Thursday, October 28, 2010

Seventy Times Seven

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

Wow. We Presbyterians (and other mainline Protestants) talk a lot about forgiveness. In general, I think of myself as a pretty forgiving person. Someone is half an hour late for a meeting with me? No problem, it happens. Someone forgets to meet me when or where they said they would? Hey, I understand. I've done it myself. Someone irritates you because of their inability to say "no" - or their ability to say it too readily? Well, we've all been there at one time or another. If we held a grudge for every glitch in communication or every perceived slight that we ever experienced, we would soon be embittered people with very few friends. Lots of us know someone like that. In an effort to avoid their fate, we step up our own practice of forgiveness right away. Then we come across someone who takes forgiveness to a whole new level.

In the summer of 1984, college student Jennifer Thompson was brutally raped at knife point in her apartment in Burlington, North Carolina. She was shattered by the experience, and really did not receive much help from friends or family in processing what had happened to her. She was full of rage and fear, which is understandable. The Burlington police force wanted to act quickly to put the rapist behind bars, and they believed they had their man. Thompson was sure that she identified the right person, even though the defendant, Ron Cotton, insisted on his innocence. The evidence against him was slim, really, but once the ball was rolling the police and the victim were so sure that they had the right person that they refused to see the other possible suspects or the evidence that pointed away from Cotton. Bottom line: Ron Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA evidence finally exonerated him.

It is a tragic story, but its outcome could have been worse. Through the 1970s, rape was a capital crime in the state of North Carolina, so Cotton probably would have been executed if the rape had occurred a decade earlier. Cotton had plenty of time to think during his years in jail, and he used the time to earn his GED. He also sang in the prison gospel choir and began to take his faith more seriously. At the time, he believed he would spend the rest of his life in prison, and he wanted to make that life worthwhile in spite of the terrible situation. When Cotton was released, he set about rebuilding his life. He eventually found work, met a woman, and got married.

Jennifer Thompson was still having trouble moving beyond what had happened. Where she had once been consumed by fear and anger, after Cotton was released she was plagued just as much by remorse and guilt. Finally, in an effort to get some closure to the ghastly event that had defined her life for so long, she asked for a meeting with Ron Cotton to ask his forgiveness. That's when the miracle occurred.

Ron Cotton not only forgave Jennifer Thompson, he wished her well and told her his only desire was that they both have good lives. He explained how he did not really blame her for the mistaken identity, and that they were BOTH victims of the true assailant, a guy named Bobby Poole. Jennifer Thompson writes that "Ron forgave me not because I deserved it, but because I needed it, and that's what grace is all about." Oh yeah.

Improbably, Cotton and Thompson went on to become friends. They found they could talk together about things that others people would not understand. They now appear together at criminal justice conferences and give lectures at law schools. They are both very involved in The Innocence Project, a non-profit group that advocates for other people who are wrongfully incarcerated.

The writing in Picking Cotton is not extraordinary, but the voices of Thompson and Cannino come through with sincerity and earnestness. The story is outstanding enough to make the reader forgive some clunky writing. After all, isn't forgiveness what we are supposed to be about? Hats off to Ron Cotton for showing us the way.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out of the Depths

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
by James M. Tabor

I've never figured out why, but I am inexplicably drawn to books about people with really extreme hobbies or vocations - especially explorer types who push the limits of their physical and mental endurance. Think Into Thin Air by John Krakaeur or Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. When I read a review of Blind Descent in Discover magazine, I knew I had to read it. Tabor's book is about people who explore "supercaves" that stretch for miles underground and often plunge to more than a mile deep. Some of these extreme caves have hundreds of flat face descents that have to be rappelled (and then climbed when the cavers are ready to get out), and many of the rock walls are actually waterfalls. Underground drainage pools called "sumps" block the passageway and have to be scuba dived. The passages are also often blocked by huge clusters of boulders that have fallen. The cavers have to move these, a dangerous process that can take days. Add to this that when cavers reach the bottom of a supercave, the hardest and most dangerous part is still ahead - retracing their steps to get out. Remember that, except for the puny efforts of flashlights and headlamps, this is all done in pitch darkness. And there are all kinds of underground critters flying and slithering and running around. Shudder.

Blind Descent is about the mentality and motivation of supercavers, but also the drive for scientific discovery that drives some of the most determined ones. The cavers have been in competition for years to find the deepest place on earth, and they meticulously survey every new place that they get to. These expeditions are months or years in the planning, and can be derailed by injury, illness, or fatality at any time. The descriptions of getting a severely injured person out of these supercaves are particularly harrowing - not to mention getting a corpse out. I found myself absorbed in the storyline, astonished that people would risk everything (including their own lives) to scratch out a few more feet of depth in some hole in the ground. Bill Stone, probably the foremost supercaver in the United States, sacrificed his marriage and numerous other significant relationships to the lure of the caves. A Russian caver, Peter Klimchouk, who finally established the Russian cave of Krubera as the world's deepest (whew! glad to finally have that cleared up), has had a years long rift with his oldest son over who gets credit for certain cave discoveries in the former Soviet Union.

The reader cannot help but admire the sheer grit of these people, but I felt much the same way I did when I read Krakauer's book on Everest climbers: "Why would someone do that?'' Who would invest millions of dollars and risk their lives on a venture that likely will yield nothing of significance and that may well cost you your life? Cavers write and speak of the breathtaking majesty of massive underground rooms, and the thrill of walking (or swimming or crawling) where no human has been before. Whatever rings your chimes I guess, but I think I'll stay above ground.

Although the book is not written from a spiritual perspective, I kept wondering about the spiritual motivations of the cavers. The words from Psalm 130 "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" kept running through my head as I read through this book. I have no desire to get that far down (literally or metaphorically), but I was intrigued by the euphoria that the cavers experience when they make a new discovery or come through a grueling exploration. Is it possible that experiencing such utter vulnerability gives the cavers a more clear sense of the presence of something (SomeOne?) grand and holy in their midst? I have not done extreme caving (and have no plans to), but I can say that some of the most difficult experiences of my life have also been the ones that strengthened my ties to the Holy One. Whether or not the cavers are aware of it or not, maybe that closeness is at least a part of what drives them.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Blitz

Ok, here it is. The list and thumbnail review of every other book (besides the ones listed in the previous post) that I have read since mid-June. I've got to find my groove on the regular postings once again, but am doing these annotated lists to get myself current and start again with a clean slate. It was horrible being immobilized for so long with back pain, but I did get an amazing amount of reading done - some of it wonderful, some only so-so. Here goes...

Magic Time - by Doug Marlette. A novel about Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. Marlette does a good job of weaving real history and people with fictitious characters, making the narrative that much more believable. If you like Civil Rights era stories, you should pick this one up.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God - by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. A satirical novel about academia and the ongoing philosophical and ontological debates about the presence of a Creator/Divine Being. It's a good story, and at times hilarious. However, even as she lampoons the hubris of academia, Goldstein also participates in it (she has a Ph.D in philosophy). There is a "look how smart I am" tone to the writing that eventually grates. But two of her characters (Lucinda Mandelbaum and Jonas Elijah Klapper) encapsulate the insufferable nature of some (not all) academics.

The 19th Wife - by David Ebershoff. A fictional look at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormons) and they polygamous lifestyles. Weaves in a juicy murder mystery, but also gives us a lot of history of the FLDS and the twisted, patriarchal theology of polygamy.

Lark and Termite - by Jayne Anne Phillips. This was a re-read for a sermon series, and I loved it even more the second time. Beautiful story about unconditional love, mysticism, and self-sacrifice. A must read.

Every Last One - by Anna Quindlen. Quindlen's novels do not disappoint. Her characters are terribly real. This one deals with a mother and a son groping their way through the days after unspeakable tragedy hits their family. The only disadvantage is that her writing is so smooth and goes past so quickly that I frequently devour her books in a day or so and then cannot remember them very well afterwards. But still very much worth reading.

Songs Without Words - by Ann Packer. A novel about long-term friendship, and how two women handle it when the bonds of their friendship are tested and challenged. How do we cope when life circumstances stretch our patience with the people who are most important to us? Packer shows us a realistic scenario that depicts a rent in a relationship and its fragile, tentative repair.

Hunger and Happiness - by L. Shannon Jung. I actually have a review of this coming out in the Presbyterian journal Interpretation. A thoughtful meditation on how millions of people in the world are starving while the rest of us live in excess. Jung writes convincingly about how the spiritual health and happiness of all of us is inextricably tied to that of our neighbors, and how helping those in need also feeds our souls. Definitely worth reading.

Homer and Langley - by E.L. Doctorow. A moving novel about two brothers who actually did exist in the early to mid-20th century. They were smart men who lived together in a large house in Manhattan, but over time they became isolated hoarders. Raises questions about what constitutes a "good" life, how we care for one another, and when our neighbor's "business" should become our own.

True Compass - by Edward M. Kennedy. Like them or not, the Kennedys are fascinating people. This is Ted Kennedy's memoir, and it is interesting to read his personal reflections on some of the major historical events of the last 60 years, including the assassinations of two of his brothers (JFK and RFK). Even acknowledging that Kennedy no doubt put his own spin on things and of course believed that his views were the correct ones, I was touched by his admissions of his own responsibility for the failure of his first marriage, his being haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, his candid discussion of his own faith, and his humble acknowledgment of his own ongoing need for redemption and grace. Shows a depth to the man that went far beyond his partying playboy image.

Oh the Glory of It All - by Sean Wilsey. If you had a weird childhood, read this. You will realize that you are not the only one. Wilsey's memoir is funny at times, but also sad. His two incredibly self-centered parents pretty much let him raise himself. The results could have been disastrous, but incredibly Wilsey is a together guy who is now a sensitive, responsible parent.

Prayers for Sale - by Sandra Dallas. A sweet story about the power of a mentoring relationship between an older and younger woman who both have suffered the loss of a child. Full of colorful characters (the quilting group reminded me of the lively cast of How to Make and American Quilt) and poignant moments. Melancholy in places but ultimately hopeful and life-affirming.

Madness Under the Royal Palms - by Lawrence Leamer. Leamer is probably most known for his biographical work on the Kennedy family. This is a non-fiction book about society and snobbery in Palm Beach, Florida. Honestly, those people need to get a life. If Leamer's portrayal is accurate, those are some of the most vapid, self-absorbed, clueless persons on the planet. Completely morally and spiritually bankrupt. Interesting read about boring people.

The Perfectionist: Life and Death in Haute Cuisine: by Rudolph Chelmenski. The chronicle of the rise and fall of French chef Bernard Loiseau. Largely self-taught, he became an accomplished enough cook for his out of the way restaurant to earn the coveted Michelin "three stars" designation. However, the pressure of maintaining that status, and the rumor that he might lose it, became too much for him to endure. Loiseau committed suicide in 2006. Thought-provoking look at our need for recognition and adulation that went to tragic extremes in this one man. Also contains lots of fascinating history of French cuisine and its major innovators.

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates: by Wes Moore. Compelling read (non-fiction) about two kids with the same name, close in age, who grew up in the troubled neighborhoods of West Baltimore. One became a Rhodes scholar. The other is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for murder. Reinforces the need for stable support in young kids' lives, and the power of community to pull someone away from the brink. One sentence stuck with me especially. Moore writes: "The tragic truth is that my story could have been his. The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine." The story inspires the reader to pay attention and to let our young people know we care about them.

The Women - by T.C. Boyle. If you enjoyed Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, you will also like this. It is a biographical novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the series of women with whom he had relationships in his adult life. It covers some of the same ground that Horan's novel did - Wright's long-term affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney and the burning of his mansion Taliesin by a disgruntled employee - but also his subsequent relationships after Cheney.

Unsqueezed: Springing Free from Skinny Jeans, Nose Jobs, High Heels, and Stilettos - by Margot Starbuck. A hilariously true book by a fellow Presbyterian clergywoman about how we as women get too caught up in our culture's idea of beauty. Starbuck challenges us to spend the time and money that we normally spend obsessing about our looks and redirect those resources to living in closer relationship with each other and especially people in need.

The Vagrants - by Yiyun Li. A haunting novel about Communist China in the immediate aftermath of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. Li has captured the suspicion and fear that people under a totalitarian government must constantly live with, as well as the small acts of kindness and grace that people extend to one another in spite of those fears.

America America - by Ethan Canin. A novel about the political climate of 1972, with a fictional presidential candidate thrown in with all the real ones. Narrated by a young boy who finds himself swept into the maelstrom of a political campaign before he understands the flawed nature of leaders and the contrasts that lie within the human heart. Canin writes some sentences that are hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly true, but somehow the pacing of this story dragged for me. It's an interesting story that should be more gripping than it is. I enjoyed it but was also ready for it to end.

Well, this post and the previous one sum up about three months of reading for me. I hope each of you find something in here that interests you. Send me any recommendations that you have!

Reverent Reader