John Green is an observer. He and his brother, Hank, have had a vlog discussing random topics for years now, while John has won multiple awards as a young adult author. The Anthropocene Reviewed is his first adult and his first nonfiction book, a large collection of essays about our human-centered– or Anthropocene– era, each ending with a rating on a five-star scale.
Green is interested in everything, and he reviews things as diverse as Diet Dr. Pepper, the world’s biggest ball of paint, and the smallpox vaccine. He openly discusses his struggle with depression and OCD, and he reads the audiobook himself in his gentle, slightly stressed voice. Green is warm and witty, and while some of his stories are funny, he also talks about the burned child who ended his career as a hospital chaplain and about his love for Amy Kraus Rosenthal and their last conversation before her death from cancer. He loves the earth, his wife and kids, and soccer.
During my time as a young adult book selector, I read everything that John Green has ever written. He writes the best bantering dialogue out there. These essays, however, are sometimes written in soaring prose, other times filled with fascinating information, and often seasoned with brilliant, searing rants. The short chapters are excellent for those of us who feel more distracted than ever these days.
Thoughtful and entertaining, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed 5 stars.
Disclaimer: I listened to an audio version of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
Styling himself after Scheherazade, Khosrou begins his tale with his earliest memory, in which his grandfather in Iran, Baba Haji, kills a bull in his honor and wipes the blood on his little cheeks. At least, he thinks that is how it went, but maybe someone told him that story, or maybe it’s not even true at all. Whatever the case, it makes a great composition for English class in his American school, where everyone calls him Daniel.
Author Nayeri relates the story of his life as a wealthy child in Iran before his family was forced to flee the Muslim “Committee” because of his mother’s conversion to Christianity. They gave up everything, and now his mother works odd jobs to keep them housed and fed, even though she was a physician in Iran. Daniel remembers his father as a superhero of a man, confident and ebullient, but he did not come to America with them, and now he is married to someone else. In one school assignment after another, Daniel works to save his memories in stories, although his classmates only half believe him.
Nayeri uses evocative language to spin this mostly-true tale of his beloved Persian heritage, all the while honoring his mother’s courage in leaving it behind. He revels in the food of his homeland and tells of his evenings making fresh dishes with his mother. He is pudgy and shy, sorry that the girl he admires does not return his affections. His young life has far more years folded into it than his classmates’ simple lives could ever hold. He remembers the suffering of leaving loved ones, living for years as a refugee in Italy, and then starting all over again in Oklahoma.
This autobiographical novel has won just about every prize imaginable for teen books, and it is one of the finest examples of literary achievement for young people that I have read. The writing is beautiful, the style creative. Although the subject matter is sometimes heartbreaking, Daniel has a great sense of humor, so the reader is often laughing through tears. It is a story of immigration in which both the origin and the destination are honored. It is a story of religious persecution that does not hate the other faith. It is the tale of a boy who treasures family and heritage as he reconciles himself to a new home.
I listened to the audiobook version of this story, which is read by the author. I recommend this format, at least as a backup, since Nayeri has a friendly voice, and I would not have pronounced the Farsi words properly otherwise. This book would make a great family read-aloud (listen aloud?), since there is so much to discuss that is part of our ongoing national conversation. The comments about Christianity are refreshingly bold and positive, not the usual careful, neutral words of American writers. After all, his mother was willing to die for Jesus, like most members of the great conversion happening in Iran today. The grown-up Daniel Nayeri’s love and admiration for his mother will warm your heart.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I listened to a library digital audio copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
Most people throughout history have been lulled into thinking that the way things are today is the way they have always been, but when speaking of a woman’s place in the church, historian Beth Allison Barr shows us that this is not the case. Barr’s particular field of study is the middle ages, and she takes the reader on a tour of history since Jesus’s time to see how women were perceived in each era.
Beginning with an alternate reading of Paul’s instructions about women in the church, Barr points out the many passages in Paul’s epistles that show women as apostles, deaconesses, and other leaders in the early church. Continuing into later centuries, we have many records of abbesses and other respected women leaders. One of the most interesting transitions Barr explores is that the women before the Reformation became honored saints by renouncing marriage and women’s traditional roles, whereas after the Reformation, the church honored women who were good wives and mothers, and as such, could not devote themselves to full-time ministry.
The author demonstrates how western cultures influenced the expectations of female roles by the evolution of sermons and biblical translations. She also compares passages in the ESV and the NIV today, and then traces those same passages back to see how they were translated in earlier bible translations, such as the Vulgate and the Geneva bibles.
I read this title almost immediately after Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed here), and, although both authors are arguing against the oppression of women in today’s Protestant churches, Du Mez is describing the evangelical movement through the past century of American history with a political lens. Barr, on the other hand, examines women’s roles in the entire Christian church since New Testament times through a historical lens. While this may not have the same “ripped from the headlines” quality, it is deeply engrossing and sometimes surprising.
Beth Allison Barr received her Ph.D. right here in the neighborhood at UNC Chapel Hill and is now assistant dean at the graduate school of Baylor University. Woven delicately through her historical research is her personal story of how her husband lost his job as youth pastor at their church because he suggested that they could hire a woman pastor. Previously, he had offered the name of a male friend for the open position of church secretary, and the church leaders’ reaction let him know that they considered the job to be beneath a man’s dignity. If only this were a rare attitude, Dr. Barr wouldn’t have written this book.
Interesting reading from a perspective rarely seen in popular nonfiction. Love the nod to Warhol on the cover.
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.
Justyce was trying to help when he got arrested. His girlfriend was drunk and struggling to get into the driver’s seat of her car, while he was trying to get hold of her keys and move her into the back seat. Right after she threw up all over him, the police arrived and put him in handcuffs. Melo’s father was black, but she got her looks from her Norwegian mother, so the policeman saw him as a black boy molesting a white girl. Justyce had always been a good kid with a positive attitude towards the police, but after going to jail, he had a hard time continuing his Martin Luther King project, reading MLK’s writings and composing letters back to him in his journal.
Justyce and his friend Manny were two of only eight black kids in their exclusive prep school, so of course their circle of friends was composed mainly of wealthy white teens, including the serious and brilliant S.J.—short for Sarah Jane—who seemed to be more concerned than they were about racism. Justyce knew that S.J. had a crush on him, but he kept his distance, since his mama had warned him against getting involved with a white girl. She wasn’t even happy about Melo.
When tragedy strikes, Justyce has to make tough decisions in the midst of his grief. Where can he find the strength to continue his previous college-bound path, and how can he fit in? Or should he just give it all up, since he knows that the local gang leader would be glad to have him? “Dear Martin….”
Dear Martin has recently been challenged in schools, although it had garnered starred journal reviews when it came out in 2017. The celebrated author, Nic Stone, has gone on to write a sequel, as well as many other critically-acclaimed books. Justyce is a lovable character; he makes good grades, loves his mother, and is kind to girls. His own negative emotions trouble him, and he struggles to make moral choices. The language in the novel is filled with words I wouldn’t say, but Dear Martin is not unusual in its vocabulary for young adult books.
One of the objections to the book is that white people and the police were portrayed negatively. The police were portrayed negatively, it is true, but Stone’s depiction is not without provocation. This was written three years before George Floyd, and the situation would be even more stark today. Some of the white boys who were Justyce’s friends were written as idiots and racists, yes, but they were pretty realistically shown as privileged teenage boys who were sometimes unaware of the hurt that they caused, perhaps because Manny and Justyce didn’t know what to say without losing their relationship. The final scene, though, redeems a great deal of the pain in Justyce’s heart. S.J., however, and her white family are wonderful people, and since she is an important character, we cannot say that the author never sees good in white people.
No one should ever have to suffer for their skin color or other Immutable characteristics, whether in a classroom or anywhere else. It is obvious that this book could be a catalyst for excellent discussions, and a good teacher should be able to facilitate these conversations in such a way that all of the students will learn and no one will suffer humiliation.
Highly recommended for those who can bear the language.
Disclaimer: I listened to a library e-audiobook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
If that title doesn’t grab you, the subtitle, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, surely will. Dr. Du Mez is a historian at Calvin University, so writing a book with this theme took a great deal of courage. Although she does not hesitate to take on the recent political scene, particularly at the very beginning and end of the book, most of the volume develops the history of evangelicalism in the United States, starting in the early twentieth century.
Those of us who were late to the evangelical scene may not be aware that the evangelical movement has changed over the past century. During the second world war, fundamentalists and evangelicals came together to found the National Association of Evangelicals, which now encompasses 45,000 local churches in 40 denominations. Du Mez points out that denominational distinctives, which were important in the beginning, began to blur in favor of a more united and powerful coalition. Fundamentalism grew stronger, and then the reformed churches came to the fore in the past 30 years or so. She shows how the movement has consistently moved in a more misogynistic and politically right-wing direction, often forsaking doctrine for an increase in power, until, at this point in American history, the evangelical church is inextricably tangled with the Republican party, leaving it open to manipulation by right-wing politicians who presume that evangelicals will support their candidacy and policies.
One aspect of this history that surprised me was the rise of evangelical consumerism. It didn’t surprise me because I didn’t know it existed; rather, it surprised me to find that I was in the midst of it without noticing, like a fish in water. Everywhere we look, we can find t-shirts, mugs, wall signs, bumper stickers, and truckloads of trinkets with Bible verses or cute Christian sayings on them. This is not even including the books of varying quality, vacation packages, and media that call themselves “Christian.” Winning the white, middle-class, Christian market is a coup for any business, and the hedonism of our spending is purely American.
Du Mez also tracks the rise of parachurch organizations later in the twentieth century, particularly those concerning families and men. Almost all of the family ministries demanded male headship in the home, and many of the men’s ministries were based on military activities and physical training. Du Mez questions the relationship between Jesus’s teachings and guns. She points out that evangelicals, as a group, are reliably pro-war, and during George W. Bush’s presidency, 41% of evangelicals were in favor of torture, more than any other group in America. Furthermore, two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe that the United States should accept refugees, also more than any other group in the country. Both of these statistics are shocking for people who claim to read and believe the Bible, where Jesus preached love and nonviolence. There are also countless verses about caring for refugees. As she notes on page 321, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.”*
Somewhere along the way, evangelicals replaced Jesus with a John Wayne-like image of the perfect Christian man: rugged, arrogant, and domineering. While this could have been a reaction to the meek and mild Jesus with silky blond hair portrayed in popular paintings, there is a lot of daylight between those two images, and neither one is true. Du Mez shows that as the patriarchy grew stronger and stronger, the churches and parachurch organizations that adopted complementarianism most heartily began to leak reports of sexual abuse. Furthermore, the leaders across the entire movement were so close that they covered up for one another. Here, as in her entire history, the author is careful to present evidence. Throughout the book, from the 1980s onward, I knew all of the players, and she is not hesitant to name them. It was a shock. For decades, no one was forced to take responsibility, and in extreme cases, the victims were made to apologize. Finally, the #MeToo movement reached the church, and pastors and “Christian” leaders were called to account.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the evangelical movement today is how it has become unmoored from Jesus’s teaching and has taken on a separate identity that blends religious rules with politics and power. As the author notes on page 325, “For conservative white evangelicals steeped in the ideology, it can be difficult to extricate their faith, and their identity, from this larger cultural movement. As one man who grew up awash in evangelical masculinity and 1990s purity culture later reflected, ‘I lived and breathed these teachings, and they still shape me in ways I don’t understand even 20 years after rejecting them intellectually.’”*
There is so much more in these pages than I can relate here, and this is just one account of the cultural movement that has so many people running away from evangelicalism. Let us hope that they are not running away from Jesus.
Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
*Since pagination is flexible in ebooks, the quotes may be found on different pages in print editions.
Nora Seed can’t take it anymore. Her parents are dead, her brother doesn’t talk to her, and she’s just lost her job. When a rejected suitor knocks on her door to tell her that her beloved cat is dead in the street, she decides that she is beyond depressed, and so she takes all of her anti-depressants at once.
The afterlife is not what she had anticipated. It’s a library, and her former school librarian is there to help her find just the right book among the infinite number of books of alternate lives. First, she has to read The Book of Regrets, which gets heavier and heavier as she reads, and then she can choose which regret she would like to reverse in order to live a better life. There are infinite choices, but if she gives up altogether, the library will be destroyed, and she will be truly dead.
Combining wishful thinking with quantum mechanics, Haig whips Nora and the reader along a painful path to wisdom. Nora’s changes do not just affect her own life, but also the people who are part of her existence, whether she knows them intimately or they are mere acquaintances. Haig explores the interconnectedness of communities and families and questions the limits of individuals’ responsibility for those around them. As Nora tries on different lives, the same character who was charming in one iteration may be loathsome in another, raising the nature/nurture debate about how much we are victims of our circumstances. Will Nora ever be happy?
I listened to this book on audio, read by Carey Mulligan, and found it to be delightful. Some reviewers complained that it was predictable, and to an extent, that is true. The theory of quantum physics has spawned a thousand works of fiction exploring alternate lives, but Nora is a believable, very ordinary character, and the reader will find herself cheering for some of her choices and backpedaling from others. Truthfully, I did not predict the ending, and I was really hoping for another. However, Haig’s conclusion was much more satisfying than mine would have been.
Fun stories with a side of thoughtfulness. Recommended.
Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
Children’s minds are wide open, and introducing a new painting is on the same level as introducing a new toy: let’s try this out and see what we think. While adults may be intimidated by modern art, kids can be merely curious. A little nudge and some basic information may be all they need to develop a life of art appreciation. Here are a couple of new books to help create little art lovers.
Modern Art Explorer, by Alice Harman. Illustrated by Serge Bloch
In just under 100 pages, the author presents thirty of the greatest works of many of the movers and shakers of modern art. After a quick introduction, she allots two- or four-page spreads to each artist, with images of recognizable masterpieces tied together with Serge Bloch’s childlike drawings of the artist and creative kids. “Modern” art, explains Harman, is not actually everything after the late 1800s, but is rather a finite movement within art history— starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing until the 1960s— that seeks to express emotion or meaning, rather than representational images.
The artwork for this volume by Thames & Hudson, a British publishing company, is chosen from the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum in Paris. Harman’s comments on the artists and their lives, with explanations of their craft and creativity, are aimed at upper elementary, middle, and early high school students. Occasionally, her attempts at coolness are cringeworthy. However, children will learn a great deal about this movement and will be able to appreciate and discuss Mondrian and Modigliano and to compare Basquiat to Picasso with comfort and confidence.
Harman includes copious backmatter, including a timeline, glossary, list of artworks, and an index. In the timeline, she fits the artists’ works into the larger global events of each year, which is very helpful for understanding thought movements, as well.
Modern Art Explorer is an excellent resource for teaching children about art. It can be read or taught from front to back or in chronological order, or it can be dipped into and browsed as interest dictates. Perfect for preparing for a trip to the art museum.
Just Being Dali, by Amy Guglielmo. Illustrated by Brett Helquist.
Salvador Dali was a fanciful and curious boy. He was interested in everything, but not for long. He wove flowers into his hair—and later, into his long mustache—and wore costumes to school. His classmates made fun of him, and his father didn’t know what to do with him. His life changed when he became ill and was sent to live with the artist, Ramon Pichot. Once Pichot taught him to paint, Salvador realized that an artist can be whatever he wishes.
Dali went on to attend art school, wearing long hair and elegant clothes. His fellow students began to admire him when they saw the excellence of his work. Still, his professors tired of him, and he was expelled. He joined a new art movement called the Surrealists, who wanted people to think about the art that they were viewing, but Dali went further than they were willing, and he was expelled. Eventually, he met his future wife, Gala, who supported his art unreservedly and never grew tired of him at all.
Brett Helquist, an accomplished artist himself, illustrates this picture book biography with whimsical, swooping drawings, featuring elongated limbs and big, shining eyes. He recreates Dali’s masterpieces as part of the scenery, and kids will be able to use the list in the back of the book to turn again to the pages and seek them out by name.
One reason that the art world rejected Dali is that he frequently staged what we would call “media events,” rather than sticking to formal works of art. One shudders to think of what his artwork would have been if he had had Instagram and TikTok at his disposal, although whether he would have stood out as a genius or been considered just another drop in an ocean of exhibitionists is up for debate. We were glad for his public art when we were in Paris in 2019 and saw this clock that he created outside of his favorite drinking establishment.
I have always been a fan of Salvador Dali’s work, but much of his life is, shall we say, more complex than this story relates, and is not at all suitable for children. However, one of the themes of this picture book is the importance of being true to oneself and having the courage to use your gifts, even if it means departing from the herd. All children need to hear that message. Furthermore, many of Dali’s works of art are fun and lighthearted, and kids will enjoy laughing at melting clocks and lobster telephones.
A thoroughly charming introduction to an original thinker.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
For thousands of years, India has maintained a caste system, and even though it has been abolished legally, still it lives on, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the nation. The Brahmin caste, it is believed, had sprung directly from the gods, and so it was irrefutable that they were to be honored. The lower castes had surnames that described their occupations and their place in society, and the very lowest caste, the Dalit, were “untouchable.” Nothing they could ever do would change their fate or that of their children.
Isabel Wilkerson believes that all of humanity will organize itself into some sort of caste system in order to maintain structure in society. She has met Dalit Indian immigrants in the United States who cannot look other Indian Americans in the eye if they would have occupied a higher caste in India. She also traveled to Germany, where the mid-twentieth century produced a caste system based on religion and other factors that allowed those in power to blame everything on a scapegoat, a necessary feature of every caste system.
In the United States, caste is largely based on race. For a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, the economy of at least the southern portion of the country was dependent on slavery. Wilkerson does not hold back on the descriptions of the cruelty of slaveholders and the ruthless ways that the white people in power kept hold of the reins of hierarchy. Furthermore, she shows— through scholarly research, news stories, and personal accounts— that it is easier to change laws than to change human hearts.
Wilkerson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This new work, subtitled The Origins of Our Discontent, is certainly the most scholarly and well-researched of the many anti-racist titles I’ve read in the past year. The author goes beyond the current headlines to delve into the human condition and discover the causes of such evil. Her research and presentation are thorough, yet readable, and her conclusions are convincing. Even in the smallest human groups—your office, your church, and your homeowner’s association, for example—we see people sorting into hierarchies. Some are helpful, while others are toxic. Those at the top will ruthlessly use their power to keep themselves on top. Those in the middle have a vested interest in maintaining the lowest caste, congratulating themselves that at least they are better than those beneath them on the ladder, while those on the very bottom, like crabs in a bucket, keep pulling each other back down so that they won’t be alone in despair.
Other titles that I have reviewed may have been more practical about steps that readers can take to heal past hurts, but this book will help many people to understand the concept of “systemic” racism. Wilkerson does have a pointedly partisan take on current politics, and some readers may be offended. However, it is important that we explore the origins of our unrest in a serious and unflinching manner. It’s not about the laws we pass or even the century or country we live in. Caste is a compulsion we all have as one of the darker sides of our human nature.
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.
Clover stepped out of the shower one morning and started brushing her teeth. When she looked in the mirror, her toothbrush was suspended in midair. Otherwise, all she could see was the wall behind her. She was invisible. And not metaphorically.
Her husband was a busy pediatrician, and their son lived in his old bedroom after finishing a graduate degree in women’s studies, and neither one of them seemed to notice. She wore her usual bathrobe or outdoor clothes, and they didn’t skip a beat at her lack of a head or hands. Her best friend across the street, of course, noticed immediately and flew into a panic. Okay, so maybe a little metaphorical, after all.
One day, Clover was reading the newspaper’s classified section when she spotted an ad: “Calling Invisible Women.” There were others! They had meetings, and they knew what was causing it. They just didn’t know what to do about it. Good thing Clover hadn’t lost her investigative reporter instincts.
Jeanne Ray is the queen of the rom-com for older women. I read her Step-Ball-Change, Eat Cake, and Julie and Romeo years ago, and this novel came to my attention in connection with Women’s History Month. Her writing is light and humorous, but she jabs that stiletto point home about the real experience of most middle-aged and older women’s lives. Her perspective widens as the novel continues, and she deals with individual women’s private lives, the importance of community and friendship for women, age discrimination, and even Big Pharma. Quite a lot for a novel, and she does it all with panache and a giggle.
So travel along with Clover and her friends as they take on the world! Oh, but to be completely invisible for slipping onto planes and into corporate buildings, you’ll have to be completely naked. You’ll get used to it.
So fun and so fierce.
Disclaimer: I listened to a library downloadable audio of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
In celebration of the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, 2019 and 2020 saw the publication of a treasure trove of children’s titles. March is Women’s History Month, so this is a great time to gather up all of those books, as well as a few more. Here are two great feminist reads for kids, one that is a few years old and madly beloved, and one that is brand new and much-needed.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
One-stop shopping for women’s bios. This first volume of the series contains 100 one-page biographies of women who made a difference in the world, arranged alphabetically by first name. The book came into being through a Kickstarter program, and it has now been translated into 47 languages! The left side of each double-page spread has a quick summary of each woman’s life, while the right side has a full-page, colorful portrait with a quotation from the subject. All of the pictures are done by different artists, which gives the book exuberant variety. Some of the portraits are serious and classic, while others are almost caricatures. I had to laugh when I turned the page to the Brontë sisters. It is certainly a good likeness, but the artist put something a little spooky into their wide eyes that hinted at the eeriness of their writing.
The short biographies are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to point out general facts and the reasons that the reader should care about this person. Hopefully, children will be especially interested in a few of these heroines and will seek out full biographies and other information about them.
Inspirational reading for little rebels. Princesses need not apply.
An Equal Shot, by Helaine Becker
Title IX went into effect when I was in high school. Yes, I am that old. Although it was passed in 1972, it was not explained in detail and implemented until 1975, and even after that, some organizations were slow to get on board. When we were buying a house in a small town in Georgia in the 1990s, I called the mortgage banker to get an update. He told me that he was communicating with David about it, and if I had any questions, I could ask my husband. These days, he could be fired for that, and I would throw a party on his front lawn.
But I digress.
This nonfiction picture book tells about the need for the law and how it has changed our country since its passage. The text is very simple, and it is accompanied by illustrations in pleasing colors by Dow Phumiruk. The artist portrays diverse groups of girls in the beginning as disappointed and dismayed that they cannot play on sports teams, but even in the protest march, there is no hint of violent anger. The history of our country’s discrimination against women is explained clearly and persuasively. I found it particularly telling when the girls are searching giant editions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and realizing that women’s rights are not found in these great documents.
It seems that the battle for freedom never ends. We abolish slavery and end up with Jim Crow. We pass the 19th amendment, but women can still be fired from their jobs for getting married or becoming pregnant. Liberty takes constant vigilance. Becker frequently points out that Title IX has only 37 words; that’s all it took. The text of the law is written out on one of the last pages.
We often think of Title IX as the law that allowed girls to have sports teams, and it is, but its application is so much broader than that, even for men, who are now able to work in what were traditionally considered women’s jobs, such as nursing or flight attendants. The backmatter has a more detailed account of the bill’s passage, including important individuals who worked to make equality a reality for girls and women. The author also points out areas where there is still “More Work to Do,” such as pay discrimination, and she includes a list of resources for further information.
Essential reading for girls and boys.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.