Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Fountains of Silence, by Ruta Sepetys

Fountains of SilenceMadrid, 1957. Daniel and his parents have traveled from Dallas so that his father can secure an oil deal in Spain. Until recently, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco has kept the country closed to foreign business, but now the U.S. government and major corporations are trickling back in. Daniel is eager to use the new camera that his mother gave him to capture the story of contemporary Spain. He plans to use the pictures in a photo contest he has entered in hopes that his winning photo-essay will help him to gain entry to the most prestigious journalism schools. Daniel’s whole world is photography, but his father wants him to follow in his own footsteps in the oil business. Daniel has a good eye and snaps photos of everything, but when he takes them to Miguel’s shop for developing, the older man warns him to use caution: this is not the United States. There are many dangerous secrets.

Daniel begins to feel the weight of the secrets when he falls for the beautiful hotel employee, Ana. She tells him that she cannot have dinner with him because the hotel does not allow the staff to interact with clients, but he suspects that it is more than that. Ana lives with her sister, Julia, her husband, Antonio, their baby, and their brother, Rafa, who works in a slaughterhouse. In his off time, Rafa helps his friend, Fuga, train to become the greatest matador Spain has ever seen. While waiting for his opportunity to find fame in the bullring, Fuga digs graves for a living.

Ana’s cousin Purificación works in the orphanage. There are so many orphans since the war, and Puri loves all of the children and hopes to find good homes for them. Puri wants to be perfect; she never asks questions, and she truly believes that Franco loves the people of Spain and is doing his best for them. Lately, however, Puri’s world has begun to get tangled with Fuga’s.

Ruta SepetysRuta Sepetys brings us another stunning tale from hidden history, just as she did in her superb first book, Between Shades of Gray, the story of her grandparents in Stalin’s Russia. Americans are generally uninformed about Francisco Franco’s regime that lasted for decades in Spain, partly because it began at the same time that the United States and most of the rest of the world were becoming embroiled in World War II. After that conflict ended, we were all engaged in putting our countries and our lives back together, and yet Franco continued in power for years. He did not die until 1975, and some of his policies lasted until the 1980s.

Sepetys fills Daniel with this sort of benevolent ignorance. He is optimistic, looking forward to college and a successful career, with an American belief that if we all see something bad, we will challenge it and fix it. His biggest problem is that his father doesn’t approve of his career choice, so it takes him a while to understand that Ana’s problems are overwhelming and complex, and he only narrowly avoids ruining the lives of people he cares about.

Although the plot is propelled by the forbidden romance that is growing between Daniel and Ana, the novel is carefully researched. Sepetys inserts selections from government documents between the chapters, showing what diplomats and bureaucrats knew—and didn’t know—about the Franco regime. Today, many people wonder whether American investment in Spain at the time may have allowed the dictator to remain in power longer. Sepetys herself wonders how far an outsider should go to tell the tale of another culture, especially in light of one particular shocking secret from which the Spanish people are still struggling to recover.

Beautiful writing, an absorbing story, and the slow revelation of one nation’s hidden horror make The Fountains of Silence a compelling novel. These are stories that we wish were not true, but we must expose them so that we will have our own eyes open to the terrifying extent of human depravity, and to be aware of those around us who are forced to be silent. Furthermore, we need to open these wounds to sunlight so that they may heal.

This novel, as well as everything else by Ruta Sepetys, is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be released in October, 2019. Get your pre-orders in now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Enneagram Reading

Everywhere I went—podcasts, blogs, articles—I kept hearing about the Enneagram. Pastors and staff announced themselves by a number on their websites: “I’m a three!” What did it all mean? I pulled in a few books to find out.

The word Enneagram comes from the Greek, ennea for “nine” and gram for “a drawn figure.” Hence this nine-pointed diagram:

Enneagram

It looks like some kind of an occult symbol, but it’s just a tidy way to picture the nine types of personality. This diagram shows the names that Riso and Hudson created for the types, but there are variations.

Understanding the Enneagram RisoUnderstanding the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, was the first book that I read on the subject, and it’s a great one to demonstrate the history and depth of this ancient tool. No one agrees on the origins of the Enneagram, but around the turn of the 20th century, spiritualist George Gurdjieff brought it into modern times, and since then, psychologists and others have refined the ideas into a usable model for business management and spiritual counseling.

My husband and I took many of the online tests for personality typing, and the Enneagram Institute– Riso and Hudson’s organization– has one of the best and most secure. You can find it here. There is also a test in the book.

Each of the nine personalities has particular characteristics with strengths and weaknesses. For example, Type 2, “The Helper,” loves to give to others, but could become resentful if he doesn’t receive love in return. Number 4, “The Individualist” may have great artistic sensibilities, but also has lots of emotions that can lead to major drama. Number 6, “The Loyalist,” is an excellent friend and parent, but may spend her life worrying about every little thing. In a healthy state, each type can make magnificent contributions to the world. Most of us live in an average state, with positive and negative effects of our type showing up according to life’s circumstances, but when we are in a psychologically or spiritually unhealthy state, our types have particular pitfalls that could cause personal, relational, or workplace problems.

Riso and Hudson’s book is suitable for deep study, and indeed, I borrowed it through interlibrary loan from a college library. For anyone who thinks that the Enneagram is a party topic, the research and attention to clinical use in this volume will prove them wrong.

Essential EnneagramThe Essential Enneagram, by David Daniels and Virginia Price, is a slender volume containing a pared-down explanation of the instrument. On the other end of the spectrum from the Riso-Hudson book, it gives a quick background with a simple method for typing. If you are curious to find out your type—and the types of all your family and friends—The Essential Enneagram will do it for you. Accurate and accessible.

 

Not a horoscope. Human beings are always seeking to find out more about themselves. Our lives are busy, and we find ourselves using certain behaviors and giving the same responses without thinking too much about it. Why does one person respond to taunts by running away, another by yelling, and yet another by a punch in the nose?

Astrology assigns personalities to people according to how the stars and planets were aligned at a person’s birth. In this case, everyone born in a certain month would have the same personality controlled by forces completely external to oneself.

Myers-Briggs is a personality typing tool used by many businesses that measures only four psychological characteristics: introversion or extraversion, detail-oriented or not, etc. They use it to help a work team to understand one another, or, more controversially, for hiring people into a certain position. It considers a personality to be fixed. “This is me. Get over it.”

The Enneagram teaches that we are all born as our true selves, but within the first three years of life, we develop behaviors that help us to cope with what life throws at us. Our parents, siblings, and environment affect each of us in different ways. Number Ones, for example, find out that being good and doing everything perfectly makes other people like them. They grow up to be dependable, responsible people who want to make the world a better place. They are cause-oriented individuals who can be critical perfectionists driven by quiet, seething anger. Number Nines, on the other hand, find out that keeping the peace makes them feel better. They grow up to be excellent compromisers, bringing warring parties together, and they are always the pleasantest person at the party. Because of their inability to confront, their anger can become passive-aggressive, and they easily become depressed and withdraw from life.

The point of the Enneagram is to help people to recognize and strip away the coping mechanisms we’ve accrued, especially when they begin to hurt us. We can learn from the other types and take on the strengths of all, moving each of us closer to the true selves we were born to be.

Road Back to YouThe Road Back to You, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, is a thorough yet conversational guide that is geared toward spiritual healing. Coming from a Christian perspective, Cron and Stabile present an explanation of the Enneagram and a test to find your type, followed by a deep dive into each of the personality types, beginning with a list of characteristics, a description of the best features of that type, the most unhealthy possibilities, the type as a child, the type at work, and the ways that type can heal.

The Road Back to You is the most personal of all of these works, with the authors identifying their own types, the way they interact with their spouses and children within their types, and their interactions with friends or relatives of still more types. They are vulnerable about their own weaknesses and give a hefty dose of grace to difficult matches. For example, type 8, the most powerful type on the Enneagram, who never back down from confrontation and never hesitate to say exactly what they think, not realizing how they affect the people around them. One might think that Type 8’s are terrible people, but healthy 8’s can be heroic and natural leaders. Cron’s daughter is also a Type 8 who was in law school when the book was published, and he witnessed her response when her younger brother was bullied by an older man. She completely and calmly obliterated him verbally, and then went on with her dinner. Cron was simultaneously terrified and proud. For reference, President Trump is a Type 8.

Liturgists PodcastFor the layperson who wants to use the Enneagram in counseling and spiritual healing, The Road Back to You is probably the best resource I have found. Cron and Stabile were guests on The Liturgists podcast shortly after the publication of this book, and they go through each of the nine personality types on the show. You can find that recording here.

There are professional counselors who use the Enneagram in their practices, so if you were startled to find yourself neatly tucked into a type, or if you see yourself as a type with certain wings—we won’t even get into that here—the Enneagram may be very useful as a shortcut for healing. In any case, remember that the point is not to find out your type and then revel in your weaknesses or even your strengths, but rather to use your gifts to do good in the world and to work to reverse your weaknesses and return to the “real you” that God created.

As they say in Enneagram-Land, now go and do the work.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of all of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else, although they should, since I am a Type One. The Enneagram diagram was taken from www.enneagraminstitute.com.

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Summer Picture Books

Hum and Swish

Hum and Swish, by Matt Myers

Jamie is a creative little girl spending a day at the beach. As she hums and the waves swish, Jamie uses everything around her to make something new. Grown-ups walk by and offer useless comments like, “Aren’t you clever?” or “What are you making there?” to which Jamie always responds, “I don’t know.” Mom and Dad bring sunblock and juice, and Jamie quietly incorporates them into her art while her dark hair swirls in the sea breeze and the little shore birds keep watch. Eventually, an older woman comes out and sets up her easel, and when Jamie asks her, “What are you making?”, she responds, “I don’t know yet.” So the two artists continue working contentedly side by side.

An ode to the creative process, the oil and acrylic paintings in this picture book convey all of the elements of a summer day at the beach. The waves fairly hiss off the page, and the grit of sand sticks to salty legs. Elderly people, toddlers, and teenagers all stroll by, but Jamie longs for the solitude of her own thoughts. As she sits at the edge of the surf, she thinks, “The sea tells stories, but it doesn’t ask questions.”

Matt Myers is a North Carolina author, and our state has miles and miles of seashore to inspire just such scenes. Although he has illustrated many picture books in the past, Hum and Swish is his first work in which he is both author and illustrator. This lovely, contemplative book has many details to discover, and your little artist may find a soulmate in Jamie.

Sea Glass Summer

Sea Glass Summer, by Michelle Houts; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Young Thomas is spending the summer with his grandmother on a rocky island. She gives him a magnifying glass that had belonged to his grandfather, and Thomas sets out to explore. One of his favorite discoveries is a piece of glass that has been worn smooth by years of polishing in the ocean waves. When Thomas puts it on his night table, he dreams of its former owner and the origin of the broken glass. When it is time to leave the island, Thomas drops the magnifying glass, and the shards fall into the sea. Years later, a little girl visits the island with her Pappaw Tom. Annie finds a piece of sea glass, puts it on the table by her bed, and dreams of a boy named Thomas.

Michelle Houts’ picture book has more text than most, but her story is charming, with a sweet surprise ending. Bagram Ibatoulline uses shimmering sea-glass colors to create a chilly Maine beach, rocky and serene. Thomas wears the rolled-up jeans and high-top sneakers of an earlier time, and his grandmother wears a sweater on a summer day. In the present time, Annie wears pink Crocs. Houts appends a note to say that we now have more concern for the environment than to throw glass into the ocean, but how that also makes sea glass even more rare than it used to be.

Great JoyBoth the author and the illustrator have other notable works, but I first became aware of Ibatoulline in his Christmas picture book, Great Joy, written by the inimitable Kate DiCamillo. Be sure to pick that one up this holiday season, and I dare you to keep a dry eye.

There Might Be LobstersWhen thinking about summer picture books, I remember fondly the adorable There Might Be Lobsters, by Carolyn Crimi, which I reviewed here. Little dog lovers will find that one tenderly hilarious, as well.

All highly recommended for your salty, sticky, sandy beach babies.

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

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The Dearly Beloved, by Cara Wall

Dearly BelovedCharles lives in awe and a bit of fear of his father, a professor who teaches at the same university Charles attends. The father ruthlessly maintains the boundaries that protect his scholarly son from accusations of nepotism. When Charles reveals his faith in God to his secular parents, his father laughs and thinks that it is the perfect ruse to keep up appearances. When he discovers that Charles is serious, he gets up from the dinner table and leaves the house.

Lily was a studious child living quietly in the shadow of her popular, sociable parents. Although she was surrounded by her loving extended family, when her parents died in a car crash, fifteen-year-old Lily pulled up her emotional ramparts and completely blocked God from her life.

Nan grew up visiting the homes of the “less fortunate” with her minister father. Her mother taught her how to be the perfect pastor’s wife, but potluck recipes and sweetly-worded thank-you notes may collapse under the weight of tragedy.

James’ father never recovered from World War II, and he came home to find solace in the bottom of a glass. His mother worked tirelessly to feed and house her many children, but James and his brothers learned to defend themselves with fists and fierceness. James was desperate not to follow in his father’s footsteps, so when he fell in love with Nan, he reconciled himself to her faith by taking on a burning mission to rescue the world through pure, white-hot anger.

These two unlikely couples form lifelong bonds of love, jealousy, conflict, and compassion as the two men are called to be joint pastors of Third Presbyterian Church in New York. Four individuals with four different faiths, wrestling with God and one another as life throws its punches. With a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Charles and James preach on alternate Sundays, counsel their Presbyterian flock, and reach out to the urban community, none of which could happen without the firm guiding hand of seventy-two-year-old Jane Atlas, church secretary.

Debut author Cara Wall has couched a fascinating theological study within an absorbing work of warm domestic fiction. The narrative follows all four main characters through their college years, courtships, marriages, births, deaths, sickness, triumphs, and failures. Church life is a rare topic for novels, but Wall displays a sure hand with church board meetings, congregational social circles, the intersection of the church and the secular world, and the relationship between the “called” pastor and the congregation’s support—or lack thereof. Whereas most writers have a stock character to stand in for a pastor, Wall populates her story with many clergymen, each a whole and unique individual, and focuses in on Charles’ intellectual, high-church style in contrast to James’ Social Justice Warrior.

Of course, it is not only ministers who endure challenges to their faith, and these four people experience the buffetings of the years in different ways, according to their concept of God and his dealings with humanity. The reader wonders whether the latest blow will cause this one to lose her faith, that marriage to be stretched to the breaking point, or yet another to stand firm in faith and lose everything he holds dear. Within these four dearly beloved hearts reside universal hopes and dreams, anger and sorrow, love and longing.

A wise and moving novel. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which will be released on August 13, 2019. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright

Mark for EveryoneMark is my least favorite gospel. That’s not a very big deal, considering how much I love all of the gospels, but I usually turn to Matthew or Luke for their more complete accounts of Jesus’ life, including the beautifully familiar nativity passages, knowing that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, while Luke wrote for the gentiles. Then there is John’s poetic and spiritual gospel, with stories that do not appear in the other accounts. Where would we be without John 3:16 or “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” or the prooftext for Jesus’ approval of wine? Mark, on the other hand, has always seemed to be the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version to me, too brief and airless. When I was coming to the end of the New Testament recently in my who-knows-how-manyeth time through the Bible, I realized that I really needed to dive into Mark’s gospel in a big way to grow in my appreciation for what is essentially Peter’s account. Peter is my favorite apostle—always talking before thinking, just as I do—and Mark was his disciple after Jesus’ resurrection.

N.T. WrightN.T. (Tom) Wright is probably the world’s foremost living New Testament scholar, a retired Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I reviewed his amazing book, Surprised by Hope, here. Since then, I have read several of Wright’s books, and I just finished Mark for Everyone, which is part of the “For Everyone” paperback series that covers the entire New Testament. Wright has translated all of the books of the New Testament into his own contemporary version, a conversational translation with, occasionally, an amusing Britishism for the American reader. In this commentary series, Wright begins each section with a short passage in his translation, and then starts his discussion with a personal anecdote. He follows with some backstory explaining the historical or cultural facts that we need in order to understand what was readily known to the original audience, and then he pulls out the many layers of meaning within the text. In true Presbyterian fashion, he usually ends the segment with a sentence or two of application to our daily lives.

This truly accessible Bible commentary opens up new worlds of meaning, even for laypeople with a pretty thorough acquaintance with the scriptures. In a variation on the theme, he also has a few “Lent for Everyone” and “Advent for Everyone” titles that I have read and enjoyed. They are commentaries on the gospels that are set up to fit into daily readings for the appropriate season. All of the “For Everyone” titles are perfect for personal study for individuals or daily devotions for families with children in middle school or older. Affordable, not intimidatingly scholarly, but far from fluffy.

Highly recommended.

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. Image of N.T. Wright is from RachelHeldEvans.com.

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Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

StepsisterThe prince’s footman is impatiently waiting in the mansion’s foyer while Ella’s stepmother is heating the knife in the kitchen fire so that her daughter, Isabelle, can slice off her own toes. Maman doesn’t care about the pain if Isabelle can fit into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and elevate her whole family to wealth and power. Unfortunately for Isabelle, the prince is tipped off by all the blood, Ella frees herself from the attic, and they ride off into a beautiful life together, while Isabelle is left with her mother and sister, still single, and now minus five toes.

Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to mortals, the three sisters of Fate have already drawn up the map of Isabelle’s life, and it’s a short one covered with toxic inks. Everything could come to a rapid and disastrous end if not for the intervention of the carefree Chance, he of the long, dark braids and amber eyes. Chance capers into the sisters’ room, steals Isabelle’s map, and makes a bargain with the old crone, later known as Tantine.  Thus begins a contest for Isabelle’s life, along with the dubious aid of Tanaquill, the fairy queen of the Wildwood, who had turned a pumpkin into a coach for Ella on the night of the royal ball. Tanaquill reveals to Isabelle that she will only be saved if she can put her heart back together by finding the three pieces that have been cut away. Frustratingly, she does not tell her what those pieces are.

Life is going from bad to worse for the “ugly stepsisters,” and Isabelle is sure that everything would be peaches and cream if she were only pretty, like Ella. Instead of behaving like a princess, though, she has always loved riding horses and roughhousing with the groom’s son, while her sister Tavi wants to study and perform scientific experiments, all of which is completely unsuitable for finding husbands. With war brewing in France and villagers attacking them for their cruelty to the lovely Ella, Isabelle is wasting precious time by mistakenly trying to piece her heart back together by becoming someone else, a girl who could be approved of by whoever it is who makes the rules. If only she could get on the right track in time to save her own life!

Character development reigns in this fiercely feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. All of the wildly diverse secondary characters shape and mold Isabelle’s understanding of real life and of her inner landscape: Chance’s ragtag troupe of magicians and actors, the wealthy yet miserly widow and her bullying dolt of a son who offer Tantine a room in exchange for the hope of an inheritance, and the groom’s son, who is no longer a young boy, but a successful carpenter who builds coffins for a living and whittles toy soldiers in the evenings.

Jennifer Donnelly’s writing is as exquisite as ever. The first line of the prologue reads: “Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.” I first read Donnelly in her novel Revolution, in which a teen girl goes back in time to the late 1700s in France, and then later as Anne of Cleves in The Fatal Throne (reviewed here). In Stepsister, Donnelly is once more in historic France, this time in a more magical setting, slashing at the patriarchy and setting Isabelle up as a sort of Joan of Arc without the crazy voices in her head. Although I have no wish to swing a sword, as Isabelle does, nor to write quadratic equations on cabbage leaves like Tavi, the restrictions on the girls’ lives are entirely, oppressively realistic. While women did not become free several centuries ago through magic, such tales cause us to rejoice that today women are much more— though not quite completely— free. Free to study science and do research, or free to bake cookies and have teas. Free to ride horses and fight battles, or free to cuddle babies and knit socks. Free to show the world who they truly are.

A fantastical adventure with plenty of depth.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Sweety, by Andrea Zuill

SweetySweety is a young naked mole rat with large glasses and orthodontic headgear. Naked mole rats are not a pulchritudinous bunch in general, but even Sweety’s grandmother called her “Grandma’s little square peg.”

Sweety did not understand why her classmates did not share her scientific interest in mushrooms or why she was the only student who presented her book reports through interpretive dance, but when she tried to be like the others, it just didn’t feel right. Usually, Sweety was very content with herself, but sometimes she wished she could find a friend who was a true soulmate. Aunt Ruth was happily different, as well, and she assured Sweety “that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.” Sweety hoped that her people would have a secret handshake.

Author and illustrator Andrea Zuill depicts Sweety’s hilarious and touching attempts to find her people through softly colored pen and ink drawings with both traditional narrative and speech bubbles. Her pages are populated with smiling, homely, anthropomorphic naked mole rats of all shapes and sizes living in cozy underground dens and rodent-perspective outdoor scenes. Sweety is completely over-the-top in everything she does, but she is very good at many things. Odd things, but still.

This is not a story about a depressed child or a bullied child, nor is it about an overbearing or conceited child. Sweety is confident and happy with herself; she just wants to expand her little tribe of one. Sweety is one of the most meaningful and—well, darn it—sweetest new picture books I’ve seen, and there are so many kids who need encouragement to keep on being true to themselves.

Very highly recommended for your little sweetie.

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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