Brown Girl Dreaming (review)

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51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Poetry Camp inspired me to be a more regular visitor to my library (thanks, Janet Wong!). My fascination with verse novels prompted me to pick up Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

I quickly discovered, though, that this isn’t exactly a verse novel. It’s a memoir—the story of young Jacqueline taking us through her childhood and to a time she comes to realize what her dream is and begins to see it blossom in her life.

The whole thing is told in verse—in free verse poems that are simple. I would say deceptively simple for almost all end in a way that put me on my heels and had me thinking: I believe there is more to this than what first meets the eye. In other words, these accessible poems also invite re-reading.

I love the real-life detail that makes the characters, the brothers and sisters, Grandma and Grandpa, mother, aunts and uncles, come alive. While reading this book I experienced the phenomenon of the particularities of Jacqueline’s life becoming a vessel for my own experience—even though the setting and characters are vastly different.

As I read I also enjoyed one of the advantages of verse novels—how quickly the pages slipped by. I read through this 338-page tome in mere hours.

The book touches on lots of topics:
– What it was like to be an African American girl in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s (Woodson was born in 1963). This book was a great empathy builder for me.

– Family—what is a family, how family members relate to each other, the joy of being together. The family theme runs deeply and widely through the book. I loved the mini family album of photos at the end of the book and the fact that the pictures were of family members as children—about the age that the target audience would be.

“Football Dreams,” about her father, is a poem about family:

Football Dreams

No one was faster
than my father on the football field.
No one could keep him
from crossing the line. Then
touching down again.
Coaches were watching the way he moved,
his easy stride, his long arms reaching
up, snatching the ball from its soft pockets
of air.

Read the rest…

Feeling different is another theme. Not only was Woodson’s color a source of difference, but she was brought up Jehovah’s Witness. “Flag” tells about having to leave the classroom when the students made the flag pledge but how inside she wanted to be there and pledge big:

flag

Alina and I want
more than anything to walk back into our classroom
press our hands against our hearts. Say,
“I pledge allegiance . . .” loud…”

The poem ends:

When the pledge is over, we walk single file
back into the classroom, take our separate seats
Alina and I far away from Gina. But Gina
always looks back at us—as if to say,
I’m watching you. As if to say,
I know.

Read entire…

The book tackles more themes including death, tolerance, and finding joy in life, relationships and one’s passion.

On this page of her website Ms. Woodson gives a bit more information about writing the book.

This was a beautiful, upbeat, and  educational read that would be perfect for children in the middle grades–ages 10 and up, Grades 5 and up.

Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award in 2014. (In the second video on the linked page she reads from the book.)

**********
PF-2This post is linked to Poetry Friday, hosted today by the lovely Irene Latham at Live Your Poem.

Passport Through Darkness (review)

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Passport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second ChancesPassport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances by Kimberly L. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kimberly L. Smith and her husband Milton are introduced to the horrors of human trafficking almost by chance, when their missionary activity in Spain leads them to an orphanage in Portugal. There they come face to face with Uncle Buster, a man who is bringing in children from Africa, filming their abuse, and posting images on the internet. Passport Through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances is Smith’s first person account of this event and what happened next.

On exploring trafficking in more depth, Milton and Kimberly discover that the real hotbeds for this activity are Eastern Europe and Africa. Over time they establish Make Way Partners to help raise funds for anti-trafficking work. Then, through a chain of events, Kimberly finds herself in Sudan—a place PJ (Voice of the Martyrs’ Eastern Europe and North Africa Regional Director) identified as “… the worst place on the planet for this evil” (Kindle Location 517).

The bulk of Smith’s story happens in Sudan. She falls in love with the people, especially the orphans, returns numerous times, and ends up building an orphanage in the heart of Sudan’s most dangerous and forsaken region. The sights and events she describes are often raw and heartbreaking. Her ministry is inspiring and off-the-charts of possible, as God steps in again and again to open doors, protect, and make dreams come true.

But all is not sweetness and light. The sub-plot of this memoir involves Kimberly and Milton’s relationship. When his diabetes doesn’t allow him to be part of the Sudan trips, the couple spends long stretches of time apart. Kimberly, not wanting to burden her ill husband more, keeps many details of her Sudan experience secret from him. Their own relationship comes under threat.

The book is vividly written, both in its descriptions of life in Sudan and the life of the heart. I found it a fast, sometimes horrifying though definitely relevant read (It seems anti-human trafficking initiatives are popping up all over. In the last several months, I’ve encountered two new-to-me ministries that also focus on it.)

I recommend this book to people who love kids, those interested in human trafficking, readers with a heart for missions, or anyone who enjoys a well-written memoir. I’m not the alone in recommending it. Passport Through Darkness is also endorsed by such Christian literary luminaries as Philip Yancy, Randy Alcorn, and Ken Gire.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“On some level, praying ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done’ haunted us, though. Gradually we began to understand that God didn’t give us that prayer so much to comfort us as to mold and transform our hearts and lives.

“The more we prayed ‘Thy Kingdom come …’ the more it convicted us that God chose to use mankind—His incarnational presence in this world—to usher His Kingdom in, one fractured attempt at a time.

“But who of us wants to give up our notion of what we think our lives should look like so that we are available for Him to use?” – Kindle Location 501.

Passport Through Darkness is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Walking From East to West (review)

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Walking from East to West: God in the ShadowsWalking from East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak in our Saskatoon church (sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s) I have been fascinated by his message and manner. His memoir, Walking from East to West: God in the Shadows, shines a light on where he came from and how he became the popular evangelist, Christian apologist and humanitarian that he is today.

In chronological order he tells the story of his unhappy childhood in India, his conversion, his move (with his family) to Canada, and his blossoming into family life and ministry.

The God in the Shadows angle is Zacharias recognizing and pointing out how God has been present in his life (though often unseen and unrecognized till much later). In fact he sees evidences of this being the case even before his existence in his great-great-grandmother’s conversion to Christianity. This is powerfully brought home to him when he finds her grave site and sees that the verse on her marker is the very one that God used to call him back to life after his suicide attempt. Throughout the book he points out many other marvelous “coincidences” that bring him to the conclusion that God has been interested in and involved in his life all along the way.

He comes across as a humble, grateful man who is still amazed at what God has done in and through him—a Chennai Indian lad who, until his conversion, was a sports-loving, directionless school goof-off.

The writing style is not as intellectually taxing as some of his more philosophical books and though the odd time a professorial word or two slips in, mostly Walking… is an easy-to-read story.

As I usually do when I read inspiring biographies and memoirs, I marked passages for future retrieval. Here are some bits I highlighted from Walking From East to West:

“God has an appointment with each of us, and it is critical that every man and woman know this. He will stop our steps when it is not our time, and He will lead us when it is” – p. 168 (Kindle Edition).

“… if you have not learned to pay the smaller prices of following Christ in your daily life, you will not be prepared to pay the ultimate price in God’s calling” – p. 199.

“Yes, logic is linear, but its implications are radial” – p. 205.

“Through all of the visitations of life—successes or failures—it is not how well you are known or not known. It is not how big your organization is or isn’t. It is not even how many sermons one has preached or books one has written or millions of dollars one has accumulated. It is how well do you know Jesus?” – p. 224.

I would recommend this book to all who have been impacted by and continue to enjoy and be challenged by the speaking and writing of Ravi Zacharias.

Walking from East to West is part of my own Kindle collection.

Ravi Zacharias’s book and speaking resources (like podcasts and recordings of his regular and weekly radio broadcasts) are available at his ministry (RZM) site.

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Messy Grace – review

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Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing ConvictionMessy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction by Caleb Kaltenbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caleb Kaltenbach’s story of how he came to faith in Christ while being raised by two lesbian moms and a closet-gay dad is fascinating in its own right. The biblical teaching on homosexuality and the church that he weaves through the telling make this a must-read for 21st century Christians grappling with current cultural norms of sexual identity.

Though Kaltenbach never strays from supporting what the Bible says about homosexuality (he spends an entire chapter reviewing what both the Old and New Testaments say), neither does he minimize the difficulty of living by its culturally unpopular position. The word “messy” probably occurs more than any other adjective in the book. Again and again Kaltenbach reminds us that God’s dealings with all us flawed, sinful people is a messy business and a church’s grace-filled response to people within the LGBT community will be no different:

“Messiness is what happens when you try to live out God’s perfect grace as a flawed person in a flawed world” – Kindle Location 212.

The book is easy to read. Kaltenbach’s tone is one of a fellow traveler who is on the road to the same place as the reader. The narrative and teaching parts are interspersed in such a way as to maintain the story’s pace and keep our interest.

In my opinion, several aspects of Messy Grace make it an important book:

* Kaltenbach’s unique perspective of having grown up in and thus understanding of the LGBT community. His mom and her partner routinely took him to parties, marches, and Gay Pride parades. Both sets of parents were devastated when he “came out” as a Christian—an experience he likens to what LGBT folks experience when they come out to their families.

* Kaltenbach’s exemplary treatment of his parents. Even though he didn’t approve of their lifestyle, he never broke off his relationship with them, but instead loved and supported them through their ups and downs.

* The pastoral perspective Kaltenbach brings to the issue. As a pastor himself, he makes a passionate and compassionate case for the church to welcome, love, and care for members of the LGBT community. In this department he also challenges pastors and church leaders to think through their responses to twenty questions that pose difficult but relevant scenarios: E.g.:

“Would you allow a same-sex couple to attend your church?”

and

“If a man who had a sex change to be a women started attending your church, could that person attend your women’s ministry?”

and

“What is the plan for the student ministry staff and volunteers when a teenager comes out or expresses same-sex attraction?” – Kindle Location 2365-2390.

Messy Grace is moving and timely. Kaltenbach’s insistence on supporting the truth of Scripture while maintaining a loving attitude toward LGBT individuals is an example of how the church can break down walls of denial, isolationism, verbal abuse, hatred, and fear—even though the process is guaranteed to be messy.

I received Messy Grace as a gift from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Love Triangles (review)

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Love Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today's IsraelLove Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today’s Israel by Bobbie Ann Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her memoir / travelogue Love Triangles, Bobbie Ann Cole writes about her love affair with Israel. When she and husband Butch move there, it is to fill a six-month time period till their rented property will again be available to them. However, after only three months they begin thinking of applying for permanent residency, called making Aliyah* when you’re Jewish (as Bobbie is).

There is one problem. Bobbie and Butch are Christians. The interpretation of the Jewish immigration policy in the last years has kept many Jews who believe Jesus is their Messiah from gaining permanent residency. This has Bobbie constantly on edge, worried that she’ll jeopardize her chances of immigrating. And so she guards what she says, avoids establishing intimate friendships with the locals, and even changes who she associates with.

Much of the book is descriptions of biblically familiar Israeli sites. In vivid and picturesque language Cole describes what she hears, sees, smells and touches. She also recalls what happened in the Bible places like Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and more. Repeatedly she mentions that in Israel she feels closer to Jesus than anywhere else in the world:

What I loved, but as someone relatively young in faith had never known before, was following Jesus all around the Land. That was a powerful incentive.

In our three months there, we had met Him in the Negev Desert, in Jerusalem’s Old City, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. … We had discovered that even though the country was constantly on high military alert, there was what Butch referred to as ‘that safe, spiritual feeling,’ a serenity rooted in faith, a trust that God ‘has it.’” KL 129.

I found this book informational and inspiring in several ways. First, it opened my eyes to the way Jews who believe in Jesus are singled out as ineligible to become Israeli citizens. Second, Cole’s descriptions of modern Israel juxtaposed against her sometimes whimsical and imaginative retelling of what happened there in Bible stories made me want to visit Israel more than ever. And finally, through Cole’s story I have gained a new appreciation for Israel’s story and the love of the people for the land both in the past and present.

You’re probably wondering if Bobbie and Butch made Aliyah. Were they successful in immigrating? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

*‘Aliyah’ literally means ‘going up,’ a term originally used to describe how Jews from all over the ancient world would go up to the temple at the very top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem for Jewish pilgrimage festivals” – KL 768.

I received the Kindle edition of Love Triangles as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Openness Unhindered – review

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Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristOpenness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across Openness Unhindered’s author Rosaria Butterfield on a video where she told her story of coming to Christ out of a lesbian lifestyle. I loved the fact that my favorite book, the Bible, was instrumental in her conversion. Openness Unhindered testifies to how she has continued to engage with it at a deep and thoughtful level.

In the book, the second one she has authored about her faith since she left her old life around 1999, she alludes briefly to her conversion story. Then she goes on to talk about how she has wrestled with her past and come to a place of equilibrium as a home school mother and pastor’s wife. Passages like the following tug at the heart:

“I am and always will be Rahab—a woman with a past. So, what does a person like me do with such a past? I have not forgotten. Body memories know my name. Details intrude into my world unpredictably, like when I am kneading the communion bread or homsechooling my children. I take each ancient token to the cross, for prayer, for more repentance, for thanksgiving that God is always right about matters of sin and repentance” – Kindle Location (KL) 631.

She stresses the importance of her new identity in Christ and of repentance. Even the title of the chapter on repentance testifies to how foundational it is to her: “Repentance: The Threshold to God and the Answer to Shame, Temptation and Sin.”

In chapters titled “Sexual Orientation—Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake” and “Self-representation—What Does it Mean to be Gay?” she unpacks the history of the gay rights movement and explains how “gay” has become a term of identity. In fact, she argues, gay doesn’t even belong, as an adjective, together with Christian. She says:

Gay is a word that carries stigma because of God’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality. … Because the Bible is clear on the point that homosexual practice is a sin, and because gay is a synonym for the implied desire for or practice of homosexuality, the stigma of this term is an act of God’s love, because God uses it to convict his children of their brokenness” –KL 2111.

Another powerful chapter is the one on Christian community. Here Butterfield describes how their family’s hospitality toward neighbors and church members became a closely woven safety net for all involved.

This was a great read! Though I did find the theological chapters a bit of a slog (Butterfield was a university professor in her former life and in plumbing these challenging topics comes across somewhat professorial), for the most part I enjoyed the book and learned a lot. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“When we are owned by God, we are ruined for the world. And this marring of us for the world is one of the birthmarks of conversion” – KL 595.

“Temptation comes in many forms, but it is always personal, uncannily tailor-made for our individual moral weakness, and it takes aim at God’s character, seeking to ransack our faith” – KL 1343.

“Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” – Sam Allbery quoted on KL 2320.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is trying to understand where homosexual practice fits within the Christian life and the church. Openness Unhindered is a part of my own Kindle collection.

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Unafraid (review)

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Unafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe WorldUnafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe World by Susie Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Already a fearful child, the sight of an eighth grade classmate—a neighbor boy—gunning down a favorite teacher in May of 1978 proved to be too much for Susie Davis. As a result, she developed irrational routines like hiding in her closet when she was home alone and later in life checking the whole house for intruders before taking her children inside. For years she functioned this way, covering her coping mechanisms well.

She did eventually break down and that led to a season of God peeling the layers off the fears that held her in their power. With the help of her husband, friends, and especially God she was able to break fear’s chains. Unafraid is the story of her journey from fear to wholeness and her message of hope to other fearful people.

Davis’s writing voice is friendly and encouraging, though she does sometimes lapse into lecture mode. She uses a lot of sentence fragments which I found distracting as they drew my attention away from content and to the writing itself.

The book does contain sound advice about how to counter fear. However, two flies in the ointment spoiled my enjoyment of this memoir.

In a chapter where she likens the trauma of a bad event to Good Friday and recovery from it to Easter Sunday, she calls the time between these things Saturday, writing these words:

“Saturday is the ‘What the holy heck just happened?’ kind of feeling” – Kindle Location 854.

After seeing the word “holy” used often in this book in reference to God, I found its use here as a minced oath puzzling and disappointing. It cast a shadow over the whole book for me.

In another chapter describing her “dark night of the soul” she waits to get one of God’s “love notes” to her—perceived communication from Him through circumstances or His voice coming through her thoughts. However, not once in that section does she mention the possibility of hearing from Him by reading the Bible—the place most Christians would go first to get a message from God.

These quibbles aside, there is also lots of wisdom and good advice for the fearful in this book, wisdom like:

“So many of the giants I face are in my head. Fear whispers unspeakable things and I flinch. … This is when it’s time for me to take captive, cast down, and throw those thoughts in prison. And I do that by worshiping Jesus. Just as the wise men worshiped Jesus, I lay prostrate fore God and not before my fears” – KL 1504.

and

“… I must daily walk away from fear. And the only way I can hope to do that is to think of fear the same way my Father things of fear. As an idol in my life” – KL 1726.

The book concludes with a set of Discussion Questions and a Study Guide, making it useful for book clubs as well as group and personal study.

I received Unafraid as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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