You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers

St. Timothy’s Books, Brew and Banter book club has just finished reading a fascinating book by Heather Sellers entitled You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.  The story is a memoir and concentrates on this author’s coming to an understanding of a condition she has known as “face blindness.”  The official term for this condition is prosopagnosia; what it means is that she is unable to put together any memories of people’s faces.  Yes, she sees their eyes, noses, mouths (that’s vision), but cannot put them together in memorable forms (perception).  She recognizes some people by hairstyle, the way they carry themselves or walk, the style of dress they usually wear.  But others – even her own husband – she frequently does not recognize.

What makes the book fascinating is that she does not really understand that she has this condition until she is in her late 30’s, when she is also coming to grips with the fact that her mother is a paranoid schizophrenic.  Her father is an alcoholic who has significant problems of his own.  To say that this woman comes from a dysfunctional background is to understate her childhood.

Written in a style where the author moves back and forth between the present and the past, we see Ms. Sellers’ childhood and adolescence remembered from her perspective at close to 40 years old.  We feel her pain at shuttling back and forth between living with one parent and then another; her disappointment when neither of her parents will complete college scholarship financial information forms; her heartache at her lack of friends because other kids see her as stuck up when she doesn’t recognize them.  And yet, she never stops loving her parents and trying to understand them. The story is ultimately one of the power of love and forgiveness to bring redemption and acceptance to troubled relationships.

We enjoyed this book a great deal and would recommend it highly.  The book is well written and makes reading on and on a pleasure, even, and maybe particularly, in the parts where she is finally able to find medical help that explains prosopagnosia.

—Jeanie Smith

Zealot, by Reza Aslan

For the past few weeks, the Books, Brew, and Banter crowd has been reading and discussing Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, July, 2013), by Reza Aslan (a #1New York Times bestseller, named one of the best books of the year by Booklist and Publishers Weekly). Of the nine BB&Bers at the wrap-up discussion of Zealot, there were nine thumbs-up.

Aslan describes himself as “a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists.” At an evangelical youth camp in northern California when he was a teen, Aslan accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and invested in the literal God-inspired truth of the greatest story ever told.  He went on to evangelize others, including his mother who converted to Christianity.  But years later, as a student of religious studies, Aslan was faced with what he saw as a fact: much of the Bible could not possibly be literally true.

In his Author Note at the end of the book, he writes, “Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.  Indeed, the Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known and lost became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church. Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.  My hope with this book is to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.”

Because Aslan is a terrific writer and a diligent scholar, ordinary readers (not people schooled deeply in history or theology) can finish the book in a kind of “Aha!” place.  Jesus as a particular person, living in a particular time and place, comes alive.  And Aslan has made his case that “Jesus the man is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ.  He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

What may be hard for some readers is learning about all the messiahs that were wandering around that part of the world in those days, and the fractiousness between Jesus’s brother James the Just and Paul of Tarsus. And the committee decision that led to the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century. One element of the creed, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, was a committee effort to please everybody. As he grew older, Aslan found the complexity of the Trinity a stumbling block, and it became important factor in his decision to return to the Muslim faith of his roots.

Zealot is a page-turner that gives a vivid sense of the historical Jesus and a crisp, succinct explanation of what happened in the church’s development between the crucifixion of Jesus and the Council of Nicea.

—Sharelle Moranville.

Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan

Say You’re One of Them was the May read for Books, Brew, and Banter.  Written by Uwem Akpan, published in 2008, chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club Selection in 2009, it shows daily life in turbulent, war-torn, Africa.

In five short stories, all set in different parts of Africa, Akpan, an African Jesuit priest educated in America, shows us life through the eyes of African children. In “An Ex-mas Feast,” Akpan pours out Nairobian poverty on the page so vividly that it takes a reader’s breath away.  In “In My Parents’ Bedroom,” he shows us a loving, educated, enlightened Rwandan family ripped apart by tribalism.  In “Luxurious Hearses,” he narrates the ultimate sacrifice of a teenage boy to the bloodlust of people running for their lives in western Africa.

It’s a difficult book to read.  Because of the content, sometimes continuing to turn the pages is an effort.  And because Akpan sprinkles the stories generously with the mélange of languages spoken in Africa, parsing the meaning of what people are saying can be hard too.  But on those difficult-to-turn-and-understand pages, Akpan always splashes a generous measure of the best of humanity:  love, loyalty, responsibility, empathy, self-sacrifice, and faith.

In these stories of children’s lives, general themes emerge:  the variety of religions and languages in Africa, the power of faith, the role of the media, the relationship between men and women, the struggle of families to stay together, the driving force of the sex trade, the relentless force of tribalism, and always the plight of the children.

Deacon Jeanie Smith described the book as “beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking” – as the kind of book a person can’t just read.  Afterward, there’s the need to do something.

—Sharelle Moranville