Monthly Archives: July 2016

Kids of Appetite, by David Arnold

Kids of AppetiteImagine how difficult relationships would be if your face were a total blank. Your friends would never know if you were surprised, hurt, thrilled, or angry. True, you would make a great poker player, but most of life is not a game.

Victor Benucci has Moebius Syndrome, a condition that causes facial paralysis, and although his emotions since his father’s death two years ago have been tumultuous, most people wouldn’t know it. Vic feels that his mother should understand, at least, and so he is cut to the heart when her new boyfriend announces their engagement. Vic runs out the door, grabbing the urn containing his father’s ashes, and without planning it, he falls in with the gang of misfits that he has always admired from afar. The object of his greatest admiration is the beautiful Madeline, devotee of The Outsiders, who has yellow hair that is long on one side and shaved on the other, revealing a scar she doesn’t discuss. The gang also includes little Coco, who struggles to control her foul mouth, and the selectively mute Nzuzi, whose brother Baz acts as a young adult guardian for the group.

As the novel opens, a murder has been committed, and the story is told in depositions and flashbacks from Vic and Mad’s alternate viewpoints. Soon after being taken in by the gang, Vic finds a note in his father’s urn, poetically telling his mom how to dispose of his ashes. The whole gang takes part in figuring out the clues that name places that were significant in Vic’s parents’ love story, but are nearly indecipherable to anyone else.

As the reader unravels the murder investigation, the road-trip mission of disposing of Vic’s father’s remains, and the back-stories and growing relationships of the unlikely group of teens, she will begin to see the tapestry of suffering, compassion, and love that wove them together. Interestingly, Baz is openly religious, which is rare in teen literature. The faith of Zuz and Baz, who endured terrible pain in their war-torn home country, adds a thoughtful layer to this already complex novel. In spite of all the complexity, however, this is a highly readable story with compelling characters and a core of pure love.

Besides the foul language, this is a beautiful novel for all teens and adults. It will make you think. Highly recommended.

I stood in line for a galley of this book in May (See my BEA geek-out story from May 23rd!), but I held onto the review for a while, since it will not be available until September 20th. However, I can personally attest that you can put a hold on it at the library where we live now, and it is available to pre-order, as well.

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Disclaimer: I read a signed galley of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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What Elephants Know, by Eric Dinerstein

What Elephants KnowNandu does not remember his parents, but he knows that he was raised by a pack of wild dhole in the jungles of Nepal. The man who rescued him, Subba-Sahib, is the leader of an elephant herd and holy man, and his mother is Devi Kali, his beloved elephant. Nandu’s fondest wish is to become a mahout, or elephant driver, but some local officials have succeeded in convincing the king to shut down Subba-Sahib’s stable and take all the elephants for themselves. The older mahouts distrust Nandu with his reddish-brown complexion and unknown past, but his instinctive connection to animals may save the entire stable.

Dinerstein writes a coming-of-age tale that spans continents and cultures, even though Nandu never travels beyond his local boarding school. His teacher is an American Catholic priest who recognizes the boy’s high intelligence and his gift for natural science, and he gives him the opportunity to participate in a project for the Smithsonian Institute. Nandu’s best friend at school is a Muslim boy who is also ostracized for being different from the other students, and back at home, a new Hindu monk takes up residence in the abandoned temple and offers Nandu spiritual guidance at critical times.

Those of us who care for animals will fall in love with the elephants and will marvel over Nandu’s almost spiritual connection to them. Readers will feel his passion for their safety and yearn for him to make good decisions and grow in maturity. Perfect for middle school kids with a passion for nature and conservation, this profound, transcendent novel highlights an inspiring young teen hero from a distant culture.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, now available in hardcover. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Sarah Bessey and Me

Several years ago, a pastor told me that the Bible’s teaching on women implied that women should never supervise men at work. At the time, I supervised two, so I told him it was too late. So he said that I should give them preference over the women I supervised, just because of their gender. I kid you not. Fast forward a few years, and a woman in our small group opined that a woman’s main role in the workplace is to make the men there feel better about themselves. Try as I might, I cannot find this chapter or verse in my Bible. Furthermore, I think my employer would be much more pleased if I followed the Bible’s real admonition to employees, which is to work for your employer with a great attitude, as if you were working for the Lord, instead of other people.* Apparently, though, no one in the room found her opinion sort of creepy except for me. There was more, but you can imagine my state of mind.

Jesus FeministIn my line of work, book titles run past my eyes all day long every day, and one day that title was Jesus Feminist. I tend to turn away from the word “feminist,” since it is so often allied with the hard-left, pro-choice crowd, but this was just too provocative, so I took a look, read the description, logged into my Amazon account, and made my first acquaintance with this Canadian pastor’s wife, blogger, and mommy.

We all have visions of our future lives when we are young, and having a full-time career was not part of my vision. Mother, wife, and maybe writer, yes. But I believe in a sovereign God, and a decade and a half ago, we went through a life-changing chain of events, and here I am, doing what I sincerely believe is the right thing to do—the honorable, loving, and responsible thing to do—and I have found happiness there. All day, every day, I am surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who find great meaning in their work. I believe in a God who gifts people with the ability to make other lives better, and who puts each person in place for the good of all. The universe is not random. So how can someone else who believes in a sovereign God say that the way I lay down my life is a sin?

I opened Jesus Feminist and wept in the introduction. I sobbed through the first two chapters. I found someone who had been here before me, and she dealt with her wounds by reading the gospels over and over. She reminded me that Jesus treated women like people. He talked to them directly, against the custom of the day, and never treated them as “other.” She reprinted a Dorothy L. Sayer essay that I read decades ago that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of Jesus and women. Sarah Bessey reminded me, in her poetic, storyteller fashion, that Jesus truly loved me, and that’s all I really needed to hear. Some of the later chapters didn’t speak to me as much, but those first chapters were so powerful that this bright yellow paperback has sat on my desk, beside my laptop, ever since then. Not that I told anyone, though, because I knew how controversial she was, and I didn’t want to be met with either gasps or outrage.

Last summer was another life-changing time. Everyone knows that it was a summer of grief over my mother’s death, as well as months filled with unrelenting physical pain from the compressed discs in my neck causing nerve pain all the way down my arm, but I’ve never told the story of the deep wound gouged into my soul during this rough time.

David and I have moved around a lot in our lives. For the first twenty years of our marriage, we moved about every five years for David’s work. Sometimes the transitions were heartbreaking, but we met all kinds of people and learned a lot from them. We studied loads of theology, visited dozens of churches, and had long, intense discussions late into the night with some folks who are deeply lodged in my heart forever. By my best count, we have been members or long-term visitors of ten separate denominations, and more than one church for a couple of those. I feel old just saying that. We’ve hosted church in our house and helped to start a couple of churches from scratch. We’ve driven long distances to church for years a couple of times, just to be sure that the teaching and fellowship we were receiving were truly biblical. We knew of a small denomination that agreed with us that two seemingly opposing ideas were both Biblical, but we never lived near one of their churches until we lived here. We were passionately devoted members of this church for seven years—until last year. When my mother died last summer, my church did—nothing. I received sympathy cards from individuals, and I treasured each one, but as a church: nothing. No meals, no visits, not even a phone call from my most beloved church of my whole life.

In the year since my mother’s death, I have had time to reflect on what God may be teaching me through long nights of grief, pain, and loneliness. I have worked and prayed to forgive, and I have come miles down that road by his grace. I have learned that love, in God’s eyes, is the most important thing, and I’ve repented for the times I didn’t love others as I should have. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’ve realized that those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 cover all the kinds of churches in the world, from charismatic to reformed to legalistic to liberal, whereas I had only seen individuals in those verses before. The last verse of that chapter, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” has become my heart’s cry. I am doing my best to love now, having people in my home, supporting everyone I can, and praying for the most unlikely people. I will never be good at this—it is not my gift—but it is everyone’s calling.

At the same time, other things have become less important. I have started taking stock of the ways that I have fit myself into someone else’s mold, rather than reading the Bible without filters and living what it says. We live in a world full of noise, with someone telling us what to think about everything, and when we agree with one side about an issue, we’re thrown into a box with dozens of other opinions that we’re expected to believe as well. But I don’t, and it’s becoming bewildering to think that I’m the only one who holds nuanced opinions that don’t fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.

Out of SortsAnd along came Sarah Bessey again. When I saw her new book title, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, I thought, “Yes, that’s where I am.” Truly, if your faith is not evolving, you are just not paying attention, and considering the political events of the past year, I think most Christians are not thinking deeply enough about their faith. The idea that our religion can be co-opted into a political cause is tremendously disturbing in its own right. Combining the events of my personal life with the national, even global, turmoil has caused me to be discouraged and almost despairing for particular churches, but also for the universal Church. Heaven knows the answer doesn’t lie in creating yet another denomination.

Ms. Bessey is one of a growing group of believers who think that the church is ripe for a new reformation, and my heart resonates with that idea. She points out that a major upheaval happens about every five hundred years in the church. In other words, we’re due. We just can’t continue in the splintered, contentious fashion that we now tolerate. Who is for Paul, who is for Apollos, and who is for Jesus?** The world has changed since Martin Luther nailed a paper to a cathedral door to ask for a discussion. Thousands of discussions are taking place every minute on social media with no moderator whatsoever, and in the church, we have no leader. Pope Francis? Jerry Falwell, Jr.?

Sarah Bessey writes by telling stories, and every one is soaked with her passionate love for Jesus. I read this book like drinking a life-giving elixir. I consumed it. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, I felt she’d found my letters and read each one out loud. If I had time, I would go right back to the beginning and read it again. She pulls out one topic after another and encourages the reader to examine it honestly, leading us to be courageous by telling her own life’s stories. She has also been a part of different kinds of churches in different parts of the continent, and she has drawn truth and beauty from each experience, but she now realizes that she cannot fully assent to the beliefs of any one church. No one is right about everything, after all, but neither is everyone else wrong about everything. You may as well tell the truth about how you feel and what you think, rather than making yourself believe something in order to please someone else, because when it comes right down to it, if they don’t love you because you disagree, what do you gain by hiding the truth? The only one who matters already knows what you think, and he can take it. You may not agree with Sarah Bessey on every issue—or, like me, you may not know what you think about some of them—but she will take you gently through all of the things that need sorting out in your heart and mind.

I do believe that the future is hopeful for me and for the church, but I believe just as firmly that there is suffering ahead. The Lord has used my pain to force me to change, to let go of things I held dear, to work harder for the kingdom, to forgive and to love. As Switchfoot’s new album*** says, the wound is where the light shines through, where the grace pours in, where he reaches in to heal. Be courageous! Lean into the pain and love well.

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It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this post, but rather to tell my story so that others who have been deeply wounded can find comfort here. Scripture quotes are from the ESV Bible.

*There is a reference for this! Ephesians 6: 6 & 7.

**Riffing on 1 Corinthians 1:12.

***It always come down to Switchfoot, doesn’t it? I am here freely making inferences from the song “Where the Light Shines Through” and the album of the same name.

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Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

Wolf HollowStories about bullies are legion these days. Once the media decide to concentrate on a given problem, everyone in the world has to write a children’s book about it, certain that just one more story will save a generation of children from harm. Some cautionary tales, however, rise to the level of literature. Lauren Wolk’s story takes a different tack from everything else I’ve read on the topic. It is set during the Second World War in rural Pennsylvania, and the bully is not that tough boy in the classroom; it’s a girl.

Annabelle and her two younger brothers walk through the woods to school every day, and they’ve never run across anyone except for the gentle World War I veteran, Toby. Toby has chosen to live apart from society, and although he hunts for his own food, Annabelle’s mother sometimes sends some of their meals to him, as well. One day, the new girl, Betty, met Annabelle in the woods, demanding that she give her something valuable, and threatening to hurt her youngest brother if she told anyone about it. Annabelle is a girl of fine character, and she tries to stand up to Betty and not allow herself to be intimidated, but her decision has dire consequences—for herself, her family, and for Toby.

Ms. Wolk crafts a tale that is much more complex and frightening than the usual bully story. As readers, we cheer Annabelle’s strength, because we’ve all been taught that the correct response to bullies is to refuse to give in to their demands and refuse to be silent. But Betty is a truly evil person; she is not just misunderstood. She does not suddenly see the error of her ways and repent. She is a bully. Furthermore, she is not at all squeamish about lying to save herself, and she is shrewd enough about human nature to know that a man who lives in the woods and carries guns looks much guiltier than a young, disingenuous girl.

This is an incredibly compelling novel, and it will appeal to both girls and boys from 10-14, perhaps, although your readers should be mature enough to understand some of the unspoken accusations that might come from police officers wondering what happened between a man and a girl in the forest. Look for discussions about bullying in your children’s lives today. They will be much more nuanced after this book!

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader 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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