Thursday, June 26, 2008

Classic Beauty


The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
by George Johnson

George Johnson was clear that the title of his book had to do with classic, Grecian ideas of beauty - he wrote about scientific experiments characterized by flawless logic, pure lines of thought, and clear results. Each of the experiments explained and profiled in the book was a breakthrough of sorts - something that debunked an old way of thinking or opened new frontiers in scientific thought.

Johnson admits that a different science writer could (and probably would) come up with a different list, but these particular experiments struck him as especially influential in the development of science as a whole. There is a hint of lament in his admission that nature is not giving up secrets in the way she used to. Furthermore, science is not pursued with the drive and passion that it once was. Research has become more of an industry, driven by profit and results, rather than the sheer joy of discovery. Johnson's journey clear back to Galileo and ending with Millikan in the early days of the 20th century take us back through some of the major breakthroughs in scientific thought. It is fun to pick up on the threads of the past and see how they are woven into the present, how the work of brilliant people becomes layered over time, until we get just a glimpse of this incredible, ordered creation. It really IS beautiful.

I must admit that much of this book went over my head. I'm getting better at it, but will never have a real grasp of the laws of physics and the philosophical, metaphysical questions that are always with us. I read science writing with the attitude that a little bit of understanding is better than none, and always enjoy the glimmers of clarity that come to me. I felt this way about Johnson's chapter about Sir Isaac Newton figuring out what makes us perceive color. The chapter on blood circulation also is really fascinating.

This is a quick read, and the book has lots of diagrams and pictures that help to illuminate the concepts. There is much good information, if the reader who does not have a scientific mind (like me) can decide to just go with it and not get hung up on each and every little thing that seems beyond comprehension. There are lots of little things that are beyond me, but I think this book enhanced my grasp of the big picture.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sound Advice


Dreamers of the Day
by Mary Doria Russell

I am a huge Mary Doria Russell fan, and eagerly anticipated this book. It is an engaging read and an effective way to sneak in some world history lessons about the period immediately following World War I (a time that I must admit I know very little about). Having said that, I do not think this is Russell's best work. If you have never read her, you MUST read The Sparrow, one of my all time favorite books. In that one, and in its sequel Children of God, Russell manages to create these delightful communities of characters that the reader gets really invested in. I did not find that with Dreamers of the Day - frankly I thought Agnes was kind of mealy-mouthed, and I got tired of her yippy little dog.

Russell uses real historical figures as the auxiliary characters in this story - Winston Churchill, Lady Gertrude Bell, and Colonel T.E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Uncrowned King of Arabia." I have always heard of this legendary person, but did not know his role in the creation of the modern Middle East, including what is now the nation of Iraq. He was one of the more charismatic characters of the story, as I assume he was in real life.

The premise of the book is that Agnes Shanklin, a spinster lady who has lost her whole family in the Great Influenza of 1920, treats herself to a vacation in Egypt. While there, she befriends all these influential people who are in Cairo for a conference (a conference which actually did happen) to figure out how to divide up the Middle East between the various colonial powers. Colonel Lawrence was the only one who actually had faith that the Arabs could rule themselves, and he advocated for that solution. For that reason, he was much beloved by the various people in the Middle East.

I definitely want to do more reading about this period of history, and Russell does a great job of weaving the narrative of what was happening on the world stage at the time into the conversations and monologues of the principal players. The book helps us to understand the roots of the conflicts that we are still coping with in the Middle East. Perhaps if Westerners had not been so condescending and patronizing to the people who would have to live with the results of their decisions, there would not be so much resentment and discontent among the people living there now.

The books ends with a pretty strong statement against the current war in Iraq, without specifically naming the conflict or any of the architects of it. I liked Agnes's next to last statement - the three pieces of advice she would give to us: 1) Read to children. 2) Vote. 3) Never buy anything from a man who is selling fear. That works for me.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lost Boy Found


What Is The What
by Dave Eggers

This is an amazing story. What Is The What made my top five fiction for 2007, but I read it before I started blogging. I finished reading it for a second time a few days ago, because this book is part of my "Faith in Fiction" sermon series. Although it is a novel, the line is blurred between fact and fiction, for it is the novelized autobiography of a real person, Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys. The "Lost Boys" is the name given to the thousands of boys (and some girls) who had to flee from their homes during the nearly two decades of civil war in Sudan. While all people had to fear bullets, machetes, and other forms of violence, and women and girls had to live in fear of rape, boys also had the danger of being forced into either the government army OR the rebel army if their village was raided by either party. This was why so many boys (some as young as six) who did not want to fight ran. And ran. And ran. And then walked. Valentino Deng was a refugee for approximately 14 years.

Valentino's personal narrative, relayed with the superior writing that we already expect from Dave Eggers, should capture the imagination of anyone who picks this book up. The long walk to Ethiopia that Valentino and thousands of children like him made so that they could escape the violence of civil war in their villages, is absolutely wrenching. Equally heartbreaking is the time that they spent in refugee camps, many without any family members to look out for them. Another part of the story, one that makes us take a hard look at ourselves, is the lukewarm reception that so many of these boys (now young men) received when they were finally resettled to the United States. We all seem to agree that no one should have to live within the cycle of brutality that characterized Sudan for so long (about 20 years) and still terrorizes people in the Darfur region there. However, when it comes to welcoming them into our own country and helping them complete their education and finding meaningful work for them to do, we have not as a society done such a great job. There are a few influential and wealthy individuals who have taken an interest in the Sudanese immigrants, but as a whole we would rather ignore them than have our own lives interrupted by their needs.

We can take a cue as to how we might engage with the Sudanese Lost Boys by reading Eggers' book and learning how they took care of each other during horrific situations. Somehow, even when they were treated like animals and worse, these children managed to hang onto their own humanity. They cared for each other when no one else would or could. They scavenged food for each other and gave each other their last articles of clothing to block out the searing African sun. Not all of us live in areas where there are large pockets of Sudanese people, but an awareness of the human beings around us (regardless of ethnic and cultural background) and a commitment to engage with people wherever they are could only strengthen society as a whole.

The good news is that Eggers' book has boosted public awareness of the efforts of the resettled Lost Boys to assist in rebuilding Southern Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng has become a leader in this ongoing project, and he is currently in Sudan supervising the building of a school in his home village of Marial Bai. He and Eggers started a foundation to raise awareness and funds to build schools, health clinics, and other community service buildings in Sudan. Anyone who is interested in learning more can log onto valentinoachakdeng.org and find out more about the organization. Valentino even has a blog on there that tells more about what is happening in Sudan now.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ridiculous


The Sunday List of Dreams
by Kris Radish

Seriously. Three words. Do. Not. Bother. This has to be the dumbest book I have read in recent memory. Just for the record, I did not choose it for myself. My sweet boys got it for me as a Mother's Day gift, and I treasure their efforts. I think they thought the cover looked fun.

BUT - cringe worthy writing, hokey story line, and the sense that the author is trying to be all cutting edge by writing about feminine sexual freedom. Instead, she comes off sounding ridiculous. There is some legitimate stuff about mother/daughter bonds and the power of female friendship, but this is ground that has been covered much more effectively by writers like Elizabeth Berg, Lolly Winston, Ursula Hegi, and oh so many others.

Oh well, not everything we read can be a winner.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

At a Loss for Words


Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

This is one of those well known books that I had somehow missed reading along the way. About a year ago I read a review in the Washington Post Book World of a biography of Ralph Ellison that sounded really interesting. I had not even known that Ralph Ellison is from my own native state of Oklahoma, and was appalled that he is not celebrated more in our mutual home state. I really want to read the biography, but decided I should read his best known work before cracking it.

Invisible Man is one of those books that is quite a bit of effort, but well worth the time and energy. There are a lot of long descriptions and interior monologues that can be laborious to get through. I can't really say I enjoyed this, because it is sad and painful to read, but this is an important book. Clearly, I am not the first to notice this, since Invisible Man won the National Book Award in pre-Civil Rights America.

The reason I feel at a loss for words is the premise of the book itself. The unnamed narrator is a young black man who is just awakening to the many ways that African-Americans are not only mistreated, but also discounted, overlooked, invisible to the vast majority of white America. The narrator's ultimate disillusionment comes when he gets involved in the Communist party, believing that this is the place where his voice can be heard and systemic change can begin. Imagine his disgust when it becomes clear to him that, for all their politically correct rhetoric, the Northern Communists (known in the book as "The Brotherhood") do not have any more authentic regard for or respect for black people than the most racist Southern Klansman. It is not pretty. Ellison also effectively describes the tensions among African-Americans over the best ways to live alongside whites and make progress as a community. He is clear that we cannot assume that a people is of one mind about anything.

So we can see that it is hard to describe the book. Even to say "I feel like I understand the black experience so much more now" feels presumptuous, and for way too long so many of us presumed way too much. I do feel, though, that Ellison pulled back the curtain just a bit, that his story allowed otherwise oblivious Americans to begin to empathize with black people. This seems like a book that needs to be experienced and lived with rather than described.

The ending of Invisible Man is moving. In spite of all his frustration and anger, even when he does not know what his own future holds, the narrator comes to the conclusion that "the only way to overcome hate is through love." Amen to that.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Is It Really This Bad?


I Don't Know How She Does It
by Allison Pearson

If you have ever struggled as a mother with the balance between work life and home life, you will relate to this book. It is very funny, but poignant and sad. I found myself frustrated a lot with the main character, Kate, and the choices she was making. She is a hedge fund manager and feels like she has to behave like a man (even more like a man than a man) to progress in the male-dominated corporation for which she works. Consequently, she refuses to mention her small children in her workplace and takes on more and more assignments that require international travel to "prove" that she can do everything the guys can.

Of course, Kate evolves along with the story and comes to realize that she cannot continue at the pace she is working and preserve her marriage and her relationship with her children. There is a happy compromise "feel-good" ending that the reader reaches with some sense of relief. I found the frenetic parts of the story and the cutthroat nature of the business world both stressful and depressing. If it is still this difficult for women in the corporate world, then we really have not come as far as we think. Of course some of the scenarios in the book were exaggerated for the sake of parody and humor, but there was just enough of it that rang true to give me a stomach ache.

Is it really this bad? I mean, I am a mom of two small children who works full time, and feel like we manage OK most of the time. Of course it takes some juggling, but we are doing all right. However, I realize that my situation is unique. I have a totally with it husband (hi there, love) who is a 100% partner in the whole parenting project. Family friendly churches (like the one I am oh-so-thankful to pastor) are a great place to be a working mom, because you have a certain amount of flexibility in hours and the location of where you work. (For example, I generally keep office hours Tuesday - Friday but if one of my kids gets sick I can work from home for 1/2 a day or so without fear of retribution.) Also, there are many church events where family members are welcome to participate, so my kids are often with me even when I am working. I would even go so far as to say that at least part of my congregation sees the fact that I have young children as a plus. They certainly have welcomed my boys into the family better than I ever could have hoped. Not every congregation is this open and flexible, but I still think that ministry is a pretty awesome gig for the moms. Women who feel called to pastor large congregations may face more of the glass ceiling issues than women who serve small to mid-size congregations.

But what about the business world, or politics, or academia, or medicine? Are women still feeling that they have to totally compartmentalize their lives to succeed in those spheres? Ugh. I have no desire to manage a hedge fund (for which my imaginary clients should be thankful), but if I did want to I think I should be able to do that without sacrificing everything else that is important to me. So what do you think? Is Kate's experience typical?

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Words Have Power


The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music
by Steve Lopez

WOW! This is post number 100 for Ex Libris Fides. Where does the time go? I'm still having fun writing it, hope lots of you out there are still enjoying reading. Remember, I always love to hear your thoughts and book recommendations.

The Soloist is a tremendous book. The writing is not beautiful but the story is important, fascinating, moving, and well told. Lopez has a journalistic style, which makes sense because that is what he is. He is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and The Soloist grew out of a series of columns that he wrote about Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers is a gifted musician who lived on the streets of L.A.'s Skid Row for decades. He had a mental breakdown in the early 1970s while he was a student at Juilliard. He eventually was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and he experienced a long descent into street life and estrangement from teachers, family, and friends.

The Soloist shows us the power of both music and relationship to heal. As he wrote about Ayers and continued to get to know him, Lopez found that he could not just walk away when his own work was (in theory) completed. He began trying to help Nathaniel Ayers re-enter society and reconnect with his family. The process has been long and at times frustrating. Nathaniel is still ill, and perhaps always will be, but he has made amazing progress because one person has taken an interest in him. Feeling cared about, being treated like he matters, has transformed Nathaniel Ayers's life.
Many people who were moved by Lopez's columns donated instruments to Nathaniel so that he would have quality instruments on which to practice. He is now taking cello lessons from a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has a small apartment that he actually stays in, instead of sleeping outdoors and storing all his possessions in a grocery cart. Due to some horrifying experiences when he first became ill, Ayers refuses to see a doctor or consider taking medication, but Lopez is hopeful for the future. Ayers has begun to participate in normal pleasurable activities like going to a baseball game, attending music concerts, and spending holidays with Lopez's family. The relationship is not always easy, but Lopez believes that the effort is worth it.

Something else that is interesting is that Lopez's columns (and now his book) about Nathaniel Ayers have generated enough public awareness about mental illness and homelessness (and the relationship between the two) that the mayor and city council of Los Angeles have increased funding for programs that benefit those who are suffering from these conditions - often some of the most forgotten people in society. Never underestimate the power of one. We can make a difference. This is an uplifting, powerful story that should make each of us raise the question of what we can do to ease the suffering of a neighbor.

Reverent Reader

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pay Attention


Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline
by Lauren F. Winner

"You find candles in the homes of people who are trying to pay attention." This is one of my favorite lines from this Lauren Winner book, and it became REALLY real to me this week, when an electrical storm caused our neighborhood to be without power for around 24 hours. There were parts of that little adventure that were kind of a nuisance, but it was fun snuggling in our big bed with the little boys, looking at the patterns that the candles made on the ceiling. Such a situation helps us see how much light one candle puts out when contrasted with overwhelming darkness. I am not ashamed to confess that a few times during that dark evening I followed Winner's suggestion and whispered within myself "The light of Christ. Thanks be to God." It did bring an unexpected sense of serenity.

I am not sure that Lauren Winner says anything really new in this book, but that is not her purpose. Instead, she is trying to remind Christians of the Jewish spiritual disciplines that are part of our mutual heritage and inviting us to be more intentional about integrating those practices into our own lives. Most Christians are already doing most of these practices to some extent (prayer, Sabbath-keeping, candle lighting, hospitality, and mourning are a few of the 11 practices that she discusses), but Winner reminds us to pay attention to what we are doing, and to consider all of life as a part of our spiritual journey. As someone who has difficulty with the meditative, contemplative side of life, I thought Winner had some great suggestions for how we might enrich our spiritual lives through practices that can be woven into mundane tasks and everyday occurrences.

If you are familiar with Lauren Winner's work, you will remember that she was raised Jewish and converted to Orthodox Judaism as a college student. Her book Girl Meets God tells the story of her subsequent conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Her intertwined history makes her uniquely able to pick up on the common threads between the two traditions, and Mudhouse Sabbath benefits from her dual perspective. She is someone who is honest about her own struggles and shortcomings, and she does not claim to have all the answers. She instead positions herself as a fellow traveler, one with whom I am glad to be on the road.

Lauren Winner writes about important things with gentle humor. She takes her subject seriously without taking herself too seriously. This is a quick read with lots of helpful nuggets of information, engaging examples taken from real life, and suggested disciplines from which anyone could benefit. I see myself reading this over and over again to remind myself of the ways to integrate daily life and real life.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Run to Read It


Run
by Ann Patchett

You may remember Ann Patchett's work if you are familiar with one of her famous books, Bel Canto (loved it!). If you liked Bel Canto, it is reasonably certain that you will like this one, but they are very different books. Run focuses on the family of widower Bernard Doyle, an Irish Catholic former mayor of Boston. He has three sons - Sullivan, a biological son who has not quite gotten his life together at age 33, and Tip and Teddy, two biological African-American brothers (early 20s) who were adopted into the Doyle family as infants. Much of the story centers around the different ways that the sons have coped with the tragic death of their mother when they were still children. Their mother, Bernadette, although deceased, is nevertheless a major figure in her sons' development.

I will not give away too much of the plot, as I do not want to ruin the clever way that Patchett unfolds this story. Suffice it to say that she makes it look easy. The reader will have a sense after finishing it that there are many factors that create a family. We can no longer assume that all family members look alike or think alike or behave the same way, and for the most part this is a good thing. Grace is found in people accepting each other and being determined to be there for one another in spite of differences.

I also love how Patchett weaves in racial, economic, and class themes without being preachy. She points out how clueless privileged people can be about the struggles of poor people, but she does not portray the Doyles as malicious or evil.

If you have read this book, I would love to know who your favorite characters are - they are all so rich and so well depicted. I particularly loved Sullivan and Kenya, but found the whole cast fascinating. The old priest's struggles with belief in the twilight of his life were also well articulated and (I thought) very moving.

Read this one. It will stay with you for a long time.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Our National Disease


Mudbound
by Hillary Jordan

Get ready for a blitz. Between being out of town for several days last week, Zeke's death, and unreliable Internet connection at home, I have not been able to post much lately. Therefore, I have quite the backlog and plan to be much more active on the blog this week. I may even compose post #100! Ta-da!

A member of our congregation recently gave me a cool bumper sticker that she got at a conference on diversity. It says "Racism: Our National Disease. Getting sick was not our fault. Getting well is our responsibility." I see writers like Hillary Jordan speaking the truths that we need to hear if our country is ever to truly get well from this pervasive sickness. Jordan won the Bellwether Prize for fiction for Mudbound. The Bellwether Prize is awarded every two years to a first-time novelist who shows promise in writing about issues of social justice. Mudbound is well deserving of the honor.

Mudbound has lots of elements but is fundamentally about issues of race and relationship in Mississippi just after World War II. When black American soldiers returned to the Deep South after serving our country just as bravely as their white counterparts, they expected to be treated with respect and gratitude. Instead, they found the same old hatred and fear and intimidation from white people waiting for them. Mudbound is about one such soldier, a tank commander named Ronsel Jackson, who returns to the tiny town of Marietta, MS and is no longer able to adopt the subservient posture that has been his key to survival for his whole life.

Mudbound effectively explores a wide range of relationships and perspectives - from those of black sharecroppers struggling for economic justice to virulent racists who are determined to maintain the status quo to more benevolent whites who think they are magnanimous in their treatment of blacks but who are nonetheless paternalistic. Inevitably, these different worldviews clash, leading to tragedy and further discord between the races. The attitude of the Klansmen is ridiculous to people of my generation, those of us who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement. I believe, though, that it is crucial for my generation to hear these stories and when the time is right to pass them on to our children. When we see where we have been, we appreciate how far we have come. More importantly, we grow firmer in our resolve to continue building bridges with others until we live out the truth that we are all children of God, created in God's image. Although Mudbound is a work of fiction, it articulates atrocities that truly happened in pre-Civil Rights America and reminds us that we never want to go back to that place.

Mudbound is a real page turner. We sense from page one that there is an explosion brewing, and we read faster and faster to find out what it is and how the various dramas get resolved. My only qualm about the book is that I wish Hillary Jordan had spent a little more time developing her characters. The narrative moves along so quickly that it feels at times that the characters are cardboard cutouts that never become fully human. We have characters that fit a lot of stereotypes: the vile racist, the patriarchal white farmer, the aforementioned noble sufferer, the soldier wrestling with nightmares and post-war demons, and several others. I think most people are more complicated than a pigeonhole characterization, and Jordan's characters deserve better because they are the actors in such an important story.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written story with a critical message. I highly recommend it and will be watching for more work from Hillary Jordan. Incidentally, we rented a movie this past weekend that also is an important contribution to the history of race relations in the United States. It is called The Great Debaters and stars Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. It is a beautiful movie - well-acted and a compelling, prophetic story. Plan to see it!

Reverent Reader