Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Rising Sun of a Writer

Half of A Yellow Sun
by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie was profiled in Vanity Fair's Africa issue last summer and given praise as an up and coming African writer. After reading Half of a Yellow Sun, it is easy to see why. Adichie is a Nigerian woman who teaches at Princeton University and divides her time between the US and her home in Nigeria. My hope is that her work will become very well known in both her homes and across the world.

Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about Nigeria's history. Adichie's novel traces the devastating effects of British colonialism on Nigeria, especially the way the English fueled ethnic and tribal mistrust among the Nigerians so that they would be easier for the British to control. Not long after Nigeria gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s, there was a terrible massacre of people from the Igbo tribe, whom other Nigerians thought were trying to have too much control in the new government.

The Igbo responded to the slaughter of their people by seceding a part of the southeastern territory of Nigeria and attempting to form a new country called Biafra. Most of the book focuses on the bloody civil war between Nigeria and Biafra that took place between 1967-1970. Eventually, Biafra was defeated and once again became part of Nigeria. For people who lived through that horror, though, I suspect that the grudges and pain of that time remain firmly lodged in their hearts.

Adichie's book not only illuminates history for us, it also draws us into the life of one Biafran intellectual, upper middle class family. One of Nigeria's weapons of choice, the one that finally broke the Biafrans, was starvation - the Nigerian army blocked trade routes and bombed relief planes so that the Biafrans would not get the food, medicine, and other supplies that they needed. As this one family struggles to survive, and even shares what little they have to alleviate the suffering of neighbors, we come to understand just a little bit of the tragedy of that time.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not a new story. Sadly, there are similar stories from all over the world and from all of recorded history of people who do unspeakable things to each other. The ostensible reason for the clash may be religious, ethnic, or economic, but the outcome is no less horrible whatever the reason. It is astonishing how quickly the oppressed become the oppressors, the bullied the bullies. This is not new but it is told well. Adichie does not spare us the gore and the brutality, but she also lets us see instances of reconciliation and the small acts of kindness and grace that must make survival in such a situation possible or even desirable.

Adichie does not divide people into "us" and "them," the "good" and the "bad." Even the best characters in the book have their demons to fight. Some of them do cowardly or even terrible things (kindhearted Ugwu's participation in a gang rape comes to mind, as does Odenigbo's struggle with alcohol). Half of a Yellow Sun shows the depths to which a person can sink, but also the gracious acts of which we are capable. We have some choice as to which impulses to follow and surrender to. At any given moment, any of us can be better or worse than we are.

This is an important story for people who want to understand Africa's history and the implications that that history has for this world in our time. The book is also beautifully written - it would be worth reading even if the writing was not good, but the fact that it is so well done is a major bonus. Adichie is a writer to watch - I hope she continues to illuminate her continent's history as elegantly as she does in Half of a Yellow Sun.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Children's Book for Grownups Too

A Taste of Colored Water
written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner

The children's section of the Washington Post Book World had a blurb about this a few weeks ago, and I was intrigued by it. I ordered it for my boys and used it as the children's message for our congregation's celebration of Black History Month this morning.

Two small white children (Jelly and Lulu) hear that the "big city" has "colored water." There are signs right on the fountains that say so. In their innocence, they imagine colored water to contain all the colors of the rainbow and all the flavors of their favorite fruits (apple, cherry, grape, etc.). Lulu and Jelly decide that they just have to get to the big city and taste this colored water for themselves.

What follows is a heartbreaking story about the shattering of the children's illusion when they learn that colored water is not the delicious and beautiful substance they have imagined but instead a symptom of horrible racial segregation and oppression of which up to this point they have not been aware. One senses at the end of the short book that Jelly's and Lulu's tears at some level are about much more than the disappointment over "colored water." They have become aware of an evil, and there is no reclaiming the naivete they had before. I wanted to cry right along with them.

I recommend this book for parents and educators who want to begin to introduce some of the history of the civil rights movement to children. It held our children's attention in church this morning and helped the kids see how absurd the Jim Crow laws were.

Reverent Reader

Friday, February 22, 2008

Numbed Out

by Amy Bloom

Several of the things that I said in my last post, about Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, also apply to this story, although the stories themselves are vastly different. This book deals with tragedy and injustice on a global scale, while focusing in on one person's struggle as a pathway to help us understand the horror of Jewish pogroms in 1920s Russia. As in Kyle's book, there is heartache and grief aplenty, but also solace from unexpected sources and grace when we least expect it.

Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, who immigrates to the United States from Russia when the rest of her immediate family is slaughtered in a pogrom. Lillian settles briefly in New York City, where she has distant relatives. Soon after she finds work and begins to learn English, Lillian finds out from a newly arrived cousin that her small daughter, Sophie, may have survived after all. The child is rumored to be living in Siberia with a family who took her in. The rest of the story deals with Lillian's arduous attempt to get to Siberia to reunite with her child.

As a mother, I can identify with Lillian's determination and desperation to find her daughter. Curiously, though, the story is written with a certain detachment that makes it difficult to relate to Lillian. The atrocities of the pogrom are related in flashback, in a matter-of-fact, journalistic style. At various points on her journey, as Lillian tries to get money to continue, she resorts to prostitution. While the reader can understand her taking this step, we still have this sense that the story is being narrated from someone very far away. At one level, this disappointed me about the book. I wanted to be let inside Lillian's head and understand what she was feeling.

It began to dawn on me as I read through the story, though, that this detachment is possibly an integral part of the character. Perhaps Lillian had to numb out just to survive what she went through. If she allowed herself to fully feel her grief she may not have been able to function and do what she needed to do. If this is the point that Amy Bloom is trying to convey, then she has done a remarkable job. I think I would have to read more of her work to see if this spare style is just her style or if it is specifically a part of Lillian's story and character.

Perhaps because the story seems so devoid of feeling, the rare points when Lillian's stoicism cracks are especially moving, as are the moments when these broken characters minister to one another in tender and unexpected ways. The scene of John Bishop bathing Lillian's infected feet and combing the lice out of her hair after she has walked untold hundreds of miles is worth the whole book. Talk about meeting people where they are and loving them as they are. Paradoxically numbly powerful.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sad and Lonely, But That's Not All

The God of Animals
by Aryn Kyle

People who like and work with horses will like this book, but the horses are not the whole story. The main story is the people who earn their livelihood from the horses. It is amazing how many books there are out there, both fiction and non-fiction, about dysfunctional families full of sorrowful and isolated people. Often, you find bitterness and various levels of insanity thrown in as well. It is not so easy to find "happily ever after" books, probably because life rarely turns out that way. Lots of times, though, you find books that are not happily ever after but "We endured it, we did all right, we grew, and there were moments of beauty and grace." I am staggered by how many times I can read variations on this theme. As long as someone writes it and writes it well, I will keep reading them. Over and over again, I find myself drawn into these types of narratives, and when they are well done the characters become as real as people we meet in life all the time.

Kyle's book is a bittersweet rendering of this theme. I do not want to give away too much about the characters, because there are several who could fill a post by themselves. I will just say that it is painful to witness Joe's flagging optimism and his misdirected anger at his daughter Alice, Nona's bitter resignation, and Marian's withdrawn despair. The adolescent Alice, who is just crying out to be noticed and appreciated, is also a poignant character. The book's title comes from Alice wondering if there is a God, and if so, does God watch after animals. "It just seems as if there should be someone looking out for them," she says wistfully. It is painfully clear that she needs and wants someone to be looking out for her too. Isn't that what we all want - to know that we do not face life's hardships and disappointments and disasters alone?

Kyle also does a subtle and effective job of showing the distinctions between economic and social classes in the United States. The wealthy women whom Alice calls "The Catfish," who board their horses at her father's barn, have no idea how other people live or what their struggles are. They assume that everyone within their sphere lives at their level of affluence and has all the options that they have. Their sly jabs at people who do not have their money and privilege really ring true. You want to shake them for being so clueless.

By the end of the story, though, we come to see that not everyone is as they seem. One of the catfish provides Alice with the possibility of a better future. Another character who at first is a spoiled little rich girl matures into an insightful and gracious young person. The privileged women have problems of their own, and everyone is trying to muddle through the best that they can.

It's seldom a bed of roses, but it's not all bad either. In fact, there is more to be grateful for than not. Kind of like life.

Reverent Reader

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bucking the Trend

The Paradox of the Book:
Not Reading an Iota in America
by Randy Salzman

We've Become Comfortably Dumb
by Susan Jacoby

Outlook Section
Washington Post
February 17, 2008

If you saw the most recent Outlook section of the Washington Post you might be feeling a little distress. There were two articles about how illiterate our nation is becoming. The statistics are amazing - according to Susan Jacoby's article, between 1982 and 2002 the percentage of college graduates who read novels or poems just for the pleasure of it dropped from 82 percent to 67 percent. Even more appalling, the results of the same 2002 survey showed that more than 40 percent of adults under 44 did not read one single book - either fiction or nonfiction - during the course of a year. Jacoby discusses how many young Americans are arrogant in our ignorance - we no longer think it is important to know the geographic location or history of other countries - even when significant things are happening in those countries that affect our country's relationship with them.

Jacoby grimly describes a looming intellectual wasteland here in the United States, but is was Salzman's article that really captured my attention. He describes spending a day waiting to testify in juvenile court. Knowing that he might have to wait awhile, he took along the book he was reading at the time, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. To his surprise, of the approximately 50 adults waiting in the courtroom and outside waiting room, no one else had brought a book, magazine, or newspaper. Most were just staring into space. Little children were bored, but no parents had brought anything for them to read or picture books for them to look at. Salzman began to wonder about the connections between reading (or the lack thereof) and the likelihood of ending up in trouble as a juvenile.

It is ironic that he was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, a must-read if you have not already. It is about women getting together in secret in Iran, risking beating and jail, to read literary stars such as Vladmir Nabokov whom we usually shun because they are "too much work." The power of reading is so real to these women that they will literally risk their lives to do it. Salzman writes: "Call it the paradox of the book. Where we can read, where we should read, where reading might address the exact problem being battled and where there is little else to do but read, we don't. But 'over there,' where the simple pleasure of understanding life through literature is denied, people are willing to suffer for the right to open Austen, Kafka, Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Twain."

Salzman is one who believes that effort can make a difference - his experience at the juvenile court led him to solicit donated books to leave for people to read at the courthouse. He quotes a National Endowment for the Arts study published in November 2007 that says "The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have been reluctant to declare as fact-books change lives for the better." Salzman figures that if one bored, restless kid picks up a book and finds his or her mind opened to a new world, to new possibilities, then his effort will be worthwhile.

People who do not read are missing out on so much. I am reasonably well-read, but painfully aware that there will never be time to read everything I want to. There are some from the canon of classic literature that I have missed or avoided altogether. This seems like a good time to announce my project for 2008. I have decided to read Tolstoy's War and Peace. Time and again, people list it as a favorite, but I have avoided it because it seems like such a slog. However, Michael Dirda's review of the new translation (a few months ago) inspired me to give it a try. E. got me a copy of the new translation for my birthday last week, and it is on the shelf beckoning to me.

I will probably not read it for a few more months. I'm kind of in training for the marathon right now, psyching myself up and interspersing big fat tomes in my reading repertoire. This is my way of bucking the trend of illiteracy that we seem to be blithely lurching into as a nation. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Has anyone else out there tackled Tolstoy? I assume if you have found your way to this blog, you have some interest in reading, so I would love to hear other people's impresssions of the book. I really am getting excited about reading it.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Something Rotten

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
by Francisco Goldman

I often think of that line from Shakespeare's Hamlet - "Something is rotten in Denmark" when I read about pervasive political oppression and corruption. It is easy to read The Art of Political Murder and get all incensed about what is rotten in Guatemala. If we stop and think, though, we realize that such problems are not limited to Guatemala. There is something rotten within all of us - all who commit atrocities against their fellow human beings and those of us who allow it to happen. Human rights abuses pervade the globe. We who live in the United States have it much better than people in so many other countries, because we can speak out against injustice and corruption without fear of getting murdered for it. Sadly, though, our country has a history of propping up corrupt governments like the military dictatorship that ruled Guatemala by terror for more than 35 years. Evidently, there was a period of our history where we would support and render aid to just about any government, no matter how hideous, as long as they were not Communist.

I read Francisco Goldman's novel The Long Night of White Chickens many years ago - it is a fictionalized version of a person's "disappearance" - the euphemism used in Guatemala when someone who has spoken out for fair treatment and free speech is abducted, tortured, and/or killed. Goldman has been a journalist for many years, writing for publications like The New Yorker and Harper's. The Art of Political Murder is his first non-fiction book. It is the story of the murder of Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998 and the investigation and trials that followed.

Bishop Gerardi had been a longtime activist for human rights and had founded his archdiocese's Office of Human Rights. Just after a report was published by this same Office of Human Rights, a report that recounted in detail many persons' experiences with being harassed and tortured by the Guatemalan government, Bishop Gerardi was assassinated in his own garage. The report also included people's stories about friends and family members being murdered - usually in some horrifically brutal way. It was similar to the reports published by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intended to bring out the truth and begin the long process of healing for Guatemala. Tragically, the report's release triggered a new round of "extrajudicial executions," the repurcussions of which are still felt in Guatemala today.

Bishop Gerardi's killing is appalling, but equally (or more) frightening is the number of high-level government officials who colluded in the murder, and the reign of terror that continued during the investigation. Investigators and prosecuting attorneys received death threats and many had to go into exile. By the time the case went to trial, it was on its third prosecutor. The judges on the case were also harrassed and threatened. Key witnesses would turn up dead - often murdered in strange ways reconfigured to look like accidents. The brazenness of the actions is incredible.

It is disheartening to think that this kind of stuff still goes on in our world, when we are supposed to be so much more civilized and humane than we were even a century ago. The Art of Political Murder is in many ways a discouraging book to read, but Goldman ends on a positive note. By the end of the book, three military officers have been convicted of complicity in the the bishop's murder, paving the way for other intelligence workers and political officials to be investigated for their part in the slaying. This was a first for Guatemala, and her people find hope in this one small step toward justice. I hope many people will read this, even though it is not an uplifting book. It is important to know that these things still happen, and to pray for guidance as to how people of faith might work to stop them.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Trial and Error

Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement
by Rowan Williams

My friend/neighbor/fellow clergygal L. recommended this to me, and I am so glad I read it. It is wonderful, thought-provoking Lenten reading, and I can see that a) this is one that I will return to again and again and b) am definitely going to have to read more Rowan Williams. Frankly, overtly "churchy" books are often kind of a slog for me. I prefer finding the theology that pervades fiction, memoir, history, etc. I read churchy stuff because I want to keep up with what is out there, but it is not usually my favorite. This one is different. I could not put it down. It is a short book, but packed with insightful, beautifully written observations. Each chapter ends with excellent reflection questions and a brief prayer that encapsulates the main idea of the chapter.

I hesitate to say much about the book's content, because one of Williams's main points is the inadequacy of the human construct of language to describe God or our relationship to the divine. He is right that conversation about God is inevitably limited by the language that we use. Therefore, I feel uneasy about making broad generalizations about Williams's observations.

In his introduction, Williams reminds us that the Greek word for "temptation" and "trial" are the same. He then takes us through each gospel, and specifically Jesus' trial within that particular book. He points out the unique characteristics of each trial narrative and eloquently discusses the parts within each of us that are on trial alongside Jesus. It is just extremely well done - a humbling yet hopeful book to read.

I'll let the readers discover the many gems within this book for themselves, and just close with one thought from a late chapter in the book on the early Christian martyrs and what we can learn from their experiences: "What is martyrdom about? Essentially, it is about something other than heroism. It has to do with freedom from the imperatives of violence - a freedom that carries the most dramatic cost imaginable . . .What we have to ask is how this freedom is to be realized when the test, the trial, is the undramatic context of daily life, or how a life which may never have to face violent challenge may yet express the truth that violence is overcome and silenced in Christ."

Read it!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Everyone Is Someone's Child

Nineteen Minutes
by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is an interesting writer. She is able to tackle serious ethical issues in a way that puts a human face on the dilemmas at hand. The stories read quickly and are believable and engaging. Her books are pretty formulaic, though - I have read four of them and can now quickly spot her pattern. There is always the aforementioned crisis, and then slick, good-looking lawyers to represent the various sides of the issue. There is alway a romance that blooms in the middle of all the legal tension - one that the reader can spot coming a mile away. There is often an unplanned pregnancy that pops up to enliven things. The stories are usually set in small New England towns, which makes the connections between the characters that would seem implausible in a large city a little more believable. For example, in Nineteen Minutes the Superior Court judge assigned to the case is also the mother of one of the kids who is injured in the shooting. It is still a little contrived, but less so because of the locale. In a Picoult novel, the story culminates in a trial, and there is always some twist thrown in in the final 10 pages that makes everything suddenly different. I do not begrudge Picoult this pattern - she has hit upon a niche that is working for her, and there is more to like about her books than not.

Nineteen Minutes is the most heart-wrenching of her books that I have read to date. It is about a school shooting, where (as in Columbine or Blacksburg) a lonely, bitter boy ("Peter") who has been picked on and isolated his whole life snaps one day and kills 10 students and wounds 18 others. A lot of the lead-up to the shooting is told in flashbacks, and Picoult's depiction of the teens and their cruelty to Peter is very well done. Picoult has a good ear for dialogue, and uses it well to move this narrative along.

Picoult is able to make Peter into a sympathetic, if not likable, character. Without condoning what he has done, she exposes his vulnerability and isolation in such a way that we see him as a pitiable human being and not as a monster. Peter's parents, Lewis and Lacy, are also characters with whom we can identify. Picoult is able to depict their shock and disbelief in such a way that we come to understand that even though Peter has physically survived the shooting spree, Lewis and Lacy have lost their child as surely as have the parents of the dead.

The disappointment is the community's treatment of Lewis and Lacy. They find themselves as ostracized as their son was, with no one to comfort them through their grief. This is human nature though, isn't it? We even see it in the church, the place that is supposed to be balm for all wounds. We do a pretty good job of being present for people in your typical crises - illness, injury, even death. It is much harder to visualize how we would care for Lewis and Lacy if they were part of a mainline congregation. I hope that people of faith would not lash out at them, as the characters in the book do. Even if people were not blatantly mean, though, it would be easy for Lewis and Lacy to become pariahs just because people would have no idea WHAT to say to them. Ideally, a community of faith is a place that would reach out to people in their situation with the same compassion that God would show, bearing the burden along with them.

Someone who reads Nineteen Minutes will think about it long after the book is returned to the shelf - this is often the case with a Picoult novel. She has a way of creating windows with her words through which we can witness the pain of another.

Reverent Reader

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Language REALLY Matters

Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens
by Neil Cole

Beware of Amazon recommendations. You know how you order something and several books pop up and say "You may also like these . . . " I am a sucker for that, and usually the matches are pretty good. Not so in this case. This is an almost total miss for me. I love the title and the premise - taking the church out to people, not expecting people to come to the church. I'm all for it, and seeking ways to incorporate that idea into the faith community which I serve. However, Cole and I are just coming from way different planets theologically. His language is very patriarchal, and his biblical interpretation is much more literalistic than mine. I realized this about three pages into the book, but decided to stick it out because a) I have this odd compulsion to finish what I start, but only when it comes to reading. I have been working on the same cross-stitch Noah's ark for 12 years (very sporadically). Will probably never finish it, or not until I retire and/or my kids are in college and b) I thought/hoped that I could learn something useful even from someone who was not where I am in many ways. I trust that Neil Cole and I both love God and love the church and love people, and that there likely are things we can learn from one another. So, I finished the book.

I did learn a few things, but the language and theological assumptions were VERY hard for me to get past. Cole also is coming from a very different perspective on what constitutes a church. I think we Presbyterians could streamline things for sure, and we no doubt are too attached to our buildings and bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is hard for me to picture how church works with no structure - no set meeting time, no central location, very little liturgical fervor, etc. Neil Cole's scheme is to keep the churches really small - about 10-15 people, and keep spinning off "daughter churches." I love the intimacy of the idea, but it seems the groups shift a lot - some people move on to start new churches, while others join up with another group. I do not know how such a system keeps track of its people, but maybe it does not need to. If this is working for however many people, I guess it is one way for church to thrive, although it is not my cup of tea.

One thing on which Neil Cole and I certainly agree - we believe in the importance of relationships in the life of discipleship. I liked this sentence from Organic Church: "The gospel flies best on the wings of relationship." I love the ecclesiastical and spiritual intimacy of the church, and the person-to-person contact is definitely one of my favorite aspects of leadership in the church. It is also true that relationship is what makes the love of God a reality in people's lives. It does not mean much to a lonely person to hear that Jesus loves them if they do not feel that love from people who claim to follow Jesus. So, yes, relationship is key.

Again, though, Neil Cole and I diverge. I looked hard within myself to figure out what it is about his approach that bothered me. It finally dawned on me - Cole is all about "winning people for Christ" and "saving the lost souls." There are many lost and searching souls out there, but (IMHO) not everyone who is not a Christian is "lost" and needs to be "saved." There has to be more than one way up this mountain - I don't know how it all shakes out in the end, but I trust God to work it out. So, if I am reading Cole's approach right, we develop relationship with people in hopes that they will be converted to Christianity because of what we teach them. Even though I do not question the good intentions behind this approach, it feels manipulative to me - like we are not meeting the person on his/her own terms, with and openness to what we might learn from each other. Even with all good intentions, to approach people in this way is (again, my opinion) not to develop authentic, mutual relationship but to push an agenda. There is a part of me that finds that very offensive.

My hope is that we develop and live into relationship with people and that the Good News of God's love shown to us in Christ flows from us in all of our interactions with new and interesting and hurting people who cross our paths. In some cases, this is going to lead to the person wanting to know more about Jesus and what he means to those of us who are trying to follow him. I think back on adult baptisms that I have performed and they have all been meaningful, because they were a result of this type of relationship. In some cases, though, the person either is part of another faith tradition or for whatever other reason is not open to making a commitment to Christ or Christianity at that point. But we can still be balm for their wounds and represent the love of God to them. I believe that that relationship has not been a waste of time, that both parties are the richer for it, and somehow God's intention for reconciliation within humanity is being realized.

Oh well, if nothing else, Cole's book has caused me to clarify my own thoughts on evangelism and the meaning of that term in our culture now. He also has reaffirmed my belief in the power of prayer, and for that I am grateful.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Sweet Obsession

Goodnight Moon
by Margaret Wise Brown

There has been a major change in G., our almost two-year-old, in the past couple of weeks. Seemingly overnight, he has become a bibliophile! He has been looking at books for several months now, but all of a sudden, he loves to be read to. He goes to his bookshelf, gets a stack of books, comes to an available adult, and says "Lap." He then climbs up and listens attentively to several books. Even better, he now has the attention span for a book that tells a real story, something like The Cat in The Hat or Robert the Rose Horse. It's very cuddly, sweet, and fun.

That's the good news. The other part, which is still good news but starting to wear a little thin, is that he has developed a distinct favorite book. This is one that S. liked as well, but now dismisses as "boring" and "too babyish" (with all the accumulated worldly wisdom of a four-year-old). G.'s favorite, the one we read four times for every one time that we read something else is . . .you guessed it . . .Goodnight Moon. It is a lovely little nighttime lullaby book, but we read it in the morning. And after breakfast. And before naps. And when we wake up cranky from naps. You get the idea. We really don't mind. It is precious time with him. I am getting worried, though, that the somnolent rhymes are getting so ingrained in my brain that they will come out at the wrong time - like during a pastoral prayer (We ask your strength and comfort for the little toyhouse, and the young mouse. We commend the kittens and the mittens to your care. We especially pray for the old lady whispering "hush."). I suppose this is a phase that will pass like all the others, but I hope not too quickly.

G. either calls the book "Moon!" or "Nite Nite Moon." Heartbreakingly cute.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Some Lives Are Harder Than Others

The Jump-Off Creek
by Molly Gloss

One of my favorite Nanci Griffith songs is the one that she claims to be her "personal best," titled "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go." It's a song that alludes to the truth that all people suffer but if we do what we can to eliminate hatred and prejudice between people it can do a lot to ease the world's suffering. I agree with Nanci that every life is hard and has pain in it, but my goodness after reading The Jump-Off Creek I am really glad that I was not born in the 1800s and homesteading in the West. Talk about a hard life.

The main character of The Jump-Off Creek, Lydia, is a widow from a terribly loveless marriage who so longs for independence and freedom that she sells everything she has and buys a poor piece of land in Oregon, determined to grow enough food to feed herself and to make a living raising cattle. Much of the book describes the backbreaking, grinding, never ending labor required to just scrape by. Lydia is a stiff and reserved person, but the reader cannot help but root for her because she has such grit.

Even more daunting than the work, though, is the crushing loneliness that all of the characters face. Lydia's few neighbors, each in their own way, is desperate for companionship and relationship and trying to make connections with someone. A neighbor who is a casual acquaintance actually proposes to Lydia, pretty much just because he wants to be with somebody, and she is the only single female for miles around. She rejects the offer, and both the rejection and the strain in the relationship that follows are painful. By contrast, there is one scene where Lydia receives a bundle of mail that had piled up because she so seldom can get to the nearest post office. Her joy in receiving 14 letters and two packages from family and friends is one of the few times that her fierce stoicism shows some cracks.

This is a short book, but not a fast read. There is a certain rhythm to it, and a lot of decriptions of the scenery and of Lydia's homestead. Given the isolation and lack of social skills of the characters, it is pretty short on dialogue. It is a book best taken slowly and enjoyed as a window into a very different time and circumstance. By the end, we witness the fragile connections that are made by these hardworking people, and share the few triumphs that they have over the land and the elements. We have a new appreciation for those who "went first", risking their physical and emotional well-being just to start a new life. We also gain an understanding of the ingrained need for contact with other humans and are grateful for the shelter that human beings inevitably take in one another.

Reverent Reader

Monday, February 4, 2008

Painful Decisions

To Reggie, With Love
by Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post, Outlook Section
Sunday, February 3, 2008

This op-ed piece humanized Jonathan Yardley for me. Previously, I had only known him for his tough reviews in the Washington Post Book World. Often I enjoy his work, but sometimes feel he is unneccesarily harsh, and a bit of a snob about the line between popular fiction and literary fiction. I guess that's his job. I'll never see him the same way again, though, because now I know that he is a dog lover who weeps over the loss of his pets. Such a person cannot be made of ice.

Yardley's piece is about the excruciating decision to put down his beloved 8-year-old dachsund, Reggie, who was suffering from congestive heart failure. He writes that in his life he has parted with a pet in this way seven times, and always with tears. He seems to have a particular affinity for dachsunds and their quirks. In addition to being a tribute to his own special pet, Yardley raises important ethical dilemmas that are emerging in the world of pet medicine. Just like human medicine, technology and specialization are allowing us to prolong life much more than ever before. But that raises the questions: "What is life?" "When is quality of life so poor that it is the kindest thing to end the animal's life?" "What is an appropriate amount of money to spend to keep an animal alive?" Jonathan Yardley seems comfortable with the timing and the decision to put Reggie down, but admits that a part of him will always wonder if he did the right thing. He touches on the issue of economics, and (once again) wealthy people having options that poor people do not.

I know from experience how hard it is to lose a pet. Some of you were very present with me when my beautiful, sweet dalmatian Howard died in the cold January of 1995. He was in kidney failure, and I was struggling with the same decision Yardley describes so movingly. Howard spared me the decision by slipping away quietly in the night. The puppy that my grandparents got for me in the wake of that sorrow was healing balm. But he ("Zeke," age 13, samoyed) is now arthritic, half deaf, and showing signs of kidney problems. I would not say he is suffering yet, but the day is sooner rather than later when our family will be faced with the decision that Yardley writes about so poignantly. I dread it. This is the dog that has been with me through most of my adult life. He was even in my life before my husband E., and I can hardly remember those days. Zeke saw me through more than one ugly breakup before E. showed me what love really is all about. Zeke has patiently endured my two little boys' intrusion onto his turf and their playing like yard apes all around him. He is part of the fabric of our household.

I can only hope that when the time comes I can face the decision with the same mercy and grace that Jonathan Yardley was able to show Reggie. I thank Yardley for sharing his journey with Reggie with us, and hope that his memories of his little pet comfort him through the grief.

Reverent Reader

Friday, February 1, 2008

Appreciating the Mysterious

Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson

I'm grieving today. He died almost 53 years ago, but I am sad about the death of Albert Einstein. I want to go to 112 Mercer Street in Princeton, New Jersey and have a cup of tea with him. Walter Isaacson's portrayal of Einstein makes him this real to the reader. My knowledge of Einstein had previously been the few iconic images of him (photographs, statues, etc.) that most of us are exposed to along the way, plus his most famous equation. (Can I explain what the equation is? Not too well. But most of us remember hearing "E equals MCsquared" even if we do not comprehend it. I CAN now say with confidence that it is related to Einstein's theory of relativity.) From his pictures , you would think he would be kind of the mad scientist type, but Isaacson unearthed a gentle soul as well as a brilliant mind.

Walter Isaacson has done a marvelous job of making Albert Einstein into a real person and not just a public icon. He depicts a phenomenally smart person who was also humorous, passionate, and idealistic. As we tend to forget about people idolized by our culture, Einstein was also flawed. He could be terribly emotionally distant in his closest relationships, partially because he was so preoccupied with his work. Einstein traces the trajectory of Einstein's career as well as the progression of his own scientific and philosophical thought. The journey is fascinating. Much of the science is beyond what I can fully comprehend, but it is still fun to catch just a glimpse of the mysteries to which Einstein devoted his life. Besides, a little bit of increase in understanding is better than none.

Even more than the science, I loved reading about Einstein's passion for justice and love for humanity. Particularly as he got older, he devoted as much time to causes about which he cared deeply as he did to his scientific work. As a young man, he was an ardent pacifist. World War II forced him to revise those beliefs somewhat, but he was never a supporter of war as a means for nations to work out their differences. He assisted Jewish refugees during and after World War II, worked desperately for nuclear arms control, and advocated for a supranational organization to regulate the development and use of atomic weapons. He was able to do all of this without being in-your-face or holier than thou. Just an incredibly cool guy. I have a print crush. (If people can have cyber-crushes, can't I have one on someone I meet within the pages of a book?).

The chapter on "Einstein's God" is especially moving. Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but he had a lovely appreciation for the Being who created everything and gave creation such an elegance and order. The more he probed the secrets of the universe and its laws, the more his appreciation grew. In his personal credo that he wrote in 1930 he wrote that "the most beautiful emotion one can experience is the mysterious." It was this sense of awe and wonder that made him so wonderfully humble.

Some parts of this book are "work," (especially to a reader who does not come from a science background) but so very worth the effort. Einstein has increased my appreciation for the mysterious, and I would love to sit down and have a long, meandering conversation with him. I am also, however, grateful to Walter Isaacson for making the person of Albert Einstein just a touch LESS mysterious.

Here are a few fun facts about Einstein that I did not previously know:

a) He was an accomplished violinist.
b) He usually did not wear socks.
c) At one time, he was asked to serve as President of Israel. He turned it down because he believed that his non-conformist personality and bluntness made him ill-suited for the political life.

Reverent Reader