Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Get a Grip, Girl

Home Safe
by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg is a wonderful writer - she has some turns of phrase that are breathtaking. However, this is not her best work. Home Safe is a pretty good story, but the problem is that I found the main character really irritating. Helen is a writer whose husband, Dan, has died unexpectedly. A year after his death, she is still mired in the loss. Now, I know that I would still be grieving a year after losing my spouse, but Helen comes across as someone who misses her husband as a handyman and person who took care of her more than as a person, friend, or companion. At one point she recalls her Dan saying to her "Do I have to do everything?" Perfectly seriously, she responds "Yes." She believes that as an artist she brings her imagination to the relationship, and that he should be responsible for everything else (household repairs, finances, etc.). Barf.

I know that there are divisions of labor in any household, and there are things that E. takes primary responsibility for - lots of them (E., darling, let me officially thank you for all you do). But geez I hope if something happened to E. (God forbid) I would pull myself together and not let my house, career, and family fall into decay. I know that for the sake of our children E. would do his best to carry on if I were to suddenly disappear. Maybe I am unsympathetic, and I certainly acknowledge that there is lots I don't know about home maintenance, but this woman has trouble even calling a repair person. Makes me want to shake her. She also seems really whiny, hardly a quality that endears the reader to her problems. I also get irritated with her husband (in the flashbacks of their relationship) for putting up with her infantile behavior. He's not doing her any favors, which is shown by her downward spiral after he dies.

Loss is an inevitable part of life, especially when we invest ourselves heavily in the relationships that are most important to us. Berg does a good job of painting a picture of deep love and trust between Dan and Helen. I know that people grieve differently and cope differently with the difficult times of life. Perhaps I should not judge Helen until I have walked a mile in her shoes, which I pray is not for a very long time.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Quest

The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
by Tim Gallagher

"The earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it...(Psalm 24:1)." That was the verse that kept circling through my head as I read this fascinating story of a few ornithologists who continued to seek proof of the existence of a beautiful, rare bird that most scientists had believed dead for more than half a century. Ivory-billed woodpeckers lived at one time in the deeply forested areas of the American south. They feasted off the larvae and grub worms found in the bark of trees. Most of us know the story of how their habitat was decimated by the logging industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I read stories or articles like this, I get sad. Most of these situations of extinction could have been prevented if industry had just exercised a little restraint and carried out their operations in a more sustainable way.

Nevertheless, there were rumored sightings of the ivory bill now and then from the 1940s through the 1970s. The scientific community was dismissive of these claims, usually assuming that the birder who spotted the ivory-bill had actually seen a pileated woodpecker (which is similar to an ivory-bill but with some obvious differences that an expert birder would notice). Even distinguished ornithologists who thought they had spotted one were usually laughed at, and their peers would start thinking that they were crackpots. One can see how someone would become reluctant to make a claim of having seen one if it would be detrimental to his/her career. Ivory bill sightings came to have about as much credibility as sightings of Bigfoot or Elvis.

Nevertheless, there was a small group of bird enthusiasts who still believed in the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. This small community put themselves through a tremendous amount of discomfort, gave up a lot of time, and incurred quite a bit of personal expense to follow up on rumors of ivory-bill sightings. Finally, in 2005, their efforts bore fruit. Gallagher and several of his credible colleagues finally spotted the bird deep in the swampy forests of Arkansas. The emotion that they describe when they finally saw this rare and magnificent creature is very moving.

Gallagher, who works for Cornell University editing their bird magazine, was able to get the resources and staff of the Cornell Ornithology Lab to get behind the search, and eventually they gathered enough visual and acoustic evidence to release the information to the public that at least a small number of ivory-bills still exists. The scientists had mixed feelings about this information getting out - they knew that it was important that people know the bird is still around, but they were concerned for the safety of the few that remain if thousands of birdwatchers descended on their habitat in hopes of seeing one. So far, the birding community (while thrilled that the species may yet survive) has been fairly measured in its response, and has not overwhelmed the forest searching for the ivory-bills.

Sometimes we get a second chance, an opportunity to make things right. It is still uncertain that there are enough ivory-billed woodpeckers remaining to form a viable breeding population. But if we can hold ourselves back and not chop down every tree and drain every swamp in existence, the bird and thousands of other endangered species will at least have a chance to survive. I am not some Luddite who thinks we should all go back to living in caves, but I do think we can do better. If we applied our intellect and creativity to preserving our planet and harvesting the world's resources in a way that allows all of creation to thrive, I have to believe that we would be inching closer to God's hopes for us.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Sundays in America: A Year Long Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
by Suzanne Strempek Shea

This one of those books that I thought sounded really engaging and interesting, and I looked forward to reading it for several months. I had read Shea's memoir of working in a bookstore (titled Shelf Life) and enjoyed it a lot. However, Sundays in America falls short of the mark. It's not that the book is so bad, it's just that it could be so much better. She undertook an interesting project. She visited a different congregation every Sunday for a year. She had grown up Catholic and had it drilled into her that all other congregations were going to hell. She decided to see for herself what the similarities and differences were between a variety of congregations and the faith that she remembered from childhood.

Sundays in America is, frankly, boring. Now right here might be the place where you expect me to go off on a big rant along the lines of "Well OF COURSE it's boring because CHURCH is so BORING and that is why we don't have any young people and we are all circling the drain....blah blah blah." I don't think church is boring although I can see where some people would. The problem with Shea's book is that she spends way too much time describing the physical space of each congregation she visited, as well as the demographics of each group ("Of the 54 adults present, 47 are White, 3 are Asian, 3 are African-American, and 1 is Hispanic. There are six children between the ages of 4 and 10, and three bored looking teens slumped on the back row.") Seriously, I think every chapter had some version of this sentence, and after the first few my eyes started to glaze over. I suppose the information is important, but there has to be a better way to present it - maybe a simple graph at the beginning or end of each chapter. Likewise with the lengthy descriptions of each congregation's worship space - yawn. She needs to change it up a bit.

I am more interested in how a congregation feels to the person visiting. Are the people friendly? What is the predominant theology? Are all types of people made to feel welcome, or just certain ones? It would be unfair to say that Shea does not address any of these questions, because she does. It just seems that her emphasis is more on the visual and quantifiable. I wondered if she was uncomfortable delving too deeply into the theology and stayed on safer ground that was less open to debate or interpretation.

Shea does make some astute observations along the way, and she visited some interesting places. She visited Joel Osteen's church in Houston and Rick Warren's in California. She experienced a wide range of faith traditions, including Church of the Brethren, Quaker, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, and Episcopalian. The only Presbyterian Church that she visited was a PCA congregation that was founded in 2006 in the Gulf Coast area to help with the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. However, the denominational background that she gave for the congregation was PCUSA. Somehow she had missed that the PCA group is separate from the PCUSA - and very different. That was disappointing for a Presbyterian reader.

Shea seems like she could be a kindred spirit, because a lot of the things that turned her off about certain congregations are the same things that would make me head for the door. She is uncomfortable with exclusion, especially the congregations who constantly grind the anti-homosexual axe. She responded most positively to the congregations that were diverse in terms of race and socioeconomic levels, and that put forth a message of hope and forgiveness. She quickly recognized that the sermon that Joel Osteen gave (the topic was weight loss) was theologically thin. So there was much potential here for a stimulating read, but it lacked a certain something that I can't quite name. It also was way short on humor. A sense of humor would have helped a lot in some of the situations in which she found herself. Still, I give her credit for undertaking such a project and for keeping an open mind throughout. She approached all congregations and traditions with respect and a genuine desire to engage - this is important since so many people are so dug in to the way they have always thought and believed. Her willingness to consider other alternatives is to be commended.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Big Fat Read

The Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett

This is one of my favorite types of books - a great big story that covers several decades and which the reader can just sink into and get lost in for a couple of weeks. I read this on our vacation the last two weeks of July and was completely absorbed. I had never read any Ken Follett - he is normally a thriller writer - but this book had received so much acclaim that I was curious about it. It would hardly qualify as your basic forgettable airport page turner, but in my opinion it is much better. There is enough action and excitement to keep things moving, but also lots of interesting writing about architecture, monastic life, and church history.

There are times in our post modern society that I get irritated with organized religion. I believe that we are too quick to capitulate to cultural pressures and not courageous enough when it comes to repairing societal inequities. However, one only needs to read The Pillars of the Earth to appreciate how far we have come. The corruption and hubris of some of the medieval bishops and higher church officers is just astounding. I have read enough church history to know that although this is a work of fiction, the self promotion and downright evil of some of the leaders in the church during that period of time was all too real.

I was struck by the hypocrisy of the 12-century church. Bishops would court kings for their own gain, and would conspire in murders and other brutality to advance their own agenda. By contrast, the laws for common people were terribly rigid, and the theology centered around an angry God who was quick to punish and slow to forgive. Clearly, such a theology was a way of controlling people's lives and forcing them to conform to the church's view of how the world ought to be. The Pillars of the Earth is set about three centuries before the Reformation, so there was still a lot of waking up to be done before people could start to determine some of their own beliefs and practices.

The Pillars of the Earth made me think about heavy subjects, but it is extremely readable and entertaining. I loved the discussion of architecture as an art form, and the way the early cathedrals were built to focus people on the heavens. Whenever you are looking for a book that you can sink into and immerse yourself in for several days, consider picking this one up. You will not regret it.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rio Roosevelt

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
by Candice Millard

There were several key words and phrases that rolled through my mind as I read The River of Doubt. These phrases included the following: "Yikes!" "Holy %^$##! and "Shudder." There were also frequent variations on the theme "There is no way I would do that in a million years." If you read (and enjoyed) Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, which was about the Lewis and Clark expedition, chances are you will like The River of Doubt. I have always found Theodore Roosevelt to be a fascinating figure, so I was drawn to this book.

The River of Doubt (renamed the Rio Roosevelt after the famous expedition described in the book) is a major tributary of the Amazon river and it runs nearly 1,000 miles through Brazil in the Amazonian rain forest. T. Roosevelt loved to physically challenge himself, and he also was an amateur (but quite accomplished) botanist and ornithologist. He loved to travel in previously unexplored places, have a part in discovering new species of plant and animal life, and see places that no human had seen before. Those are all admirable things to do, but the expedition on the River of Doubt nearly proved too much for him. In fact, Roosevelt's health never fully recovered and he died just five years after the trip.

The River of Doubt describes the trip from the moment a much tamer version of it was conceived in the mind of the curator of the American Museum of Natural History, Frank Chapman. Millard acquaints us with the major players who planned the trip, and the mistakes that led to its near tragic outcome. The scientists and wilderness "experts" were operating sight unseen and really had no idea what they were getting into. Plus, they were acutely conscious that they would be traveling with a former President of the United States. They thought that TR would be accustomed to traveling in a luxurious, lavish style and they brought along many items that were impractical and ended up getting left in the jungle as they men kept having to lighten their loads.

The River of Doubt is absolutely harrowing. The expedition slogged nearly 1,000 miles, often progressing as little as 3 or 4 miles a day, facing dangers all the time. On a daily basis they dealt with terrifying rapids, a real possibility of starvation, untold number of insects, poisonous snakes and other creatures, and the constant threat attack from indigenous Indians. Most of the men suffered from malaria for most or all of the trip. At one point, Roosevelt suffered a crippling leg injury and he discussed with his son Kermit his plan to commit suicide rather than slow down the group's progress. He knew their food rations were running out and any delay could be fatal. My brief description cannot do justice to all that these men endured. Three men in the group died on the trip, including one who was murdered by another crew member. Roosevelt himself very nearly did not survive.

As a reader, I found myself asking "Why would anyone put themselves through that?" I certainly wouldn't. Apparently there are people for whom wanderlust is so strong that they are willing to risk their own lives to see and experience new places. The River of Doubt is a thrilling story. The descriptions of some of the most remote places in the world are breathtaking. I wonder, though, if the sacrifice in lives and health was worth it. Not only did Roosevelt come back from the trip an old and broken man, but his son Kermit (who went on the trip to try to protect his father from harm) descended into alcoholism and eventually committed suicide. If that happened now, he would probably be diagnosed with PTSD.

The River of Doubt has whetted my curiosity about TR even more. I'm going to have to eventually read a broader biography of him to get a greater sense of who he was. I know there are several major books out there about him. Anyone have any recommendations?

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Deadly Couch Potato Bug

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
by Kathleen Norris

It was only about a year ago that I learned about the spiritual condition known as acedia. The desert monks of the first few centuries knew all about it, but for reasons that Norris articulates in her book, acknowledgment of acedia and frank discussion of it went out of fashion for several hundred years. Acedia is loosely identified with the "deadly sin" of sloth. Formal definitions go on and on, but some of the common ones are listlessness, apathy, despondence, indolence, and (for me the scariest one of all) an inability to care.

A fellow writer, when Norris admitted that she was writing a book about acedia, said to her "when you take on acedia you have taken on the devil himself." The descriptions that Norris writes of acedia, and the personal examples taken from her own life of when she has struggled with it, are helpful in illuminating the characteristics of this temptation. However, even though Norris devotes a lot of words to describing the spiritual condition/temptation of acedia and how it differs from the clinical illness of depression, I still found it difficult to distinguish between the two. While I understand that acedia can be combated with prayer and scripture and physical activity, I would want to be very careful about implying that someone who is coping with mental illness is succumbing to sin and should just pray his/her way out of it.

Norris herself acknowledges this slippery slope, and is clear that psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs help a multitude of people who are coping with depression. She also raises the possibilities that we are too quick to medicate, that some people who believe themselves to be depressed may really be overcome by acedia, or that their depression is a result of their acedia. For me the book's primary strength was its reminding the reader that there are resources available to help us through gloomy times that are right at our fingertips: psalms, hymns, consistent prayer, journaling, and other monastic disciplines. These practices, possibly undertaken in conjunction with medical assistance if necessary, can go a long way toward helping someone move from an inert state (both spiritually and physically).

This is not Kathleen Norris's best book. She has clearly done years of research on the topic, and really knows her stuff. However, there are places in the book where several pages read like an endless string of quotes from Evagrius, St. John of the Cross, and other early monastics. I appreciate that Norris has done her homework, and a few quotes to back up her points are fine. But she is a persuasive enough writer in her own right, she does not need to back herself up with every word ever written on acedia. The final chapter, consisting only of quotes and definitions of acedia, is repetitive and feels like a weak finish.

Nevertheless, there is good information to be mined here. Norris's candor is refreshing and her perspective as someone who struggles with acedia but who has come to the other side of it many times is hopeful. Reading Kathleen Norris always helps me be more consistent in my own practices and disciplines, and inspires me to nurture my own inner poet. If you have never read her, you really should, but I would recommend starting with Dakota or Amazing Grace.

Reverent Reader

Friday, August 7, 2009

She Rocks

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President
by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

I'm trying to figure out when/how I could get to Liberia and if I could get a meeting with this extraordinary woman. She is truly charismatic, and I would love to meet her sometime. Not only is her book a compelling account of her own life, it is a helpfully concise history of Liberia. She takes the reader on a journey that reveals the heritage of tension and strife culminating in 14 years of disastrous civil war beginning in 1989 (as well as an earlier bloody period beginning when Samuel Doe assassinated President William Tolbert in 1980). The fraudulently elected Charles Taylor (a dictator, really) was removed as President in 2003 with the help of the United Nations, and Sirleaf was elected President in 2005 in the first truly democratic elections ever in Liberia.

Sirleaf writes with a lot of humility (and even occasional gentle humor) about her rise to posts of prestige in the Liberian government, her American education, and her eventual speaking out against corruption and nepotism in the Liberian government. She spoke against the brutal leaders Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor at tremendous risk to her own life. These guys were not messing around - hundreds of people were executed for "treason"and "sedition" during those horrible years. There was virtually no rule of law to protect dissenters. She still is not sure what saved her from the same fate (and at times it looked as if death was surely coming for her), except the providence of God. I think "Mama Sirleaf," as she is called in Liberia, is a prophet for our time.

Having said that, she made her share of mistakes along the way. It seems that her deepest regret is that she cautiously supported both Doe and Taylor when they initially seized power. In both cases, she thought they would be better than their predecessors and she was willing to overlook that they had been part of assassinations to gain power for themselves. It makes me respect her more that she acknowledges her regret about those mistakes in her book. A Liberian friend tells me that she has also publicly apologized to the Liberian people for her unintentional part in bringing about what they call "the dark years." Perhaps the mark of true leadership is the ability to admit mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

I hope and pray that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf can help Liberia turn things around and become a peaceful, productive land. She certainly seems to have the will, the energy, and the faith for the task. Most press accounts indicate that she also has the support and goodwill of the Liberian people behind her. She and Liberia and all its people deserve our prayers and support. This is a moving, inspiring book that helps the reader understand not just the situation on the ground in Liberia, but in all of West Africa as well.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Utterly Forgettable

The Year of Fog
by Michelle Richmond

OK, surely every parent can identify with the panic of not being able to find your child, even for a few seconds. I have a distinct memory of "losing" Samuel in the National Museum of the American Indian. He was hiding behind a sculpture, and it was only for a few seconds (seemed much longer), but it was an awful feeling. The Year of Fog deals with this nightmare in a situation of child abduction. This is not a bad story, and you will want this family to be reunited, but this territory has been covered much better in Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean.

There is also a ring of Jane Smiley's A Map of the World here, because the person who loses the child is not her mother - it is her soon to be stepmother, her father's fiancee. In A Map of the World, a woman accidentally lets the child of her best friend drown. In both cases, the person who was watching the child feels awful guilt and shame about having made such an egregious mistake, and understandably so. Again, though, Smiley's book is far better than The Year of Fog.

The book raised a question for me, though. Abby, the fiancee who is watching the child, Emma, berates herself to no end for looking away from Emma (the child) for just a few seconds to snap a picture. In that tiny span of time, the little girl disappears. That would be awful, there is no doubt. But what kind of expectations are we setting up for ourselves as parents if we are expected to NEVER take our eyes off our children? I am a pretty vigilant mommy, but have witnessed and been part of enough playground scrapes, lighting quick disappearances (and findings), and the occasional more serious injury to realize that things can happen in literally the blink of an eye. Do we let that make us always fearful? Do we lock our kids in the house and never let them go anywhere "dangerous" or have any new experiences? I don't think so. We have to find the balance between appropriate attention and attentiveness to our kids and letting them stretch themselves a bit, even if that involves some risk. I did not sense that balance in The Year of Fog. Abby just condemns herself (and her fiance does too, although he makes an effort not to) for turning her head. That sets up an expectation that none of us can reach, and I'm not sure that we should.

Also, the extended photography metaphors and the intertwined psychological theory on memory were both overdone in this book. It just got really old - I wanted to say "OK, OK, I GET IT!"

Even though I have read and liked other novels (see above) that deal with variations on this same topic, that was years ago. To be fair, I may have had a bias against this book from the beginning that I think has to do with being a mom myself now. When I read A Map of the World (in the late 90s), I had no children yet. I could appreciate the work for the fine piece of writing that it was, but keep a distance from the horror of the topic. That is no longer possible. I think losing one of my sweet boys to death or kidnapping would be more than I could bear. So, not sure I will be seeking out these types of books anymore. It's just too frightening, and there is enough to be scared of in the non-fiction world around us.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Let Freedom Ring

by Garrison Keillor

Hello, reading, blogging, blog-reading friends! After two weeks away, it is nice to be finding the groove again of working, reading, hanging out with the fam, and of course blogging. We had a week in North Carolina visiting family (which included a two day getaway for E. and I to celebrate our 9th anniversary alone!), then a week of "staycation" here at home. We did lots of fun things that we don't normally get to do when all caught up in the busyness of daily life. We went to the International Spy Museum, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Imagination Stage, Brookside Gardens, and Woodley Gardens Park. We also had a picnic with family members who came through town and stayed overnight. All in all, a relaxing time!

Needless to say, I am frightfully behind on the blog, so stay tuned over the next few days as I try to catch up. I read Liberty over 4th of July weekend, which shows that I am exactly a month behind on my posts. Liberty was a good choice for that holiday weekend and in fact I had saved it for just that occasion, because it is about the 4th of July festivities in a small Midwestern town.

Liberty is raucous, fun, and witty - vintage Garrison Keillor. It has a lot of small town humor and no one is spared Keillor's gentle ribbing. Lutherans, Norwegians, Latinos, Republicans, Democrats, you name it. Everyone is fair game for Keillor's observations and insights, which is as it should be. Equal opportunity busting keeps the book from being mean spirited. Keillor also has a keen eye for local absurdities - his book is true enough to be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town and absurd enough to be just beyond what really might happen. However, E. read it and was sure that "cow-pie bingo" was a made up game. I assured him it is not, for I have seen it played. Don't ask.

There is nothing in Liberty that is going to change the intellectual history of our nation, but sometimes we just need a good laugh. Keillor provides that. Moreover, the message at the end of the book (although it takes awhile to get there) is that what matters most are family, friends, and looking out for each other. Amen to that.

Reverent Reader