Book Reviews [2020 Q3]

Book Reviews [2020 Q3]

First of all, how exciting is it that we are in the final quarter of 2020!!! I cannot wait to bid this entire year “Buh-bye!”

Anyway, here are the reviews of the books that I read in July, August, and September – and, folks, these are some GREAT books! Just wait til you get to the middle where I read four back-to-back books by AMAZING women. I can’t possibly give them enough stars to show how much I valued the wisdom and insight they have shared through these books.

[As always, my star reviews are just for fun and only represent my personal opinion of how enjoyable, informative, and/or transformative the book is – there is no specific judging criteria. And as you will see, most books get a lot of stars because I love books and rarely finish a book I don’t enjoy.]

July

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I LOVE Maya Angelou. Though my list of inspiring female heroes gets longer every year, she was one of the first on the list. Years ago I read her book, Mom & Me & Mom, and I have enjoyed learning about her life and activism and reading her poetry ever since – but what I think is so extraordinary about Maya Angelou is her ability to overcome all of the obstacles of racism and sexism to become the wise and inspiring woman that she was.

“People whose history and future were threatened each day by extinction considered that it was only by divine intervention that they were able to live at all. I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God’s will, but as human beings become more affluent, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed.”

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the story of her childhood and a powerful reminder of how recently racism was legal in this country. Of course, racism is still prevalent in America today – albeit more surreptitious – and we still have a lot of work to do.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,

of things unknown, but longed for still,

and his tune is heard on the distant hill,

for the caged bird sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Naturally Tan by Tan France

⭐️⭐️⭐️

As I said in my last review, I ADORE the show Queer Eye and every single one of the “Fab Five” so when I heard that Tan France, the fashion guru from the show, had a memoir out, I of course added it to my list. Took FOREVER to get my hands on it at the library, though, because every other sane human being is also a huge fan of Tan.

Anyway, I finally was able to borrow the audiobook [which I preferred anyway because who doesn’t want to listen to Tan France’s beautiful British accent for seven hours?!?] and it surprised me in a few ways.

First of all, France writes a lot about racism. I had picked up the book because I love him. I honestly hadn’t given any thought to his race. I also naturally assumed that the themes in his book would revolve around the struggle of being gay and coming out, but instead, he writes very openly [and painfully] about experiencing racism while growing up in England and wishing that his skin was lighter and seeing very little representation of people from Southeast Asia in the media.

Like this very insightful bit about racial profiling around the events of 9/11, quoted below.

“Every year, on the anniversary of 9/11, and in various places around the United States, I see the words ‘Never Forget.’ I understand that sentiment. I completely agree with honoring those who lost their lives. We must never forget them, and we must always be vigilant. But there is another side to this, too. It means we never forget to see my people as a potential threat. We haven’t stopped racially profiling… these feelings of loss and fear and anger and tragedy affect all of us, regardless of the colour of our skin.”

Tan France, Naturally Tan

I had never once considered what our “remembrance” might mean to all of the brown people who were suddenly treated as if they were potential threats, rather than as fellow citizens who also suffered in the tragedy.

And you’ve got to appreciate Tan’s humorous way of enlightening us about the struggles of being a minority…

“There are two things a brown person cannot do, and those are to scream or run through an airport with a backpack on. We struggle to catch flights, too. But we’re not allowed to run, because that would alarm all the white people.”

Tan France, Naturally Tan

I am so glad I read [or listened to] this book for the simple reason that it has made me a more racially aware member of the human species – and for that I am very grateful.

The second surprise was how judgmental his fashion advice sounded. France is the fashion police [er…I mean “expert”] of Queer Eye, so obviously his book is going to contain fashion advice, but I didn’t agree with a lot of it and most of it was delivered rather harshly. On the show, I have never heard Tan say anything like “you should never wear that” or telling someone that he hates their style choices — but he does in his book. I’m just not a fashion type of gal, so the short bits of fashion advice sprinkled throughout the book didn’t appeal to me at all. [Hence the three stars.]

But none of that changed my opinion of Tan France or my undying love of him and the other men on Queer Eye. Overall, I thought his book was informative about cultural issues [you’ve got to read his educated opinion on America’s healthcare scam…er…I mean “system”] like racism and relationships and homosexuality and growing up different than everyone else around you.

I mean, really, we are all different from one another. Some of us are just more easily able to blend into the crowd.

Thanks, Tan!


Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Well, it looks like I will read every book by Rachel Held Evans this year. [I read another one of hers this quarter which only leaves me one more to go.] I find her books to be so helpful because they speak to my soul in a way that no other person or book ever has. It is like she really understood all of my struggles with the church and god and religion.

My favorite quote from this book represents the basic gist of the entire thing [and all of her other books as well].

“Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

My issue with Christianity is not that it is too strict or that it interferes with my “carnal desire” to live selfishly and only care about myself. I didn’t leave the church because I wanted to become a lazy, lascivious fornicator, or because I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Quite the contrary. I can’t stomach religion in America because it is a sad farce that doesn’t come close to actually representing the book that it claims to believe. In the past five years that I have distanced myself from the church, I have realized that it is much easier to believe in god [and live a moral life] apart from the watered-down, fluffy, feel-good, money-obsessed, pandering church of America.

“We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Anyway, read this book if you are struggling with the church’s complacency, judgement, perfectionism, entertainment, promise of prosperity, or any other lie that is commonly promoted within those hallowed halls.

Amen.


Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry

⭐️⭐️⭐️

As a mother myself, I felt a lot of things while reading this books. As a woman who is considered white, a lot of the content was hard to relate to for obvious reasons, but all the more important because of it. My intention in reading is to gain perspective, and this book definitely provided perspective. Just as Between the World and Me, which I read earlier this year, helped me to see the struggles of being black in America, Breathe, helped me to see the struggles of being a black mother in America. And it is heartbreaking. I hope I always acknowledge and appreciate my privilege – and use it, not for my own advantage, not to live a life of wealth and ease, not to protect my own children, but to right the injustices that remain between races in our world.

“Something distinct has happened in your time. It is he product of camera phones, the diminishing whiteness of America, the backlash against a Black presidency, the persistence of American racism, the money making weapons industry, the value added for murder in police dossiers, law and order policing. The epistrophe of our era: hands up, don’t shoot, can’t breathe, can’t run, can’t play, can’t drive, can’t sleep, can’t lose your mind unless you are ready to lose your life, dead dead dead. We wail and cry, how many pietás? We protest their deaths; we protest for our lives.”

Imani Perry, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons

I also really appreciated her spiritual perspective, which is very similar to mine.

“That is another answer to the question why I don’t go to church even though I do love church. Because I respond to everything that feels like God. Living is church.”

Imani Perry, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons

Preach it, sister.

August

Becoming by Michelle Obama

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

One of my favorite things about growing up has been changing my views on…well, everything. I’ve been able to form my own opinions, free from the influence of institutions and churches and communities and family. It has been a freeing journey. Many [but not all] of my previous strongly-held beliefs have taken 180° turns. By intentionally exposing myself to opinions that differ from my own [something that was expressly prohibited when I was growing up] has allowed me to gain perspective and perspective changes everything. I’ve learned that people are all pretty much the same and they mostly disagree with one another because of ignorance [and this applies to both sides – which I can attest to, having now been on both sides of many issues].

One of the major perspective changes in my life has been regarding politics. Having been raised in a home where Democrats were always spoken of negatively and I never heard a single positive thing about Obama or the Obama administration, it was so refreshing to open my eyes and form my own opinions of Barack and Michelle Obama. And of course, it was only after their time in the White House was over that I truly appreciated how pivotal their leadership was in our country.

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

Michelle Obama, Becoming

In many ways, I have been becoming too.

Anyway, I loved Michelle’s book – because I am now free to love whatever and whomever I choose. It was inspiring and profound and full of all the meaning and hope that I needed to cope with our current sad political condition [and I’m not only referring to the presidency, but also the polarizing and infighting of the American people].

“Dignity had always gotten us through. It was a choice, and not always the easy one, but the people I respected most in life made it again and again, every single day. There was a motto Barack and I tried to live by, and I offered it that night from the stage: When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama, Becoming

If for no other reason, the motto above should be proof that the quality of our county’s leader cannot be solely measured by their campaign promises or their political party designation – but some part of our choice should depend on the character of the individual we are endorsing.

I, for one, would rather pay higher taxes and hell, I’d even vote for a socialist if they were a person of character who cared more about the lowliest citizens of this country than their own power and prosperity.

But then, I am not a lover of money. And I believe that capitalism is one of [if not the] greatest evil in this world.

“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”

Michelle Obama, Becoming

The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Part memoir, part call to action, The Moment of Lift, is so important for today’s humanitarian and charitable work. I have so much respect for Melinda and Bill Gates for their generosity [which I first heard about in the book The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer] and commitment to lifting people out of poverty. Melinda’s book is especially powerful because it shows how empowering women is the key to economic advancement. [Score one for the feminists!]

Speaking of feminism, I have read many different definitions of the term. This is Melinda’s:

“Being a feminist means believing that every woman should be able to use her voice and pursue her potential, and that women and men should all work together to take down the barriers and end the biases that still hold women back.”

Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift

This might be my favorite definition yet – though I still like mine better [someday I’ll post a long rambling rant about feminism]. This actually informs my idea of what feminism is and how I can support the important work of feminism around the world.

“As women gain rights, families flourish, and so do societies. That connection is built on a simple truth: Whenever you include a group that’s been excluded, you benefit everyone. And when you’re working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every population, you’re working to benefit all members of every community. Gender equity lifts everyone. Women’s rights and society’s health and wealth rise together.”

Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift

It has been proven over and over again – empower women, and you’ll empower their entire community. This book shows us how and gives us the example of an inspiring woman who is literally changing the world for the better.


The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s been a minute since I read a book about the fashion industry. I believe the last one was last year when I read Elizabeth L. Cline’s other book, Overdressed. While Overdressed went into detail about all the problems in the fashion industry today – injustice, exploitation, pollution, greed, corruption, thievery, to name a few – The Conscious Closet serves as a guidebook for cleaning up your closet so you can clean up you conscience.

I’ve said before [in my many “Clothing Ban” posts from a few years ago] that I began this journey to ethical shopping – and particularly ethical clothing – because I was interested in minimalism. At the time I was more concerned about how much clothing I had, not how my clothing was made. Well, it turned out to be a rabbit hole that has launched me into the lifelong personal activist category. And I continue to learn new things, pick up new practices, and become more and more passionate about creating an ethical and sustainable fashion industry.

This book has challenged me to [further] reduce my clothes washing routine, wash by hand when possible, hang dry more, don’t give up on stains, mend my own ripped seams and do everything else in my power to extend the life of my clothing [which it turns out, is a lot].

Elizabeth L. Cline also shares the hard truths that we all need to face about our clothing – our clothes are one of the greatest sources of injustice and pollution in the world today. Even a “Made in America” tag does not guarantee a living wage, as the clothing companies scramble to increase profits and, at the same time, to feed the American consumer’s constant demand for lower prices.

If you haven’t already, please, I beg of you, get off this insane merry-go-round of clothing consumption. CLOTHES ARE NOT MEANT TO BE CONSUMED. Do not throw them in the trash. Do not buy more clothing when you have things to wear in your closet. And when you do buy something, do your conscience a favor and make absolutely certain that our fellow humans and our Mother Earth were not harmed in the process. [Good luck.]


Digital Minimalism

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The content of this book is timely and necessary; however, I found it very dry — maybe because I listened to the audiobook and the term “digital” is not exciting enough to keep me awake at 2am on my way into work.

Ironically, I finished this book a few weeks before the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, came out and they basically contain the same information. If you want to hear the scary truth about your social media accounts [and why it is so frickin hard to put your phone away], I recommend just watching the documentary. But if you want more depth and perspective, by all means, pick up Cal Newport’s book.

Since I personally gave up social media four years ago, I don’t feel like I am very susceptible to many of the issues discussed in this book, and reading it only made me all the more grateful that I’ve already kicked the social media habit so I can enjoy a full and meaningful life without it.

One of the most eye-opening things I learned was that the big social media tech giants make money by selling out attention to advertisers. We are the product. So, it serves these companies to keep us on our phones for as long as possible. They want us to keep scrolling, keep liking, keep reading, keep watching for as long as possible. All of the advances to the apps and phones were built around the goal – not to make our lives easier, or to benefit us in any way – but to keep our attention longer so that they can make more money.

Now that explains a lot…

If any of us gave them the benefit of the doubt, we were fools. We all know that money runs this world and the root of all evil is always a love of money. [The Bible got this one right, though most Christians want to explain away this verse while taking everything else in the good book literally. Also, I will add that this same concept is readily found in most religions around the world because – let’s be honest, everyone knows thy greed is a terrible thing.]

“The tycoons of social media have to stop pretending that they’re friendly nerd gods building a better world and admit they’re just tobacco farmers in T-shirts selling an addictive product to children. Because, let’s face it, checking your “likes” is the new smoking.”

Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism

September

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

⭐️⭐️⭐️

In general, I hate books like this – books that have some sort of “challenge” for the author to complete and document along the way. I don’t like them mostly because I like to see real change, not temporary change for a book contract. Ya know what I mean? BUT, I do love Rachel Held Evans, so I read this book.

It was pretty ridiculous – which is exactly what the Bible’s teachings about womanhood are, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course, I still love Evans and I think she did the best that could be expected with this…er…project. But no one in their right mind [not even all the pious bible thumpers out there] would ever even consider following all the rules for women found in the Bible, which beautifully illustrates the modern church’s pick-and-choose theology. Geez, it would be so nice to believe in a book inspired by god where I get to keep all the “god is love” stuff and toss out all the “women must be silent” stuff.

“I’ve watched congregations devote years and years to heated arguments about whether a female missionary should be allowed to share about her ministry on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement . . . all while thirty thousand children die every day from preventable disease. If that’s not an adventure in missing the point, I don’t know what is.”

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood Womanhood

Though it wasn’t her intent, this book just made me more irritated with the modesty, purity, WWJD Christian culture I was raised in. I mean, I just want some consistency. Is that so hard? If you believe the book should be interpreted literally, then you have to interpret it all literally – not just the parts that are culturally acceptable. Biblical Womanhood proves that no one takes the Bible literally anymore, at least not in its entirety.

“If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not “what does it say?”, but “what am I looking for?” I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.”

Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel Held Evans is so wise – maybe the wisest human I have ever known [not that I really knew her]. If only she were still alive. I would be writing her letters saying “help my unbelief.”


Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I LOVE THIS BOOK.

I may even buy a copy.

Because of my complicated religious history, I was concerned about how to raise my kids to be ethical, moral, generous, loving, compassionate, and full of character without the creepy, all-seeing “Dad” upstairs sending car accidents for people who don’t obey all the rules, and giving money and crowns to people who do. Threatening with eternal damnation seems to be really effective in correcting bad behavior [as does beating your children, aka “spanking”] – but fear is such a terrible motivator and doesn’t encourage critical thinking or moral independence. According to this book, this type of behavior correction [through fear] actually has the opposite affect in the long run because it does nothing to shape a kid’s moral character. And on the flip side, promising earthly and heavenly rewards for good behavior might work for the short game, but living in the world for any amount of time will show you that rewards [at least on earth] are not at all dependent upon behavior.

Well, this book contains the answer in the form of secular humanism – which basically takes the moral view that all humanity [and all living things] are best served when we take care of one another. This is a new type of morality that I have never heard of before, but makes a lot of sense. Just as we need the planet in order to survive, we also need one another.

“Seeking, without religion, the best in, and for, human beings.”

Definition of “Humanism” from Chambers Pocket Dictionary

Though I am not exactly secular in my beliefs [at the time of this writing], I do appreciate all of the parental advice about raising free thinkers found in this book. I’m not certain what I want my kids to believe when they grow up, which is why I am raising them unencumbered by some religious dogma or even my own personal opinions. I just want them to think for themselves. I want them to believe something because they believe it, not because I believe it or because Brett believes it or because all their friends believe it or because 75% of their country believes it. I am trying to give them the freedom to find their beliefs. And I truly believe that if their faith choice in the future doesn’t line up with my own, that will be fine.

As a result, I recently bought them several children’s anthologies about religions – all different religions – Christian mythology, different stories about how the world began, a book about different gods that people have believed in [past and present], and a book compiling 52 different stories from different religions and cultures around the world.

None of these books teaches a “truth” or speaks about facts. They just tell stories – many, many stories from all over the world. My hope is that they will give my kids some perspective. There is no way for me to hide them from the dogma of Christianity that will inevitable result in some kid on the playground telling them they are going to burn in hell, but I can help them understand that there are many beliefs in the world and it is up to them to search out truth and form their own beliefs.

There are so many quotable passages in this book, so many “ah-ha!” moments, I couldn’t possibly share them all. I highly recommend this book – and not just for secular parents, but for all parents because even if you raise your kids within the confines of your religion, you can’t guarantee they will stay there.


The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Wow. Just wow.

Ok, well I have a few other things to say about this book too. The Color of Compromise could not be more important for this moment in history when the white church in America is trying vehemently to deny any participation in racism, all the while racism is raging across our nation – which is largely made up of the white church. I mean, c’mon, just plain common sense would tell us that not all white Christians throughout history were abolitionist, northern liberals, and Underground Railroad conductors – despite what church leaders want us to believe. In fact, the white Christians who did support the abolition of slavery and the end of the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement and the desegregation of schools – they were the extreme minority. Most white religious leaders did not even support Martin Luther King Jr, who during his time leading the Civil Rights Movement was viewed very much in the same way that the conservative white community currently views the Black Lives Matter movement.

Hindsight is 20/20 folks. Trust me. [Side note: No matter who you are, you are going to want to be on the Black Lives Matter side of history. The other side will most definitely not be remembered positively.]

Tisby’s brief survey of the racial [and racist] history of Christianity in America was eye-opening and draw-dropping and at the same time so obvious that I can’t believe I didn’t connect all these dots myself.

For instance, growing up in a white church, I always thought [and was expressly told] that black Christians have their own churches because white and black people prefer different styles of worship, as if it was just a cultural difference. I failed to recognize [and I was never told] how the black church came to be as a direct result of racism within the church. Omg. Everything is making so much more sense now.

Of course the church excluded them. White people excluded black people from everything! If the church had been different then all of our churches would be racially mixed right now. Take a look around your church. If it’s not racially mixed [and I mean more than a handful of families of color], then you can bet it’s a result of the church’s complicity with racism.

This book also explains the evangelical revolution of the 1970’s [which explains why my father became an evangelical at that time – it was the cool thing to do!], the republican revolution which led to the promotion of capitalism and law-and-order policing – two economic systems which may have sounded good at the time, but have wreaked HAVOC on minorities and immigrants and the poor and disenfranchised and, oh yeah, anyone who isn’t a white, male Christian.

Since leaving the church, I have been puzzled about why everyone within religion tries to pretend that they are the minority. I believe this is partly because according to the Bible, true believers must experience persecution [and let’s face it, no Christians are being persecuted in America]. But I also think that this line of reasoning came about in order to claim innocence of racism and all of the evil it created. It is hard to look at the historical facts of racism and admit that the legacy of the white church in America played a role in this great evil. I mean, it is SO HARD that while Tisby describes two lynchings, I literally sobbed in my car. Some evils are so great that it is hard to face them – but face them we must.

“Christians complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter.’ It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed after all. Although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain.”

Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise

You have GOT to read this book!


Well, that’s it! Great books! I’ve learned a lot, been challenged to change, been given great advice, been asked tough questions, been brought to tears, and been made to laugh out loud, all from these books.

What on earth would I do without reading?!?

📖

Karis

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