Race & Religion in January’s Diverse Books

After setting for myself the goal of reading more diverse books in 2015, I discovered Janet Ursel’s “We Read Diverse Books” challenge. Each month, Ursel posts a new challenge and January‘s was to “read at least one book (a novel, collection of short stories, or a memoir) about and by someone of a race different from yours.

Of the 4 books I read in January, 2 were by and about people of races other than my own. The first, BROWN GIRL DREAMING is Jacqueline Wood’s memoir-in-poetry of growing up African American in the South and New York in the 60s and 70s. The second, BEYOND FUNDAMENTALISM: CONFRONTING RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM IN THE AGE OF GLOBALIZATION (which is neither fiction nor memoir) is Iranian-American religious scholar and creative writing professor Reza Aslan’s attempt to explain the historical, cultural and social components of religious fundamentalist movements (primarily Global Jihadism, but also some Christian and Jewish fundamentalist movements), as well as offer some ways in which they might be curbed. My review of each is below.


Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful, rich and vivid memoir-in-poetry. Woodson’s memories of her childhood leap off the page and dance before the reader with earnestness, grace and passion. There is heartbreak, humor and that beautiful wonder that only children truly have. Woodson’s young girl world is also populated by unforgettable and instantly likable characters, flawed as some may be.

One of the reasons this book worked so well for me is its poetry format. Since memory is such a fickle and slippery thing — more often bursts and snapshots than full narratives — the looseness, ephemerality and imagery of poetry seems just perfect for weaving Woodson’s childhood onto the page.

Brown Girl Dreaming is eye-opening to the sometimes awful and daunting experiences of an African American girl growing up in the 60s & 70s. There are sad moments, shameful moments, cringe-worthy moments. There’s fear and injustice and disillusionment. Ultimately, though, it is an uplifting and empowering book. There is so much love, warmth, beauty, hope and triumph.

Though Woodson’s upbringing, family, era and culture are different from my own, I found the book immensely relatable and a little bit nostalgic. Her closeness with her grandparents, her writerly dreams, the making of new homes at a young age, all really resonated with me.

I went through the gamut of emotions while reading Brown Girl Dreaming. It’s a great book. I’d recommend it to anyone, of any age.


Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of GlobalizationBeyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization by Reza Aslan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not entirely sure how to approach my review of this book. I read it for a variety of reasons (in no particular order): 1. My commitment to reading diverse books (by diverse authors, from diverse backgrounds, about diverse topics) in 2015. 2. My interest in world religions, religious (or religiously inspired) movements and how they shape lives/politics/perceptions/etc. 3. My admiration for Reza Aslan for his responses to this particular string of Faux News idiocy. 4. The books’s relevance to current events.

The writing was eloquent, readable, extremely engaging and captivating. The topic was fascinating and the treatment of it illuminating (though I guess I can’t speak to its accuracy, having not read much else on the matter, I can say it put forth different theories that we don’t often hear from the media and media-ready pundits). The perspective was novel, which is part of why I wanted to read it. Also new to me was a lot of the complex and difficult Middle Eastern history recounted and explained in the book. The book stirred many emotions and left me ruminating on it even when I wasn’t reading it.

  4 comments for “Race & Religion in January’s Diverse Books

  1. January 26, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Excellent reviews. I really want to check out both books, now :-)

    • Cornelia_LO
      February 19, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      Thank you! I’m glad to hear you’re intrigued.

  2. Chris
    January 27, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I love the Fox News clip. Confusion abounds over the study of religion as an academic discipline. I think that many people have difficulty separating religious studies from the divinity school or seminary programs that most Christian ministers go through.

    • Cornelia_LO
      February 19, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      Chris, that is so true. Religion was my college major and I had people ask me things like, “Oh, what are you going to do with that, be a nun?”

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