Monday, October 31, 2016

October 2016 Bookshelf

Kindle Edition - 176 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Westminster John Knox Press for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

It took me over a month to read the book once through. Then I decided I couldn't say I had read it until I read it again, that time it took me one day. Yes, just one day. I determined to get through it, having a first read as a basis for the second read.  
The first read through I just read the book. The second time I read the book as the author intended - using the Bible also. Since it's my review I get to make it as short - or as long - as I want. You can read the review - or not. That's your choice! *wink*
In Bird's introduction and chapter 1 she explains why this book has come into existence. She uses her own background as the reason why she first started wondering if everything she was reading in the Bible was exactly as she was reading it or if perhaps context of cultural etc really might matter. In the introduction she gives the reader two points that I really appreciate, they are perhaps the first of her many "permission granted" points.
1. God gave you your brain, so it has to be okay to use it.
2. If they are worth your devotion, God and the Bible can handle your intellectual pursuits. (My take on this particular point would be - God is not the one threatened by any questions etc we have, it's everyone else who is threatened. He's bigger than that.)
Chapter 1 finds Bird discussing what the Bible is, and what the Bible isn't. She challenges the claims of inerrancy and infallibility - which is going to raise the hackles of some immediately. It may or may not have raised mine a bit. *grin* Her challenges to those claims are based off of motivations, genres, and perspective of author of the book within the Bible. And she goes on, in chapter 1, to unpack those reasonings. Her conclusion on knowing and understanding the true writings can be summed up, in my opinion, with this statement she makes, "Most often when people begin to read with context and writing type in mind, they find the writings more meaningful, not less." I read that sentence as a challenge of sorts for myself. If I read the passages she will be discussing in this book with the context and writing type in mind as she lays them out will I indeed find the Bible more meaningful and not less?
Chapter 2 Bird starts at the beginning, which is the topic of much debate in American culture today (I can't speak for other cultures since I don't live there). She starts with the creation story found in Genesis 1-2. Bird is insistent on honoring the writings of the Bible and her idea of honoring it is explained in this way, "Reading the Bible 'literally' is not necessarily the best way to honor it." That particular statement is sure to raise some hackles. It may or may not have raised mine a bit. *grin* But instead of taking my raised hackles and marching off the other direction I am choosing to push through for the sake of being uncomfortable and having an open mind.
In chapter 2 she has a lot to say about a lot. (I don't want to be a spoiler. Okay fine, hints are: women, men, equality, creation of the earth, creation of humans, myths versus truth.) The one thing that I cannot get around being uncomfortable with is her assertion that biology is more accurate than God. But if God created the biology then can't he do whatever he wants? Perhaps it is our understanding of biology that is flawed, not the other way around?
Chapter 3 is all about the garden but here's what Bird has to say about it, "If you have thought of this story [the garden] as only being about 'original sin' or 'the fall of Man,' you are in for quite a ride. So, hold on to your hat and buckle your seatbelt." Bird's belief is that the story found in Genesis 3 is a myth, meant to give an explanation for the pains of childbirth and why it is so hard to produce food from the ground. I can't help but think, however, that if ancient peoples were looking for a story to explain these things that they might have come up with ones that didn't seem so harsh? But perhaps I misunderstand good storytelling. She also addresses the idea and purpose of Satan. These are interesting thoughts that I can lean toward - no hackles raised at that point. *grin* She closes out chapter 3 talking about the influence of the early church fathers and their opinions about the scriptures becoming the scriptures we actually read and follow today instead of what the original language etc means.
Chapter 4 tackles the topic of sex and sexuality in the Bible. Hackles will be raised in this chapter. Mine may or may not have been. *grin* She addresses the topic of "biblical marriage" and any of my hackles that may have been raised lowered the more I considered her arguments for what a "biblical marriage" actually means according to the Bible. Then she dives into sex - heterosexual and homosexual.
In the Old Testament, specifically, there is a lot of violence. Was it really violence directed by God or was it violence men attributed to God or was it something in between? Bird takes chapter 5 to discuss. She addresses both punishment/discipline and the sacrificial system. It is in discussing the sacrificial system - which leads to the crucifixion of Jesus - that hackles will probably go up again. Mine may or may not have. *grin* She also continues with the controversial topics by talking about the death penalty. She includes in the chapter about violence about the abuse and violent treatment of women throughout the scriptures. This did not raise my hackles but it will raise the hackles of many - and not all of them men, which astounds me. She does have a profound portion within the chapter about enemies and who we should consider, if anyone at all, enemies and why/why not.
Those stories we were told in Sunday School? In chapter 6 the author talks about the real story of those cleaned up stories. She also addresses the famed verse, John 3:16. Yes, hackles will be raised. Mine may or may not have been. *grin*
In the chapters leading up to chapter 7 Bird has been advocating for women and in this chapter she quits 'hinting' around and just devotes the entire chapter to the idea of women and God. She spends quite a bit of time discussing the differences found in the 'genuine Pauline' letters from what is said, about women specifically, in the 'disputed Pauline letters.' Her exegesis makes a lot of sense and provides explanation for the divided mind Paul was thought to have regarding women.
And then in chapter 8 Bird really goes for it. She discusses the conception and birth of Jesus. She discusses the virgin Mary and wonders if she really was a virgin. Yes, hackles will go up in defense of this doctrinal issue. Mine may or may not have. *grin*
Chapter 9 is titled, "Will the real Jesus please stand up?" and Bird starts off the chapter by saying that it may be "startling for people to discover that there is more that one 'version' of Jesus in the Bible and more than one way of understanding salvation." What she means is that the first four books - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - give different perspectives on Jesus. They each cast him in a different light, so to speak. So which one is he? Could he not be all of them and the books are still pointing to different facets of who he is? This chapter, in particular, really felt like Bird was building a case for the commonality of Jesus rather than the Jesus that came to be a savior. It felt very pointed toward Jesus was just a dude who happened to say and do a lot of good things and some people decided to write about him and oh yeah, they leaned on Old Testament scriptures to make it sound like he was something special and unique. My hackles may or may not have gone up. *grin*
Second in popularity, and controversy, to Jesus is the Apostle Paul. So the author spends chapter 10 on Paul. While she similarly talks about Paul the way she does Jesus, in a diminishing way, she also makes some interesting points about his mission and its differences from the mission of the disciples.
Ah, it's the end of the world as we know it - and we've come the the end of the world countless times yet we are all still here. Bird takes chapter 11 to go through Revelation - the apocalypse, the final days of this world as we know it. This is another chapter in which the potential for raised hackles is pretty high. Mine were not raised but so much of evangelical America has built their faith on the book of Revelation that I know this chapter would raise the hackles of many.
And then where do we go from here? Where do we go with the questioning of the word of God? Does the questioning of the word of God make the writings more meaningful not less? For me? For you? In the final paragraphs of this book the author says this, "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible or on the God the Bible points to?" But I take issue with that end goal. She just took the reader through 11 chapters of questioning the Bible that points to God. The Holy Bible is the resource we have been given to get to know the God we say we believe in. If we call it into question then ultimately we are also calling into question the reality of God.
One final comment on the title. In an effort, I presume, to be chatty and down to earth about this questioning of the Bible the author employs the use of "hmmmm" quite a bit. And by quite a bit I mean it appears in frequency the further into the book we get. It really got on my nerves after a while. One or two instances of it are fine, I use it myself from time to time. But it's frequency in the pages detracted not attracted.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
Audio Book - read by Mindy Kaling

I have a crush on Mindy Kaling.
And the more I watch her (over and over) on The Office and her show The Mindy Project the more obsessed I become with her. She is real, relateable, and funny as all get out. She flies under the radar because she is not just funny she is freaking smart. She has a strong work ethic and has worked super hard to get to the place she is in.
I opted to read this book of Mindy's by listening to it because Mindy reads it herself and I knew hearing her say the things she wrote would be a great way to pass my time in the car during my commute.
I was 100% right, hearing Mindy read her book was awesome - I laughed and was able to hear her inflection exactly as she intended. And it was a great stress reliever before and after work days - which I really need these days.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Audio Book - read by Mindy Kaling

In case you hadn't caught it before, I have a crush on Mindy Kaling. A huge crush.
I listened to Why Not Me? first and before I had even finished it got this one checked out so I could immediately begin it once the other ended.
Written before the book I listeread (I'm trying that out as a new word, a mash up of listened and read. Yes? No?) first this title talks a bit more about Mindy's time on The Office.
I'm pretty sure other drivers saw me laughing all by myself in the car and thought I was going crazy. Well if enjoying Mindy Kaling's stories and humor is crazy then call me crazy!

The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag 
Kindle Edition - 320 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

In Cambridge there's a group of witches, they know they are but the rest of the community doesn't and that's the way they like it to be. Otherwise it just causes too many problems. But, it turns out, it causes problems for them also. Sometimes they get ahead of themselves due to their special powers. This is story about a "year in the life" of  Amandine, Noa, Kat, Cosima, George, and Heloise and each of them trying to live with their special powers in a world where they would be considered freaks by most.
I enjoyed this book but I don't know how much because I took a really long time (in my world) to read it and I kept putting it down in favor of other things - although I don't think that was the book's fault. It was an easy to read story although not terribly moving or memorable.

Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
704 pages

How I found out about this title...
Mom: I just finished reading one of Paul's [my brother] favorite books, Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. Loved it and wonder if you would like to read it?
Me: Yes!

"Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last." And so begins the story of Una. Born in the deep Kentucky woods, transplanted to a remote lighthouse on the east coast, gained sea legs on a ship or two, and landing in Nantucket Una's life is one of adventure, insight, loss, and gain. Una is a fascinating woman for her refusal to follow the whims of a crowd - be in thought or action, for her independent spirit, for her fortitude through some of life's tough moments, and for her deep love for Ahab. To say too much about Una would, I'm afraid, be a spoiler of the story Naslund has created about this woman she has imagined into existence as Captain Ahab's wife. Yes, that Ahab - the one of Moby Dick. While a wife was never mentioned in great detail in Herman Melville's Moby Dick there is a passage or two where one is ever so briefly mentioned. Naslund took those brief mentions and brought to life a woman who could equal, maybe even surpass, Captain Ahab.
Reviews of this title mention the word 'lyrical' and yes, this book is very lyrical - but not annoyingly so. The voice of Una is pleasant and compelling, keeping the reader engaged. Una is not one to shy away from adventure and so we are taken on many with her. During reading the book and now that I have finished I feel richer somehow for having been able to read Una's story. It is filling, not lacking in any part, and was just right in length - not too short and not too long. It's one of those books that will sit revered on a shelf in my mind as some of the best storytelling/writing I've read.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Audio book - read by Tina Fey

I have decided that with books like this one, funny essays about life in general, the author needs to be the narrator for the audio version. Hearing the author put inflection in where it was meant when written, adding little sidenotes, etc makes all the difference. I am fairly certain that as I drove around my town laughing all by myself in my car people passing by probably thought I had lost my mind. I hadn't. I was just listening to Tina Fey and her hilarious take on a variety of topics. Here's where *you* might think I really am crazy - I don't watch SNL, I've not seen 30 Rock, and I'm not sure I have even seen any movie Fey has been in (I think there's at least one?). But her reputation precedes her and I had heard how good Bossypants was and I need laughs to get me to work these days and then to follow me home from work. So after my Mindy Kaling binge Tina Fey was next up on my audio book queue. And I'm so glad I finally got a dose of Tina Fey. She's hysterical, in part because she is so unassuming that she can be self-deprecating and all of us regular folk can 100% relate. What I love about books like this is in the midst of all the hilarity and the entertainment there are some real nuggets of life truths to be held on to. So thank you Tina Fey for accompanying me to and from work - for easing me into my work days and getting me to laugh afterward. And yes, I've now added 30 Rock to my Netflix queue - I've got to see what all the fuss is about.

Jesus, Pope Francis, and a Protestant Walk into a Bar by Paul Rock and Bill Tammeus
Kindle Edition - 96 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Westminster John Knox Press for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

Okay I confess, the title captured my attention first. I mean c'mon it sounds like the beginning of a very funny joke...or something. I was right. It is something. Something fantastic.
A presbyterian pastor hosts a discussion, in a series of seven sermons written by a variety of other pastors, about the convergence of Christianity and Catholicism. The impetus for this conversation was the radical spirit Pope Francis has brought to the papacy since becoming head pope in 2013. He has ruffled some Catholic feathers, stirred some protestant pots, and confounded a whole bunch of people. He has also won over hardened hearts - the hearts wounded by the Church at large, the skeptical hearts, the hearts who swore they would never darken the doorsteps of any kind of 'religious' gathering.
This book is designed to get Protestants and Catholics thinking about how alike they are rather than how different. And once you start looking at it you see so many more similarities than anything else. Beyond that it is also meant to reintroduce, if I may be so bold as to use that word, the mission of Jesus to us. To remind us of what Jesus was actually doing as he traveled the dusty roads of Judea. I can't, and truthfully don't want to, say anymore since I think this book is worth reading. It's easy to read but deep in content. I'll end this review with a quote from the authors, "We hope this small book will help to guide you toward that theological depth and width so that you are free to be who you are and free to let others be who they are, all the while doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God."

Honorable Mention:
About three years ago I read the Harry Potter series for the first time (it won't be my last) and have been hearing how good the audio book versions are - a good narrator/reader makes ALL the difference people. So this month I started listening to the series on audio during my commutes. In addition to mentioned audio books above (which I had not read/listeread before) I squeezed in book 1 on audio. It was fantastic! The wait list at the library is very long for the audio series so I've got books 2 and 3 on hold but am quite a ways down on the list so who knows if I'll even get to them before the calendar turns to 2017!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

September 2016 Bookshelf

The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil
Kindle Edition - 416 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Washington Square Press for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

This was an interesting story. I'm not sure I totally liked it, but I didn't completely dislike it either. I found it very hard to stay interested in from page 1 to page 416 and I skimmed a few parts in exasperation.
The story is of Sam Tahar, a successful attorney in Manhattan, that has invented himself from nothing roots in France. The problem is he invented himself with someone else's life and they are still alive. Believing that the distance between New York City and Paris is enough to keep Sam's secret safe he has lived his life as a totally fake person personally. In Paris, Samuel and Nina rediscover their old friend Samir Tahar but his story sounds familiar, it sounds just like Samuel's story. So they ask to meet with him in Paris for the purpose of confronting him about lifting Samuel's story as his own. But Samuel also  plans to test Nina. Years ago she had an affair with Samir, will she be tempted to do so again? From the moment the three reunite the invention of Samir into Sam will be tested and the reinvention of Samuel and Nina will begin. Who and what will be affected by the invention and reinvention of these three old friends?
As I stated this was an interesting read. Part of it might have been the format I read it in, the pre-published ebook, as there were these weird footnotes included which I eventually figured out were part of the story and certain characters but they were odd - again that could have been the ebook format. Samir, Sam, is not very likeable. I found him to be rather disgusting and narcissistic. Basically he is a dbag. Samuel and Nina I didn't care for so much either, they were annoying. This is most likely a big reason for me not engaging with the book, I could have cared less about the characters - they annoyed me, I felt no endearment toward them at all. In the end I found myself slightly regretting I hadn't abandoned the book and moved on but there was just enough happening to Sam, Samuel, and Nina that I held on to the end.

The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers by Coco Schumann
Kindle Edition - 210 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and DoppelHouse Press for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

Coco Schumann, born Heinz Jakob Schumann, spent his early teen years watching his homeland fall under the rule of the Third Reich. About the time Hitler and Goebbels were tightening the noose of Nazism, Schumann heard Swing music at the Berlin Olympics and became entranced. He already had been captured by music but this style spoke to him. But swing was just for show to the world and after the Olympics it was increasingly monitored and eventually banned. But what the Nazis didn't understand, perhaps couldn't understand, is that you cannot snuff out music - it lives on despite its enemies. And so as the Germans increased their presence around Europe Schumann, hiding his Jewish roots, played in clubs and became well known at his guitar playing specifically in Swing style. However, he could not escape the Nazis attempts to exterminate the Jewish population and was transported to Theresienstadt where he became a member of the camp band, The Ghetto Swingers. Eventually Schumann was transported to Auschwitz and somehow managed to live through its hell to be transported to a satellite camp of Dachau where he barely survived but was finally liberated from by the Americans in 1945. After finding his way back to Berlin and discovering that by miracle his father, mother, and brother had survived the war Schumann picked up his guitar and played to forget. He built an impressive career, playing with greats such as Armstrong and Gillespie - not to mention several greats within his homeland of Germany. But nobody who has seen, heard, tasted, experienced, felt what Schumann and thousands of others did in the camps can forget and it wasn't until approximately 40 years after the war that he finally felt like he could, and should, talk about what happened to him and others. "In this book, I tell you how music saved my life. The camps and the fear changed my life, but the music has kept me going, and has made everything good again. I have survived. I am a musician who spent some time in concentration camps, not someone in a concentration camp who also played a little music." Coco Schumann, Preface

The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck
137 pages

This was a really well-written story about the continued racism in America in the late 1970's. You know, when things were "better" and "equal." Except they weren't.
Ora Beckworth has a story to tell, a lie she's held on to for 25 years - since the summer of 1976. The lie she held on to resulted in an innocent man living out his remaining days in prison and ripple effects within the family the lie was meant to protect. Ora learned the hard way how a lie doesn't really protect, it just covers up what must be exposed at some point. In 1976 Ora was a newly widowed white woman who had a black housemaid. Blanche had been her housemaid for years but in 1976 Blanche and her family became Ora's family and Ora was exposed to the racism that still ran deep. It was through painful realizations about herself and observations of others that Ora took chances that weren't popular with the other white residents but she also knew she had no choice but to grow out of the mindset and behaviors that contributed to the racism still so evident. It was also because of the new realization of these toxic mindsets that Ora created and participated in a lie that would be buried for 25 years but would also silently influence life choices of Blanche and her family. Ultimately this story is about Ora, a 58 year old white woman who took a chance and decided to allow her worldview to broaden through her relationships with Blanche, Blanche's family, and the Pee-can Man.
Selleck's only work, to date, is this gem of a story. I loved this book. The characters were developed perfectly, the story was in a perfect setting, the conflict was appropo. It was all together a beautiful and tragic telling of a woman's growth out of racism and a family's struggle with it and how those two collided. Selleck is set to release her second title in Fall of 2016, I'll keep an eye out for it.

The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
Kindle Edition -  316 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

Lila and Sam live in Philadelphia where Sam is a full time restaurant critic for one of the news publications. Lila was a high-profile crisis management executive for a worldwide hotel chain until they moved to Philly for Sam's job. Now she's stuck in the house with a three year old and a newborn and banned from having friends because of Sam's paranoia about being found out. The story of Lila coping with being Sam's wife and the loneliness she feels because of it is the crux of this book. The story kind of meandered along, Sam comes off - in this reader's opinion - as an insensitive, paranoid husband, completely oblivious to his wife. I didn't find the story to pack a punch in any significant way, it was just a story. I read the entire book but I wasn't drawn to it, it didn't keep pulling me back in because I was caught up in the story. I finished it because I needed to so I could move on to other reads and because it was a pleasant enough story to finish.
LaBan's first title was a YA one and it's possible that is more her niche. The title was by no means bad but it was kind of flat. In the food world it needed some salt and pepper, maybe some other seasonings as well.

The Memory Weaver by Jane Kirkpatrick
Kindle Edition - 352 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Revell for this free readers edition. In exchange I am providing an honest review.

Before the story starts Kirkpatrick provides a list of the cast of characters, 25 of them (2 of them animals). I groaned. That didn't bode well for my engagement in the book. But I started reading. I got almost a quarter of the way through before giving it up. It was slow going, tedious, and I couldn't get into the story Kirkpatrick was trying to build. Apparently it's based on a true story and I don't want to dishonor the important story of someone's heritage but this particular one wasn't for me.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
314 pages

It's been on my "to read" list for years. And then Netflix created a show based off of it. And I meant to read the book first, I really did, but I didn't. I gave the show a chance. And while this isn't a review of the show it is hard to separate the two. I love the show. It is not for the faint of heart nor is it for people who can't tolerate language or sex. I can get past all that for the story and the show takes Piper Kerman's year and the writers have developed a story, and stories, that I really love. Back to the book...
Kerman finds herself sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison almost 10 years after a short stint in drug trafficking. She's sent to Danbury, home to the "cush con life." But Danbury isn't cush, it's not the worst but it isn't luxury by any means. And for Kerman it is an eye-opening and soul revealing place. She details her first weeks of learning all the rules - unspoken as well as spoken. There's a rhythm and routine to the days that requires a learning curve and when immersed in it for 24/7 you can get a grasp on it within a month or two. Any pre-conceived thoughts, ideas, perceptions, opinions Kerman had before entering the system are torn down as she interacts with the women, and even the guards. She finds a family in Danbury, one that she didn't expect, and one that she discovers enriches her life. I recently saw someone make a comment about Piper Kerman being a "crybaby" about her experience but I didn't get that at all from her memoir. She owned her small part in the crime committed, she self-surrendered when it was time, she is factual and honest about her experiences but none of it had a "woe is me" feel nor did I feel like she was whining about it, she accepted the consequences for the poor choice she had made years ago. And she took the year she was in prison and allowed it to spur her on toward activism for prison reform and restorative justice. There's nothing crybaby about any of that. Someone who has travelled through the system has a perspective on reform needed that those who haven't been in it will never be able to understand.
The big question - only because Netflix made it into a series - do the show and the book "match?"
Actually yes, they do for all of the important stuff. The show writers have taken some liberties with stereotypes (lesbian relationships is the one that comes to mind) for the sake of television and entertainment - those liberties Kerman never actually experienced in prison. But overall, yes as I was reading the book several little comments or incidents or characters would match up to the show, of which Piper Kerman consults on. I love that the show is keeping true to Kerman's experiences within the justice system and honoring what seems to be the most important part of the memoir, family is everywhere and we are built for relationship.
I'm glad to have finally read the book that sparked the show. I'm super interested in learning more about Kerman's work with prison reform and restorative justice, she has a very level-headed and personal response to contribute.