Monday, January 8, 2018

Sex Object

Sex Object: A MemoirSex Object, by Jessica Valenti

This was a hard book to read. Valenti is a famous young feminist, and she founded the blog Feministing in 2004.

Much of this book, a series of essays, reads like a doesn't always fit together very well. But the essays are powerful, searing, deeply honest, and at times shocking.

First off, I had no idea of the amount of harassment girls and young women encounter on New York City subways and streets on a regular basis. No wonder she feels like she is under attack. And then there's the sheer vitriol and hatred Valenti has received for being a public online feminist. The last chapter contains a sampling of the hate mail she has received. This is typical for women who bare their souls and opinions in the public sphere, thanks to the anonymity of the Internet and misogyny in society.

Valenti's daughter was born prematurely, and she writes openly about her angst and terror associated with that and motherhood in general.

I wouldn't exactly say I enjoyed this book, but I'm glad I read it.

Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the SenateGiant of the Senate, by Al Franken

In a year when I committed to read women or people of color, what a tragedy that this was one of the few books I read by white men. Only a tragedy now in retrospect, because I actually loved listening to this book.

Franken is funny, insightful, self-deprecating, and wise. One of my favorite anecdotes was the way he and his assistant would talk about hide-a-beds to throw off journalists in their wake.

He clearly loves his wife and family and is called to serve. He had an excellent working relationship with his colleague, Amy Klobuchar.

I enjoyed all the stories of how he ended up in the Senate and how he attempted to work with other senators with which he staunchly disagreed. This was an excellent book, and I believe it stands alone on its merit.

I was so disappointed to learn that Franken is just one more of the old boys who disrespected women and treated them as his plaything. Toxic masculinity can be a byproduct of men in power. This doesn't make Franken a bad person. He made some serious mistakes, and it breaks my heart because he was an excellent senator.

I would have given this five stars before the scandals hit. Now I'll downgrade it to a two, simply
based on my disappointment and his hypocrisy.

I Found You

I Found YouI Found You, by Lisa Jewell

What a great read! I loved the way the mysteries unraveled. Three different stories, woven together masterfully. Colorful characters with complicated histories. A setting in Yorkshire and elsewhere in England. Couldn't put down.

This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection

This Time Together: Laughter and ReflectionThis Time Together: Laughter and Reflection, by Carol Burnett

I recommend listening to this book, because it's read by Carol Burnett herself. I recommend this book for long-time fans of Burnett. I grew up watching her hilarious variety shows, so it was like curling up with a long-time friend.

I especially enjoyed the tales of her early days, breaking into show business. She had a patron--a wealthy woman who gave her money to go to New York City to get started. Her only rules were (1) that she would be anonymous, and (2) that Burnett would pay it forward to another young woman once she made it. And so she did.

Burnett was a feminist at an early age, fighting for equity and parity in the men's world of entertainment. One TV executive told her that comedy was a "man's game." She sure proved him wrong!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill

The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

I'm excited about this new series by one of my favorite authors! It's due out next week on January 9. I was lucky to get a sneak peek!

I first became a fan of Sujata Massey through her Rei Shimura detective novels about a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective. Sujata Massey, half Indian and half German, lived and worked in Japan around the same time that I did. Rei Shimura was spunky, independent, and curious about the world, and she's my all-time favorite detective.

Cornelia Sorabji
Cornelia Sorabji
Now Sujata Massey has branched out into writing about India, and I love these books even more! In 2013 she published The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel about a poor Indian girl without a family, leaving her few options for survival. It was one of my favorite books in 2013.

Next up is The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first in her Perveen Mistry series. An Oxford-educated, multilingual Parsi woman in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921, Perveen is one of the first female lawyers in India, partially inspired by the real life of Cornelia Sorabji.

Perveen has modern parents who encourage her education and career, but they do still want her to get married. The novel covers the travails of her personal life as well as her professional work.

She helps her dad with a case of a rich Muslim mill owner who has died and left three widows behind. The women are in full purdah (exclusion from men), so Perveen is best suited to speak to them. She soon becomes concerned because their husband's agent plans to give away their inheritance and leave them with nothing. When she begins to investigate the situation, a murder occurs and things escalate.

I am excited about reading more of this series. Massey does an exquisite job exposing the reader to many facets of Indian culture and religion--in this case Islam and Parsis, who are descended from Persian Zoroastrians. I've actually read quite a lot about Parsis; it seems that, although their population is fairly small and rapidly diminishing in India, their culture is a popular and fascinating subject in fiction!

Check out Massey's excellent website to read the first chapter, peruse recipes from the book, see photos from real places in the book, and read her Q&A.

Excellent historical fiction + setting in Asia + a spunky heroine + mystery and adventure = the perfect combination for me!

Bring on the next one!

Version Control

Version ControlVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer

This book is an excellent example of why I value my book group! I'm a time travel and dystopian fiction fan, so I was intrigued to dive into this one...especially with such an intriguing premise.

It moved a bit slowly for my taste, and at times I thought he had too many details about science, religion, and the Causality Violation Device (the time traveling machine that is "not a time traveling machine"). Palmer's commentary and reflections on race, alcoholism, and our blind reliance on technology were spot-on. Some of the book was speculative fiction rather than pure sci-fi, because I could actually imagine many of the things happening.

But the characters were wholly unlikable (which is often a problem for me). My book group friends helped me uncover brilliant strategies and nuances of Palmer's as we discussed it, and I grew to appreciate it much more.

I'm not much of a sci-fi fan, though, so that probably turned me off a bit. I'd describe this as literary sci-fi. The book grew on me during our discussion, so much so that I was tempted to re-read it. But life's too short!

Prayers for the Stolen

Prayers for the StolenPrayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement

This was a beautiful, heartbreaking novel about Mexico, written by poet Jennifer Clement, who was the president of PEN Mexico.

"The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl."

Ladydi Garcia Martinez dresses as a boy, because in her mountain community near Guerrero, girls are constantly kidnapped and sold into prostitution to support the drug trade. The mothers dig holes for their daughters to hide in when the black SUVs come to their homes to search for new girls to snatch.

Every day in Mexico, adolescent girls and young women are abducted from their homes and either never heard from again or found dumped dead and abused. Some become sex slaves to drug lords, and others are sexually trafficked to brothels in Mexico and abroad. Sexual abuse in Mexico has exploded as the drug trade has soared.

Although difficult to read, this novel is a wonderful story about women and daughters who have to survive on their own wits, resiliency during a time of great trauma, and fierce love that is hard to comprehend in our white, American existence.


AmericanahAmericanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Author Roxane Gay describes this book as a "beautiful mess," and I agree. I started and stopped it several times. It wasn't because it made me uncomfortable (as a white woman, I think it's important for me to feel uncomfortable). It's because I wasn't captivated by the book as a novel.

But I am glad I read it, in my year of "read mostly women and people of color." Giving a voice to Nigerian-American main character Ifemelu is so important...both for other Nigerians as well as for other white Americans like me.

Adiche writes brilliantly about race and racism, colonization, immigration, journeys, hair, assimilation, self-invention, corruption, and family. I just wish it held together better as a novel.

Holden Village--A Memoir: New Life, Endless Stories

Holden Village - A Memoir: New Life - Endless StoriesHolden Village--A Memoir: New Life, Endless Stories, by Werner Janssen

I happened across this book a few weeks before I went to our beloved Holden Village this summer after 5 years away. It's written by one of the early villagers and one of its first operations managers, Werner Janssen. In all the rooms at Holden, a different, older memoir awaits: Surprising Gift, by Charles Lutz. Janssen's book holds more of an insider perspective.

Independently published and written by an engineer, it could have benefited from a really good edit. But I enjoyed reading the story of how the village got started and Janssen's personal insider perspective. He lived in the village longer than anyone else has, starting at age 24.

One thing I found troubling about this memoir is that according to Janssen, innovative visionary and long-time executive director Carroll Hinderlie (who my dad knew from PLU) was a sexual predator. He was well known for harassing women on staff and those who were visiting the village. Eventually, the board did something about it, suggesting that Hinderlie take a leave of absence and write a book (paid leave!). Apparently another executive director was guilty of what the board calls "sexual misconduct" as well.

The Holden Village board acknowledged this issue in 2013 with a statement of apology (sort of) and they also created a sexual harassment policy and rules for staff and villagers. But they never named the executive directors (like Janssen does in his book).

On the FAQ portion of the page, the board refuses to provide names, instead saying "Our interest is in promoting healing and not promoting more pain. We are not disclosing the names of those involved, but it was decades ago that this occurred."

I find this troubling. Why not name names? I can only imagine what it must feel like to be a victim of these assaults and know that these men's reputations are still being protected.

Greater healing would take place if their names were brought forward and if Carroll Hinderlie were not still held up as a great icon of Holden Village. Yes, he did amazing things for the village. But he preyed on women. That is unacceptable and needs to be acknowledged--by name.

I am glad that Janssen did this in his book.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I read this back in June, before going to Holden Village in July and getting to listen to Pr. Nadia several times that week. It was the second time I'd heard her speak, and I soaked up every opportunity to learn from her.

One of the fun memories of that week was listening to her read her completely raw draft of the book she's working on right now--about sex and the church. Simply put, she is a brilliant and colorful writer. She was all full of apologies that it had not yet gone through an editor, but it was a real privilege to hear her read from her first draft (which did NOT seem draft quality).

I enjoyed Accidental Saints as I always get a great deal out of Pr. Nadia's writing. She makes me see things in new ways.

But I am always a little stunned by how honest she is, and at times I think she's a bit too honest. For example, one story in Accidental Saints is about a man in her church who she just wasn't crazy about--he was hard to love. It was only after he died that she realized her mistake. In one of her talks at Holden Village, she spoke dismissively about someone who had applied to be the pastor at her church (she is unable to be a full-time pastor now that she's also an author and speaker). The Lutheran world is a small one, and I couldn't help but wonder how people related to these individuals would feel if they heard or read her words.

I am of the type who believes it's better to be kind than to always be brutally honest. Sometimes when I read memoirs or essays like this book (Anne Lamott is another author who comes to mind), I realize that I wouldn't want to be friends with the author. I don't think I could trust my authentic self with them. Pr. Nadia also has extremely strong opinions (for example, about church music), and I don't always agree with them. I imagine that some people in her church are more than a bit intimidated by her and might not feel comfortable speaking up.

With that said, Pr. Nadia is brilliant and fascinating. I love the way she pushes the envelope with her potty mouth and out-of-the-box thinking. This book is worth a read. 

And especially the last chapter--her modern Beatitudes--which brought me to tears. Here it is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised. Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard – for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who delete hateful, homophobic comments off their friend’s Facebook page. Blessed are the ones who have received such real grace that they are no longer in the position of ever deciding who the “deserving poor” are. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez

A timely and tragic read of the immigrant experience in America, this is an important story for all Americans to read. The Riveras come to the U.S. to create a better life for their head injury-affected daughter, Maribel.

Henriquez crafts stories from Central and South American immigrants, pulling from their back stories and their struggles in making a new life in this country.

Sad but worth a read to understand immigrant struggles and the complex experience of trying to make a life in a place where you don't speak the language or understand the culture.

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah's memoir is one of my favorite books of the year--although I actually listened to it, and that's the way I recommend experiencing this book.

Noah's mom is a Black South African, and his dad was German. Their relationship was illegal at the time of Noah's birth. He grew up poor, but deeply loved and cared for by his very strict mother and wide range of extended family.

Noah is an incredible storyteller and linguist, doing all the accents masterfully. My favorite story, one I replayed for my husband, was about the shit in the kitchen.

It's not all funny, though--Noah addresses the deep racism and apartheid, reflections on privilege and religion, and what happens when you grow up in poverty.

The Separation

The SeparationThe Separation, by Dinah Jefferies

I bought this book for my mother-in-law. She read it and left it behind, so I picked it up.

The Separation takes place in the 1950s in Malaya during the emergency, and it shines a light on the lack of opportunities and independence for women and girls during that time period, as well as the damages of colonialism. Having visited Malaysia, I am drawn to stories set there and elsewhere in Asia. But it was not a particularly memorable or deep novel for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Find Me Unafraid

Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African SlumFind Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum, by Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner

This is not your usual "white savior" book. Jessica Posner went to Nairobi, Kenya as a college student to work in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. Instead of staying with her middle-class homestay family, though, Posner insisted on moving into the slum, informing Kennedy Odede she'd be living with him. After growing up deeply poor, Odede had started a youth empowerment nonprofit to help other poor Kenyans: Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he scraped together 20 cents for a soccer ball and started a youth group.

Beyond the cultural complications of Posner insisting she must live with Odede, she is an impressive young woman who becomes increasingly aware of her own privilege by immersing herself in life in the slums.

Posner and Odede eventually fall in love and get married. Facing many challenges, including corruption, violence against women, and lack of infrastructure, they put their focus on educating young girls and realize great successes in their work. With Posner's help and connections, SHOFCO started a tuition-free school, health center, and water treatment plant. They've accomplished amazing work together.

I found Odede's chapters far more interesting than Posner's, as he reflects on his own childhood compared to his American wife's, and he feels some ambivalence from the ways he's benefited from her wealth and privilege.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi

The Forty Rules of Love

The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

Written by a Turkish author, this novel consists of two stories: one of Ella Rubenstein, an unhappily married American homemaker who's taken up a new job as a reader for a literary agent (this was my only quibble with this book: how unlikely is this prospect after not working outside the home for decades?) and who begins to edit Sweet Blasphemy, a novel about the Persian Sufi poet Rumi by a mysterious author, and the actual story about Rumi and his beloved friend Shams of Tabriz, a dervish.

I've long been fascinated by Rumi...his words capture my thoughts so much more often than most writers. For example, this is one of my favorites:

I'd heard the term "whirling dervish" before, but I didn't actually know it referred to a religious practice. Part of the dervish order is to dance or whirl about ecstatically.

Although the story of Ella and author Aziz Zahara was interesting enough, I found the story about Rumi and Shams to be the most fascinating part of this novel. How often do you find a story about a deep, abiding, and intimate friendship between men? Shams is Rumi's muse and shares with him the 40 lessons of love, based on an ancient philosophy uniting all people with love. Elif Sharak also lays out the difficulties of being a woman in Rumi's era--the most desperate figures in the story are the women.

This story was tragic and poignant, and I couldn't put it down.

Here are some lessons from the rules of love:

“If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven't loved enough.”

“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful!”

“Fret not where the road will take you. Instead concentrate on the first step. That's the hardest part and that's what you are responsible for. Once you take that step let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.”

“How can love be worthy of its name if one selects solely the pretty things and leaves out the hardships? It is easy to enjoy the good and dislike the bad. Anybody can do that. The real challenge is to love the good and the bad together, not because you need to take the rough with the smooth but because you need to go beyond such descriptions and accept love in its entirety.”

“How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.”

“The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time.”

“Hell is in the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. Every time we fall in love, we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate, envy, or fight someone, we tumble straight into the fires of hell.”

"The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone's back - not even seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man's pain will hurt us all. One man's joy will make everyone smile.”

"Bountiful is your life, full and complete. Or so you think, until someone comes along and makes you realize what you have been missing all this time. Like a mirror that reflects what is absent rather than present, he shows you the void in your soul—the void you have resisted seeing. That person can be a lover, a friend, or a spiritual master. Sometimes it can be a child to look after. What matters is to find the soul that will complete yours. All the prophets have given the same advice: Find the one who will be your mirror!"

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best books of 2016

Reviews of all of these books can be found by searching at the top of this blog. Interesting that both of my top books start with "All the"! I have gotten the titles mixed up more than once!

1. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
 2. Pull Me Under, by Kelly Luce
3. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
4. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
5. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (3rd time to read!)
6. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by John Tiffany
7. How to Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway
8. We Love You Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
9. Secrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian
10. My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1), by Elena Ferrante
11. The Martian, by Andy Weir
12. Sisters of Heart and Snow, by Margaret Dilloway
13. Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike #3), by Robert Galbraith
14. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

1. All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness, by Sheila Hamilton
2. Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
3. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West
4. Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, by Janet Mock
5. Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour
6. Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, by Peggy Orenstein
7. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
8. The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
9. America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis
10. Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, by Michael Schulman
11. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein

Best books of 2015

Somehow this annual post completely escaped me last year, so here is 2015! Reviews of all of these books can be found by searching at the top of this blog.

1. Golden Boy, by Abigal Tarttelin
2. Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver (reread)
3. The Kizuna Coast, by Sujata Massey
4. The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant
5. Room, by Emma Donoghue
6. Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein
7. I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson
8. Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian
9. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James
10. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
11. The Circle, by Dave Eggers
12. Baby’s on Fire, by Liz Prato
13. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
14. Maud’s Line, by Margaret Verble
15. Paper Towns, by John Green
16. Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker
17. The Secret of Shadow Ranch, by Carolyn Keene
18. Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler
19. The Residue Years, by Mitchell S. Jackson
20. In the Blood, by Lisa Unger
21. Evil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain
22. Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke
23. A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee
24. In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
25. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

1. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
3. Nature's Fortune: Why Saving the Environment Is the Smartest Investment We Can Make, by Mark Tercek & Jonathan Adams
4. The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
5. Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls
6. A Book of Uncommon Prayer, by Brian Doyle
7. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
8. Believing Cassandra: Getting Beyond the End of the World, by Alan Atkisson
9. Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely
10. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo
11. Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit: Making the Most of All Your Life, by Jane Fonda
12. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault
13. Tibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins
14. God Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell
15. Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules, by Rosalind Wiseman
16. A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, by Kate Bornstein

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

I came late to Bruce Springsteen...I didn't become a fan, beyond his greatest hits of course, until he put out a folk album honoring Pete Seeger ("The Seeger Sessions"). Then, a little over 4 years ago, I went to a concert on "The Wrecking Ball" tour (still my favorite album). I only went, really, because I was waiting to have ear/brain surgery and it had been postponed, and I was ticked. I decided to do something nice for myself. That concert blew my mind and made me a fan.

Anyone who has listened to Springsteen very carefully knows he's a born, self-educated writer and poet. He never went to college, like most of the members of the E Street Band. But he's a seeker, reader, and philosopher, driven by a strong commitment to music and being a voice for our times.

I don't think many people realize how political his music is, but he was inspired by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, along with his rock and roll heroes. Two of his big honors were introducing Bob Dylan when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and singing "This Land Is Your Land" with Pete Seeger at President Obama's inauguration. I just dare you to watch that video without getting misty. Just looking at the people who were there, the diversity of voices and faces, and comparing that to what our country will be facing on January 20 (a return to white, privileged power), and it's enough to make me cry. And now Pete Seeger has died, probably a good thing so he won't have to see the One Who Will Not Be Named take on the most important job in the world.

Back to the book. I loved the way Springsteen wrote about his relationship with his dad, complicated as it was. And shared his battles with depression. And now I understand how and why he, as a nearly-70-year-old-man, still does concerts that last over 3 hours. He has to.

And he wrote of his deep, complicated, and special friendship with the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, and how he coped with Clarence's death. Back when Clarence joined the band, the E Street Band was unusual because it was half black, half white. "If you travel for years in an integrated band, you see racism in action." Springsteen, inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger, tackled racism in his music in ways most other rockers do not do. After police killed Amadou Diallo, he wrote the chilling "American Skin," a song about racism and police violence, which angered the police and the media (even though he tried to include a sympathetic depiction of the involved police officer). Many of his political songs ("Born in the USA" and "We Take Care of Our Own") have been grossly misunderstood by the public.

I think "Wrecking Ball" is an album we should all listen to for inspiration in the coming years. "Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies, and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans." Just watch "We Are Alive" for some inspiration:

To learn more about what makes Springsteen tick and what his songs really mean, read this book. Be inspired.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Secrets of Eden

Secrets of EdenSecrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian

I'm a big Bohjalian fan, reading everything he writes but I'm a bit behind at the moment! I love authors who make me ponder ethical questions and have complicated storylines and characters. Bohjalian doesn't usually disappoint.

This book has a lower rating on Goodreads than most of his others, but I own it so I thought I'd better read it!

The first page captured my attention immediately...about the whiny members of the protagonist's congregation. In Pastor Stephen Drew's congregation in Vermont, he baptizes Alice Hayward, a woman who's in an abusive relationship. And later that day, she is killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. Or so we think.

This book is told through several different perspectives...the pastor's, the attorney on the case, a random angel author (Heather Laurent), and Alice's surviving daughter, Katie. Heather brings another perspective to Stephen Drew, but at times it was hard to see why she was part of the story. Stephen Drew was a difficult character to understand or like, and I thought he could've been drawn with more detail. What made him tick? Why did he not seem to have any morals?
I didn't see the ending coming, but that's not surprising for me (I don't tend to try to guess how things will turn out). I thought this was a good book overall, but not my favorite of Chris Bohjalian's.

The Nightingale

The NightingaleThe Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

We joke in my book group about not reading too many World War II books each year, but it's easy to see why authors are drawn to the subject. And I'm always up for a new spin on that important part of our history. The Nightingale is a good example of that.

It's a beautiful story of two sisters' lives in Nazi-occupied France: Viane and Isabel. Neither of them are universally likable; in fact, I disliked Viane actively in the beginning. Both of them make critical choices for their survival. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the Nightingale ferrying people over the mountains into safety, although I also found them a bit implausible.

It's the kind of novel that makes you question what you would do, if you found yourself in a similar situation. Overall, a highly satisfying, lovely story with a surprise twist at the end.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Some Harry Potter fans are bound to be disappointed with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but I enjoyed it. Written as a play script, the book has an entirely different feel about it.

But I enjoyed the story of Scorpius (Malfoy's son) and Albus' friendship, and I like time travel. So it worked for me. Not anywhere near as good as the actual books, but an entertaining spinoff.

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New LandscapeGirls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, by Peggy Orenstein

This is such an important book, and it opened my eyes to the kinds of messages our young people are getting about body image and sexuality. It's also made me realize I need to do some education with my own three young men about sex. Like for example: why a blow job, which appears to be freely given nowadays in lieu of intercourse, is only benefiting the man and does nothing for the woman's pleasure. And why foreplay is important.

Some criticisms: lack of diversity in the girls she spoke to, and where are the boys' perspectives? Also, many have criticized Orenstein for not citing her sources and identifying what is her opinion and what is backed up by science or research.

Important work, and I'm hoping it's just the beginning of more research into female sexuality in these times.

Pull Me Under

Pull Me Under: A NovelPull Me Under, by Kelly Luce

This fascinating novel made me long to return to Japan, while at the same time reminding me of the problems of that country.

At age 12, Chizuru Akitani, daughter of a famous Japanese concert violinist and an American woman, has an outburst in school and stabs her bully with a letter opener. Bam! That opening scene pulled me in immediately!

She's sent to live in a reform school of sorts, and her dad disowns her, as does her country of origin. Many years later, she's reinvented herself in the U.S. as Rio Sylvestri, registered nurse, wife, and mother. She's left her Japanese life behind completely...until she receives word that her father has died.

She decides to return to Japan for his funeral, and eventually the truths unravel. The novel is set in Shikoku, a small island off the island of Honshu, where I visited when I lived in Japan. She makes a temple pilgrimage on Shikoku, which sounds fascinating. She also realizes why she no longer belongs in Japan.

Beautifully written, this novel evokes Japanese fiction and the complicated spirit of Japan.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman

We Love You, Charlie FreemanWe Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

I was drawn to this book after reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves the year before, another novel about a family raising a chimpanzee like a child.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman was far more ambitious, because not only did it tackle the issue of animal rights, science, and ethics, but it also addressed racism, bullying, family dysfunction, and childhood obesity, and interlaced historical fiction with the more recent past.

The (African-American) Freeman family moves to the shrouded-in-mystery Toneybee Institute to be part of an experiment: they would adopt a chimpanzee into their own family. Charlie Freeman, like most chimps, is hard to love and decidedly not human. Each family member reacts to the odd situation differently. The mother, Laurel, throws herself into the experiment completely, neglecting her own family while developing an unhealthy attachment to Charlie. The husband withdraws. One daughter retreats into her own intense friendship with another girl, while the youngest feels alone and abandoned and resorts to food as comfort.

Intertwined with the Freeman family story is that of Nymphadora Jericho, a young woman in the 1920s who is part of the Toneybee Institute's past.

This disturbing, thought-provoking novel is still sticking with me. It doesn't shy away from asking the hard questions.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Although I've read this book a few times, upon each reading I appreciate something different about it. My book group is tackling depression and mental illness by reading The Bell Jar and All the Things We Never Knew (in September). I reflected on my younger-days obsession with Plath when her son, who was just a baby when she committed suicide, also took his own life.

What struck me this time was the sheer beauty of the writing. It is so clear that this novelist was a poet. And evident to many in my book group was the fact that Plath makes depression and mental illness seem so normal, almost matter of fact. It was just something she was dealing with, nothing to make a big drama about. 

All the Things We Never Knew

All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental IllnessAll the Things We Never Knew, by Sheila Hamilton

I loved this heart-breaking and beautiful book, which is part memoir, part educational. Local Portland author, journalist, and radio DJ Sheila Hamilton tells the sad and difficult story of her former husband, who suffered from bipolar disease. She alternates telling this story with extremely helpful, well-researched information about bipolar disease.

I learned a great deal from this book--about bipolar disease, suicide, depression, and mental illness, and we had a great discussion at our book group. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Rainbow Comes and Goes

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and LossThe Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

The Rainbow Comes and Goes is a poignant, thoughtful exchange of memories and insights between a mother and son. As a mother to three boys, and daughter to aging parents, I love the idea of mother and son writing emails to each other, getting to know one another on a much deeper level.

It's hard to imagine the depth of loneliness and despair Gloria Vanderbilt must have felt in her sad childhood. Far more valuable than riches is the love and compassion of at least one parent, if not two. Both Vanderbilt and Cooper are fatherless...Vanderbilt's father died when she was a baby, and Cooper lost his as a young man. And Cooper's only brother and Vanderbilt's son committed suicide when he was in his 20s. Such a sad family story.

When Gloria Vanderbilt experienced a serious illness at age 91, they decided to take advantage of her remaining time left to get to know each other on a deeper level and share information they'd never revealed to each other. The result is a beautiful collection of email letters, prompting me to want to interview my own parents and mother-in-law and document their experiences, and also to write more of my own story for my children to have after I am gone.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Her Again

Her Again: Becoming Meryl StreepHer Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, by Michael Schulman

When I read that Meryl Streep had not sanctioned this biography, I almost returned it to the library and did not read it. But I was swayed by my deep admiration for her and ended up reading it after all. I do agree with other reviewers that without Streep's involvement, some of the book fell flat. Much of it was a recitation of various things she had accomplished, without a true understanding of what she had experienced. But for a Streep groupie, it's hard to avoid this book entirely! She is definitely an amazing actor and artist.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
Although I've read this book a few times, upon each reading I appreciate something different about it. My book group is tackling depression and mental illness by reading The Bell Jar and All the Things We Never Knew (in September). I reflected on my younger-days obsession with Plath when her son, who was just a baby when she committed suicide, also took his own life.

What struck me this time was the sheer beauty of the writing. It is so clear that this novelist was a poet. And evident to many in my book group was the fact that Plath makes depression and mental illness seem so normal, almost matter of fact. It was just something she was dealing with, nothing to make a big drama about.

Sadly, she was trapped in a time when women had to rely on men for finances, and when her husband Ted Hughes had an affair, she ended up saddled with two children and severe depression that was just too much to bear.

Such a gifted woman and such a loss to the world.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Womanby Lindy West

I first became aware of Lindy West when I happened across this article in Jezebel, "How to Stop Being Shy in 13 Easy Steps," a brief excerpt from Shrill. (In the book, this article is a whole, hilarious chapter.) I think I've read other essays by West, but her name wasn't familiar to me. Now I'm a big fan.

West has been writing in the blogosphere for years, first for The Stranger in Seattle and also for Jezebel and now The Guardian. She's loud, sassy, confident, funny, and brutally honest. She writes about what it's like to live fat (her word), be a comic in an environment much more friendly to men, fight sexism, have an abortion, aim for her higher self, and fall in love. She has stood up to nasty, woman-hating, fat-shaming trolls on Twitter and on the comedy circuit, both online and also in live interviews.

The most troubling thing about reading this book is realizing how much hateful crap women online face every day. In fact, while I was in the middle of this book, I read that famous feminist blogger Jessica Valenti has gone offline social media because the trolls were threatening to rape her five-year-old daughter! Such a dark side to the Internet, when men feel safe taking out their anger on women online. This has to stop, although I'm not sure what the solution is if outright, public misogyny is allowed in the comedy clubs. As West learned when she faced her troll head on, most trolls are pathetic white men who are jealous of confident women.

I often need to take a break when reading books of essays, but not this one. Lindy West is a funny, bright, brave, and passionate badass, and she's found a new fan in me.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climateby Naomi Klein

I read part of this book for our church book group, but I must confess I didn't get through the whole thing. Instead I supplemented my reading by watching the video, available for free on Amazon Prime.

Here's my key takeaway: trade contributes to our global carbon emissions, and they are not tracked like each country tracks their carbon emissions on their own soil. I knew nothing about this factor, and I found this chapter particularly enlightening.

Klein calls for a revolution, and I can see clearly why she was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She decries business and previous climate change resolutions, and she demands immediate change in our capitalistic economy to save the planet.

I find myself becoming more pragmatic as I age, and I'm sure part of this is my own role working as a sustainability marketing and communications manager for an environmental consulting firm. One of the most exciting things we are doing is partnering with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to promote the use of natural infrastructure. Klein comes across as very hard on "Big Green," as represented by groups like TNC. She criticizes TNC for drilling on land donated to the organization in Texas. I don't know much about this particular situation, but I can't help but wonder if there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

And the tricky thing is that we can't throw the baby out with the bath water. We are not yet ready to go fossil fuel free, and part of reducing our dependence on foreign oil supplies is being able to meet our own energy demands. I just take this all with a grain of salt.

This Changes Everything prompts many questions for us to consider, and it was a great book to consider with a group. The stories Klein tells, both in the book and the movie, about activists standing up to businesses invading the environment are inspiring. But in general, I believe we need to work with business and government instead of going it on our own. Capitalism is here to stay, and it's going to be more effective if we can find ways to work together rather than against each other. It's absolutely imperative, in fact, for our own survival.

The Girl on the Train

22557272By Paula Hawkins

I've had this book on my "to read" list for awhile...people have compared it to Gone Girl. But although less gruesome than Gone Girl, this novel was less compelling and gripping. I knew Rachel was an unreliable narrator, but this is because she blacked out and can't remember. Gradually, she pieces the truth together in her mind.

Consequently, Hawkins gradually unravels the story rather than diving right in. I thought she did a good job of depicting the harsh reality of alcoholism. But ultimately, I expected more out of this novel than I got. It is very British, and I appreciated that! And a decent read...but not as fantastic as I expected!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Career of Evil

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)

I enjoyed the first Robert Galbraith (The Cuckoo's Calling) but was much less enthralled with #2 (The Silkworm). Career of Evil was much more interesting and once again captured my attention.

Cormoran Strike is a fascinating, haunted protagonist. But OMG, Robin is such a strong, self-assured character in so many ways. Why on earth does she want to stay with Matthew? This is the clear weakness in this series, in my opinion.

I will keep reading. But I would love to get rid of Matthew!!

The Martian

The MartianBy Andy Weir

I read The Martian in one weekend, when my husband and I were celebrating our 26th anniversary at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon.

A few weeks later we watched the movie. Although I enjoyed seeing the book illustrated in film, I found the movie a bit lacking compared to the book. Weir's novel at times goes way too much into detail in the science, but it also does a better job of showing the conflict Mark Watney faced.

The most amazing thing about this story was the way "the martian" Watney won against Mars with science...and the book illustrates this much more thoroughly and convincingly than the movie.

At our book group meeting, it prompted us to research what's happening nowadays with NASA and Mars exploration. (The answer: not much, because of limited research funding.)

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)By Elena Ferrante 

I was not as enthusiastic about this book as were some of my book groupies. The first of a trilogy turned quartet, I enjoyed it well enough but don't feel terribly compelled to read on.

The story of two young Italian girls and supposedly a great story of female friendship, the novel disappointed me a bit. I had a hard time understanding what Elena saw in Lila. It reminded me of my younger days, when I was friends with girls who didn't really treat me very well.

In my older years, I've become more selective. So reading books like this that supposedly represent female friendship leave me feeling frustrated. This is not representative of an equal, life-giving friendship.

Apparently this author is a real mystery, and the forthcoming books are huge hits. But I will not read any further unless my friends, who treat me better than Lila treats Elena, tell me I must!

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love, and So Much More

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much Moreby Janet Mock

Wow. I know a few people who have transitioned from woman to man, but Janet Mock's book gave me great insights on what it feels like from the other perspective. And even deeper, it also enlightened me about what happens if a person feels uncomfortable in one's own skin and does not have the financial resources to change that. I read this book for my pastor's book group, and I'm grateful to be part of a church community that grapples with these questions!

Janet Mock knew she wasn't a boy from a very early age, but to make the changes she had to make, she had to resort to selling her body to get there. This broke my heart, as did her experiences of trying to become accepted by her own father. 

She was lucky in that she had a great fount of self-confidence and assurance, which led her through the process. And she was also lucky to live in an environment, in Hawaii, that was accepting of her transition. 

This book is an important story about finding out who you are and the journey to getting there. Janet Mock is a truly brave, inspirational woman. 

Sisters of Heart and Snow

Sisters of Heart and SnowBy Margaret Dilloway 

This is the second Margaret Dilloway novel I've read this year, and I was drawn to this book because I looked up books about female samurai warrior Tomoe Gozen. This novel intersperses stories about Gozen with two Japanese-American women, Rachel and Drew Snow, whose Japanese mom has Alzheimer's and who are estranged from their American father.

I was far more interested in the story about Tomoe Gozen than the modern-day women, but Dilloway does illustrate the often-complicated relationships between sisters. I enjoyed this book, but I think I would have preferred an in-depth historical novel about Tomoe Gozen. It seemed like we were only skimming the surface of her story.

Station Eleven

Station ElevenBy Emily St. John Mandel

Another book group read, this was a beautiful piece of speculative fiction. With the Zika virus, avian flu, and other outbreaks, you can easily imagine this kind of catastrophe happening in our time.

One one hand, I was wondering how people have the strength to carry on in such circumstances, and on the other hand, I was struck by how some characters find their own beauty, art, and poetry in stark conditions.

These types of books make me appreciate what I have--available food, shelter, health care, and loved ones around me.

America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America

America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New AmericaBy Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis calls this book his "lament of the white father." A central theme of the book is the fact that parents of black children have to have "the talk," about how to behave around police and how to just behave in general, in order to survive. Wallis was inspired to write this book after Trayvon Martin was shot and he witnessed the ignorance of the white Christian evangelicals in his midst. He realized that if his own son, a six-foot-tall athlete, had been walking down the street, doing the same thing, he would have been fine.

Wallis identifies racism as the true original sin. As Michelle Obama recently said, "I live in a house that was built by slaves." As Wallis says, "This nation was founded by the near genocide of one people and the kidnapping of another people to build this nation. So slavery and the indigenous destruction of those who were here--that was our original sin. And it still lingers in our criminal justice system--in most of our systems."

Wallis aims most of his message specifically evangelical Christians, because he was disappointed and dismayed by their response to recent highly publicized shootings of African-American men. But it's an important message for all white Americans to hear. He believes it's the call of our Christian faith to work for racial justice, and I agree.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged HospitalFive Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink

Well, what a brutal book this was. In short, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, hospitals all over the city faced huge crises...patients and staff were stranded for days without adequate water, air conditioning, and electricity. At Memorial, thousands of people and pets were stranded. The infrastructure and medical staff were grossly unprepared for the crisis that followed.

Not only was the rescue attempt poorly organized and managed (part of this was due to lack of resources in the city and the gross negligence of the hospital's parent company), but also, a few of the staff developed a sort of triage system to decide who should be rescued first.

Those who had a DNR (do not resuscitate) were rescued last, and patients in a nursing home that leased hospital space were at the bottom of the list as well. In the end, 45 patients died...far more than in other hospitals...doctors hastened the deaths of critically ill patients by injecting them with morphine. What bothered me the most about this story is that the patients' family members were kept in the dark completely. The doctors played God with these patients' lives.

Most of the blame for the horrors landed on Dr. Anna Pou...she was one of three women charged with second-degree murder; however, all charges were dropped. It seemed unfair that only the women were charged, as some male physicians were implicated as well...but the most egregious outcome is that Anna Pou went onto become some kind of expert in disaster medicine ethics!

This book should be read by every medical person and hospital administrator. Our hospitals and other infrastructure are terribly unprepared for natural disasters of this magnitude, which could happen anywhere!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

When reading this book, one of my first comments to my husband was how deeply evocative Idaho writer Doerr's writing is...and how it makes me feel a bit stupid. Later I learned that Doerr spent 10 years researching and writing this book, and it shows.

I tend to love sprawling wartime sagas about people around the world, all experiencing the horrors of war in different ways and circumstances. Marie-Laure is a precocious, bright French child going blind, while Werner is a German orphan who eventually finds the Hitler Youth as his only viable way out of the orphanage. Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together, intermixed with beautiful details about shells, museum archiving and curating, the lifeblood of radios during wartime, precious gems, the cruelty of the Third Reich, mental illness, the French Resistance, and the reality of war for everyday citizens. It will make you realize that when you're poor, orphaned, extremely bright, and German during the war, you don't have very many options available.

Sometimes I thought Doerr spent too much time on minor characters...I would have liked to learn more about Marie-Laure's father, for example, and less about the Nazi gem hunter. And the scene near the end, when Werner is nearly buried alive in bomb wreckage in a cellar? I found myself scanning. It went on far too long. Some of the coincidences are a bit far-fetched, so the book is not perfect.

But damn if it didn't drive me to the Internet to find out about the enchanting walled town in France where Marie-Laure finds refuge. It's called Saint-Malo, and it's on the Brittany coast in northwestern France. The colorful descriptions of this town, and the beautiful relationships Marie-Laure has with her father and uncle (and the precious miniature gifts her father created for her), are my favorite parts of this novel.

How to Be an American Housewife

How to Be an American HousewifeHow to Be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway

Give me any book about Japan or Japanese people, and the author already has a head start toward my liking it. I enjoyed this novel about a Japanese woman who made a difficult choice in Japan and then moved to the U.S., determined to be the perfect American housewife. As she has children and ages, she realizes how difficult this prospect is. This novel captures the stress many Asian-American parents and children feel, as one generation places a much higher value on hard work than the other, and the younger generation adapts better than the older one.

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

Nature's Fortune: Why Saving the Environment is the Smartest Investment We Can Make
Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, by Mark Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams

When I asked our global sustainability director how I could learn about natural capital and natural infrastructure, she recommended I read Nature’s Fortune, written by the CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Mark Tercek. 

When I read in the introduction that he’d majored in English and then lived and taught in Japan like I did, I was hooked. We English majors who’ve been called gaijin have to stick together! I was fascinated to learn about his pathway into sustainability…he came into it through the back door, with a business background at Goldman Sachs, where he created a sustainability business and began partnering with TNC and other environmental nonprofits and exploring ways to make conservation profitable. "I was a late bloomer but protecting nature became my cause and my passion."

Tercek has transformed TNC into an organization that collaborates with business instead of fighting against business. As he says, "Hard-core environmentalists can be quick to criticize organizations such as TNC when they build alliances with companies. They sometimes see such collaborations as consorting with the enemy." But Tercek saw opportunity in working with businesses, because they "control huge amounts of natural resources, often more than governments." Companies are often quicker to act than government, especially as increasing numbers of businesses realize how dependent they are on natural resources and how critical they are for their survival. "The bigger the company's footprint, the bigger the opportunity for the company to reduce its impact on the environment by changing its behavior."

Nature's Fortune is jam-packed with illuminating examples of how the world's natural resources can be put to work, preserving the environment and the supply of these resources. In case study after case study, Tercek explains how cities, counties, states, and businesses are realizing how investing in green infrastructure is the best investment they can make.

For example, back in 1996, Dow Chemical Company's facility in Seadrift, Texas needed to increase its water treatment capacity...the logical (engineering) option would be to pour concrete and build a plant, at the tune of $40 million. But an innovative engineer proposed building a wetland instead, a solution that cost a mere $1.4 million. Now the wetland treats 5 million gallons of water per day, but it also provides habitat for wildlife. Environmentalists can fault Dow as a multinational chemical company, but the fact is that these multinational companies have enormous environmental footprints. When they take steps to reduce these footprints, it benefits us all. When companies invest creatively in nature instead of building traditional infrastructure, they reap many opportunities beyond just saving money. They protect the natural resources they rely on for their business.

Or take the case of Louisiana, where floods from climate change pose increasing threats. Scientists and engineers are realizing the value of floodplains, which have been replaced with hard-constructed levies, dams, and floodwalls. But nature's own resource, floodplains (flat lands near rivers where water can overflow) relieve pressure on levee systems, reduce flood risks, and filter agricultural runoff. Hard structures alone, as we saw during Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, are often not enough to stop rising water and can actually make flooding worse for communities downstream.

A 2009 Harvard Business Review article concluded that "the current economic system has placed enormous pressure on the planet...traditional approaches to business will collapse, and companies will need to develop innovative solutions." Further, "failure to have a culture of sustainability is quickly becoming a source of competitive disadvantage. The argument about sustainability is over." 

While Tercek encourages cooperation and collaboration with businesses to protect the environment, he also appreciates the value of environmental organizations that prefer to work as watchdogs on business, commenting that the pressure they place on business partnerships results in better transparency and more successful approaches to protect nature.

I recommend this book as an excellent overview of how natural infrastructure can help organizations conserve resources, save money, and create more reliable, sustainable solutions to our changing world. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Yes Please

Yes PleaseYes Please, by Amy Poehler

Reading Yes Please is like sitting down with your wackiest, most honest friend, the one who tells you everything, warts and all.

I’d recommend this book to fans of comedy, SNL, Parks and Recreation, or Poehler’s movies…others might find it less interesting.

I enjoyed reading Poehler’s stories of her childhood (she was deeply cherished and told she could do anything, not a surprise when you see her optimism and cheerful spirit). She discusses her early career in comedy and how she made her big break onto SNL. She also talks of motherhood and being a professional woman, albeit a celebrity one. She speaks fondly of her friends, colleagues, and ex-husband Will Arnett…and warmly tells stories of making and tearfully ending Parks and Rec.

And she confessed one of her shameful secrets…being part of a SNL sketch that made fun of a disabled child, and trying to make amends after she learned what she had done. Honest to a fault though, she waited awhile after being called on the situation before she could ask apologize and ask for forgiveness.

I love Poehler’s brand of feminism: being unabashedly proud to be female; upbeat, optimistic, and fun; and embracing male allies, but not taking any shit, which she continues to espouse in her Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls videos and Facebook page. And best of all, like me, she cherishes her women friends, as important to our souls and spirits as food and water are to our bodies. She lives out this philosophy in her work (Leslie Knope’s Galentine’s Day and adoration of her best friend) and in her life (as she writes about one of her main collaborators, Tina Fey).

So if this sounds appealing to you, sit down with your imaginary best friend Amy for some funny, poignant, and touching tales.

Blood Brothers

Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour

My dear friend and Lutheran pastor, who visited Palestine in 2014, advised me that Blood Brothers was a good introduction to the history of the conflict in the Middle East.

Until a few years ago, I only knew one side of the Palestine-Israel story. Several people from my church started a Holy Land team and regularly visit Palestine. We've had many speakers on the topic, including Lutheran bishop Mitri Raheb (who just won the 2015 Olof Palme peace prize), Rabbi Ned Rosch (representing Jewish Voice of Peace), and other speakers. So I was reasonably well informed before starting this book, but Blood Brothers gave me a more personal, home-grown perspective.

A few months ago, we discussed Blood Brothers at our church book group, and we had two special guests: a friend who is Syrian, Hazar, and her dear friend, who is the great-niece of Fr. Elias Chacour, author of this book. A deeply emotional, heartfelt conversation ensued as they both shared stories of loss and sadness about their homelands. 

One of Elias Chacour's mentors, Fr. Longere, gave this advice during a final lecture:
"If there is a problem somewhere, this is what happens. Three people will try to do something to settle the issue. Ten will give a lecture analyzing what the three are doing. One hundred will commend or condemn the ten for their lecture. One thousand people will argue about the problem. And one person--only one--will involve himself so deeply in the true solution that he is too busy to listen to any of it. Now...which person are you?"
This is the central message of the book...Fr. Chacour dedicated his life to building peace among nations and religions, even though his life and his family's was upended by the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The most important message about this book is that there's so much more going on in Israel and Palestine than what meets the eye (or crosses our path via western media). Blood Brothers begins when Fr. Elias Chacour is just a small boy, when his family had close relationships with Jews in his community. Peaceful farmers, his family did not have a lot of money, but they were rich in love and their Christian faith.

I learned in the book that the desire to form a Jewish homeland in Israel did not begin after the Holocaust. In fact, the idea first sparked in 1897 in Switzerland, at a conference "to lay the foundation stone of the house which was to shelter the Jewish nation." Over the years, many western countries talked about creating a homeland for the Jews.

In 1917 Jewish Zionists aligned themselves with Britain's Christian Restorationists, a group that believed they might bring to pass the second coming of Christ by creating a state of Israel. The intentions were not necessarily pure either. British Lord Balfour supported the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, while at the same time playing a major role in passing the Aliens Act in 1906, which expressly sought to exclude Jews from Great Britain. He also did not care at all what the Palestinians thought about this.

Through the 1920s, European immigration to Palestine increased and Zionist leaders became less guarded about their plan to institute a Jewish state. Many Zionists were ill at ease with those who insisted on Jewish "predominance" in Palestine. Yitzhak Epstein, an agriculturist, warned the Zionist Party that they "had wrongly consulted every political power that held sway over Palestine without consulting the Palestinians themselves..." and he worried about Palestinian resentment. He argued that the immigrating Jews should help Palestinians find their own identity and open to them the new Jewish hospitals, schools, and reading rooms...however, he was staunchly opposed.

By the 1930s, immigration from Europe was rising like a flood, with no intervention or plans by the British. In 1936, Palestinian leaders called for a general strike, as they were losing power over their own homeland...the strike lasted for 6 months, crippling commerce. But violence increased and in 1938, the protests were finally crushed.

Pres. Roosevelt held off the Zionists and wanted to open the free world to the victims of the Holocaust, but Pres. Truman had a different plan. The Zionist lobbyists argued that admission to Palestine was the "only hope of survival" for the Jewish people. The exhausted British found themselves pressured by the White House, even as they watched their mandate government in Palestine blitzed by a campaign of terror. In 1947 they announced their plan to surrender their mandate. And violence spread unchecked.

Then came the Holocaust, when many western nations refused to take in Jewish refugees. Chacour does not blame the terrified masses of Jewish immigrants who fled to Palestine. He says they were pawns of the Zionist leaders. Upon their arrival in Palestine they were indoctrinated against their so-called new enemy: the Palestinians.

In 1950, 50,000 Jewish people were celebrating Passover in Baghdad, Iraq. (More than 130,000 Jews lived in Iraq at the time, the oldest Jewish community in the world.) A small bomb was hurled from a car speeding along the river, and shock waves rocked the community. Leaflets appeared the next day, urging Jews to flee to Israel, and 10,000 signed up for emigration immediately. Then a second bomb exploded, then a third, killing several people outside a synagogue. By early 1951 Jews fled Iraq in panic until only 5,000 remained in the country. In the end, 15 people were arrested in connection with the bombing, and they were Zionists. They had thrown bombs at their own people to touch off a panic emigration to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and others knew of the plot in advance.

But back to Elias Chacour's story. During the Zionist takeover of Palestine, Israel destroyed 450 Palestinian villages, including Chacour's. He and his family had to flee their orchards and house to settle in a nearby village that was much more shabby than their own. Chacour was eventually sent to seminary and became a priest and then a bishop.

Even though his family's lives were torn apart by the Israeli Zionists, he does not hate them. Instead, he shows compassion to them, the true biblical "turning the other cheek," because he keeps in mind what happened in the Holocaust. He has dedicated his life to bringing Jews, Christians, and Muslims together...through activism, advocacy, and community building. At a young age, he and other Palestinians were unfairly branded as "terrorists" even though they were not. Given the Palestinian apartheid and unfair treatment they have received, it's understandable why they would want to protest. But Chacour has chosen a nonviolent path in spite of what he has seen and faced.

He tells a touching story about arriving in the deeply fractured city of Ibillin, where he arranged to have three nuns visit and reach out to the villagers. He hoped the sisters would be able to do what he had not yet been able to do: broker peace. Even after the tension began thawing, enemies still existed. One day Fr. Chacour locked the church doors and exhorted them to act like Christians and forgive each other.

His mother's final message to him before she died was, "Be strong, Elias. What you do matters. Especially for the young ones."

The book ends with Fr. Chacour asking questions of Palestinians, Israelis, and westerners. "How can you take on yourself the right to decide who is the terrorist? Who is the fighter for liberty? How do you find it your right to judge?"

Coauthor David Hazard shares an anecdote in the afterword about a visit to a Gazan refugee camp, where he spoke to a 17-year-old Palestinian girl. She told how she witnessed her teenage cousin being shot through the head after he picked up a rock in response to Israel soldier taunts. She accused him and all Americans of knowing about these daily abuses against Palestinians but not caring, and even supporting the conservative Israeli forces that sponsor these acts. When Hazard tried to explain that Americans don't know about these things, she said, "Of course Americans know we're suffering over here. You're the most powerful nation on earth. And everyone has a television. I know you know."

In the group at my church, our guests--Hazar from Syria and Fr. Chacour's niece, who is Lebanese, emotionally spoke of their homelands and the misperceptions people have about the real story in the Middle East. The following month, we discussed Blood Brothers at my regular book group, and my British friend Niki spoke about what she learned about Palestine and Israel growing up, a much more complex and multilayered picture than what we were fed in the U.S.

We are so uninformed and ignorant. So much of the conflict and strife in the Middle East, hatred between Muslims and Jews, comes down to this conflict in Palestine. And until it is resolved, nothing will get better.