Wednesday, March 31, 2010

High Stakes


Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Whichever politician you like, you will read this and find the squeaky clean image that you have of that person just a wee bit tarnished. Whichever ones you vilify, you will find plenty here to back up your claims. Game Change is an inside look at the Democratic primary race and the subsequent General Election of 2008. Heilemann and Halperin both covered the election closely at the time, and believed they had enough material to publish a fair, accurate inside account of the race. They have done a reasonably good job of that, without doing a total hatchet job on anyone. Rumor has it that these two already have a contract to write a similar book after the 2012 election cycle.

Game Change is an interesting and juicy read, but there is little here about the issues that we all are concerned with - war, education, economics, health care, etc. It is mostly about the political process itself, and the way all campaigns spin themselves to the media. Even a candidate who makes a sincere effort to conduct an honorable and disciplined campaign gets sucked into the maelstrom of parsing each other to the nth degree. It gets tedious, and (worse) it distracts from the issues themselves. Sometimes Game Change made it seem that the candidates and their staffs sit around at television monitors, just waiting for their opponent to make some stupid gaffe. When that inevitably happens ("Barack Obama will be tested by terrorists early in his term..." "People get bitter and cling to guns and religion to make themselves feel better..." OR, more recently "blue-blooded Americans..."), the other side jumps on it and makes whatever hay they can, often twisting the words and taking them out of context to make the problem even worse. This tactic has been used for a long time, and is not helpful. It brings out the worst in the candidates instead of the best. Except for having a biracial presidential candidate and a woman vice-presidential candidate, I'm not sure the game really changed much at all in 2008. Maybe next time.

What bugs me is, it's NOT a game. The winners of any election make decisions that affect lives other than their own. A president's decisions potentially affect people across the world. Yet we allow the candidates to waste time trying to paint their opponent as an elitist or a hippie or a redneck or whatever they think the electorate will find the most offensive. There is added bonus if you can dig up some dirt on a candidate's spouse, child, or other family members. I believe that this style of election plays some role in the ugly vitriol we are seeing in public life right now. If elections are won on this kind of behaviour, why should we expect elected officials to behave any better once they are in office? We can do better than this.

Reverent Reader

Friday, March 26, 2010

People Are Complicated


American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham

I had to talk myself into reading this. Frankly, Andrew Jackson has never been my favorite president. He still isn't, but American Lion is nonetheless worth reading. I had an image of Jackson in my head as the "Indian Removal President." He did force untold numbers of Indians to migrate west, leading to the deaths of thousands and social repercussions that we are still feeling today. He also, though, adopted an Indian orphan and raised him as his own son. He was mercurial and manipulative with his closest family members, but also loyal and warmhearted. He was an unapologetic slaveholder, but loved the Union and fought to preserve it. The qualities and flaws that put together a private person also had great influence on his political life. American Lion introduces us to a man of many facets, reminding us that seldom is a person all good or all bad.

If nothing else, Meacham has provided a slice of American history that helps us understand the context of the Civil War (Jackson was elected in 1828), and the tensions that simmered for decades before it actually came to armed conflict. We get vivid portraits of men like Henry Clay and John Calhoun who never were elected President but who had more influence in shaping our nation than several of the less charismatic men who occupied the White House. Jackson's skillful working with this wide variety of people, and his defiance when threatened, show us a man of uncommon courage and conviction, whether we agree with his positions or not. He also was smart - not the rube that history has often made him out to be.

Jackson's personal life was not without loss and sorrow. Partially due to the Revolutionary War, he was totally alone in the world by age 14. When he met the woman who was to become his wife, Rachel Donelson, she was already married to someone else. Her reputation never fully recovered from the scandal of her divorce and subsequent marriage to Jackson, and he defended her honor throughout their married life. Rachel died just a few weeks after Jackson was elected President, before they made the move from Tennessee to Washington D.C. Jackson and Rachel were never able to have biological children, although they adopted a couple of sons and helped raise many nieces and nephews. Learning these details of his life humanized him for me and helped me realize that, right and wrong, he was a product of the time in which he lived.

A whole book could be written (perhaps it has) on Andrew Jackson's faith alone. He was nominally Presbyterian, although he did not formally join a congregation until after he had retired and moved back to Tennessee. I had to respect this one choice he made: Even though his wife wanted him to, he had not joined the church or made a profession of faith as an adult. When it came time for him to run for President, he confessed to Rachel that he was ready to do so. However, he did not want to appear to be making a profession of faith for the sake of politics or appearance, so he remained unaffiliated until after his political career was over. In this age where just about every decision that politicians make is choreographed according to how it will play in the electorate, it is gratifying that Jackson did not make a hollow or false profession of faith just to woo the voters. It may not have been declared publicly until late in life, but his faith was real and alive and important to him.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gone But Not Forgotten


Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?
The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music
by Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirshberg

It's interesting how musical tastes change over time. As an adolescent, I scorned any music remotely connected to country/western or bluegrass. Nasal, twangy voices were repulsive to me, as were lyrics that seemed to be all about sorrow, loss, and somebody's cheatin' heart. I still would not put country or bluegrass at the top of my list, but as a young adult I gravitated toward the hope and vision for justice found in folk music. Irish music (especially Celtic) has also appealed to me because of its intertwining of exuberance and pathos. As I got more into folk and Celtic music around two decades ago, I began to pick up on the common roots that these genres shared with some of the types of music I had previously disdained. To my surprise, threads of classical, bluegrass and country/western folk, and "mountain" music could be found interwoven in surprising and beautiful ways. While I am unlikely to purchase music by hardcore country musicians like Tammy Wynette or Slim Whitman, my music library now includes country favorites like Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and the Dixie Chicks (just to name a few).

I don't think I could go so far (yet) as to call myself a fan of the Carter family's music (too nasal, especially the original Carter family recordings), but they are musically (and personally) fascinating people. Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? traces the family all the way back to their immigration into this country, bringing old Scottish and Irish melodies with them. One of the most compelling parts of the story was A.C. Carter's journeying over and over into the mountains of Appalachia going "song-hunting" for new music for him and his wife Sara and their sister-in-law Maybelle to record. Many people knew just snatches of lyrics or tunes, and these fragments later became full songs in their own right, with the gaps filled in by A.C. Carter or someone like him. There is no way to know how much music they preserved and rescued from obscurity. The Carter family also is to be commended for their tenacity in scratching out a living from music during the Depression and being a voice to express the heartache and uncertainty with which so many people were living.

Furthermore, Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? is an interesting story. I find people and their lives endlessly captivating, and Zwonitzer has done a good job in balancing the history of the music industry with vignettes about the Carter family's relationships and lives. What has stuck with me the most about the book, though, is this passing of music from generation to generation, with new twists along the way and offshoots into genres that seem totally new but really are old riffs and styles coupled with innovations that keep the music alive and appealing to new generations of listeners. It is not unlike the way our faith traditions are practiced - we hang onto the basics, but styles and practices evolve according to the times. Even as we embrace change, though, we celebrate our common roots and appreciate the past. We celebrate and give thanks for those who have made us who we are.

So, for anyone who loves just about any kind of music, the Carters have contributed to your listening pleasure. Whether we realize it or not, we do miss them, but their talent lives on in those they inspired. Hopefully that will remain true for a long, long time.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cells for Sale


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

If you are into biology and/or science writing, you must read this. If you are into biography, you must read this. If you are into history, you must read this. You get my point - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is interesting, thought-provoking, and powerful on any number of levels. I first heard about the book in early February - I read a printed review and also heard an interview with the author on National Public Radio. There was something so compelling about the story, I knew it was something I would read soon. This is a story that shows us (not tells us) how important it is for hospital patients to have advocates, and (even more importantly) how critical it is that ordinary individuals raise questions about practices, policies, and people. I do not think that anyone involved in this story had evil intentions, but the presumption of those in power caused an injustice to be done.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who was born and raised in Virginia and moved to the Baltimore area as an adult. A mother of five children, she died of cervical cancer at the age of 30. This occurred in the early 1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement. While coping with a terminal illness, Henrietta Lacks also dealt with the humiliations of a segregated health facility (Johns Hopkins). Not only that, Hopkins was the only hospital within a reasonable distance that would even treat African-Americans. Soon after her diagnosis, Ms. Lacks's doctor removed two dime-sized tissues samples from her body - one from healthy tissue, the other from her tumor. The healthy cells died soon in the laboratory, but (to the surprise of the researchers), the cancer cells multiplied like mad. Called HeLa cells (after the first two letters of each of the "donor's" names), these cells were soon distributed in labs across the world and used in all kinds of experiments. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in developing a polio vaccine. The cells have since been used to study many other diseases, including Parkinson's disease, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and multiple sclerosis. The HeLa cells have contributed to the development of countless drugs and other treatments and have alleviated the suffering of millions of people around the world.

I am thankful for HeLa cells, as we all should be. The sticky part of the story is that Henrietta Lacks's permission was not sought before the physicians removed the samples from her body. Her family is mostly uneducated and poor, yet they never benefited financially from all the products developed using her cells. In fact, most of her family does not even have access to health care and thus cannot even benefit physically from Henrietta's contribution. Again, I do not think the oversight was deliberate, it is more as if no one thought to ask permission to cultivate the cells because she was poor, black, and could not afford treatment. The doctors could not have known that this one cell line would proliferate, after so many other attempts had failed. Apparently, tissue removal without prior permission was standard practice at the time.

In the past decade, Henrietta Lacks has finally started to get some recognition for the way that her cells altered medical science. Morehouse College hosted a symposium in her honor in 1996, where researchers presented papers about all the things currently being done with HeLa cells. From what Rebecca Skloot was able to uncover for her book, Henrietta Lacks was a tiny woman with a huge heart, a flair for dancing, and a contagious love for other people. I like to hope and believe that she would have willingly donated her cells for the common good. I also believe, though, that she should not have had to. What really troubles me is that no one, from the doctors down to the lab techs, raised any questions about the practice. It was as if Henrietta Lacks was just a collection of cells instead of a person who mattered to many people.

The past is the past, and cannot be redone, but we can take stories such as this one and allow them to raise our consciousness about issues of justice and truth. We can raise questions about how things are done now. We can recognize Henrietta Lacks as a fellow human being and child of God. We can mourn the sad fact that her children lost their mother.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Greeeeen Acres (NOT!)


Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
by Novella Carpenter

I'm interested in gardening. I really am. At least, I enjoy reading about it, and watching the fruits of others' labors. It pains me that I never get around to actually planting and tending anything. It's not an aversion, really, just lack of time. I will also admit to a certain intimidation. Other people seem to know exactly what to do to make something grow (or at least survive), whereas I have no clue. Would my thumb be green? Purple? Gray (the color of death in apocalyptic literature). I am a wee bit chicken to find out. I do have a philodendron plant that I have kept alive for about 19 years, but it is almost impossible to kill a philodendron.

Novella Carpenter is a gardening rock star. She has managed to grow a vegetable garden in the middle of the grittiest, grubbiest part of downtown Oakland, California. Without being all self-righteous about it, she has used her produce to eat healthier herself as well as provide fresh vegetables for neighbors who do not have easy access to produce. In addition to the gardening, she has raised turkeys, chickens, rabbits, and pigs (although not all at the same time). She is on to something, I am convinced. There is something about raising food and animals that brings people together. The vegetables alone are important for their nutritional value. However, Carpenter's descriptions of neighborhood children coming over to see the rabbits (some of whom had never seen a live animal, let alone held one) and volunteering to help weed the garden are what really grabbed me about this book. She is able to show us the power of community and the difference that a small scale effort like this can make in the lives of kids and adults alike.

If you liked other non-fiction bestsellers like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or The Omnivore's Dilemma, you will enjoy Farm City. Carpenter's descriptions of some of the neighborhood characters are both touching and hilarious, and the reader can tell that she genuinely cares about both a healthy food supply and the urban poor (and the latter having access to the former). Lots of us have sincere concerns for people living in poverty and in places that are unsafe and that carry the tinge of hopelessness. It is a much smaller number of people who actually will go and live there and structure their own life in a way that makes an ongoing, tangible difference for them. Granted, Carpenter is getting something out of the relationship as well. She is a self described child of hippies, and leans pretty far into hippiedom herself. I doubt that she sees her lifestyle as especially sacrificial - she is where she wants to be. Her story of urban farming helps us to see that there are lots of ways for us to engage with our neighbors. Urban farming is not for everyone, but it is one way to build community and provide a path to healthier living. Good for her.

Plus, Farm City is flat out a good story. Carpenter is a wry writer with a good dose of the ability to laugh at herself. She takes her mission seriously without taking herself too seriously, and that is always refreshing. Who knows? Maybe this is the year I will plant some tomatoes.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Slapstickistan


Absurdistan
by Gary Shteyngart

I know there is a profound message embedded in this critically acclaimed satire, but I found it hard to locate in the midst of all the bizarre plot twists and over the top lunacy of the characters. In a way, Absurdistan reminded me of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but not as well done. Both books have protagonists who are bumbling to the point of pathetic. Both have large casts of supporting characters that zip into and out of the narrative, sometimes at a dizzying rate of speed. Both story lines have plot twists that are, well, absurd, but in Absurdistan they veer too often into the unbelievable. ("Oh come on. That would never happen.") I know with this style of book, believability may not be the primary goal. However, when it gets too weird, it is distracting.

All this sniping is not to say that Absurdistan does not have something to offer. One cannot read it and not reconsider how the United States is viewed by other nations, especially ones that were once part of the Soviet Union. As we watch Misha struggle to return to the United States, even as he acknowledges the injustices present in our society, we see that (with all our flaws) we are still a beacon of hope for oppressed people on the other side of the world. This is still a place where many people want to be, and for good reason. Our freedoms should never be taken for granted. However, Absurdistan also makes the point that the US tends to put on the "champion of the oppressed" hat when it is convenient for us or shores up our own ideology, and we turn our heads when it is not convenient to fight for the underdog. Sad, but all too often, true.

This was one of those books that I really wanted to like. Shteyngart is making a sincere effort to get us to think about US policy and how that policy affects real people on the ground, without being preachy and "in your face." I'm all for using humor to make a point in a non-threatening way. He is to be commended for the effort. However, I just found the slapstick zaniness wearing - it got in the way of what was really going on with the characters.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pants on Fire!



Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
by Victor Sebestyn

For starters, this is a really good book. I knew very little about the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, other than that it happened and that the Soviets prevailed. The author has the gift of making history very accessible, and the book reads almost like a suspense novel. The revolution occurred in an organic way, springing up out of peaceful demonstrations with almost no coordination or pre-planning. Leaders emerged from unlikely places, and officers from the Hungarian army defected to help the rebels and give them access to weapons. People acted with tremendous courage and selflessness, sincere in their belief that they could create a better life for their people. As you read the book, you want to cry because the end is already known, and it is not pretty for the Hungarians. Sebestyn is able to still suck us into the hope and euphoria of that brief time, and the reader almost believes that somehow freedom will carry the day.

The amount of lying and other forms of deception that came out of the Kremlin during the troubles with Hungary is absolutely staggering. I mean, I knew that the Russian leadership in the early post-Stalin years was not known for their ethics or honesty, but these guys must have had zero conscience. It was all about jockeying for position and seeing who would emerge to fill Stalin's shoes, so not only were the potential Soviet leaders duplicitous with the Hungarians, they were also constantly stabbing each other in the back and trying to make each other look like buffoons. Names that I grew up hearing (Yuri Andropov, Nikita Kruschev), and associating with the specter of Communism, became even more sinister as I observed their machinations and mad desire for world domination. Not having grown up in the peak years of the Cold War, I have always had a hard time understanding why so many people recoil in horror at the words "Soviet Union." No longer. These were dangerous guys. (Note: I still think it is morally wrong, and irresponsible, to brand anyone with whom we disagree politically as a "socialist" or a "communist." I just understand better now why those are such loaded terms. It really did not have as much to do with ideology or policy as the brutality with which the ideas were enacted and forced upon a people. Those words should not be tossed around lightly. They scare people, and rightfully so, which clouds clear thinking and prevents authentic debate. Getting off my soapbox now...)

However, the United States should not have emerged from this event with a clear conscience, either. It was largely our propaganda, over the airwaves of radio, that incited the Hungarians to try to bust out from behind the Iron Curtain. United States and European rhetoric led the Hungarians to believe that when and if they revolted they would receive weapons, men, and other aid from the West. However, the Hungarian revolution occurred right around the time of Eisenhower's election to a second term, and he did not want to rock the boat too much, with his own people OR with the Soviets. He also was distracted (as were the American people) by a crisis in the Middle East. The assistance that Hungary expected never came, and people suffered and died because of that. That is part of the tragedy that we as Americans have to live with.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Seeking North


Noah's Compass
by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is one of a small group of fiction writers (also including Richard Russo and Barbara Kingsolver) who seems incapable of writing a bad novel. I've been enjoying her work for about 20 years now and always enjoy her achingly accurate portrayals of family dynamics and relational ambiguities. Although I doubt that she will ever top her Pulitzer winner Breathing Lessons, which blew me away in 1989, she seems to understand the usually unarticulated (even to ourselves) sorrows that lie within every human heart. That is not to say that we do not love our spouses, our children, our friends - but who has never felt isolated in the midst of a crowd? Who does not long to be understood and forgiven? That is what Anne Tyler seems to "get" and express so simply yet so profoundly.

The protagonist of Noah's Compass, Liam Pennywell, is one of her more poignant characters. I have seldom run into a character in fiction who is this isolated, yet Liam reminded me of a lot of people I know and have known in my own life. He is a twice-divorced man in his early fifties who has recently been "downsized" out of his teaching job and does not quite know what to do with himself. He has three young adult daughters, and as much as he wants to make connections with them, he so often seems to miss the mark. His life is fairly colorless - sometimes this bothers him, but mostly he doesn't mind. He is very much a man of routine, and although he is lonely he often shies away from relationships because he does not want too many demands made on him. He can be a frustrating character, but he is one to whom I was strangely drawn.

The gift of Noah's Compass is that we get to experience Liam's tentative forays into connection with others, and even watch as some of them do not turn out so well. By the end of the story, though, he also has had some small but significant successes in forming new relationships and healing some old ones. It struck me as a realistic portrayal of humanity - we take some risks, and sometimes things go well and sometimes they do not. Regardless, we are usually enriched by having made the effort. Liam has to learn that the hard way.

Noah's Compass is not action packed, and sometimes the reader gets impatient with Liam, who is a bit of a plodder. However, there are several interesting minor characters who liven things up along the way. By the end you will still ache for Liam, but also have some hope for him. We are all redeemable, after all.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mythbusters


Galileo Goes to Jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion
edited by Ron L. Numbers

Contrary to popular thought, science and religion are not antithetical to one another. Nor are gifted scientists all rabid atheists, looking for ways to disprove the existence of God. It is fair to say though, that many scientists (both throughout history and in the present) cannot relate to the ultra-personal God who is involved in every aspect of our day each and every day of our lives that some religious extremists believe is the only possible God that could have created us and given us life. Galileo Goes to Jail takes 25 long held myths about conflicts and conflations of science and religion and systematically breaks them down until we can see that they are not the hard bitten truths we have believed them to be.

Each essay is written by a different luminary in the field of either science or history of science, so the writing is a little uneven - some of the pieces are just more accessible than others to the non-scientifically trained person. However, as a whole the book is fun and thought provoking. The de-bunking of certain myths is a bit of a stretch when the writers rely on semantics to make their point. For example, the writer of the essay about whether or not Galileo was tortured at the hands of the Catholic church boils down to "Well, he was not tortured because he recanted his scientific findings. The Church did not torture him because he did what they said. They only threatened torture." OK, fine, but I don't know that that "proves" much. Were they prepared to actually do the deed if Galileo did not give in to their demands? We will never know for sure. And don't even get me started on what constitutes torture, a debate that continues to occupy the minds of ethicists, military leaders, and politicians of our day.

That is a minor quibble, though. The overarching message of the book is that people do not have to be either/or as far as religious faith and scientific discoveries go. Each discipline is searching for a different truth, and sometimes (gulp) they even back each other up! Another gift of the book is that it shows us that neither science or organized religion is entirely free of blame in the "culture wars" that have been going on for centuries now. Each discipline at time as been (at best) dismissive and (at worst) destructive of the other. However, it need not continue to be that way. There will always be extremists from both groups that believe the other is total hogwash. For the vast middle, though, both engaged dialogue and respectful peace are possible. As we move into a new phase of the faith/science relationship, I look forward to the ways that we can strengthen and inform each other.

Reverent Reader