on taking a break from church (a review of how to be a christian without going to church by kelly bean).

I haven’t been to church in a couple of months. I needed a break, not from God but from some of the dynamics that inevitably appear when you attend a church for over a decade.

It’s been nice in some ways, a relief. But in other ways, I feel a little bit unmoored. My Sundays have no particular shape, so I end up feeling even more disappointed on Sunday night when I have to go back to work on Monday. I have been a churchgoer all my life, so this much of a break is a big change, and I am not sure it is for me. I think I might be a church girl, and I have been glad to have the chance to figure that out for myself. Those uncomfortable dynamics aren’t going to be fixed when I decide to go back, but it’s nice to feel that I can choose them for myself rather than feeling stuck inside of them.

Soon after I decided to take a break, I requested a review copy of How to be a Christian Without Going to Church by Kelly Bean. I did it sort of as a joke, so I could read it and Mike could raise his eyebrows at me. (He’s been going to church a little bit.)

christianwithoutchurchThe book, as you might imagine, is about what it looks like for many people who are faithful believers but who no longer see traditional church as a priority. I should say that some of the most faithful Christians in my life are not regular churchgoers, so it was not difficult to convince me that there are other options than showing up in nice clothes at 11:00 on Sunday morning. Bean writes about other ways that practices and faith are possible even without Sunday morning services and Wednesday night Bible studies. These are not necessarily mind blowing things – home services, gathering for meals, and serving your community are not new ideas, but I appreciated how she framed them as opportunities for connection and spiritual growth. I was also challenged to consider how much I compartmentalize my church life because I can easily return to it every Sunday rather than letting it be a natural outpouring of my daily life.

One of my strongest objections to the book as I was reading it is that the author had experienced a certain amount of privilege in the ways that she experienced “church” even as a nongoer (her term). For example, they had a home large enough to house people who needed it and money and food enough to share as well as time to give. I was impressed with how she addressed this at the end of the book after experiencing some financial setbacks within her family.

I think How to be a Christian Without Going to Church addresses issues of vulnerability and authenticity (even though those are kind of cliches) that many people feel when it comes to living out their faith. It’s a good read even if you are comfortable with your church attendance because it offers so many practical suggestions for connecting with those around you. Even though it turns out that I am probably a church girl, I enjoyed reading this book and having the opportunity to figure that out for myself.

I haven’t been to church in a couple of months. I needed a break, but I think I will go back. Reading this book helped.

Does the title of the book still bug you? Kelly Bean addresses that well here.

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

what I have been reading (beach reads edition).

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) (via the public library)

I probably don’t need to say much about this book since it’s by J.K. Rowling, but I enjoy a good mystery novel and this one hit the spot. I could sort of see the pieces coming together but couldn’t quite guess how it was going to work out, so the reveal at the end was satisfying and enjoyable. It did drag a bit right in the middle, but I was reading it so quickly that that hardly mattered. Recommended for: mystery enthusiasts, people who like to discuss celebrity culture.

The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics by Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina (via NetGalley)

This book listed a different subtitle on Goodreads, but I think this one is slightly more accurate – the book is more specifically tailored for Catholic readers than Protestants or other faiths. I was hoping for some ideas about church year practices that we might include in our family celebrations, but it wasn’t structured quite like that. The first half was a discussion of the history of feasting in the church and the second half did get into more specifics about some holy days. I learned several things about the Catholic church that I had not known but didn’t pick up anything for our family. Recommended for: people wanting to learn more about celebrations within Catholicism.

image

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (via the public library)

Americanah is about two kids growing up in Nigeria and it follows them as one, Ifemelu, travels to America for college. Obinze, her boyfriend, is not able to get a visa and instead spends time in London. I enjoyed Ifemelu’s story (and her blog posts on racial issues in America) more than Obinze’s, especially in the middle of the book when he was bogged down in legal/visa issues. Recommended for: basically everybody, because this is a great book about the modern-day immigrant experience.

image

Spiritual Misfit by Michelle DeRusha (via Blogging for Books)

I read Michelle DeRusha’s blog a few times many years ago when it was called Nebraska Graceful. I remember enjoying her sense of humor and her way of looking at the world, so when I saw that I could request a copy of her book, I was excited to do so. Michelle grew up in the Catholic church but did not consider herself a person of faith. After some conversations and experiences at church with her family, she decided to be more open to spiritual ideas and began to see God moving in unexpected places. This is her story of faith and doubt and not fitting in. One of the things I liked about her blog bugged me a little bit while I was reading the book – she is great at finding the humor in situations and is careful to make herself the butt of the joke and to protect her family. After a few chapters, I began to wish we had had more information on the people around her to balance out her portrayal of herself as a bit of a grumpy goof. The book quotes a lot of authors I have read (especially Kathleen Norris) and there were times I felt that she was not adding a lot to those quotes. Still, I would recommend this for people who have struggled as outsiders in their faith, especially those who converted as adults.

The Misfits by James Howe (via my own shelf even though I had never read it)

I decided to read this one because I am thinking about doing a book club with it next year, focusing on students who are outsiders and possibly doing our own No Name-Calling Week. If you have read this and have ideas for me, let me know! If you haven’t, it’s a good middle grades book that helps students think about bullying.

A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness by Marlena Graves (via NetGalley)

Marlena Graves grew up with an alcoholic, mentally ill father which has helped her to see how God is present in the wilderness. She writes about different ways that God has spoken or moved in her life in the wilderness and testifies to the faithfulness of God using scripture and examples from her own life and others. I found the first half of the book to be slow and I couldn’t tell where she was going or understand what point she was making. The book picked up about halfway through, but even so, I wished there had been a stronger structure on which to hang the book, because the wilderness metaphor did not seem quite right for a lot of her stories. In the end, it didn’t feel a lot different than other books that I have read about trusting God in difficult times. I saw so many good things online about this one, but I have to say it didn’t work for me.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (via the used bookstore)

I’m probably the last person in the world to read this but in case you don’t know, it’s about Walls’s experiences growing up in neglect and poverty in Arizona and in West Virginia. I had put off reading it because I had heard people say it was as tough as it sounded like it would be. Agree, but it’s also a captivating story, and it’s made easier because you know she managed to pull through (since she did write the book and all).

Some of these books were provided to me by the publishers (as indicated above) but my opinions, as always, are my own.

the world cup at our house.

soccer

I never updated about how Atticus’s soccer season went, and that is because it was bad. He did okay, for the most part, but he is stubborn and a little bit nervous around crowds. I think that even if he had had a coach who was good with his age group and who had shown up to all the games and practices, he would have been shy about the part where everybody runs together to get the ball. But the problem was that he didn’t have a coach who showed up for all the games and practices, so he never really got a chance to get comfortable. It was a disappointing shame, and if you live in my town, I don’t recommend the YMCA soccer program.

I wanted him to play soccer because the idea of it was so cute with the little jerseys and the shin guards and the running. There is something more, too, and I can’t quite explain except to tell you that he was in my stomach kicking away four years ago and I watched those World Cup games and hoped he was taking them in. Those were my first ever soccer games, and loved watching them with my friends (and Twitter). I dreamed of watching the games with him in 2014, of cheering on the national team and showing him the countries on the map. Signing him up for soccer seemed like a good way to encourage that.

Before the 2010 World Cup, soccer was something that was sometimes on at other people’s houses. I have a hazy memory of being in a friend’s apartment for what must have been the 1999 women’s world cup, but I didn’t watch the game. All I could see and think was that the field seemed so big and that no one seemed to really have control of the ball. I am a basketball girl at heart, raised on Dean Smith and his four corners and a 45 second shot clock. I couldn’t get my mind around soccer and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

I have thought about that a lot over the past few weeks, that sense that the game was too big and wild. Soccer still seems like that to me when I turn it on, but after a while I get into the rhythm of it and I see the fluidity as a beautiful thing rather than a barrier.

There are many things in my life that seemed big and out of control until I was able to focus in and understand. In my teens and 20s, I think I made a lot of decisions based on fears of wild, untamed feelings and places I wasn’t sure how to handle. It was only when I saw the wildness as a welcoming place, a place where understanding could be found, that I was able to heal.

I have learned to enjoy soccer for the quick touches and the long game, maybe even as a metaphor for life, the ways that things might seem out of control until we look from a different perspective. I think learning about the World Cup in 2010, entering into that confusion, was good practice for me as a parent, because those are skills I have used many times since.

Atticus has not watched an entire game during this World Cup, but he has seen a lot of soccer over the past few weeks. We have talked about good guys and bad guys and goalie goals and believing that we will win. It has exceeded what I hoped for him four years ago when everything I knew about him came from his active kicks. I don’t know if we will sign him up for soccer again but watching the game with him has helped me get over the bad experience we had with the YMCA, reminding me that taking steps into things that you don’t understand can turn out to be pretty fun after all.

god and the gay christian by matthew vines.

god and the gay christianSince I bought Torn by Justin Lee, my copy has been passed around and my best guess is that it’s been read by eight or nine people. I think the combination of Justin’s story (I call him Justin because he lives in NC and therefore we are basically buds) and the seriousness with which he talks about his faith make that book a winning combination, but the analysis of scripture is only a part of the book rather than being the main focus. While our lived testimonies are an important part of Christianity, the gap between what people believe the Bible says about being LGBT and what they hear from their friends about their lives is confusing to many.

Enter God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, which takes a full chapter for each of the “clobber texts” that are often used to condemn LGBT relationships and discusses them in depth. He also takes on some of the ideas about gender that influence the ways that we talk about relationships and marriage. Vines considers the words that are used in scripture and also brings a lot of information about the context of the day and time that are helpful. If women are considered to be less than men (and, let’s not be coy, they were in Bible times and continue to be in many denominations despite linguistic trickery like “first among equals” and “equal worth, different roles”), then it is considered a degradation for men to take on a “women’s role” in a relationship. If you believe that men and women are actually equals, there is more room for relationships founded on love and mutual respect regardless of gender.

I was a little bit concerned about reading this book because I listened to an interview that Justin Lee did with Matthew Vines and I did not think that Vines came across very well. (To be fair, I think Justin Lee is possibly the nicest person on the planet, so maybe all of us would suffer in comparison with him.) In this book, though, Vines puts forth a view of scripture that appears to be even more explicitly conservative than Justin’s, and he seems kind and thorough.

Should you read God and the Gay Christian? I say yes, even if you are convinced that you will never change your mind about LGBT relationships and the church, because this is the most comprehensive take I have seen that is written for the layperson, and I believe it is better to read and understand for yourself. The scripture analysis will not be new for people who have already looked into this topic, although I did learn a few new things about the history of same-sex relationships, and I enjoyed the fresh appeal to the egalitarians among us. (Interestingly, I think that is the part that has his critics the most nervous as it undermines their theology in multiple ways.) I also recommend Torn, and these are great companion books to one another.

Other resources for you:

-This the study that I did at church a few years ago when Mike and I were first reconsidering this topic (it has been updated a little bit).

-Matthew Vines’s video (and transcript) that were the basis for this book.

I did receive this book for free from the publisher but I was not obligated to review it. As always, my opinions are my own.

the cross and the lynching tree by james h. cone

the cross and the lynching treeWe have been watching a lot of the World Cup here. Atticus, who is very into superheroes, wants to know about the good guys and the bad guys. That hasn’t been a big deal to me until the USA/Germany game when I noticed that there were some jokes about Germany being bad guys on Twitter. Nothing too extreme – nobody went so far as to actually reference Hitler, but it’s clear that those of us who grew up learning about WWII and the Holocaust have some conflicted feelings about how to talk about Germany.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on an enormous topic like WWII and the Holocaust, but I do think it’s interesting to see that we as a country are more comfortable referencing the difficult history of another country than we are with our own. In my education, the treatment of Native Americans and the history that Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed in his reparations article were covered and dismissed as quickly as possible. Let’s face it, when the majority gets to write the history books, the stories of the minority are going to continue to be marginalized. Those of us who grew up with these imperfect understandings of the relationships between different racial and ethnic groups in our own country should take it upon ourselves to seek out other perspectives.

One book that I recently read from a different perspective was The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Once you consider the idea, it is not a stretch to see how the lynching tree, where innocent men and women hung after being tortured by angry mobs, could be connected in the minds of many black Americans to the cross on which Jesus died. The book explores the lynching tree in the black community and makes a powerful case that it should be a more prominent symbol in American Christianity as we wrestle with our sins as a nation and specifically as white Christians who did not act against this terror.

I came away from this book with a strong sense of how white my Christianity has been, and a desire to broaden my perspective. It is challenging and moving to read about other ways to view God, especially when you suddenly see through the eyes of the oppressed rather than that of the oppressor. This is a short book but not a light read. I hope you will consider reading it, and I would love any similar recommendations of books that have challenged you to see history or your own faith from a new perspective, especially from a minority perspective.

what I have been reading (falling into summer edition).

Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus J. Borg (via the used bookstore)

The title basically says everything here. The book covers ideas like redemption and sin as well as words like mercy and belief and tries to put them in a biblical context rather than the cultural one we are most familiar with. Would make a good Sunday School or small group study for a progressive group that is interested in reclaiming and/or reevaluating Christian language.

Drama by Raina Telgemeier (via my school’s library)

I assigned myself some school summer reading, including a few graphic novels. This one is a delightful school story about drama – both relational drama and actual theater. Recommended for middle and high schoolers, especially the theater ones.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (via another school’s library)

This is another one I assigned myself because I want to know if I should purchase it for my middle school. A high school librarian kindly let me borrow it over the summer so I could see. As you can probably tell from the title, it is about bullying, but I thought it was more realistic about what it looks and feels like to be bullied than many of the books I read on The topic. I felt as I was reading it as if I was stuck in that same overwhelming situation with Piddy. I liked how it was resolved without everyone hugging and making up and that the consequences of what happened would continue. I think it would be a good fit for my school.

Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (via Netgalley)

Early in this book, O’Donnell quotes Andre Dubus: “A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven. But no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.” A few paragraphs later, O’Donnell says, “Holy objects or ‘sacramentals’ hint at this presence of the divine in the ordinary, but an imaginative engagement of the world enlarges our ability to see that all objects are potentially holy–or ‘sacramentals’–as are all human activities and, most important, all human beings.” This book is the way that O’Donnell explores these thoughts about finding the sacred in the moments of caring for her ill mother. The topics vary from the serious to the somewhat silly, from the importance of speaking to and with her mother to the afternoon they spent watching Dirty Dancing. (Any book with a section entitled, “The Sacrament of Dirty Dancing” is going to be okay by me.) Mortal Blessings is a thoughtful book that I would recommend for anyone who is caring for an ill parent.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (via Netgalley)

I never finished Tom Rachman’s first book, The Imperfectionists. I checked it out from the library and had to return it before I was done and never felt compelled to get it again. I found the characters in this one, especially the main character, Tooly, to be more interesting but the book takes its time letting you know what is going on and how all of the story fits together. Recommended for: people who are willing to be a little bit lost during the story, people who admire well-structured books.

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig (via Blogging for Books)

Mike and I both read this one because we were intrigued by the idea of teaching Atticus Shakespeare. Ultimately I think this is probably a little bit more intense than we want to be about teaching him passages, but it has great tips on how to work on memorization that I can see us using for important texts – Shakespeare, yes, but also poems and speeches and the Bible. I feel like I have an adequate knowledge of Shakespeare, but there are some big plays that I have never read, and Ludwig explains the plots and the importance of some famous speeches with great enthusiasm and passion. I learned a lot from the book and am glad I read it. It would make a great textbook for a high school or college class on Shakespeare as it puts so many of the plays and lines into context. I could also see it being a big hit in homeschool groups. The resource list at the back is excellent.

I received copies of some of these books from Netgalley and Blogging for Books, but all opinions are my own.

what I have been reading (summertime is upon us edition).

El Deafo by Cece Bell (sample via NetGalley, whole book via publisher)

This is a charming graphic novel about a young girl who loses her hearing at the age of four. When she starts school, she has to wear a hearing aid. This is okay when she is in kindergarten with other kids just like her, but when she begins a mainstream class the next year, she faces difficulties and embarrassment. One way she deals with her feelings is by imagining what her alter ego, El Deafo, might do in these situations. This book would be really cute for middle grades. I thought the subject was explained well and in an engaging way. I loved the section on context clues – great thoughts for conversations as well as books, and a good way to remind kids how to be thoughtful and to pay attention. It would also be a great discussion starter for how to speak to and about people with disabilities, and a good way to explain to kids that a disability doesn’t keep people from having regular feelings like friendship and crushes. It’s also just a sweet and funny story and I liked the pictures. (I got a sample of this book from NetGalley but it didn’t say it was just a sample, so after I finished those 50 pages I asked the publisher where the rest was because I was enjoying it so much. Thanks to them for sending me a copy.)

Seamless Faith: Simple Practices for Daily Family Life by Traci Smith (via NetGalley)

I loved these ideas for families to practice faith and follow the church calendar. The different activities are marked by age and offer variations. I will be picking up a physical copy to put on my shelf with To Dance With God by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton. I love all three books, but this is the one that is the most activity-based. If you are familiar with the rhythms of the calendar year and are simply looking for ways to celebrate it, I highly recommend this as an option.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (via NetGalley)

I mean, if you have read a book about a curmudgeon who is saved by the quirky family who lives next door, then you are familiar with what happens in this story. But it’s sweet and funny and well-executed. And, dang it, I totally cried at the end. It really should be made into a movie.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (via the public library)

I don’t think my parents watched The Tonight Show, so the whole Leno and Letterman thing was not really on my radar. When I met Mike, he explained to me that I had to be a Letterman person to be married to him, and I happily agreed. In our younger and more vulnerable years, we did stay up late and watch Letterman (and we went to a taping once, which was very cool), but we are much too old for that now. I never watched Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, but I do feel very strongly that Conan got screwed over by Jay/NBC. This book is very insidery and I did have a hard time keeping all the lawyers and publicists straight but I enjoyed it a lot. I thought it was very fair to everyone involved (and includes coverage of people like Kimmel and Letterman and Stewart) and made it clear that Jay is not some kind of monster, just that he was kind of a workaholic. I wish Carter had gotten Jay to articulate why he didn’t want to leave – that was the one thing I think wasn’t explained well. In the end, it seemed like Conan cared more about The Tonight Show as an institution than Jay and NBC did, and I think that was his downfall. (I have to admit I cried when I read the account of Conan’s last show and his reminder to work hard and be kind and not to be cynical.) The only bad thing about this book for me is that it sent me down a rabbit hole of internet clips. Other than that, solid and fun read.

a poem for father’s day.

From “Listening” by David Ignatow

Standing beside you,
I took an oath
to make your life simpler
by complicating mine
and what I always thought
would happen did:
I was lifted up in joy.

image

in defense of young adults and their literature.

image

I try very hard to be a parent who respects her child and sees his intelligence as he figures out the world around him. It’s made easier by the students I have worked with over the years, the ones who make bright and funny observations all the time and who have taught me to give them more credit than we usually do in our culture. There are things that we lose as adults that children and teenagers can remind us: the immediacy of the world, the imagination that it takes to live in it. There are big questions about who we are and how we figure out our places in the world that we adults are supposed to have figured out.

This is part of what troubled me about Ruth Graham’s piece last week that stated that adults should be embarrassed to read YA literature. Graham made it clear that she’s not an expert on the topic. Well, I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I do work in the field, so I have to be more qualified to talk about it than she is. I took grad school classes on YA literature and I participate in discussions of it every year. I read it, both because I like it and because it’s my job. I defend it not simply because I enjoy it but because I believe it is worth defending as art and as literature.

I agree with many of the other critiques of her article, such as the ones that point out that books for children and young adults are often dismissed because they are written by women (see also every discussion about John Green that ignores all the great female authors writing YA) or the ones that point out that she didn’t even seem to understand the very smart books she was putting down or that there are YA books beyond the bestseller lists. She also seemed to dislike any happiness or resolution in a story while not noticing that some of the most popular series (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, HUNGER GAMES) don’t exactly have satisfying endings. I especially agree with the very nice people who have calmly pointed out that we who work with teenagers mention To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye not because they were published as YA books but because they would surely be marketed as YA now, as they are coming-of-age stories told by young people. But other people have gone over that stuff. There’s just one other thing I want to say.

To me, the YA debate is a question of respect. If you believe that children’s literature and young adult literature are so far beneath you that people should be ashamed to read from those categories, then you are saying that children and young adults are beneath you. You are saying that their concerns are no longer important in your life. You are saying that their literature is stupid because that is the only level they can comprehend. You aren’t giving kids enough credit—any credit—and I hope you don’t work with them or have any of your own. I don’t feel defensive about YA literature because I work with it. I feel defensive about it because to dismiss it out of hand is to be disrespectful to young people who deserve our respect. The teenagers in my life are smart people who are learning about the world and who are asking big questions. One of the ways they do that is through books. It is a privilege to be able to do that along with them.

I learned about that respect both when the adults in my life did not belittle my reading choices and when they handed me different things to read. I learned about it by being reminded (by John Green) to take teenagers’ feelings seriously. And I learned about it from Madeleine L’Engle, who always advocated for treating the children who read her books as smart.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” – Madeleine L’Engle

“The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children’s literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.” -Madeleine L’Engle

“We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books . . .” -Madeleine L’Engle

I don’t know yet what kind of reader Atticus is going to be, but I hope he has teachers and librarians in his life who respect him as a reader as well as a person. I hope they encourage him to ask big questions rather than putting down his interests and tastes. I hope he knows that learning isn’t just an adult-to-child activity. And I hope he tries new things and rolls his eyes at the gatekeepers. I hope I do, too.

what I have been reading (almost summer edition).

Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste by Carl Wilson (purchased a copy)

I heard the author of this book interviewed on this episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest and I think I ordered the book before the interview was over. It sounded so fun and interesting and it did not disappoint. It’s about looking at taste and snobbery by examining Celine Dion, who you will probably see in a different (more sympathetic) light after reading more about her life and her fans. I love books that challenge expectations, and this one is marvelous. The new edition has essays by different authors who respond to the book, and those are hit or miss but I did enjoy some of them. Recommended for: music snobs, people who secretly sing along with that one Celine Dion song when it comes on the radio.

Why Do Buses Come in Threes: The Hidden Mathematics of Everyday Life by Robert Eastaway (via NetGalley)

You have probably seen some of those math problems on Facebook where people are outraged at how their children are being taught through Common Core. Besides being totally out of context, those people are missing the fact that the problems are focusing on number sense, understanding how numbers work and how they fit together. This book is basically about number sense and how it applies in the real world, covering things like cooking and traffic and botany. It reminded me of The I Hate Mathematics Book by Marilyn Burns, which I loved as a kid. I could definitely see a teacher or a parent talking about these ideas with kids.

No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace (via NetGalley)

Olivia and Liam are twins who fall for the same girl. The novel switches from Olivia’s perspective to Zoey (the aforementioned girl) but the transitions are not completely smooth because the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to remember which one is which (except that one girl is rich and one is poor). I was struck by the banality of it all – apparently we as a culture are ready for LGBT teen romances that are just as formulaic as the straight ones. Quirky younger sibling: Zoey’s younger sister is not so much quirky as fragile.

Of Scars and Stardust by Andrea Hannah (via NetGalley)

This book is about a family that was torn apart by wolf attacks even though wolves supposedly don’t live near their small town. My big problem with the story is that the description of it seemed at odds with what was happening in the first few chapters, so I spent a fair amount of time being confused. Once I finished it, I understood why some of that had happened, but it was still pretty frustrating as it was going on. I can see this being a big hit with high school students who enjoyed books like Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater or who enjoy thrillers or mysteries. Just make sure they know to hang in there even if they are not totally sure what is going on. Quirky younger sibling: makes crafts to protect them from the wolves, has gone missing and left clues as to where she might be.

Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett (via NetGalley)

Anna had an uncle who was raised as a brother to her, and she idolized him. In the year since his death, for which she blames herself, she has practiced “coffin yoga” by lying still every morning and by turning herself into Patti Smith. There is a mystery aspect to the story as she realizes that she didn’t know everything about her cousin, and there is a nice romance (that I did not totally buy even though the character was sweet). I enjoyed the story until the end, when something is revealed about her cousin’s actions that I found to be totally jarring and unbelievable. I also raised an eyebrow at the idea that Anna spent all this time on Patti Smith’s words but hadn’t read Just Kids, which turned out to be part of the resolution. There were a lot of vivid and interesting things about this book, but the end fell flat for me. Quirky younger sibling: a sister who likes to hide in small spaces, even the oven.

image

Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity by Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook (purchased a copy)

I go to church with Saundra and taught her son in Sunday School. What a gift it is to know people who are so smart and who share their expertise. Saundra and her friend conducted interviews with people who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death but then subsequently released. There is no automatic compensation for them, no assistance as they transition back into the outside world, and there are barely any apologies from the state. Exonerees, though they were wrongly convicted, have to go through a complicated legal process to get their records expunged (and if they don’t, their records will be flagged when potential employers run background checks). If they do receive compensation, it takes an average of four years for the money to get to them, but of course it’s needed much earlier as they are trying to find housing and start over. The parts of the book that I found most moving were when the exonerees discussed their conversations with the victims’ families and how much those apologies meant to them. I also really enjoyed the discussion of the ways that exonerees deal with the pain of their wrongful convictions. Some of them turn inward and believe that there were things that they needed to learn or that God used that time to teach them certain lessons. Others take that pain and use it to fight against the death penalty and for more assistance for other exonerees. This is a smart, well-organized discussion of the exonerees and their experiences, and I recommend it for a peek into the injustice of our justice system.

Some of these books came from NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

#weneeddiversebooks like the great greene heist by varian johnson.

weneeddiversebooks

Last month, I followed and participated in the #weneeddiversebooks discussion that was sparked (at least in part) by Walter Dean Myers’s article in the New York Times.

This is a topic close to my heart because I am constantly searching for books that reflect my students’ lives and their experiences. Like all middle school students, they love books that feature “drama.” And I’m sympathetic, because I don’t always enjoy reading books where nothing happens. When you are 12 years old and everything seems extreme, of course you want books where extreme things happen. But, to be honest, it bugs me that the books that feature characters who look like my students will often have plots that feature violence or teen pregnancy. Many of my students live in difficult situations and I want them to see that there are stories about people like them. But that is not all of who they are, and I wish for them to read about other, less charged drama, too. I thought about this a lot this winter when we read The Snowy Day to Atticus and I marveled at how it portrayed a young boy just being a kid. My students deserve to read books about kids being kids. They deserve funny books and science fiction and fantasy. They shouldn’t be relegated to the “urban” section.

great greene heistThat was one reason I enjoyed The Great Greene Heist so much – it was about a diverse group of kids dealing with a rigged election at school without having anything to do with darker kinds of drama. School drama is drama enough sometimes! Especially when you, like Jackson Greene, come from a family of con artists. Echoing Ocean’s 11, Jackson gets his team back together to pull the con to end all cons – re-rigging the election that the principal has already rigged, thanks to a generous donation from a parent.

I think that this is a book that will appeal to a lot of smart middle school students (especially the troublemakers). There were a few parts where it was a little bit challenging to follow until I read the passages with Oceans 11 in mind. It was obviously written with that tone: funny and sharp with great pop culture references. And it features a diverse cast of characters without feeling forced. I hope there are more books featuring Jackson Greene and his friends, because it was a pleasure to read. (And Mike enjoyed it, too!)

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley but I also purchased a copy of my own (from our local independent bookstore).

strength and honor (a review of the little boy in the tree by roland russoli).

image I do not know very much about the military or about military service. Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day have always just been days off from school. That’s why I thought Memorial Day weekend would be a good time to read my friend Roland Russoli’s book about the years in his life after his son Andrew, a marine, was killed in Iraq.

I did not know Andrew very well. I saw him at church a few times and shared a meal with him the summer before he died. My church community was proud of him and has grieved him, and I have borne witness to their grief because I see the hole that he has left in their lives even though I was not so personally affected.

Roland’s book is structured around the emails that he sent to his friends and family after Andrew died. These emails, sent early in the morning and late at night, were honest and witty and descriptive. At the time, Roland and his wife lived overseas, first in Mongolia and then in Mauritania, so his stories are peppered with those experiences. Although he does not specifically say this, I am sure it was hard to be so far away from friends back home, but the differences he faced seemed to help him grieve this terrible change in his own life.

Roland has been a great encouragement to me as a parent and a reminder to be patient with my own little boy who likes to climb trees (and pews and furniture). On a recent Sunday, when Atticus was a little more squirmy than I wanted him to be, I specifically thought about how Roland might want me to respond, which helped me take a breath and remember that Atticus has a place in the community, too. One day soon we will tell him about Andrew and his motto, Strength and Honor. I hope Atticus learns that he is beloved in the same way by our community.

I recommend Roland’s book for people who have experienced grief, especially the pain of losing a child, or who are walking through it now. It is a powerful reminder of the very real cost of war.

moral monday 2.0

image

I went to Moral Monday this week. There were lots of television cameras, and the reporters kept asking the participants why they were there. I studiously avoided them all because the idea of me breaking into tears while trying to explain that I want a better world for my son was beyond embarrassing. But I do want a better world for my son. That is why I was there. And if I am crying about it right now at least none of you can see me.

It was a powerful rally that included a symbolic shared meal that echoed Jesus’ feeding of the 5000: when we share what we have, there is enough to go around. When we break bread together, we are more able to listen to one another and recognize our common humanity.

image

The words of Dr. Barber on acknowledging our common humanity were on my mind last week I read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, Strangers at My Door, which I got for Christmas (but didn’t want to read because I didn’t want it to be over). He has been a powerful teacher to me in the past few years as I have begun thinking more deeply about poverty and race. His humble example has guided me through some difficult days and conversations. And the fact that he is a North Carolinian is an added bonus for me. Strangers at My Door is about welcoming the people around us who are in need and seeing their humanity rather than their statistics or their list of misdeeds. It’s about seeing that they too are created in the image of God. Wilson-Hartgrove lives these principles out by living with his family and other families in what is called an “intentional community” in one of Durham’s poorest neighborhoods. Not only do they share their house beyond their family unit, but also by opening their house to the people around them. In the book, he tells stories both good and bad about what he has seen and experienced. I loved it for his gentle, thoughtful style, but I loved it even more for the fact that he doesn’t say (or believe) that this is what God is asking of all of us. What he does challenge us all to do is to see the stranger before us in our own lives and consider how to welcome him or her like Christ. I thought about these words from the closing paragraphs on Monday as I sang and prayed and protested a little bit, hoping for a different sort of world for my son.

This strength to build a new world is itself a gift. It comes to us from beyond, from the spring that is the source of every living thing. And it comes to us through people who know down in their bones that the world is not as it was made to be.

Somehow the fire that stirs in them sets you and me aflame, and we are, together, like the bush that Moses saw in the wilderness–burning, but not consumed.

We are becoming an eternal flame. -Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Strangers at My Door

At the end of Moral Monday, we all danced. Well, not me, because I can’t really dance. But there were people around me who had moves and those who were pretty goofy, but they all welcomed me anyway. I stood and swayed awkwardly, accepting my limitations, but feeling accepted as part of the beloved community just the same. Building a new world together.

dad is fat by jim gaffigan (guest review by mike).

imageWhen I requested Dad is Fat, I had some vague plan to read it on the sly where Mike wouldn’t see me. And then I could give it to him for Father’s Day! This plan was brilliant except for one thing: Mike always gets the mail. And, let’s be honest here, he loves to open mail, so when he sees things that he thinks might be books, he opens them before I get home. Instead of finding a package on the counter, I found the book on the counter. He looked at me sheepishly then accused me of not telling him not to open my mail. Do you guys see what I have to put up with?!

Since he was already totally excited about it, I let him read it first. There were tons of giggles from his end of the couch and his side of the bed, and when I asked him to read me the funny parts, he said, “Everything I’ve read is funny.” Here, in his own words (lightly edited by me for clarity), is Mike’s take on Dad is Fat:

If you like Jim Gaffigan, you will like this book. I like him because he finds the humor in some of the terrible parts of parenting like living in a two-bedroom apartment with five kids and because he tells stories that make his wife sound great. I had heard some of this beforehand his standup routine but still enjoyed reading those parts. My favorite stories were when he took all of his kids to the park alone and the trip to Disneyland. Everyone should buy this book because Jim Gaffigan needs to be able to afford a bigger apartment.

Takeaway: Don’t open other people’s mail even if they don’t ask you not to. And read this book. Or give it to your dad.

I got a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books but opinions here are our own.

what I have been reading (it’s been a while edition).

coffee

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor (purchased)

I’m only mentioning this here because it was so good that I want everybody to know how good it was. Five stars! Go read it! I can’t summarize it but there were beautiful thoughtful things on every page!

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois (via the public library)

I didn’t pay a ton of attention to the Amanda Knox thing when it was happening, so I don’t have hugely well-informed opinions about the case. I will say that when the prosecutors are saying that what took place was a sex-crazed satanic ritual, I am likely to be skeptical. Anyway, Cartwheel is not about Amanda Knox, but it is a fictional version of something very similar – an American exchange student whose roommate is murdered. I liked it quite a lot, more than I maybe should have, because I loved how we as the reader could see what different characters were thinking and what their motivations were. That device is often used to piece together “the truth” but in this book, like the Amanda Knox case itself, the truth remains a little murky at the end. Recommended for: a good summer beach read!

The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year by Kimberlee Conway Ireton (purchased)

This is a great little book on the seasons of the church calendar. I have learned most of these things through loosely practicing them at my church but it would have been a perfect book for me a few years ago. Excellent as an introduction and for parents who want practices to include for home. Though I didn’t need an introduction, I can see myself pulling it off the shelf to get some ideas of ways to celebrate certain seasons with Atticus. Pairs well with To Dance With God by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. (You can order it directly from the author herself and she will sign it for you.)

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando (borrowed from a friend)

My favorite of Sara Zarr’s since Once Was Lost. It’s about two girls who are assigned to be roommates for their freshman year of college and the emails they send to one another. I really enjoyed how their lives paralleled with summer romances and conflicted feelings about leaving their parents even though they lived on opposite coasts. A super enjoyable read for me.

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier (via NetGalley)

Aargh, you guys. I am so conflicted about this book. It’s about a girl named Dimple whose family is from India, but she is American. Of course she feels pulled between her family and her culture, not fitting in fully in either place, which is why she feels like she was “born confused”. On one hand, I loved the main character and her almost Elizabeth-and-Darcy meeting with a friend of her parents. I loved this particular expression of what a lot of teenagers feel, whether their families are immigrants or not. And I loved how she began to find a place for herself with others who feel the same way. But. I didn’t like her best friend at all and I thought in many places it was hard to read and understand. I think it would make a good audiobook because you would be able to hear the inflections that were intended that were not always clear to me as I was reading. In the end, I will remember it as a sweet book about a character I really liked but that was frustrating to actually read.

The Book of Not-So-Common Prayer: A New Way to Pray, a New Way to Live by Linda McCullough Moore (via NetGalley)

Linda seemed like a nice person but a little bit rigid and I didn’t find her suggestions extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what was so uncommon about her prayer life or her advice, because I didn’t feel as if there were tips I hadn’t heard elsewhere. I kept hoping there would be one section I might recommend but that never came. Overall not a winner for me.

Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad by Jerry Mahoney (via NetGalley)

Mommy Man is the story of Jerry and his partner Drew and how they got together and decided they wanted to have kids. They chose surrogacy and I enjoyed the discussion of the fertility issues because I have several friends who have done IUIs and IVF as well as some LGBT friends who have adopted or used sperm donors. The story pretty much ends with the birth, so it’s not about parenting as much as it is about becoming parents. I really did laugh and cry while I was reading it. I read this on Mother’s Day and it was a perfect reminder of the miracle of life.

I received free copies of some of these books from NetGalley but my opinions are my own.

on motherhood.

image

Yesterday I spent a good chunk of time weeding a bed in front of our house and placing bricks around the edge. Then we had a giant thunderstorm and it flooded. After the skies cleared, Atticus in all his wisdom decided to move all my carefully placed bricks into the mud and throw some of his toys in there, too. When I tried to put the bricks back, I had a “helper” who wasn’t too jazzed about the idea (“no, I want the bricks in the mud!”) and then decided he should be the one to use the hammer (which I find fairly terrifying, especially when the target is near my toes). Plus, I dug through dirty buggy wormy mud and didn’t manage to find all the toys. Whatever Atticus got me for Mother’s Day, I earned it. Four words: mud in my underwear.

As I was looking for that one final toy, I knew that I could tell the story in a way that could be played for laughs or that would paint me as a harried mom. But the truth is that, yeah, it was kind of irritating to see him destroy all my hard work, but he didn’t do it out of malice. He saw me digging in the dirt and playing with bricks earlier, and he wanted to try it, too. Toys are fun, mud is fun, why wouldn’t toys in the mud be ultra fun?! It doesn’t help any of us if I yell at him for not seeing the world the same way that I do. I get to learn how to communicate a little more clearly and he hopefully learns some things about other points of view (and maybe that mama makes a mean mud pie).

image

I am telling this story because I want to stand up for motherhood a little bit. I read one too many articles this week on how hard and difficult and draining it is and I mean, of course it is. Of course I don’t enjoy every minute. But everything I do these days seems kind of hard so I am not sure why this is the thing that should be different . . . except for the fact that our society likes for motherhood, especially Mother’s Day, to be all rosy cheeks and smiling perfection. That or the frazzled mom with Cheerios stuck to her shirt, that’s all we get.

Shockingly, real life is a little more nuanced. I have a three-year-old who is beyond stubborn but yesterday he also watched a thunderstorm with me on the couch and we made snowman pancakes and mostly things are pretty good. These are the things I remember about being a child: my dad holding me during thunderstorms, my mom’s pancakes. I hope it’s what Atticus remembers, too. It might not look like much, but it adds up to the beautiful muddy frustrating exhilarating life we share together, one that brings us joy. I want to bear witness to those small stories because they are where we live and what I find life-giving right now.

image

I might be here to stand up for motherhood but my general ambivalence about Mother’s Day continues. Mother’s Day is a painful day for far too many of my friends for me to feel comfortable making a big deal about it. Here are three links that have helped me rethink Mother’s Day:

Nine Ways to Have an Empowered Mother’s Day by Megan @ SortaCrunchy (Wouldn’t it be nice if Mother’s Day was more like Wonder Woman Day where we did things to empower each other?)

Why I Hate Mother’s Day by Anne Lamott (Hate is kind of a strong word but I completely agree with her points.)

An Open Letter to Pastors (a non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day) by Amy Young (Thankfully my church doesn’t do the Hallmark holidays but it’s a good reminder of the various situations the people around you might be experiencing.)

Happy Mother’s Day to my own mother and my wonderful aunts and grandma. And happy Mother’s Day to all the mothering hearts out there. We see what you do and we appreciate you.

library secrets: the bottom shelf.

I had to gather some books for a teacher this morning. I enjoy that sort of thing because I get the opportunity to see the collection in a different way. Oh, I didn’t realize that book had information on that topic, good to know. But here’s what I don’t enjoy: the books that I need are always on the bottom shelf so that I have to squat to get them.

I know what you’re thinking. They can’t always be on the bottom shelf unless you work in a magical Harry Potter library where the books shift themselves. Well, maybe I do work in the Hogwarts library, because whenever I need to pull a book, I swear to you that I will find it on the bottom shelf.

Is it a conspiracy to get me to exercise more? A conspiracy to make me fall down sometimes? A conspiracy to make me feel like I am a little crazy? Possibly it is all of those things. Conspiracies are real and I am living in one that requires me to awkwardly balance myself in a squatting position on a regular basis.

Today’s library secret is brought to you by someone mean like maybe Jillian Michaels. I bet she is moving the books while I’m not looking. I bet she laughs at me when I fall down, too.

image

two awkward conversations I had at the polling place.

(AKA why I can’t go places.)

This one was my fault for stirring up trouble.

POLL WORKER: Remember, in 2016 you will need your ID to vote.

KARI: And how do you feel about that?

POLL WORKER: I’m not allowed to say. I can’t talk about it. We’re not allowed to talk about it. But if I see you at the grocery store you can ask me.

KARI: Well, maybe we will make some changes before then.

POLL WORKER: I’m not allowed to talk about it. Ask me at the grocery store.

I did not ask her where she shops, but now I wish I had.

This one was not my fault in any way, shape, or form.

GUY STANDING OUTSIDE HOLDING A SIGN: Thanks for voting! Does your shirt say Let’s Be Still?

KARI: Yes.

GUY STANDING OUTSIDE HOLDING A SIGN: Is that like, be still and know that I am God?

KARI: No. It’s a song.

GUY STANDING OUTSIDE HOLDING A SIGN: Oh, I thought it was from the Bible.

Good thing I hadn’t voted for the person on his sign, because I would have had to go back in and demand my vote be changed because of awkwardness.

voted

library secrets: secret page twenty-nine

I am lucky to have had great people to teach me the tricks of the library trade. There are a lot of little things that librarians have to do that nobody else knows about, things that keep stuff running behind the scenes. Some of those things are more important than others – the state report that must be turned in every year, for example, or inventory. Both of those are more important than what I am about to tell you.

When I order books for the library, I get them with processing already done, meaning the spine label and the barcode are in place. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything in house, because we do. Either my trusty volunteer Vicki or I will stamp the books with the library name and address and write the barcode number on the inside cover. Inevitably Vicki will ask me to remind her about the secret page. “It’s secret page twenty-nine!” I say.

We stamp the books on secret page twenty-nine and write the barcode number so that even if the cover of the book was lost, I would know that it was mine.

IMG_6225[1]

Secret page twenty-nine is one of those things that is already drifting away with things like graphic novels (there is often no place to write the number without messing with the story) and will be completely gone when ebooks rule the land. I think it is my favorite of the library secrets because it’s my way of shepherding the books that are in my care, and because I learned it from other librarians (although not every library uses the same page). I am the only librarian in my building, so when I stamp secret page twenty-nine, I feel connected to the greater community of people who help connect the books with the readers again and again and again.

If you are a librarian, do you have a secret page?

library secrets: let it go.

This year, I have been diligently weeding (library word for discarding old or worn out items) the library’s collection because we have a bunch of really old books and equipment that I have to dig through when I want to, you know, do my job. There are all different kinds of librarians–I know this might be a shock to those who think we are all the bun, sensible-shoe-wearing, glasses type. Some are more like Boy Scouts, keeping everything so they are prepared for every situation. I admire the heck out of those people but I think I am a little too disorganized too be one of them. I have to throw things away so I don’t get overwhelmed. The good news is that it’s extremely rare for me to throw something out and then need it, and that the more I get rid of, the more I am able to find the things I do need.

I worked in collection development (buying books and weeding the collection) way back in my public library days, and I loved that job a lot. That collection and I had a real understanding of each other, and it was a great honor to be its caretaker for a while. I am still getting to know the collection at my school, partly because there is so much of it that goes unused. That’s the part I am getting rid of, and as I free up the space, I have found that the books are speaking to me more than ever, as if they can finally breathe again. I imagine weeding is what being a sculptor is like, shaping the wood or the marble until you can see what is inside. Or you can picture me like Queen Elsa singing “Let it Go” to the books. Actually, that’s not a bad comparison, because I have had to learn not to mind what people say when you discard things, even broken computers or fifty-year-old books that are covered in dust. Or laserdiscs.

photo

Letting all that stuff go makes me feel like I can breathe, too. Weeding the collection is always a good reminder of how great it is to make space, both to enjoy the things that I already have and so I can see where the collection needs to grow. If you need me, I’ll be the one covered in dust with a big smile on my face.