Friday, May 28, 2010

A Whole World Out There

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009
edited by Elizabeth Kolbert

This is the second year in a row I have read the science volume of the "Best of..." series, and I love it. As a kid I loved biology and other life sciences, but shied away from science courses as I got older because I was intimidated by the math tied in with chemistry and physics. It is fun now to read about science just for the fun and learning of it. I'm already looking forward to the 2010 volume, and these compilations have prompted me to subscribe to Discover magazine.

One minor complaint that I had about the 2009 volume is that there was an overabundance of articles about climate change. Of course I am concerned about global warming, and we need to know the latest developments in combating it. However, some of the articles seemed repetitive to me, even though they were all interesting and well written. The gripping thing about the 2008 volume was the depth of topics addressed, and 2009 seemed narrower to me.

Nevertheless, there were some non-climate articles that were good. Atul Gawande's The Itch, is absolutely haunting. Imagine scratching yourself so hard you scratch through your skull and drill into your brain. It is rare, but it has happened. Shudder. Wasteland, which takes the reader through the process of human waste disposal, is gross but oddly fascinating. Walter Isaacson's essay on Einstein's often misinterpreted role in the development of the atomic bomb is informative and heartening. Is Google Making Us Stupid? is an article that raises questions about the possibility that quick reading, in short bursts, is over time actually rewiring our brains and making us less able to think in depth. These are just a few examples of the subjects tackled.

I am increasingly interested in the connections between science and the spiritual life, not to mention the scientific experiments being conducted about spirituality itself. I think part of my fascination with science has to do with an attempt to understand the order of not just our world, but our universe, and possibly glimpse the mind and intentions of God in that order. Plus it is all just really, really interesting.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Less Is More

All the Living
by C.E. Morgan

This is an unpretentious, exquisite story that will worm its way into the reader's consciousness and reside there for a long time. The starkness of the farming landscape coupled with the isolation within the hearts of the main characters is striking and palpable throughout. All the Living is a quick read, written in the spare style of hardworking farm folk, but Morgan manages to convey a host of emotions and dilemmas. Sometimes she does this more by what she does not say than by what she does.

Aloma and Orren, the two protagonists, are lost souls seeking desperately to find their way. For much of the story, it is unclear if they will do that together or apart. Even at the end there is some ambiguity in the midst of the reconciliation. Aloma has grown up in an orphanage, while Orren and his brother are raised by their widowed mother on a farm. It is the sudden and tragic death of Orren's mother and brother in a car accident that prompts Aloma to move to Orren's farm and begin a new phase of their relationship. Aloma and Orren had been "together" before the car wreck, but mostly in a superficial way that did not dwell much on the future or the direction of the relationship. They are both young and lonely people, and it is mostly about the sex.

Orren and Aloma quickly come to realize that sex will only carry you so far in a relationship. Aloma longs for comfort and companionship and tenderness, while Orren is preoccupied with running his family farm alone and getting out of debt. The issues that crop up between them are familiar to most married couples, but it is the desolate way that Morgan expresses them that makes the descriptions so raw and wrenching. Sometimes the pain hanging in the air as Aloma and Orren try and fail to connect is almost unbearable.

Another prevalent theme in the story is the spiritual solace that Aloma takes in music (she is an accomplished pianist). As a music lover myself, I could see how Aloma could get lost in her gift, but her preoccupation with playing does begin to intrude on her relationship with Owen (not to mention her crush on a kind-hearted pastor at the church where she plays piano to earn money). That tension in the relationship brings up another common marital dilemma - finding the balance between the things that feed our own souls and the care and nurture that our partners need. There is obviously no "one" way to find that balance, but Aloma and Orren's predicament shows us (without telling us) how something that starts out to be good for a relationship can gradually start to erode that same relationship if we are not paying attention.

The story ends on a hopeful note - Aloma and Orren decide to make the commitment to get married and ride out the rough patches together. Even in that rapprochemont, though, the jealousies and hurts and griefs are still oh-so-present. The reader senses that those pieces are a permanent part of the story, and that Orren and Aloma will have to learn to work within and around them. All the Living shares with us the message of life in death, as well as possibility in emptiness.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oh Come ON...

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England

by Brock Clarke

I get the joke, I really do, but it got old. Literary satire is funny, and Clarke's riff on the ubiquity of memoir was hilarious. It was probably worth reading the book just for those two pages. But the rest of the story tried so hard to be darkly comic that it was nothing short of sad.

Years ago, I remember taking a young friend to see a "Mr. Bean" movie - remember "Mr.Bean?" He's that goofy guy played by Rowan Atkinson who is always getting into Lucille Ball-esque scrapes. But my little friend, about halfway through the movie, just rolled his eyes and said "Oh come on - NO ONE is THAT stupid!" Even though it was a comedy, home of the outrageous, some line had been crossed into the realm of "yeah, right." That is how I felt about Sam, the main character of Arsonist's Guide. A self-described "bumbler," he just gets himself into more and more trouble as the story plays out. And I like comedy, but too much of this involved stuff that just is not funny - losing his marriage because of his inarticulateness and occasional lying, becoming estranged from his children, and parental alcoholism are three prevalent dramas of the story. None of those things is knee-slapping funny to me. Serious topics can be dealt with in a humorous way, but Clarke fails to do this.

The end of the story is supposed to bring about some sort of ironic redemption (if there is such a thing), but I thought it just compounded Sam's problems. When someone is trapped in the web of their own untruths, it is hard for the reader to buy into more lies, even if they are well-intentioned. This novel got a lot of critical acclaim, but except for some well written meditations on reading and writing and the literary life that were woven into the narrative, it did not do much for me.

Reverent Reader

Monday, May 17, 2010

Going Separate Ways

Happiness Sold Separately
by Lolly Winston

Howdy, blog universe. Nice to see you again. Life has been crazy lately - lots of good family stuff going on (plus G. getting pink eye, that was not so good), and I have not had as much time to write as I would like. I HAVE kept on reading, though, so stay tuned for the next couple of weeks as I write reviews on several good things I've read lately.

Happiness Sold Separately does not set the world on fire, but it is a book that deals with a serious subject without being too heavy handed, and that is worth something. Winston actually manages to make an adulterer into a character with whom we can sympathize, and that is not an easy thing to do. Ted and Elinor are the married couple around which the story evolves. They are forty-ish and at the beginning of the book have just finished a long and unsuccessful series of fertility treatments. Having been through some of that myself, and having many friends who have been through that anguish, I thought that Winston did a good job of capturing the sadness and loss that so many couples go through. She shows, rather than tells, how infertility can become the dominant theme in the relationship before the couple even realizes it. They wake up one day and see that they have forgotten how to have fun together or even talk about normal, everyday things. It is so sad, and Winston expresses it well.

Likewise, Ted seems like a good guy, even though he strays outside his marriage. He does not intend for it to happen, nor is he some kind of calculating predator. He just kind of falls into a second relationship, even though he still loves his wife. Without condoning such behavior, Winston helps us see how it can happen. Likewise, the "other woman," Gina, is not out to wreck a marriage or steal any one's partner - she is lonely and vulnerable and struggling to raise a son on her own. Ted provides a listening ear and a good influence on her son, and pretty soon the relationship has gone too far. It is not right, but no one goes into the scene with evil intentions.

The end of the book is bittersweet. I don't want to be a spoiler for anyone who might read it, so suffice it to say that all parties involved are genuinely invested in doing the "right" thing, but it is less and less clear what that is. Isn't that how life is, though? It may be less satisfying, but the ambiguity is also one of the story's strengths. Thing are not always (in fact they seldom) are as cut and dried as we want to think.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Goes Down Quickly

Have a Little Faith
by Mitch Albom

Have a Little Faith does indeed go down quickly - almost too quickly. I read it about three weeks ago for a book group at my church, and the meeting of that same group had to be postponed. I find that the details of the story have already faded in my mind, and I'm going to have to give the book a skim before the book group meets in a few weeks. The short shelf life of the book inside my mind could say something about my attention span or my powers of retention. In fact, it probably does. It also, though, points to the fact that this is a book that the reader can fly through so quickly that there is not enough time or depth for it to make a real dent int the gray matter. I enjoyed it and was even moved by some parts of the story, but it has just not stuck with me.

I read Have a Little Faith in one evening - that is super fast even for me, and I am a pretty fast reader. It is the story of Mitch Albom's becoming reacquainted with his lifelong rabbi after the retired gentleman asks Albom to do his eulogy. Albom had grown up in the same synagogue his whole life, and retained his membership in that community even when he moved away as an adult. This happened to be a synagogue that kept the same rabbi for over 30 years, and the rabbi stayed on in a part-time role even after his formal retirement. Albom had moved away from his faith as an adult, and was surprised when his rabbi asked him the favor of performing his eulogy.

After Mitch Albom agreed to his rabbi's request, the two began meeting together regularly. Albom wanted to know the man as opposed to the public figure. Their relationship deepened, and Albom felt himself drawn back into a spiritual life. He realized that he missed the sense of community that a congregation can provide. In a similar pattern to his previous book Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom recounted pearls of wisdom that he learned from his rabbi, and his realization (as the older man's health faded) that he would indeed feel a tremendous loss when he died.

As all this was unfolding, Albom was also getting to know a Christian pastor in the Detroit area whose background for ministry was, shall we say, unorthodox. Henry is a recovering addict and ex-convict. He serves a congregation of the truly down and out in a building that is on its last legs. One of the strengths of Have a Little Faith is how Albom depicts his own awakening to the truth that ministry is not limited to the pious or the perfect. He comes to understand that someone who has been in the depths of self-induced despair can offer insights that those who have not experienced the struggles of addiction and poverty cannot.

Albom weaves these two relationships, and the changes that take place within his own heart, together into a pleasing whole. My only complaint is that I would have liked more - further probing into the rabbi's theology and practice, more peeks into the inner workings of Henry's mind and heart, and more self-reflection from Albom. His quick, breezy style seems to work for him - he sells a lot of books. However, I would like him to probe a little more deeply. His readers would benefit - and I suspect that he would as well.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Connection Is Everything

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
by Jacqueline Novogratz

How many of us have dropped old clothes off at a local charity, or dumped them in one of those ubiquitous bins, and never given a thought to what happens to them after that? I remember I left a pair of old shoes in the band room when I was in high school. I had outgrown them and they pinched my feet. Somehow they ended up in a jumble of "lost and found" in the band room, and I never bothered to pick them up as they no longer fit, and were (in my opinion) too worn out and shabby looking anyway. It was a real wake up call several days later when I saw a girl (a fellow band member) who was probably two or three years younger than I was wearing my discarded shoes. I didn't mind, and I never said anything to her about it (I never knew if she knew whose they were anyway), but I felt a twinge of shame that something I had jettisoned in such a cavalier manner was obviously usable and needed by someone else. I think ever since then I have tried to be more intentional about what I do with clothes that do not fit anymore, but I cannot say that I have ever put a face to one of my old items - except for those shoes.

Jacqueline Novogratz had the experience of seeing someone (a little boy) wearing her blue sweater in Rwanda, ten years after she had dropped it off at a Goodwill Store in Virginia. She was there working in the area of micro finance, helping women start small businesses to life themselves out of poverty. Some might think seeing that child on the streets of Kigali, wearing their cast off sweater, was just a bizarre coincidence. For, Novogratz, it was a moment that changed her life. She realized how connected we all are, and how our seemingly inconsequential actions do have consequences, often on the other side of the world. She was already engaged in the fight against poverty, but the blue sweater confirmed her sense that we are all part of one another, and the suffering of one affects the whole.

The rest of The Blue Sweater is the story of Novogratz's merging of her concern for neighbor with her pragmatic business sense. The reader learns a lot from her conviction that education and economic opportunity for poor people make much more sense in the long run than traditional charitable aid. She also has started a fund (called Acumen Fund) that invests in entrepreneurial efforts that bring much needed goods and services to people in the developing world at affordable prices. Examples of the projects Acumen fund has invested in include insecticide treated nets to prevent malaria and systems for purifying water. She coins the phrase "patient capitalism," meaning that Acumen's investments may not pay large dividends as quickly, but they are an investment in the human family and its future. Who can put a price on that?

The Blue Sweater is definitely worth reading - it is inspiring to read about projects that make a long term difference in people's lives. For a shot in the arm of hope, pick this up.

Reverent Reader