Books about issues

Confession: I simply must recommend books more often. I now find myself with nearly a year’s worth of good reading I want to share.

For today, let’s talk nonfiction: books highlighting current issues and recent stories. Interestingly enough, every book in this post was published since 2000, which leaves me feeling compelled to get the word out about some excellent reads.

I’m adding two features to my recommendations: a slog factor rating of easy, medium, or heavy (sometimes the books I like are really dry, and I don’t want to give you a disagreeable surprise), and a caution rating if I have anything to say about that. (For example, I have low tolerance for intimacy in books; you will not find love scenes in the books I recommend. But I have high tolerance for language – and so I want you to know what you are getting. Yes, you’re welcome.)


Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction

by David Sheff, 2009

Slog factor: Easy
Cautions: Some language

Mr. Sheff tells the story of life with his son Nic, who battles drug addiction. It’s raw, committed, difficult, hopeful. I appreciate the honesty of the telling: open to owning mistakes without wallowing in them, willing to walk through pain.


The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs

by Stephen Ilardi, 2010

Slog factor: Easy

An ambitious title for an ambitious book! Mr. Ilardi argues that our modern lifestyle has lost key antidepressant elements from the old days (what was normal a hundred years ago). He recommends revisiting six key pieces of therapeutic lifestyle change: healthy fats, engaging activity, physical exercise, sunlight exposure, social support, and good sleep as ways to beat – or avoid – depression.

For myself, I recognized many of the ways I have already learned to fight depression (hearing them verified in the medical / psychiatric field was helpful), and I found a few fresh ways to break unhealthy habits.

I think Mr. Ilardi takes it as far as he can in a secular worldview. As a Christian, I’m disappointed to miss Jesus as the Healer in his material – though he values faith for its own sake. From a physical and emotional perspective, he seems right on.

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women

by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, 2005

Slog factor: Medium
Caution: Troublesome ideology

Douglas and Michaels study the effect of pop culture, celebrity worship, and media influence on how motherhood is viewed. They frown skeptically on the legacies of some famous people I’ve generally heard praised: Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana. They feel that what women shook off in oppression-by-males fifty years ago, they remain burdened with in oppression-by-child today.

Now don’t you freak out on me. Though I disagreed with at least half of the premise and conclusions of the book, I was interested in hearing about the mommy-mommy culture present today and how we got here. The authors reference national factors I remember from childhood (TV personalities, day-care panics, missing children and other media scares), and tie them together into an impressive pressure package: either you love being a mom and you give it 200%, or you’re some kind of freak.

I live in a culture that values (and sometimes idolizes) motherhood. It was helpful for me to wrestle with which parts of our ideology are true, and which are misleading.

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids

by Dr. Madeline Levine, 2008

Slog factor: Medium

Once again, I disagreed with some of the book’s premise. Dr. Levine puts a high premium on a child’s autonomy and sense of self, and warns parents about interfering with their emerging independence. However, she has some excellent insight about the over-involved, under-invested parental relationships that have become normal in affluent families who “just want the best for their kids.”

I expected a social commentary; I didn’t expect a parenting manual. I found a lot of helpful material about effective parenting: “good warmth and bad warmth,” flexibility, authority, connection, parental pitfalls, and childhood stages of development.

Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them

by Randy Christensen, 2011

Slog factor: Easy
Caution: Disturbing stories, but not hyped for sensationalism

Doctor Randy Christensen was trained as a pediatrician, but chose to leave the security of the hospital to start a crazy new venture: a mobile medical unit for the homeless teens of Phoenix, Arizona. This is his true story – the kids he helped, the kids he lost, the challenges faced, the pressure work put on his marriage and family, and how it all went. While I do not class this book as brilliant literature, it is a truly worthwhile read.

Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand: How to Create a Culture that Cares for Kids

by James Vollbracht, 2001

Slog factor: Easy

I read and purchased this book several years ago. My son actually pulled it off the shelf this time and started reading it, gaining a few insights of his own. “It helped me to realize my parents and teachers actually WANT to help me – they’re just waiting for me to ask,” he said.

Mr. Vollbracht discusses the six circles of community (the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the community, business and government, and our elders), and identifies practical ways to offer young people, especially 12-18 year olds, meaningful belonging within each circle. As a pastor’s wife, I experienced many aha moments as I read. So that’s why that works! and Mm, that’s an area we’re missing and need to work on.

In lasting ways, this book changed the way I think about church and community life; I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Generation iY

by Tim Elmore, 2010

Slog factor: Medium

The subtitle of this book varies: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future in the original edition, or Secrets to Connecting with Today’s Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age for his updated fifth anniversary edition. Either way, excellent material about the tail end of Generation Y – the group that grew up online – and how to guide, equip, engage, and employ them.

Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America

by John McWhorter, 2001

Slog factor: Heavy

I really like Mr. McWhorter. I read another of his books, What Language Is, which was dry and delightful. Here, he writes about what it means to be black in America today. He names three “cults:” victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism, and talks about how they have hurt black America and what can be done about it.

I am not black, and do not feel authorized to comment other than to say that Mr. McWhorter has taken significant heat from parts of the black community; but he has a perspective well worth hearing.

As an Anabaptist, I too grew up in a sub-culture of American culture, and from that position I found much to identify with in McWhorter’s observations.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance, 2016

Slog factor: Easy
Caution: Frequent and extreme language

Mr. Vance reminds me of Mr. McWhorter – one man who escaped some of the negatives of his culture but who speaks for the culture. As such, it is only one perspective, not the whole perspective, and could even be seen from inside as a traitor’s perspective. For that reason, it is worth listening to!

Mr. Vance writes of what was broken in the uprooting of the hillbilly world. His people, among thousands of others, followed the jobs from Appalachia to the Midwest, and felt the bottom drop out of their local economy and their personal support system. He spends time acknowledging the difficulty of lifestyle change, the inadequacy of the American Dream, and the peace of accepting both your roots and your wings.

Success as a Foster Parent: Everything You Need to Know About Foster Care

by the National Foster Parent Association, 2009

This is a good overview of the foster care system, especially for beginners with questions. Much of it rang true with our experience, although certain idealistic comments made me laugh. “Remember, your child’s caseworker is only a phone call away…!”



A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea

by Eunsun Kim, 2016

Slog factor: Easy
Caution: Unpleasant details, told matter-of-factly

Speaking of a traitor’s perspective, A Thousand Miles to Freedom is written by a college-aged escapee the age of my younger brother. She spent nine years en route to freedom, through various detours and delays, before becoming a South Korean citizen. Her account opened my eyes to the state of things in North Korea: Mr. Orwell’s heavy dreams come to life.

I have found no better way to educate myself about current world issues than by reading non-fiction, unless it is by observing and talking to real live humans – of which I have a limited supply. What facts are you reading? What should I read next?

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5 years ago

Thanks! I love book recommendations.

Regina S
5 years ago

Shari, the books you mentioned all sound interesting. I’m especially interested in Losing the Race. Do you still have it? If so can I borrow it?
I normally stick to Christian reading material but as an African-America woman this book sounds like a really good read.

The “cults ” he mentions from my observation from the media I believe to ring true but I guess I need to read the book first. If you don’t have it, I’m sure our public library has it.

Regina S
5 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

Oh no problem. I’m sure the library would have it. Have a blessed weekend!

5 years ago

Hooray, a book post! I’m stuck between books right now, spoiled after Jane Eyre, so hearing recommendations is a nice boost.

Notable non-fictions for me last year was Seven Women by Eric Metaxas; River Town by Peter Hessler; In the Land of Blue Burquas by Kate McCord. I just started Adventures in Darkness by Tom Sullivan and it looks promising.

5 years ago

Stopping at every Lemonade Stand may be just what I was looking for in regard to church and community life… We’re wanting to add “community” as one of the core values of our church, but I really feel we’re missing that with our youth and the knowledge of how to bring that to a good place. I love your book recommendations– I know it opened up a whole new world of reading for our children –and myself! 🙂

5 years ago

Wow. I haven’t read any of these books.

And the promise of more book lists to come?

Can’t wait

5 years ago

I just read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010) about the migration of blacks to the North in the twentieth century. The book
was eye-opening and deeply moving for me.

I’m a few chapters into Hillbilly Elegy at the moment!

Thanks for the recommendations! I can’t wait to try a few.

5 years ago

Thanks so much! I’m always up for a good read!

L. Baer
5 years ago

My husband and daughter were riveted by “After the Wind” by Lou Kasischke. It is the story of a survivor of the terrible Everest storm of 1996, but was just published in 2014 I haven’t gotten to it YET!

L. Baer
5 years ago

Maybe I should add…it isn’t just a dramatic story. He goes into the decision making and mistakes made, and what went into his drive to climb in the first place. My husband found it soul-searching.

5 years ago

Well, I’m not much of a reader, but at least 2 books really caught my eye here…hopefully I can find them at the library! Two random titles I’ve found fascinating: Inside the Mayo Clinic by Alan Nourse (written back in the 70’s or 80’s…and the clinic has only grown exponentially since then! It’s a delightfully easy read – although some crude language). The other: ‘Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen’ by May Ann Kirkby. Easy read; fascinating details of communal life and how that all works. She has another book ‘I am Hutterite’ which is also interesting but shows some cynicism to the culture she left.

5 years ago

Yay!! Thank you so much! I love book lists!

5 years ago

Ok, now I can get back to my housework. I picked up ‘Ask Me Why I Hurt’ at the library last week. I got around to starting it yesterday afternoon…and midst inviting half the church over yesterday evening after singing at the nursing home and cleaning up the remaining evidence of the party today, I found time to read another chapter…and another one… Definitely worth the read!! My head is still reeling. Thanks so much for the recommendation!!

5 years ago
Reply to  Rosanna

I’m so glad to hear this! Thanks for coming back to tell me what you thought! 🙂

I liked the sound of your recommendations too – I want to check them out.

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