The Magnolia Story – by Chip and Joanna Gaines (2016)

The Magnolia Story

One of our family’s favorite tv shows is “Fixer Upper”. With neither cable tv nor internet at our house, we’ve been browsing the DVD section of our local library. That’s where we discovered the program. It didn’t take long for us to whip through season 1 and season 2 on DVD. All of us love to watch the way a house is picked, gutted, then re-built into something beautiful.

The book focuses on how Chip and Joanna met, and then started flipping houses for a living. It was fascinating. There were ups and downs over the years, but they stuck to what they loved doing, and it paid off. This biography was a short but delightful read.


Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice – by Phillip Hoose (2009)


Claudette Colvin 2

When we think of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama back in the mid-50s, we naturally think of Rosa Parks. Ms. Parks was removed from a city bus and arrested after she refused to give up her seat to a white person. In doing so, she became one of the most famous people in the Civil Rights Movement.

But nine months before Ms. Parks was arrested, a teenager named Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat on the bus. She had been fuming about the way blacks were being treated on the bus every day, and wondered why they didn’t just speak up and refuse to take it. One day she’d had enough, and refused to budge when the driver ordered her to relinquish her seat to a white person. Claudette was dragged off the bus, handcuffed, taken to an adult jail instead of juvenile hall, and found guilty of breaking the segregation law. For her “crime” she was given a year of probation.

This book is a reminder that there were many people whose lives contributed to the ending of segregation. Some people were given a lot of credit and recognition; others were forgotten or overlooked. Claudette herself sized it up perfectly:

“When it comes to justice, there is no easy way to get it. You can’t sugarcoat it. You just have to take a stand and say, This is not right.”

Guts – by Gary Paulsen (2001)


If you’ve read either “Hatchet” or “Brian’s Winter” by Gary Paulsen, you may have marveled over the vivid descriptions of wilderness living and survival. As a reader, I could see the story in my mind as I followed the adventures of Brian, the main character in the books. How did Mr. Paulsen write such incredible books? This autobiography reveals the answer.

In “Guts”, the author opens the window on some of his life experiences. Gary had an unstable childhood with parents that he described as drunken and neglectful. Often it was up to Gary to take care of and feed himself. By the age of twelve, when the family was living in Minnesota, he was delivering newspapers, pulling rocks out of farm fields, harvesting produce, and doing other odd jobs to support himself. He learned to be totally self-sufficient, teaching himself to hunt in the woods with both arrows and a shotgun. Much of what he learned was by trial and error. It was these experiences that formed the backbone of his novels about Brian.

It made me sad to think of the author growing up in such a fashion. No child should feel unwanted, or have to find their own supper. It would have been easy to label himself a victim, and turn to theft or other vices to support himself. But instead, Gary chose to educate himself on how to survive and provide for himself with almost no resources. He then used those experiences to write many wonderful books for young people (which are also enjoyed by adults of all ages).

If you managed to go through childhood without reading any Paulsen books, give these a try:




Pastrix – by Nadia Bolz-Weber (2013)


Nadia Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran pastor who ministers primarily to people with alternative sexual orientations, and those given to addictions of one kind or another. She grew up in a loving Christian family, and was baptized at age 12 in a Church Of Christ. Sadly, she only understood being a Christian as a list of rules of things you couldn’t do if you expected to get into heaven. Nadia grew to hate the established church. (Ironically, she admits that her home church was one of the few places where people treated her kindly in her teen years when she was diagnosed with Graves Disease, while she was teased and bullied at school and other places.)

By the time she was a legal adult, she was heavily into alcohol and moved into a drug house. Fortunately, she had the good sense to move out shortly before it was raided. Nadia became a stand-up comedian, and continued drinking. She eventually found herself in an AA meeting in a church basement, and that was the beginner of her journey back to sobriety, Jesus and the church. Nadia’s passion became helping other people find Jesus in a setting where they would feel accepted.

There were parts of this book that I loved, like the way she developed a friendship with another Christian who had vastly different doctrinal beliefs from her own. I loved her passion for helping people who felt like outsiders. I also really felt for Nadia when she was conned by someone she poured all her energy into for months, and thought she was helping.

Some parts of the book showed brilliant insights, while other parts revealed a disdain of Christians who looked “normal”. She seemed to carry a large chip on her shoulder against anyone that didn’t share her personal views on certain issues. Conservative Christians are criticized for not being accepting enough of every lifestyle, but at times the author seemed to look down on those who had read the Bible and come to different conclusions than she had.

But perhaps the most difficult part of reading this book was the profanity strewn throughout it. It really didn’t seem like she needed to keep using the “f” word. No one’s perfect, and nasty things may slip out of the mouth when someone’s angry or stressed, but does it really need to be part of her written testimony about walking with Jesus?

All in all, I’m glad I read Nadia’s story. It is a reminder that Christians come in many varieties, and have different styles of worshiping God. As far apart as we may seem to be, we are bound together by the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Some day in heaven, we will understand those puzzling parts of the Bible, and be able to put aside the things that divide us here in this life. Until then, it’s up to each of us to love one another and follow Jesus as best we can.

The Great Good Thing – by Andrew Klavan (2016)


Andrew Klavan has written nearly three dozen books, most of them mysteries or psychological thrillers. Two of his novels, “Don’t Say A Word” and “True Crime”, were made into Hollywood movies. In 2009, he began writing young adult/teen fiction. Although I didn’t care much for his earlier novels, some of his later novels were outstanding – “If We Survive”, “Crazy Dangerous”, and “The Last Thing I Remember”.  I remember being puzzled by the difference between his books that had too much language and objectionable content for me to finish reading, and other books that I could hardly put down and were clean reads.

This book is Andrew Klavan’s auto-biography, and by the end of the book I understood why his more recent books were so different from his earlier ones. In “The Great Good Thing”, the author describes his childhood and adolescence in great detail. Outwardly, the Klavans were an upscale Jewish family living in a nice suburban neighborhood who looked perfect. But it was all a facade. Andrew and his father clashed constantly, the father criticizing everything Andrew did. The father also demanded that he become a devout Jew, and Andrew retaliating by becoming an atheist. As an adult, he experienced severe depression and a lack of meaning in life, even after he fell in love and married.

It took many years for Andrew to accept the possibility that there really was a God, and that God cared about him personally. But the spark of faith was there, and it slowly grew. After years of soul-searching and prayer, he decided to follow Jesus and was baptized.

This biography was hard to read in places, especially where he described in great detail how worthless and depressed he felt. It was very deep and analytical. He seemed to be stuck in a downward spiral that he couldn’t get out of. But the fact that he now has such a different life is a testimony to the power of Jesus and his love. This is a story worth reading.




My Russian Grandmother And Her American Vacuum Cleaner – by Meir Shalev (2011)



This short biography is a fun, quirky read. The author’s grandmother, Tonia, left Russia in 1923 to relocate to Palestine. The book tells of the extended family’s pioneer life in the settlement of Nahalal. The story jumps back and forth between recollections of aunts and uncles and cousins, and tales of Tonia herself. She was fanatical about housekeeping, to the degree that her daughter often missed part of the school day because the ritual floor-scrubbing must be done until there was no speck of dirt in the mop bucket. (These days we would diagnose her as having OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder.)

One relative, Sam, chose to live in the United States, and Tonia never quite forgave him for leaving. At some point Sam, probably trying to make amends, found the most expensive vacuum cleaner he could buy, and had it shipped across the world to Tonia. It was the first vacuum cleaner, or sweeper as they called it, in the settlement, and was received with great awe and wonder. The tale of the vacuum is told in little segments sandwiched between humorous stories of family life.



Uncle Yitzhak did not tarry. He pulled away the sack and exposed Grandma Tonia’s sweeper to the eyes of the village. Jaws dropped. Eyes popped. Not everyone understood what they were seeing; there were those who thought this was some new kind of pesticide sprayer or a particularly elaborate milking machine of uniquely American invention, some automatic American milking machine that would follow cows through meadows. However, most of those present understood at once that this was yet another of those capitalist luxuries of the very worst kind, whose sole purpose is idleness and pampering. The bright glare from the chrome, the curvaceous body, the large wheels that attested to a fear of hard work – all these could not possibly coexist with the moshav constitution and its values, and the village comrades gritted their teeth, returned to their senses, and suppressed with iron fists whatever desire the object aroused.

Becoming Maria – by Sonia Manzano (2015)



I remember watching “Sesame Street” with my younger brother and sister in the 70’s. Later in life, I watched it with my own kids. It was hard to say who enjoyed it more – me or them. What wasn’t to love about the muppets and the people on Sesame Street? When I spotted the biography of Sonia Manzano – the actress that played the part of Maria – I eagerly checked it out.

Unlike her “Sesame Street” character, Sonia’s childhood was anything but happy. Her parents had come from Puerto Rico and extreme poverty to the United States, where they hoped for a better life. Unfortunately, they were almost as poor here as they had been in Puerto Rico. Sonia’s father was an alcoholic and an abusive husband. Throughout her childhood, Sonia and her siblings lived in dread of the terrible fights and the physical violence that followed. The family moved from place to place within the New York City area. Each time they moved, there was the hope that life would somehow be better in the new place, but it never was.

The turning point in Sonia’s life was in high school, when she auditioned for admittance to the Performing Arts high school. When she was accepted, a whole new world opened up for her, a world of music, dancing, and acting. In 1971, she joined the cast of “Sesame Street”, where she stayed for an incredible 44 years.

Sonia’s story is an amazing one. I would say, however, that I am surprised this is considered a children’s biography. (The book was on a display in the children’s area of my local library, and is published by Scholastic Books.) Yes, it is mostly about her childhood, but there is a fair amount of language in it, as well as serious topics such as alcoholism, spousal abuse, poverty, and inappropriate touching. Maybe some kids would be able to read this without being disturbed that it doesn’t seem anything like the Maria they’ve seen on tv, but I would not recommend it for anyone under high school age.

Excerpt from pages 64-65:

“Moving on,” says Mrs. Whitman [the teacher]. “There are also three classes of people: rich, middle class, and poor…”

I wonder where my family and I stand. Surely we are in the middle class. Poor people sleep in the street like Moncho, outside of Don Joe’s bodega, and never have anything to eat like those people in Puerto Rico who live over shit rivers in El Fanguito. We sleep in beds and eat something every night. At two forty-five it’s my turn to help Mrs. Whitman with her outside shoes. They are black and thick with a strap that holds in her rebellious feet.

“Not too tight,” she scolds painfully. I look up at her. “Mrs. Whitman, am I in the middle class?”

“Oh…” She gasps, annoyed. “No, you are poor. Very poor, just like everybody else in this school,” she adds, pointing to her shoe. “Now loosen that strap; you’ve made it much too tight.”

That night I tell my mother what Mrs. Whitman had said and I ask if we are poor or not.

“We’re doing all right,” she sniffs, turning her face away.

Excerpt from pages 7-8:

Aurea and I are alone and my father comes home wildly drunk. “Isa!” he screams. My mother is not here to answer him because she is not home. He doesn’t notice us, doesn’t ask Aurea where my mother might be, though she is old enough to answer. After my father runs and peeks into all four rooms, plus the kitchen, it finally dawns on him that she is not home! He comes back into the living room and looks about ferociously. Does he think Ma is hiding under the sofa, or behind the picture of Jesus Christ on the wall? Maybe she’s curled up in the ashtray. I think Aurea has gone to hide.

When he finally understands that his target is not home he picks up the coffee table and sends it flying through the air. I watch it smack into the wall and splinter. Then he picks up a lamp and sends it flying into the door of their bedroom, and I watch the lightbulb shatter like my feelings even though I’m not sure what I’m feeling except that I am beyond scared and turn into a one-note, catatonic, unbroken scream.