Thursday, October 28, 2010

Seventy Times Seven

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

Wow. We Presbyterians (and other mainline Protestants) talk a lot about forgiveness. In general, I think of myself as a pretty forgiving person. Someone is half an hour late for a meeting with me? No problem, it happens. Someone forgets to meet me when or where they said they would? Hey, I understand. I've done it myself. Someone irritates you because of their inability to say "no" - or their ability to say it too readily? Well, we've all been there at one time or another. If we held a grudge for every glitch in communication or every perceived slight that we ever experienced, we would soon be embittered people with very few friends. Lots of us know someone like that. In an effort to avoid their fate, we step up our own practice of forgiveness right away. Then we come across someone who takes forgiveness to a whole new level.

In the summer of 1984, college student Jennifer Thompson was brutally raped at knife point in her apartment in Burlington, North Carolina. She was shattered by the experience, and really did not receive much help from friends or family in processing what had happened to her. She was full of rage and fear, which is understandable. The Burlington police force wanted to act quickly to put the rapist behind bars, and they believed they had their man. Thompson was sure that she identified the right person, even though the defendant, Ron Cotton, insisted on his innocence. The evidence against him was slim, really, but once the ball was rolling the police and the victim were so sure that they had the right person that they refused to see the other possible suspects or the evidence that pointed away from Cotton. Bottom line: Ron Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA evidence finally exonerated him.

It is a tragic story, but its outcome could have been worse. Through the 1970s, rape was a capital crime in the state of North Carolina, so Cotton probably would have been executed if the rape had occurred a decade earlier. Cotton had plenty of time to think during his years in jail, and he used the time to earn his GED. He also sang in the prison gospel choir and began to take his faith more seriously. At the time, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison, and he wanted to make that life worthwhile in spite of the terrible situation. When Cotton was released, he set about rebuilding his life. He eventually found work, met a woman, and got married.

Jennifer Thompson was still having trouble moving beyond what had happened. Where she had once been consumed by fear and anger, after Cotton was released she was plagued just as much by remorse and guilt. Finally, in an effort to get some closure to the ghastly event that had defined her life for so long, she asked for a meeting with Ron Cotton to ask his forgiveness. That's when the miracle occurred.

Ron Cotton not only forgave Jennifer Thompson, he wished her well and told her his only desire was that they both have good lives. He explained how he did not really blame her for the mistaken identity, and that they were BOTH victims of the true assailant, a guy named Bobby Poole. Jennifer Thompson writes that "Ron forgave me not because I deserved it, but because I needed it, and that's what grace is all about." Oh yeah.

Improbably, Cotton and Thompson went on to become friends. They found they could talk together about things that others people would not understand. They now appear together at criminal justice conferences and give lectures at law schools. They are both very involved in The Innocence Project, a non-profit group that advocates for other people who are wrongfully incarcerated.

The writing in Picking Cotton is not extraordinary, but the voices of Thompson and Cannino come through with sincerity and earnestness. The story is outstanding enough to make the reader forgive some clunky writing. After all, isn't forgiveness what we are supposed to be about? Hats off to Ron Cotton for showing us the way.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out of the Depths

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
by James M. Tabor

I've never figured out why, but I am inexplicably drawn to books about people with really extreme hobbies or vocations - especially explorer types who push the limits of their physical and mental endurance. Think Into Thin Air by John Krakaeur or Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. When I read a review of Blind Descent in Discover magazine, I knew I had to read it. Tabor's book is about people who explore "supercaves" that stretch for miles underground and often plunge to more than a mile deep. Some of these extreme caves have hundreds of flat face descents that have to be rappelled (and then climbed when the cavers are ready to get out), and many of the rock walls are actually waterfalls. Underground drainage pools called "sumps" block the passageway and have to be scuba dived. The passages are also often blocked by huge clusters of boulders that have fallen. The cavers have to move these, a dangerous process that can take days. Add to this that when cavers reach the bottom of a supercave, the hardest and most dangerous part is still ahead - retracing their steps to get out. Remember that, except for the puny efforts of flashlights and headlamps, this is all done in pitch darkness. And there are all kinds of underground critters flying and slithering and running around. Shudder.

Blind Descent is about the mentality and motivation of supercavers, but also the drive for scientific discovery that drives some of the most determined ones. The cavers have been in competition for years to find the deepest place on earth, and they meticulously survey every new place that they get to. These expeditions are months or years in the planning, and can be derailed by injury, illness, or fatality at any time. The descriptions of getting a severely injured person out of these supercaves are particularly harrowing - not to mention getting a corpse out. I found myself absorbed in the storyline, astonished that people would risk everything (including their own lives) to scratch out a few more feet of depth in some hole in the ground. Bill Stone, probably the foremost supercaver in the United States, sacrificed his marriage and numerous other significant relationships to the lure of the caves. A Russian caver, Peter Klimchouk, who finally established the Russian cave of Krubera as the world's deepest (whew! glad to finally have that cleared up), has had a years long rift with his oldest son over who gets credit for certain cave discoveries in the former Soviet Union.

The reader cannot help but admire the sheer grit of these people, but I felt much the same way I did when I read Krakauer's book on Everest climbers: "Why would someone do that?'' Who would invest millions of dollars and risk their lives on a venture that likely will yield nothing of significance and that may well cost you your life? Cavers write and speak of the breathtaking majesty of massive underground rooms, and the thrill of walking (or swimming or crawling) where no human has been before. Whatever rings your chimes I guess, but I think I'll stay above ground.

Although the book is not written from a spiritual perspective, I kept wondering about the spiritual motivations of the cavers. The words from Psalm 130 "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" kept running through my head as I read through this book. I have no desire to get that far down (literally or metaphorically), but I was intrigued by the euphoria that the cavers experience when they make a new discovery or come through a grueling exploration. Is it possible that experiencing such utter vulnerability gives the cavers a more clear sense of the presence of something (SomeOne?) grand and holy in their midst? I have not done extreme caving (and have no plans to), but I can say that some of the most difficult experiences of my life have also been the ones that strengthened my ties to the Holy One. Whether or not the cavers are aware of it or not, maybe that closeness is at least a part of what drives them.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Blitz

Ok, here it is. The list and thumbnail review of every other book (besides the ones listed in the previous post) that I have read since mid-June. I've got to find my groove on the regular postings once again, but am doing these annotated lists to get myself current and start again with a clean slate. It was horrible being immobilized for so long with back pain, but I did get an amazing amount of reading done - some of it wonderful, some only so-so. Here goes...

Magic Time - by Doug Marlette. A novel about Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Marlette does a good job of weaving real history and people with fictitious characters, making the narrative that much more believable. If you like Civil Rights era stories, you should pick this one up.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God - by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. A satirical novel about academia and the ongoing philosophical and ontological debates about the presence of a Creator/Divine Being. It's a good story, and at times hilarious. However, even as she lampoons the hubris of academia, Goldstein also participates in it (she has a Ph.D in philosophy). There is a "look how smart I am" tone to the writing that eventually grates. But two of her characters (Lucinda Mandelbaum and Jonas Elijah Klapper) encapsulate the insufferable nature of some (not all) academics.

The 19th Wife - by David Ebershoff. A fictional look at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormons) and they polygamous lifestyles. Weaves in a juicy murder mystery, but also gives us a lot of history of the FLDS and the twisted, patriarchal theology of polygamy.

Lark and Termite - by Jayne Anne Phillips. This was a re-read for a sermon series, and I loved it even more the second time. Beautiful story about unconditional love, mysticism, and self-sacrifice. A must read.

Every Last One - by Anna Quindlen. Quindlen's novels do not disappoint. Her characters are terribly real. This one deals with a mother and a son groping their way through the days after unspeakable tragedy hits their family. The only disadvantage is that her writing is so smooth and goes past so quickly that I frequently devour her books in a day or so and then cannot remember them very well afterwards. But still very much worth reading.

Songs Without Words - by Ann Packer. A novel about long-term friendship, and how two women handle it when the bonds of their friendship are tested and challenged. How do we cope when life circumstances stretch our patience with the people who are most important to us? Packer shows us a realistic scenario that depicts a rent in a relationship and its fragile, tentative repair.

Hunger and Happiness - by L. Shannon Jung. I actually have a review of this coming out in the Presbyterian journal Interpretation. A thoughtful meditation on how millions of people in the world are starving while the rest of us live in excess. Jung writes convincingly about how the spiritual health and happiness of all of us is inextricably tied to that of our neighbors, and how helping those in need also feeds our souls. Definitely worth reading.

Homer and Langley - by E.L. Doctorow. A moving novel about two brothers who actually did exist in the early to mid-20th century. They were smart men who lived together in a large house in Manhattan, but over time they became isolated hoarders. Raises questions about what constitutes a "good" life, how we care for one another, and when our neighbor's "business" should become our own.

True Compass - by Edward M. Kennedy. Like them or not, the Kennedys are fascinating people. This is Ted Kennedy's memoir, and it is interesting to read his personal reflections on some of the major historical events of the last 60 years, including the assassinations of two of his brothers (JFK and RFK). Even acknowledging that Kennedy no doubt put his own spin on things and of course believed that his views were the correct ones, I was touched by his admissions of his own responsibility for the failure of his first marriage, his being haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, his candid discussion of his own faith, and his humble acknowledgment of his own ongoing need for redemption and grace. Shows a depth to the man that went far beyond his partying playboy image.

Oh the Glory of It All - by Sean Wilsey. If you had a weird childhood, read this. You will realize that you are not the only one. Wilsey's memoir is funny at times, but also sad. His two incredibly self-centered parents pretty much let him raise himself. The results could have been disastrous, but incredibly Wilsey is a together guy who is now a sensitive, responsible parent.

Prayers for Sale - by Sandra Dallas. A sweet story about the power of a mentoring relationship between an older and younger woman who both have suffered the loss of a child. Full of colorful characters (the quilting group reminded me of the lively cast of How to Make and American Quilt) and poignant moments. Melancholy in places but ultimately hopeful and life-affirming.

Madness Under the Royal Palms - by Lawrence Leamer. Leamer is probably most known for his biographical work on the Kennedy family. This is a non-fiction book about society and snobbery in Palm Beach, Florida. Honestly, those people need to get a life. If Leamer's portrayal is accurate, those are some of the most vapid, self-absorbed, clueless persons on the planet. Completely morally and spiritually bankrupt. Interesting read about boring people.

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine: by Rudolph Chelmenski. The chronicle of the rise and fall of French chef Bernard Loiseau. Largely self-taught, he became an accomplished enough cook for his out of the way restaurant to earn the coveted Michelin "three stars" designation. However, the pressure of maintaining that status, and the rumor that he might lose it, became too much for him to endure. Loiseau committed suicide in 2006. Thought-provoking look at our need for recognition and adulation that went to tragic extremes in this one man. Also contains lots of fascinating history of French cuisine and its major innovators.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates: by Wes Moore. Compelling read (non-fiction) about two kids with the same name, close in age, who grew up in the troubled neighborhoods of West Baltimore. One became a Rhodes scholar. The other is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for murder. Reinforces the need for stable support in young kids' lives, and the power of community to pull someone away from the brink. One sentence stuck with me especially. Moore writes: "The tragic truth is that my story could have been his. The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine." The story inspires the reader to pay attention and to let our young people know we care about them.

The Women - by T.C. Boyle. If you enjoyed Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, you will also like this. It is a biographical novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the series of women with whom he had relationships in his adult life. It covers some of the same ground that Horan's novel did - Wright's long-term affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney and the burning of his mansion Taliesin by a disgruntled employee - but also his subsequent relationships after Cheney.

Unsqueezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, High Heels, and Stilettos - by Margot Starbuck. A hilariously true book by a fellow Presbyterian clergywoman about how we as women get too caught up in our culture's idea of beauty. Starbuck challenges us to spend the time and money that we normally spend obsessing about our looks and redirect those resources to living in closer relationship with each other and especially people in need.

The Vagrants - by Yiyun Li. A haunting novel about Communist China in the immediate aftermath of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. Li has captured the suspicion and fear that people under a totalitarian government must constantly live with, as well as the small acts of kindness and grace that people extend to one another in spite of those fears.

America America - by Ethan Canin. A novel about the political climate of 1972, with a fictional presidential candidate thrown in with all the real ones. Narrated by a young boy who finds himself swept into the maelstrom of a political campaign before he understands the flawed nature of leaders and the contrasts that lie within the human heart. Canin writes some sentences that are hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly true, but somehow the pacing of this story dragged for me. It's an interesting story that should be more gripping than it is. I enjoyed it but was also ready for it to end.

Well, this post and the previous one sum up about three months of reading for me. I hope each of you find something in here that interests you. Send me any recommendations that you have!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I Really Mean It This Time (I Think)

Hi there, reading world. Nice to see you again. This has been the longest, most difficult summer of my life, as I have struggled to recover from three herniated discs in my lower back. It has been a roller coaster - I would have a couple of better days and would believe things had turned around, then would crash again, with pain worse than ever. It was truly awful. Now, however, I have had two whole good weeks (after finding a pain specialist who helped me a lot), and am cautiously optimistic that life is returning to normal (whatever normal is).

Three good things about this wretched time: 1) finding out yet again what a truly special guy I married 10 years ago. Ed has been a trooper through this whole stop and start journey. 2) I have lost a pretty serious amount of weight (amazing what chronic pain does for the appetite - "Do I really want to move off this couch and go get that snack? Um, no." Finally, 3) I got a lot of reading done. I'm so far behind on blogging that there is no way I can do separate posts on all the books I have read in the last three months - I would never catch up. So, am going to do a few posts with just micro-reviews of my most recent books. In a week or so, I should be able to get back to doing a full post two to three times a week.

I've missed you guys! Here are the first few books of the "Summer 2010 Back Pain Reading List":

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Was curious about the whole Stieg Larsson thing. Compelling reading - boy there are some morally bankrupt people out there. Gave me food for thought on topics like isolation, loneliness, and corruption. I plan to read the other two Larsson novels at some point.

The Path to Power - by Robert Caro. This is the first of Caro's Lyndon Johnson trilogy. Excellent bio of Johnson, but also meticulous history of the Texas hill country, Democratic politics in Texas, and some of Johnsons' formative relationships.

Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh - excellent comparison of the personas of Guatama Buddha and Jesus Christ, and exposition of how their teachings continue to live and influence our world today. The writing is kind of all over the map without a whole lot of organization or structure, but I don't think our Buddhist friends are all that big on structure.

Purple Hibiscus - by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche. Heartbreaking novel by the Nigerian writer who brought us Half of a Yellow Sun and That Thing Around Your Neck. Shows us a fanatical Christian who follows the letter of the law but completely misses the boat in terms of the spirit of the law. If you have enjoyed Adiche's other works, you will like this one as well.

Little Bee - by Chris Cleave. YOU MUST READ THIS. The story of a refugee girl from Nigeria who tries to make her way in England. I don't want to spoil it by saying anything more, but it is a must read novel if you like contemporary fiction that addresses the social issues of our time.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - by Mark Twain. Somehow I had managed to live 43+ years without reading this classic. In spite of the use of the "N" word throughout the story (we have to consider the time and context), I loved the book. Huck copes with a moral dilemma that many who are more "educated" than he would not even recognize as a dilemma. Plus there are places where the story is just laugh out loud funny (always a bonus).

Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian - by Paul Knitter. Read as part of preparation for a sermon I was writing comparing and contrasting Buddhism with Christianity. Very theologically broadening - an exciting read.

My Antonia - by Willa Cather. Showcases Cather's beautifully descriptive writing and traces a friendship between a young man and young woman on the Nebraska plain through late childhood and adulthood. Shows us how relationships and respect can be preserved through all the changes that life brings.

Your Inner Fish: a Journey through the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body - by Neil Shubin. Science writing at its best - a delightful romp through the origins of life to the human species as we know it now. If Shubin is to be believed (and his case is strong) we came not from monkeys (at least not at first) but from the single-celled creatures and the most primitive fish that first came to be called life. Fun reading, and we learn something in the process.

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine - by Benjamin Wallace. Traces the history of a bottle of wine that Christie's auction house sold for over $150,000 in the 1980s. The bottle was reputed to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but that could never be proven. Also gives a lot of insight into the wine culture and history of the industry.

Zeitoun - by Dave Eggers. In this country? Really? Discrimination against Muslims sinks to an unbelievable (yet sadly true) during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina (non-fiction).

Orange is the New Black:My Year in a Women's Prison - by Piper Kerman. Memoir of a year
spent incarcerated. Kerman had a brief stint in the fringes of the international drug trade that came back to haunt her a decade later, after she had long left that life behind. Lots of colorful characters and touching stories about how incarcerated women create community and find ways to grow and change even within a system that does everything it can to stamp out their sense of self worth.

Ender's Game - by Orson Scott Card. I'm not normally into science fiction, but this is REALLY good. It raises questions about war and peace and what we expect from our kids. Sometimes our kids understand our common status as creatures much better than adults do. Too bad we squelch that.

That's all for now, more in the next day or so. Happy Reading!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Finally Back...

Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers
by Thich Nhat Hanh

What a long, strange trip it's been. Six weeks ago tomorrow I injured my back, and that was followed by the worst pain of my life - no exaggeration, much worse than childbirth. Plus it did not end with an adorable baby to take home. In fact it has not really ended yet. The theme of pain has really taken over this summer, and I am working terribly hard at physical therapy to get strong again and not have my back dominate my every thought and motion. Since I have been immobile for the greater part of this summer, I have read A LOT. Given that I would never catch up otherwise, I have decided to do a number of "micro-reviews" of this summer's reading list so that I can begin to get current. Plus, I still cannot sit at the computer long enough to type a multi-paragraph review. So, short and sweet for the next couple of weeks, then hopefully I will be able to be back in full force.

It is interesting (to me anyway) that this summer, while I was fulfilling a promise to a friend to do some reading on Buddhism and preach a " compare and contrast" sermon on Buddhism and Christianity, that a Buddhist monk became an agent of my healing. I was busting my ample you-know-what at physical therapy, and still crazed by pain between appointments and between times when I could stretch at home. A friend recommended that I try acupuncture from a Buddhist monk that she goes to, as a way to offer some relief from the pain while I am in the process of getting stronger. I do not fully understand Eastern medicine, but I think there is something to it. After one week (which included two acupuncture appointments and the beginning of a dose of herbal medicine) I am not 100% pain free, but am certainly better. Moreover, I have not taken any conventional pain medicine for a week (translate: no pills). YAY!

So anyway, this is not the first rambling on Buddhism that you will hear related to the summer of 2010, but I did think it was interesting how the reality of Buddhist practice pervaded my world in conjunction with my reading about some of their beliefs and practices. Going Home is a good place to start if you are curious about the Buddhist faith and how their meditative practices can enrich the lives of non-Buddhists.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes with gentleness and humor about the principles that guided both Jesus and Buddha, and the ways both men lived out those principles. He repeatedly expresses a deep appreciation for the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and introduces us to the Buddhist refuges of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Nhat Hanh suggests that some of our differences are more in the ways we express ourselves linguistically and in our practices, than in principle.

Having said that, there are important differences between the two faiths as well. To begin to explore those, I suggest you read the book, as well as a couple of others that I will post about later.

Hope you have had a good summer! It's good to be back!

Reverent Reader

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Not My Family

The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
by Jeff Sharlet

Dang, I just do not have the energy for conspiracies - especially ones that drag on for decades and decades. Sharlet's book goes back over a century, outlining in meticulous detail the plans of fundamentalist Christians to infiltrate the highest levels of government. "The Family" is a shadow organization that forms individual relationships between its members and people in power (some Democrats, but mostly Republicans) here in the United States and in other nations throughout the world. Some of the history of the movement gets a little tedious, but the research is thorough and Sharlet is able to show a deliberate pattern of fundamentalists building their own power by cozying up to the the people who have official, publicly granted power. These were the people who behind the scenes started and continue to orchestrate the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that most pols attend and pay homage to Doug Coe, the group's current leader.

However, these people are not like the biblical literalists, homophobic, politically conservative fundamentalists I have met over and over throughout my life. The Family's unofficial motto is "Jesus plus Nothing," and they avoid taking stances on controversial social issues. That makes it unclear exactly what their agenda is, beyond what they see as saving souls. As far as relationships with foreign countries, they would buddy up to the worst human rights violator in the world if he claimed to have Jesus in his heart. Especially during the Cold War years, "Jesus + Nothing" seemed to really mean "Jesus plus unfettered capitalism. Once again it all comes down to the dollar and pursuing our own economic superiority over the common good. It's just all the more sickening when it is done with such hypocrisy.

I have no doubt that some people in the Family are sincere and believe they are advancing Christ's gospel through their shadowy manipulations. I just happen to think that their tactics leave no room for other Christian perspectives (and that that is their aim), and they certainly do not leave open the possibility that any other faith tradition could possess a kernel or two of truth.

It sounds trite, but I just wish people could learn to trust and love each other. But then you have people out there like these jokers who don't care a thing about love and trust - it's all about their viewpoint winning and subjugating all others. The comforting thing, though, is that they have been at this for a long time. When I get spooked by the attempts of the Religious Right to run the show today, I realize that this is nothing new, and there is a Power greater than they will ever be who will see that love and truth ultimately carry the day. The fundies have no doubt influenced a major number of policies and national stances. But we are still a democracy, not a theocracy, and the voices for justice and truth are not going to shut up.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Baby's Got BACK

Hi reading friends,

Just dropping in to say I have not totally abandoned this blog. I had gone on a family trip to Oklahoma in late June, and did not have consistent computer access in our hotel. Plus, I was solo parenting so the idea of having time to blog was laughable.

Then, two days after we returned from the trip, I had sudden onset back pain which has really knocked me over. Long story, but it looks like a disc problem. An MRI in a couple of days should provide some answers and hopefully an action plan.

Until then, painkillers and muscle relaxants are my friends, and I can only write in short little bursts. I've gotten quite a bit of reading done while flat on my back, though. So once I can write again, I'll have fodder for lots of posts.

Send me any good summer reading recommendations that you have!

Reverent Reader

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lost Childhoods

Say You're One of Them
by Uwem Akpan

It is so easy to divorce ourselves from the misery on the other side of the world. We go about our busy lives, we raise our kids, we run our households, we go to work every day, and sometimes days go by between the times when we think of the people who do not have households to maintain or jobs to go to or children to feed (because the ones they had have all died in tribal warfare or from malaria or AIDS or starvation). Our blindness is not intentional, but cultural. Occasionally we catch a story on CNN or NPR about ethnic clashes in an African country or a famine or an earthquake or some other type of natural disaster that leaves lives shattered. We feel genuine compassion for our neighbors, but not a personal connection to their sorrow.

Uwem Akpan's collection of stories Say You're One of Them makes it hard for us to keep that level of detachment. Akpan is a Jesuit priest who also is a gifted writer - his writing is really an extension of his ministry. I hope that is true for all of us who both minister and write (often the two are intertwined), but Akpan's book is a deliberate attempt to fill a void that desperately needs filling - the voices of children who are caught in the horrors of African religious and ethnic conflicts He decided to write stories from the perspective of children about atrocities in several African countries - including Niger, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.

I don't know that I could choose a "favorite" from these five stories - three of which would probably be called short stories and two are probably long enough to be called novellas. Each is well written, but extraordinarily painful to read. Fattening for Gabon, about two children sold into slavery by their uncle, is haunting. My Parents' Bedroom, told from the point of view of the child of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother during the Rwandan wars of the 1990s, illustrates the complexities of ethnic hatred alongside mixed marriages and mixed blood children. Each story takes us inside one of Africa's bleakest conflicts, showing us how the ones who pay the highest price for the violence are usually the ones who had nothing to do with starting it in the first place. The stories are fiction, but drawn from the experiences of children he has met and talked with.

Akpan's stories make it impossible for us to insulate ourselves from what happens in Africa, Afghanistan, Mississippi, or anywhere else. It's not fun reading, but they are stories we need to hear. Akpan reminds us that we are all connected - we may not know each other personally, but there are ways that we can relate to one another. As a parent, I could identify with the anguish of the parents who see their kids' lives being wrecked - even when, as in An Ex-Mas Feast, a young girl turns to prostitution to help feed her family. Her parents behave in inexcusable ways, but their pain is also palpable. Most of us love our children and want a beautiful life for them - we are blessed enough to live in a place where we seldom have to make the agonizing choices that these parents do. For these children to have to make adult decisions and live adult lives at their tender ages is one of the great human tragedies.

Read this, but brace yourself first. It's rough.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Unlikely Emergence of Faith

by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is just hilarious. I remember reading her memoir The Liar's Club several years ago and laughing out loud in a number of places. It is about her childhood, growing up in a nutty family in hardscrabble Texas. Her second memoir, Cherry, is about her young adult years and her participation in the drug scene of the 1970s. This latest one takes us through the painful days of her marriage, her battle with alcoholism, and her coming to faith in Christ in spite of herself.

Karr (who is also a poet - she might even call herself primarily a poet) has a remarkable way with words. He writing does not plod in the least, it just zips right along. However, you do not want to go too fast because you might miss some of the stunning images or insightful turns of phrase that pop up all over the book. In describing her withdrawal from alcohol, at one point she says that her skin felt like "sausage casing, with the flesh straining to pop out." Ouch. Karr is not afraid to laugh at herself, and she takes total responsibility for the mistakes that she made and the people whom she hurt when she was under the power of booze. Even when she acts like a brat, the reader wants better things for her. Her need for attention and reassurance is understandable, given the inconsistent way she was parented. Her dependence on alcohol likely had a genetic factor (both of her parents had substance abuse problems), but may also have been related to her feeling like a poser in the intellectual, literary world.

In any case, she was headed for a complete physical and mental meltdown (her marriage was already damaged beyond repair) when she finally began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She had always thought that faith in some kind of Supreme Being (or "Higher Power" in AA parlance) was just a bunch of nonsense, and for a long time she was hung up on that acknowledgement of a Higher Power as part of her recovery. Over time, she developed relationships with other people in recovery and found people with whom she could talk frankly about her struggles with the whole concept of belief. She gradually moved from utter disbelief to wanting to believe to finally, deep within the recesses of her heart and spirit, surrendering to the truth that there is Someone who loves and cares for her and wants her to experience life in all its fullness. There is something really powerful about someone embracing faith and making the conscious decision to go through baptism as an adult.

Karr's writing is honest, funny, and moving all at the same time. She still wrestles with some of the doctrinal issues of Roman Catholicism - who among us does not struggle with the abstractness of doctrine at times? But she has grasped the concepts of living relationally with God and with family and friends. She has come to understand that dependence on God and dependence on each other are all part of the same package. She has received and unwrapped that package, and her life is better for it.

Thanks for sharing, Mary Karr. Blessings on your continued journey of faith.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

The Tortilla Curtain
by T.C. Boyle

Wow. This book blew me away. I read it several weeks ago (that's how behind I am on my blogging), but I still find myself thinking about the story a lot. Don't know how I missed in in 1996 when it was published, but I guess I was not paying enough attention. No matter - it is at least as timely now as it was then, what with all the public debate on border control and illegal immigration. If you have not read this and are at all interested in those issues, you really should check this out. Boyle has captured the plight of the poverty stricken immigrant, as well as the fear, interior conflict, and hypocrisy of the prosperous native born Anglo.

Set in the Los Angeles area, The Tortilla Curtain shares us two parallel stories of people who live near each other and find their lives intersecting in surprising and uncomfortable ways. Delaney and Kyra are white liberals who live in a gated community and initially have a reasonably compassionate attitude toward the Mexican immigrants who are becoming ever more visible. Candido and America (oh, the irony of that name) are illegals hiding in the nearby canyon, picking up work where they can find it, and trying desperately to make a fresh start. Several unfortunate incidents conspire to push Candido and America back into the pit of despair every time they think they are about to get just the tiniest bit ahead. Their frustration and pain is heart wrenching. America is pregnant, and as the birth of their child draws nearer, she becomes more desperate and lonely. The forced isolation of these two people seems so unnecessarily cruel. Yes, they do break a few laws - stealing occasionally to get food being the main one. How many of us would not be driven to do the same if we were starving?

Delaney and Kyra are also pitiful characters in their own way. Due to the power of neighborhood group think, they morph from reasonably good hearted people (although privileged, self-centered, and clueless in a lot of ways) to maniacal, fearful NIMBYs. Delaney's transformation is especially sad, as he begins the story a reasonable person with a compassionate outlook. Like so many of us, as the immigrants encroach on his personal convenience (often through no fault of their own) he takes an ever dimmer view of them. It is fine for them to be hired to build a fence in his backyard, but their visible presence on street corners and in parking lots looking for work he comes to find unacceptable. The hate that infiltrates Delaney's mind as he starts to blame everything that goes wrong in his life on "the Mexicans" is frightening. We think we would never behave that way, but his thought processes and resulting actions are scarily possible. Most of us probably act in these ways every day without even realizing it.

Boyle has included some interesting parallel concerns for Delaney and Kyra that make their dear and hatred of the immigrants even more mysterious and sad. Delaney is an environment/nature writer with a deep reverence for creation (although neither he or Kyra seem particularly spiritual). At one point, Kyra gets into a heated confrontation with a stranger who leaves his dog locked in a car on a hot day. They both totally miss the disconnect between their concern for animals and nature and a lack of concern for fellow human beings living in squalor just a mile or two from their California mansion.

I will read this again, probably several times. It is one of the best narratives of a compelling social dilemma I have ever read. I am planning to preach about it later this summer, so may even post about it again relatively soon. One of the things that moved me the most was the grain of hope found in the final sentence.

Reverent Reader