Welcome back to the second half of “Emily’s Ten – Er, Twelve – Favorite Books She Read Last Year.” The remainder of the list below is just as varied as the first half. There’s a picture book, a young adult series, a collection of essays that’s sure to raise some controversy, a survey of world religions, a popular fiction book set in the American South of the 1960s, and a treatise on the science of motivation. Again, in no particular order, here they are:
God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter
by Stephen R. Prothero
God Is Not One provides an overview of several major world religions and is particularly insightful as a companion to the author’s earlier Religious Literacy. Mr. Prothero’s premise is simple and straightforward: in order to have true tolerance and respect for other religions, it’s necessary to understand what it is we are being tolerant and respectful of. In his words: “What is required in any relationship is knowing who the other person really is…In relationships and religions, denying differences is a recipe for disaster. What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept, and perhaps even to revel in, them.”
Mr. Prothero provides a narrative for eight religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Yoruba. He makes great efforts to avoid a Western bias as he describes the religions. For example, at one point he explains that “faith” and “belief” are not salient parts of some religions – an odd thought for those coming from, say, a Christian background – but an observation that makes Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism much easier to understand. He covers each religion’s origins (if known), how it defines the “problem” of life and the “solution” it proposes, the techniques the religion uses to reach the solution, and the exemplars it provides as guides along the way. Of course, each of these religions is so complex and has so much diversity within the religion that 30 or 40 pages is not sufficient to cover every aspect of each variant, but God Is Not One is a solid source for the basics.
The Shepherd Boy
by Kim Lewis
I found this touching picture book at a library book sale years ago, stuck it on the shelves with my children’s books and promptly forgot all about it. Last month my two-year-old rediscovered it and demanded I read it before bedtime one night, and then read it again and again and again over the next several weeks. Normally the repetition would have grated a bit, but I was instantly as hooked as he was on this sweet, simple story.
James watches his parents take care of the sheep on their ranch and wants to grow up to be just like his daddy. The illustrations enhance the story beautifully as they show James first observing what his father does and then imitating him to the best of his ability by feeding, “shearing” and washing his stuffed lamb. When Christmas morning arrives, James’s parents surprise him with his very own shepherd’s crook, sheepdog puppy, and a cap just like dad’s! The warm and loving family relationship portrayed is almost tangible and makes me want to snuggle up with my three little boys – who won’t be little boys much longer – and read The Shepherd Boy over and over.
The Hunger Games Trilogy
by Suzanne Collins
Stories that juxtapose children and violence – The Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, The Lottery – are always disturbing, and The Hunger Games is no exception. Ms. Collins creates a post-apocalyptic world with just enough ties to our own to make it pertinent and just different enough to keep it from being unbearably painful.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as her district’s representative in the annual nationally televised kill-or-be-killed contest enforced by the totalitarian government. She unintentionally becomes a symbol of the resistance movement and her life becomes infinitely more complicated as forces much larger than one teen-aged girl battle for control over her and what she represents. Her intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness are stretched to their limits and beyond as she fights not only for her own life and the right to direct it, but for the lives of those she loves. Right and wrong become increasingly more difficult to determine as the lines between “good” and “bad” blur. The story moves at a quick pace, full of non-stop, page-turning action, suspense and intrigue that kept me up way past my bedtime.
Ms. Collins doesn’t shy away from hard questions about war, violence, and voyeurism; when (or if) it is justified; and our implicit involvement as a society (reality shows and first-person-shooter video games, anyone?). There is very little, if any, black-and-white dichotomy in the books; everything is shades of gray. The series doesn’t provide easy, clear-cut answers, but sure is generous with the ambiguity and ambivalence. Despite the bleakness that permeates the story, there is an undercurrent of optimism that occasionally breaks through and the series ends with a glimpse at a hopeful future for Katniss. Kudos to Ms. Collins for not shrinking from either the ugly realities of war or the universality of hope.
Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink
Drive is a fascinating book with an astounding breadth of implications for individuals in every day life. While Drive is written mostly to a business audience, the distinctions between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are vital to anyone in leadership whether in a family, at school, in the workplace, at church or in the community. Reading as a parent who wants to raise self-motivating, well-adjusted, productive members of society, this book changed how I interact with my children.
Mr. Pink explores the scientific literature on motivation: what works and what doesn’t, when “carrots” and “sticks” are effective and when they’re not, and how some extremely common incentives actually decrease motivation in the long run. He presents a myriad of scientific studies clearly and concisely, with their methods explained and results interpreted for the layperson. And then – this is my favorite part – he shows how those findings are applicable in the real world.
So what really inspires people to create and accomplish? Mr. Pink draws the three elements of true intrinsic motivation from his research: autonomy (the ability to self-direct what, when, and how to do something), mastery (becoming better and better at something that matters), and purpose (working for an enduring cause greater than self). He provides specific techniques for implementing those elements to create an environment that will allow people – whether co-workers, students, fellow Saints, or your children – to thrive.
Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists
edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan
Each of the 29 essayists in Click relates his or her personal journey to feminism on his or her own terms. The writers come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Some reveal liberal roots with card-carrying feminist parents; others were raised in conservative homes.
There is a self-described third-world feminist, people from privileged backgrounds and those raised poor in the inner-city. An African-American man tells of his feminist upbringing by a mother who would never call herself a feminist and an Asian-American women writes of her struggles to feel that she deserves her spot at a prestigious engineering school.
I loved that there wasn’t a single definition of feminism to which they all were held; the definitions were as individual and varied as the people who wrote them. For example, one author defines feminism as “more than just caring that women not be treated like dirt, or believing in basic, vague concepts of equality. It’s taking it upon yourself to be aware of what you are involved in and what is going on around you.” Another essayist states, “I’m saying anything you can do, I can do, too. Not better, but just as well. Better than some, worse than others but not based on qualities rooted in gender or sex.”
These writers don’t whitewash their experiences. They discuss the trauma of eating disorders, lack of self-esteem, rape, and abortion, the struggles of growing up with a learning disability or disadvantaged by crushing poverty. They acknowledge the internal conflicts, contradictions and disparities within the feminist movement. While I certainly don’t agree with everything that was written in this book, I deeply appreciate that inclusiveness is a recurring theme. We don’t have to agree on every issue to be part of the same community, to recognize commonalities and to give others the benefit of the doubt.
by Kathryn Stockett
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s, The Help tells the stories of three diverse women. Aibileen is an African-American maid who is raising her seventeenth white child, while heart-broken over the recent loss of her own son. Minny is also a maid, but her sharp tongue frequently gets her into trouble and makes it difficult for her to find work. Eugenia, commonly known as “Skeeter,” is a white woman from the privileged side of town. These three women’s lives intersect when Skeeter graduates from college and returns home to discover that her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her and had been with the family for decades, is gone. Her mother is dismissive when Skeeter asks about Constantine and no one will tell Skeeter what happened. Skeeter begins to notice the way other maids in Jackson are treated by the white women who employ them. An aspiring writer, she decides to write a book exposing the injustices she sees and both Aibileen and Minny agree to collaborate with her.
It takes a measure of chutzpah for a white woman today to presume to speak for black women in the 1960s, but I think Ms. Stockett does an admirable and sympathetic job. She has a talent for conveying emotion; the tension and fear the women felt as they worked on the book was palpable as was their determination and sense of justice. I felt tense just reading the book, constantly worried about the repercussions if they were found out. On the other side, the cattiness and rudeness of the white women is painful to read. The hypocrisy of fund-raising for “Poor Starving Children in Africa” while mistreating their maids was so pointed as to almost be laughable. I was very drawn to Skeeter’s dawning realization that she had the ability to be her own person and that the security provided by conformity was not worth the loss of her integrity. The Help is a complex, heart-breaking, enjoyable, thought-provoking read.
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Now reading: The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith
On deck: In the Name of Honor by Mukhtar Mai
Next time we’ll be getting ready for Chinese New Year (on February 8) with a focus on “The Middle Kingdom.” Come find me on www.goodreads.com or email suggestions, comments, and feedback to egeddesbooks (at) gmail (dot) com.