My Plain Jane, by Cynthia Hand, &c.

My Plain Jane audioJane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë are students at Lowood School, where they are, naturally, cold and starving. Charlotte, who is continually scribbling in her notebook, thinks that Jane is somewhat odd, since she talks to herself at times. In actuality, Jane is talking to her friend, Helen Burns, who died a short while ago. When Jane hears that the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits is coming to a local pub, she runs in to observe, and the star agent— the handsome Alexander Blackwood— realizes that Jane can see ghosts, just as the Society members can. It turns out that Jane is a “beacon,” one of the few people in each generation who can draw ghosts to themselves. Most people think that Jane is quite plain, but to the ghosts, she is incredibly lovely.

Once the head of the Society finds out that Jane is a beacon, he orders Blackwood to bring her to London to work with them—spare no expense, whatever it takes. But Jane has never had a normal life, and so she decides to take a nice, quiet governess position at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of one Mr. Rochester. While her boss is tall, dark, and brooding—everything a young woman could desire—Mr. Blackwood will not give up on wooing her to a position with the Society, and Miss Brontë has agreed to help him. Meanwhile, Helen sticks with Jane and continually offers stubbornly sensible but hilarious advice that is generally ignored.

If all this sounds familiar, but just a little off, that’s because Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have taken the classic Jane Eyre and tossed it in a blender with a ghost story, a spy thriller, a dash of romance, and a cup or two of humor. This is a rollicking tale of wild goose chases, mistaken identities, and brilliant satire. For those who missed the first book in this series, My Lady Jane, it is not necessary to read them in order. Let’s hope that the authors have many more Janes in store.

I listened to the downloadable audio version of this book, which was fantastic. Fiona Hardingham brought all of her comedic talent to bear on this story. My favorite voice was that of Helen Burns, a petulant ghost who sounded very much like Shirley Henderson’s role as the weepy friend with a high voice in Bridget Jones’ Diary who lisped, “Bwidget.”

Teens and adults will be completely entertained by this fast-paced and fun mash-up. During the very worst part of Hurricane Florence, when I thought that trees were going to fall on the house any minute, I sat on a kitchen chair in our pantry under the stairs with my phone balanced on the spice mixes and listened for a couple of hours. I barely heard the storm. I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that!

Disclaimer: I listened to our library’s downloadable audio version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. (Although I have talked to several colleagues and they completely agree. But don’t tell anyone.)

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The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poet XXiomara Batista’s Dominican mother never wanted to marry or have children. She wanted to be a nun. She loves her kids, but she is distraught that Xiomara is delaying her confirmation at church, and when she finds out that Xiomara has been asking Father Sean challenging questions, she clamps down on her even harder.

Xiomara hates it when the boys make comments about her curves when she walks down the street in Harlem. She is tall, with wild hair, and she holds back the world with her fists and tough talk. She pours her heart into her very private poetry notebook: her doubts about God, her confusion about her mother and father’s relationship, her hesitant forays into growing up, her fears for her brother, and her timid and hopeful feelings for a boy named Aman. They share a love of music. She lets him hear some of her poetry, and he names her X.

Her mother would never allow this.

Elizabeth Acevedo has written this semi-autobiographical novel in verse, with a couple of school essays woven in. The poetry allows X’s love of words to express the struggles of a young woman who loves her immigrant parents, but who cannot be true to herself without hurting them. Her voice is at once fragile and fierce, exploring cultural divisions, first love, faith and doubt, and the human need to speak freely and openly to the world. When a lid is screwed down more and more tightly while pressure continues to build, an explosion is inevitable.

Recommended for middle teens to adults, with a bit of strong language and sexual content. Caution: May cause spontaneous versifying and a sudden urge to participate in a poetry slam. Ironically, the last line of this novel is “And isn’t that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark,” which I read by lantern light during a power outage from Hurricane Florence.

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.

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Educated, by Tara Westover

Educated audioTara grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father sold scrap, and her mother was an unlicensed midwife who concocted herbal tinctures for sale. The family was saving up food and firearms so that they could survive the coming revolution. Her father was already a survivalist when the Ruby Ridge Massacre happened not far away, and there was no turning back after that. Since her father did not trust anything to do with the government, the children did not go to school, and although he told them to tell people that they were homeschooled, there was no education going on whatsoever.

As Tara grew into adolescence, she was taught to be ashamed of her changing body, so she wore loose men’s clothing and worked in the scrapyard along with her brothers. They had no insurance, took frightening risks, and endured horrifying accidents. Her father would not allow them to go to a hospital or visit a regular doctor. Even when one of her brothers had a piece of his skull missing and his brain was clearly visible, her father told her to bring him home so that his mother could take care of him.

The best outcome of childhoods like Tara’s would be to grow up and leave forever, but the underlying physical and psychological abuse kept her bound to her home. The only acceptable future in her parents’ eyes was for Tara to marry within their faith, have children, and become a midwife like her mother. Tara longed to go to college, but she could barely read. It was the shame, above all, that kept her from reaching out for help. She even hid the physical injuries she endured from her sadistic brother.

I had to keep reminding myself that this riveting story is a memoir, just so that I could keep going without fear that Tara would die at any moment. I found myself saying out loud, “No, don’t go back home!” and “No, don’t get in the car with your brother!” The power of the love that children have for even worthless parents, which I witnessed firsthand as a foster mother decades ago, is astounding and sometimes unfathomable to outside observers. Hateful words, inflicted on a little child year after year by adults who should be trustworthy, can gouge permanent wounds that leave disfiguring scars on their souls. On the other hand, loving adults who speak healing and encouraging words can bring a triumph that seems impossible.

I highly recommend this popular memoir, which I listened to on audiobook for reasons that I will relate on TheReaderWrites in a few weeks. The narration, by Julia Whelan, was excellent.

Disclaimer: I listened to a digital audio version of this book, downloaded from our library. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The New Copernicans, by David Seel, Jr.

New CopernicansNo one seems to have a kind word to say about Millennials: they’re spoiled and entitled, they live in their parents’ basements and still expect to be treated as adults, they spend all their time waiting to be triggered by the slightest micro-aggressions, and on and on ad nauseum. I disagree, and so does David Seel. As a matter of fact, he thinks that the church needs to take a lesson from them, because Millennials are more like Jesus than the generations that came before them.

For the past 300 years, the church has been steered by an Enlightenment understanding of the world: left-brained and rational. Seel believes that the current young generation operates on a more right-brained basis, and that there is a huge frame shift coming. He prefers the terms “frame shift” and “social imaginary” to “worldview.” He considers the coming frame shift to be on a scale not seen since Copernicus posited that the sun is the center of the universe, rather than the earth. For many reasons, not the least of which is the ubiquity of the internet, today’s young adults are exposed to hyperpluralism on a daily basis and are more apt to deal with life experientially, rather than drawing up rational arguments. Seel reminds us that the Bible was written well before the Enlightenment, and that Jesus related to his disciples by walking on the road with them and telling stories.

Seel divides up our social imaginaries into four categories. On the left side are the two closed frames of thought, those who are “dwellers,” and are unable or unwilling to be flexible. On the right side are the two open frames of thought, those who are “explorers,” and are open to new considerations or ideas. On both the open and closed sides, one finds transcendent and immanent people. Those who are immanent believe only in what they see, hear, touch, and so on. Those who are transcendent believe that there is more than we can see in this world. Evangelical Christians are closed transcendents. They believe in more than what is on this earth, but they are rigid about what that means. They may differ from one denomination to another about those beliefs, but each group is fixed. The church’s missionary efforts are directed at two types of people: those who grew up in the evangelical community and are now living a sinful life, whom the church is trying to woo back, and the classical, university-type atheist, who is a closed immanent. Old-style atheists are just as fixed in their beliefs as the church, and the two groups lob Aristotelian and Scholastic logical arguments back and forth with little movement on either side. Seel states that both of these groups are disappearing rapidly.

All New Copernicans live on the “open” side of the divide, rendering the church’s efforts useless. Most of them are open immanents, for whom God is not terribly important. They live as practical atheists, not really seeing a need for God, but because they are open to other ideas, they are “haunted,” as Seel says. They are willing to believe in supernatural or spiritual experiences, and Christians have a great opportunity to walk on pilgrimage with them in order to lead them toward open transcendence, which is where Seel believes the entire church needs to be. We should be willing to talk about our doubts and struggles, willing to evangelize through relationships without ulterior motives, and willing to be more like poets than politicians. As Seel so beautifully says on page 68:

“What if a relationship with Jesus is more like falling in love than answering the questions on a philosophy or history exam?”

For several years now, those closest to me have had to endure hearing my anguish over the state of the church. As an institution, it cannot continue as it is today. Just a glance at some statistics about Millennials should be enough to make this case. For example, consider the exponential growth of the group called the “nones.” These are people who check the box “none” on forms asking for religious affiliation. Within the Millennial generation, which makes up almost a quarter of the American population, 40% consider themselves nones. This is a 400% increase since their parents’ generation at the same age, and it is growing daily. According to Pew research, 78% of religious nones were raised in religious households. In case that hasn’t hit you yet, think of how many older believers you know who have grown children who have left the church. Seel contends that they are not coming back, so we should stop thinking that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps, get married, have kids, and go back to church. They have a completely changed frame of reference, and closed transcendence will not be a part of it.

It is not only Millennials who have moved from closed to open transcendence, however. Seel mentions many historical and current church leaders who are on pilgrimage, as well, including many who have been seriously wounded by the institutional church. As he says, “There is usually blood in the water.” (p. 105) Seel believes that Millennials, because of their age and common experiences, are the most likely to be carriers of this monumental frame shift, but because others are moving with them, it is more accurate to use the term “the New Copernicans.” He believes that it is essential for church leaders to listen to younger pastors and other church leaders and to begin to hand over the reins to them as soon as possible.

This book is written with an eye to church leaders and pastors in order to bring about awareness and positive change, as, indeed, the subtitle is Millennials and the Survival of the Church. I heard Dr. Seel speak on a podcast, and he said that when he wrote the book, he considered that the church had ten good years left, but since then, events have happened so rapidly that he believes the timeline is down to five years. Readers, particularly those in traditional churches, will not agree with everything that Seel is recommending—I certainly did not– but it is not necessary to agree on particulars, as long as we can widen our view. However, many of his ideas are intriguing, motivational, and kind. With all of our denominational infighting, we are losing the forest for the trees. Or, in Seel’s frequent metaphor, the church is still playing Spades, but the game has changed to Hearts. How can we win, if we aren’t even playing the same game?

Important, but controversial, reading.

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.

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Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All

Fatal ThroneSurely, we’ve heard everything there is to say about the Tudors, right? We’re Tudored out! Well… tell me everything you know about Anne of Cleves. Yeah, me too.

The fact is that most of us know a good bit about Catherine of Aragon and far more than we should about Anne Boleyn, and that’s it. Maybe a smattering of Jane Seymour. From an academic viewpoint, the separation of England from the church of Rome happened during the divorce of Catherine and the marriage of Anne, and Anne Boleyn was the first reigning queen to be executed in England, all of which makes for a lot of dramatic material. From a more prurient, Hollywood standpoint, a young and handsome king committing adultery on his religious wife with a beautiful, coquettish daughter of the nobility will bring in the dollars. Shows about sickly, old boors who are still trying for more heirs won’t pop anybody’s popcorn.

In this brand-new collaboration, celebrated female authors each take one of the six wives and tell her story, interspersed with the perspective of Henry, written by National Book Award-winning author M.T. Anderson. These are big names in young adult literature: Candace Fleming, Stephanie Hemphill, Lisa Ann Sandell, Jennifer Donnelly, Linda Sue Park, and Deborah Hopkinson. They reveal girls who grew up quickly, traveling across the sea or thrust from their fathers’ and brothers’ bargaining tables, setting aside their own dreams to become childbearers in a huge political game, changing the course of history while embroidering a royal layette. Anne Boleyn was not concerned with the fate of Christendom, but her name is permanently entwined in the story. Anne of Cleves was not interested in marriage at all, while Catherine Parr was an excellent theologian, and almost lost her head by revealing the depth of her knowledge. Anderson’s interludes are infuriating to read– hence brilliantly effective– as Henry never doubts that he is justified in all of his actions, since he is both a man and the king.

I have always felt a great sympathy for Catherine of Aragon, who expected to lead a noble and dignified life and certainly lived up to her part of the bargain, although she produced a terrifying daughter. Even Mary’s story and that of the other Tudor children are woven into the background of the tale. By the time Henry’s life was over, his wives and his daughters were getting close to the same age. This is probably the first time since the 1970s BBC production that I’ve gotten to know the later wives so well—the good, the bad, and the fascinating.

This story is written for adults and young adults who are old enough to understand the sexual details of producing heirs and how that process might get complicated with an older man with health issues. I admit to being surprised at the candor of some of the bedroom scenes, which are far from romantic. A bracing antidote to any steamy television shows concerning Henry.

No teen could ever consider history boring again after this happy combination of talents brings the ultimate dysfunctional family to life. Highly recommended for adults and mature teens.

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.

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Tell It Slant, by Eugene H. Peterson

Tell It Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible paraphrase, discusses Jesus’ parables found in the book of Luke, as well as the seven prayers that Jesus prayed in the gospels. This is ostensibly a book about language, about why Jesus spoke as he did when he walked with his disciples in Samaria. “Samaria is the country between Galilee and Jerusalem in which we spend most of our time between Sundays.” (p. 18) Peterson brings out the very earthy examples that Jesus used as he established the kingdom of heaven, and he reveals deeply spiritual insights that are as startling to us today as they were to the residents of first-century Palestine.

This is The Book that I loved this year. I was one-third of the way through it when I went on vacation in April, and I am just now finishing it in July. I only read until I felt that I was not absorbing it anymore, and then I would move on to a novel or a different nonfiction book, only to come back later, ready for more. All those familiar stories that we nod over after years of sermons, or the ones our eyes slide back and forth over as we read Luke yet again, come to life in new colors in Peterson’s meditations. Who are you in the story of the Prodigal Son? How did the story of the Good Samaritan play to its original mixed audience of Jews and Samaritans? What in the world is the meaning of that carefully-avoided story of the Shrewd Manager?

Jesus often told us truths in stories, not lists of do’s and don’ts. Stories are the way that we communicate with one another across generations, and Jesus’ stories used familiar images that light up our imaginations, eschewing cold analysis and pulling us into the action, engaging the heart and the mind.

Eugene Peterson and BonoI am not a big fan of The Message Bible, although I use it sometimes to get fresh perspective on a too-familiar or confusing passage. Peterson is known in some circles as a controversial theologian, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, someone who does not mind stirring the pot. I fell in love with this gentle soul, however, when I saw him on YouTube with Bono. They have an enthralling discussion on the Psalms, and we see Peterson and his wife as a soft-spoken and kind older couple, serving homemade cookies to an Irish rock star in their rural Montana home, where Bono came on pilgrimage. Here in Tell It Slant, Peterson’s language reveals an intimate relationship with Jesus, a deep life of prayer, and decades of thoughtful meditation on the scriptures. No controversy here; just drink in his wisdom.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Be sure to buy your own copy– it’s an inexpensive paperback. You’ll want to spend some time in these pages.

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.

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Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak

Bridge of ClayThere were five of them, the Dunbar boys. Their mother had died, their father had left, and they communicated their anguish and fierce love through their fists. Matthew, the oldest, tells the story of how he taped up Clay’s feet so that he could run punishing, barefoot races where Rory cursed at him and tackled him on the track. Meanwhile, Henry piled up gambling wins, and Tommy, the youngest, added one pet after another to his menagerie. They couldn’t seem to finish high school, but they could all play the piano. Their mother had seen to that. She had also soaked them in the words of Homer, just as her father had read the Iliad and the Odyssey to her before he planned her flight from the Nazis of Europe to her new home in Australia.

In his first novel in over a dozen years, Markus Zusak courses through the generations of one family, weaving a web of strings that all find their end in Clay, the sensitive, quiet Dunbar brother, the one who loves his parents’ stories and treasures them up in his heart. Clay, who brutally abuses his body when he runs, fights, and works. His brothers say that he is “in training,” but to what purpose? His brothers don’t even know how much he loves Carey, the new girl who is an apprentice jockey at the downtrodden racetrack near their house, or how he meets her every Saturday night in the middle of a field, chastely exchanging hearts and dreams.

This is a thoroughly male story, and even the wonderful female characters are seen through the eyes of the men, who are honorable, angry, heartbroken, loving, and tough. As Matthew’s account moves backward and forward in time, certain motifs run throughout the book: Homer and racehorses, music and Michelangelo, painting and clothes pegs. The animals all have Greek names, beginning with Hector the cat and ending with the inimitable mule, Achilles. The Monopoly games are epic. Male habits that confound women are brilliantly portrayed, such as talking to one another side by side while looking away into the distance or punching a brother instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” As a matter of fact, the unapologetic level of testosterone is startlingly outside of today’s gender-fluid YA literary norms. Furthermore, this novel deals with far more mature themes than are usually found in teen books, such as terminal illness, marriage, divorce, guilt, and life-changing regret. Death is almost as much a character in this novel as it was in The Book Thief.

Bridge on the PorchI first met Markus Zusak at the ALA convention in Washington, D.C., in 2007, when The Book Thief won a Printz Honor medal. That was a banner year for the Printz reception. The winner was Gene Luen Yang, the first author to win a Printz for a graphic novel, and the honor recipients were Zusak, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, and M.T. Anderson. At that time, the Printz Committee had all of the authors give speeches, so we were agog. Even before that evening, however, the Mock Printz Club from our library— almost all teenage girls— met Markus in the lunchroom, and since all of the seats were taken, he asked  whether he could eat lunch with us on the floor in the stairwell. Um, yes! You have never seen such a group of giddy girls—older and younger—and he was completely kind and chatty. It was the highlight of the conference.

Zusak’s style in Bridge of Clay was beautiful, and I enjoyed all of the story, but the ending slew me. I had no idea of what was coming, so gently and shockingly, and it took me a long time to recover. Everything fell into place, and I just loved those Dunbar boys.

@RHCBEducators

Disclaimer: I read a bound manuscript of this novel, sent to my colleague by the publisher, and ever so generously lent to me first. Bridge of Clay will be published in October, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

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