Book Reviews Q1 2021

Many of the books I read this last quarter are highly recommended–some beautiful writing, some beautiful people. As I’ve considered my reviews, several compete for being most important or most impactful.

Others, I wanted to delve into a new author or read other works from authors I like. Some good; some bad. All my opinions, so here they are.

Books in order of finishing

  • I Think You’re Wrong But I’m Listening: A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations by Beth A. Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland*
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  • The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister*
  • Anxious People by Fredrick Backman
  • Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project by Jack Mayer
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  • The Rational Bible: Exodus by Dennis Prager
  • Arrival by Ted Chiang
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan*
  • Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., a life by Marshall Frady
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Clayborne Carson*
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates*
  • Women of the Old Testament by Camille Fronk Olson
  • The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck*

*audiobook listens

Educational

I Think You’re Wrong But I’m Listening: A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations

By: Beth A. Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland*

Audiobook readers: the authors themselves so totally worth it

This book is important. Super important. Beth and Sarah come from different political parties yet they come together to show how to talk values in politics so that we can build mutual understanding and discuss different opinions without losing our minds or our friends. The idea that we should never talk politics, religion, or sports should be debunked. Our inability to talk about things that are very important to us creates these divides. We can and should talk about our values, but more importantly we should LISTEN to others when they talk about their values. I wanted to copy just about every quote from this book. Please consider reading it. Using the principles I learned in this book has recently helped me have more successful conversations and given me hope that we can talk about things that are important to us.

The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

By: John Tierney and Roy Baumeister*

The negativity effect or negativity bias basically means that negative events or emotions often affect us much more strongly than positive ones. Through various studies and practical advice, these authors demonstrate how we can take the strong effects of negativity and overcome them OR use them for our gain. Recommended.

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project

By: Jack Mayer

Some years ago, I became familiar with the story of Irena Sendler–an amazing woman who helped rescue Jewish children and youth from the Ghetto in Poland during a time that massive numbers of Jews were daily being sent to camps to die. This book explores in a novel-ish form the three teenagers who discovered Irena’s story–a story that had been hidden for years. The students shared her story in a historical play, and brought it to national and international light. Irena’s experiences are harrowing, terrifying, heartbreaking, and horrifying. This is an important read. I will say that the first 50 pages or so completely annoyed me because they were about these teenagers who discovered her story and the tone and writing just didn’t jive. But push past all of that and get to Irena’s story. I am amazed at the many women who risk all for a better good–I hope to someday be more like them.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a life

By: Marshall Frady

I recently thought about how little I knew about the man for whom we have a national holiday. I didn’t know about his life or where his work began. This biography delves into the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many biographies about Dr. King and I truly don’t know which one is best, but I learned so much about the Civil Rights movement from this one. I appreciated that the author painted King as the changemaker he was while also exploring some of the challenges he personally faced–although I was surprised to find this book focused so much on his affairs. Overall, though, very insightful and inspiring.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By: Clayborne Carson*

Audiobook reader: LeVar Burton, so yes, amazing.

To clarify, the reason this says autobiography and also has an author is because the author compiled Dr. King’s papers and made them into this depiction of his life. This autobiography was amazing and I LOVED listening to it. Throughout the book, whenever they covered Dr. King’s speeches, if they had an audio recording of the speech, they included it in the audiobook. It was AMAZING to hear so many speeches in his own voice and his speeches moved me very deeply. I appreciated Dr. King’s personal insights into his work and why he did what he did for the Civil Rights movement and so much more. In building my understanding, I am learning how I can improve the world in my sphere of influence as well. Definitely recommend this book.

Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates*

Audiobook: great–read by the author

This book is an exploration of America’s history of race, told from a personal narrative as the author writes to his son. I liked the audiobook, but I almost wish I had read it because there were many parts I’d like to ponder further. I may need to just read it again. The book takes a view of the sense and worth of a body and what it is like to be born with a black body. Re-recommending for myself to process more.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

By: Lulu Miller

David Starr Jordan was a man who created taxonomies–largely ocean life–as a desire to bring order to things. He also served as Stanford University’s first president. His contributions to science are important. But his life is complicated. His personal character not that great (he was a huge promoter of eugenics, among other things). The author weaves her own experiences into this tale of Jordan. I actually found the memoir contributions to be confusing and jarring to the overall story–almost too much of an attempt to try and weave their stories into each other. But an interesting read if only for the mere fact that I now really don’t know what I believe about fish–because fish don’t really exist.

Religious

The Rational Bible: Exodus

By Dennis Prager

I have not always enjoyed the Old Testament, so I was curious when a friend recommended this book, but its study became very compelling to me.

Dennis Prager is a Jewish scholar who is also known for his role as a talk show host as well as for PragerU. Even if you may have different political leanings than or feelings about the author himself, this particular study is intriguing in its attempt to explain the Torah rationally. Prager dives into cultural differences, historical understandings, theological beliefs, and various Jewish interpretations of this sacred text, focused on Exodus here (but he has one on Genesis). Recommended.

In the prelude to the book, Prager dives into developing our sense of God. So much for me to think about in his essays, including this one:

“Belief in God means more than believing God exists; it also means believing God cares about us. After all, if God exists but doesn’t care about us, what difference does it make to us whether God exists? …

“For many people, however, the first belief, that God exists, is much easier to affirm than the second. Many of us find God’s existence to be rationally self-evident. We find it more rational to believe there is a Creator than to believe creation created itself; more rational to infer a Designer than no Designer when we look at the world with all its design. But given all the tragedy and unjust suffering in the world, the belief that God cares for us is not as rationally compelling. Unlike belief in God’s existence, belief in God’s goodness and concern for each human life usually involves…’a leap of faith.’

“I understand the need for that leap of faith, but I contend it is more rational to assume God cares about His creation than to believe He doesn’t. Why would an uncaring Creator create a caring being?…it is one of the great achievements of the Torah that it identifies the Creator with the moral and the good.”

And this. “The Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav…taught, ‘If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?’ To which Telushkin has added: ‘And if no one feels comfortable criticizing you, the likelihood that you will be better tomorrow is most probably nonexistent.'”

He included a note to non-religious readers that has left me pondering. “Having God, religion, a religious community, and a sacred text in one’s life enables one to have a far deeper and richer–not to mention wiser–life. If you keep an open mind when reading this commentary, that life will, hopefully, become appealing to you.”

Women of the Old Testament

By: Camille Fronk Olson

This book explores the lives of nearly every woman mentioned in the Old Testament. And even covers the lives of those who are not named. I have been slowly working through this book for a long time as part of my personal study and it has been so meaningful to me to look at the Old Testament from a different lens. Olson’s research helps us understand the political, geographical, cultural, and religious happenings, meanings, and everythings of the Old Testament time to bring some pretty amazing women to light. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Huldah now, even though I knew nothing of her before. I love looking understanding historical contexts of the scriptures better. And again…studying the Old Testament for fun? Yeah, I guess I did it again. Worth your time.

Middle Grade

Dragons in the Waters

By: Madeleine L’Engle

From an author I deeply admire comes a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and murder–in a children’s book! I honestly didn’t love love this book, but as usual there are a few L’Engle truths I enjoyed, such as this, because it made me ponder.

“You’ve been angry all week, Simon, but you’re taking it out on the wrong things. It’s better to take it out on God. He can cope with all our angers. That’s one thing my long span of chronology has taught me. If I take all my anger, if I take all my bitterness over the unfairness of this mortal life and throw it all to God, he can take it all and transform it into love before he gives it back to me.”

The One and Only Ivan

By: Katherine Applegate

Ivan is a gorilla in captivity. He is friends with an elephant and a dog. And he likes to draw. This Newbery award winning novel is a quick read and very sweet. It also raises some interesting questions about animals held in captivity. It is fictional but inspired by a true story.

Sci-Fi

Arrival

By: Ted Chiang

If you have seen the movie, Arrival, you may or may not know that it is based on a short story called “Story of Your Life.” This book is a compilation of several short stories by Chiang. His writing is complex and feels like it’s intended to stretch and boggle the mind. Some of the short stories were fascinating, others maybe a little too beyond for my liking. As I read “Story of Your Life/Arrival” I was intrigued that I wouldn’t have pulled out the nuance and meaning from the short story that was discovered through the movie. So I’m glad I saw it through the interpretation of the movie (as I really enjoyed it).

Fantasy/High Fantasy

The Eye of the World

By: Robert Jordan*

I finally dipped my toes in to Robert Jordan’s world. It’s just such a commitment when you’re dealing with an entirely new world and stories that span generations (and books and books and books). This is from the Wheel of Time series and I quite enjoyed listening to it. The protagonists are teenagers from the Two Rivers who seem to be the target of attacks from Trollocs (the enemy’s hit monsters). Accompanied by some interesting folk (a magical lady, a warrior, a storyteller, and others along the way), they leave their humble town to seek safety and direction. Their journey is, of course, dangerous and they are constantly pursued and split up and so on. I quite enjoyed listening to this. Even though I liked it, I’m still not sure I can commit to the whole series, haha.

Novel

Anxious People

By: Fredrik Backman

Someone robs a bank. Nearby, there is a real estate showing for an apartment. The bank robber holes up in the condo and takes all those at the showing hostage. As the situation progresses, each person’s story comes to light and intersects with the others held hostage. I love how Backman weaves peoples’ lives and stories together as if our connections with others were never a chance or coincidence. Definitely recommended.

“We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance, sweetheart. We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to find a way to convince ourselves that that will just have to…be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning.”

The Thirteenth Tale

By: Diane Setterfield

Vida Winter who once wrote a book that should have had thirteen stories. But there were only twelve. Where did the thirteenth go? She has written many different lives and stories for herself, but as her own life is coming to its close, she wants to tell the truth. She hires a young biographer to tell a story–a story of distant parents, twins, ghosts, and fire. This had some of the haunting feel of Jane Eyre, but not the love. While I read it quickly because it was intriguing, I’m not sure if I actually liked it. But still interesting.

“We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all.”

The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

This is a Russian fairytale within a fairytale. Vasya has special and strange powers that she is forced to hide. Her favorite fairytale is that of Frost, a winter demon. Somehow, her tale intertwines with his and as her family is put in danger, she must use her gift/powers to save herself and them. This fairytale is quite dark, but I really enjoyed the writing.

Also, I didn’t know until recently that this book is actually part of a trilogy and now I need to go read the others. But it’s something to say for the book that the author could end it on a note that didn’t feel like an unsatisfying ending.

The Book of Longings

By: Sue Monk Kidd

Generally, I’ve liked Kidd’s writings, but I was not a huge fan of this one. This fictional narrative explores what life could have been like in the New Testament times from the perspective of the wife of Jesus (assuming He had been married). Some of the historical aspects from her research were interesting. But overall the story itself was very unsatisfying. Maybe I’ll ruin it for you by saying this, but the author purports that the story of this woman was unknown because basically she wasn’t there for anything important in Jesus’s ministry. I was interested by the original concept but the execution just felt so empty. If you’re going to tell me what it could have been life to be Jesus’s wife, I wanted to imagine His ministry from the perspective of a spouse. Not what it would be like to know nothing of it. To each their own, I know a lot of people who loved this.

Plain Truth

By: Jodi Picoult

In an Amish town, a baby is discovered dead in a barn. It is soon obvious whose baby it was. It is seemingly obvious the baby was murdered. It has to be obvious who the murderer was. But not so fast. A big-shot lawyer takes on this Amish murder case and is caught in the customs and the culture of the Amish people, but also in her own journey to discovering who she is. It sounds interesting. I actually didn’t like it. I had to finish it to know the end, but not really recommended (although this one was recommended highly to me, so…other opinions are of course acceptable).

East of Eden

By: John Steinbeck*

I have had a few friends who told me that East of Eden was an impactful book on their lives. A Steinbeck? Like, people in our day willingly reading a Steinbeck novel? But they’re so depressing!

Alas, I wanted to know what evoked such feelings in others. Adam and Charles are brothers from the same father but from two different mothers who both died young. Adam is the favored child and endures brutal treatment at Charles’s hand. Adam is sent away to war to become more like what his father wants him to be. Years later, Cathy Ames enters into Adam’s and Charles’s life. She’s basically a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even later enters the good-hearted Hamilton family and a young Chinese servant, Lee. And twins along the way. As stories enter and leave and intertwine, we see hatred, spite, evil, and yes, thankfully, some beautiful redeeming people.

I am still processing the reason why this novel was so moving to others, but one part of it is a philosophical discussion where Lee proposes that the English translation of the Bible leads us to a false understanding. He proposes that a word originally in Hebrew actually translates to “thou mayest” triumph over sin instead of “thou shalt”–allowing for the essential idea of choice. We have a choice in the direction we take our lives. That was the most impactful theme in the book for me.

Bonus Material

Just for good measure, I realized I’d captured a few quotes from books I read last quarter that I didn’t even include in my review and just want to remember them.

“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like those ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to” (Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me).

“When the earth is cracking behind your feet and it feels like the whole world is going to swallow you up, you put one foot in front of the other and you keep going. You go forward. And do you know what happens if you don’t?

No.

Ha! Neither do I, angel. Neither do I.” (Bess Kalb, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me)

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