The 3 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2020 (So Far)

As an English major, I read many classics in college from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the first couple years after graduation, I was a book snob who literally only read classics. I’m still a classics lover–just finished Eliot’s Middlemarch–but I got turned on to nonfiction last year when I started participating in the United Methodist Women Reading Program. I just love learning, so I quickly became addicted to gaining new knowledge from nonfiction. Today’s post touches on the three best ones I’ve read this year (though I could read more awesome ones before the year ends!). [The first and third book came from the Reading Program.]

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

In 1979, two years before our protagonist Kamila was born, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and waged a decade-long war with the Muhajideen. When the Soviet forces dried up, they were forced to admit defeat and withdrew the last of their troops by 1992. At that point, Muhajideen leaders began fighting with each other for control of Kabul. In spite of the constant discord, Kabulis still went to work and school. Kamila, a natural leader, earned a teaching certificate and planned to continue her education to eventually teach Dari or literature. The trajectory of her life changes when the Taliban move in and take over the city. Women were no longer allowed to attend school, hold a job, appear in public without a male companion, show any skin (even exposing the wrist incurred a brutal beating), or talk to a man in public.

For a while, Kamila is resigned to this new, indefinite, oppressive way of life. But her family and others around start struggling to put food on the table since less household members can make an income. Necessity eventually drives Kamila to start a business from her own home and employ women around her in making and selling dresses.

Kamila is amazingly sharp and resilient, and her leadership abilities really blossom through her circumstances. The story is so investing and easy to digest that one could read it in a couple sittings, and the heart-wrenching moments are balanced by triumphant ones. There were also times I was holding my breath, wondering when or if Kamila might get in trouble

Highly recommend this exciting, inspiring read for anyone (who doesn’t love a good “defying the odds” story?).

What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning

Scholar Chandra Manning sets out to answer a basic question: why did primarily non-slaveholding men fight a war over slavery? Moving chronologically through the four years of the American Civil War, she uses primary sources–Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters, newspaper articles, and other written records–to explain the motivations of both sides and examine how and why they shifted as the war progressed. Manning doesn’t project her views on to the past; the soldiers’ own words speak for themselves. In fact, one-third of the book is just a list of citations and references. Though the book takes longer to read, it’s never dry or boring.

In the beginning, Unionists wanted to defend/preserve America because it was a beacon of hope for the world and proved that democracy leads to a prosperous nation; from this standpoint, the Confederates were traitors for seceding and shattering that noble image. The Confederates saw slavery as preserving a God-given hierarchy of white men-white women-white children-black people, and they also felt the government’s main purpose was to benefit them (as opposed to ordering them around). Thus, the resistance to deem new states joining the Union “slave states” threatened Southern white mens’ authority and the structure of their society while also qualifying as government overreach, making secession vital.

It’s important to remember that, throughout the four years of the war, the reasons to keep going evolved. Many Union soldiers wound up interacting with black people to a degree they hadn’t before, strengthening their resolve against the dehumanizing parts of slavery like family separation, while Confederates nursed a growing fear that black people would vengefully brutalize white people if the South lost. To be fair, even Union soldiers who supported abolition didn’t see black people as equal to themselves. Brutality occurs in the way Confederates treated blacks in general AND the way Union soldiers treated their fellow black soldiers.

Highly recommend this enlightening read for anyone who wants to dive deep into this slice of history.

America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis

This book is a great resource–basically “Racial Justice 101” from a Christian perspective. It delves into systemic racism, white privilege, implicit bias, police brutality, and more. These subjects are very touchy, but Wallis mostly does a good job of coordinating stories, statistics, and biblical lessons to explain/support his points and convict Christian readers. While it felt a bit repetitive at times, that’s understandable with a complex subject. I’m not going to lie; it occasionally felt preachy. But the moments where I felt mentally exhausted came few and far between, thankfully.

I find it commendable that Wallis doesn’t just identify problems but provides solutions, too. Since these topics are so heavy, it’s nice to be given optimism for resolving the issues. Considering that the Christian faith rests on hope in salvation through Jesus, the hope incorporated throughout this book is fitting. For instance, in the chapter on police brutality, he ends with a list of ways that law enforcement officers and the communities they serve can reconcile broken relationships and build trust.

Highly recommend this comprehensive read for those who want to learn more on these topics. I will note that some of my fellow UMW members struggled to swallow it, and to be frank, one should only read this if they are willing to acknowledge that systemic racism exists (or are willing to be uncomfortable/challenged).

Thanks for reading! Do any of these pique your interest? Do you like to read nonfiction? Do you have any recommendations to share? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. I’m behind on comment responses, but thanks to those who leave them. Replies coming soon! 🙂

Classics: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (& Why Its Portrayal of Extreme Poverty Matters)

Of Mice and Men is a wonderful novel and movie many people have read or seen. I was so excited to check out another classic from the same author, and this turned out to be one of the most memorable, stirring, and important books I’ve ever read.

Brief synopsis & formatting details

Migrants from MI driving to CA in a “jalopy”

Published in 1939, this story is set during the Dust Bowl Migration, which occurred in the American Great Depression. Many people from the Midwest-ish region, particularly sharecroppers, traveled to California. Economic hardships drove them towards an illusive dream of beautiful land flowing with fruit and job opportunities. The Joad family is one of many to chase this dream. When food and work become scarce in Oklahoma, they pack their few belongings and hit the road. The novel follows their journey from a third-person perspective, and one of the sons, Tom, is our protagonist.

Structurally, the novel oscillates between the actual story and these fascinating, penetrating diatribes that fall somewhere between prose and poetry. They provide thought-provoking commentary on everything from the bank’s impersonal formality in sentencing people to destitution to the ways poor men withhold generosity from other poor men, clinging to what little assets or authority they have (not realizing that those with real money and power view them all the same). Also, the vernacular imitates an old Midwestern accent, so the grammar is imperfect and colloquial terms crop up often (such as “jalopy,” an old, dilapidated vehicle).

Why this book is important

A mother of seven children

Originally, I intended to write separate sections to illustrate how the book is memorable, stirring, and important. I quickly realized the reasons all overlap. So, here is why this one fits those three adjectives: the portrayal of extreme poverty. The visions created in my mind of shanty towns put together by starving migrants…of families who haven’t showered in weeks…of one man’s account of his children dying of hunger…of workers lined up at an orchard at the crack of dawn, hoping beyond hope for a chance to do hard labor in the hot sun all day for nickels and dimes…I can’t and won’t forget these scenes. Unrelated to my main point, the book is also memorable because it conveys so much iconic imagery–like the whole Joad family loaded into their truck, the bed of it piled high with belongings, several family members perched at the top, driving down dusty, deserted roads under a blazing summer sun (sorta like in the earlier photo).

Those visions are so memorable because they are stirring. Reading these things makes me almost ashamed that I ever complain about anything, considering the luxuries and conveniences I have contrasted with those who are just trying to put food in their bellies. The rabbit trails throughout the story, where the narrator muses on deep topics, are also stirring in their profoundness.

A TX migrant family living in a trailer on a cotton field*

What makes this novel memorable and stirring is also what makes it important. As I read about these kind of material conditions, I couldn’t help but make connections to the current day. Having neither a roof over one’s head nor hygiene access are horrible circumstances to face, especially in a pandemic. Migrants and homeless people around the world live in these situations, and that should break all of our hearts. Recently, I saw a political commentator who was actually joking about port-a-potties being added to a homeless shanty town in San Francisco. Joking…about human beings living like this in one of the world’s wealthiest nations… We need to open our eyes.

Literature (and art in general) is amazing for a multitude of reasons, of course, but one of its greatest capabilities is to increase our awareness and understanding of different issues. Books take us into another world, but they sometimes bring us into a world that already exists, though we might’ve never thought about it or cared in the past. The Grapes of Wrath really exposed me to how tragic extreme poverty is. A book that can enlighten us and broaden our perspective is important, indeed.

*In the above photo, note how dirty the children are. Then, ponder the fact that migrants who lived in a trailer, a boxcar, or an actual structure were the lucky ones. Many lived (and many still live) in even worse conditions.

Fun facts

John Steinbeck

The novel won the National Book Award and the Pultizer Prize for Fiction.

John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, in large part due to this novel.

At the time, some criticized Steinbeck for having political motives and deemed the novel communist propaganda. (I guess the Joads should’ve just picked themselves up by the bootstraps)

The title comes from a line in the hymn “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” —

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Thanks for reading! Have you read any Steinbeck? Do you agree with my point on the power of literature and art? Let me know in the comments.

Which Is Better? “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” vs. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

Mark Twain authored these two books, which are absolute gems among American classics. Readers of all ages can digest and appreciate them. The question is, which one is better (and why)?

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Though he’s a good kid deep down, Tom Sawyer is quite mischievous. He likes to go on adventures with friends, and he always plays the ringleader, egging on the activities. Throughout the novel, he winds up involved in several pranks–some of which he drags out far too long (his poor Aunt!). His naughty ways eventually land him in a borderline life-or-death scenario. By the end, he realizes the error in some of his ways, though the readers leave him as basically the same playful scamp. Huckleberry Finn appears throughout the story as the quintessential “bada$$ kid” because he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants (no parental supervision). However, Huck isn’t too cool to run with Tom, so he accompanies Tom on a few adventures.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

Huckleberry Finn is a simple, kind-hearted boy. He winds up in the situation of needing to flee his home and meets an escaped slave named Jim. The two of them travel the Mississippi River together. In a somewhat similar fashion to its predecessor, Huckleberry Finn moves along by illustrating the crazy, comical, and/or dangerous situations Huck and Jim stumble upon along the way. By the end, Huck is still Huck (for instance, still hates taking baths and dressing nicely), but he grows up in other ways, such as learning to care deeply for a black man. Tom Sawyer appears towards the end of this story and, as in the first book, serves the role of “mischievous ringleader.”

Comparing & Contrasting

I appreciate The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the superior novel. [As my edition phrases it, TAHF was Twain’s “masterpiece.”] Though TATS is amusing, it’s a straightforward story, so I don’t think there’d be much reason to return to it. Actually, it reads like a children’s chapter book; it didn’t provide me much (if any) material worth pondering. With the dynamics of Jim and Huck’s relationship + social/political commentary, TAHF is far more thought-provoking, which justifies future re-reads. [See quote at bottom of post.] Another subtle but noteworthy factor here: TATS is narrated from a third-person perspective, but Huck himself tells the tale in TAHF. Experiencing Huck’s thoughts, feelings, and inner conflicts made the novel even more intriguing for me.

It boils down to this: TAHF is a meatier story with more to chew on than TATS. I want to mention two minor points, though. Firstly, while TATS provoked some chuckles here and there, TAHF had me GUFFAWING–I kid you not. Secondly, Tom Sawyer was exasperating in TAHF. Had I only met Tom Sawyer through TAHF, I would hate him! He was a little punk already, but jeez…his errant decision-making in TAHF almost made me throw the book out a window in pure frustration.

Trivia Facts

Mark Twain
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based on Twain’s actual hometown of Hannibal, MI (near St. Louis). Some of the places mentioned in the book are real, and the town is now a tourist attraction. [This just got added to my bucket list.]
  • The real Tom Sawyer was a San Francisco fireman Twain met and befriended; he was locally famous for rescuing 90 passengers from a shipwreck.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the first piece of major American literature written in vernacular English. [If you are unfamiliar with deep southern US accents, you will struggle to comprehend this novel.]
  • Twain originally intended TAHF as a coming-of-age story about Huck, but after years of working on it, abandoning it for a while, and finally returning to it, he took the story in a different direction…and here we are now!

I’m ashamed that I didn’t know this already, but I recently learned there are several sequels to these two books. I’m curious to read them (and see if Tom Sawyer goes back to being tolerable or remains unbearable). 😉

Thanks for reading! Have you read either of these books? Let me know in the comments.

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that n*****’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie–I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter–and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway n***** Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

HUCK FINN.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Why “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins Is my New Favorite Victorian Novel

Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Edith Wharton (who sorta-kinda counts)…these are a few of my favorite Victorian authors. But The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins now ranks as #1 on my list of the best Victorian novels.

A bit about the book (no spoilers)

the woman in white by wilkie collins

This is a mystery novel. In the beginning, Walter Hartwright tells us he will be the first of several narrators to recount the story. From there, we follow Hartwright, who acquires a job as a drawing teacher and introduces us to the two most important characters–an all-around lovely young lady named Laura Fairlie and her unattractive but sharp half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Miss Fairlie ends up in…let’s just say, an unhappy predicament. Miss Halcombe, with unfailing love for her sister, schemes against and out-wits her/their foes in order to save her.

As Mr. Hartwright journeys to Limmeridge House the first time, he has a strange encounter with an elusive, unnamed “woman in white.” Though the plot doesn’t directly revolve around her, the enigma of her character and backstory is a recurring theme that eventually becomes vital to the story.

Why it’s my new favorite Victorian novel

Flat-out well-written (in a literal sense)

The writing style, for a book published in 1859, is surprisingly easy to digest. I didn’t get hung up on never-ending sentences (*cough, cough* Jane Austen) or lots of unfamiliar words/phrases; the text flowed smoothly. More than that, the writing was actually comical. I laughed out loud countless times.

For instance, when Mr. Hartwright first meets Miss Halcombe, she stands on the opposite side of the room, gazing out a window. He admires the grace of her form as he approaches her; having been around the romance-in-literature block a few times, I was expecting her to turn around at last and beam with radiant beauty. Instead, he observes with slightly horrified surprise as she turns to him, “The lady is ugly!” The subversion of expectations makes the statement hilarious in context.

[This has more to do with characterization than writing, but I must also point this out–Mr. Fairlie (Laura’s uncle/caretaker) calls himself “nervous,” but that’s really an excuse for him to act tedious, demanding, and even silly. Every time he appeared in the story, I was cracking up at his ridiculousness. {The subtle but stinging wit contained in others’ descriptions of him, more relative to the literal writing in the book, was exquisite and often got chuckles out of me.} A couple quotes from him: “It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone.” & “I am a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man!”]

Narrative shifts: a unique literary device that really works in this case

I’ve read a few books that use off-the-wall literary devices. Sometimes they work, but I usually hate them because they are confusing and too avant-garde (anyone ever read The Sound and the Fury?). But the use of different narrators actually gave more facets to this story without throwing me for a loop.

Telling the story this way forced Collins to fully develop the characters so their outside behavior from others’ perspectives correlated with their inward motivations, revealed during their narration. Intimately glimpsing thoughts and feelings from a character during their narration makes it more intriguing to see only their actions when another character narrates. Also, as different characters shed light on the details they recall from various events and exchanges, aspects of the mystery are revealed. [During a character’s narration, they might nonchalantly mention details of an earlier incident that were previously-unknown to us.]

Great overall plot and characters

The story itself was fantastic. I had a hard time putting the book down, and there were plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep the plot fresh. The characters were dynamic and captivating. The heroine is an eyesore, and one of the the antagonists is a a morbidly obese man who equally loves tarts and his pet mice… Doesn’t that by itself just sound intriguing?!

By the end, I felt satisfied with how each loose end was tied up. I also felt sad to leave these characters. The good ones were easy to love, and even the bad ones were fun to disdain.

A downside (just to be fair)

This novel was considered “sensationalist” at publication. Though our standards for “shocking” have greatly lowered since then, it is still worth noting that this book is meant as pure entertainment. As such, I may find it less returnable. (Reminds me of a college professor who attempted a re-read of Hunger Games and discovered the book is 100% disappointing if you already know what’s coming).

Based on that, some would argue it doesn’t deserve the #1 spot as much as something like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which would likely still resonate with me on the umpteenth re-read. I suspect I’ll enjoy this novel on a re-read…but I don’t know for sure, so we’ll see if my feelings change in the future. 😉

A few fun facts

Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first mystery novels, and some deem it a primer to a genre which came later–detective novels.

The use of multiple narrators draws from Collins’ legal training (similar to hearing from multiple witnesses in court).

As with many Victorian novels, the story first appeared in serial format. Funny enough, Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round (UK) was one of the two that featured it. The other was Harper’s Weekly (US).

Wilkie Collins was 34-years-old when he wrote The Woman in White.


So, for now, The Woman in White will be my favorite Victorian novel. I wonder if or when another will supplant it? I did just read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Ann Brontë, and though it doesn’t beat this novel, it was sooo good. (Review impending)

Thanks for reading! Has my review of this book piqued your interest? Do you like to read mysteries? Let me know in the comments.

Modern Classics: The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Plot Teaser + my Thoughts)

Hi, friends. Today’s novel, which has been deemed “a modern classic,” is a mysterious slow-burner that keeps readers turning the page.

Plot Teaser (No Spoilers)

This is one of those “flip-flopped” stories that provides a glimpse of a future scene in the beginning then spends much of the book building up to that point. In the “flash-forward,” we learn that the narrator and some accomplices push a boy named Bunny off a cliff, and police don’t find his body for ten days; the narrator refers to the crime as “Henry’s plan.” The narrator muses that he has never really left the scene of the murder in his mind and ends the prologue by saying, “This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

As the book kicks into motion, we meet our narrator, a laidback college-aged guy named Richard. When he moves far from home to attend a small liberal-arts college, he tries to sign up for Greek as his foreign language. He learns that the campus Greek professor has strange, stringent expectations of his students; those who wish to take Greek can only take classes with this professor. Richard doesn’t know anyone there and tends to go with the flow, so he obeys the whim and takes all his courses with this professor, causing him to get entangled in the elite group of Greek students. Henry is the tall, dark, scholarly ringleader; Francis is exotic and elegant; Charles and Camilla are charming, mysterious twins; Bunny is loud, a bit oblivious, and relentlessly cheerful. The group does everything together, and Richard, instantly intrigued by them, is soon roped into their eccentric clique.

Richard spends a lot of time with them, yet he suspects they are keeping things from him. As he grapples with this feeling, little does he know that he is starting on the path that will lead to the flash-forward–uncovering secrets and, eventually, protecting those secrets at all costs. Dun, dun, duuuunnnn…

My Thoughts

Donna Tartt

I really enjoyed this one. I imagine achieving a balance between “slow burner” and “page turner” is tough, but Tartt accomplished just that.

My only critique? The murder scene felt like a let-down. I don’t generally crave gruesomeness from a book, but since I waited for that scene for hundreds of pages, the lack of graphic details seemed anti-climactic. However…

What’s cool about this novel, which makes up for the lacking murder scene, is that the crime is not the climax of the novel. In fact, one might argue the murder is anti-climactic because it’s not the story’s true “aha moment.” Since the crime is initially revealed as the point we are working towards, and because murder is a big deal to say the least, I assumed that scene would be the climax of the novel. But the story extends far beyond the crime, and the real climax towards the end is exhilarating and fulfilling.

A fun fact before you go…

I include an “Additional Details” section with the older classics because they tend to have some interesting trivia around them and/or have a cultural impact. This book hasn’t had as much time to influence art or have a lasting impact yet, but I did find this–

Most author-debut novels get 10,000 prints, but 75,000 prints were initially ordered for this one. It has since sold over five million copies and been translated into 24 languages.

Also…

Donna Tartt was born Dec. 23, 1963 and raised in Greenwood, MS. The Secret History was published in 1992.

Thanks for reading! Have you read this one? Do you like mysteries and other eerie genres? Let me know in the comments.

Modern Classics: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Glimpse at Mental Illness + my Reaction)

Hi, friends. In today’s post, I’ll discuss one of the most renowned classics dealing with mental illness. I’ll give a general overview of the storyline then digress about my reaction to the book and its depiction of mental illness.

The Bell Jar tells the story of a young woman named Esther Greenwood who loses grip of her sanity throughout the story. The novel begins with her working as a summer intern for a magazine and follows her college experiences from there. The actual plot feels random, but the languishing musings in her head are more intriguing; I suppose the whole point is that her behavior is mundane/ordinary while her mental state isn’t. Her outlook on life grows more cynical and jaded with time, which leads to half-hearted suicide attempts and more…[I won’t spoil the story for you.]

Themes addressed in this novel aside from mental illness include feminism and women’s roles in the mid-twentieth century. Esther’s life revolves around academic excellence for a long time, so after she graduates, she feels lost; though she wants to write a novel, she fears her lack of life experience will be an obstacle. Left with the options of becoming a wife, mother, and homemaker or pursuing a “woman’s career” (like shorthand), she meets a serious impasse in her life that helps push her over the edge, figuratively speaking.

My Perception of her Dilemmas

I relate to some of her personal dilemmas because she is an English major, which was also my university major. However, the difference between a person with depression or anxiety (Esther) and a person without it (me) became clear as much of her anguish struck me as melodramatic.

For instance, she once drew an analogy between a tree full of fruit and choosing a life path; she felt existential dread about having to choose just one, not knowing if one of the others would’ve tasted better. While it’s true that we can’t choose every life path simultaneously, her analogy is inherently flawed because we still determine our lives after choosing a life path…or, in the analogy’s terms, our own choices greatly affect how our chosen fruit tastes. Even if we stuck with her analogy, I can throw out my fruit and try another one if I so desire. Granted, I can’t go back in time, but I could still change how “my story” ends…

Being mentally sound, I approach the dilemma rationally, but to Esther, these kind of thoughts are debilitating. I wonder if this is how clinical anxiety works–feeling an unnecessary dread about every little thing but being unable to banish the tormenting thoughts. While I don’t identify with the protagonist for the most part, it was a unique, interesting experience to be transported to the head space of a mentally ill person.

This is a novel I’ll likely read again sometime to pick up on all the little subtleties.

Additional Facts

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defenseless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.”

Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is considered a Roman à clef, a novel about real life overlaid with a facade of fiction. In other words, Esther is a thinly-veiled version of Plath herself. This is the only book she ever wrote, and she committed suicide soon after its 1963 publication in the UK. She was just 30 years old. The novel was released in the US in 1971 and has been translated into twelve languages.

Thanks for reading! Have you read or heard of this novel? If you experience(d) mental illness, how does the middle section of this post compared to your own experiences? Let me know in the comments.

Discussing the Memoir of a Rock Princess who Found God

Hi, friends. Today’s post is dedicated to a memoir written by Lacey Sturm, best known as the former lead singer of Flyleaf. I actually listened to Flyleaf’s music in high school (about ten years ago), so I was instantly attracted to this book, which I found through the United Methodist Women Reading Program. In the book, she goes from suicidal atheist to daughter of the Father Almighty (and a famous rock star). This memoir is titled The Reason because Sturm thoroughly explains the reasons that A. she came to the point of almost killing herself and B. her life turned around drastically.

The Reason by Lacey Sturm

Sturm spends about half the memoir giving us background on her life as an adolescent and young lady, detailing how she dwelled in constant sorrow. She was an angsty, rebellious girl with a rough home life. By her teen years, she was crying herself to sleep every night and contemplating suicide. Music had always been a huge influence in her life, and that passion would ultimately be used for a purpose greater than she’d ever imagined. I don’t want to give away the details, so I will just say that an encounter with the Lord changed her life forever.

Below is a list of the chapters, which provides a glimpse into the arc of her story–

  • The Reason I Lived
  • The Reason I Love Jazz
  • The Reason I Became an Atheist
  • The Reason I Fell in Love with Sadness
  • The Reason I Loved Nirvana
  • The Reason I Stopped Caring
  • The Reason I Wanted to Scream
  • The Reason I Wanted to Die
  • The Reason I Couldn’t Kill Myself
  • The Reason I’m Alive
  • The Reason I’m Beautiful
  • The Reason People Matter
  • The Reason I Sing
  • The Reason I Wanted to Change the World
  • The Reason I Wanted to Go to Hell
  • The Reason I Couldn’t Sleep
  • The Reason I Stepped Down from Flyleaf
  • The Reason God Will Always Love Us

The Awesome Ministry of Flyleaf

These lovely, symbolic illustrations are peppered throughout the book.

I find her form of ministry so unique and amazing–a breath of authentic air in what sometimes feels like a body of Christ that resists the hard places. In “The Reason I Wanted to Go to Hell,” Sturm speaks of using her platform as the front-woman of a rock band to minister to a group of people (kids) that’s not so easy to reach. She wanted to (figuratively) “go to hell” to love kids who are as angry and lost as she once was. I feel joyful knowing that, though Sturm didn’t overtly preach at Flyleaf concerts, other band members and she were approached numerous times and informed that someone had accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts. Evidently, the messages in the song lyrics, Sturm’s fervent prayers before shows, and the power of the Holy Spirit worked together to produce divine revelations without a sermon.

Other Tidbits

If only I would have known that it was okay to mourn–that sometimes rain can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean that the rain will never stop. And that sunshine after the rain makes rainbows visible. Thunderstorms can be signs of spring.

Every morning, I awoke feeling like a burden to the world around me. I wanted to disappear or find that thing to satisfy my deep desire. Let me say this about suicide: it’s a liar. It will whisper to you and fill your mind with just the right amount of evil mixed with something resembling truth. But those are the best lies!

Beauty, I realized, lay in forgiveness. I found that when I saw myself through God’s lens of forgiveness, all my dirt and grime and muck washed away. I saw myself true and translucent, naked and unafraid. I found myself beautiful because God found me forgiven.

I stared at the ceiling, thinking about how phenomenal it was that the very God I had hated so much had intervened in my life at the exact moment that I was about to throw away the life he gave me. My heart grew warm as I thought about it, until tears streamed from my eyes. It made me cry to think that God was not only real, but that he wasn’t far away. He didn’t just make life and then watch the pieces randomly and chaotically fall where they may. He was involved.

The reason we wanted a label that would market us to radio that had no regard for Jesus at all, and the reason we wanted to tour with bands who were atheistic and blasphemous in their lyrics, was because that’s where I would find a hopeless girl like myself looking for her real purpose–someone like my sixteen-year-old self who had tremendous pain in her heart and was overwhelmingly tired of living the life she was living. I wanted with all my heart to go to those places that are an eerie foreshadow of hell–and pull people out.

Fun Facts:

  • Sturm writes that when she woke up the day after planning to commit suicide, she felt the starkest clarity–like a blank canvas or a flyleaf page in a new book–hence the band name “Flyleaf.”
  • Sturm is only 4’11” (almost a foot shorter than me!).
  • In February 2016, Sturm became the first solo female to top the Billboard Hard Rock Albums chart with her debut release.
  • Sturm and her husband have three sons.

This was my favorite Flyleaf song back in the day, and I still love it

I can feel You all around me
Thickening the air I'm breathing
Holding on to what I'm feeling
Savoring this heart that's healing

Thanks for reading! Did you listen to Flyleaf back in the late 2000’s/early 2010’s? Have you read any good Christian memoirs? Let me know in the comments.

Discussing The Color Purple by Alice Walker & Comparing Book vs. Movie

Hi, friends. Today’s classic is well-known due to its major film adaptation. I’ll explain some background about the book and discuss my reaction to the film version.

Classics: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

the color purple alice walker

The Color Purple (1982) is the story of a young American black girl (in the 1930’s) growing into a woman, told through her letters to God. She experiences heart-wrenching hardships from the start; as an adolescent, she is impregnated twice by her father, and as a young lady, she is forced to marry a hardened, cruel man. Because Celie’s husband acts predatory towards her sister Nettie, Nettie is obligated to move away from the area. Thus, Celie is left alone with an abusive husband and endless work between caring for the man’s children and keeping up the household. Her life seems hopeless, though she still addresses her letters to God.

Soon enough, an ex-lover of Celie’s husband comes to town and stays in their home. Shug Avery is a renowned singer with an unabashed, infectious quality about her. Oddly enough, Shug plays a big-sister-esque, nurturing role for Celie, and as the two grow closer, Celie begins a slow process of feeling human again–experiencing love and regaining self-worth. [Celie even forms a sort of crush on Shug because Shug is one of the only people to ever care for and encourage her.]

Sub-plots are interwoven throughout the novel with family members of the husband and others who live around them. Societal power dynamics due to skin color is the major theme of these sub-plots, and as with Celie’s story, the powerlessness of black women at that point in history is a particular focus.

Comparing the Book to the Movie

The film version, directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 1985, holds a score of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. The critical consensus reads, “A sentimental tale that reveals great emotional truths in American history.” I personally enjoyed the film, though I am unlikely to return to it more than occasionally due to its emotional heaviness.

With basically any film adaptation, details of the original story must be trimmed because of time constraints. With that said, I feel that the writers behind the film version used good discretion with the parts they included/excluded. Celie’s main storyline and even most of the sub-plots are faithfully portrayed.

The film adaptation leaves out a large portion of the novel where Nettie writes letters to Celie detailing her life since leaving home. I feel it was wise to exclude this portion of the novel from the film because the long digressions would slow down the film and seem unnecessary to the overall story. The filmmakers also wisely curbed some of what I can only term “weirdness” from the story, such as a bizarre conversation between Celie and Shug about the true nature of God.

Fun Facts About the Book

Alice Walker

The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, making Alice Walker the first black woman to win the prize.

The title refers to an exchange where Shug asks Celie if she takes the time to notice the little things God does to show love for us. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” Shug says.

The novel has been adapted to a movie, a Broadway musical, and a fifteen-episode radio broadcast.

The novel has been frequently banned or challenged over the years for sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.

Thanks for reading! Have you read the book or seen the movie? Let me know in the comments.

Defending Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (& Breaking Down the Three Reasons It Swayed Hearts)

Hi, friends. Today’s post focuses on a classic novel that greatly influenced American thought on slavery on the cusp of the Civil War (1861-1865). I recently read the book and felt extremely compelled by it; however, its message has been distorted over time, and “Uncle Tom” is now a derogatory term. Thus, I’m writing this post to explain why and how the book was effective in swaying people against slavery and why, despite the flaws, we should acknowledge Stowe’s strategies and the novel’s impact.

The Novel’s Impact on History

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published in serial format over a couple years and was published as a whole novel in 1852. Within a year, the book sold 300,000 copies in the US and one million copies in Great Britain. (According to Wikipedia)

The novel is credited for stirring up the abolitionist cause in the 1850’s. Former US President Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, met with Stowe and called her “the little lady who changed the war.”

Why This Book Changed Hearts

I’ve identified the three aspects of the novel that, in my opinion, drive its persuasive power–

  1. Convicting appeals to Christian morals
  2. Unabashed sentimentality in portraying characters (especially with families being torn apart)
  3. The character Uncle Tom

#1— Stowe weaves these appeals throughout the novel in two primary ways–conversations between characters and the narrator addressing the audience. In other words, she makes these appeals implicitly and explicitly.

An example of an implicit appeal is a conversation between a non-abusive slave owner and his devoutly Christian cousin from the North. The nice slave owner justifies his owning slaves with his gentleness and with that old, familiar argument, “everyone else is doing it, so I might as well, since my not doing it won’t make a difference.” His cousin argues against his flimsy reasoning; just because everyone’s doing something doesn’t make it morally right.

An example of an explicit appeal is after a mother and her child are separated at a slave auction, Stowe writes a paragraph where she/”the narrator” speaks directly to the reader about the love of a mother for her child, imploring whether the reader wouldn’t be heartbroken if they were in the same scenario.

These appeals underscore the novel, as Stowe’s intention with this book was to convince people of the evils of slavery. The appeals often incorporate Biblical concepts, such as “the first will be last” and “the Lord sees oppression and will carry out vengeance some day.” Verses of scripture appear throughout the novel.

#2Stowe uses great imagery in the novel, and she doesn’t shy away from painting gut-wrenching, tear-jerking scenes. Children ripped from the arms of mothers, people beaten mercilessly, men who feel pathetic and useless because they can’t protect their families, slaves promised freedom only to have their hope yanked from beneath them–Stowe runs the gamut of horrible circumstances enabled by slavery. Stowe also creates vivid, dynamic, lovable characters, making the tough moments that much tougher.

Her unapologetic sentimentality humanizes slaves while demonizing slavery.

#3— Uncle Tom, the book’s namesake, is an older slave with a heart of pure gold. His character is the novel’s most crucial point of persuasion against slavery because he mirrors Jesus Christ. He loves everyone from his fellow slaves to his masters–not “love” in a sappy, worldly sense, but HARD love, the love that doesn’t despise cruel men but wants them to repent and turn away from evil.

Tom loves God with his whole being and clings to his Bible, which he can barely read. He stirs the hearts of blacks and whites throughout the story as his genuine mercy and kindness affects their lives and worldviews. Tom’s unshakable faith through heart-wrenching trials is so inspiring that it’s flat-out stunning, YET he is not inhuman in his perseverance; there are especially hard times in the story where Tom feels forsaken and struggles with his faith. Those instances are reminiscent of Jesus crying out from the cross– “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know how one could read this book and not be laughing and crying with/rooting for Uncle Tom, and Stowe knew she would shake up society when she envisioned for the world a Christ-like black man. This was a genius idea in a Biblically-literate society.

The Biggest Flaw

The most offensive or “problematic” aspect of this book is the paternal attitude Stowe weaves into the story, mostly in the explicit addresses to the readers. She sincerely believes that whites are a harsh, technical, cold race, while blacks are a passionate, impressionable race.

Many abolitionists of the past took a similar stance: whites and blacks are physically/mentally different, but slavery is still wrong.

We call this “racism” now, but the abolitionists’ hearts were in the right place despite their ignorance. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but we should ask ourselves…would I hide people, housing and feeding them, eventually helping them flee to another state/country, at the risk of getting thrown in prison or worse? Many abolitionists put their lives on the line doing just that.

Musing on Why “Uncle Tom” Became an Insult

“Uncle Tom” is now a slur for a black man who “kisses up” to a white man/white people. I can only assume that people who misinterpret his character misunderstand the teachings of Jesus Christ. Tom praying for his enemies, finding opportunities to evangelize to all peoples, maintaining his faith through the worst of trials, etc. is not equivalent to condoning slavery; Uncle Tom never wavers on his wish/mission throughout the story to return to his wife and children.

Tom’s behavior simply models the ideal Christian–finding joy in the Lord despite the circumstances, hoping that ALL find salvation. I think we can misinterpret Uncle Tom because we have faith the size of a mustard seed and simply can’t comprehend a faith that deep.


Thanks for reading! Have you read this book? Have I piqued your interest? What do you think of Stowe’s persuasion strategies? Let me know in the comments.

Religion! Is what you hear at church “religion?” Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, “religion?” Is that “religion” which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature? No! When I look for religion, I must look for something above me, and not something beneath.

An Interview with Philosopher Steven Colborne About his New Book, “God’s Grand Game”

Hi, friends. Today’s post is a first for my blog. When Steven Colborne asked if I would participate in this blog tour for his new book, I immediately agreed because Steven is one of the most intelligent AND most supportive bloggers I have met on WordPress. Click here to view his philosophy and theology blog, Perfect Chaos.

I will provide a brief overview of his book, follow up with some interview questions, and end by identifying parts of the book that challenged or intrigued me the most.

Apologies for the post’s unusual length; I hope the highlighting makes it easy to skip around the post.

Quick Synopsis

In God’s Grand Game, Steven surveys an array of theories about God and the universe with the foundational premise that God creates and animates all things in existence. The idea that free will doesn’t exist logically follows. Thus, creation and our lives are completely out of our control and are all part of “God’s Grand Game.”

Interview with the Author

I preface this interview by informing readers that I come from a Christian perspective (more specifically, Methodist Protestant) while Steven believes in one God but does not adhere to a particular religion.

  • You mention in the first chapter that your progression from atheist to theist was partially catalyzed by reading the Bible when you were in a mental hospital. I find this piece of the story fascinating because, although I grew up in church, my life was not transformed until I started to seriously read the Bible. Can you tell us a little more about what was happening in you at that time, mentally and spiritually, as you read scripture?

Firstly, thank you so much Lily for agreeing to do this interview and allow me to talk about my life and work. I really appreciate it! And what a great first question.

My first admission to psychiatric hospital came after a turbulent but very spiritual period for me. I felt as though I was caught up in some great cosmic battle between Islam and Christianity, and I was somehow at the centre of it. I had spent some time sleeping rough outside a Mosque, and even attended a prayer session there. Not long after that, I remember going into a church and praying, and it was actually the church staff who called the police because they were worried about me (I hadn’t eaten or slept properly for some time).

When in the hospital, I asked for a Bible, which would have appeared strange to many considering my background as somewhat of an amoral, rebellious atheist. The Bible I was given was one of those Gideon Bibles, which had a list of references at the beginning that one could turn to when experiencing particular situations or emotions. I found that as I looked up passages of scripture, they spoke to me in a deep and profound way. For instance, when I was feeling anxious, I was directed to Philippians 4:6-7, and this was like balm for my soul.

It took me a few more years before I studied and read the Bible in its entirety, but I believe God used that hospital admission to open my mind to the gospel in a powerful way. I had read the New Testament briefly before, and had attended church sometimes as a youngster (my father was a Christian), but I had never experienced the power of the Bible before.

  • In the chapter “God’s Grand Game,” you state that God created and animates the world and all people as a form of entertainment. A Christian would likely say that God created humans for companionship. In the chapter “How Do I Know God Exists?” you talk about having a personal relationship with God, and in the chapter “What Are God’s Attributes?” you claim that God’s essence, ontologically speaking, is love. What is your view on the idea that God created humans for companionship? Does God seek to have intimate relationships with people? Does He love us?

Before writing the book I spent a lot of time considering the nature of God, and the idea of eternity, as I tried to figure out what this mysterious existence is all about. Why would God create a universe? It made sense to me that it would be a pastime for God, a way of utilising the infinite amount of time and creative power that are at God’s disposal.

I believe God is boundless, and as such it logically follows (in my view) that God is all there is and that all of existence is ‘within God’ and an expression of Him. In the book, I discuss the idea that it might be a kind of ‘hell’ for God to be alone for all eternity, and I have discussed elsewhere in my writing that He may have created beings because it’s as close as God can get to having free interaction with another being.

I think God does love us, but I would say He doesn’t just love Christians. He loves every creature He has ever created. This is why I have somewhat of a problem with the ‘exclusivist’ truth claims of religions such as Christianity and Islam. I believe God has an important role for every one of His creatures, and not just those that subscribe to a particular religion.

  • Your entire premise–that God must be controlling/part of everything in existence–is based on your assertion in “What Are God’s Attributes?” that God is omnipresent. Hence, you reiterate throughout the book that God’s omnipresence logically supports your perspective. What makes you certain of God’s omnipresence (as opposed to schools of thought that suppose God created the universe but is not actively involved in it)?

This understanding came to me from closely examining my present-moment experience. I used to spend a lot of time meditating, so would pay close attention not only to my thoughts, but also to what constitutes present-moment reality. It seemed to me that consciousness is something very fluid; it doesn’t have any boundaries. In Eastern philosophy, there is a term called Satchitananda, which translated into English is ‘existence-consciousness-bliss’, and this is what many in the East believe is the ultimate nature of the divine.

It makes sense to me that God is indistinguishable from existence because to argue anything else would be to place boundaries on God’s being–His being would have to have a certain form, I suppose. But I don’t believe God is an embodied being. Also, the fact that God can beat my heart when I’m here in London, and do the same thing when I’m on the moon (in theory!), means that He is not operating in a specific place, but everywhere. If God can act everywhere, then logically, He must be everywhere.

  • I found your theories on why God animates evil people/events interesting. N.T. Wright, a Christian theologian, also speculates about the nature of evil in “Surprised by Hope.” One theory he offers is that “God’s creative love, precisely by love, creates new space for there to be things that are genuinely other than God.” He also states, “If God is indeed creator of the world, it matters that creation is other than God.” Is it possible, in your opinion, for God to create anything outside of Himself? Or, referring back to #3, does God’s omnipresence automatically mean that He cannot create something without controlling every facet of it?

I believe it is a logical impossibility both for there to be an omnipresent God and freedom from God (or free will). If God is omnipresent, this means every atom in existence is part of God and, therefore, under God’s control. As you have correctly pointed out and understood, God’s omnipresence is at the heart of my writing, and this idea is really the reason I spend my life discussing philosophy and theology; I really want people to understand this.

There’s a short chapter in God’s Grand Game entitled ‘Divine Omnipotence and Free Will’, in which I invite readers to consider what it would actually mean to say we have free will. Did you freely choose the number of arms and legs you have, and the number of fingers you have? Are you circulating blood around your body, controlling your heartbeat, and growing your hair and nails? How are you doing these things? The materialist might argue that these processes are controlled by the brain, but then what is controlling the brain’s activity? You might say ‘I’ am controlling my brain, but this seems absurd to me because you cannot say how you are doing it. This problem is solved, in my view, when we acknowledge that God animates us in the same way that a puppeteer animates the puppets in a puppet show.

  • In the chapter “Compatibilism,” you argue against the theory that God is omnipresent yet humans have free will simultaneously. You end the chapter with a couple questions–”But if the Bible teaches compatibilism, and the Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, should we suspend logic and reason and live purely by faith in what we read in the scriptures? Is it really possible to commit our lives to a belief that, in a significant way, doesn’t make sense?” Do you consider the possibility that there are things we simply cannot wrap our minds around–not as a cheap response to a hard question but in a sincerely humble way, recognizing that human knowledge is limited?

The short answer is, yes! I do believe there are some things we will likely never understand during our lives on Earth. I believe that God hides certain things from us. I also believe He creates every being with a unique role and purpose, and I believe my purpose is to share the insights God has given me in relation to philosophy and theology. There are many things that I don’t understand–for example, the nature of the afterlife and whether or not God suffers.

I shouldn’t end without noting that I realise my worldview presents a significant challenge to the Christian worldview, and I wouldn’t expect all of your readers to get on board with my philosophy. The attraction of the Christian scriptures is very powerful (I know because I was an evangelical Christian for many years). I totally respect the Christian worldview, and I know that Christians genuinely care about not wanting the ‘unsaved’ to suffer in hell. I appreciate that. All I would say is that I have not arrived at my conclusions lightly–it has been a real struggle, with much time spent on my knees and in tears crying out to God. It would be much easier, in many respects, for me to become a Christian (not that being a Christian is easy!), but I am unable to commit to Christianity due to what seem to me to be significant problems with Christian theology, and most significantly in relation to the divine sovereignty vs. human free will problem, which is the major theme of God’s Grand Game.

Especially Challenging/Intriguing Chapters

Though my views don’t match Steven’s, his writings challenged me to think more deeply about my beliefs. For example, in the chapter “What Prayer Reveals About God,” Steven points out that the way Christians pray to God would have to imply His omnipresence. Steven argues that, if God can do all the things we pray for, He must logically control everything. I am still chewing on that area of thought.

I also found the chapters titled “Calvinism” and “Open Theism” informative and thought-provoking. He presented the two major opposing Christian views about God’s will clearly and concisely, and I am left pondering both ideas.

In the chapter “Materialism and Free Will,” Steven discusses prominent atheist Sam Harris’s views, and unless he has misinterpreted Harris, Harris apparently shares Steven’s belief that free will doesn’t exist. I’m intrigued and a bit perplexed that atheists would argue that idea.

Final Thoughts

The various chapter topics are compelling, and Steven has an intelligent yet straight-forward writing style that propelled me through 10, 25, 50 pages quickly. Whatever your beliefs about God or the universe are, this book may provoke you to examine those views more in depth.

Click here for info about purchasing God’s Grand Game.

Thanks for reading! What are your views about God’s will vs. free will? Do you have thoughts regarding my questions or Steven’s answers? Let us know in the comments.