Readers' Reviews

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Reviewed by Tracy Troxel

This summer, Reader's Reviews is partnering with the Koinonia team to highlight books related to racial reconciliation and social justice. This review is the second in our series. Interested in a conversation about the legacy of Henrietta Lacks? Join the Koinonia team’s summer book discussion on Saturday July 21st at 10:00 a.m. in the Stone Hill Library. 

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, visited the “colored ward” at Johns Hopkins Hospital, because she was too poor to see a doctor. Without her permission—or even knowledge—her cells were removed during cancer treatment. Because of their robustness, the cells named after her (“HeLa” cells) became the foundation for the development of vaccines, gene mapping and other critically important scientific research that continues to this day.

Immortal Life (Crown Publishing, 2010) provides real-life insight into medical ethics, racial prejudice, and important scientific developments. The story is real and raw: The family of Henrietta Lacks, who still live in East Baltimore, and often lacked access to the health care advances their mother’s cells made possible, is left completely in the dark. They received no compensation for their mother’s life-changing donation to science, while earning billions for the companies that bought her cells.

Serious questions of race, bias, medical ethics and science are intertwined in this amazing story. Immortal Life is a story of scientific development, but also one of the human heart, where hurt and anger can yield to grace and forgiveness. The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes time to develop the narrative by surveying in detail the key players in this multi-faceted drama. It’s worth the wait to see how the characters react to the ever-changing landscape where racial prejudice and the ethics of scientific research collide. Immortal Life isn’t the first time that research studies have been conducted on individuals, particularly those from minority communities (the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies and the Human Radiation Experiments come to mind).

When we do not acknowledge our shared history—even if we are not hurt—we hurt ourselves.  While we may not have personally done evil—we are part of a country where evil was done and not to acknowledge that and to admit the effects of that injustice is not loving or empathetic. After the book published, the author set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, to provide financial assistance to those who can’t afford health care, especially those in minority communities. We need to have that kind of response after reading this book. Immortal Life pushes us share our resources (time, finances, friendship) to help heal the injustice of racism that continues to this day.    

Note: This review originally appeared in Readers’ Reviews on January 25, 2017.

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We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reviewed by Sylvia Kocses

This summer, Reader's Reviews is partnering with the Koinonia team to highlight books related to racial reconciliation and social justice. This review is the first in our series. 

In 1967 during my freshman year in college, I had to read Walden by Henry Thoreau. As I studied, outlined, re-read and memorized passages of this book, Thoreau challenged me to examine my priorities, my values, and my cultural assumptions. I realized I didn't want to live a life of quiet desperation as a slave and prisoner of others’ expectations, nor find my purpose in the pursuit of material possessions. I was motivated to change by Thoreau’s thoughtful essays: Few books are that profound.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World Publishing Co., 2017) rises to that level. The book contains eight essays he wrote from 2008 to 2016 for Atlantic magazine on issues of race, historical injustice, white supremacy, and Barack Obama's presidency. Each original essay is introduced with a blog-like commentary about the election of Donald Trump.               

All 16 essays focus on the myriad of difficult issues facing our country today. "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?" addresses the National Football League’s controversy over singing the national anthem. The fourth essay "How We Lost to the White Man") explains Black America’s historic intellectual divide between the "Twice as Good" mantra espoused by the African-American educator Booker T. Washington and the protest movement of Black Lives Matter today. The final essay (“Fear of a Black President”) is a critical analysis of the effectiveness and legacy of Barack Obama.

The author’s prose is lyrical, scholarly, poetic—and brutal. He is "the arsonist who burns with his pen, regardless," sing sings the rapper Whiteface Killah in “Daytona 500." You can't escape the heat this book generates. We will not all agree with the author’s views on reparations, immigration or the political policies of President Trump, but these topics need to be discussed.

Coates, an atheist, expresses a bleak picture of race relations today. "For most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives. Biraciality is no shield against this; it often intensifies the problem."

As a believer in Jesus Christ and in the power of God to change hearts, I will remain hopeful. James 1:19 commands believers to "be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger." Civility, mutual respect and healthy debate can guide us in the hopes of finding compromise and solutions to our deep problems.

Learn more about the book:

The author’s website

A review of Eight Years on the black culture website The Root

An interview with the author on YouTube

Review of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency by Randall Kennedy

Public Library/B&N/IndieBound/Amazon




Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne

Reviewed by Emily Lo Gibson

What if you were a healer whose hands now delivered death instead of life? Or a warrior suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), haunted by the shadows of war? These scenarios are at the heart of Livia Blackburne’s Rosemarked (Disney Hyperion, 2017), a fantasy adventure that touches on purpose, self-worth, and the value of scars—issues that every Christian grapples with on the journey of faith.

Rosemarked is set in the Amparan Empire, which shares similarities with ancient Rome in its brutal conquest of kingdoms and peoples. The story is told from two perspectives: that of Zivah, a healer infected by the deadly rose plague, and Dineas, a warrior who survives the plague yet remains scarred both by the disease and his time as a prisoner. A mission to save their mutual homeland brings them together on a high-stakes journey, with their own principles and the safety of their peoples on the line.

I found this book to be refreshingly complex for a teen novel. While the mission they faced is risky, with occasionally predictable twists, I was struck by the emotional depth of these characters and the moral choices they face. Zivah and Dineas both struggle with remaining loyal to their clans and vocations and loyal to themselves, in the midst of danger. Their characters are wounded physically and emotionally, which makes them very human. I particularly resonated with Zivah’s suffering, which forces her to grapple with her faith in her tribe’s goddess and her own identity as a healer. Both characters eventually manage a tenuous truce with their pain—and with each other—but the question remains: Can broken people become whole again?

Despite the positives of Rosemarked, some Christians, particularly parents, may still hesitate to read, or allow their children to read, fantasy literature. This is a complicated issue that requires more discussion. Not all books in the genre are edifying, but, as the J.R.R. Tolkien has argued in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” these works of the imagination can be worthwhile ways of “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”  

There is real value in paying more careful attention to fantasy literature, which asks us to step outside the realm of what we are familiar with and look at aspects of life in different ways. This book prompted me to reconsider my own scars and to better empathize with the pain and scars of others.

In Rosemarked, Blackburne, a fellow believer (and a personal friend), has crafted a quick read that is worth picking up and considering. The sequel, Umbertouched, will be published in November 2018.

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Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God David McCasland

Reviewed by Karen Ristuccia.

David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell (Pure Gold), the runner who won Olympic gold before becoming a missionary, inspired me to reread and review his earlier work on the evangelist, missionary and beloved Christian writer Oswald Chambers (Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God).

Liddell and Chambers share several striking parallels: Both were Scots, both served in camps during World Wars (Liddell in a Chinese prison camp in WWII and Chambers in an Egyptian-based military camp in WWI), both died young while imprisoned, and both remain beloved Christian heroes today. 

Chambers’s life was brief (1874-1917), but significant. He grew up as the youngest child in a large family, where his father was a Baptist pastor. The youngest Chambers began art studies at the University of Edinburgh, but soon chose the life of an evangelist and teacher. His talents as a speaker and a mentor led to his teaching in Bible schools and preaching in both the United States and Japan. After his marriage in 1910 to Biddy (for “BD” or “Beloved Disciple,” her husband’s nickname for her), Chambers led the Bible Training College in London. The college was forced to close after World War I, and the couple, along with daughter Kathleen, traveled to Egypt and worked with the Young Men’s Christian Association ministering to soldiers. In 1917, Chambers died suddenly of complications from appendicitis.

But his story doesn’t end there. Chambers would be unknown today without his wife, who had worked as a secretary and was the fastest stenographer in all of Great Britain before her marriage­­­­­­ – a feat of no small skill in the days before typewriters and computers! She took handwritten notes of all of her husband’s speeches, sermons, and messages, and then spent the rest of her life transcribing and editing his notes, and publishing over 40 books.

Chambers’s most famous book is the devotional My Utmost for His Highest, which is still in print. He is known for his balanced Christianity, his turn of phrase, and his emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit. In Abandoned to God, David McCasland tells his story in great detail, and with compassion and simplicity, which is how the life of this evangelist deserves to be both remembered and emulated.

Published by Discovery House, 1993.

For more works by the author, see Karen’s review of Eric Liddell: Pure Gold (10/6/16), available at this link and in the Reader’s Reviews section of the Stone Hill app.

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Life in a Jar by Jack Mayer

What makes Life in a Jar truly an amazing story is how the lives of the Kansas students who researched Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler’s becomes part of the larger story of love and redemption that’s told here. The book was produced as a play and won National History Day in 2000, a competition among middle- and high-school students based on original research.

The first “strand” is the story of Sendler, a Polish Catholic health worker who uses her access to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto to develop a network of rescuers that smuggled out 2,500 Jewish children. Her story reminds us that the image of God is still part of the human experience and that selflessness and heroism are not simply characteristics of good books, but take place in real life.

The second “strand” are the personal stories of the students who realize they can face their own adverse circumstances with bravery and endurance, like Sendler. Liz, one of the student researchers, struggles with the fact that her mother had abandoned her.

The third “strand” is perhaps the most gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring story, as you read about the courage of the Jewish mothers and fathers who handed their children over to Sendler to save them. Sendler wrote down the details of where she sent the children in jars and hid them, hoping that, one day, the children would be reunited with their families.

The fourth “strand” is where the story becomes a stunning, and life-altering, narrative. The teenagers travel to Poland, find Sendler, and perform their play for her and her team of rescuers and survivors. “You have rescued the rescuers, girls,” she tells them.

Sendler, and particularly Liz, faced bigger struggles than I ever have, but somehow they faced the tragedies in their lives and gained great depth. I read, I wept, and I thought deeply about life, sacrifice, love, and the power of forgiveness. I also spent a lot of time thinking about the amazing sacrifice God the Father made for me in sending His only Son on my behalf. If you want to be captivated by stunning self-sacrifice–and swept away by the human spirit that endures under incomprehensible pressure–this is the summer read for you.

Published by Long Trail Press, 2011

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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There are three things you should never talk about at dinner: money, politics, and religion. In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt shares his recent research findings on human morality and applies them to two of these three forbidden topics: religion and politics.

The Righteous Mind explains America’s growing partisanship divide and the benefit of religion to society using Haidt’s three principles of moral psychology:

  1. Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
  2. There’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
  3. Morality binds and blinds.

Consider the author’s second principle – there’s more to morality than harm and fairness – which has clear implications for evangelism and for understanding the current culture wars. Many here in Princeton – WEIRD people (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries) – ground their moral reasoning on principles of harm and fairness. However, Haidt’s research identifies a total of six moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. Christian morality includes all of these foundations, but emphasizes authority/subversion (the authority of God’s word) and sanctity/degradation (holy living). So to successfully share the Gospel with WEIRD people, it’s important to understand where they are coming from and to widen their moral matrix. Otherwise, saying “the Bible is the Word of God” will mean very little, when they just want to know if Christians do harm and are fair. 

In applying his second and third principles to politics, Haidt finds that each political ideology rests on different moral foundations. Liberals rest on three foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating or equality/inequality, and liberty/oppression) while conservatives rest about equally on all six moral foundations. Due to their reliance on different foundations, though, both sides are blind to the value of the other’s policies and thoughts.

Unfortunately, the book itself falls victim to this third principle: morality binds and blinds. We cannot think clearly about an issue once we’ve joined a moral team. The secular Haidt demonstrates this, as he cannot think clearly about religion. He upholds the benefits of religion for human flourishing. Yet, he sees very little difference between gathering on Sunday for worship and attending a UVA football match. Haidt may give religion a fairer treatment than Richard Dawkins, but he is blind to the truth of the Gospel.

The Rightous Mind has changed how I think about those dreaded dinner discussions about politics. The problem is not a lack of data. Sharing more information is not going to change anyone’s minds. The same applies to evangelism. Understanding my own moral matrix and those of others enhances how I share and defend my faith. For these reasons, I recommend reading The Righteous Mind.

Reader be warned: the book includes some morally outrageous stories that you may want to skip.

Published by Pantheon, 2012.

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The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Masterfully composed by journalist and musician James McBride, The Color of Water seamlessly weaves together two coming-of-age narratives. The first describes the author’s mother, Rachel Shilsky – the daughter of a poor, itinerant rabbi – as she grows up in a small Southern town that is as anti-Semitic as it is racist. The second story follows the early life of McBride himself, the eighth of 12 mixed-race children raised in the projects of Brooklyn. These two stories are expressed in captivating prose, exploring issues of race, class, faith, and identity.

McBride’s mother, later known as Ruth McBride Jordan, stands out as one of the most resolute and inimitable characters in modern literature. I first read this book a decade ago, and her unique perspective and vernacular continue to resound in my mind. Raised in an abusive household, Jordan interprets her childhood trauma in a way that is forthright and expressive, yet lacking in self-pity. Over time, we see her transform from an emotionally-stunted Orthodox Jewish teen to an indomitable Christian woman who identifies most strongly with the black community.

The title of the book derives from a childhood conversation McBride has with his mother. Noting that she usually cries during church services, he wonders if this is because she wishes to be black like the other congregants. He asks her if God is black or white, to which she responds, “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.” McBride’s own struggle to understand his racial identity is closely bound up with his mother’s complex history. This is a relationship he explores with tenderness, candor, and unflinching self-examination.

Due to the multi-faceted natures of both stories, it is difficult to characterize this book. The Color of Water embodies the many layers that comprise an identity and the faith that brings great love and triumph out of suffering. It is a son’s vibrant tribute to the tenacity of his mother, and a story of deep, abiding love. It is powerfully illuminating for empathizing with the other, and instructive for how a faith community can serve as either a great barrier or an irreplaceable support for building that understanding.

Note: Though this book is not overly explicit in nature, there are scenes and themes that could be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse.

Published by Riverhead Books in 1995; reissued 2006

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Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches by Russell Moore

“You can’t talk about the doctrine of adoption without talking about real adoption.”

Dr. Russell Moore begins his opening chapter with a flashback to the day when he and his wife first met their two adopted children in Russia. He describes the raw emotions he and Maria experienced when they met their sons in a dank orphanage, clearly neglected and in poor health. Moore writes, “The thought that there are thousands more like them in orphanages in Russia, in government facilities in China, and foster care systems in the United States haunts me enough to sit down at this computer and write.”

Adopted for Life is a marriage of doctrine, exhortation and practical ‘how-to’ guide. Moore fleshes out common misconceptions surrounding adoption while also sharing about his personal story as an adoptive father. Sprinkled throughout his book are valuable nuggets of practical advice, especially surrounding the subject of how to deflect awkward questions “with a smile or humor.”

While reading this book, I felt moved by Moore’s exploration of the Biblical doctrine of our adoption by God the Father. I was exhorted by his call for a church-wide missional approach to adoption (based on James 1:27) and the great need for adoptive families. I also found myself laughing out loud in response to the interactions he faced with well-meaning but intrusive individuals who questioned his decision to adopt.

While Moore does not assert that all Christian families are called or equipped to adopt, he does argue that all Christians have a responsibility to be involved in adoption in some manner. For example, believers could work to create or support an adoption ministry in the local church.

If there is one complaint readers have about this book, it is with Moore’s decision not to educate his sons about their Russian heritage. As the daughter of an American father and a Turkish mother, I am very thankful for how my parents taught me about my own background. Some might feel that Moore was dismissive of the importance of cultural heritage, particularly for internationally/transracially adopted children.

While I believe that any adopted child of God will glean wisdom from Adopted for Life, I would highly recommend this book for prospective/adoptive parents, adopted children and anyone involved with adoption ministry.

Published by Crossway, 2015.

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt & Co., 2017)

Because of God’s compassionate love in Jesus Christ, the Church is called to care for those who suffer. And among those who suffer acutely, at least because of the stigma attached, are people with mental illness. Over 20% of Americans struggle with some form of mental illness. As one way to increase public awareness, May has been observed in the USA as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949.

Vincent Van Gogh suffered from mental illness. You think of him first and foremost as the Dutch post-impressionist genius behind such iconic paintings as “Sunflowers” or “Starry Night.” And that he is! But throughout his adult years, Van Gogh suffered from a combination of illnesses, possibly including clinical depression, epilepsy, acute anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And his world, including his parents and siblings, was uncomfortably at a loss as to how to handle it. As his father wrote in a letter when Vincent was 27, “If only some light would shine on that distressing darkness of Vincent.” But no such light did shine. In the end, at age 37, Vincent took his own life.

Vincent and Theo is not primarily about mental illness. Instead, it is a retelling of Vincent’s life through excerpts from letters to his brother, Theo. Deborah Heiligman, the author, argues convincingly that “the world would not have Vincent without Theo.” And so it is the relationship between the two brothers that takes center stage. Through that, I came to see Vincent’s development as an artist in an entirely different way. For example, I saw the beauty of “Sunflowers” in a fuller context, especially its choice of vibrant colors that Theo had advocated for years.

But most profoundly, I experienced the confusion and pain that a family feels when a loved one struggles with mental illness. Sadly, the church of Vincent’s father, who was a pastor, did not serve Vincent well. Nor did most of his family. But Theo was there for Vincent—at least most of the time. And that brotherly commitment to someone in dark need is the reason I recommend this award-winning book so highly.

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Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Cover art for Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains is a historical novel in which the reader experiences slavery through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl named Isabel. As the Revolutionary War begins and America starts to fight for freedom, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth are sold to a Loyalist (pro-England) couple in New York City. In the city, her cruel master separates Ruth from Isabel. From that moment on, much of the plot is driven by Isabel’s deep longing and hope for being reunited with Ruth.

In my history classes I have learned about the evils of slavery; however, when they are witnessed through the eyes of a teenage girl, they become so much more powerful and personal. For example, history textbooks talk about slaves being branded, but when Isabel undergoes the excruciating pain of the hot metal pressed against her cheek, you the reader cannot help but cringe in horror. How could people have done that to a thirteen-year old girl?

This is just one of the many examples in which Isabel experiences the hardships of slavery, injustice, and loss, yet she remarkably maintains hope. I loved this book because its gripping plot described Isabel’s personal struggle for freedom while simultaneously describing our nation’s battle for independence. I admire Isabel’s strong will and determination, which allow her to continue to hope and love despite her horrific situation.

Another reason I appreciate Chains is that every chapter begins with a historical quote. Each quote comes from various leaders of our nation (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) or from important documents that were circulated at the time (e.g., Common Sense by Thomas Paine). The author brilliantly weaves those famous excerpts into the chapter as Isabel experiences them in real time.

Chains is the first book in The Seeds of America trilogy. In the rest of the series (Forge and Ashes), Isabel, Ruth, and a loyal friend named Curzon must depend on each other as they endure the war, separation, and ultimately fight for their freedom. I highly recommend this book and the rest of the trilogy!

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