Thursday, January 09, 2014

Nonfiction Reads of 2013 (Part 2 of 2)

The second half of my nonfiction reading in 2013. The first half posted yesterday and fiction can be found here. Again, my rating system:

***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life – Shauna Niequist***
Based on the title/subtitle and the back blurb, I was anticipating something vaguely One Thousand Gifts-ish. The introduction and the last essay (also titled “Cold Tangerines”) were exactly in line with what I expected, but everything in between went a totally different direction. The book is essentially memoir, set apart from your typical memoir by its format (a collection of stand-alone essays). But the essays aren’t so much about ordinary things like “cold tangerines”; many of them are about monumental life experiences.

That said, as a writer/reader, I found this book richly satisfying. Niequist is a gifted writer; what stood out most was her use of metaphors. She has this impressive ability to describe events and experiences and emotions in vivid, fresh ways. And yet...spiritually, I found the book less satisfying. It was full of vague references to “faith” or “the divine” or “hope,” occasionally “God,” without any specific discussion of *what* we hope in, or *who* brought “redemption” and *how*. I recognize it’s a memoir, not a systematic theology. But when a Christian’s memoir isn’t shot through with Jesus, indeed barely even mentions Him, I notice, and I wonder why. I believe with all my heart that an assumed gospel leads quickly to an abandoned/rejected/forgotten gospel. So, in the end, while the book was soaked with beauty and evocative prose, it also felt a bit lacking, a bit hollow. I didn’t want to have to fill in the blanks; I wanted the author to see *Jesus* and celebrate Him. This personal, intimately-involved God not only created this good world Niequist exults in, but He also condescended to enter it--very pointedly, very specifically, for the clear and brilliant purpose of rescuing rebellious sinners and bringing glory to His name. And that Name above all names was conspicuously absent in an otherwise lovely book. [3.5 stars...4.5 for how I felt about the writing; 3 for what it lacked spiritually]

Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton***
Whew. Lots of wonderful, provocative quotes...but his style is SO rambly and meandering that I had difficulty pressing through at times.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide – Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn****
I lost count of how many times I clapped my hand over my mouth in horror while reading this. Just stunning. Yet the authors were careful to make it not merely a litany of horrors, but to offer hope and solutions alongside the suffering. It was challenging to learn about the problems women face worldwide (never have I been so grateful to have been born in the United States) but inspiring and beautiful to hear about how women themselves are stepping up and solving those problems. I also think it's helpful to re-frame this stuff as not a women's issue or a feminism issue, but a human rights issue. I did mark some things I wasn't sure I agreed with, or things to go back and chew on. I found it ironic that the authors often highlighted the ineffectiveness of government/UN initiatives as compared with those of "social entrepreneurs," yet suggested toward the end of the book that the U.S. should throw $10+ billion at these problems. Not that I don't think that would be a better use of tax dollars than many of the ways we currently spend...but seriously, where is that money coming from, and why waste the funds by channeling them through the government when the evidence indicates private individuals and organizations can do a far better job? Whatever... At any rate, definitely a worthwhile read.

The Beautiful Ache: Finding the God Who Satisfies When Life Does Not – Leigh McLeroy***
I don't think the subtitle actually captures the heart of this book. It's less about "when life is  unsatisfying and awful" and more about "when life is wonderful but not quite enough and your heart still aches for more" or "when life is bittersweet." That said, I do enjoy the author. Her writing is appealing--vivid, warm, vulnerable, truth-telling. Probably 3.5 stars.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Champagne Butterfield***
I was sure I was going to love this—the first 25% was probably five-star. But after the account of the author's background and her conversion, I ended up disappointed. I felt like she made the leap from "former lesbian feminist professor, reluctant/resentful convert" to "homeschooling pastor's wife" too quickly in the narrative. I would have liked to read more about *how* she transitioned into this new life. How did she lose the job at Syracuse? How did her relationship with her pastor-husband develop? What became of her relationships in the gay community that were initially strained but still important to her early on? How did her faith in Jesus transform from resenting His meddling in her life, to actually embracing faith in Him and feeling joyful about it? Meanwhile, instead of really delving into these things, she spent an inordinate amount of time on peripheral matters of doctrine, which I found unhelpful, unnecessary and off-putting. The parts about her experience as a foster parent and adoptive mother were inspiring, but the story arc as a whole felt sort of jarring, with too many missing pieces. I still think she has valuable insights to offer the church, especially with regard to evangelism and community. Hers is a unique perspective as both "outsider" and "insider," and the church would do well to take seriously her sharp, poignant critiques. But in the end, I was dissatisfied that this book fell short of what it easily could have been.

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey – Fergal Keane****
This was very different from the (many) other books I have read about the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Written within a year after the fact by a BBC journalist who traveled in the country while the killings were still happening, its first-person observations and reflections have a feel of immediacy that makes the horrors palpable. The prologue also provides a valuable analysis of Rwandan history that led to this tragedy. Keane writes maddeningly about the killers and the injustice of their being sheltered and fed in refugee camps instead of prosecuted. He also gives calmly scathing indictments of the international community's both refusing to get involved and meddling in unjust ways. It's a personal and penetrating account that has a valuable place in the canon for this topic.

Practicing Affirmation: God Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God – Sam Crabtree***
This should have been about half its current length--and I say that as one who does not get easily bored with nonfiction books, though I know many people find them to be needlessly repetitive. Apparently the author has gotten a TON of resistance to this topic, because he kept repeating argument after argument about why affirmation is necessary, how it's rooted in Scripture, how to mitigate the pitfalls, etc. He has a strong case, and I was convinced early on--so the more he kept anticipating and answering objections, the more annoyed I got. "I believe you! Let's get on with it!" It took SO long to get to the practical stuff that I tossed the book aside for a while before coming back to finish.

Words of affirmation is my #1 "love language," so of course the book resonated deeply with me, but I have to say I was curious about whether those who do not share that "love language" would find it as compelling or persuasive. Of course, the "love languages" concept is not rooted in Scripture (it's not anti-biblical, per se, just not drawn from the Bible) whereas this book definitely is. Still, I found myself wondering how others would respond. In that vein, I was surprised that at the end, in the list of 100 ideas for affirming people, many tips were listed that were not verbal affirmation, but would rather fall under other "love languages" like acts of service or quality time. This felt a little surprising since I don't remember the author really defining "affirmation" that broadly earlier in the book; the rest seemed focused mainly on words, and then these non-verbal ideas for "affirming" seemed to come out of nowhere and didn't seem to fit with the main thesis, however wise and helpful they might be. After reading, I did feel challenged and inspired to notice God's grace at work in those around me and point it out to them, encourage them--which was the main goal. I don't really have any problems with what he said, just how many times he kept saying it.

The Devil in Pew Number Seven – Rebecca Nichols Alonzo*
I kept reading because I was curious what happened (the first chapter jumps right into the action, so it was pretty intriguing). But OH MY GOODNESS THE WRITING. My inner editor was doing a facepalm every other paragraph. Her example of forgiveness was admirable and inspiring, but the story was so incredibly melodramatic and poorly told.

Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project*****
I can't recommend this highly enough. I have recently become captivated with the idea that the most seemingly-ordinary people have extraordinary stories to tell, and personal experience is quickly teaching me that listening to people tell their stories really *is* an act of love. StoryCorps is about "the eloquence, power, grace and poetry in the words of everyday people; the notion that the lives of the people we pass walking down the street can be as compelling--even more compelling--than those of the rich and famous." I found these stories charming, deeply moving, stunning, heartbreaking, heartwarming, delightful. And I felt even more inspired to hear and preserve the beautiful stories of the not-so-ordinary people in my life.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – Malcolm Gladwell***
Fascinating at first, but I got bored with this as it went on. It was intriguing, and I did finish, but I also think it desperately needs an update. Written in 2000, it doesn't account for social media at all, which I think have had a HUGE impact on word-of-mouth "epidemics" and the interactions between Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. I'd definitely be interested in hearing Gladwell's analysis of how things like Facebook and Twitter and blogs--none of which were really around when this was published--affect the things he wrote about here.

When You Come Home: The True Love Story of a Soldier’s Heroism, His Wife’s Sacrifice and the Resilience of America’s Greatest Generation – Nancy Pitts***
If I had to describe this in one word I think I’d say “quaint.” It wasn’t particularly well-written or moving, nor was it particularly bad. A sweet, sad story about a significant American experience. I found myself frequently skeptical because of the way it was a biography written as a novel. Other narrative nonfiction (at least the stuff I’ve read) tends to use less quotations and be really scrupulous about the facts…this seemed like the author (the daughter of the main character) had to do a whole lot of embellishing given the way she described scenes with great detail, recounted conversations, etc.

Jesus Feminist – Sarah Bessey
WHEW do I ever have a lot of thoughts about this. I made scores of margin notes. Going to take a while to sort through the tangle and write a careful review (which I have to do soon because I got a copy from NetGalley). 

Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin (audiobook)****
A powerful, compelling book. I especially liked hearing this as an audiobook, because listening to the whites in the book say such appalling things out loud really drove home the impact of the discrimination the blacks experienced. It is sickening to think America was like this during my parents' lifetime--just stunning. I think the author contributed something incredibly valuable to the civil rights movement by physically bridging the chasm between blacks and whites during the late 1950s.

Families Where Grace is in Place – Jeff VanVonderen***
There was SO much great stuff to love and learn in this book. But there were also a great deal of troubling presuppositions about people's hearts and motivations. I found the author's fundamental teaching about the human heart to be deeply flawed and not rooted in Scripture. If you are willing and able to separate the wheat from the chaff, this is *absolutely* a book worth reading for marriage and for parenting. I did a lot of underlining and I definitely want to go back over it and review my notes. But I would strongly urge reading with careful discernment and an eye to what Scripture actually teaches about the sinful nature, the basic posture of the human heart, and people's "needs." Those disagreements I had with the author are what make it a 3 (3.5 probably) star book rather than the 4 or even 5 it easily could have been.

The Pleasures of God – John Piper****
Classic Piper, challenging and God-exalting and rich with beautiful truth. 

Other books read partially and worth mentioning:

When People are Big and God is Small - Ed Welch*****
I made a second pass through this penetrating book about the fear of man, skipping the theoretical/foundational part one, which I already understood and bought into, in favor of the more concrete and practical second half. It was excellent to revisit. I am consistently helped and encouraged by Welch's biblical insights.

The Original Homeschooling Series - Charlotte Mason
I was curious to learn about this philosophy of education, since so many I know speak highly of CM--but talk about overwhelming. It had more dots on my Kindle than the Bible. I set it aside as I found it mostly guilt-inducing and discouraging for how idealistic and unrealistic her assertions seemed.

Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg
A book to dip in and out of more than a book to read straight through. I'll probably come back to it, but I do think I like Bragg's memoirs better.

The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman
BO-ring. I was expecting more analysis of the cultural/societal/governmental elements that led up to World War I...instead I got buried in detailed military strategy and analysis. Which might be your cup of tea; it just isn't mine.


Danielle said...

So was The Beautiful Ache not as good as Treasured? You read and liked that one, right? Just curious because I've had both her other books on my list. The other one is The Sacred Ordinary.

Just got "The Secret Thoughts . . . " for Christmas. I've heard her interviewed twice and she's a great speaker. But even in her sharing I've had the same questions as you. Sorry to hear her book doesn't answer them.

As for Charlotte Mason I've never read her. My mom has a whole pile of her books though. I did read a book BASED on her philosophy called "For the Children's Sake" and my take away was the whole "living books" thing. Read real books instead of textbooks with snippets of real books in them. I can't saw I'm inclined to delve in more . . .

Amy said...

Yes, I really enjoyed Treasured, and liked it better than TBA. I have TSO but have learned that I just don't do devotional books (the kind with a "daily reading"). They don't work for me, no matter how much I love the author or how great they are--not my style and I almost never finish them. Though maybe I should start using them as bathroom books...hmm!

Will be interested to hear what you think of Secret Thoughts. My opinion certainly isn't the last word :)

And for as much raving as I hear about Charlotte Mason I don't know how my fellow moms don't come away from her feeling like a defeated failure! The living books thing makes sense, but whew, I just didn't feel like what she was saying was realistic at all. Just totally overwhelming.

Briana Almengor said...

I can't wait to hear your thoughts on "Jesus Feminist". This topic of women's roles in the church and ministry in particular is something I am thinking through all over again. I haven't read her book, but wonder if I will want to.