Thursday, July 16, 2009

Looking Up from Down

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness
by Joshua Wolf Shenk

One would not think that this would be an uplifting book - how can a book about depression be anything but a downer? Amazingly, Shenk pulls it off. This is an informative, interesting, and (yes) hopeful book for anyone who has ever suffered from depression or know someone who has. One of the book's great strengths is that it does not constantly stay in the past - Shenk pulls in current thought on depression and mental illness and artfully weaves it with writings from the time of Lincoln's life on the subject. Some of the most moving material comes from Lincoln's own writings as well. It is clear that there were periods of his life during which Lincoln was truly tormented, and it appears that he always carried with him an aura of melancholy.

Shenk makes a convincing case that Lincoln's love for humor and wit was at least in part a defense against the depression that dogged him for most of his life. It is reassuring to see that even someone who faces down the demon on a daily basis can still experience moments of joy and laughter. I think humor is one thing our society is losing touch with. We take ourselves way too seriously. Lincoln showed how one side of his nature could balance out the other, and that balance was part of what kept him sane and functioning at the level that he did.

Lincoln had a least two major depressive episodes in his young adult life - during one of them his close friends even placed him on suicide watch. An admirable characteristic of Lincoln's that Shenk believes came from his depression was his determination to do something of significance with his life. He had been stuck in the pit of despair, and asked himself whether he would live or die. Having determined somewhere inside of himself that he wished to live, he needed some thing to work toward, something to live for. That purpose turned out to be ending the moral evil of slavery, and Lincoln worked toward that goal steadily and efficiently until the premature end of his days.

There is no doubt that Lincoln experienced loss and sorrow - his mother died when he was still a young boy. One woman who was possibly a great love of his (Ann Rutledge) died when he was in his early 20s. He lost two sons while he was still living, and only one of his four sons survived to adulthood. His marriage was troubled. And through it all he had this malaise of melancholy to contend with. Yet he was able to turn that affliction into a motivating force in his own life and in the life of our country.

It is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of history that Lincoln's life ended when it did. There is no doubt that he changed our country for the better, and I think Reconstruction after the Civil War would have gone much more smoothly and been a more conciliatory process had he been leading it.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Common Heritage

by Alex Haley

The television movie of Roots came out when I was in third grade. I did not watch it, as my parents thought (probably correctly) I was too young for the brutality and violence. Nevertheless, I have always thought it would be an important book to read, and am glad that I finally got around to it. One caution: I read an edition of the book released in 2007 in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first release. If you are going to read Roots, get an original edition. I do not know if the anniversary edition was made on the cheap or what, but it is riddled with grammatical errors (especially misplaced commas) that have nothing to do with dialect or changes in vernacular. It was horribly irritating and distracting, and a great disservice to the late Alex Haley and our common cultural heritage. I can't imagine that the original has so many misprints.

However, I am glad that I read Roots. It is a story that humanizes the evil of slavery and illustrates the spiritual bankruptcy that could lead to such a practice in the first place. What chilled me was how the "massas" would make these pronouncements that their slaves were "part of the family," yet at the same time had this "business is business" outlook that led them to sell other human beings and treat them like animals. I do not know how the white slave owners could live with themselves. Even more awful were the slave catchers who sailed to Africa and captured human cargo to be transported to the United States and other places. The story of Kunta Kinte's voyage from Africa to Annapolis, MD on several occasions almost made me physically ill.

What struck me while reading Roots was that in some ways the story of the slaves is all of our story. I would not presume to claim that my ancestors suffered like the African slaves did, but now, in retrospect, we see that our nation was largely built by slave labor. Even whites who were not slave owners had their lives changed by the practice and in some cases benefited economically from it. I doubt that anyone who has read Roots would tell today's African Americans to just "get over it." Atrocities were committed that affected families for generations. There can be no moving forward until sin is acknowledged, and Alex Haley is to be commended for sharing his family's history so we could all begin to consider our place in the larger history of our nation and of the larger world.

I do not know how we heal the communal wounds wrought by slavery and racism, but I do know that understanding the institution of slavery for the moral evil that it was (and still is) is a place to start. It is NOT OK to say "Lots of slaves were really happy" or "White and black children played together and were the best of friends." There can be no genuine relationship when one human being owns another. The relationship between Missy Anne and Kizzy in Roots painfully illustrates that truth. The more white people try to act like slavery was not so bad after all, the more we slow the reconciliation that can be brought about by confession, truth-telling, and forgiveness.

This is a difficult book to read (not literarily, but emotionally), but one that has a place in our cultural and social history. It still has much to teach us.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Best of the "Best Of"

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008
edited by Jerome Groopman

A couple of years ago I became interested in science writing, largely because my understanding of some of the hard sciences, such as physics, is so pitiful. In school I always liked life sciences like biology but ran from things like chemistry and physics - mostly because they involve math and I never had any confidence in math. I love science writing, though. I feel like I can read something from almost any of the many branches of science and (even if I do not fully understand it) have a slightly more complete grasp of how this whole marvelous that world that God gave us fits together.

This "Best of..." series is a really helpful resource. A friend gave me The Best American Spiritual Writing a couple of years ago and now I buy it every year. There is no way I have the money to subscribe to all those magazines, let alone the time to read them all, but the "Best of..." compilations (which are edited by a different person each year) pull out the top 20 or so articles from a wide variety of magazines. It's like sitting down to a 20 course meal and every course is good - no junk. I also have given E., at various times, The Best American Food Writing and The Best American Non-Required Reading. Great books to read an article or two, put aside, and come back to it another time.

Did you know that some scientists think that as many as 1/2 the deaths in the whole world, since the beginning of time, have been caused by malaria? Did you know that linguists are coming close to cracking an ancient language that was not written, but consisted of various colors and sizes of knots tied in different colors of string? There is also a language currently used by a tribe in northern Brazil that has only three vowels and eight consonants. There is a whole Internet community developing of "scam-busters" - people who scam the scammers. These are just a few of the interesting things I learned from The Best American Science and Nature Writing.

Magazines represented in this compilation include The New Yorker, Outside, and Discover, just to name a few. I was completely absorbed in the book while reading it. Each essay was fascinating - the topics were diverse, yet some thought and attention revealed many connections between the seemingly unrelated subjects. I'm definitely going to put The Best American Science and Nature Writing on my January shopping list each year.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Cad By Any Other Name...

Loving Frank
by Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan pulls off a remarkable feat here - she makes you feel sorry for a narcissistic philanderer. Loving Frank is the story of the relationship between famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his long time mistress, Mamah (pronounced MAY-mah) Borthwick Cheney. Of course Mamah is not blameless in the whole scenario, but somehow she comes off as more of a lost soul, whereas Wright often seems like a sleazy predator.

There is no doubt that Wright was a man of phenomenal talent, but if Horan's biographical novel is to be believed, he had a sense of entitlement that in the long run was detrimental to his career. He would rack up amazing amounts of debt on luxurious items, justifying it by saying that he had to be surrounded with beautiful things so that he could think properly and experience true artistic vision. He would fail to pay contractors and apprentices, saying that the "privilege" of working with him should be pay enough. What a jerk.

Nevertheless, if Horan is to be believed, there was genuine love between Cheney and Wright, and the early 1900s were not a friendly time for them. Between them, they had nine children, and the judgements of society on people who would leave spouses and children were harsh. They seem to have been worse for Cheney, but there is no question that both Cheney and Wright paid a high price for their love. One wonders if it was worth it. They had to move around Europe for the first several years of their cohabitation, because they were so ostracized in the United States. When they finally did resettle in the United States, Wright built his showplace home, Taliesin. Sadly, just as people were moving on to the next juicy bit of news and moving on from their outrage, the couple was finally settling into what promised to be a rich life together when a self-righteous lunatic brutally murdered Mamah Cheney and her two children. A tragic ending to a sad story. I was surprised how saddened I was by that part of the narrative - Horan did an excellent job of conveying the horrible loss that Wright (and Mamah's former husband Ed Cheney) had to endure, and the reader truly gets a sense of the world that Wright and Cheney had created for themselves crumbling to the ground.

A couple of things about the story that I have wondered about - one is the ever present double standard. Both of the protagonists were judged harshly but in the early 1900s Cheney definitely had the more difficult burden to bear. Not only did everyone assume she was some kind of a whore, but she had very few options as far as supporting herself if her relationship with Wright did not work out. She picked up some work as a translator, as she was very gifted with languages. Not to excuse or condone adultery, but she seems to have married her husband only because she did not know what else to do with herself. Then, many years later, she realized that she was living a terribly hollow life. One has to wonder if Mamah Borthwick Cheney lived today would her life turn out differently simply because she would have other opportunities.

The other thing I wonder about is the accuracy of Horan's portrayal. The book is very well-written and it makes a great story, but is it truthful historical fiction? For the most part, Cheney is cast as Wright's great love, the one who came closest to saving him from his worst excesses. There are a couple of allusions to possible other women, but usually it seems as if their relationship was exclusive. I really need to read a non-fiction bio of Wright to see if that is the way things actually were. I know T.C. Boyle recently published a novel called The Women, in which Cheney is only one of several of Wright's paramours. So what is the real deal? Anybody know? Or have suggestions for further reading about this couple?

Reverent Reader

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Go To Book

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
by Barbara Brown Taylor

So far, for 2009, this is the book for deepening the spiritual experience. It is readable, practical, wise, and beautifully written. I have given this book as a gift to a couple of friends already, and foresee giving it to many more. I also gave it as a graduation gift to our congregation's 10 high school seniors a couple of weeks ago. The title is a little misleading - rather than a "geography of faith," I would probably call it something like "Faith in Everyday Experience" or "Finding the Spiritual in the Ordinary." What Barbara Brown Taylor is really getting at is the integration of spiritual practice into the most mundane of tasks - washing dishes, walking, peeling potatoes, reading, writing, whatever.

What appeals to me about An Altar in the World is its accessibility. So many books about spiritual practice imply that we must give up the pleasures of this earth, or that the ordinary (some would say boring) tasks that are required of us every day are obstacles to experiences of the divine presence. Often, books about spiritual practice seem to require that we move off into a tent somewhere and light a candle and forget everything else. Most of us cannot do that. Taylor's perspective, however, is that moments of connection with the divine are ours to be had all the time, everywhere, if we only cultivate our own souls to perceive and receive those moments. That possibility is gift for someone like me who has never been terribly good at the solitary, meditative aspects of the contemplative life.

Taylor structures her book around various spiritual practices, most of which date back to our ancient ancestors in the faith. Rather than coming up with a bunch of newfangled stuff, she is taking us back to our roots, when faith and life were not so compartmentalized. With the right spiritual outlook, our faith can permeate every aspect of our day and night. Potentially, we can find every experience infused with meaning and grace. Some of the chapters in the book include "The Practice of Paying Attention" (one of my favorites), "The Practice of Walking on the Earth," and "The Practice of Living in Community." As someone who is making a conscious effort to live a more integrated life, I found An Altar in the World to be full of smart suggestions as to how to do this in ways that are not completely disruptive to the life of a mom with two young children. Taylor reminds us that people and situations that initially can seem like an obstacle to our contemplative life (kids, talkative strangers, unexpected delays) can actually be opportunities for us to experience more unity with God and with each other. We only have to be looking at situations through the right kind of lenses.

Get it. Read it. Give it to someone else. It's a book that reads easily, but that you will return to again and again.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Paint By Numbers

Handle With Care
by Jodi Picoult

OK, Jodi Picoult can tell a good story, and I give her credit for tackling serious issues in a way that is readable and humanizing. But seriously, she needs to move out of her comfort zone a wee bit. I have read about five of her novels now, and they all go the same way. Here's her basic outline:

I) Family trouble, usually of a medical/legal nature
II) Period of uncertainty wherein major characters align and dis align according to the unfolding of the presenting problem.
III) Legal trial
IV) Some strange twist in the trial, supposed to be a surprise. However, now that she has done this so many times, it fails to be much of a surprise.
V) Ambiguous resolution

In addition to this basic format, there is always some bizarre connection between major characters that would hardly ever happen in real life. In Handle With Care, for example, a woman sues her obstetrician for malpractice because the OB failed to diagnose a case of osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) in time for her to terminate her pregnancy. The connection is that the plaintiff and the defendant are "best friends," which I never could fully buy. I just don't think someone could sue their best friend for malpractice and then be surprised when that physician does not want to be her friend anymore.

Another piece of a Picoult book is that there is usually a side plot involving a vaguely troubled female attorney working out some issue of her own. Often, this situation gets resolved when the female attorney finds her own true love. Always a smooth, good-looking guy. Of course.

Picoult's novels are full of pop culture references that are fun right now, but will date them within a decade or so. She must be doing something right, because she cranks out runaway bestsellers. The books are entertaining, and she does gently force her readers to confront their opinions on various issues of medical ethics. She certainly does her homework - the issues she raises are well-researched. However, she is getting less entertaining with every subsequent book because she is so formulaic. I think she has enough talent that she could experiment with plot and character more and people would stick with her. Maybe she thinks if something is working why mess with it, and one can hardly blame her for that. I believe, though, that people will start to get bored with her work if she does not. I, for one, have already.

Reverent Reader