Monthly Archives: November 2015

7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas

7 WomenI am pleased to announce that Eric Metaxas took my advice and followed up his book 7 Men with 7 Women, as is only fitting. Alright, there may have been more requests than mine, but the point is: the book has arrived.

As soon as I got my hands on this title, I opened to the table of contents to see which women had made the cut. Some of the names, like Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa, could be expected, but Hannah More and Saint Maria of Paris are not among the usual suspects. Who in the world is this Elizabeth Pilenko/ Kuz’mina-Karavaeva/ Skobtsova/ Saint Maria, anyway?

In his introduction, Metaxas relates that he decided not to go with the usual list of women who were the first to do something that had already been done by men, such as Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, or Sally Ride, the first woman in space, etc. Metaxas writes that “… the problem with this idea is that it presupposes the tremendously harmful and distorting idea of a competition for power.” (p. xviii) And, may I add, a competition in which women continually come in second place! Rather, he chose women who often lived sacrificial lives and accomplished great things that could only have been achieved by women, with their unique, God-given gifts.

Hopefully without giving spoilers, here are my brief thoughts on each of these choices:

Joan of Arc. Such a young girl with so much courage. I never know what to think about Joan, as I am stubbornly skeptical about visions and voices and such. Apparently, I am a terrible charismatic. However, I am so impressed by her character in a time when women were completely powerless.

Susanna Wesley. Yes, she is known because of her sons, but what a force of nature this woman was! I am not sure that I would want Susanna as a friend because of her super-scheduled, ultra-driven mindset, but considering the trials in her life, her family would have fallen apart without her. Her advice to her son, Charles, concerning alcoholic beverages seems hilarious in this day when—at least in the South—evangelical Christians are often assumed to be teetotalers.

Hannah More. Metaxas wrote a bit about this friend of William Wilberforce in his biography, Amazing Grace, but it was satisfying to learn her own story. An independent woman who was a well-educated, influential writer, More helped the cause of abolition in creative ways before women were able to have any political power. Furthermore, this story led me to Karen Swallow Prior’s books, and I popped her Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me straight into an Amazon order cart. Check it out.

Saint Maria of Paris. A twice-divorced, liquor-drinkin’, cigarette-smokin’ saint? Oh, yes, gentle reader. This fascinating nun (you read that right) was serious about her faith, especially in World War II Paris. Proof that everyone can serve God, sometimes filling a need with gifts that no one else would have. Since I had never heard of her before, this was one of my favorite chapters.

Corrie ten Boom. If you do not know this Holocaust survivor, please let this brief introduction be a springboard to The Hiding Place and all of ten Boom’s own works, as well as the movies of her life. We are so blessed that, during her long life, she continually wrote and spoke about the meaning of suffering and living sacrificially for others.

Rosa Parks. She would not give up her seat on the bus. So, what else do you know about her? Until this chapter, I knew nothing but that one fact about this quiet, unassuming woman. She was chosen to be the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of her exemplary character, but that was not the end of her work for equal rights. She admitted, when she was an old woman, that she did get tired of being asked about that one single moment of her life over and over again.

Mother Teresa. What other single human being, besides Jesus himself, so exemplifies giving up everything for others? I only had a mental image of Mother Teresa as an ancient nun, but Agnes Bojaxhiu felt called to the religious life from the age of twelve, inspired to serve by her own mother. Her entire life was one of continuous and progressive voluntary poverty, seeking to live among the poor as one of them so that she could understand their needs and their souls. Her pure virtue was so famous that she could speak truth to powerful leaders without fear.

In a word: inspiring. None of these women were the fragile flowers so often pushed by Christian media today as examples of perfect Christian women. No pink hearts, ribbons, or china teacups. These women were tough, hardworking, often irritating, and not concerned with choosing the right outfit. Not that I don’t love a nice sweater or a good cup of tea, but this is the kind of Christian woman I want to be, and I am pretty sure that most of my friends would be proud to have their daughters emulate any of these heroines, as well. Well done, Mr. Metaxas.

Eric MetaxasIf you do not know Eric Metaxas from his phenomenal biography, Bonhoeffer, or any of his other works, you will need to remedy that promptly. He has a biography of Luther coming up in 2017—500 years after the beginning of the Reformation—and I have already set it on the top of my entire reading list for that year. You can hear Eric Metaxas on the radio, too. The Eric Metaxas Show can be heard on podcast at MetaxasTalk.com. He has terrific guests, some of whom you would never hear elsewhere, and each one gets an entire hour to talk. So nice to listen to someone without competing guests shouting over one another. If you listen to the podcasts, you miss the commercials and only hear the out-and-back bumper music, some of which is of highly questionable taste, but we bear it.

7 Women would make a great Christmas present for pretty much every Christian woman over fourteen on your Christmas list, so get it right now!

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye StrangerBridget roller-skated right into an oncoming car when she was eight years old. It’s a wonder she survived, and her doctor told her that she must have been put on this earth for a reason. She’s still searching for that reason.

Now Bridge (not Bridget!) is in seventh grade, wears a headband with cat ears all the time, and sometimes freezes before she crosses the street in her New York City home. One of her best friends, Emily, has been launched into puberty well before her classmates, and is suddenly the focus of many boys in their school, including an older boy who encourages her to send pictures of herself via text. Bridge’s other best friend, Tabitha, has become the devoted follower of a stridently feminist teacher. Tab now views all of her friends’ actions through a critical lens and is passionate about social activism. Bridge is struggling to adjust to all of the changes in her relationships, but one thing she knows for sure: her friendship with Sherm is just friendship. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. No, certainly not.

Rebecca Stead, the Newbery-winning author of the brilliant When You Reach Me, tells this story in three voices. The chapters are mostly the third-person narrative about Bridge and her friends, interspersed with unsent letters from Sherm to his grandfather— who recently left his grandmother after fifty years of marriage—  and chapters from an unknown narrator, written in the second person. It was somewhat startling to turn the page and read that second-person voice for the first time: “You should have known about Vinny. You did know.” (p. 20) The identity of the speaker remains a mystery until almost the end of the book.

On one level, this is the tried-and-true middle school novel: growing up, navigating family problems, old friends becoming strangers, the first consideration of romance, and wondering whether you are still the same person you were in third grade. Stead, however, raises that level because of her well-developed characters, the unexpected rotation of the point of view, and the introduction of issues that are unique to this generation right this minute. Sherm was probably my favorite character. He is smart and loving, but so wounded. He is just at an age where he can begin to understand his grandmother’s pain and recognize her dignity, and he is determined to be righteous and true to her.

This is one of my favorite Newbery contenders this year, and it would be a great read for anyone ten and up. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book (which means I bought seventeen of them). Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

(Caution: Spoilers)

EchoOtto is playing a game with his friends when he wanders too far into the forest. He meets three sisters who were imprisoned by an enchantment that could only be broken by a woodwind instrument. Otto had a harmonica, but the sisters said that for him to help them, he had to promise to pass the instrument on to another.

In 1933, Friedrich lived happily with his musician father despite the disfiguring birthmark on his face. His sister and uncle loved him, too, and made Friedrich feel that his compulsion to conduct imaginary orchestras was a mark of genius, not mental illness, as the boys at school called out to him. Friedrich left school early to work in the harmonica factory, and one day during lunch break, he felt himself drawn into the abandoned mansion that many feared was haunted. Ethereal music led him up the stairs where he found an old desk with a special harmonica in the top drawer. This harmonica made music like no other.

Events in Friedrich’s Germany were rapidly changing, and many citizens felt that Friedrich’s birthmark was a reason to send him for sterilization surgery so that he would not sully the Aryan race with children. His father fought for him, but that brought him under scrutiny for being friendly to Jews. Before anything could happen to him, Friedrich packed his special harmonica in one of the boxes from his factory, where it was then randomly packed into a box full of ordinary instruments.

In 1935, Mike and Frankie’s grandmother has just died, which lands them in a cruel orphanage under the care of Miss Pennyweather. Granny had chosen this orphanage because it had a piano, and Mike was a musical prodigy. However, after her death, Mike found out that Pennyweather wanted to sell the piano, put the little boys, like Frankie, in a state home, and make money by hiring the older boys out for labor.

Mike decided that the most important thing in his life was to protect his little brother. Even after they are adopted in a very complicated arrangement, Mike doesn’t trust anyone. He plans to enter a contest for the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, since he knows that if he plays his special harmonica, he is sure to win a place in the band. Then someone will adopt his cute little brother without him, and they will both be safe. However, right after the band rehearsal, Mike tries a desperate plan to run away, and as he falls from a tree during his escape, the harmonica drops from his pocket and is lost.

In 1942, Ivy Maria Lopez and her family move from Fresno County, California, to Orange County in order become caretakers for the farm of a Japanese family who are in a detention facility during World War II. Ivy worries that her beloved brother, Fernando, will not find them when he returns from serving in the military. She also mourns for the school concert that she will miss. She had planned to play the harmonica that she received from her teacher, Miss Delgado, who said that Ivy had real talent. Ivy’s parents thought that her music was worthless play.

Ivy’s mother does laundry for a wealthy family nearby, and Ivy and their daughter, Susan, soon become friends. How surprised she is, on the first day of school, to find out that Latino children have a separate school! Although Ivy’s first language is English, she has to take English language classes each day. Furthermore, Susan’s father is convinced that the Lopezes’ employers are actually Japanese spies. Ivy becomes confused, but she hopes that she will at least be able to play her harmonica in the orchestra in Susan’s school.

Pam Muñoz Ryan ends each of these children’s stories on a cliffhanger, and then draws the connecting thread in a few chapters at the end. All of the stories are absorbing and spotlight the suffering of children, which often goes unnoticed in hard times. Books are written about political or military leaders and the adult heroes of the resistance, but the children who are living through these same experiences rarely get to tell their tales. The device of the enchanted harmonica weaves them all together with the international language of music.

Ryan is a celebrated writer of children’s literature, and this almost 600-page volume is a real contender for the 2016 Newbery Medal. When I visited the Mock Newbery Club in our county last week, most of the students had this title near the top of their lists, but one young man, like me, was not comfortable with the chopped-off endings for each story, and wanted a smoother novel. I think it comes down to whether or not one is a short story reader, and I am not. I like to follow one beloved character all the way to the end, and although I recognize the brilliance of the writing and the interconnected plots, this would not be my choice.

However, if you have room for one more World War II story in a year filled with very good ones, Echo will keep your avid readers (10 and up) enthralled for quite a while. Be forewarned: You may have to buy a harmonica.

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

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The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Rest of Us Just Live HereMike is not one of the indie kids. He and his friends never interacted with the vampires a few years back, or the ghosts a few years before that. They just go to high school, work at local restaurants, and deal with their parents. The indie kids wear black clothes, engage in a lot of angst and despair, and listen to jazz while reading poetry. Unfortunately, they also die a lot.

Sure, Mikey and his family have their share of problems. Mike has OCD to the point that he washes his hands until they crack and bleed. His older sister, Mel, is recovering (maybe) from anorexia, and their father is an alcoholic. Meredith, the youngest, is a genius and is the best at dealing with their politically-driven mother. Mike’s closest friend, Jared, is a great guy with the added bonus of being able to heal people a little bit, probably as a side effect of being one-quarter god. God of the Cats, that’s Jared. He has a soothing presence, but there is the issue of all the cats that follow him around to worship him. The new kid, Nathan, is impossibly handsome and might be an indie kid, or it could just be that Mikey hates him because Henna is smitten with Nathan, and Mike is in love with Henna. Maybe.

Patrick Ness never does anything the same way anyone else does, and furthermore, he never does anything the way he has done it before. In this new genre-bashing novel, he begins each chapter with a stylized, new age, poetic fantasy paragraph, such as this:

CHAPTER THE SECOND, in which indie-kid Satchel writes a poem, and her mom and dad give her loving space to just feel what she needs to; then an indie kid called Dylan arrives at her house, terrified, to say a mysterious glowing girl has informed him of the death of indie kid Finn; Satchel and Dylan comfort each other, platonically. (p. 11)

Following these chapter headings, we continue the story of Mike and his family and friends in which exactly none of the things above happen. Is this just the author’s little joke? Oh, no. Is he just making fun of YA literature? Well, yes. Ness manages to tell one or two narratives that are serious and believable, with tongue tucked firmly in cheek and one bizarre plot twist after another. It’s a YA problem novel with fantasy and loads of sarcasm laced with empathy. It’s as if John Green and Maggie Stiefvater each wrote opposite parts of the novel, making fun of each other as they went. (Which I’m sure they would never do, of course, because they have the utmost respect for one another’s brilliant work and for one another as fine human beings.)

So fun, so well done. A Printz winner? Maybe.

Highly recommended for older teens and adults who read enough YA to get the inside jokes. One not-at-all-graphic sex scene and a bit of foul language.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book (which means I bought 17 of them). Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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This Is My Home, This Is My School, by Jonathan Bean

This Is My SchoolOn watercolor and ink pages, author Jonathan Bean remembers his childhood fondly. Picture books about home education are rare, and this one is almost too realistic! There is nothing didactic here, no pictures of children in neat, little rows. The Beans’ home life is like a whirlwind: learning, eating, sleeping, and go-go-go. Mom and Dad are both involved, and Bean points out all the ways that his homeschool is both like, yet different from, traditional schools. For example, the “cafeteria lady” is Mom, and the lunchroom is their kitchen. The kids learn in the house, in the pond out back, and even in the yard in the middle of the night! One of my favorite pictures is of Mom fast asleep in a lawn chair during Dad’s star-gazing lesson out back. The house is piled with common homeschooling detritus: books (of course), science experiments, art supplies, papers, and pets of all kinds.

When Michael was about seven, we lived in a rural area in South Carolina for just a few months. One day we were out walking and found some really clear deer tracks. We ran inside and mixed up some Plaster of Paris, then went back out and were carefully pouring it into the tracks when our next-door neighbor drove by with another woman who exclaimed, “What in the world!?” Our neighbor simply said, “They’re homeschoolers.” “Ohhh.”

This Is My Home, This Is My School beautifully conveys the all-encompassing passion for learning that a loving homeschool family pursues 24 hours a day. Cozy, happy, crazy, this colorful book paints a true portrait of so many of the wonderful families I’ve known. Perfect for home educators and anyone who wants to understand them better. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book (which means I bought 49 of them). Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Dumplin’, by Julie Murphy

DumplinWillowdean is fat, and she is okay with that. Her mother, a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, is not. She calls Willowdean “Dumplin’,” and points out helpful diet tips and infomercials. Aunt Lucy, who was much warmer to Willowdean than her own mother, died about a year ago, weighing in at over 400 pounds. Her mom wants to turn Lucy’s bedroom into a craft room, but Will wants it to stay the same forever, and she keeps playing Lucy’s Dolly Parton songs over and over.

Will thinks she has it all together, but when changes happen, she is forced to acknowledge her spinning emotions. Working at the local burger joint, Willowdean is shocked when her long-time crush, the totally gorgeous Bo, kisses her by the dumpster during an end-of-the-night trash run. How’s that for romance? Somehow, she feels she is unworthy of Bo, so she starts dating Mitch, a good-boy jock who meets with her friends’ approval. Her mom, as a former winner, is completely consumed by the annual Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant preparation, and when it occurs to Will that her mother has never even suggested that Dumplin’ have anything to do with it, she turns the whole little town upside down by registering as a contestant. She didn’t have a revolution in mind, but every brave misfit in her high school jumps in in solidarity.

Willowdean is a fabulous character. She is fun-loving, sassy, and down-to-earth. As a plus-size librarian— just like the author, Julie Murphy— I was so relieved that this was not a “fat girl overcomes her obvious mental illness, loses weight, and then finds happiness” novel. There are enough of those! Willowdean has some issues, to be sure, and she is finally getting to know herself, but she has loads of friends and two great guys in her life. Part of the tension of the book is hoping that she’ll get herself together in time to make good choices while she still can. Mitch is sweet and vulnerable, but Bo is sizzlin’— and sweet, too! The ending was too abrupt for my liking, but maybe a little ambiguity is a good thing. We can imagine our own ending:  “…and they all lived happily ever after—with big hair and red sequins.”

Dumplin’ is a fierce, fun, “You go, girl!” read for 14 and up. There’s a bit of foul language and some discussion of sex.

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

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