Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How Could We Have Been So Clueless?

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa
by Peter Godwin

For people interested in the colonial history of Africa, and in how certain countries got to the point where they are today, this is an excellent choice for reading. Godwin has a more current book out,When a Crocodile Eats the Sun , that I hope to read at some point as well. Mukiwa is about his childhood and young adult years as a British citizen living in what was then Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe). Godwin was firmly entrenched in the life of white Rhodesia - he went to white schools and was enmeshed in British culture. However, his parents did not see colonialism as a good long-term way of life for Rhodesia, and were among the few whites who supported turning Rhodesia over to majority/native rule. For that reason, Peter Godwin always, even as a young child, perceived the oddity of white privilege and rule. He acknowledges his own participation in that privilege, and the ways that he benefited from it, but is and was much more aware of the inherent unfairness of colonialism than your average British kid. As an adult, he found a way (journalism) to express this injustice and make the wider world more aware of it.

Mukiwa shows us Godwin's struggle as he is drafted into the Rhodesian army (he trained as a police officer) in his late teens and tries to do what he can to develop good relationships with black Rhodesians and to deal with them fairly and honestly in spite of the inequality built into the relationship from the start. Godwin also traces the beginning of Zimbabwe as an independent country (beginning in the early 1980s) and the hope and optimism that characterized that time period. Sadly, it did not take long for old tribal conflicts to emerge in brutal, vicious ways and the government seized the opportunity to solidify their own power by means of fear and intimidation.

Mukiwa is relevant right now, as Zimbabwe struggles to become a true democracy. This book gives us a lot of background as to how they got to this point. Their first prime minister, Robert Mugabe, now in his 80s, continues to hold onto power by means of torture and murder even though he has been defeated in a democratic election. Meanwhile, the country faces the worst economy on the planet and an outbreak of cholera that so far has killed several hundred people.

Godwin's book also forces white people to take a hard look at our own contributions to the misery of Zimbabwe and other African countries. I do not take personal responsibility for colonialism, as it went on for several centuries, but I do wonder how we as a people could have been so clueless to let it go on for as long as it did. I mean I get it about the resources available in Africa and the reasons why England and France and other countries would go to almost any means to get their hands on those resources (I may not like it, but I can understand it), but it amazes me that white people could not see that such a system could not sustain itself indefinitely. Plus our sense of entitlement is just staggering.

Mukiwa and other books like it go way beyond the parameters of memoir - it is history and social commentary and even a little bit of theology as well. Those of us who read these books inevitably must ask ourselves the question now "What can we do to help make things right?" Zimbabwe needs our prayers now as much as ever, but there must be something else we can do to ease the suffering of her people. Suggestions?

Reverent Reader

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ahhhh, Christmas!

Sorry, friends, that I have been remiss in postings lately. This always happens during the holiday season. I have one more 2008 book to post about, then the year-end wrap-up will be coming. Tune in for the top five fiction, top five non-fiction, best theology, biggest dud, and much more!

On December 23 (terrible timing, don't know what I was thinking) I started the biggest reading challenge of my life thus far - War and Peace. It took me a few days to get momentum going, but now am really into it. It's going to take awhile to get through, and I may even do more than one posting about it since there is clearly going to be lots to think about.

One of my favorite things about Christmas is the opportunity it affords to acquire several new books at once. There is something so satisfying about seeing a whole stack of bright, shiny books waiting for me to crack them open. It's not as transforming as Jesus' birth, of course, but still a lot of fun. My family and friends know that the surest way to please me is books, so they always come through with some I am familiar with as well as some unexpected ones. Here is my list of new acquisitions:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley
Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood
I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher
Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda

Nice mix, huh? Can hardly wait to dive in.

Happy Holidays and Joyous New Year to you all. Happy Reading! Let me know anything you are reading (especially unexpected holiday surprises) that I should not miss.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Seasonal Fare

The Last Noel
by Michael Malone

There are several things one could say to criticize this book. Far fetched? Yes. Schmaltzy? A little. Stereotypical characters? Some of them. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I was looking for something kind of inspirational and Christmasy that I could just get lost in for a few days. This filled the bill. Some may remember that I blogged about Michael Malone's Handling Sin several months ago. To be fair, I have to say that The Last Noel is not a work of the caliber of Handling Sin. If you are looking at a book that moves you as deeply as Handling Sin, you will be disappointed.

Still, Malone's talent is evident, and I would bet that his goals for these two works were not the same. He has the power to create characters whom we come to care about and who show us a thing or two about ourselves. The premise of this novel - two friends who share a Christmas birthday and who have all these major life events happen on or around Christmas Day (weddings, deaths, etc.) does make the reader do a few eye rolls. Coincidence is one thing, but does anyone really believe that all these things would just happen to fall on Christmas? But once the reader decides to just go with it, it is an inspiring story in many ways. There are poignant moments that show us the difficulty of maintaining an interracial relationship in the 1960s and 70s. There is a strong message about the power of enduring friendship. Malone draws his characters in such a way that we can see their different facets - tragic flaws as well as instances of kindness and mercy (except for Noni's mother and brother - they are just bad eggs).

The Last Noel will not change the intellectual or social history of any person or place, but it's perfect for curling up by the Christmas tree and having a long winter's read.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, December 11, 2008

(Young) Man's Search for Meaning

One of Ours
by Willa Cather

There is something about Claude Wheeler, the protagonist in Willa Cather's One of Ours that really grabbed my attention. Some of you may remember that until about a year ago I had not read any of Cather's work. Ed gave me The Song of the Lark for Christmas last year, and it was the beginning of a new writer/reader relationship. It is still my favorite, but One of Ours is a wrenching, beautiful story as well. Cather, through Claude, expresses this need for meaning in life that I believe we all have, as well as the restlessness that plagues us when we feel that our work and our lives lack direction and purpose. Even more poignantly, she describes the isolation someone feels when whatever it is that gives him/her that meaning we all seek is derided or belittled by others. The Wheelers are a farming family, and see little use for education or culture. In my opinion, farming is meaningful work that is under appreciated, but the point may be that what gives one person fulfillment does not always do the same for someone else. Claude feels bored and stifled with farming, but is trapped by the expectations of his father.

Claude Wheeler is the odd man out in his own family. His mother and the elderly housekeeper, Mahailey, respect and adore him but they do not really understand him. Even worse, his father and brothers do not get him at all. They think he yearning for some kind of intellectual life is just ridiculous. Unfortunately, the Wheeler's religious faith contributes to Claude's frustration. His mother, wife, and older brother all practice a rigid, judgemental brand of Christianity that discourages any questioning or voicing of doubts or even application (except when it comes to looking askance at the others' behavior). Because this is his exposure to faith, Claude becomes cynical and distances himself from faith altogether.

One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but I learned in the introduction to this edition (written by Cather scholar Angela Scala) that this book was controversial when it was released and not well received in some circles. Set in the period of World War I, some former isolationists thought that it "glorified" war. Several male literary lions, including Ernest Hemingway, disputed a woman's "right" to produce a "war novel". After all, they said, what could a woman know about combat situations? Hemingway even went so far as to accuse Cather of cribbing her battle scenes from the movie Birth of a Nation, when in fact she had spent a lot of time in France researching the war so that her descriptions would be accurate.

My thing is that even though the war is a part of the story, and a turning point for Claude, I do not see war as the primary theme of the book. It's about loneliness, the need to feel understood, and the desire that we have to believe that our being here matters. When Claude sails to France and nurses many of his comrades through a deadly outbreak of influenza, at one point in that crisis he thinks to himself that (although he would not wish illness or danger on any of his men) as he does what he can to save his friends he has never felt more alive. That is an extreme situation, but I thought Cather nailed it when she expressed that sense of fulfillment that Claude experienced. Perhaps we ARE at our most alive when we sacrifice our own comfort and safety (or even our very being) for others. Isn't that what Christ came to show us?

Wonderful book.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Don't Make Assumptions

Three Daughters
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Several years ago, at the recommendation of my good friend KB, I read the book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Miguel Ruiz. The four agreements are based on Toltec wisdom from Mexico, and have to do with getting the most out of life and from your relationships with other people. I don't remember all the details, but the four agreements have stuck with me and have often helped me keep things in perspective. The four agreements are 1) always be clear, 2) don't make assumptions, 3) don't take anything personally, and 4) always do your best. Three Daughters is a novel that shows the unintended consequences that can come about when people make unwarranted assumptions about one another. The three primary characters, a set of semi-estranged sisters, end up isolated from one another because of mistaken assumptions that they have about each other and other members of their family. Leah, the radical "Second Wave" feminist, assumes that her more traditional sister is a close minded dunce. Shoshanna, the youngest sister, harbors regrets for decades about assumptions she made about her own mother. These are just a couple of examples of relationships that take a wrong turn because one or more parties do not have adequate information.

There's lots of good history in this novel - both of the feminist movement and of Judaism. I did not know this, but Letty Cottin Pogrebin was an active feminist in the 1970s and co-founded Ms. magazine along with Gloria Steinem. I've got to send a shout out to my sensitive New Age Husband for recognizing the name and pointing that interesting fact out to me. (Love you, E.!). She also wrote the introduction for that beloved 70s childhood classic book and record Free to Be You and Me. Who knew? Anyway, Pogrebin seems to draw on her own experiences in the feminist movement and in the Jewish faith to develop her characters and craft her storyline. She manages to throw in a lot of historical and cultural references without being didactic or preachy. There are also some parts of the story that are very funny.

Overall, though, I would say that the book is about the toxicity of secrets and the danger of assumptions. It made me wonder how often we deprive ourselves of authentic relationships with people because of the erroneous conclusions to which we so easily jump. Pogrebin's novel also, though, reminds us that it is never too late for reconciliation and never too late to make a fresh start. All things are possible, especially when we are bound together by ties of blood, faith, and tradition.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography
by William Lee Miller

I have not yet decided if this book was worth the effort. There is good information, and it is clearly presented, but overall Lincoln's Virtues is a bit of a slog. It's not at all gripping, and took me about 2 weeks to read. It's also quite repetitive. As the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln approaches in 2009, historians and biographers are cranking out a ton of new books about him. There are several out there that I still want to read, but am not sure this was the place to start.

Miller does not present us with a linear bio of our 16th president, and that is probably a good thing (no doubt there are plenty of those available). What he does instead is trace Lincoln's development as a moral being. There is a chronological order to the book, but it takes a back seat to skipping around within Lincoln's career to examine how he evolved in faith, philosophy, and morality. Lots of snippets are pulled from Lincoln's speeches and other writings to illustrate Miller's points.

I enjoyed learning more about Lincoln's relationships with other politicians of the day - the process in which he chose his Cabinet was fascinating. He chose a couple of former rivals for the Republican nomination for key positions and even picked one fellow lawyer who had totally dismissed him as a rube when they were supposed to collaborate on a court case years before (can't remember the name offhand, but he is the one who supposedly coined the now famous phrase "Now he belongs to the ages." after Lincoln's assassination) to be his Secretary of War (to be fair, the guy did come around and came to understand what a unique spirit and splendid mind Lincoln had). Another of the book's great strengths is that it traces the evolution of the political parties that we know (and love?) today. At the beginning of Lincoln's career, he was a Whig. The Democrats were the big slavery proponents (ugh), and pretty much ruled the South. The Whigs were in favor of developing infrastructure (roads, railway lines, etc) in the territory that was already firmly part of the United States, whereas the Democrats favored expansionism of our territories - hoping to increase the number of slave states. The Republican party emerged from Whigs who were increasingly drawn to abolitionism and frustrated with Whig tentativeness over the slavery issue. Lincoln was the first Republican to run for President.

Miller is clearly an admirer of Lincoln, and well he should be. However, I feel like he spends a little too much time answering to those who would bring Lincoln down at this late date, and he (Miller) comes off sounding defensive on Lincoln's behalf. There may be some goods reason for this defensiveness - there are now Lincoln detractors who have pulled a few comments from his speeches to make a case that he was a "white supremacist." Miller also feels a need to defend Lincoln against charges that he was a "politician." Of course he was - there were times when he had to be pragmatic and cut deals just like they all do - the key question is can one maintain integrity while working within the political system? I like to hope that anyone reading history would have sense enough to know that Lincoln was a product of his time and his culture as we all are. No doubt there were things on which he had to compromise. He was not perfect, but he consistently pushed himself to learn more and evolve in understanding and compassion. I think his record speaks for itself on those issues, and that Miller belabors the point to the book's detriment.

Nevertheless, this book did fill in some of my gaps in pre-Civil War history and some of the major players of the time. It also prompted me to think about what virtues I personally believe are most important - not only in politicians, but in people in general. The two that really moved me about Lincoln were his humility and his compassion. When the Union won the war, he could have been vengeful and dictatorial with the secessionist states. He chose to move ahead instead "With malice toward none, with charity for all..." No doubt our country (and our world) could benefit from a page torn out of Lincoln's playbook now.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gotta Give Her Credit

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell

Dang! This is such a busy time, that I have been having a hard time posting on the blog as regularly. Another factor in my tardiness is that both my kids are walking germ factories and keep infecting each other with the latest bug. They both (at different times) have required more nursely attention than usual lately and its hard for me to find time to write when they are in a high maintenance place. Also, I got kind of bogged down reading a pretty slow biography of Lincoln (more about that in a day or so). Anyway, stick with me through the holidays. I will still be posting, although not as often. I'll get back to my usual pace at the beginning of the New Year. I find that when I do not write I miss the discipline of it, not to mention the stimulation of dialogue with many of you, both on and off the blog.

Enough of that...

I have written about Sarah Vowell before. I would really like to meet her, she is such an interesting character. This is the third of her books that I have read, and I think it is by far the best. I tend to thoroughly enjoy her books (The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli), but not retain much of them because she writes in such a breezy style and throws out a lot of factoids that are fascinating but don't really stick with you. Assassination Vacation's great strength is that there is more of a structure to it than in her other books. We have a sense of what her goal is (however macabre it may be) and can easily hop in and make the trip with her.

What Vowell did was go on a literal pilgrimage/road trip to investigate the sites (and other related places) of the first three presidential assassinations - those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. She finds the most interesting, random facts and she presents them in such a way that you really feel some insight not only into the characters of the presidents themselves but also their assassins and the historical circumstances of the times.

I liked the material on Lincoln, but it was the most familiar since Lincoln is one of our most revered and discussed presidents. However, I knew next to nothing about Garfield and McKinley. She managed to make two rather ho-hum and unappreciated presidents into interesting people in their own right. She also weaves American history into the biographical information in such a way that the readers get a lot of their American history gaps filled in. I realized that beyond a handful of the big kahunas (Adams, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy), I do not know the background history of too many of our past presidents. Vowell's writing sparks within me a desire to learn more, and I think that is one of the best gifts a writer can give her readers.

I give Vowell credit for two things - One, she knows her stuff. It would be easy to dismiss her as a lightweight because her work is so readable and quirky. Still, she presents a lot of information and synthesizes it so well that it is clear that she has an excellent mind and amazing memory for facts and dates. Secondly, she has motivated me to learn more presidential history - I now have a long term project to read at least one major biography of every president - in order. Some of them I have already hit, so there may be a few re-reads in there, but it will still be quite an endeavor. I'll keep you posted. Please send me any information you have about good bios of former presidents - especially random ones that are going to be hard to find information on (Millard Fillmore? William Henry Harrison? James Polk?).

As always, Vowell is absolutely hilarious. She refers often in Assassination Vacation to the eerie coincidence that Robert Lincoln, Abraham's oldest son, was on the premises at all three of these assassinations (spooky). In her own irreverent style, she calls R. Lincoln "Jinxy McDeath," and imagines a conversation in which McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, offers Robert an ambassadorship to Kathmandu for his (TR's) own safety. Very bizarrely funny, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Reverent Reader