Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Tolstoy Miniseries

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories
by Leo Tolstoy

At the suggestion of L.B., a major Tolstoy fan, I read this small collection of stories as part of my "training" for the literary marathon of War and Peace, which I plan to read later this year, probably in the fall so I will not have to lug a huge tome around during summer travels.

These four "short stories" are really more like novellas - they range from 70-90 pages. This collection includes Family Happiness, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master and Man. E. and I have an ongoing conversation going on regarding what makes "classic" literature. I mean, who and what determines that something is a classic? How long does something have to stick around to achieve that label? I am not even sure that the designation is helpful, because I think that up to now I have largely avoided classics because they bring to mind the stressful part of college life. Remember pulling all-nighters, slogging through some book not for the joy of it but because the-prof-said-to-and-there-is-an-exam-tomorrow. It is fun now, at 40+, to read some of these things just because I want to. I can take my time doing it and discover that they really ARE good. So, this was my first Tolstoy and I loved it.

E. and I think that one of the possible marks of a classic is that they can be old but still deal with themes that are as relevant now as they were when written. I found this with these Tolstoy stories - the settings were different from what we are used to (these stories were written between the years of 1855 and 1895), but the emotions and issues could be anywhere and anytime. Each of these stories could be a separate posting, but that would take a long time and probably take some of the engagement out of reading these for yourself, so I will just give a little teaser about each of them.

Family Happiness - deals with the changing relationship in a marriage as the husband and wife cope with different interests and stages of life. Flirts with the possibility of adultery, but it does not actually happen. Has a "happy" ending in that the couple realizes that they cannot forever sustain the idyllic passion of new love, but that something more permanent and substantive and ultimately fulfilling can replace it.

The Death of Ivan Ilych - possibly my favorite of the four. Deals with humanity's fear of and denial of death. Ivan's isolation as he faces his own death and his family refuses to acknowledge it, discuss it, or be present with him in it is palpable and wrenching. The peasant servant Gerasim is Christ-like in his tender care of Ivan.

The Kreutzer Sonata - evidently at the time he wrote this, Tolstoy was quite the misogynist (he had lots of different stages and evolutions of thought). In this story, Tolstoy outlines his view of women and human sexuality through the voice of a disturbed man. The man tells the story of his own marital relationship to a sympathetic listener on an all-night train ride. This is a good story, but one that I would not have had the patience for when I was a college student. It is mostly monologue, and I could picture myself sitting up in the library trying to get through it for whatever purpose the professor had deemed it necessary. I know I would have been going "Just get ON with it!" Now, though, I could read it and, if not relate to it myself, at least understand how someones experiences could lead them to the same wacky notions that this guy has. This story also preaches a sermon on jealousy and its tragic consequences.

Master and Man - my other favorite. Again deals with death, but this time set against a backdrop of greed and skewed priorities and class-ism. The protagonist, Vasili Andreevich, experiences the most basic kind of transformation as he faces the reality of his own preventable death. He moves from treating one of his servants (Nikita) like an expendable piece of property, to sacrificing his own life to save Nikita's. Very moving.

Each of these stories at some level deals with issues of meaning and purpose - why are we here? who are we called to be? how are we expected to live in relationship with each other? There are no more important questions than these.

What do you think makes a classic? What are your favorites of the classics? DISCUSS.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Power of the Book

People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

Did you know that during the Bosnian wars of the 1990s a Muslim museum curator risked his own life to save an extraordinarily beautiful Hebrew haggadah that was one of the museum's most valuable pieces? It is true, and that alone is enough to restore faith in the power of art and liturgy to unify people of faith.

This small piece of powerful truth is the premise on which Geraldine Brooks bases this lovely novel. Brooks imagines the history of this approximately 500-year-old haggadah, and how it came to rest in a Bosnian museum. The haggadah is the prayerbook used at the table during the Jewish Passover tradition of the seder meal. The haggadah that is at the center of People of the Book is a work of art that by a series of miracles has survived the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the bookburnings of Italy in the 17th century, the prejudice of Austrians against Jews in the late 19th century, and finally the brutality of Sarajevo at the end of the 20th.

The book's protagonist, Hanna, is a book conservator. You hear of people who can write about paint drying and make it interesting? Brooks accomplishes this when she takes the potentially yawn-inspiring topic of book conservation and makes it as fascinating as the best detective novel. Using a series of tiny clues that Hanna discovers as her springboard, Brooks takes us back in time and artfully shows us the ways that this unique book has survived potential destruction time and again. Even more importantly, she illustrates through this haggadah's turbulent journey through the hands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians that our histories are more entwined than we care to admit.

People of the Book demonstrates (without being preachy) that our multi-ethnic and interfaith heritage are gifts to be celebrated rather than denied and suppressed. The power of prayer, worship, ritual, and art to bring us together as God's children is beautifully illustrated in the haggadah itself as well as in the series of artists who create it and the hands into which it falls. This is a must read!

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We're Off to See the Wizard

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum

E. and I have been taking turns reading this to our older son S. who is nearing five years old. It is the only one of the Oz books that I read as a kid, and that was a billion years ago. The movie takes precedence in my memory. I still remember the nightmares I had about the green-faced witch and the flying monkeys. Anyway, there is a lot more depth and detail to the story than in the movie, which is nearly always the case in my opinion. The Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys also are not as terrifying - more cartoonish than in the movie. S. seems to be doing OK with the fear factor. He talks about what an "instering" story this is. Very cute.

I did not know until E. and I were married that there are 14 Oz books! He grew up reading them and is very familiar with the lore of Oz. We have the whole set and I look forward to sharing them with the boys over the next several years.

Maybe it's just that this is the way I am trained to think and read, but I see much more of a theological subtext in Oz than I did at age 7 (approximately). I love the community that forms between the main characters, and how each of them finds what they most need by looking within themselves. I also was moved by the part where the leader of the winged monkeys says (regarding Dorothy) "We dare not harm this little girl. She bears the mark of the Good, and we all know that good is much more powerful than evil." That will preach!

So, as we prepare for the somberness of Maundy Thursday, the bleakness of Good Friday, and the desolation of the tomb, may we all remember the infinite truth that good IS more powerful than evil. Easter will come, and I pray it is a blessed time for each of you and a renewal of hope for our troubled world.

Reverent Reader

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Good FROM Grief

Good Grief
by Lolly Winston

First off, further apologies for the lulls between posts lately. We are still having trouble getting everyone well. Had G. in the emergency room on Thursday night with croup (if your kid has ever had croup, you know how frightening it is). They gave him a steroid and a breathing treatment, and he felt much better. Friday and Saturday were fine. Saturday was his second birthday, and he had a wonderful time. Then Sunday morning he woke up with fever and the mother of all colds. Poor little guy. We'll all get through it, but it seems like after a pretty mild winter, illness wise, these kids are cramming a whole season's worth of sickness into the last gasp of winter.

Now, about the book. I have to say, I do think this is what is sometimes disparagingly called a "chick book." I do not mean it in a pejorative way - I am unashamed in my affinity for chick books and chick movies, feminist that I am. In an interview at the end of the book, Lolly Winston stated that she does not think of herself as a "women's writer," and instead would like to be seen as a writer for everyone. She said "I want George Clooney to read my books." I do not know George personally, but frankly I do not see it happening.

Genre or sub-genre aside, this is a good read. Winston takes Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance) and imagines how someone might live those out. She artfully shows how the protagonist (Sophie) does not pass through these in a linear way, with everything all tied up neatly at the end, but weaves in and out and through these stages during the first year after her young husband's death from cancer. It seems like a much more realistic approach to portray someone experiencing all five stages in one day at times, or being trapped in one stage for awhile, or whatever. Winston's larger point seems to be that people go through grief differently and need to be cared for and supported through every part of the journey.

In spite of the sad subject, the story has a lot of humor. The dialogue rings true, and the relationships develop in a way that seems natural and not contrived. A couple of the situations that Sophie gets herself into seem a little bit too Lucille Ball-ish to be real. The descent of one character into Alzheimer's disease in the space of just a few months also seems a little too quick to be true. However, these are minor criticisms. The power of the story lies in its ability to depict the power of relationship and community to cleanse and heal. It's definitely worth reading - for guys, too, although I doubt that many of them will. Most guys don't gravitate to a book with pink bunny slippers on the cover. My prediction is that women will "get it" more, but its message of hope in the midst of despair is for everyone.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Funny and Then Not So Funny

Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World
by Sarah Vowell

I read this because I needed something quick to regain my momentum after Pillar of Fire. I have blogged about Sarah Vowell before - she is a really witty journalist, history buff and essayist who writes on bunch of random topics loosely clustered under the umbrella of American history and culture. One thing I really like about Vowell is her biting humor - she has a way of being slyly sarcastic without being malicious. She also does not separate herself from the weirdness of American culture - she fully acknowledges her participation in and complicity with some of our worst hypocrisies.

Take the Cannoli includes an essay about high school marching band that took me back twenty-odd years to my days as a Marching Maroon from Blackwell High School. She has this hysterical riff about having to put down her baritone horn and run to the sidelines for her mallet solo. Since I was a brass player, and my twin sister played the mallets (but she had to CARRY those things all over the field - still don't know how she did it), what she wrote really hit home. Former Band Birds unite!

On a more serious note, Vowell includes a longer essay about a road trip that she took with her twin sister that retraced the steps of the Trail of Tears (the Vowell sisters are part Cherokee Indian). Even with her wry observations, Vowell managed to capture the tragedy of that part of American history as well as anything else I have ever read about it. She is right when she says that the Trail of Tears will never make sense.

Fun reading, but with bits of wisdom that stick with you, more so than her other book that I have read, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (see November 28, 2007 post).
Reverent Reader

Sunday, March 9, 2008

You. Are. There.

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65
by Taylor Branch

Those of you who know me know that my favorite period of American history is the Civil Rights Movement. I never tire of reading about that era and the courageous people who brought such necessary and long overdue change to our nation within a relatively short period of time. It is appalling how ingrained racism was on the part of white people, and the lengths to which some people would go to maintain Jim Crow laws and customs. What really blows my mind is that the segregated world is so foreign to me (thank God), but that from a historical perspective it was not that long ago. Forty years - practically last week.

I have a substantial collection of civil rights related books, but Taylor Branch's are among the best. The first of this civil rights trilogy, Parting the Waters, won a Pulitzer prize. Pillar of Fire is the second, and At Canaan's Edge is the third. I read Parting the Waters (1954-63) about a year ago, and plan to read the third one in the not too distant future. If you enjoy reading history, this is great stuff. Branch's writing is not especially lyrical or poetic, but that's not its job. The job of this writing is to convey an important part of our nation's story with a sense of immediacy. Taylor succeeds admirably. Every single sentence is packed with information - his detail work is incredible. You really feel as if you are there, living the fear and the cruelty and the hopeful moments all over again. Given the emotional subject, this makes for intense reading.

These books are not straight biography of Martin Luther King Jr., although he is obviously a central figure. Rather, they are the biography of the Movement as a whole as it related to the United States government and to the country's wider population. Branch paints vivid portraits of many of the Civil Rights Movement people, including well known names as well as unknown people who found themselves swept up in the tide of justice and freedom. These lesser known characters are part of what makes the book so interesting - the bravery that ordinary people found within themselves is astounding. Many of these previously unknown participants were uneducated and became involved in the Movement with very little self-confidence. Nevertheless, they found their voices when the situation called them to, and Taylor honors their sacrifices and courage with his writing.

Pillar of Fire gives us a window into the political processes that both helped and hurt the cause of civil rights. We see multi-faceted portraits of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, among others. This volume also provides insight into the infighting of the Nation of Islam that led to the assassination of Malcolm X. Endlessly fascinating stuff.

One theme that emerges from the whole saga of Civil Rights is the devastation caused by ignorance. I like to hope that I would not have been a segregationist, even if I had grown up in Itta Bena, Mississippi in the 1950s. I like to hope that. The truth is, though, that I do not know who I would be if I had not had opportunities for education and travel and widely varied cultural experiences that I have had in my life. Without excusing any of the atrocities committed by white people in that turbulent time, I have to think that a great many of them simply did not know any better. They had lived a certain way (albeit an unjust way) for so long that it was difficult for them to question it, or to see the absurdities of sending American soldiers to fight for democracy in far flung corners of the world while at the same time denying it to some of our hardest working citizens.

It is easy to have wisdom when looking back four decades, but Taylor's books remind us of the necessity to continue raising questions and seeking justice, regardless of the time and place in which we live. He does credit to many, many people who fought a nonviolent war on terror and prevailed.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Illness Descends

Hi blog friends -

Just a quick note of apology for being so out of touch. We are hunkered down slogging through minor (thank God) illnesses that are nevertheless inconvenient. Both little boys have strep throat and impetigo infections. Impetigo is a weird rash that broke out on both their faces. In the initial panic, we thought it might be chicken pox. Turns out impetigo is caused by the strep infection. Who knew?

Looks like E. is coming down with strep, too. CURSES!

The boys are already getting better, but it's been a cranky, high maintenance few days. Most of my reading has consisted of scrutinizing the directions on prescription bottles and ointment tubes. Still working through Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire (amazing book), with cautious optimism about finishing it up in the next couple of days.

Stay healthy everyone, spring is on its way!

Reverent Reader

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What Makes a "Faith Film?"

Faith Films Not Flooding the Big Screen
Religion Section
Washington Post
March 2, 2008

First of all, apologies for the lull between postings. There are two main reasons for this. One, our DSL line at home seems to be going kaput more often than not. I have heard the issues about Verizon's signal being weak in some areas, and I guess we are among those lucky people. It once was just an occasional nuisance, but lately has blossomed into a royal pain. Cuts into my blogging opportunities.

Secondly, I have been working my way through Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the second book of his incredibly detailed trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 to 1968. It is a wonderful book, but not a quick read because it is so packed with information. I expect to post on it in a few days, but concentrating on that has eaten into my time for articles and other reading that I normally do.

However, this brief article in the Religion section of today's Post caught my eye. Essentially is says that the gazillions of dollars that The Passion of the Christ raked in prompted Hollywood studio execs to make intentional effort to tap into the movie going market of evangelical Christians. 20th Century Fox even started a division called "Fox Faith," to concentrate on this demographic. However, there have not been any more blockbusters that are explicitly faith-based since The Passion. Why is this?

As a movie buff, I have a couple of theories. One, the Christian market is vast, even when limited to those who call themselves "evangelicals." That is a word that means many different things in different ecclesiastical cultures. I'm guessing that Hollywood does not get this. As with any other demographic, one person's "family values" film is another person's unbelievable cheesefest. Secondly, if a film is made specifically for fundamentalist Christians (as distinct from evangelicals), there is tremendous potential for its "message" to be exclusionary or offensive to some group outside that group. For every Christian who buys a ticket to the movie, there are probably two Christians who do not (again, with the word meaning different things to different people), not to mention people of other faiths or no faith at all. Word gets around about these things. I think The Passion was the exception rather than the rule, and still am not sure I understand its phenomenal success at the box office.

True confession: I never saw The Passion, in spite of tremendous amounts of social pressure to do so. I just did not think I could deal with the scourging scene. Ultra-violent movies are not really my thing, even when it is the story of Jesus (at least a part of the story of Jesus). DID YOU SEE IT? WHY or WHY NOT?

Having said that, I would argue that there are theological themes in many, many current and recent movies. Part of the skill of making a good movie, in my opinion, is weaving the theology through the story in implicit ways, not hitting the audience in the face with it - kind of like in life and in our relationships. The theology emerges from the story instead of the other way around. It also depends on how we look at things - a person with no faith background is going to enjoy and interpret a movie differently from a Christian or Jew or Muslim or whatever. Who we are shapes our experience of a book, movie, piece of music, painting etc.

So, off the top of my head, here are some of my favorite "Faith Films." These are just a few - I know as soon as I hit the "publish post" button I will think of a zillion more.

Pieces of April (reconciliation, community, the power of narrative)
Sling Blade (self-sacrifice for the sake of another)
The Shawshank Redemption (although I have only seen it once because the prison violence wigs me out) (the value of life and the power of hope)
Schindler's List (worth of the individual, atonement)
The Spitfire Grill (redemption and community)
The Long Walk Home (creation, justice, and the importance of relationship)
Hotel Rwanda (justice)
Amistad (creation, relationship, value of human life)
Crash (there is not a "theological word" that I can think of that expresses it, but this movie made me seriously aware of the connectedness of all people and our potential at any moment to hurt or help one another)

More recently:
Atonement (forgiveness, and duh-atonement)
Juno (incarnation, sacrifice, and community)
Away from Her (the different kinds of love and how those different types can be woven throughout years and decades of a relationship. Also, incredible self-sacrifice for the happiness and health of another)

What are your favorite faith films? DISCUSS.

Reverent Reader