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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Running With Sherman and Unfollow: Reviews of Two Recent 5-Star Memoirs

I've read more nonfiction this year than in any other year past, and these two most recent ones are two of the best I've read this year!

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall
This summer, I was browsing through RoscoeBook's collection of autumn ARCs, and noticed this book with a familiar cover composition and colors. "Hey, is that ... That looks like Born to Run...Woohoo! A new book by Christopher McDougall! ... Uh, but it's about donkeys?" So I had a hard time talking myself into this new one...it just seemed so silly. But talk myself into it, I finally did — and I'm so glad I did. It's spectacular!

Sherman is a poor neglected donkey rescued from a farm near McDougall's own in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (famous for being a hotbed of Amish activity). He slowly nurses Sherman back to health, with the help of some of his neighbors, and a goofy goat named Lawrence. But he's told that for Sherman to survive, he needs to be given a purpose. So, why not donkey racing?

McDougall had already become somewhat versed in the odd sport of burro racing in research for Born to Run when he was in Leadville, Colo., site of one of the most prestigious (and difficult) trail ultramarathons. Burro racing is a huge deal — a sort of homage to the region's past. So McDougall, his wife Mika, and a troubled teenager named Zeke begin training a team of donkeys to run a race in Colorado.

Along the way, as in Born to Run, we get riffs on whatever McDougall becomes interested in as he's writing the book. Here, that includes his experiences with a quirky Amish running club, how the human/animal connection is mutually beneficial and has benefits ranging from healing from injury to treating PTSD, and how exercise can be a boon to mental health, among many other topics.

So then eventually, McDougall and his rag-tag team make it to Colorado to run the race, but not without a few hiccups and challenges to overcome.

This book is just an absolute delight — a perfect read for animal lovers, runners, or anyone who just loves a good heart-warming, funny story. McDougall is often friggin' hilarious — whether he's talking about a fart contest with the donkeys, or having to clean his donkey's "downspout," there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments here.


Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper
This story is insane. It's also insanely well-written, wise, and courageous. I actually stumbled across the book on the Nonfiction New Releases shelf at RoscoeBooks, knew nothing about it, but when I saw the subtitle — A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church —I knew immediately it was something I had to read.

So you've no-doubt heard of — and likely been disgusted by — Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. They're a group of terrible humans who began protesting against homosexuals, and soon gained despicable notoriety for picketing soldiers' funerals and other high-profile events.

Megan is raised in this wretched environment since birth. Through the 1990s (she's only 6 years old in 1992 when the church first starts protesting), she participates in everything the church, founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, does. As the social media era dawns, Megan in her early 20s becomes the church's de facto Twitter guru, even arguing with celebrities like Kevin Smith about the church's doctrine and practices.

But the highlight here is the moment of Megan's catharsis in her late 20s. Not often do you see such a moment of revelation so clearly written. She is painting with her sister, and starts to wonder, in an almost zen-like moment, if what the church is doing to her mother — they're basically shunning her for some imagined transgressions — isn't exactly what the church as a whole is doing to everyone else. And they're doing this based on faulty doctrine. After a bit, she and her sister make the immensely difficult and courageous decision to leave the church and her family.

Near the end of the book, she includes a long discussion about doubt vs. certainty (the benefit of the former, and the danger of the latter), and this was one of my favorite parts of the book. After Megan leaves the church, she travels around speaking about her experience and her moment of revelation, and she finds people mostly forgiving of her. But like Tara Westover in Educated, she can never quite quit her family. This is always so hard to understand. Yes, they're her family, and all she ever known, and she loves them, but also, they subjected her to what amounts to child abuse, raising her in this rigid hateful church.

So then the questions is: How much do you blame someone for the terrible things they did when, for all intents and purposes, they didn't have a choice, they were ostensibly brainwashed? Even though Westboro actually prized education for its members, this idea of insulation is why so many cults fear education — they fear their followers will see the world for how it really is, and not their narrow-minded, tightly controlled indoctrinated view. To me, this is fascinating — how people come to these realizations that the world is different than they'd always been taught. It takes an immense amount of courage to turn your back on a lifetime of belief.

This book is really terrific, and highly recommended if you were a fan of Educated, or if, like me, you're a fan of the "losing my religion" story.

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