers when she was about thirteen years old. Zoboi shares photos of the two of them together, and as her schoolteachers said, Octavia is very tall!

Octavia Butler is credited with the creation of the genre called Afrofuturism, a Black subgenre within science fiction. Readers can see photos of the long and focused affirmations she wrote for herself in her own handwriting on lined notebook paper. She was absolutely determined to be a success, and, despite her natural shyness and her shame at being the daughter of a domestic servant, she let nothing stand in the way of publishing her stories, improving her craft each day. She went on to publish the bestselling Kindred and many novels that won the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, and Locus Award, among others, proving that this woman who grew up under Jim Crow, the Cold War, and McCarthyism could break through the stereotypes of her time and look to the future with hope and resolution.

Star Child is a slender volume written on a middle-grade level and is perfect for so many children: those who like to read science fiction, those who are late bloomers, those who scribble in their own tattered notebooks, and every child who needs a role model for breaking the tight bonds of outdated, narrow expectations.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

“Ka-Thunk!” Gene Luen Yang was a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic High School in California who became aware that his school’s basketball team, the Dragons, was in contention for the state championship that year. Gene knew nothing about basketball. He was so skinny as a child that his nickname was Stick. He didn’t like to play sports, and he thought watching sports was boring. On the other hand, he was looking for a subject for his next graphic novel, so he found his way to the school gym to interview Coach Lou Richie.

“Step.” Gene was very careful to keep his life in balance: a quarter of his time for teaching, a quarter of his time for making comics, and half his time for his family. Over the course of the basketball season, as he dug into the life story of the coach and several players, he found that there was more to them than just guys throwing a ball around—although there was plenty of that—but that each person had a complex background and obstacles to overcome. Changes came to Gene’s life, too, forcing him to make a difficult decision that threatened to wreck his tidy schedule, but promised to make a dream come true.

“Paa! Paa! Paa!” In 2007, I was privileged to attend the Printz reception, where American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever to win the award for outstanding teen literature. It was a stellar group of honorees that year, and Gene Luen Yang’s acceptance speech was quintessential high school teacher: he prepared a PowerPoint. In his kind and affable manner, he taught a room full of librarians about the history of American bigotry against Asian people. It was eye-opening. In Dragon Hoops, he uses a personal story about his school to reveal the systemic racism and misogyny in the history of basketball, as well as the contemporary struggles of teens from many ethnic groups.

“Swish!” Gene Luen Yang is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and during his tenure, he encouraged everyone to read something in a format that is outside of their comfort zone. If you are not familiar with graphic novels—or if you absolutely love them— this 2020 autobiography is a great reading experience. Although it is almost 450 pages long, I read it in about 2 hours. The panels are large, the colors are pleasing, and the story flies by. Don’t miss his earlier works, such as American Born Chinese and the two-volume Boxers & Saints, reviewed here. He is also the author and/or illustrator of several series, such as “Superman,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Secret Coders,” among many others.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera

Petra wanted to be a cuentista, a storyteller, just like her abuelita. When she boards the spacecraft with her scientist parents and her little brother, Javier, she comforts herself that at least she can spend the 380 years of their flight in stasis with all of the world’s mythology and stories being downloaded into her brain. When they arrive at their new planet, she will be the cuentista for a whole new civilization. Then, just as she is being strapped into her pod, she finds out that her parents said no to the storytelling download. She will just have the much more practical botany lessons for the whole flight. Her pod fills with gel, her body functions are stopped, and she is supposed to be asleep. But she realizes that she is still conscious, and there is no way to tell the Caretaker that she is not asleep. She can’t call out, wave her hand, or even move her eyes.

Three spaceships are leaving Earth because a great comet is on a collision course with the planet. The survivors are chosen because of their skills that will be useful for a fresh start on a new Goldilocks planet, but some were selected to live out normal lives—working, caring for the stasis pods, reproducing, and dying—just as they would have on Earth. But 380 years is a long time, and people get ideas, and the isolated culture that lands on the planet may bear little resemblance to the ones who boarded the ship long ago.

The Last Cuentista won both the Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Award this past January. From the title and the cover, I was expecting to dive into a traditional South American story with magical realism, but just a few pages in, we were boarding a spacecraft! Somehow, Higuera’s Latina protagonist was able to transport her Hispanic culture into a futuristic setting. The story is filled with the tension of most sci-fi tales dealing with survival in alien landscapes, but the more Orwellian terror of ruthless power structures is what propels our heroine into action.

Higuera uses both the past and the future to show that, although our history is filled with war and tragedy, human beings have also created art, music, and loving traditions that should not be abandoned. The richness of our past is the foundation for building a beautiful and meaningful future.

Highly recommended for young teen to adult.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

How does the modern Protestant define faith? For many, faith is considered to be an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal creeds, rather than trust in a living God. In the past century, especially, the Christian life has calcified into checking boxes on a statement of belief, rather than a relationship with a being who is far beyond our comprehension. Gone is the mystery, the paradox, or the humble recognition of human limits.

Pete Enns is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. Early in his career, he had all of his theological ducks in a row, but while on a plane to give a presentation, he watched Disney’s A Bridge to Terabithia, where the unbelieving girl said that she didn’t believe that God would make his own son die if he was so busy running the whole world. Pete thought to himself, would a loving God force his own son to die a painful death? And he was thrown into a quagmire of doubt, which is not a comfortable place to be when you’re a pastor.

Throughout the book, Pete opens up all of the hermetically sealed boxes that today’s evangelical Christian keeps tucked safely away. How can the earth possibly be 6,000 years old? Why did God want the Israelites to kill all those people? Does he care about me, then? Why is the Bible so ambivalent on the question of slavery? If God loves us, why do children die and why are there wars?

When Pete began to wrestle with these issues himself and to bring them up in his classes, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary began to view him with suspicion. He published a book on the Old Testament in 2005 (Inspiration and Incarnation) of which his administration did not approve, and while he was struggling to hold onto his job, his daughter had to be sent to a therapeutic boarding school for an overwhelming anxiety disorder. His life began to unravel, and he entered what Douglas Adams calls “the long, dark teatime of the soul.”

The Sin of Certainty is Enns’s exposition of his own journey away from and back to faith—or, as he would say, trust—and he boldly wades into dangerous waters. One of our pastors recommended this as the number one book he would give to people who are deconstructing or reconstructing their faith. Enns certainly leaves no stone unturned. He is completely knowledgeable about scripture, of course, since that is his vocation, but he also writes conversationally and even humorously about his own life and the state of the church. Near the end, he has a couple of sections called, “When ‘Uh-Oh’ Becomes ‘Ah-Hah’” and “Cultivating a Habit of Trust.” He believes that it is important to become comfortable with uncertainty and with changing your opinions as life happens. As Switchfoot would say, “We are always in motion, like the winds, the tides, the ocean….”*

To put cards on the table, I really like Pete Enns. David and I were several years into our reconsideration of many religious issues when we read his How the Bible Actually Works when it was published in 2019. It was pivotal in my journey to have someone who loved the Bible and had studied it for decades tell me, in effect, “but hey, it was not handed down on stone tablets. Here is the real story.” Pete Enns and Jared Byas also host a podcast called The Bible for Normal People, to which I regularly listen. They have great guests and ask hard questions. I am not always in agreement with them, but they are never boring.

When David and I read How the Bible Actually Works, we thought that we were alone in our struggle and that we would never know any other believers who were pursuing God on this path. We were wrong, thank goodness. If you are questioning manmade teachings that you have been forced to think are essential to salvation, please know that there are so many kind, intelligent people who love Jesus and are not evangelical Protestants—millions of them who have lived over a couple of millennia, as a matter of fact. You are not alone, and The Sin of Certainty is a good place to start.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

_____________

*”We’re Gonna Be Alright,” by Switchfoot, from the Native Tongue album. It also says: “…And it’s ok to doubt/ To learn what you think ain’t what you thought.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

Mollie knew that her sister, Anna, was an alcoholic, but even at her worst, she didn’t deserve to be murdered. Nevertheless, she ended up being shot and her body thrown into a ravine. Of course, they couldn’t find the bullet so that they could investigate the case. Nothing was ever solved when it came to the Osage Indians. Soon after, Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, came down with the mysterious wasting disease that seemed to be moving through the tribe.

The federal government had moved the Osage off their ancestral lands not once, but twice. Finally, they moved the whole nation onto the hardscrabble hills of Oklahoma, where they could no longer farm or raise cattle. The tribal leaders were smart enough to retain the mineral rights to the land, and before long, they struck oil—and again, and again. Soon the Osage tribe was the wealthiest group of people in North America.

Each member had a “headright” or share of the profit that could be inherited by their descendants. The federal government didn’t think that the Osage could responsibly manage their own money, so they appointed white guardians over adult people. White men began to marry into the tribe; Indians began to disappear.

Eventually, J. Edgar Hoover sent agents from the new Federal Bureau of Investigation to Oklahoma. One of them, Tom White, was actually an honest man who worked hard to find answers, but when agents started to put the clues together, they started to die off, too. Eventually, White was able to put the culprits behind bars. Years later, author David Grann visited the descendants of the victims, and there were still many secrets that remained buried.

This is the new teen edition of the famous adult story, although it is certainly complex! It is grievous to read of the extensive miscarriage of justice that continued year after year. Even after people were convicted, the sentences were ridiculously short, as if, as one tribe member put it, they were convicted of animal abuse rather than human murder. Although many crimes took place, from shootings and poisonings to house explosions, none of the descriptions are gruesome, making it appropriate for younger readers. My biggest complaint was that there were so many characters that I couldn’t keep track, so I will let you know what I missed until I was almost finished: there is a Who’s Who in the back of the book, along with a glossary, notes, and an index.

Perfect for true crime aficionados, as well as lovers of American and indigenous history. Martin Scorsese is directing a film based on the book, starring Leo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, which will be released in November, 2022.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Her Hidden Genius, by Marie Benedict

We first meet Rosalind Franklin as she begins her work in a “labo” in Paris. Although the women in her affluent Jewish family were expected to be wives, mothers, and philanthropists, Rosalind is a scientist who works with x-ray crystallography to capture images of the parts of a cell that are far too small to see with a typical microscope. She enjoys the comradery and equality with her French co-workers, but when a romantic entanglement goes south, she returns to England, where she does her greatest work in a less appreciative atmosphere. One of the men in her group is so offended that he is expected to cooperate with a woman as an equal, rather than as her superior, that he becomes great friends with a different university research team, particularly two men named Francis Crick and James Watson.

Marie Benedict writes novels about real-life, forgotten women who accomplished great things but did not receive credit in their lifetimes. In this story, since readers know the ending before Rosalind does, they will watch with fury as Maurice Wilkins fed her research findings on DNA to Watson and Crick before she had a chance to publish them in her own name. Later, of course, the two men were the ones to receive a Nobel Prize, and Watson wrote scathingly about Franklin in his book The Double Helix, which was universally rejected, even by his own friends and colleagues.

Franklin went on to produce great scientific research into RNA and the nature of viruses. She loved to climb mountains and cook French meals for her friends, although her family never understood her work and she never had a successful romantic relationship. Eventually, inevitably, she fell victim to the long-term effects of daily radiation. She died surrounded by her family and friends from England, the United States, and Europe. Her great love was science.

Marie Benedict also wrote The Personal Librarian (reviewed here) and a long list of other biographical novels, many of which are in my to-be-read pile. The first chapter of this novel had quite a bit of scientific detail, and I worried that I would not be able to understand Rosalind Franklin’s work well enough. Benedict says in the author’s note at the end that she had to learn more about DNA for her research into this novel. Very quickly, though, the reader is brought up to speed on Franklin’s laboratory methods, and anyone who took high school biology would be able to follow the fascinating plot.

Important revelations about a science superstar, and a perfect read for Women’s History Month!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Alice Waters Cooks Up a Food Revolution, by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland

In the summertime, Alice’s New Jersey family had fresh food from the garden, and Alice thought each strawberry was the Best! Food! Ever! But when wintertime came, they had to eat the newly-invented TV dinners and other prepared meals. She loathed them. Later, when Alice studied in France, she grew used to shopping in the little markets in the street where farmers, cheesemakers, bakers, and others sold their very fresh goods every day.

Eventually, Alice moved back to the United States and settled in Berkley, California, where she asked some friends to start a restaurant with her that would serve up the Best! Food! Ever! to the local residents. They named it Chez Panisse, and people were so excited about it that they ran out of food the very first day. Alice realized that she needed more sources of high-quality ingredients, so she worked with local farmers to raise the kinds of food that she needed for her restaurant, and the farm-to-table movement was born. Chez Panisse became the touchstone of a huge return to nourishing, locally-sourced food that encompassed the entire process from thoughtful, sustainable agriculture to simple gourmet meals.

Diane Stanley has written countless excellent biographies for young readers, and she has previously collaborated with Jessie Hartland on a book about Ada Lovelace. Hartland’s joyful, childlike paintings are filled with little details. I particularly enjoyed her images of a freckle-faced young Alice and of the dancing friends who started Chez Panisse.

Pair this picture book biography with the beautiful Fanny in France (reviewed here) Alice Waters’ own book about her daughter and her discovery of French food while visiting old friends in France with her mother. A perfect study for foodie parents planting a spring vegetable garden, trekking to the farmer’s market, or just singing the praises of fresh produce: the Best! Food! Ever!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, although I own Fanny in France. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari

We can’t pay attention anymore. An appalling percentage of adults no longer read any books at all. A soaring number of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. We’re getting less and less sleep. You’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Social media.” But your parents’ attention span was also shorter than their parents’ attention span. It’s been going on for as long as we’ve been keeping records.

Johann Hari set out to find out why he couldn’t focus for long periods of time. He loved to read, and his to-be-read pile probably resembled mine, but he could only fondly remember getting lost in a book for hours. He observed his nephew’s inability to look away from his phone, so Johann took him where he had always longed to go: Graceland. Standing in Elvis’s famous mansion, he saw that his nephew and all of the tourists of every age were staring at pictures of Graceland on their phones, rather than looking up at the actual rooms. When he started yelling at another man in exasperation, he realized that he needed to take a break.

Hari booked a three-month stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He left his laptop and phone with a friend far away and gave only six people the number to a dumb phone that he had bought for emergency use. It was grueling, but by the end, his mind felt calm, and not only did he get through all of the books he had brought, he also found a lovely bookstore in town where he bought even more great books. He went to the local pubs and talked to real, live people, and he started to write again.

Unhappily, it didn’t last, and he was determined to find out why. Johann started traveling around the world, to almost every continent, not only speaking to experts in the expected fields of high tech and social media, but also to brain scientists, sleep experts, ADHD physicians, scientists in pollution and food research, and many others. The interviews were fascinating, and Hari spends a chapter discussing each topic, combining scientific studies with personal anecdotes. So many of the stories resonated with changes I had seen in my own life or in the people around me, but others were shocking and desperate.

Johann believes that, although we can all make individual changes to help ourselves, there are massive problems that can only be solved if we all work together to force power structures to change. He likens this grassroots effort to the feminist and gay rights movements. While he is hopeful for the future, he also reveals that, at this moment, the problem is much deeper and more far-reaching than we understand.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, which the author reads himself. Johann is from London and has a warm and charming voice, and since he is so personally invested in his subject, there isn’t a dry moment in the book, even in the nerdiest bits of scientific study. This book is so important. Even those of us who are older and use very little social media have noticed a change, and the inability to concentrate is a serious issue for our world today, when there are critical problems that require deep thought and united action. There’s something going on that’s beyond our control, and Hari does an excellent job of putting the puzzle pieces together. His conclusion may surprise you; it’s not just social media. Let’s start a movement.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Reading While Black, by Esau McCaulley

How does a Black Christian find identity and comfort in the Bible? Some people have accused Black Christians of adopting a white man’s religion, but Esau McCaulley, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, responds that God chose his children in Africa centuries before the gospel ever reached Europe.

McCaulley is also a New Testament professor, and he brings his erudition to bear on scriptural passages concerning slavery and oppression, showing that it is not God’s plan to leave anyone in slavery, but that the trajectory of the entire Bible is always in the direction of liberation and freedom. Furthermore, he uses these ancient texts to examine the most contemporary of issues, such as policing and Black rage, parsing in detail the Bible’s verses about submission to government authority and the honest reality of the desire for vengeance.

For the White reader, McCaulley opens a window to the exegesis of the traditional Black church. All the way back in Genesis, Jacob’s son, Joseph, was sold to slave traders and ended up in Egypt, where he became the second most powerful person in the country. Pharaoh gave Joseph the daughter an Egyptian priest as a wife, and he had two sons with her whom Jacob later adopted as two of the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. It had never really occurred to me before that two of the twelve tribes of Israel were half African. Four hundred years later, the entire narrative of the Exodus and deliverance from slavery holds a message of hope for the Black church and the assurance that our God is a liberator of the oppressed.

This short book is divided into seven major topics related to the Black experience, and the author pulls from both Old and New Testaments— from Genesis to Revelation— showing his love for scripture and his faith. He does not hesitate to confront challenging passages, particularly in the Psalms or in Paul’s writings, just as he also glories in the hope of Isaiah and the gospels.

The last chapter, entitled “Bonus Track,” fills in gaps and answers some questions that the reader may have formed in the previous pages. First, McCaulley separates himself from James Cone and Black liberation theology. He says that, while he believes that liberation is found in the gospels, it is not the gospel.  He believes that his view of the Black ecclesial tradition will be familiar to Black audiences, since it is the message that has been heard from the pulpit, rather than read in scholarly books.

He also takes the opportunity in this chapter to address misogynistic scriptures and womanist theology. “Womanist” is an intersectional term coined by Alice Walker to deal with issues that concern both feminism and race. I appreciated this discussion, because I had been surprised on several occasions by a breezy insouciance toward the mistreatment of women in a passage, with a concentration only on the problems that pertained to men. Sometimes this blindness was found in quotes by other scholars that he had chosen.

McCaulley ends with a generous bibliography of authors for further study and an index of Bible references.

Important and enlightening.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews