Tuesday, December 15, 2009

True Love Knows No Boundaries

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

If you are looking for a book that will restore your faith in the power of love to overcome barriers of hatred and mistrust, this is one you will not want to miss. Ford's writing style is low-key and fairly undramatic, but its spareness somehow works to convey the intensity of the character's emotions in a powerful way. I had a sense that Ford was holding back, intentionally not writing in the emotional style that we Americans are used to - after all, he was writing about two very reserved cultures. He does a good job in his writing of conveying how young people in the Japanese and Chinese cultures were expected to respect and obey their elders without question, and thus ended up stuffing a lot of their emotions inside.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is set in both the World War II era and in the mid-1990s, as an aging man looks back on his life and wonders what happened to his first love. As children on the verge of adolescence, Henry and Keiko are pulled between the enmity of their people (Henry is Chinese and Keiko is Japanese) and the alliance that develops between them as the only Asian kids at their school. Keiko is mercilessly mocked by the other students after Pearl Harbor. Since no one bothers to get to know Henry, they assume he is Japanese as well and are just as cruel to him. Henry and Keiko become friends as they defend each other from the taunts and occasional physical threats of their classmates.

Henry is heartbroken when Keiko's family is forced to move to an internment camp, and he keeps in touch with her for awhile. However, his controlling, Japan-hating father intervenes to put an end to the relationship. Both characters move on with their lives, but neither forgets the other.

I won't say any more about the plot, because I do not want to be a "spoiler." This is more than a typical romance novel - romance is certainly a part of it, as we see in the tender gestures that Henry and Keiko each make toward the other as they enter their teenage years. The novel also speaks a truth about the power of love beyond the initial giddy romantic feelings. Commitment and steadfastness are the factors that make love last, and the reader will be cheering for Henry and Keiko to find each other and find that happiness again.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, December 10, 2009

All Viewpoints Present

by Richard North Patterson

If you pick up Exile and read the first couple of chapters, you may be tempted to write it off as an "airport thriller," the term my husband and I use for the types of books that used to be available in airports. Not the highest quality of material - something you could plow through on a long flight or an afternoon on the beach and then promptly forget. Really that is no longer true in airports - some of them have great bookstores, and I end up adding a couple to my carry-on while I am browsing and waiting for my plane. Having said that, Exile initially feels like literary junk food, and I thought I would tire of it long before I reached the end.

I still would not place Patterson in the ranks of the great prose magicians of our time, but his book has more depth than I initially gave it credit for. It is not one that I normally would have picked up, but it was recommended for our group that traveled to Israel. I took it with me to read on the plane (but I did not buy it in the airport! I got it used on Amazon.com for a penny!). Exile is about a nominally American Jewish lawyer and political hopeful (David) who is asked by his former lover Hana Arif (who happens to be Palestinian) to defend her when she is accused of assassinating the Israeli Prime Minister. The Prime Minister character clearly is modeled on Yitzhak Rabin - he is someone who is trying to find a way to peace in Israel, much to the chagrin of both Israeli and Palestinian extremists. The jurisdiction of the case is complicated by the detail that the murder takes place in San Francisco.

Much of the book unfolds like a typical detective/trial story, and those parts dragged a bit for me. The book's great strength is that it s clear that Patterson has done his homework. He delves deeply into the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and develops believable characters who integrate all perspectives into the narrative in a very natural way. There was not much of the educational part of the story that was new to me, as I have read quite a bit about the Middle East, but Patterson's book would be a place for a beginner to start. Sometimes the academic works on Israel/Palestine take the human tragedy out of the picture and only focus on policy. Patterson was able to provide a lot of content while keeping a human face on both sides.

I found the ending of Exile unsatisfying, but maybe that is the point. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who may be interested in reading it, so I will just say that there were enough ambiguities left to make the reader wonder if the situation would ever be resolved in a satisfactory way. Kind of like Israel/Palestine and her ongoing struggle for security and justice.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Just Wait

The Meaning Is in the Waiting
by Paula Gooder

As we move through Advent, I have been making an effort to be intentional about how I observe the season this year. My problem is that I preach and believe a message of "slow down, contemplate, listen for the voice of the Spirit, make room in your heart for the birth of Christ," but those words get crowded out in my own life by the busyness of this time at work. There are extra worship services to be planned (and extra bulletins to be written and printed), special activities, and usually some pastoral care situations that are made all the more intense by their juxtaposition with the season of merriment.

Then there are the personal, family activities - decorating the tree and the house, the baking, shopping, wrapping, etc. The issue is, I love all these parts of the season. For four weeks a year, I am a Christmas junkie. I WANT to have time for prayer and writing and reflecting, but so often find that these disciplines get crowded out by the activity. The season of waiting becomes the season of hurry up. I can do my best to do all these things with a calm and unhurried spirit, and that does help. But, that only gets us so far - at some point it becomes too much, and Advent has passed in a blur and we wonder where it went. We might be "ready" for Christmas in that our gifts are wrapped and delivered and the festive food is prepared, but we are not spiritually prepared. I am sure I am not the only one with this problem.

So this year I'm doing things a little differently. I have dropped a couple of major holiday season projects and am trying to focus on mental and spiritual preparation. The Meaning is in the Waiting is helping me with this. Gooder's book looks at waiting as a spiritual discipline, and reminds us why we need to wait for Jesus' birth, contemplating its meaning, before we jump into the celebrations. She looks at the waiting that took place in the lives of Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary. The book is strengthened by her extensive knowledge of not just the Bible, but also of biblical history. Gooder ties the threads of this common theme of waiting together in an articulate and meaningful way.

The Meaning Is in the Waiting is a great resource for Advent, and I find it is helping me keep my own "freneticness" at bay. I have already used it in one of my Advent sermons, and have some ideas for ways that some of Gooder's more poetic passages could be woven into a liturgy for our Advent wreath lighting next year. Read this one if you are seeking to deepen your Advent experience this year.

The book's title comes from a poem by R.S. Thomas titled "Kneeling." Google it. You'll be glad you did.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Feelings...Nothing More than Feelings

The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World
by Dominique Moisi

First of all, my title for this post is hyperbolic. Of course geopolitics is about more than how people "feel" about each other, but Moisi makes a strong case for the truth that we ignore the emotions of a people at our peril. To think that people and nations form and break relationships with each other only on the basis of policy, culture, and economics does not tell the whole story. Human beings are creatures of emotion, and (whether we realize it or not), our attitudes toward other nations or large groups of people who are different from us are affected by our most visceral feelings and emotional reactions. Individuals at the highest levels of diplomacy, as well as ordinary people living in a diverse society, would do well to remember the importance of emotion in our interactions with each other.

Moisi focuses on three emotions that are prevalent in our world today: hope, fear, and humiliation. He writes that "the reason I have chosen these three emotions is that they are closely linked to the notion of confidence, which is the defining factor in how nations and people address the challenges they face as well as how they relate to one another." He looks at different nations with a preponderance of one of these emotions and describes how that particular emotion is affecting their political, economic, and diplomatic behaviors. Two countries that are experiencing a great deal of hope at this point are India and China, largely because they are becoming much more significant players on the worldwide economic scene. Many countries in the Islamic world, including Iran and Pakistan and Afghanistan, have experienced such humiliation in recent decades that their relations with "first world" countries are clouded by these experiences. Surprisingly for some, the United States, Japan, and France are countries that are fearful at this time, as they face having to share the prime spots on the world stage with more ascendant nations.

Moisi ends his book with some hopeful ideas for what can be done to repair tense and fractured relationships in the world. Because he is French, he can offer advice to the United States (at least to some of us) without having his own patriotism questioned. It helps, I think, if we can at least be aware that emotions are a factor in all relationships, from the simplest (dealing with the fewest number of people) to the most complex (those between cultures and/or nations). I also would love to see a study done on the tie-ins between spirituality and emotion, because these two are so interconnected that one surely must influence the other in ways that we are only beginning to grasp.

I close with a quote from the book that makes a great deal of sense to me: "The interdependent, integrated world in which we live is simply too difficult to grasp and understand fully. It is a question of both quantity and quality: We humans have never been simultaneously so numerous, so diverse, and so varied in our lifestyles, values, and circumstances. It is tempting to try to escape such complexity by simply choosing to ignore it. Hence the appeal of fundamentalist religions and extreme ideologies, both of which reduce the world's complexity to the simplicity of slogans, catchphrases, and inflexible commands." God help us all, and may we teach our children to move from fear of "the other" to tolerance and even love and respect.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, December 3, 2009

That Old Russo Magic

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo

This guy just does it over and over again. I was first enchanted by his book Nobody's Fool in the early 1990s, and have read everything he has written since. He is just a wonderful writer, with observations about the human condition that are dead on. His comic scenes are hilarious without being slapstick, and his tragic ones can bring you to tears.

At its most basic level, That Old Cape Magic takes us into the heart and mind of a lonely little boy who feels like a stranger in his own household. As a grown man (the story is told largely through flashbacks), he grapples with the alienation he felt (and continues to feel) from his parents, while at the same time longing to understand them and feel connected in some way. The story also is about the roads not taken and the regrets that we may have in hindsight while at the same time gaining an appreciation for the gifts and graces that HAVE occurred due to the roads that we DID take. It is about a marriage that is faltering and (for a change) two people who care enough to patch it up.

The story also is indicative of the power of place in one's spiritual and emotional well-being, but also how we have to make an effort to cultivate our own well being even when we are not in our "best" geographic place. The main character (Griffin) is the child of parents who had an awful marriage, one characterized by infidelity, constant cutting remarks towards each other, and eventually divorce. Both of these people are truly morally and spiritually bankrupt. The only place where this couple felt happy together was on Cape Cod. Griffin looked forward to their summer visits there as the best times of his childhood. Later, of course, he came to realize that even the beach visits were plagued by his parents' problems. While it is true that they loved the Cape, they also wouldn't let themselves be happy anywhere else. Even their love for the Cape was clouded by their bitterness that they could not afford to buy their own home there and live there permanently.

That Old Cape Magic does not have the emotional impact of Empire Falls or the gut-splitting humor of Straight Man, but it is a wonderful book just the same. It is more understated than some of Russo's work, but takes us inside the sorrows and joys, regrets and thanksgivings, that people develop when they have decided to go the distance together. If you are a Russo fan, read it - you won't be disappointed. If you are not, this latest of his novels is a good place to start.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who Are We?

One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life, a Story of Race and Family Secrets
by Bliss Broyard

The author of this book was interviewed on NPR a couple of years ago, and I was immediately interested in her story. Bliss Broyard's father was a nationally known literary critic, Anatole Broyard. Shortly before he died in the early 1990s, Bliss and her brother learned that her father was not of Italian descent, as he had always claimed. It turned out that he was part black, that his family was descended from New Orleans Creoles. His heritage was mixed, and her extended family turned out to be a diverse bunch with skin tones as varied as the proverbial rainbow. Bliss Broyard was not upset about her father's race, but she was bothered that he had hidden this truth from his children. One Drop is the story of her tracing her family history, meeting many of her father's relatives, and discovering more of her own identity in the process.

The most interesting parts of One Drop to me were the explorations of the Broyard family's past - she had to do a lot of detective work to figure out the complicated history of the family and how her father got the coloration that was ambiguous enough to allow him to "pass." Broyard also effectively explores the phenomenon of passing - when a "black" person slips unnoticed into the "white" world, usually leaving behind friends and family. Anatole Broyard effectively cut himself off from his entire extended family and had only sporadic, clandestine contact with his family of origin. In making the decision to cross over, he effectively deprived his children of the gift of family. Bliss Broyard's examinations of race relations in America, especially before the Civil Rights movement, cover ground that has been covered many times before. The information is no less wrenching, but it was not new to me. The book's great strength is its exploration of how much race plays into a person's identity. Broyard also effectively raises the question of how much we can ever really know about another person, if that person chooses to hide major pieces of who they are, be it race, sexual orientation, or any other piece of our makeup as a human being.

Her scrutiny of her father's public and private lives in many ways left his daughter with more questions. If he was Creole, didn't that make her part Creole as well? Was it too late to embrace that part of her heritage? How could she do so without seeming like a poser? She also learned that a number of her father's close friends and colleagues had known about his racial identity, and it troubled her that he had felt freer to share that part of himself with them but not his children. Some of One Drop got a little tedious, but overall I thought it was a thoughtful, touching, honest look at the question "Who are we?"

Clearly, Anatole Broyard was a complicated person, and his struggles with racial identity were likely all the more stressful because during his lifetime he was a well known public persona. But anyone could face these questions - how much of who we are is our ethnic background? What exactly IS race when the lines are so blurry that some people cross them several times during their lifetime? Will we reach a time when race is not even a factor in someone's identity because we are all so mixed? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing for us all to be so racially intertwined that we do not have a sense of distinct groups anymore? I do not have answers to these questions, but I am grateful to Bliss Broyard for raising them.

One of Bliss's aunts, when Bliss was struggling with the question of who she was, responded "You're Bliss. That's it. That's all." I would disagree - that is not all there is to it. In the midst of all these ambiguities and questions about who we are, we can all take comfort in WHOSE we are. We all belong to God, and I pray the day will come when we treat each other as such, so people like Anatole Broyard do not feel they have to hide.

Reverent Reader