Friday, May 29, 2009

A Different Perspective

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
by Robert Kaplan

I highly doubt that I would ever have picked this up to read on my own. It just is not the type of book that would normally grab me. A church member had read it and thought it provided some useful insights. I also had read Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts several years ago and knew him to be a clear writer who presents information well, so I decided to give Imperial Grunts a try.

I'm glad I read this, although I don't think it is one that I will read over and over. I have very ambivalent feelings about the military. I deeply appreciate their service to our country and am fully aware of the sacrifice that our servicemen and women make to preserve freedom and promote democracy. I pray for their safety on a daily basis. However, I am also against war in principle and pray just as fervently for the day to come when world leaders find ways other than violence to work out differences. Wouldn't it be great if the military (as we know it anyway) were rendered obsolete? I think it is possible to support the troops and be grateful for them while at the same time hoping that the world changes to the point that we put them out of business.

Kaplan's book is great for giving us the larger picture of life inside the military. He spent time embedded with American military units in a variety of places including (among others) Colombia (fighting drug lords), the Philippines, Camp Lejeune, Djibouti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He got to know committed soldiers as individuals and human beings, and observed their day to day lives in an intimate and honest way. His excellent writing conveys their hardships and frustrations, but also their fervency, fear, dedication, and desire for excellence.

I am not one who normally rags on the supposed liberal media or who believes that newspapers and television journalists intentionally present information that is not true. I do see from Imperial Grunts, though, that there is a lot that goes on under the radar that is either unreported for security reasons or under reported because scandals like Abu Ghraib take center stage. For every serviceman or woman who engages in questionable interrogation tactics or other abhorrent behavior, there are probably 100 who want to forge a peaceful world and who make relationship with the local people, wherever they are serving, a top priority.

It was gratifying to read about the efforts that our military makes to win the hearts and minds of the people in the places where our military maintains a presence (whether in a wartime, combat location or a peacekeeping detail). The American military provides a lot of personal health care, builds a lot of schools, distributes a lot of food, and gives a lot of kids gum that it does not get much credit for. Some of this is because the American military works in a low key and gives the credit to the local military in a sincere effort to build credibility and indigenous leadership.
Most of these women and men do not want to engage in violence, and see combat as a last resort. However, it is unfortunately part of their jobs and that will not change anytime soon. It was nice to read about other more positive things that they do.

Imperial Grunts also describes some bloody combat operations in great detail, and it is clear that there are some guys who relish it (shudder). My guess, though, is that they are a minority. Most just see it as part of their responsibility, a price that has to be paid for a more peaceful world. I remain unconvinced that war is the way we should go, but after reading this I have a greater appreciation for the breadth of activities that the military personnel engage in. Given my theological objections to war and my personal commitment to peacemaking, there were parts of Imperial Grunts that were hard to read, but I am glad I did. Without radically changing my views, Kaplan's book did round them out a little, and that is almost always a good thing.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Work in Progress

Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace that Passes All Understanding
by Heather King

Sorry, friends, that my blog got a little outdated. We got away for some Memorial Day fun with longtime friends. The kids played, the adults relaxed, and everyone had a great time. I became interested in Heather King's writings when I came across one of her essays in the 2008 Best American Spiritual Writing. The essay published in that anthology is called "The Closest to Love We Ever Get." It is a really moving piece of writing.

That introduction caused me to investigate what else of Heather King's is out there, waiting like a gift to be opened. Turns out she has written this memoir, as well as an earlier one called Parched. Her earlier book is not as readily available, but am sure I will find it and read it at some point. King reminds me of a Roman Catholic Anne Lamott. She has a sharp wit that she is not afraid to turn on herself, but she is basically kindhearted. She is relentlessly honest about her own ups and downs, especially her years lost to alcoholism. In this memoir alone she endures the death of her father (which she describes with tremendous poignancy), a scary career change, a painful divorce, and a bout with breast cancer. She also discusses, among
other things, her relationship with money. Most of us do not like to admit our petty or stingy feelings about money - it is one of our least acknowledged sins, but King confronts it head on in a way that is refreshing and (in the end) hopeful.

I do not think that Heather King would describe herself as "done" - meaning there is still room for growth and further movement towards the peace and reconciliation that is God. But, if we are truthful with ourselves, we know that none of us is done. It might not be all that fun to be fully enlightened - if we were, what would we have to seek and aspire to? I liked King's book because she both challenges us to seek God and affirms who we already are as children of God. I find myself incorporating some of her suggestions for prayer and mindfulness into my own daily routines, and have been pleasantly surprised at a heightened sense of awareness of grace, beauty and Presence. Her prayer "Bless ( insert name of whoever is bugging me), change me" has become one of my frequent mantras, and, amazingly, when prayed consistently, it really does help.

Heather King has experienced the lowest places in life, and survived to tell about them. She has done more than tell about them, though - she has integrated all parts of herself - the good, the bad, and the ugly - into a whole that is always growing into the person God created her to be. Her book has some rough spots because she does not sugar coat the awful places she has been, but she is a beautiful writer and person. I'll be eager to read more of her work.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All Over The Map - In a Good Way

The Hour I First Believed
by Wally Lamb

A couple of reviews that I read of this latest by Wally Lamb complained at the breadth of issues that he takes on in this weighty book. It is true that The Hour I First Believed delves into many intense topics. A few of the prevalent ones are school shootings (especially the Columbine, Colorado 1999 shooting), marital communication, alcoholism, child abuse, adultery, vengeance, homosexuality, faith (and adversity's impact on it and vice versa) prison reform, drug addiction, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, unwanted pregnancies, troubled teenagers, and family secrets. However, I disagree with the reviewers who saw this as a weakness in the book. Lamb ties all these themes together amazingly well.

All of these things are part of life - they do not all occur in every life, but every life has its share of pain and sorrow. There certainly are times when things pile one on top of the other and weigh an individual down (and/or tear a family apart). Sadly, this is the way life can be - there can be a snowball effect of awful things that lead to more horrible consequences. Some people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time don't ever recover. There is a progression to Lamb's narrative that makes sense - it never seemed like he was flitting around. Layer by layer, he constructs Caelum and Maureen's story in a way that is not just readable, but compelling. He also brings in the ancillary characters and their issues with a logical flow - these characters contribute to the books whole. He has created an improbable family of wounded people trying their best to help heal each other.

I have read all three of Wally Lamb's novels, and have enjoyed them all. I believe this is his best so far, though, perhaps because it seems the closest to his own heart. The prison story line is based at least partially on his own work with the inmates of a Women's Correctional Center (he has edited two volumes of the women's writings, which I am eager to read). Many of the parts of this story are dark, there is no question, and things do not wind up tidy or "fixed" at the end. Amidst all the sadness, though, there are consistent threads of hope and redemption. There were times when the characters disappointed me, and times when I wished that things would turn out differently, but at no point did I cease to care what happened to them. I even found myself hoping that Lamb would write a sequel to this one at some point. I don't know, though, some sequels really crash and burn. Perhaps best to imagine the rest of their lives for myself.

Lamb's writing is not as poetic as some other novelists' (Anne Tyler and Jayne Ann Phillips come to mind), but he writes a darn good story. His ear for dialogue is strong, as is his grasp of detail. He is able to pull all these threads together into a coherent whole that reminds us of the varied forms that love can take. And the title - it all comes together on the last page in a way that I found extraordinarily moving. This is a good one - read it.

Reverent Reader

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mixed Reaction

by Ron Rash

This book is hard to describe as "good" or "bad." The writing is absolutely gorgeous, it flows nicely, the story moves, and the descriptions are mesmerizing. The story itself is spellbinding, to use an old fashioned word. I definitely want to read more of Ron Rash's work - he's been around for awhile, and I have heard him do readings on NPR. I hope this book puts him on the national stage, because he certainly deserves to be there. I would give my eyeteeth to write even half as well as he does.

Having said that, the book will creep you out (from the small amount I have heard, I don't think Rash's other books are as gothic as this one). The main characters are despicable, absolutely pure evil. Personal gain (wealth, power, control) and vengeance are the two motivating forces in Serena and Pemberton's lives. Pemberton seems to be a reasonably decent human being until he links up with Serena, and she is really awful. It's not long before she almost completely ruins him. When he retains the tiniest shred of conscience, she exacts the ultimate revenge on him. She gave me, to quote Owen Meany, THE SHIVERS.

One of the blurbs on the back of Serena describes the novel as "an Appalachian retelling of Macbeth." That characterization led me to flip through my old copy of Macbeth (from my junior year of college) and look for the parallels. The similarities certainly exist - just as Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth into malevolent deeds that he likely would not have done on his own, Serena lures her husband into actions that go against his better judgement. However, I also saw some similarities with Wuthering Heights, only with the roles reversed. Serena is Heathcliff, demanding nothing less than total obedience and allegiance from Cathy/Pemberton. Beware.

I was really into the story as I was reading it - could hardly put the book down, and devoured it in just a couple of days. I can appreciate the craftsmanship, and I definitely was lost in the story in that way that happens with truly good writing. However, it is difficult to love a book where the characters are so hideous and evil retains the upper hand throughout. Rachel is a good character, though. She is tenacious and determined to save her child. You will root for her, and she needs all the help she can get against the crafty Serena and her wimpy husband.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Magical Mystery Tour

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
by Laura Miller

The Magician's Book is literary criticism at its best - readable, fun, and intellectually stimulating. So much criticism strikes me as the writer showing the reader "Look how smart I am. I know more about (insert book's title) than the person who wrote it." The Magician's Book does not come across that way. It feels like talking about a book you love with someone who loves it as much as you do. For that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of you may remember that I plowed through the entire Narnia series a couple of months ago when I had a back injury. Reading The Magician's Book forced me to slow down and appreciate some of C.S. Lewis's subtleties, rather than just tearing through the stories in a codeine induced fog to see what happens next.

Having said that, I am not without ambivalence about some of the places the book takes us. A major part of what led Miller to write the book was her own experience of the Narnia Chronicles. She began reading them as a young child (around age seven or eight, if I remember correctly), and adored them, couldn't get enough. But then when she was verging on adolescence, someone pointed out the Christian symbolism in the books. Miller goes on and on about how betrayed she felt by this revelation, and how for many years the books were "ruined" for her. Later in her life, she picked them up again and loved them all over again, but in spite of their Christian themes, not because of them. She calls The Last Battle, the most obviously Christian of the books (with the exception of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) a "weak finish" to the series, and is really quite belittling about the final scene, which is clearly meant to depict the heaven of C. S. Lewis's imagination.

What is with the anti-Christian bias of the literary world? I don't want to sound all right-wing here (if you know me, you know I am anything but), but it is as if literary critics have decided that all Christians are the same, and Christian themes in a book automatically make it suspect and in some way inferior. Laura Miller's religious upbringing clearly was a less than happy one, and I get that. But to assume that all Christian books are exclusive and doctrinally rigid and narrow minded? That just does not make any sense to me - one critic wrote in a blurb on the back of The Magician's Book that Miller has "rescued Aslan from the Christian imagination, and restored him to his rightful place in the human imagination." As if something that captures the Christian imagination cannot ALSO enchant the human spirit. As if many "Christian" themes are not also basic parts of what it means to be human.

Granted, there are "Christian" themed books that make my teeth itch. But just because Tim LaHaye's stuff is out there (and yes, I have read Left Behind just to see what all the fuss is about) and Frank Peretti's (ditto for This Present Darkness) does not make all literature with overtly Christian themes bad. In fact, we need literature like the Narnia series to balance out the crazy millenialists. I found Miller's dismissal of anything and everything Christian annoying. I think I understand her perception of our faith, and regret that whoever gave her those perceptions are her only exposure to Christians. But to dismiss Christian themes in literature because you have had negative experiences with a relatively small number of Christians is just as narrow-minded as the most tunnel-visioned fundamentalist could ever be.

Having gotten that off my chest, there is much about the book to be enjoyed. Miller shares a lot of biographical information about C.S. Lewis (and his close friendship with JRR Tolkien), and has obviously explored the way his theology shaped his writing. Her exploration of Lewis's own literary favorites is lots of fun as is her close look at all the fantastical, mythical archetypes that Lewis puts together to produce the unique and delightful hodgepodge that is Narnia. Miller shares the discomfort I mentioned in my post on the Narnia series with the racial stereotypes of the Narnians and Calormenes. These are only a few of the tangents that she journeys, but you can see that she has exhaustively researched her book. It makes for worthwhile reading for any Narnia fan. Get past her distaste for Christianity, and you will find much to enjoy in The Magician's Book.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Literary Links

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Initially, I resisted this book because I was turned off by the title. Can't really say why, but something in me thought it would be one of those dorky books about a book club or knitting club. However, a church friend recommended that I read it, and it was an excellent suggestion. This is not classic literature, but it's an engaging story - perfect for curling up with under an afghan on a rainy afternoon (and we have had plenty of those lately!).

This novel is written entirely in letters, which makes it zip along. The characters are eccentric in a likable way. The plot is not all light-hearted, though. We learn about the real British island of Guernsey, and how its occupants suffered during the German occupation of World War II. A small group of the islanders form a book club to help pass the time and occupy their minds during a grim and fearful time. Through that book club, unlikely people become friends and eventually they form an extended family to look after an orphaned child. Guernsey shows us, rather than tells us, the potential that literature has to connect human beings. Also without the authors getting on a soapbox, we see how a diverse and seemingly unconnected group of people can become a family.

Guernsey is funny and in some instances quite thought-provoking. We see a human side of some of the Germans who fought in World War II, and at the same time come to see how war dehumanizes all who participate in it. What struck me most about this story, though, was the pervasive nature of hope. People can rebuild when their lives have been blown apart. Relationships that sustain us can emerge when we least expect them. Love is stronger than hate, and life ultimately prevails over death. Really.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Those Who Try Us

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

Some may remember that I read and posted on this book about a year ago. I recently re-read it - my congregation used it for our Lenten Book Study, and I liked it just as much the second time, if not more. Williams presents ideas that call us to look at WHY we have faith in the first place and what effect our relationship with God has (or should have) on the choices we make in day-to day life. In his chapter on Mark, Williams argues that a relationship with God is useless - that is, if we are applying the world's vision of "useful." Reminds me of Thomas Currie's book Ambushed by Grace: The Virtues of a Useless Faith. I read that years ago, and Williams may have spurred me to find a copy of it (when I read it before, I borrowed KB's copy) and think some more on this idea.

The main idea that I have been mulling over is the one from Luke where Williams essentially says that God is to be found in the connections that we cannot make with one another. As I considered that idea in light of his background idea of Trial - Christ's trial and the trials that we face from moment to moment, I realized that the very people who "try" my patience and who are the most difficult to understand may be the ones to whom I need to pay the most attention (oh really? do I have to?). The connections that we cannot make, and the barriers that stand in our way, may take a variety of forms. The most obvious is geographical, but there are also cultural barriers, as well as theological and ideological. Plus let's face it, there are people who look like us and think like us but for amorphous reasons STILL get on our nerves. In fact those personality dividers may indeed be the most difficult to overcome. Perhaps those people who try us in this way are the ones who (whether we like it or not, or whether or not we realize it in the heat of the moment) in some unexpected way can be a pathway to the experience of grace. Wow.

It's too soon to tell if it's "working" or not, but in the last couple of weeks I have been intentionally trying to be open to this possibility of encountering the Divine through people who (for whatever reason) get under my skin. I find myself praying a brief prayer that I learned from Heather King's book Redeemed (more about that book in a few days): "Bless her (or him), change me." I've been surprised by how difficult it can be to pray those words. I've also been surprised by how freeing it is once I say them. Hmmmmmm.

Reverent Reader