Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Of Mess and Moxie, by Jen Hatmaker


Awhile back I was having a podcast conversation with a couple of very smart, well-read, theologically-aware clergymen of different backgrounds, about books that have inspired us (Seriously, click the link and listen — it’s really good!). While they tossed around Jurgen Motlmann and Richard Rohr, I sustained that the writers whose work most sustained me are women writers — mostly fairly liberal Christian women, not theologians but memoirists and essayists, who are able to bring self-deprecating humour and wry honesty to their discussion of the spiritual life. Anne Lamott, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Sara Miles — these are my gurus. For a lot of Christian women, Jet Hatmaker would also be on that list. I’ve enjoyed her online presence for awhile, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read.

Hatmaker writes like a nice Southern preacher’s wife who knows she doesn’t quite fit the mold of nice southern preacher’s wife. She writes about faith, family, church, our messy lives and the “moxie” it takes to rise above the mess (or at least live amidst it). For some reason, I like her better as. a speaker than as a writer, but I can understand why her written voice in her books appeals so strongly to say many women readers, especially those who have felt trapped by the mythology of the good Christian wife/mother/woman. In the sometimes cloying air of “women’s ministry,” scented by porpourri and expectations, Hatmaker throws open the windows and lets in a breath of fresh air.


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Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

badfeministUnlike a lot of Roxane Gay fans (among whom I would definitely count myself), I came to Bad Feminist after reading her more recent book, Hunger, which I thought was amazing. Bad Feminist is a different kind of book: it’s not really a memoir, although it contains elements of memoir and reveals a lot about Gay’s life. It’s not focused on a single issue as Hunger is; despite the title, Bad Feminist is not solely or even mostly about feminism. Feminist thought, and what it means to be a feminist (and why you might sometimes be thought of as a “bad” one) permeates the book, but so do issues around race, literary criticism, critique of TV, movies and other elements of popular culture, and Gay’s trenchant observations on many quirk and foibles of contemporary American life. She is often funny, very often biting and satirical, always thought-provoking. Bad Feminist is a collection of essays rather than a single, compelling story like Hunger is, and nearly all of them are interesting and worthy of sparking a lively discussion. If you’re interested in the intersections of feminism, racism, and popular culture, you will definitely want to read this book.

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Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercyJust Mercy is a powerful book that I’ve wanted to read ever since hearing the author interviewed on CBC Radio some time ago. Bryan Stevenson is an African-American lawyer who founded an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to representing clients who are not well served by the justice system. EJI’s clients are mostly people of colour, almost all poor, and they include people on death row, people wrongly accused, and people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The story of Stevenson’s own development as a lawyer and a fearless advocate for justice is woven throughout the stories of his clients.

Stevenson focuses on one major story that threads throughout the whole book: that of Walter MacMillian, a black man accused of murdering a young white woman. There was no evidence that MacMillian committed the crime and plenty that he didn’t (dozens of people saw him elsewhere at the time the murder took place). Stevenson’s conclusion was that police, anxious to solve a horrific crime that upset the community, pinned the crime on MacMillian who was accused, in the flimsiest possible way, by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (more or less … it was complicated, but that was what it boiled down to). Despite the lack of evidence to support his conviction and plenty of evidence for his innocence, MacMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Walter MacMillian case was especially poignant because it took place in Monroeville, Alabama, famous as the home of Harper Lee and the template for her fictional town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. As he began to investigate the case and work for MacMillian’s conviction to be overturned, Bryan Stevenson discovered that while white people in Maycomb were very proud of the fictional story of a white lawyer who defended an unjustly accused black man, they were not nearly so interested in helping a real-life black lawyer defend an unjustly accused black man.

In between the chapters in which Walter MacMillian’s story unfolds, Stevenson tells his own story, the stories of other clients, and the larger story of race, class, and (in)justice in America. The book, and the stories it tells, are damning, eye-opening, and also inspiring — inspiring because of people like Bryan Stevenson, who are willing to give their lives and careers to making things better.

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Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

intothewildI‘d heard about this book for years, but had never actually picked it up until a student of mine was talking about how much he’d enjoyed it, and offered to lend it to me. It’s the true story (as much as the author could reconstruct) of the events leading up to the death of Christopher McCandless, a young American who was found dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska in the early 1990s after a couple of years of wandering the US, living off the land and off the kindness of strangers, and seeking adventure.

My student, like a lot of young people who read this book, was impressed by McCandless’s decision to leave behind an upper-middle-class family, a college education that was likely to lead to law school, and all the trappings of a “normal” 20th century American life. The writings he left behind and the memories of people who knew him along his journey, painstakingly accumulated by Krakauer in this book, paint a picture of a young man who questioned the values of mainstream society and had done a lot of mental exploration around the idea of freedom.

Unfortunately, he had perhaps not done enough exploration around the idea of how to survive alone in Alaska — the causes for his death, and whether that death (from either starvation or accidental poisoning) was the result of his own lack of preparation, are still hotly debated. As I learned from an Alaskan friend when I mentioned I was reading the book, Alaskans particularly tend to be contemptuous of “adventurers” like McCandless who venture into their wilderness without a proper respect for its ability to kill you — though McCandless’s admirers will tell you he was better prepared than many people are, and was simply the victim of unfortunate circumstance. As I said, it’s hotly debated.

For me, coming to this story as the parent of young adults, I was unable to read this through any other lens than thinking of McCandless’s mother, who was not only interviewed (along with the rest of his family) by Krakauer for the book, but who, near the end of the book, makes a pilgrimage to the site of his death to try to better understand the son who, by the time he died, had cut off contact with his family for over two years. (While McCandless had disagreements with his parents, as many young adults do, there was no suggestion that his parents were in any way abusive or anything less than loving — he simply wanted to live his life with no personal strings attached, it seems, and saw contact with his family as inevitably tied to the middle-class lifetstyle he was seeking to be free of).

To be young is, almost by definition, to be selfish — not universally selfish, but selfish in the sense that you are focused on your own path in life, your own quest to become an individual, and you rarely think about what that journey costs your parents. And in most cases, that’s right and normal. In a few cases, like Chris McCandless’s, that need for independence is so extreme that it leaves not only a young life lost tragically early, but a family emotionally torn apart forever. I’m sure during his years of wandering, and his final weeks alone in Alaska, he probably gave little thought to his frantic parents back home — and if he had, he wouldn’t have realized how much pain they were in. But I could think of nothing else throughout the entire book. A very sad story.

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The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, by James Shapiro

1606I’ve been seeking out books about the early 1600s because I’m doing research for a book set in that era. Even though the concerns central to The Year of Lear — the court of King James and the impact of political events on Shakespeare’s plays — are far removed from the lives my characters are living, I still found this book informative in giving me a sense of the intellectual climate of the time. The author talks about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its effects, and compares it to the long-term impact of 9/11 in the US — a terrorist incident whose impact echoed in people’s minds and fuelled divisions in society long after the actual events were over (and of course in the case of 1605, unlike 2001, there was no actual event — it was a thwarted plot that would have been devastating if it had gone ahead). Shapiro explores the impact this event and its aftermath, and the recent accession of Scottish King James I, may have had on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, in particular. Of course, much of this is conjecture, because we know so little about Shakespeare’s private life and what was going through his mind when he wrote the plays. But Shapiro is able to uncover a surprising amount of information that helps put these plays, and others, into the context of what was happening in England and what other writers were writing during this time period. A well-researched, enjoyable and informative read.

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The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

thewitchesThis is a big. well-researched, informative book about a topic that interests me greatly, but it took me quite a while to get through. This may just have been the author’s style — it’s informative and engaging, but has some quirks which took me a bit of getting used to. Foremost among these was the author’s habit of relating events that the Salem witches’ accusers reported, as if they had really happened. This does allow the reader to enter imaginatively into the experience of people who seem to have genuinely believed that they flew through the air or fought invisible enemies, but it is a bit jarring for the skeptical modern reader to see these events portrayed in a work of non-fiction as if they had really occurred just as reported.

It’s clear this is a device Schiff is using and that she does have a proper level of skepticism and detachment from the events she’s describing, but she spends far more time reporting what happened than analyzing why it happened. Readers looking for theories about what was really going on in Salem in 1692 may be underwhelmed, but if you want a thorough portrayal of what happened, this is certainly a tome worth wrestling with.


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Insane Clown President, by Matt Taibbi

insaneclownpresidentThis is American journalist Matt Taibbi’s collection of columns about covering the US Republican primary race and then the presidential election campaign of 2016. As Taibbi was writing for entertainment magazine Rolling Stone rather than for a more “serious” news outlet, there’s a breezy, informal quality to his writing that swings from dark humour to rage, without the pretense of dispassionate, objective reporting. Taibbi’s biases and emotional reactions are out there for all to see, and as the title makes it pretty clear, he’s no fan of Donald J. Trump.

No conservative is going to pick up this book, probably, because the title (and anything you know about Taibbi) so clearly screams “liberal bias,” or at least “anti-Trump bias.” But in fact, Taibbi is just as hard on the Democratic Party as on the Republicans (he appears to have been a Sanders supporter who was not impressed with the choice of Hilary Clinton as candidate), arguing that by 2016 both political parties were so completely out of touch with the concerns of most Americans that the time was ripe for a populist outsider to come along and tap into the anger and resentment of many voters. That the outsider who did so was someone as stupendously crass and ignorant as Trump is something Taibbi blames at least in part on his other target: his own peers in the media. He argues that by dumbing down news in favour of “infotainment,” mainstream media paved the way for the terrifying “post-truth” reality that America now faces. And he offers no encouraging way forward: the book ends bleakly in the aftermath of the election, with America left to reap what it has sown.

I agreed with just about everything in Insane Clown Presiden(except the wholesale excoriation of Hilary Clinton: Taibbi is right in some of his criticisms of her and the Clinton “machine,” but there are depths to her I don’t think he appreciates and he doesn’t seem like the kind of male writer to appreciate the toll that systemic sexism takes on a woman in public life). The same things that make him angry make me angry; the same things that scare him scare me. So I guess I was kind of the ideal reader for this book, and while I can’t say it was an enjoyable read (it ranges from horrifying to depressing), Taibbi is a sparkling writer and an insightful analyst. Even amid the rage and horror he made me laugh out loud a few times, and he definitely made me think.


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