Monday, December 31, 2007

A Dose of History


The Mulberry Empire
by Philip Hensher

I really wanted to like this book. After devouring The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I am fascinated with Afghanistan and her neighboring countries. So, I was excited to read this one but was a little disappointed. The history is great - it goes much further back that the Khaled Hosseini novels and explains a lot of the complexity of relationships between Britain and Afghanistan. It also lets us in on the mindset of nations that consider themselves empire builders. In the mid-1830s, England and Russia were competing to see who could rule more territory, which led to some bitter results for Afghanistan. Knowing what we know now about how the Soviets bided their time and again moved on Afghanistan when the time was right for them, we can see how the diplomatic missteps of misguided leaders can have repercussions for decades to come. Makes me shudder to think of the fallout yet to come for some of our disastrous mistakes on the world stage in the last few years.

So, this book is not a complete waste of time. It is worth the effort, but I never found it gripping or even particularly enticing. The characters do not inspire a lot of empathy. Also, he has created this huge cast of characters and skips around between them. When done well, that can be a great technique. In this case, it mostly feels clumsy. The various stories are only tangentially related, and I kept waiting for some epic moment when the strands would all come together, but it never happened. There is one thread in particular that seems totally extraneous, because there is never any resolution to it I have to say, though, that the Bella/Elizabeth/Burnes strand was one of the more interesting. I wish he had done more with the connection between Bella and Burnes. He could have made Bella a really cool adventuress who traveled in rustic places with Burnes. Instead, she lay on a sofa for about five years. Yawn.

I wish my final book of 2007 were more inspiring, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Am working on the "Year of Books in Review" and should be able to post it tomorrow.

Reverent Reader

Saturday, December 29, 2007

PSYCHED!


Hi Reading Friends!


It was definitely a terrific Christmas for a book lover like me. I received nine new books from family and friends, many of which I had had my eye on for a long time, and others of which I had not heard of but sound great. Plus a little bit of "mad money" that I intend to use for books. YAY!! Here are the titles, in the approximate order in which I received them:

The Life of Elizabeth I by Allison Weir
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? by Francisco Goldman
The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp
The Book of Marie by Terry Kay
I Feel Bad About My Neck (and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman) by Nora Ephron
Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker's Book of Food and Drink edited by David Remnick
The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursula Hegi
The Jump-Off Creek by Molly Gloss

I've already started the Hegi book - she is one of my favorites. Also finished the long historical novel The Mulberry Empire over Christmas. More about that later.

Watch in a couple of days for the Ex Libris Fides first annual year end wrap up: How many total books read in 2007? Top five fiction? Top five non-fiction? All this and much, much more!

Missed you all - it's nice to be back.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify


A Simple Christmas
Sojourners Magazine
December 2007
by Amy Ard

This article by Amy Ard is really short but pithy and thought-provoking. We have all heard the Christmas rants about commercialization and stress and "unplugging the Christmas machine." Sometimes I make those rants myself. Ard's article is refreshing in that it is not so much a rant as a gentle letting us off the hook, reminding us that we do not HAVE to do as much as we do.

Amy Ard and her husband started a unique journey last January - they had resolved to buy nothing new for a year except for perishables. Intangibles like tickets to the theater were also OK. As Ard writes "We've found the best thrift stores, traded items with friends, and managed to give birth to our first child without ever stepping foot in a Babies R Us." (Wow.) Ard writes how stressful Christmas shopping has always been for her, because she procrastinates and does it all on Christmas Eve (yerk, that would stress me out too). With their policy for this year, though, they had to do something different.

The Ards spent a lot of time and advance planning this year thinking about their family members' unique personalities and interests and finding gifts that would fit within their "no new objects" parameters but that those who received them would really like. They are giving antique photographs to a photography buff, theater tickets and yoga classes and farmer's market gift certificates to others who have those particular interests.

What I liked about Ard's article is that she doesn't go off about how we should not give gifts at all. OK, OK, I know we all spend too much money on Christmas and get too wound up about it, but I also like finding things that I really know someone will get a kick out of. In my family we do a lot of exchanging of books and music, because we all like those. Christmas shopping does not stress me out a whole lot, because I tend to start early and spread it out. When I find something that I know someone is going to love, I look forward to giving it to them for weeks or sometimes even months. Call me a materialistic fool, but I get a lot of joy and pleasure out of that part of the holiday.

BUT - we probably all have parts of the holiday that DO stress us out, whether it is the shopping or not. Ard 's article prompted me to think about what those things are for me, and how to minimize them or eliminate them altogether. I gave up sending Christmas cards when I was in seminary - I just never got them done, and have long since given up trying. One thing that does get to me is wrapping gifts - I am not good at it, tend to put it off, and then wind up grumpy about it. Perhaps next year I will wrap as I purchase so that it only takes a few minutes each time instead of one or two wrapping marathons. (It's too late for this year, but we can always make good resolutions for next).

With having two small boys in the house, I have given up this year on having the decorations look "perfect." As we decorated our tree, I told E. 2007 would come to be known as "the year of breakage," since our two well-meaning urchins kept hanging ornaments about 1/16 of an inch from the end of the branch, and then wondering why they went crashing to the floor. One window sill wise man got decapitated as G. was having a conversation with it. However, I have found that we have enjoyed the decorations just as much without everything being perfectly in place all the time. The wise man was made right again with just a little Elmer's.

I can be slow to grasp new concepts, but am gradually learning that we can choose what traditions are unbreakable and which ones can be scaled back or cut out altogether. I also think, though, that at times we make our own "tradition" of wigging out about all we have to do. I'm trying to remember that I am choosing to do these various extra activities and that I can also choose to enjoy them or not. If we don't or can't enjoy some part of it, maybe that is a clue that that part should go.

Anyone have thoughts on this? Tips on how you de-stress the Advent/Christmas season?

Merry, Merry Christmas to all!

Reverent Reader

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Tale With a Different Twist


Angela and the Baby Jesus
by Frank McCourt, with illustrations by Loren Long

Hi, blog friends! Sorry I have been a little incommunicado lately. Two reasons: 1) E. and I have been doing a lot of holiday baking in preparation for a Christmas Open House for our congregations, and 2) I am working my way through a pretty slow historical novel about the history of British/Afghan relationships and am just not covering the reading ground that I normally do. Anyway, we are winding up the cooking so hope to get back to my normal level.

We have a nice collection of children's Christmas books, to which I try to add periodically. It is cozy time to snuggle up with one (or both) of the boys on the couch, by the light of the Christmas tree, and read Christmas In the Manger or Who Is Coming to Our House?, not to mention 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. It's one of my favorite parts of the season. Have been hearing a lot this year about Angela and the Baby Jesus. You may remember Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes, which won a Pulitzer Prize about ten years ago.

This is a story that Frank McCourt's mother, Angela, told him about her childhood and that stuck with him. Angela is six years old when she gets concerned about the doll Baby Jesus lying in the manger at her Irish Catholic church. She is worried that the baby is cold and takes him home with her to warm him up. I won't say much more than that, except that the outcome is hilarious and touching at the same time. Watch Angela's older but slightly slow brother Pat emerge as an example of sacrificial love - that was the part that brought tears to my eyes.

If you like Christmas-themed children's books, this is one to take a look at. It makes us think about how literally children take the words of their church and the concepts communicated there. Fortunately, at the final outcome, Angela experiences the grace of church and family rather than the more damaging aspects that all too often win the day. The illustrations are adorable and the story is well told. A great gift to give a child OR an adult this season.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So Bee It


Bee Season
by Myla Goldberg

Initially, I was attracted to this book because I find spelling bees really interesting. E. and I love the movies Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound. Whenever we catch it, we watch the National Spelling Bee and are transfixed by it. I'm a good speller myself, but they use such random words that I would be knocked out in Round 1, I have no doubt. At first glance this is a book about a child who does well in spelling bees, but as it unfolds . . .no, it is about Jewish mysticism . . .no, it is about this sad family who shares a home but are pretty much strangers to each other . . .no, it is about spiritual hunger and a longing for a sense of wholeness and communion with the divine. Actually it is about all these things, and as we read on it turns out that spelling is an auxiliary part of the narrative, a way to expose the searching and emptiness of all the primary characters in the book.

The utter isolation of the Naumann family is haunting. It is as if they are a universe unto themselves, but they are also alienated from each other. The result is four terribly isolated and lonely people. The parents, Saul and Miriam, are more like roommates than spouses. The children, Aaron and Eliza, are close as kids but drift apart as they become adolescents. Aaron is the stereotypical geeky kid who gets bullied and is at the bottom of the social pecking order. However, he gets some affirmation from his father because he is smart and planning to be a rabbi. Eliza is ignored by both her parents until she shows herself to be a spelling prodigy. Once she wins the state spelling bee, Saul puts everything aside to help her study for the national bee. At first Eliza loves the attention from him, but soon starts to feel suffocated by his expectations.

The truly fascinating character is Miriam, the mother. She is almost a complete non-entity as a mom - very unengaged with her kids, not at all in tune with who they are and what their needs might be. As the story moves, we figure out that she is leading a whole double life - she is mentally ill but has managed to hide that fact from her husband of nearly two decades. One of her symptoms is kleptomania, and the reader's anxiety builds as it becomes more clear that she is going to get caught stealing and the whole house of cards that is their family life is going to come tumbling down.

Partly because he is angry with his father for diverting his attention to Eliza, and partly because he craves a sense of belonging somewhere, Aaron puts aside his Jewish faith and joins a community of Hare Krishnas. He takes up the ancient Buddhist practice of chanting in order to clear his mind and make himself conscious of God. Oddly, the process is not unlike the Jewish Kabbalah chants that Saul teaches Eliza because he believes that the cleared out mind will help her spelling. It becomes clear, though, that spelling is not his only motivation. He has hopes that Eliza will have spiritual experiences that after a lifetime of Judaism and a career as a cantor have eluded him.

This is a good story, but the desperation of all the characters is sad. Only in the end, after Eliza has finally had a mystical experience (and it is more frightening than positive), does she claim her own freedom to develop as she chooses and not as her father would direct her. Aaron and Miriam are still essentially in crisis, and misguided Saul cannot figure out what to do next. The loose ends are not neatly tied up in the end, but then they seldom are in real life either. Makes me want to make sure I pay a lot of attention to my kids.

This is worth reading, primarily because Goldberg does a good job of showing the effect that loneliness has on children and adolescents, and the lengths to which people will go to feel a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

Reverent Reader

Friday, December 7, 2007

Always Reaching


Reaching for the End of Time
by Ann McCutchan
The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007

A beloved church friend who likes to read really cool stuff recently gave me this book from the "Best American" series. It is a collection of essays taken from magazines and other venues that represent the nebulous subject of spiritual writing. There is a lot of good stuff in this book, no doubt you will hear from me about it again. I am not reading it in my usual "start on page one and read straight through until the end" style. I flip around until I find something that jives with my mood or with something I am curious about.

This essay put me in mind of the post I wrote a few weeks ago about the Christian Century article on the theology found in music. This is an essay that movingly describes music's spiritual power. Ann McCutchan is a professional clarinetist who was unable to continue that career because she developed carpal tunnel syndrome from all the practicing. She returned to school for another degree and now has combined writing and music and teaching. She teaches music theory and writing, currently at North Texas State University. She also is the prose editor of the American Literary Review.

McCutchan's essay is about the power that one piece of music had over her life. As a graduate student at Florida State University in 1971, she found French composer Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time on an obscure shelf in the music library. It had not been checked out for years, but she thought it looked interesting, especially when she saw that the third movement was for solo clarinet. As she describes it, it is an intense piece - Messiaen's musical articulation of the imagery laid out in Revelation. Messiaen took much of his inspiration from the natural world, and the clarinet solo movement, titled "Abyss of the Birds" imitates the calls of many birds that Messiaen had taken the trouble to record (and later transcribe) when he was on hikes and otherwise out in nature.

Evidently this is a really physically demanding piece that takes almost an hour to play. McCutchan performed the solo movement in a recital but felt compelled to perform the entire quartet, with all the instrumentation participating. She created opportunities to do this three times between the years of 1972 and 1983. The piece had such a hold on her that over the years McCutchan learned everything she could about Messiaen and traveled extensively to hear live performances of his music. She explored the religious symbolism and technical devices present in the music.

Three interesting things about Messiaen: 1) He was an amateur ornithologist, which is what gave him the knowledge to transcribe bird songs. 2) He had a condition called synesthesia, which meant that when he heard a sound it produced a color in his mind's eye, and vice versa. He maintained that it was helpful to his composing to have this rare condition. 3). He wrote at least part of the Quartet for the End of Time while he was in prison during World War II. He once said that "During my captivity it was colored dreams that gave birth to the chords and rhythms of my quartet."

This essay intrigued me because of the passion the Quartet inspired in McCutchan. Messiaen used music to express a story, a vision articulated in the Bible, that most people find opaque and even scary. Somehow it spoke to Ann McCutchan so clearly that she devoted hours and hours of her life to learning it, playing it, and writing about it. What a gift to be able to make music so powerful that it alters the way people choose to live. I cannot imagine how people can say that the arts are not relevant to life or faith. Anything that keeps us reaching, seeking, and trying to discern truth is not only relevant but transformative.

Does anyone out there have a recording of Quartet for the End of Time? I am really curious to listen to it.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, December 6, 2007

This Guy Is the Real Deal


Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . .One School at a Time
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Loved this one. Makes me want to pack bags and head for Pakistan - or maybe not. I have to admit that I do not possess the courage under fire that Greg Mortenson has shown. In an earlier part of his life, he was one of those extreme climber dudes. Think Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Mortenson was raised by Lutheran missionary parents in Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), and he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 11! In 1993 he was trying to reach the summit of K-2. He had to turn back 600 meters from the top to assist another climber who had developed pulmonary edema (a common ailment at those altitudes). Anyway, on the way down the mountain, Mortenson got separated from his fellow climbers and got lost on the mountain. Dehydrated and exhausted, he wandered into a tiny village called Korphe, so obscure it is not even on most maps.

The people of Korphe, most of whom had never even seen an American before, showed tremendous hospitality to Mortenson and took care of him until he regained some of his strength. Mortenson developed a relationship with the people of the region (known as Balti) that was to change his life. Those who are interested can read the book for further details, but the short version of the story is that Greg Mortenson has devoted his life to building schools, women's vocational centers, and water treatment plants in some of the most remote and forgotten corners of the earth in Pakistan and more recently Afghanistan.

The Balti people are similar to the Sherpas of Nepal - many earn their living serving as porters and guides for the extreme climbers. The mountaineers, beginning with Sir Edmund Hilary, have over time brought the Sherpas and their hardships into public light but until Mortenson, no one had done that for the Baltis. This is probably because most Sherpas are Buddhist and most Baltis are Muslim. Greg Mortenson has never formally converted to Islam, but he respects that faith of its people and is able to forge bonds even with conservative Islamic leaders. "Conservative," however, does not equal "extremist." On two different occasions fundamentalist mullahs (Muslim clerics) issued fatwas against Mortenson, trying to have him banned from Pakistan. Why? Because he offered educational opportunity to girls and women. This was a small minority of Muslims, though. The vast majority of the Pakistani Muslims have welcomed Mortenson like a brother, because they see education and empowerment as the keys to a better life for their children. Mortenson understands that the only way to keep children out of the midrassas, the Islamic fundamentalist schools that are popping up like toadstools in that part of the world, is to offer a viable alternative.

Mortenson's story unfolds as the Taliban rise to power in Afghanistan, as Pakistan and India go to war (again) and against the backdrop of 9/11. He was often in harm's way as he carried out the work of the organization he helped found to build the schools (the Central Asia Institute). People like Greg Mortenson amaze me. Most of us want to make a difference in the world, and make a sincere effort to do what we can where we are. Most of us do not travel in an unsafe part of the world, away from our spouses and children, for months at a time and endure much physical hardship and danger in our effort to improve the lot of the world's most forgotten and ignored people. Talk about walking the walk. My hat is off to him, and my prayers with him.

This is an inspiring read. The one thing that felt strange to me is that Mortenson is listed as an author of the book, but the book blows his horn pretty loudly. From reading the story, my sense is that it was mostly (if not all) written by Relin after he extensively interviewed Mortenson and traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to visit the projects himself. Mortenson seems like a humble, unassuming guy but because he is presumably an author the book can sound self-aggrandizing, even when it is lauding Mortenson's humility. Relin is clearly supportive of Mortenson's mission (as well as a friend to him) and excited about the potential for that mission to change lives. I think the tone of the book is just enthusiasm spilling over, but I would be uncomfortable if I were Greg Mortenson with the "me me me meeeeee me me me!" tone that the book can take. Maybe it's unavoidable, because he clearly is the heart and soul of the CAI, and one of our nation's best hopes for peace.

If you are interested in learning more about the CAI, you can log onto http://www.threecupsoftea.com/ to see what they are doing and how you can help. If nothing else I hope that the book reminds Americans that not all Muslims are crazy terrorists. Most of them just want to practice their faith and give their children some hope and opportunity. I believe that people who have hope and a sense of purpose in the world do not become terrorists, so I hope that Mortenson's work continues for a long time - or at least until there is no longer any need for it, because all children have a decent school to attend and a future to which they can look forward.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Can Hate Time Really Halt?


Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem
by Maya Angelou
Advent is really fun in our household this year. S. is old enough to help with cooking and decorations and to participate in the Advent devotional activities that his cousins sent. The "Advent kit" is a craft foam tree that you decorate one piece at a time through the course of the season, and each day has a scripture reading and a prayer. It makes my heart hurt when S. folds his sticky, gluey hands and bows his head to do the short prayer listed in the devotional book. G. is not sure what it's all about, but is throwing himself into the joy of the season with his usual wild abandon. E. and I try hard to keep things on a somewhat even keel, planning quiet activities and sticking to routines as much as possible. But we can't help it, the joy of the season makes us a little bit giddy too.

I came across this poem in World Ark, the Heifer Project Magazine. I love Maya Angelou's work, and thought this excerpt from Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem expressed beautifully what our fondest hopes and dreams for Christmas are. I share it with you now with hopes that peace really will be born in our hearts and in our world:

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in all corners.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is peace.
It is louder now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait awhile with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Peace.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay awhile with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
Copyright 2005 by Maya Angelou

Beautiful, huh? Let it be so.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bizarre Dream


Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
by Charles J. Shields

I read this book over a year ago and really enjoyed it. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and movies, so I think Harper Lee is really interesting. Her friendship with Truman Capote, and the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is her only major work, are factors that have made Harper an enigmatic figure. She did not grant Shields an interview for this biography, but he did talk with several of her family members and close friends. It was a good read, although at the time I did not find it earth-shattering or especially moving. I do think, though, that we have Harper Lee and other artists like her to thank for some of the unconscious movement of the human spirit that prepared the way for the Civil Rights movement in our country.

Nevertheless, I do not sit around for hours at a time thinking about Harper Lee. But now I am wondering . . .maybe it had something to do with the fact that my four-year-old son S. was invited to three birthday parties this weekend (we had to decline two of them because they were scheduled for Sunday morning and just were not in the time budget). Anyway, night before last I dreamed I was taking S. to a birthday party, and the theme of the party was not Cars, not fire engines, not superheroes, but . . .HARPER LEE. A Harper Lee Birthday party. Am I losing it? Does this make me a certifiable book nerd?

The really weird part is that in the dream it did not seem at all strange for a four year old boy to be having a Harper Lee party. I remember being bummed because she had made a special appearance (she is known for being camera shy and fiercely private) and we were late and had missed it.

Gotta go order my Harper Lee cups, plates, and napkins for my birthday party in February. I'll let you know if I can find a Boo Radley cake. (I crack myself up.)

Grace and peace,

Reverent Reader