Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Civil Thoughts Top Ten List of 2009

As I write this post I am driving past Tifton, Georgia. Their billboards tell me that Tifton is the reading capital of the world. Because I'm driving in a minivan with a husband, four children, a dog, and two car carriers on the roof of the minivan, I'm not going to stop and investigate their claim. I do know that, while this blog is certainly not the reading captial of cyberworld, I've loved writing it this year. It has received little attention in recent months, as I found the opportunity to do some real freelance writing. I hope to do a better juggling act in 2010. Nonetheless, my experiment worked. I did manage to read my 52 books and then some; I just didn't write about all of them. The best hours of my year had to do with books in some way, shape, or form. Most were great. A few were really awful. Here is my list of the ten (out of around 60) best novels I read in 2009.

Favorite Book #10 - Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, is the most brilliantly humorous writing I've ever encountered. A realistic portrayal of an office environment, this is a must read for anyone who has spent time in corporate America.

Favorite Book #9 - Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout, is the story of a small church, a pastor, and his congregants. It was breathtakingly convicting to me on many levels, and will be the same even to my non-church going readers. My friend Ruth Anne told me about this one and I'm so glad she did, otherwise I would never have picked it up.

Favorite Book #8 - Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is stunning in that it was written by a man about a woman's life in suburban America before women's rights came to the forefront of current events. This one is dark and twisty, but oh so well done. Skip the movie and go straight to the book.

Favorite Book #7 - March, by Geraldine Brooks, was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 2006. This short gem takes the charcter of Mr. March from Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women and explains his experiences as a chaplain during the Civil War. A poignant commentary on slavery and suffering, March is a must read even if you aren't a fan of Little Women.

Favorite Book #6 - The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, is a look at a young black girl and how she views herself in light of the way the world views her. The language of this book still haunts me nine months after reading it.

Favorite Book #5 - The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is the best story I read this year. The story of black women working for white women in Jackson, Mississippi, these characters will stay with you long after you've read the last page. You'll cheer for the protagonists and despise the villains.

Favorite Book #4 - A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher, contains some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. This book is not easy to read, but if you stick with it, you'll realize what a gift it is. It is the story of a woman traveling in a wagon train during the 1800's and is based on the journals of real people.

Favorite Book #3 - Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a novel that my friend Abby sent to me and I will forever be grateful. It the story of John Ames at the end of his life, told in the form of letters he is writing to his young son. This one will take your breath away.

Favorite Book #2 - Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, will forever remain on my list of all time favorite books. Olive Kitteridge deals with the reality of human life. There is no fantasy in this novel; she writes about the real things that we deal with every day. It was the realism that I loved when I read this one.

And...the best book I read in 2009 is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I tear up when I think about this book. It is so incredible. It is an amazing story about two unlikely friends with stunningly gorgeous writing. The book starts slowly, so if you decide to pick it up, be sure to stick with it. It will be worth it in the end (Are you listening, Mom?) and it will inspire you to find beauty in the every day. This one has the potential to make a difference in your life. By far, this was my favorite book of the year.

Happy New Year and may your 2010 be full of reading!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Scandalous Freedom by Steve Brown - Book Review #18

Steve Brown, in certain circles, is a pretty famous man. He is speaking at my church tomorrow, which is quite exciting for me. I'm therefore breaking my rule of not reviewing theological books on this blog. What follows is a review of the book that he will be discussing tomorrow. And since he writes about freedom in this book, he has convinced me that I'm free to break my own rules.

A Scandalous Freedom by Steve Brown lives up to its name. Immensely conversational in tone, this book explains the difference between religion and Christianity. Throughout eleven chapters, Steve Brown shows how Christians have turned a free life into one that is prison-like by being religious instead of by living according to the Gospel.

I have the privilege of hearing this man's teaching every Sunday, and because of that teaching, much of A Scandalous Freedom was not necessarily scandalous for me. However, if you, a Christian, find yourself exhausted by the rules that you find yourself enslaved to as you seek to live out the tenets of the faith, this book is for you. If you, who do not subscribe to Christianity, are disgusted by what you know of this faith and are interested in reading a summary of the faith that accurately describes how Christians truly should be living, I encourage you to read it.

One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed about this book was the conversational nature of it. Steve Brown's voice is, well, immensely distinctive. Brown is on the radio every day, so when I was reading the book, I felt like he was simply talking to me and I was responding to him. That's never happened before when I've read a book. If you know Brown's voice, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Another aspect of the book that is different from many Christian theology books is that he does not include Scripture reference locations within the text. He quotes Scripture, but he footnotes the locations in the back of the book. This adds to the conversational tone of the book.

My favorite chapter is titled "The Perfection We Desire and the Forgiveness that Sets Us Free". I need this chapter. Where has it been all my life? Specifically, I need it for my *ahem* parenting techniques. Even though the chapter was not written directly to parents, it was a reminder that, as I seek to help my children obey and behave and well, let's face it, become perfect, I may just be pushing them away from Christ. The chapter was a reminder that showing my kids the love of Christ is the very best way to show them how to obey and behave. And in the pursuit of finding genuineness and vulnerability among Christians, that same chapter makes this statement: "You greatly diminish your freedom when you pretend to others that you are accomplishing perfection."

I highly encourage you to read this book, whether you love Christianity or hate it. You'll walk away changed, or at least feeling free. And if you don't want to read it, show up at my church tomorrow and listen to Steve Brown talk about it in person.

A Scandalous Freedom offers many stories to make his point, along with the poignant one-liners for which Brown is so well known. And because of this, the book does what so often theological books fail to do. A Scandalous Freedom shows us how to live the theology we say we believe.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett - Book Review #17

Time has diminished the mentally painful discussion of wombs and women who drive at night. With a full bucket, I now get to tell you about a book that is nothing short of remarkable. And let me tell you, this book will go a lot further toward changing the world than filling up people's "buckets" with words. I read all 444 pages of this novel in two days without neglecting any of my duties. I would hate for any of you to wait for it to come out in paperback. Hardback is worth it, my friends. The bookstores display it as soon as you walk through the door for $24; Amazon sells it for $13.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It is the story of a young white woman named Miss Skeeter who decides to compile true accounts of how black maids (The Help) were treated by their white employers at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Miss Skeeter enlists the help of Aibileen and Minny, best friends who support each other through the less than ideal events of their lives as The Help. When Miss Skeeter decides to put these accounts into a book, it is for her own advancement; she is a writer and with no husband in sight she thinks she has to do something with her time. In the dark of night, Miss Skeeter sits in Aibileen's house and writes down the stories of many of Jackson's Help exactly as they recount them. As she hears the stories of these brave and fearful women, details unfold that are shocking. As Miss Skeeter says, "There is undisguised hate for white women, there is inexplicable love." Miss Skeeter's motives for writing the book change and when the book is published and read by the white women of Jackson, things really change. The redemptive conclusion will have you cheering out loud.

Stockett changes voices throughout the book. A few chapters are written from Miss Skeeter's point of view, and then she changes to writing in Minny and Aibileen's voices. The beautiful accomplishment of these transitions is one of the most magnificent aspects of the book. During interviews about the book, Stockett does not claim to completely understand the voice of The Help in Jackson. However, having grown up in Jackson with "Help", her understanding of their plight and their emotions must come remarkably close.

One of the things that struck me as I read repeated accounts of just how hard The Help worked is how incompetent the white women were in running their households. Their Help was not only cooking, cleaning, and managing homes, they were raising the children of Jackson. In some of the most breathtaking parts of the novel, Aibileen tries very hard to teach Mae Mobely, the daughter of the woman for whom she works, that we are all created equal. Aibileen assumes that Mae Mobely will follow in the footsteps of her bigoted mother, but tries nonetheless to instill morals into the children she is raising.

Miss Hilly is the villain of the novel. Stockett, in a brilliantly genteel, Southern manner, made me despise her. Miss Hilly does many horrible things throughout the novel. One of her primary purposes in life is to have every white household make a separate bathroom for their Help. Miss Hilly thought it was a sin to share a bathroom with a black woman. This way of thinking is so horrific to me. It is stunning to think that attitude was prevalent only 40 years ago. At one point during a toilet discussion, Miss Hilly assumes that Aibileen would not want to go to school with white people. Aibileen replies, "No ma'am...Not a school full a just white people. But where the colored and white folks is together." Miss Hilly says, "But Aibileen...colored people and white people are just so...different." Then the author tells us what Aibileen is thinking but doesn't dare say: "I feel my lip curling. A course we different! Everybody know colored people and white people ain't the same. We still just people!"

There are incredibly funny parts of this book. The foreshadowing Stockett employs is stunning. If I were putting this book on a list, I'd put it towards the top of the list titled, "The Best Fiction Books that Could Change the World". It isn't Anna Karenina good. It isn't Elegance of the Hedgehog good. It's change-the-world-for-good good. Buy this one. Read this one. Tell everyone you know about this one.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

And the winner is...

Amy, who suggested that I read and review Everything Matters. Congratulations!

More book give-aways are coming!


Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Full is Your Bucket? - Book Review #16

The friend who sent me this book oozes happiness and positive energy. She sent it to me in April. I'm just getting around to writing about it because Mr. Civil Thoughts absconded with it. It seems that he decided to send a copy of it to his each of his staff people. I keep waiting for our copy to show up again, but it hasn't. Trying to be positive, I'm going to go ahead and write about it from memory.

How Full is Your Bucket?, by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, is a reminder to all of us that we should be positive during our interactions with others. The premise of the book is that the more we fill others' buckets with positive words of affirmation and attitude, the more our own happiness buckets will be filled. That premise, in my mind, is somewhat debatable. Whether you agree or not, we can all be reminded that edifying words to our co-workers, spouse, friends, children, neighbors, mailmen, and customer service reps go a long way in improving our relationships with others. This book is great encouragement to repair communications with the difficult people in your life, and the authors make the solution sound so simple. It isn't earth-shattering stuff, but a good reminder nonetheless.

P.S. Please note that I'm easing into these reviews slowly. Small book = small post.

I Come Bearing Gifts.

Dear Faithful Readers (all 7 of you),

I owe you an explanation for my lack of posts. What I'm really giving you is an excuse. While I've still been cutting the same number of sandwich crusts, I've added some other writing to my daily schedule. And because this added writing involves deadlines, this blog becomes the very last priority in my day. Reading, of course, is still up there on the high priority list. I just haven't been able to write about my books while I have been learning to manage crusts and deadlines.

To let you know just how sorry I am, I'm giving away an apology book. Because apologies are on my mind, and because I'm about to tell you about a woman named Olive who should have apologized more, I'm going to give away a free copy of Olive Kitteridge. This marvelous book won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I adore this book. It is my second favorite book I've read in 2009. If you'd like a free copy of Olive, all you have to do is post a comment giving me a title you'd like to see reviewed on Civil Thoughts. If you win, I'll send you Olive, read your book and post a review. The winner will be chosen at random on Thursday, October 8th at 5:00 pm.

And again, I'm sorry. Crusts and deadlines willing, reviews will be posted on a regular basis again.

Civil Thoughts

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Civil Math

My rate of reading is:

1. Faster than my rate of writing; and
2. Directly proportional to the number of crusts I cut in a day.

More reviews are coming soon, my friends.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Quiverfull, by Kathryn Joyce - Book Review #15

A few weeks ago, I was minding my own business in the New Books section of the library while peacefully searching for some mystery about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Alas. My peace was abruptly disrupted when my eyes fell on Quiverfull. I had not heard of the book, but I certainly understood the connotation of the word. Unable to resist, I picked it up and saw the subtitle: "Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement". I immediately looked for the author's bio and when I discovered that she was not of the camp about which she was writing, I decided to read it. I read a fair amount of theology books. I've made it a point to refrain from reviewing those books here for various reasons. However, I figured that I'm not breaking my own rules by reviewing a book about Christianity written by a non-Christian.

Kathryn Joyce is a journalist whose work has focused on religion. In writing Quiverfull, she examines the philosophies and motivations behind what she calls the "Christian Patriarchy"movement within Christian Evangelicals (sometimes known as ultra right-wing-conservatives). It is evident from the outset of the book that Joyce spent a considerable amount of time not only reading the philosophies driving this movement, but also countless numbers of hours interviewing its mavericks. She even attended weekend retreats for Christian women, doing so as a self-proclaimed non-Christian (at the retreats she was told that "she really should get saved.").

It is unusual for me to read a non-fiction book on a subject about which I am very knowledgeable. I've read a majority of the books Joyce references in Quiverfull. I was unfamiliar with about 5% of the people she references. I've heard many of their lectures. I've read their blogs. I've read their books. I've read their magazines. So, I can say, without a doubt, that Joyce's reporting was quite accurate. This is fair and balanced reporting from a journalist who doesn't agree with what her subject matter believes. That is so heartening, isn't it? But it is precisely her accurate reporting that is so disheartening to this Christian.

Joyce divides the book into three categories: wives, mothers, and daughters. She explains, in detail, how this Christian Patriarchy Movement is spreading through Evangelical Christian circles. She talks about how wives are to be submissive to their husbands, how women are to stay at home with their children, and how daughters are to refrain from higher education for the purpose of learning the art of housewifery so that the entire cycle can begin again.

Now, if you are not a Christian, you need not read further. But, if you, like me, call yourself a Christian, read on because I have something to say.

[Stepping on soap box]


Evangelicals, as of late, have done a lot of whining and complaining about how the media has taken their line of thinking out of context, blah, blah, blah. Here is a case where, for the most part, Joyce (the media) didn't take things out of context. What she shows is that the Evangelicals have taken things way out of context. Joyce paints a picture of a group of people who have a serious misunderstanding of the Bible. And I have a ginormous problem with that. My problem is that my faith in which I am a devout believer is sorely misunderstood by the very people who claim to share that same faith. In short, the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy movement has condensed the Gospel into a list of rules, including but not limited to: wives are to defer to their husbands on every matter (no matter how minuscule), wives are not to drive at night, women and girls are not allowed to wear pants, women are supposed to have as many children as possible, women are not supposed to work outside of the home, mothers are supposed to homeschool their children (public or private school is not allowed), daughters are supposed to be committed to helping their fathers' work in lieu of attending college, fathers are only supposed to work in their own small businesses, and the list continues. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with practicing any of the above. I am saying that it is wrong to think that a requirement of Christianity is to do all of the above.

A disturbing theme seen throughout the book is the claim by the Quiverfull followers that following these rules will fix the problems in our nation. Says Rachel Scott in her book Birthing God's Mighty Warriors: "When God's people are plentiful, we can come up against society going in the wrong direction, against wicked political systems, against immoral laws and antifamily legislation, and make them back down!" If this sentence weren't so horrific, it would be funny. "God's people" are messed up. They are not perfect. Their rules are not sufficient to clean up a "society going in the wrong direction". There is an attitude of perfection by the followers of this movement. Such an attitude is divisive, isolating, and simply incorrect.

My understanding of Christianity does not have these rules as a requirement for membership. The people who loudly advocate the following of such laws have misunderstood what the Bible says. They have reduced the Christian faith to nothing other than the various religions they criticize; they've turned it into religion that is centered on what humans are supposed to do. The Christianity I understand is the opposite of that. It is centered not on what I do, but on what someone else did for me. And that, my friends, is the only faith that fills this quiver.

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher - Book Review #14

Collectively, my four children ask me an average of 413 questions each day. Apparently children in the mid-1800's were as inquisitive. They did not care that their mothers were walking next to a wagon that was carrying all of their earthly belongings to Oregon. They did not care that their mothers were, while walking next to the wagon, having to start life over again. They did not care that their mothers would really rather have stayed in their nice homes with furniture and plates. They did not care that their mothers were expected to cook, clean, do laundry and serve their husbands while walking across the country in their long, hot dresses. No, they didn't care. They still asked their questions.

Such truths are brilliantly described in A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher. It is a historical novel about westward expansion in 1846. Fisher based the novel on a journal she read by real people who made the journey. It is a gorgeous story that reminded me of one big poem. The writing is lyrical throughout and takes some concentration. It is definitely not pool-side-with-children-dripping-popsicles-on-you summer reading. Lucy Mitchell and James MacLaren are the main characters in the novel. Lucy, still grieving the death of her previous husband, now finds herself in a marriage to a man for whom she feels no love. Furthermore, she nearly despises him for forcing her (and her five children) to pick up and move to Oregon. James, grieving the facts that his wife left him to return to her Nez Perez tribe and that all three of his daughters recently died from illness, now finds himself desperately trying to find his wife amongst the various Nez Perez tribes he encounters. When their paths cross, Lucy and James forge a common bond in their grief. This bond provides a poignant backdrop for a tale of the sacrifice, pain and labor it took to begin again during this time in America's history.

There are two reasons I loved this novel. Many books covering Westward Expansion detail how the pioneers pillaged the land of the Native Americans. This book describes how they harmed each other. As I was reading, I felt compassion for both groups, realizing that each was striving to do what they thought was needed for survival of their people. Karen Fisher provided this perspective incredibly well.

The second reason is that, as I labor in my home daily, I have the conveniences of modern appliances, running water, peaceful neighbors, furniture, and pants. Lucy's story includes most of the same responsibilities I face each day, excluding the appliances, running water, peaceful neighbors and pants. How dare I even utter a sigh in exhaustion as my dishwasher is running, I'm loading my dryer, and I'm answering the 413th question of the day?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - Book Review #13

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho has been around for a while, and, as of late, has been popping up everywhere I look. The reason for this is that it is the 20th anniversary of its original release. My Bac Ninh friend sent it to me in April. I read it then, but I'm just now getting around to writing about it. The reason for this procrastination is not laundry or dishes or groceries. It is that I have approval issues. I don't want to disappoint my Bac Ninh friend by telling her I didn't like it. Additionally, a person for whom I care immensely doesn't like it when I post negative reviews. And furthermore, it is listed as one of the best selling books of all time. There are millions of people I worry about disappointing. Do you see my problem? Well, here at Civil Thoughts we are all about the truth and what follows is the truth, the whole truth, so help me God.

This is a fable about a shepherd boy who travels to pursue his destiny. On his journey, he encounters many people who provide words of wisdom. At the beginning, the boy thinks, "People say strange things, the boy thought. Sometimes it's better to be with the sheep, who don't say anything. And better still to be alone with one's books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them. But when you're talking to people, they say some things that are so strange that you don't know how to continue the conversation." That is exactly how I felt about this book; it was full of things so strange that I just didn't know how to continue in the conversation. Clearly, the author's intent was to inspire. I was completely uninspired. Since millions of people seem to have been profoundly moved by it, maybe there is something wrong with me.

The most significant reason I didn't like this book is because Coelho tries to pull facets of every religion into helping the boy reach his destiny. Last time I checked, all the religions of the world don't mesh real well together. Pick one. Stick with it. Don't try to merge them all together. It doesn't work in a fable, let alone in real life.

There you are. I hated the thing. And now all of you know it and I've disappointed my friend, my person-I-care-for-deeply, and the millions of people reading this blog who loved it. Maybe I'll try reading it in the original language (Portuguese). If change my opinion maybe you all will like me again.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout - Book Review #12

Elizabeth Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge, Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009. As I have waited to get my literature-gluttonous eyes on it, I've read Strout's Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle. Both are excellent. I'm anxious to see what her Pulitzer writing looks like.

Amy, a teenage girl with a "lack of commotion in her face", is Isabelle's daughter. Isabelle is a single mother and a secretary who spends lots of time in "fruitless conjecture, hours of wasted thought". She is confident that she is giving Amy the opportunities in life that she missed. Isabelle loves her boss, Avery Clark. This is a secret she has shared with no one. Just as she has convinced herself that she is doing all she can for her daughter, she is equally convinced that Avery's wife does not love him as she would. Isabelle thinks, "Now, if she were married to Avery (rolling sheet of paper into the typewriter and getting rid of Emma Clark with a heart attack that would carry only a few brief moments of panic and pain), Avery might say in response to some one's asking, A nasty bug, but Isabelle took wonderful care of me." In short, Isabelle is desperate to love someone. Well. Amy would have been a good place to start. Amy, desperate to be loved, receives some attention from someone (who has no business giving her attention) and does every thing she possibly can to keep that attention coming. Strout writes, "Amy had become desperate, crazy, somebody else." The decisions that Amy and Isabelle make in response to their desperation for love direct the remainder of the story, which will make you think and laugh and cry just a little.

The characters on the periphery of the story will make you laugh. These characters (Dottie, Bev and Stacy) point out just how rotten life can be because of the way we treat one another. In one scene, Strout writes, "Intermittently glancing at Dottie lying on the couch with the afghan pulled over her, Isabelle had to keep looking away, for she was struck with the extreme ease with which lives could be damaged, destroyed. Lives, flimsy as fabric, could be snipped capriciously with the shears of random moments of self-interest." And then, there is this poignant paragraph: "She gazed at the stupefied Dottie in her rocking chair and had the sense to visibly witnessing a disaster, a house left in shambles, as though an earthquake had struck. But it wasn't any earthquake, it wasn't any "act of God." No, you couldn't blame these things on God. It was people, just ordinary, regular people, who did this to each other. People ruined other people's lives. People simply took what they wanted..." Did you pause when you read that? If not, go back and read it again. Self. It can be a dangerous thing. Is there any place in your life where your self interest is simply taking what you want? Yep. I thought so.

Predictably, there are some strong mother/daughter themes in the book. When Stacy, a teenager adopted at birth and Amy's best friend, gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, she pontificates the following point: "I wonder if I'm like my real mother...Because if everyone just turns out like their mother, then what's the...point?" Here are some lines that have no doubt been screamed in kitchens by mothers to their teenage daughters many, many times: " 'You go right ahead and tell yourself that your mother is an illiterate moron and that she's too stupid to know anything about real life, but I'm telling you that you are the one who doesn't know anything!' It has become that senseless and awful, yelling at each other about who was the most stupid."

Amy and Isabelle provides a profound portrait of the female teenage mind. It is this aspect of the novel that I appreciated the most. Teenage girls are delightful and unique. However, they - generally speaking - have an extreme desire to feel loved by their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, boyfriends, teachers, aunts, uncles, and third cousins. Time and again I've seen them make unfortunate decisions to obtain this love. While Elizabeth Strout doesn't necessarily provide solutions for the teenager, she certainly reminds us that as the adults, we have a responsibility to give love and attention to these young ladies. Because if we don't, they are going to go elsewhere to find it. And the elsewhere might not be so lovely.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson - Book Review #11

I fell in love with this book while sitting in the lobby of a hotel at midnight while my family slept peacefully in Room 226. I could not have loved it more had I been reading it on the beach at sunrise.

Housekeeping, written by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), is the story of Ruthie and her mother's sister, Sylvie. Ruthie's mother kills herself when Ruthie and her sister, Lucille, are young children. Ruthie's grandmother raises them for five years and then she dies. Enter Aunt Sylvie, who arrives to take over the rearing of these two girls into their teen years. As with Gilead, the themes are so rich and so deep that everyone will take away something different from their reading. Grief is the most prominent of those themes in Housekeeping, and the story radically portrays what happens when grief remains untouched.

The writing is gorgeous. It is so beautiful that anything else I've read since seems choppy and ugly. Robinson's gift of sentence construction is astonishing. As Doris Lessing said of the novel, "...every sentence is a delight." To tell us that Ruthie's grandmother died, she says, "When after almost five years, my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening,..." And then, to provide insight into the family, Robinson writes, "Then, too, for whatever reasons, our whole family was standoffish. This was the fairest description of our best qualities, and the kindest description of our worst faults." I read the following sentence and melted as I could see the picture of what she was describing so vividly: "If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water." And in my final attempt to convince you of her beautiful writing, I share my favorite lines of the entire book:

"We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others and we had lost our sight."

Entwined in the fabulous sentences is a poignant story. Ruthie's grandmother did not grieve the loss of her husband. She simply did not address the death with her children, including Ruthie's mom and Aunt Sylvie. She just went on with life. Ruthie's grandmother did the same thing with her grandchildren when Ruthie's mom drove off a bridge; she just didn't address the death with the children. Aunt Sylvie shows up and because of her unresolved grief, she neglects Ruthie and Lucille in a seriously tragic way. Sylvie feeds, clothes and shelters Lucille and Ruthie. The negligence is of the emotion, the spirit. In Housekeeping, ignored grief leads to mental health issues which lead to neglect of children. The cycle begins again, with some children choosing to get out of the cycle and others finding it most comforting to stay in it.

Because of my place in life, the neglect of children theme was my focus as I read. We all know that neglect of children is bad. And we generally give children credit for being resilient. But how resilient are they, really? Robinson so powerfully shows just how damaging adult self-indulgence is in regard to the nurture and care of children. Ruthie says this about her Aunt Sylvie:

"For she could regard me without strong emotion - a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in their thoughts, with pleasure and animation, even while I sat beside her - this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all."

As good writing always does, it encouraged me to think about the world, my life, my parenting, my children. Why are so many children throughout the world neglected? Where am I negligent in the care of my children? When am I so self-focused that I'm simply seeing them as familiar shapes, familiar faces and, in our house, familiar loud voices? How can I listen so that I am not mistaking important life questions for inconvenient queries? What can I do to parent so that my children don't reach adulthood with Ruthie's conclusion regarding mothers:

"Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hollywood Parenting - Book Review #10

Are you familiar with the books in the how-to section of the bookstore that promise to provide the secrets to raising the children of your dreams?  I began reading  these mothering/parenting/child rearing/family books eleven years ago.  I began parenting nine years ago.  Simple math will lead you to the conclusion that I'm more experienced in reading about child-rearing that I am about actual child-rearing.  Recently, I realized that I spent so many years immersed in the research of raising amazing children that I did not read on many other topics for a while.  A while?  I stuck to one genre for a decade, people.  The genre of Child-Rearing Non-Fiction.  Do you think I'm exaggerating?  I went to my closet to count the number of mothering books that line my bookshelf.  I scanned the impressive collection, realized that reporting a number would be embarrassing, and returned to sit in front of my computer.  Many - I'll say over 15 - of my prized books on mothering have pages falling out of them.  Several of them I've practically memorized.  Such extensive research should lead to flawless implementation, right?  Ahem.  Not quite.  This implementer is seriously flawed.

Little did I know that I could have been reading Tolstoy for that decade.  All I really needed was David Gilmour's The Film Club.  It is a memoir of the three years that David Gilmour spent watching movies with his son.  And I have to tell you that it is one of the more remarkable books on parenting I've ever read. Don't look for it in the mothering/parenting/child-rearing section of the bookstore.  It won't be there.

David Gilmour is a writer, broadcaster and film critic in real life.  He is also a father.  And when his 15-year old son, Jesse, was failing every single class in high school, he knew he had to do something to help his son.  Gilmour says this about Jesse and school:  "To my nightly question "Is that all your homework?"  my son, Jesse, responded with a cheerful "Absolutely!" When he went to stay with his mother for a week that summer, I found a hundred different homework assignments shoved into every conceivable hiding place in his bedroom. School, in a word, was making him a liar and a slippery customer."

Gilmour tells Jesse that he can drop out of school with two conditions.  The first condition is that Jesse can not take drugs.  The second condition is that Jesse has to watch three movies a week of David's choosing and discuss them with him.  That's it.  No other academic work has to be completed, David will financially support him, he can have free reign of the house with no conditions on behavior other than no drugs.  And three movies a week.  Note that none of the  1,763 (not really) parenting books that line my shelves have a chapter titled "Let Your Teenager Drop out of High School and Watch Movies With Him for Three Years".

Gilmour doesn't describe much of a grappling with such an unconventional solution.  What the reader does experience is the intense, internal wrestling with how to parent a troubled teen.  Gilmour does this remarkably well.  Some of you won't agree with Gilmour's family values, if you will.  Some of you won't have a problem with them.  If you read this  book, I'd encourage you to try to take your focus off what Gilmour does or doesn't allow in terms of boundaries for his child.  The impressive thing is that he knows what he believes those boundaries are and he has to decide how to enforce consequences or, in some cases, give mercy.  He does an amazing job of deciding when to give advice and when to abstain.  As a reader we get to know what he, the parent, is thinking and then what he decides to say.  As a parent, I could certainly relate to that little dilemma.  Here is an example:

"I asked him about his evening; yes, all fine, nothing special, though.  Dropped over to see a friend.  Uh-huh.  which friend?
Pause.  "Dean."
I don't know Dean, do I?"
"Just a fellow."
Fellow?   (You hear language that out of character, you want to call the police.)  He could tell I was looking at him."

Films?  Oh, yes, they did  watch some films.  Gilmour chronicles what they watched. Often he explains the reasons for his choices and sometimes he doesn't.  The films he chose are absolutely fascinating, as are the highlights of the discussions that Gilmour chooses to include in the book.  The films he chose over the three year period are very much in line with the values with which he wants to instill.  Should you choose to allow your child to drop out of school and only watch movies, you'd likely choose different films.  The bottom line is this:  David Gilmour wanted to help him and found a way to spend time with him that would allow for dialogue, learning, and love between father and son.  It was profoundly inspiring.

A little Tolstoy aside before I close...  Gilmour finds himself in the precarious position of having to give his son advice about girls on a regular basis.  At one point, Jesse was hurt by a girl.  He asks his father what will happen if the girl hurts him again.  This occurs toward the end of the film viewing experiment and Gilmour responds with this:

"You know what Tolstoy says?" I said.
"He says that a woman can never wound you the same way twice."

A few days later Jesse sees the girl and reports to his father that after only speaking for a few moments, she whispers to him, "If you keep looking at me like that, I'm going to have to kiss you."  And this brilliant little line is what Gilmour thinks after listening to his son's recounting:  "(My God, where do they learn this stuff? Are they all at home reading Tolstoy before these parties?)"

Perhaps the greatest sentence in the book is the one Gilmour chooses to include just before the title page.  The quote from Michel de Montaingne reads:  "I know nothing about education except this:  that the greatest and most important difficulty known to human beings seems to lie in that area which deals with how to bring up children and how to educate them."

And then, there is this from Gilmour that captures the beauty with which he describes the love of a parent for a child: "Still, and I don't want to get maudlin here, some nights I walk by his bedroom on the way to my study and I take a peek inside.  The moonlight falls over his bed, the room is very still, and I can't quite believe he's gone.  There were other things we were going to do to that room, other prints, another clothes peg for the wall.  But time ran out."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ahab's Wife - Review #9

Do you remember reading Moby Dick in high school?  Whether you weathered the epic or sloshed through Cliff's notes, you'll certainly recall this fact: Ahab's wife's name was Una.   In Moby Dick, Ahab briefly mentions her.  Sena Jeter Naslund writes an epic about Una in Ahab's Wife.  An epic from an epic.  Intriguing, don't you think?

Ahab's Wife is a magnificent story.  Ahab's wife, Una, is so much more than just a wife.  The cornerstone of the story is that at a young age, Una vehemently rejects the existence of the God of her father.  This fact angers her father so much that Una's mother has to send her away because she fears her husband will kill Una simply because of her rejection of his faith.  She goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who run a lighthouse on a New England island. While on the island she falls in love with the ocean and makes a decision that will have astounding ramifications.  The reader follows her life as she encounters repetitous patterns of love, heroism and tragedy.  Abundant with historical and literary references, this book is more of a project than a liesurely read.  It is a project well worth the effort.  Discussing this book is essential to enjoying it fully and this reviewer hopes that someone will read it and comment.  There are many major events in Ahab's Wife, but if I highlight any of them I will ruin the story for you.  A few points of interest follow.

Friendship is a fairly major theme in Ahab's Wife.  The reader meets a number of Una's friends but Naslund develops them primarily in terms of how they impact Una's life and not as stand alone characters.  When I finished the novel, I thought about the characters in the story of my life.  Who would I highlight in telling my story?  How would I describe their contribution to my being?  In doing so, would I be blind to their character traits, focusing only on their participation in my life? The pondering of such questions provided some quality soul searching and subsequent repentance.  I highly recommend it.

I'm still grappling with just how much I appreciate the feminist theme in  the book.  I don't even know if feminist is the correct adjective.  After you read the book, please provide me with a better adjective.  Anyway, Una thinks she can do anything.  She believes she can conquer the sea, overcome gender boundaries, abolish political bias, win a battle with an eagle, and master the most difficult literature, among other things.  I am confident (and the confidence is often misplaced, for the record) that I can do just about anything I set my mind to do and I identified with some of this woman-power Una exudes.  But conquering the sea?  Fighting an eagle?  Sometimes this theme was a little overstated and somewhat annoying.  And at times it was motivating.  One such motivating quote follows:

"I only mean we all change by degrees," I said.  "Neither in good architecture nor in nature is there any abruptness, but gradual modulation, requiring planning and patience."

Speaking of motivation.  The literary references in the novel are stunning.  The manner in which the author weaves thoughts of the writers of old into the story is fabulous.  For example, Shakespeare is abundantly referenced, quoted and used to develop Una's character.  At one point, Una tells her cousin that she never found Hamlet convincing because of "...All that hesitation.  A person would either kill the king or go to another country."  Her cousin responds with this telling observation:  "Hesitation is more natural for some of us than it is for you, Una."  Ahab's Wife motivated me to return to Shakespeare (high school was long, long ago and my college engineering classes just didn't seek the Bard out) and I stumbled across this book, which I highly recommend as a helpful reference to such a return.  

The most prominent theme in the book is a lack of faith in the Christian God, the God of Una's father.  She searches for God throughout the 666 pages of the book (hmmmm...), but ultimately only finds faith in herself.  Every single Christian is either a hypocrite or a disappointment.  Susan, the runaway slave Una befriends, is the only Christian in the novel with Christ-like character.  But when Susan is given a chance for freedom, she "finds freedom sterile" and makes a decision that disappoints Una.  All of the other Christian characters are portrayed as hypocrites because they claim to be Christians but then don't live up to the assumed standard of Christian behavior.  And since they don't follow the rules and subsequently disappoint her, the conclusion Una makes is that religion must be rejected.  The "Christians" in Una's life were following rules; they were being religious.  And no one can follow the rules perfectly.  The logical conclusion for her to make was to reject the religion.  But should she have rejected God on this particular basis?  The author makes this point in the following dialouge between Una and Captain Ahab:

"Are you, then, religious after all?"  I felt disappointed.  He had seemed a fellow skeptic, like Giles, like Kit.
"Religion and God usually have very little to do with each other," he said.

Una never does grasp the distinction between religion and God.  Such a distinction is the difference between faith in one's self and faith in God.  Now there is something for you to ponder.    

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Restaurant Reminiscing - Review # 8

I spent a good number of my teenage years working in restaurants.  The days spent in a black and white waitress uniform at a New Jersey diner provided the funds with which I bought my periwinkle Acura Integra.  I learned to carry four glasses at once.  I could (still can) balance four plates on one arm.  More valuable lessons included learning how to remember names of the regulars, providing good service even when the customer was less than polite, and settling into the realization that one's boss might be downright mean.  Most importantly, I learned how to work hard when I was at the diner.  Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan provides a moving commentary on the value of hard work with a restaurant as the backdrop.

Last Night at the Lobster chronicles the final day in which a Connecticut Red Lobster will be open for business.  Manny, the manager and  main character, is tireless in his desire to work hard, even though it doesn't matter any more.  His work ethic and his leadership skills are inspiring.  He works hard because it is his job to do so, not because his next promotion depends upon the day's numbers.  He works hard because it is the right thing to do.  

My favorite scene in the story occurs a few hours before closing when an obnoxious toddler overeats and vomits in front of a table of grandmothers trying to enjoy their late afternoon lunch.  The toddler's equally obnoxious mother is furious that the restaurant staff is not immediately providing a glass of water for her son.  O'Nan writes about what Manny has to do to rectify the situation:

"While he scrubs the stinking rug and fills a bus tub with nasty rags, Nicolette has to relocate the grandmothers to a booth as far away as possible, which is the equivalent of seating and serving them again.  Jacquie takes a tray over.  So does Kendra, as Roz shares an open-mouthed look of surprise with him.  While he's down there, he notices a couple spots of gum on the underside of the table and before he can stop himself, he thinks he should find the putty knife later and take care of them...
The wetted carpet reeks like and overpowering cheese.  He fogs the spot with disinfectant, then spends a couple minutes at the hygiene sink washing his hands.  Once the mess dries he'll vacuum, but not with guests present.  The idea is to let things settle, let them all forget.  Impossible in real life, and yet here it works perfectly.  In fact, once the kid and his mom are gone, and infectious laughter circles the room as if they've all been holding it in, the grandmothers included, hooting and slapping the table top so hard their silverware rattles."

There is no surprising climax to this novel.  It is about hard work, plain and simple.  O'Nan captures the environment of a restaurant so well; if you are working or have worked in such an environment, you'll find your self nodding in agreement throughout this entire book.  If you decide to check it out, I think you'll be pulling for Manny the whole way.  You'll wonder if "corporate" will show up and decide that the restaurant shouldn't be closed after all.  You'll hope he wins the lottery with the ticket he buys for his staff on the last day.  And you'll remember a time in your own job when you really were getting the short end of the stick even though you were working as hard as humanly possible.  


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Full in the Everyday - Book #7

Since finishing Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, two tasks have plagued me. The first impossible task is to find the words with which to tell you just how much I enjoyed this book.  I will be unable to find the appropriate words, I can assure you.  The second task is to find a contemporary book that I will like better than this one.

Renee Michel, the leading lady of this story, is a concierge for wealthy tenants of an apartment building in Paris.  She is brilliant and well-read.  She is witty and sarcastic.  She knows music and art and food.  Based on her conviction that a concierge is meant to be uncultured and illiterate, Renee purposely hides her intellect and knowledge from everyone except her cat. Paloma is the supporting character of this story.  Also desiring to hide her brilliance from those in her circle (which happens to be her wealthy family), she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday because she believes her life just isn't worth living among all of the stupid people with whom she must spend her days. And in the climax of the book, which comes at you quickly and unexpectedly, Renee and Paloma discover each other's brilliance and become fast friends. At its core, this book is about finding beauty in the things of everyday, which, added up, becomes life. The book fed  my soul.  That sounds so trite, but I simply can't manufacture another sentence to describe just how much I enjoyed it.

I must provide a disclaimer.  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is my favorite book of all time.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog references the brilliant classic work. That's not the only reason I loved the book, but it is one of the reasons.  And for that reason alone, many of you readers may not enjoy The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  If you are not a lover of Tolstoy, I urge you to give him another try.  "Urge" as in, right now, get out of your pajamas, turn off the television, find your library card, go to the library and check out Anna.  It is that good.

I digress.  Back to the hedgehog.  You may be pondering the title.  This quote will end the mystery.  And as you read the quote you will grasp the beauty of Barbery's writing.  As Paloma discovers Renee's personality she says, "Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog;  a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."

Barbery includes a little bit of economic class and pop-culture commentary in the story.  One of the best lines in the book is this:  "Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives:  by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning."  I enjoy a well-done sitcom or drama like the next gal, but does television ever aid me in the "great work of making meaning"?  I think not.  Later, Renee muses, "Literature, for example, serves a pragmatic purpose.  Like any form of Art, literature's mission is to make the fulfillment of our essential duties more bearable."  Note to self:  buy stock in Amazon.com tomorrow.

Maybe one of the reasons our culture is drawn to the television more than it is drawn to books these days is because it is easier to share thoughts on Lost than it is to discuss Anna.  To discuss Anna with someone, the someone has to have read Tolstoy.  To discuss Lost with someone, the someone has to have passively watched a screen for an hour while folding laundry. For me, I have not finished reading a book until I've discussed it with someone.  Then We Came to the End was a great book.  It became a satisfying book for me after my husband read it.  In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renee experiences that kind of joy for the first time.  She describes the experience like this:  

"When did I first experience the exquisite sense of surrender that is possible only with another person?  The peace of mind one experiences on one's own, one's certainty of self in the serenity of solitude, are nothing in comparison to the release and openness and fluency one shares with another, in close companionship...When did I first feel so blissfully relaxed in the presence of a man?  Today is the first time."

This book is about the everyday and how the beauty in it draws human beings together.  And if the love of art, classical music, literature, good vocabulary, excellent grammar and tea are a part of your everyday, you will love this book. As Renee says, "Those who feel inspired, as I do, by the greatness of small things will pursue them to the very heart of the inessential where, cloaked in everyday attire, this greatness will emerge from within a certain ordering of ordinary things and from the certainty that all is as it should be, the conviction that it is fine this way."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Empty at the Beach - Book #6

Pat Conroy's Beach Music is the story of Jack McCall, a man trying to raise his young daughter after his wife's suicide.  He flees his small, wealthy South Carolina town for Rome with the hope of escaping his family, his friends, and his past. When an emergency beckons him home, he is forced to deal with his past. This past includes high school friends who became college friends and their dysfunctional families, his own dysfunctional family, a near death experience at sea, the Vietnam War, and the Holocaust.  He also has to face the present, which includes terrorism, insanity, cancer, Hollywood, harboring a criminal and a new love.  This book is chock full of themes.  Why then, the emptiness?  The book was just too full.  

Consider these sentences:

"Though both of us were glad of the armistice, neither of us knew what strategies would lead us around the impasse of distrust and hatred that we both felt whenever our eyes met."  
"A breeze lifted off the ocean and several hundred notes from the wind chimes tinkled like ice shaken in silver cups.  They altered the mood of the forest the way an orchestra does a theater when it begins tuning up its instruments."

Those are beautifully written, aren't they?  I certainly could not have come up with material as good. However, this 800 small-font page book is covered in sentences such as these.  It is so full of similes and analogies that the good sentences get lost in a sea of adjectives.  It is like a salad with too many herbs; the good flavors get so mixed up you don't know they are good anymore.

When Jack returns to his childhood home, he finds his beloved books in the attic.  He thinks, "A good movie had never once affected me in the same life-changing way a good book could. Books had the power to alter my view of the world forever.  A great movie could change my perceptions for a day."  We would be hard pressed to find a disagreement with that view.  Beach Music wasn't a book that had the power to alter my view of the world forever, but there was a chapter that did.  I have read good amount of material regarding the Holocaust.  I have an acquaintance who was an integral part of setting up and opening the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  I thought I had a fairly good handle on the horror of that time in history. Chapter 34 of Beach Music made me realize that I really don't have a depth of understanding at all.  In that Chapter, Jack's father-in-law describes his experience of living as a Jew in Kironittska, Ukraine during the Holocaust.  I can honestly say that I've never been so horrified by anything I've ever read as I was when I read this account.  And, I'm assuming, based on the credit he gives some Holocaust survivors at the beginning of the book, that the account is based on truth.  Some startling (that's putting it mildly) quotes from Chapter 34 follow:

"Ah!  The Holocaust, Jack.  Yes, that word again.  That stupid word, that empty vessel.  I am so sick of that word.  It is an exhausted word that means nothing, and we Jews have shoved it down the world's throat and dared anyone to use it improperly.  One poor word cannot bear that much weight, yet this poor word must stagger under that load forever...Holocaust.  One English word should not be required to carry so many human hearts."

"In Yiddish, he keeps telling his sons that Yahweh will protect them.  But Yahweh is taking a long vacation, far away from his chosen in people in those years.  He was not in Eastern Europe, Jack, of that I am certain."

"You think you have heard and imagined the worst that can happen to the ghetto Jews.  Then something else happens so horrible that you shut down completely.  You pray that you can imagine nothing.  Your prayers are answered.  You learn that evil is bottomless.  The despair I feel in my stomach is like a paralysis."

"Despair is a daily bread and there is plenty enough to go around."

"We are not survivors.  None of us.  We were dice.  We were thrown, hurled into the mouth of hell, and we learned that a human life was as worthless as a horsefly...Dice are simply thrown, cast into the abyss.  I can tell you how to find your way around in nothingness.  I have the map in my possession, Jack.  All the street names are covered with blood and the streets are all cobbled with the skulls of Jews.  You are a Christian, Jack, and should feel right at home in this place.  I hate your Christian face.  I am sorry.  I always have and I always will."

Those are just some thoughts that are woven throughout the story that Jack's father-in-law tells in Chapter 34.  The story is stunning and it needs to be read and remembered.  But it gets lost in all of the rest of the book's sub-plots.  I wonder if the author felt like he needed to nest this description of the Holocaust into some other themes because he was trying to give Jack's father-in-law a happy ending. We can see no happy ending to the Holocaust.  The story, though, needs to be told.  And we need to listen and ponder and think and act so that the story is not forgotten.  Go to your library, find Beach Music, and turn to Chapter 34.  Read all 35 pages of it and be empty.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friendship Fluff - Book #5

I am not a creature of many habits.  I love spontaneity.  However, there are a few daily rituals that provide me with some comfort.  One of those rituals is to turn on late night television.  It rarely has my full attention.  It is fluff that I use as background noise when the house is too quiet.  Something that I noticed only because of the repetitive nature of this ritual is that Conan O'Brien (before his 12:30 am show ended) would open his monologue the same way each night.  He would say, "We have a great show for you tonight!"  Every night was a great show.  I would often think, "How can EVERY night possibly be a great show?  Every night can't be great."  This blog was taking a similar tone, as each book reviewed was great.  Fear no more, viewers.  Every book is not great.  Some books, like late night television, are just plain fluff. They will provide some background noise for your brain, but they won't provide a whole lot of significance to your life.

Leah Stewart's The Myth of You and Me is a fluffy chick book that, if read at all, should be consumed at the beach where you only need to have half of your brain engaged.  Men, stay away.  You really won't like it.  It is the story of two teenagers, Sonia and Cameron, who become best friends in high school.  They attend college together and immediately following graduation, they have a falling out over - can you guess? - a boy.  Their falling out deeply affects the life decisions that Cameron makes.  And, predictably, those decisions do not appear to be good ones.  As she approaches her 30th birthday, Cameron makes a new best friend with her 90-year old boss who encourages her to reconcile with Sonia.  The reader realizes that if the two friends could just reconcile, Cameron's life would be okay again.  

The book is predictable, juvenile, and easy.  Shouldn't I have known as much when the cover quotes People Magazine as saying, "A smart, exceedingly well-written story about the mysteries at the heart of even the most intimate friendships between women.  You'll be reading into the wee hours."  Alas, I decided to read it anyway for my upcoming book club meeting.  

I feel a twang of guilt for criticizing this book because I'm not a writer, and Leah Stewart could write paragraphs around me.  I am just a reader with a reaction.  To alleviate some of my guilt, I'm going to give you some of Stewart's non-fluff:

"A person is not a suitcase, with a finite number of items to unpack."  This is true, no?  Just when I think I have someone figured out, they surprise me.  That's a wonderful thing.  Like I said, I love spontaneity.

"There's something to be said for living a life subject to someone else's needs - you never have those empty periods of vague discontent brought on by too much freedom, too little purpose." This is so true, isn't it?  Oh, and look!  There's that empty theme again.  It even shows up in the fluffy books.  Huh.  Interesting.

With that previous quote, we see that Cameron loves routine.  Later on, she makes this observation, "Nothing is stranger than the familiar become unfamiliar.  A house on your street that you never stopped to see before, so that it seems to have been dropped into place with its rosebushes, its bicycles in the yard, like a fairy cottage appearing from the mist.  A birthmark on your back that you never noticed in twenty-five years of looking at your own skin.  Why, you don't know anything, do you?"

My favorite three sentences in the book are these:  "There's nothing lonelier than being angry at someone who's indifferent to your anger.  It's like playing catch off a wall by yourself. Everything you feel just bounces back to you."  Thank you, Ms. Stewart, for that.  

The last notable paragraph is this one, and I share it only because it provides fodder for the upcoming review of Beach Music.  Cameron's father is discussing Dickens' Great Expectations with her. 
"If I remember right," he said slowly, "he meant to give that one an unhappy ending, but then he rewrote it to make it happy."  He looked at me and smiled.  "To give love a victory."  I crossed my legs and sat up straight.  "But that's not what life is like.  So why rewrite it?"  He paged through the book without appearing to see it.  "You know," he said, "a happy ending isn't really the end.  It's just the place where you choose to stop telling the story.  Why not make everything work out when you have the chance?"

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Tomorrow is Easter...

but today is Christmas.  

Picture it.  As typical of me the day before a holiday, I've been cooking since the wee hours of the morning, my sink is overflowing with dishes, and I look a little disheveled.  My doorbell rings and I find a package on my porch.  Imagine my delight when I opened it with my frosting-infused hands and found four, count them four, books from one of the fabulous Bac Ninh ladies.  Included was a note directing me to read them and pass them along to all the rest of you Bac Ninh ladies.  Needless to say, I was extremely appreciative and utterly excited.

The titles in my Christmas box were:

Ahab's Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund
How Full is Your Bucket?, by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton
The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

So, readers...any suggestions on which to read and review first?  Has anyone (and I mean anyone, not just BN Ladies) read any of these yet?  

Merry Easter, Happy Christmas, and Peaceful Passover to you all and to all a good read.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Struggling Against Our Rescuer" - Book #4

It is so difficult to be objective, isn't it?  Even with the most valiant attempts to be fair and balanced, we bring our experiences to the table.  That said, I should not have been surprised when I skimmed the online reviews and found that my take on this book is quite different from, say, a literary expert's take on the book.  From my perspective, Gilead is about faith.  Faith is very important to me.  From the perspective of many readers, Gilead is about fatherhood.  It is interesting and somewhat humorous to note in this context that the narrator of the story is a father writing to his son.  The author of Gilead is a woman named Marilynne Robinson.  I was completely convinced of the "father voice" as I read, but maybe that's because I'm a woman and so is the author.  Maybe if a man wrote Gilead the father voice would be portrayed differently.  We all bring something to the table.

So, from my perspective, this book is about faith.  And, from my perspective, it is a fabulous book.  The way Robinson constructs the thoughts of this man is simply gorgeous.  As seems to be my trend of late, this is another book that requires some concentration.  You should see my copy of it.  Almost every page is marked or folded.  There is some deep stuff in here and I would often stop and think - A LOT - about the sentiment oozing from the pages.  If you've read the book and if, from your perspective, this book is not ultimately about faith, let me know.  

John Ames is a pastor of a protestant church in Gilead, Iowa.  His father was a pastor and his grandfather was a pastor.  Ames says, albeit unconvincingly, "My vocation was the same as my father's.  I assume that if I'd had another father entirely the Lord would still have called me."  The entire book is written by the dying 77-year old Ames to his seven year old son (note the use of seven here).  Certainly, Ames longs to give his dearly beloved son a picture of his own youth and some advice for the future.  Ultimately, I thought the Reverend was trying to figure out whether all of his life-long beliefs are really true as he prepares to meet his maker.  Here are some of my favorite lines that show just how much he is struggling with his faith:
"The fact is, I don't want to be old.  And I certainly don't want to be dead."
"Oh, I will miss the world!"  
"I have worried some about those last hours.  This is another thing you know and I don't - how this ends."  
And my favorite on this topic of doubt is this:  "My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore.  But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet."  

Gilead is peppered with references to Karl Barth, Ludwig Feuerbach, and John Calvin.  I happen to be reading Calvin's Institutes each morning, so these references were incredibly interesting to me.  I know a little about Barth, and less about Feuerbach, and I wondered if my conclusions about the book would change if I would read some of their writings.

I spend a good deal of time with pastors, so the parts of Gilead that highlighted the occasional frustration with the vocation spoke to me.  Ames says, "After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.  I know they are planning to pull it down.  They're waiting me out, which is kind of them."  He tells a humorous story of ministering to a widow in his congregation.  Remember, he is dying.  He poignantly explains, "You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went.  It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink."  Ames even addresses the tricky situation of being your wife's pastor:  "Your mother was startled the first time I mentioned to her that she might as well not do the ironing on a Sunday evening.  It's such hard work for her to stop working that I don't know what I have accomplished by speaking to her about the day of rest."

Interwoven with his thoughts on faith are Ames' thoughts on forgiving John Ames Boughton, his namesake and son of his best friend.  Boughton has committed just about every crime that exists.  He has come to town to "pay his respects" to Ames, his godfather, and his own father (who is apparently dying as well).  This part of the story line is immensely compelling, as Boughton is trying to redeem himself.  In what I think is the most beautiful line in the book, Ames writes, "As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience.  And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer."  Think about that.  "Struggling against our rescuer."  Oh, how true that has been in my own life.  I've been pondering that one little phrase for four days.  One could say that is the mark of a Pulitzer Prize winning book. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Story of the Bac Ninh Book List

Some of you have asked, "What is Bac Ninh?"  This entry answers that question.

Bac Ninh is a town in the northern part of Vietnam.  I traveled to that precious place in the summer of 2006.  Some other women traveled to Bac Ninh as well.  Over the past three years, I've become very well acquainted with five of those other women.  They have welcomed me into their lives when it looked as if we had nothing in common, save our children.  They are brilliant, beautiful, and they are contributing greatly to this ever changing world in which we live.  These women are truly remarkable and I count it a great gift to have them (and their children) in my life. 

When we were all together in February, we loudly and excitedly discussed the books we were reading.  And those loud, excited discussions occurred often throughout the week.  We realized that all six of us are book enthusiasts.  One of them suggested that we all read the same books and talk about them via the Internet.  This blog is my attempt to make that happen.

A review of Gilead, sent to me by one of those remarkable women, is coming up tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Civil Thoughts on the Civil War

Here is another suggestion for your "Books I Need to Read to my Kid" list.  In her Newberry Medal Honor book, Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt chronicles the life of a family living in Southern Illinois during the Civil War.  Jethro, the youngest child of the Creighton family, is too young to go fight.  After his older brothers leave to become soldiers, he is forced to handle the responsibilities of the farm.  Living in a Union state geographically close to Confederate states, the Creighton family is divided by the convictions of one son who decides to fight in a grey uniform while the rest of the family allegiances lie with Old Abe and the North.  Jethro has to bear the physical and emotional burdens of living as a child during a horrific war.

This piece of juvenile fiction teaches history through telling a story.  The major battles of the war are accurately explained as the Creighton family hears about them in the newspaper.  The reader feels the tenseness of the political climate as the townsfolk debate the issues.  Hunt's descriptions of the soldiers' feelings after battles are startling in an age-appropriate way.  This is accomplished when Jethro encounters a deserter and has to face the moral dilemma of helping him or following the law.  His solution is delightful.

The other piece of this history that is so well explained is how, while the supporters of the North wanted peace, they were significantly concerned about how the country was going to function at the conclusion of the war.  Hunt portrays their hope as centered on Lincoln, and she beautifully describes the grief that ensued when that hope could be no more.  Such descriptions are not the way of the average American history text book.  Neither are thoughts like these:

"When one found comfort, he was grateful, but he was never such a fool as to expect a great deal of it.  The hardships one endured had a purpose; his mother had been careful to make him aware of that." - p. 53, Across Five Aprils

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Do Tell...

What are you reading right now?  My inquiring mind would like to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Empty at the Office - Book #3

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is the story of an advertising agency facing an economic downturn in 2001.  The copywriters aren't handling their pending unemployment well.  They know each other better than their own family members, and their desperation to keep their jobs seems to be more about maintaining relationships with their quirky co-workers than it is about maintaining income.

This novel is immensely funny and brilliantly constructed.  The entire story is narrated by one of the agency copywriters who refers to himself or herself (the reader is never given the gender) as "we".  Ferris deviates from this voice once, and in that section we hear the perspective of the copywriters' boss.  In a way, the book is very Don Quixote - esque.  Many times there are stories within a story that are within another story.  In other words, this isn't easy comic strip reading; ya gotta get some brains on to read it.

Like I said, the book is hilarious.  If you've ever spent time in an office, you will be laughing out loud and you will realize that any television series centering on workplace happenings pales in comparison to Ferris's humor.  Life isn't all fun and games, and, as life would have it, things get a little dark.  There are many places in the book where the reader can pause and ponder life's important questions.  Three of my favorites follow:

"Some people would never forget certain people, a few people would remember everyone, and most of us would mostly be forgotten.  Sometimes it was for the best.  Larry Novotny wanted to be forgotten for his dalliance with Amber Ludwig.  Tom Mota wanted to be forgotten for that incident involving the paintballs.  But did anybody want to be forgotten about completely?  We had dedicated years to that place, we labored under the notion we were making names for ourselves, we had to believe in our hearts that each one of us was memorable.  And yet who wanted to be remembered for their poor taste or bad breath?  Still, better to be remembered for those things than forgotten for your perfect par-boiled blandness."

"We had nothing in common with the dying and so never knew what to say to them.  Our presence seemed a vague and threatening insult, something that could easily spill over into cruel laughter, and so we chose our words carefully and moved with caution gathering around the bed and restricted our jokes and bantering."

"Some days felt longer than other days.  Some days felt like two whole days.  Unfortunately those days were never weekend days.  Our Saturdays and Sundays passed in half the time of a normal workdays.  In other words, some weeks it felt like we worked ten straight days and had only one day off.  We could hardly complain.  Time was being added to our lives."

When you read this book, you'll come to know the characters as well as you know the people with whom you spend the majority of your waking hours.  And you'll realize that every single one of the them, both in the book and in your office, is looking for significance.  My question is this:  when individuals seek significance through a career, do they come up empty?  How about you?  Does your work at the office fill you up?  Are the "free bagels in the morning" really all they are cracked up to be?  Or does your work, as significant to society as it may be, leave you, like the copywriters and April Wheeler, feeling empty?