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Standing and surviving

2022 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | Memoirs tell of taking risks for different kinds of freedom


Standing and surviving
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On a Friday night in July of 2020, NBA basketball player Jonathan Isaac was the only player on his Orlando Magic team to stand during the national anthem. COVID-19 was still raging, and after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer, Isaac understood his teammates’ concern for racial justice.

Still, he couldn’t follow their logic. To him, Black Lives Matter promoted an “angry, vengeful” response to racism, while the real way to heal the nation was, as his pastor said, to “show God’s love to our perceived enemies.”

Isaac faced a barrage of hostile questions from journalists and teammates after the game. His 2022 book, Why I Stand, is a longer response to those ­questions—and it’s a good one.

He begins by taking readers back to his churchgoing childhood in the Bronx. After his parents divorce and he moves to Florida with his mom, Isaac develops into a top college basketball prospect. Driven both by the desire to fit in and mounting expectations on the court, he experiences panic attacks and other problems. But by his first year in the NBA, Isaac writes, “Through a series of divine connections … I finally discovered God’s loving intentions toward me.” A local pastor shows him fatherly love and points him to his true Father in heaven. Soon some sinful crutches—like idolizing others’ approval—begin to crumble.

But life in the NBA provided plenty of temptation, and Isaac is clear—though never graphic—in conveying that lifestyle. Despite the mention of sexual issues (including some players’ condom use), the book is suitable for most older teens.

This eye-opening autobiography is indeed thoughtful, but it’s also fairly straightforward, reflecting the witness of a new Christian. Readers need not agree with Isaac in every jot and tittle to be inspired by his stand and his reliance on God. As he writes in the introduction, “In this book, you’ll see the freedom and peace found in the love of Jesus Christ.”

A Sea Between Us tells of a different kind of freedom—Yosely Pereira’s escape from Cuba to the United States in 2002. Told with the help of author Billy Ivey, Pereira’s story achieves the epic quality of nonfiction books like Unbroken. In early chapters, we meet Pereira sneaking into an orchard at night to build a boat. A master carpenter often brutalized by Cuba’s communist government, Pereira works quickly, and soon he and several friends launch into the turbulent waters of the Straits of Florida, and begin to row toward America.

As Pereira and his companions face shark attacks and savage storms, readers travel back in time to learn about Pereira’s family history in Cuba. We see the pervasive effects of communism—beatings, imprisonment, and persecution by the police. But we also follow Pereira’s love story with his wife, Taire, including their first date and an eventful motorcycle ride through mango forests. Later, Pereira works diligently to put food on the table for Taire and his two children, but government and societal corruption pushes him to escape.

The last few chapters feel too tidy at times. The extraordinary generosity Pereira encounters seems hard to believe. That said, Pereira’s hope in God, planted through the gift of a Bible in prison, grows authentically throughout the story. Though he knows little theology, Pereira often clings to the words of Hebrews 13, “I will never leave you,” and repeats them in messages to his family.

Pereira’s simple but well-written story overflows with the Lord’s kindness—and will inspire Christians to trust God more in their own trials and risk more for others in need.

Next in this 2022 Books of the Year special issue: “Honorable mentions: Tragedies and mercies.”


Emily Whitten

Emily is a book critic and writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Mississippi graduate, previously worked at Peachtree Publishers, and developed a mother's heart for good stories over a decade of homeschooling. Emily resides with her family in Nashville, Tenn.

@emilyawhitten

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