Mini-Reviews: Recently Read Nonfiction

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Published by New Press

This was a difficult read for me because much of what is discussed in the book is so opposite my own beliefs and thoughts and political ideology that it was frustrating to read. In attempting to empathize with the American Right, especially those in the Deep South (specifically Louisiana), Hochschild illuminated so many of the core beliefs that this group has and exactly why a candidate like Donald Trump became so wildly successful at this time in our nation’s history. But it’s hard because I so fundamentally disagree with so much of what the people she interviewed believe that I found it excruciatingly difficult to empathize with them. One small example – there’s this whole concept in the book about how (some) poor white people feel that minorities should be at the “back of the line” because, you know, it’s “natural”, and programs/laws/etc. that give minorities more equality give them the opportunity to “cut in line” ahead of white people … like what? Hi, this is racism. How can I possibly empathize with that? On the one hand, I appreciate what Hochschild was trying to do here, and I also believe that we can’t possibly work together as a country if we don’t even attempt to empathize with each other, but on the other hand I just CANNOT with the racism, sexism, etc. that is so prevalent in the beliefs of the people she talks to in the book. So, overall, good read, but if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself frustrated and outraged by a lot of the book’s contents.

The Bible: A BiographyThe Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

I was inspired to read this book because I was having a discussion with my boyfriend about something in the Bible (he grew up Catholic, I grew up lightly Methodist but ventured into Bible-based Christianity when I was married, we are both agnostic at best now) and I remembered that I had this book on my shelves and perhaps I could read it and settle whatever discussion/argument we were having. Ha! Anyway, Karen Armstrong does this thing where she’s thorough but succinct at the same time and I am not sure how it’s possible but it makes a topic that might otherwise be dry and difficult to get through much, much easier to read about. I didn’t love this book, because I only half care about the subject matter (I am more interested in the history than the faith itself), but I did learn quite a bit and was overall really impressed with Armstrong’s research and writing style. I think I’ll read another one of her books – where should I start?

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Published by Sourcebooks

Holy crap, this book is insane. If you haven’t heard about The Radium Girls, it is about women in two factories, one in New Jersey and one in Illinois, who painted radium on watches during and after World War One. Radium is basically the most toxic substance that exists and these girls were surrounded by it twelve hours a day, six days a week, for years. They were instructed by the owners of the companies they worked for to put the radium brushes IN THEIR MOUTHS to get a better look when painting the watches. So, you know, their teeth began to fall out, then their jaws and bones rotted from the inside out, they got all kinds of unheard of cancers, and most of them died by their twenties or early thirties. But before they all died, they sued the companies and set a major precedent for workers rights and all kinds of other important regulations we have today. Not to mention the fact that they proved that this radium shit is insanely poisonous and probably saved millions of lives. Anyway, this was a fantastic book. Moore did meticulous research, spent tons of time with the living relatives of these women, unearthed the actual journals of the women themselves, and just overall killed it with this book. It is so good and absolutely a must read.

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Mini-reviews – catching up

Relish: My Life in the KitchenRelish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Published by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

This is an adorable food-themed graphic memoir that was super enjoyable to read. Lucy Knisley basically takes the most pivotal moments in her life and relates them to what she was eating, cooking, or learning to make at that time. I really loved the experience of reading this book – not only is it a heartwarming memoir, but the illustrations are great and Knisley includes several of her tried-and-true and family recipes, as well. Overall I just really enjoyed it and will definitely be looking for more from this author.

Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Published by Flatiron Books

The basic gist of this one is three couples, of varying degrees of friendship, get together one night for a barbecue and something disastrous happens. The book details the personalities and relationships of the characters before the big event, and then goes into depth on how it has a ripple effect on each one of the characters for quite some time after. I have really loved all of Moriarty’s novels and this one was no exception. The way she is able to create tension amongst a group of people and the way she is able to make even the most vile of characters sympathetic and relatable are two talents that she has that very few authors share with her to this degree. I was definitely kept on the edge of my seat throughout this novel and continue to be impressed with her writing and ability to craft a well-paced, unputdownable story.

A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1)A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens

Feyre is nineteen years old and her life revolves around finding food for her family and staying safe from the faeries that once ruled the world she lives in. When she kills a wolf in the woods, who turns out to not be a wolf but a faerie, she is collected by Tamlin, another faerie, to give her life in exchange for the one she killed. Once she gets to his estate, she finds herself falling in love with him and subsequently doing everything in her power to protect Tamlin and his world from the dark power that threatens to overtake it.

That was a cliffnotes version of a summary of this book – a book that I liked a LOT. I don’t read a ton of fantasy (almost none, actually) but this one really worked for me. The main element of the book that I loved was getting to know the characters – Maas did an excellent job making Feyre an incredibly believable character that I could really relate to. And Tamlin drew me in with his fiery, dark personality – I loved the two of them together. Plus, their chemistry was seriously hot. This is NOT a book for young teens – there were some pretty intense sexy times happening here. Anyway – I really liked this book and definitely will get to the sequel.

Sweet Disorder (Lively St. Lemeston, #1)Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner
Published by Samhain Publishing

Romance is a genre that I’m just getting into and Rose Lerner is an author recommended to me by the lovely and brilliant Jenny at Reading the End. I am happy to say that I did like this one and it is a good example of feminist romance – the type of romance that I would like to read more of, for sure. Something I appreciated about the plot of this one is that both main characters’ actions were motivated by helping their families, and there was a lot of character development of not only the main love interests but their family members as well. Both Nick and Phoebe were drawn to each other, but both knew that their being together would go against everything they needed to do to take care of their families. In the end, obviously, it’s a romance novel – there’s a happily ever after. But the getting there was quite enjoyable and I really liked the journey these characters took.

Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Claire Hoffman

Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent ChildhoodGreetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Claire Hoffman
Published by Harper
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

From the publisher:

When Claire Hoffman is five-years-old, her mother informs her and her seven-year-old brother Stacey, that they are going to heaven—Iowa—to live in Maharishi’s national headquarters for Heaven on Earth. For Claire’s mother, Transcendental Meditation—the Maharishi’s method of meditation and his approach to living the fullest possible life—was a salvo that promised world peace and enlightenment .

At first this secluded utopia offers warmth and support, and makes these outsiders feel calm, secure, and connected to the world. Claire attends the Maharishi school, where her meditations were graded and she and her class learned Maharishi’s principals for living. But as Claire and Stacey mature, their adolescent skepticism kicks in, drawing them away from the community and into delinquency and drugs. Eventually, Claire moves to California with her father and breaks from Maharishi completely. A decade later, after making a name for herself in journalism and starting a family, she begins to feel exhausted by cynicism and anxiety. She finds herself longing for the sparkle filled, belief fueled Utopian days in Iowa, meditating around the clock.  So she returns to her hometown in pursuit of TM’s highest form of meditation — levitation. This journey will transform ideas about her childhood, family, and spirituality.

Greetings from Utopia Park takes us deep into this complex, unusual world, illuminating its joys and comforts, and its disturbing problems. While there is no utopia on earth, Hoffman reveals, there are noble goals worth striving for: believing in belief, inner peace, and a firm understanding that there is a larger fabric of the universe to which we all belong.

This book sounded interesting to me because I am always up for learning about a different religion, especially one considered to be strange or, even better, cult-like to outsiders. I knew almost nothing about Transcendental Meditation before reading this book, so in that area this was a total win for me, as Hoffman does a pretty good job familiarizing the reader with the religion and explaining why they do certain things and what it’s all supposed to mean. I was fascinated by this religion, and specifically loved when Hoffman went into details about the different rules and rituals, the symbolism of different aspects of the faith, and some of the history behind the faith and its leader, Maharishi. This was by far my favorite aspect of the book – every time she started getting into details about the faith and the practice of meditation that seemed to be the bedrock of that faith, I was riveted to the page, eager to take in more and more information.

Unfortunately, that’s kind of where the love for this book starts and stops with me. I didn’t really connect to Hoffman, so that made it really difficult for me to latch onto any specific aspect of her personality OR care about her story. I was interested, yes, but did I care what happened to her? No, not at all, which is a definite issue when reading a memoir – for me, at least, I kinda have to give a crap about the person telling me their story. And in this case, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t.

The other issue I had was that when I turned the final pages, I was still asking myself why. Why did Hoffman choose to write this book? What story was she really trying to tell? Was the point for her to explore how and why people blindly follow religious figures, even to their personal detriment? Or was the point to say that, sure this religion is kind of messed up and weird, but lots of people who follow it are normal and just looking for a spiritual path, and actually they might be right about doing it this way? The fact that I can’t really tell where Hoffman falls on the wide spectrum between those two ideas is strange to me, and I don’t enjoy not understanding what the whole point of her telling this story actually was. Maybe this is a weird thing for me to be annoyed by, but it really turned the book into one that I just couldn’t fall in love with.

So. I was definitely interested in parts of Greetings from Utopia Park, but overall the book did not thrill me. I’m not sure if I’d read more from this author, but I’m glad I got the chance to learn about a faith practice that I had no previous knowledge about before picking up the book.

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and ScientologyTroublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini
Published by Ballantine Books

From the publisher:

Leah Remini has never been the type to hold her tongue. That willingness to speak her mind, stand her ground, and rattle the occasional cage has enabled this tough-talking girl from Brooklyn to forge an enduring and successful career in Hollywood. But being a troublemaker has come at a cost.

That was never more evident than in 2013, when Remini loudly and publicly broke with the Church of Scientology. Now, in this frank, funny, poignant memoir, the former King of Queens star opens up about that experience for the first time, revealing the in-depth details of her painful split with the church and its controversial practices.

Indoctrinated into the church as a child while living with her mother and sister in New York, Remini eventually moved to Los Angeles, where her dreams of becoming an actress and advancing Scientology’s causes grew increasingly intertwined. As an adult, she found the success she’d worked so hard for, and with it a prominent place in the hierarchy of celebrity Scientologists alongside people such as Tom Cruise, Scientology’s most high-profile adherent. Remini spent time directly with Cruise and was included among the guests at his 2006 wedding to Katie Holmes.

But when she began to raise questions about some of the church’s actions, she found herself a target. In the end, she was declared by the church to be a threat to their organization and therefore a “Suppressive Person,” and as a result, all of her fellow parishioners—including members of her own family—were told to disconnect from her. Forever.

Bold, brash, and bravely confessional, Troublemaker chronicles Leah Remini’s remarkable journey toward emotional and spiritual freedom, both for herself and for her family. This is a memoir designed to reveal the hard-won truths of a life lived honestly—from an author unafraid of the consequences.

I have to admit that Scientology fascinates me to no end. All religious cult-ish things fascinate me, but Scientology in particular because it’s such a big thing among celebrities. I feel like people who are swayed by cults would typically be people who are needing/wanting for something tangible, and the cult promises to deliver that – disenfranchised people, basically. But celebrities are anything but disenfranchised, they’re some of the most privileged among us, so why on earth would they be attracted to this “religion”? For everything I’d read in the past about Scientology, I couldn’t understand that specific aspect of the religion, so for that reason it was absolutely enlightening to read Leah Remini’s story.

Remini does a good job telling the story of how her family came to be Scientologists, what life was like for her growing up in the church, and then spent a good chunk of the book on how Scientology was in the fiber of every single aspect of her life throughout her adulthood. She talks a lot about how being a celebrity in the church comes with tons of special perks, how the church actively recruits celebrities because the belief is that if more celebrities are public Scientologists, more “regular” people will also join the church.

Being a celebrity Scientologist, one could assume that Remini was friendly with Tom Cruise. She is very clear in the book on exactly what type of friendship the two of them had (knew each other and spent some time together, but they weren’t exactly friends) and how her association with Cruise was a part of why and how she ended up leaving the church. It’s a pretty jaw-dropping story and definitely one you have to read to believe. But I loved this part of the book – yes, it’s juicy celebrity gossip, but on another level it is beyond fascinating to see how the inner workings of Scientology are just so freaking weird. There is no other way to put it. This shit is weird.

I enjoyed the hell out of the ride that Remini took me on with this book. It’s no joke that Scientologists are extremely calculating and cruel, especially when a person leaves the church, so I do believe she took a risk in writing her truth for the world to see. Her bravery and honesty in the face of this cult-like organization are inspiring and honestly, the book is just incredibly entertaining. Also, she reads the audio herself – and she’s a pretty good actress, so she does a great job. I really enjoyed Troublemaker. If you are at all interested in Scientology and/or celebrity memoirs, this is a great one to pick up.

Mini-Reviews: YA themed

No Parking at the End TimesNo Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss
Published by Greenwillow Books

Abigail and her brother Aaron have just been moved across the country to San Francisco with their parents and only the possessions that fit into their family’s van. Their parents have decided to follow a religion headed by a man named Brother John, who has dictated that the end times are here, and San Francisco is where the true followers will be saved. But when the date for the end times comes and goes, the family is homeless, with neither of Abigail’s parents able to bring in money to feed and take care of their teenage children. It is up to Abigail, and Aaron if she can convince him, to save their family.

Religious cults fascinate me, so I was interested in this book based on the premise alone. I mostly enjoyed it. Abigail and her brother were believable – acting just like teens in a situation such as this would have – their parents, not so much. I have such a hard time understanding why someone would make their children homeless willingly, and I’m not sure this book did a good enough job convincing me that this particular cult leader was compelling enough to get these parents to make these horrific choices for their family. Other than that, the story was heartwarming and I thought that by the end, Abigail proved herself to be a tough, smart, resourceful character that I really could get behind. Recommended for those who are just as fascinated by cults as I am!

Dumplin'Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Published by Balzer + Bray

Willowdean is a self-proclaimed fat girl who has always been confident in her own skin and proud of who she is. But when she falls for the hot jock Private School Bo, she is shocked to discover that he may be falling for her, too – causing her to have a sudden onset of insecurity she’s never felt before. To improve her confidence, she enrolls in the local beauty pageant – the most horrifying out-of-her-comfort-zone thing possible for her. Along the way, she not only faces her insecurities head-on, but she makes some true friends and shows the small town where she lives what true beauty is all about.

I thought this book was just adorable. I love how it deals with fat-shaming head-on, with fat acceptance, and with the fact that EVERY single person in the world faces insecurity and moments of self-doubt. I loved Willowdean’s group of misfits who became great friends throughout the pageant experience, girls who before the pageant would never have opened up to one another. I didn’t love how it was as soon as a guy started to show interest in Willowdean that she began to doubt herself – almost as though her confidence was based upon what this guy thought of her – but I thought that it was incredibly realistic for her to be this way. That’s how a teenager’s brain works, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, all of us care about what others think, all of our confidence levels can be shaken when we start to care about others’ opinions. I just really, truly enjoyed Dumplin’ and I loved everything that Julie Murphy did here.

Mini-Reviews: Recent Nonfiction Reads

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Published by Harper Perennial

I wish I had the energy or motivation to write an entire post about this incredibly smart, challenging, and at times witty book of essays but I’m struggling to find the right words to gush about it. I loved Gay’s style of writing – it’s intensely personal but in a way that made me feel like I was chatting with a girlfriend (a highly intelligent girlfriend who motivated me to think more deeply about things). The essays here are about all sorts of things, almost all relating in some way to feminism, but some more loosely than others, and many having to do with racism and sexism and how the two intersect in ways that most people don’t realize or even care to consider. My favorite essay in the book, hands down, is one where Gay lists rules for how women should be while in friendships with other women. It’s brilliant and so true that I want to share it with every woman I know. If you’re at all interested in feminism, read this book. If you think feminism is not necessary, read this book. If you think racism and sexism are not things that happen anymore, read this book. Or if you just happen to be interested in good writing, read this book. Bad Feminist is great and I’m looking forward to more from Roxane Gay.

Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It MattersUnchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
Published by Baker Books

The authors of this book did an extensive study on young people’s attitudes and beliefs about Christians. Not about Christianity itself, but Christians as people. The implications for what they learned – mainly that young people perceive Christians to be judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, obsessed with politics and politicians that reflect their conservative beliefs – can have huge implications for the future of Christianity. IF the right people read this book, learn from it, and make changes. I agree with a lot of what Kinnaman and Lyons said here, and although I am a Christian I personally see a lot of what was reflected in the book and it doesn’t always make me feel good about calling myself a Christian. While I enjoyed reading this book, mostly because it confirmed for me a lot of things I already felt, I don’t see how it will make a difference because I just don’t anticipate that the people who need to read the book will actually read it. Church leaders who want to actively change the way Christians are perceived in the world should be reading Unchristian and doing something with the knowledge gleaned from it, but I just don’t see that happening. That being said, I think it’s a valuable read for those of us who try to represent Christ in the world while holding tight to a church that isn’t perceived to consistently do a great job of being Christ-like in its actions.

I Suck at Relationships So You Don't Have To: 10 Rules for Not Screwing Up Your Happily Ever AfterI Suck at Relationships So You Don’t Have To: 10 Rules for Not Screwing Up Your Happily Ever After by Bethenny Frankel
Published by Touchstone

The ONLY reason I read this book is because Bethenny Frankel wrote it. I have a slight obsession with her – I think she’s hilarious and smart, witty and incredibly tough, a person who doesn’t take shit from anyone but isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and have her heart broken (on TV, no less), and ultimately is the most genuinely real reality TV star out there (and I watch too much reality TV, so I have formed quite an opinion). Honestly this book was really silly and nothing that I could ever use or need in real life. But I appreciated her snark throughout and her attitude always puts a smile on my face. I can’t imagine anyone that would actually use this advice, but she’s sold tons of copies already so obviously those people are out there. I can’t say I really liked this one, but if you are a fan of Bethenny you’ll probably want to pick it up.

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No ReligionThe Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen
Published by Westminster John Knox Press
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

If you think the only logical response to bad Christianity is to leave the church completely, this book is for you. In an effort to help those who’ve been hurt by or turned off by negative religion, Martin Thielen explains that there is an alternative to abandoning religion: good religion. Thielen uses personal stories to illustrate the dangers of religion that is judgmental, anti-intellectual, and legalistic. While addressing the growth of the new atheism movement and the “Nones” (people [who] have no religious affiliation), this book argues that leaving religion is not practical, not helpful, and not necessary. Thielen provides counterparts to the characteristics of bad religion, explaining that good religion is grace-filled, promotes love and forgiveness, and is inclusive and hope-filled. Perfect for individual, group, or congregational study, a Leader’s Guide and a Worship and Outreach Kit are also available to further the discussion and increase community involvement.

There’s definitely an audience for this book, but unfortunately I am not that audience. Someone who is already a believer, goes to church, reads the Bible, and prays on a regular basis is not exactly the kind of person that this book was written for. BUT I can see the value in the book, so let me tell you who I think should read it.

Let’s face it, Christians do thing sometimes in the name of religion that are just wrong. Christians can be judgmental, even hateful, towards those who don’t share their beliefs. Christians can be exclusionary and shun people who don’t fit the mold of what is “good” and “right”. For those who feel that religion is not for them because of the Christians I just mentioned, this is a great book to read. I personally know a lot of people who have been hurt or just disgusted by what someone has called “Christianity” and have decided to turn away from God altogether. This book is for those people – to show them that just because they have witnessed bad religion, they don’t need to go to the other extreme and choose to practice no religion at all.

Instead, the author lays out a case for what he calls good religion. A Christianity that isn’t judgmental, anti-anything really, and is all about the message of Jesus – that we should love God and love others, pure and simple. And along the way, you know, follow Him, read the Bible, do good works and all of that.

I kind of went through this myself when I first started coming to church with my husband before we got married, and I was able to reconcile this “bad religion” with the fact that the religion I practiced wasn’t that way. The God I prayed to, the Jesus I believe in, isn’t hateful or all about money or anything that turns people away from church. I think that this book would be a wonderful choice for anyone still working through those questions. It sort of sums up why this kind of Christianity isn’t how it should be, and how to find the kind of good religion that most people crave.

I liked this book, and even though I wasn’t the target audience for it, I can certainly see why it would be useful and helpful for those seeking a better experience with Christianity.

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical ChurchIn the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch
Published by Metropolitan Books

Gina Welch, who grew up without serious religion of any kind but technically considered herself Jewish, decided to spend two years immersing herself in Evangelical Christianity. She chose to spend that time at Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell’s church) and did everything from regular Sunday service to joining the singles groups to going on a mission trip and everything in between. What she found was both surprising and enlightening.

Before I talk about my thoughts on this book, let me explain my own personal beliefs and where I was coming from when I decided to read it. You all know I’m Christian, right? But I’m not Baptist, nor am I a huge fan (or any kind of fan actually) of Jerry Falwell and his hateful ways. I think Christianity – and religion in general – should be a way to bring people together and show love, not tear people apart and preach hate at anyone who doesn’t agree or share the same “lifestyle”. I’ve been interested in this book for quite some time, mostly because I so fundamentally disagree with the kind of Christianity that Falwell represented that I was interested in seeing what his church was truly like, from an outsider coming into it.

Overall I found almost exactly what I expected in this book. Welch surprises herself by learning that most of the Christians she met and became quite close friends with are actually incredibly wonderful, kind, caring people. This was probably the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most – the fact that she was going into this expecting the people of this church to be some “other” that she couldn’t understand or relate to, but in fact she mostly found the opposite. She found evangelicals to be fun, interesting, basically normal people who also happened to have a relationship with God – which is of course what I hoped she would find! But I found it so refreshing that she was able to sit back and examine how her expectations of what these people would be like turned out to be wrong (in most cases).

What made me sad was when she found some things that weren’t so good about the people of the church – judgment of those different from themselves, older men insinuating that the only way Welch could be happy was to land a husband, evangelicals shoving Christianity down strangers’ throats in rude and hateful ways, Falwell using his sermons as opportunities to be political and say that those who disagree with him will go to hell, etc. This stuff made me sad, although it seemed to be more of a generational thing than anything else – the younger crowd almost never fell into any of these patterns, but the older members of the church almost always did. So that made me hopeful that as time goes on, some of this negative stuff will change. Either way, it was somewhat eye-opening to see how some of the craziest things that have been said about this church and its leader were actually true!

In the Land of Believers is an extremely well-written novel and I really admired Welch for doing what she did in order to bring the reader this piece of investigative literature. While I really enjoyed the book overall, I couldn’t help but question what Welch’s point really was. I was left, in the end, feeling a bit disappointed that she draws no real conclusions or ties things together in any kind of way. I get that she’s basically reporting to the reader what she witnessed and learned while spending two years in this church, but I am left asking “why?” Why did she spend two years of her life doing this, what did she get out of it, what does it really mean? I guess there’s no real answers to these questions but I think I’m just looking for some way for her to pull all of her experiences together and show the reader something new.

Again, I really liked this book. For a thorough examination of this particular church, it’s a fantastic choice (perhaps the only choice). And for those of you who enjoy books about different religions and these investigative memoir type reads, this is a great choice.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein

jacket image for The Explanation for EverythingThe Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein
Published by Algonquin Books
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

For college biology professor Andy Waite, Darwinian evolution is the explanation for everything. But the unpredictable force of a charismatic evangelical student—a young woman determined to prove the existence of intelligent design—threatens to undermine more than just his faith in science. As she did in the bestselling novel A Friend of the Family, author Lauren Grodstein has written a taut, provocative morality tale centered on one of the most polarizing issues of our time. By dissecting the permeable line between faith and doubt, Grodstein creates a fiercely intelligent story about the lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions we sustain with others, and how violated boundaries—between students and teachers, believers and nonbelievers—can have devastating consequences.

This book really piqued my interest because of the way I personally came to the Christian faith. I was mostly apathetic about religion overall before I married my husband, but he asked me to please at least give his church a try, and he gave me a bunch of books on Christianity because he knew me well enough to understand that the best way for me to believe in something is for me to read about it, study it, become convinced of its truth. I say this because I felt that Andy’s journey throughout the course of the novel was strikingly similar to my own. He, too, didn’t believe, but was provided with rational arguments and just enough doubt about his way of thinking to open up his mind to the possibility that God just may exist – which is exactly what happened with me, and while I took my journey quite a bit further, I was extremely interested to see this play out over the course of the novel.

I think my personal connection to the subject matter in this novel is the main reason why I did enjoy it, because looking back on it, I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters. Andy is a character I certainly felt for – his wife died in a shocking car accident, leaving him to raise two young daughters alone – but nothing in this book caused me to really like him in any way. And Melissa wasn’t interesting to me in any way, didn’t surprise me at all, and I didn’t connect with her either.

I suppose I was just looking for more in the way of story and characters, so that was disappointing, but I did get an incredibly thoughtful novel about a topic that is extremely near to my heart and very personal to me. I connected with the ideas in the book more than any specific character, so in that sense this novel was a success for me and was a great reading experience. I’m just not sure how that would translate for readers not in the same boat as me, spiritually speaking. But the writing is excellent and there’s plenty Grodstein offers for the reader to think about, so if you like these kinds of thinky, ideas-based novels, give The Explanation for Everything a try.