Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Am Malala

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

What an inspiring young woman! With assistance from writer Christina Lamb, Malala Yousafzai tells her story...beginning from when she was born. In her village in the Swat valley, people rejoice when a son is born, but not a daughter. However, her father was immediately delighted to have a daughter. Reading Malala's story, it's clear how tremendously lucky she was to be blessed with such a father. Fathers have incredible power in traditional, religiously conservative countries such as Pakistan. “Our men think earning money and ordering around others is where power lies," wrote Malala. "They don't think power is in the hands of the woman who takes care of everyone all day long, and gives birth to their children.” Because of her wise, brave father's belief in women's and girls' potential, Malala was able to pursue her dreams of education. He dedicated his life to educating girls by starting his own school:

“His sisters--my aunts--did not go to school at all, just like millions of girls in my country. Education had been a great gift for him. He believed that lack of education was the root of all of Pakistan's problems. Ignorance allowed politicians to fool people and bad administrators to be re-elected. He believed schooling should be available for all, rich and poor, boys and girls. The school that my father dreamed of would have desks and a library, computers, bright posters on the walls and, most important, washrooms.” 

Throughout her life, Malala has been an ambitious, competitive, and passionate young woman. She emulated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, another strong Pakistani woman who bravely faced her opponents to fight for what she believed in. She has been supported along the way by both her father and mother.

Sadly, it's hard to say whether Malala will ever be able to return to Pakistan. It's not safe for her there, and many condemn her speaking out against the Taliban.

As I was reading this book, I was explaining it to my younger sons, aged 7 and 10. I wanted them to understand how lucky they are to have a good education. My 7-year-old, in particular, is highly interested in the plight of Malala and wants to know why she can't return to Pakistan and why the Taliban fights violently against women's rights to be educated.

I highly recommend this story of a phenomenal young woman, and I admire her passion and commitment to stand up for girls' education in her homeland.

Monday, December 16, 2013

In the Woods

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods, by Tana French

I've seen this book around for awhile, and I had a copy of it on my bookshelves that I finally decided to read. It's the story of Rob Ryan, victim of a crime 20 years before and now a murder detective himself. He's on a case in which a young girl is murdered in the same area where his two best friends vanished when he was a child.

My favorite character is Ryan's partner, Cassie Maddow, a tough, tender detective with secrets of her own.

I would describe this book as a literary thriller/detective novel. It took me a bit of time to finish it, but I enjoyed it. After I closed the last page, I looked up the rest of the series. French chooses a different main character to profile in each book, all based in Ireland (the "Dublin Murder Squad"). The next book will focus mostly on Cassie herself. I'm not sure whether Rob ever returns to the plot...but I will be reading more of the series!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, edited by Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro 

I discovered this book when Nadia Bolz-Weber (author of Pastrix) recommended it on her Facebook page. It's a collection of essays by female Christian leaders under the age of 40 (it's part of a series by young female spiritual leaders). The title immediately caught my attention. These women, many pastors and teachers, share their thoughts on a variety of topics that have been off limits in Christianity. 

Some of the essays by more conservative women wrestle with the teachings of men as the head of the household, women speaking in church or preaching, women as professionals, the decision to live with a partner before marriage, leaving an abusive marriage and being cast out by her church, choosing not to follow in parents' footsteps as a Christian missionary caring for the poor, choosing celibacy, being called to work with refugees, tattoos, freedom without makeup, recovery, dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s marriage, etc. Many of these are even greater taboo topics in conservative Christian circles. We all have our own taboos.

The following essays struck particular notes with me:

"The Gatherer-God: On Motherhood and Prayer," by Micha Boyett…who struggled to find time to pray with young children. She has found that her most contemplative time is when her mind is fuzzy and she has no book before her…when she was breastfeeding, for example. She takes her cue from Christ’s own mother, who twice is described as “pondering” at the work of God in her son. “Why else would such a prayer be mentioned in the Gospels unless to call us to such deep work?”

"Naughty by Nature, Hopeful by Grace," by Enuma Okoro, who confesses that she develops a crush on a close male friend, but through talking to her friends and wrestling with the issue, she comes to peace with it and finds a way to move on without disrupting their friendship (or his marriage). “I am beginning to realize how little the churches of which I have been a part have taught me about the beauty of boundaries and the reality of fine lines.” I admired Okoro's honesty on such a difficult topic.

"Married by Children," by Erin Lane. The author grapples with the decision not to have children, and how unusual that is in the church. We tend to be heavily focused on family and children in our churches.

"High Stakes Whack-a-Mole: Noticing and Naming Sexism in the Church," by Lara Blackwood Pickrel. Pickrel writes about being treated as “less than” as a woman, having comments directed about her appearance because she’s a woman, and being told she’s too sensitive when she notices sexism. That last one is a particularly strong pet peeve of mine!

"Crafting Bonds of Blood," by Patience Perry. The author writes about reclaiming the menstrual and labor rituals and our sensuality. Perry writes, "Imagine if ALL women were validated for their potential to create life as evident in their monthly cycle…I am seeking ways that we can strengthen and reinvigorate women through the common bonds of blood…I’d like to see our society embrace women’s rituals and reconcile our disconnection with creation.” Have you ever heard menstruation or women's reproductive organs mentioned in church?

"The God of Shit Times," by Rachel Marie Stone. This was definitely my favorite title. Stone reclaims the power of profanity after being raised in a family where Christian "ladies" don't swear. When Stone's friend was in cancer treatment, she acknowledged that profanity had a purpose: “In the midst of my frigid and tedious winter, I needed some good profanity to adequately describe how much it all sucked. Sometimes an f-bomb is the exact, right word.” After seeing several close friends through deep, dark times and experiencing them myself, I can relate. Our God is a God of shit times.

"Naming God for Ourselves Amidst Pain and Patriarchy," by Rahiel Tesfamarian. The author changed her imagery of God through her divinity studies. Tesfamarian writes, "The image of my Maker as a ‘soft, still voice’ or ‘gentle whisper’ found in 1 Kings 19 was comforting and reassuring…I have done the hard work of unpacking God for myself. But that responsibility should not fall solely on me as an individual. The church also has a lot of work to do. Will more churches rise to this occasion, commit to being cutting-edge on matters of gender equality, and go where women of faith dare to take them? IS the church ready for a generation of women who are determined to define God on their own terms?” I went through a similar journey myself when I studied feminist theology in college and discovered that God was so much bigger than one gender alone.

“The Silence Behind the Din: Domestic Violence and Homosexuality," by Rev. Sarah C. Jobe. As a chaplain who works with victims of sexual abuse, Jobe reflects that the church does not address sexual assault or domestic violence, even though 30 percent of women are victims. Instead the church condemns homosexuality while ignoring sexual assault and domestic violence. She raises the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the fact that instead of addressing the issue of rape in the story, this story is used as a weapon against homosexuality. “Will we continue to read the Scriptures according to our taboos around homosexuality and domestic violence, accepting interpretations that maximize violence?”

"No Women Need Apply," by Gina Messina-Dysert. This essay is about the war on women being waged by the Catholic church. Messina-Dysert finds a way to identify as Catholic by realizing she is her own agent and will not allow anyone to tell her what her religious status is based on her refusal to accept discrimination. She is also raising a daughter who will fight for women’s ordination in the Catholic church. This essay is important to me because I am married to a Catholic and belong to a Lutheran-Catholic community. 

"The Pastor Has Breasts," by Rebecca Clark. Clark writes about pregnancy, body awareness, sexuality, and breastfeeding in a highly public environment that is church. This essay made me think about what the unique journey female pastors must take and how the standards can be very different for them. When I was breastfeeding my children, I did so in church during worship. I'm grateful no one ever questioned this. As a pastor, I no doubt would have been under a microscope and judged for doing this.

"Created for Pleasure," by Kate Ott. Ott became aware of masturbation as a blessing from God. She notes her "aha moment" of learning in a seminary sexual ethics class that the clitoris is the only body part created solely through pleasure. She asks, ”What would the world look like if every girl and woman knew exactly how her body worked? If it was respected and her enjoyment of sexual behaviors was as important as that of her partner…that would be the world God intended…God created us to experience pleasure for the sake of knowing and loving ourselves better, so that we can know and love others better, including God.” What a wonderful way to look at our bodies and sexuality...and a wake-up call for the church.

"Flesh and Blood," by Ashley-Anne Masters. As a chaplain caring for women who have experienced pregnancy loss, Masters writes about pregnancy loss not being openly addressed in the church. She also writes about her own loss conducting a baptism right after experiencing her own miscarriage and how she shared her own grief with strangers. I received some support from church friends when I experienced several miscarriages, but it wasn't something I felt comfortable talking about. 

"What Do Cinderella, Lilies, and the Cross Have in Common," by Carol Howard Merritt. Merritt had to ask for a salary raise at her first church and experienced condescension from church members about her husband being the stay-at-home dad. Money, especially needing to ask for it, is a huge taboo topic for pastors...especially female ones.

"My Secret Buddhist Life," by Mary Allison Cates. After Cates was told she didn't look like a minister, she rediscovered her body through yoga and nose piercing. She also wrote about how she is feeling more comfortable with her female pastor body now that she is older and her body attracts less attention.

I liked the wide variety of perspectives in this collection, and this book made me long to sit around a dinner table with all these women and get to hear their stories personally.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cross Currents

Cross CurrentsCross Currents, by John Shors

In March 1987, my friend Debbie and I spent a few days--not long enough--on an unspoiled Thai island, Koh Samet. The visit was arranged by Debbie's friend, Noi, who worked for Finn Air and whose Bangkok family was very protective of us. Even though Debbie and I were intrepid travelers by this point, they didn't want us traveling on our our time on this island was wonderful because we were on our own, and it was absolutely of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It was so relaxing--all we did all day was laze around reading, writing, swimming, and taking walks. And eating amazing seafood.The owners didn't seem to speak much English, and we had to let them know when we wanted to eat by using sign language.

Me on Koh Samet
The memory of our time on that pristine island, where we had a bungalow on the beach and ate our meals in front of the ocean, was ever present as I read this book, set on another unspoilt Thai island, Ko Phi Phi. It's the story of an American, Patch, who is working for Lek and Sarai, owners of a very small resort (which sounds similar to the one where we stayed).

Patch develops a strong friendship with Lek and Sarai's children and becomes part of their family. But Patch's stay continues longer than any other American...and they realize that he is on the run from the law. Soon Patch's brother Ryan and his girlfriend Brooke arrive to help him, but there's trouble in paradise. Brooke and Ryan's relationship is in trouble, and she realizes she is attracted to Patch.

The climax of the story is the December 2004 tsunami, which sweeps everyone into crisis. It's the second book I've read in the past year about the tsunami; the other one was the heart-breaking memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Another photo of Koh Samet (me, age 22)
It's a terribly bittersweet novel, and it moved me at the end. I don't think it's Shors' strongest novel--my two favorites were his first ones, Beneath a Marble Sky and Beside a Burning Sea. At times I tired of the descriptions about everyone's clothing and a bit too much "telling" rather than "showing." At other times the story dragged on, with slow plot development. On the other hand, I liked the way he described the lives of the Thais who lived on the island, the rich family life of Lek and Sarai, the tenuous relationship between the foreigners and the Thais, and the relationship between the brothers--strained but loving.

And most of all, I enjoyed this book because it made me think of that lovely Thai beach...and saddened me to think of what happened to all those people who lost their lives or loved ones in the great wave.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Sleeping Dictionary

The Sleeping Dictionary (Daughters of Bengal, #1)
The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

As a long-time Sujata Massey fan, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest novel, and it did not disappoint!!

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany (just like my friend Nandita), and she grew up mostly in Minnesota. After working as a reporter, she spent several years in Japan where she taught, studied, and began writing her first novel, The Salaryman's Wife. That first novel grew into a detective series with smart, industrious, and savvy Rei Shimura, a Japanese-American antiques dealer who lives in Japan and solves mysteries on the side. I read every single one of the Rei Shimura novels as soon as they came out and have widely recommended them to friends. In fact, the Rei Shimura series is the only detective series I've devoured in its entirety outside of the VI Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (my first introduction to detective novels). I'm not naturally drawn to mysteries, so I'm highly selective. Authors (e.g., Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell) lose my attention if their books are not well written or if I get tired of the main character. Of course, Rei Shimura held my attention completely because of the series' setting in Japan (mostly). Loved them!

So onto The Sleeping Dictionary. This book took six years for Massey to research and write, because it involved so much in-depth research into Indian history, culture, and language. Massey's family comes from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and she spent time there as a child (read her wonderful diary entries here!), so it was a natural choice for setting this novel. 

It's the story of Pom, who lives with her family in a small village by the sea. Her family is very poor, but she feels secure and well loved until a tidal wave wipes out her whole village and her family. Completely alone and helpless in 1930s India, Pom is a survivor. She ends up at a British boarding school, where she is renamed as Sarah and begins working as a maid. She learns how to read and write while operating the fan in a classroom. When she befriends a wealthier Indian girl, Bidushi, who she had known as a child, she comes to discover her own intelligence and talents. Although she hopes to become Bidushi's ayah and always stay together, these dreams are soon dashed by tragedy.

Still very young, she next finds herself in the city of Kharagpur, lured into prostitution at a high-class brothel. As an Indian girl without a family, she has few options for survival. She desperately tries to cling to her dignity in the midst of her despair at being forced to sell her body, and she continues to nurture dreams of becoming a teacher. (The title of the book comes from the term for young Indian women who slept with British men and taught them the ways and language of India.)

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot and adventure in the novel, but I will say that she moves to Calcutta where she renames herself as Kamala, begins to work for an English man, and gets involved in the Indian independence movement.

So here are some of the reasons why I loved this book: 
  • Pom/Sarah/Kamala is a strong, spunky Indian female, and I found myself rooting for her immediately and throughout her story. Faced with desperately difficult choices in her life, she does the best she can with what is given to her. While she is certainly a victim many times in her life, she has no privilege to wallow in misery and self-pity, but time after time she finds ways to rise above her difficult circumstances.
  • I could practically taste Calcutta through Massey's detailed descriptions of the city. I've traveled only in the north of India (we concentrated our time there in Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan), but I found myself intrigued by the City of Palaces and sad to read about its devastation during the pre-Independence riots and violence.
  • I have read great quantities of Indian fiction (and a bit of nonfiction, too), but this book taught me things I did not know...for example, about the massive famine in Bengal caused by the British Empire hoarding India's rice (millions died), India's amazing female freedom fighters and independence activists, Japan bombing India during the war, some members of the Indian resistance movement joining the Japanese led by Subhash Chandra Bose, to name a also gives the Anglo-Indian perspective on what was happening during that time.
  • Massey develops multidimensional characters, including Hindus, Muslims, and British, and even some of the women who are sucked into prostitution. Kamala herself makes some unfortunate decisions and lies to people because she feels she has no choice. She's a complex character who is far from perfect. Both Kamala and Simon evolve through the story. There's even a Scottish clergyman who is open minded, fair, and compassionate...imagine that!
  • As a consummate book lover, I enjoyed the sheer love of books in this novel. From the moment "Sarah" borrows books from a kind teacher at the British boarding school and her gradual collection of the great masters, to Kamala landing a wonderful job as a librarian for Mr. Lewes...books offer her an escape from the great losses in her life.
I was excited to learn that this book is the first in a planned trilogy, AND that Rei Shimura will be making a reappearance! The Sleeping Dictionary will be near the top of my "Top Reads of 2013" list! If you enjoy reading historical fiction or books about India, the colonial era, or strong female characters, give it a try! 

Here is Sujata Massey speaking about The Sleeping Dictionary, and an interview with her.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Orange Is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's PrisonOrange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman

I'm completely hooked on the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," so I was anxious to read the memoir that is the basis for the show. I'd heard an interview with Piper Kerman on "Fresh Air" several months ago, so I already knew that the book is notably different than the show.

Here's the plot in a nutshell if you're not familiar with the show. Rich, Smith-educated white girl smuggles drug money for her girlfriend. Ten years later, after she has reinvented her life and gone to the other side (she's engaged to a man), the feds show up at her door. She has to go to prison for 15 months (13 months with time off for good behavior) because of the mistake she made as a young woman.

She serves her time in Danbury Prison in Connecticut, and toward the end of her sentence she gets transferred to even worse places--Oklahoma City and Chicago. While in prison, she makes friends and learns how to survive.

Here's what is most different about the book and show, and what I preferred:

  • When she first arrives at Danbury, many of the other prisoners reached out to her and helped her. Not so in the show, at least not right away. Win: book.
  • In the show, we learn the back stories (and actually see them) of the other prisoners. In the book, this rarely happens. It's mostly about Kerman's experience alone. Win: show, by far (this is the best part of the show!). Apparently in reality, it wasn't cool to ask why a woman was in prison, so Kerman didn't often know the back stories.
  • In the show, Piper is housed at Danbury with Alex, her former girlfriend. They have an affair and she becomes attached to her again. Her long-suffering fiance Larry finds out and breaks off their engagement. In the book, she runs into Alex Nora in the end, as they are rounded up to testify against someone else (part of their plea bargain). But they do not have an affair. They develop a tenuous friendship instead. Win: book, although the show is much more dramatic and interesting to watch.
  • We hear more about prison creativity in the book. Piper becomes an expert at making "prison cheesecake" with a variety of the movie, we don't get this level of detail. Win: book.
  • "Crazy Eyes" is an exaggeration of the show, as are several of the other characters. A woman flirts with Piper in the book, but not so aggressively as in the show. Red Pop doesn't bully her by starving her in the beginning of the stay, but she is an important character. Crazy, meth-addicted fundamentalist Christian who tries to kill Piper seems to be another fantasy. Win: book. The show plays into the stereotype of lesbian (and other types of) aggression in prison. In fact, there's a lot more lesbian sex in the show than in the book.
  • "Pornstache" (a perverted, masochistic guard) is much bigger in the show than "Gay Porn Star" in the book. He doesn't last long in reality, and he doesn't deal drugs or sleep with prisoners. Win: book (reality).
  • Larry is much more neurotic and self-obsessed in the show than in the book. He takes advantage of the information he gets from Piper to go on "This American Life" and share personal stories of the prisoners. He breaks it off with Piper when he discovers she's back with Nora Alex. None of this happens in the book. They are both loyal and much less interesting to a TV audience. Win: the book (for love, at least, if not for TV viewing).

When Piper moves to Oklahoma City and then Chicago to testify, it's much more horrific and bare than Danbury, which seems almost "comfortable" in comparison. It's hard to know how they will address this, if ever, in the show.

As Kit Steinkellner writes in this article on BookRiot,
"Orange is the New Black is a fine memoir. Orange is the New Black is a revolutionary first season of television."
I have to agree. I enjoyed the book, but the TV show is so much fuller, mostly because the stories of the diverse prisoners are so much more interesting than the rich white woman's. I'm glad Piper Kerman wrote her story, though, because it's called attention to the bad conditions of women in prison and their lack of control over their environment.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & SaintPastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Wow. This book brought me to tears so many times. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a recovering alcoholic and fundamentalist (she was raised in the ultraconservative Church of Christ), and she is now an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastor, wife, and mother. She founded and leads a church called the House for All Sinners and Saints, or HFASS (pronounced Half-Ass) for short. In this book, Bolz-Weber shares deeply and honestly about her own personal trials and how she found her way to the Lutheran church: in one word, grace.

I had forgotten this, but when we were at Holden Village several years ago, Bolz-Weber was also there. A few in our group found her to be standoffish and not very warm. She admits this herself and calls herself a "misanthrope." Her grumpiness comes out full bore in her memoir, but that's what I like so much about it: her deep honesty. She's like Anne Lamott as an ELCA pastor.

I heavily dog-eared my copy of this book, and this is what spoke most clearly to me:

  • God's aunt: When she spent some time with Wiccan friends (before finding a home in the ELCA), she said "the goddess we spoke of never felt to me like a substitute for God, but simply another aspect of the divine. Just like God's aunt." She goes on..."I can't imagine that the God of the universe is limited to our ideas of God. I can't imagine that God doesn't reveal God's self in countless ways outside of the symbol system of Christianity. In a way, I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine."
  • What you were called to be: When she hesitantly shared with her pastor dad and mom about her decision to become a pastor (after being raised in a church where women could not even teach Sunday school to boys over 12, much less preach), her father responded in a way she didn't expect: "At that moment, my father silently stood up, walked to the bookshelf and took down his worn, leather-bound Bible. Here we go, I thought, he's going to beat me with the scripture stick...He opened it up and read. I could tell from where he was turning that it wasn't one of Paul's letters at the end of the book, but something closer to the middle. My father did not read the 1st Timothy passage about women being silent in church. He read from Esther.

    From my father I heard only these words: "But you were born for such a day as this." He closed the book and my mother joined him in embracing me. They prayed over me and they gave me a blessing. And some blessings, like the one my conservative Christian parents gave to their soon-to-be Lutheran pastor daughter who had put them through hell, are the kind of blessings that stay with you for the rest of your life. The kind you can't speak of without crying all over again." Oh, did I ever cry when I read this story!
  • I am baptized, so fuck off: Apparently Martin Luther had a bit of an anger issue. "Luther was known to not only throw the occasional inkpot at whatever was tormenting him and causing him to doubt God's promises, but also while doing so he could be heard throughout the castle grounds shouting, 'I am baptized!'" And this is what baptism means to a Lutheran--to be claimed by God and touched by God's grace, no matter what we do or who we are. It's not up to us; it's up to God. This is what she shared with a young transgender man named Asher, who was also raised in a conservative Christian church and who she blessed in a name changing ceremony. She met him a few years later after he returned home from seminary. He said, "I never told you about the dream I had the night after my naming rite"..."It was like so many other nights--a voice accusing me, damning me, scaring me. But this time I talked back," he said proudly. "I said, 'I am baptized, so fuck off,' and when I woke up I was giddy. I called a friend, and we went to City Park and made snow angels." I plan to use this next time my own personal demons threaten my spirit.
  • No fakery: Bolz-Weber is not a fan of praise music or liturgical dance and can barely keep herself from showing her dislike on her face. "Pretending to feel a way other than how I actually feel is not a gift God gave me. I can pull it off for short periods of time when needed, but the effort is exhausting." I can relate! This is why it would be very difficult for me to be a pastor!
  • Radical hospitality does not sell: She addresses the fact that "churches that try to live into the beauty of radical hospitality and the destabilizing idea that Jesus is experienced in welcoming strangers don't tend to be described as 'sprawling.' Jesus wants you to be rich and beautiful is doing great as a message, though. There are shiny millionaire preachers and full attended parking lots every Sunday morning in America to prove it."
  • Strangers sometimes look like our parents: But she also struggled big time with the growing attention her church has received. When they started attracting a lot of white, middle-class suburbanites, she didn't like it. "I wanted the 'us' to be bigger. What I wasn't prepared for was the 'us' to be different." She found it increasingly difficult, as the numbers grew, to maintain a welcoming attitude to some of these newcomers...those who didn't fit her definition of "all sinners and saints" (alcoholics, tattoo-wearers, drug addicts, hippies). "My precious little indie boutique of a church was being treated like a 7-Eleven, and I was terrified that the edgy, marginalized people whom we had always attracted would now come and see a bunch of people who looked like their parents and think, 'This isn't for me.' And if that started to happen, I would basically lose my shit." Then a friend of hers pointed out that her church was really good at welcoming young transgendered people..."but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad." And then young Asher, the transgendered young person, expressed gratitude for those who didn't look like him. "I just want to say that I'm really glad there are people at church now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can't with my own mom and dad." More tears.
  • What would Jesus do? When a con man becomes a member of her church, her first instinct was to "try to get rid of him. You know, like Jesus would do...Ugh, Jesus. He always seems to be showing up when I want him to politely just keep out of my business." And when this con man, Rick, becomes part of her community and works at a food distribution center at the Occupy Denver outpost, he enthusiastically shares, "Distributing food at Occupy Denver is awesome!"..."Everyone is fed. It doesn't matter if you are a homeless guy who is scamming and doesn't even care about Occupy or a lawyer on a lunch break."..."The only place I've ever really seen that is at communion." Then she hangs up, trying to pretend she wasn't crying. And again, I dropped tears. That's what communion means to me as a Lutheran--everyone is welcome and everyone gets fed.

This book, while it might not appeal to everyone (especially if you are sensitive to salty language), made me glad to be an ELCA Lutheran. I'm so glad that we have tattooed, alcoholic pastors like Bolz-Weber, and that she is spreading the word about God's grace to everyone. I encourage you to watch this long interview with Bolz-Weber by Krista Tippett. It's worth it.

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir

The Invisible Girls: A MemoirThe Invisible Girls: A Memoir, by Sarah Thebarge

Sarah Thebarge survived grueling breast cancer, and a recurrence within a year, before moving west to Portland, Oregon, my hometown. While on the MAX light rail train, she meets a Somali immigrant and her five young daughters, and a friendship begins.

Thebarge alternates her story between getting to know and helping Hadhi and the girls and her travails enduring breast cancer treatment. She was raised in a strict evangelical religion, but went onto earn a degree at Yale and was in the middle of earning a journalism degree at Columbia when cancer struck. She also had a serious boyfriend and was close to becoming engaged. Ian, the boyfriend, was too weak to stick it out and abandoned her. Her church community apparently also abandoned her. She felt alone and bereft, her faith severely tested, when she picked up stakes to move to the west coast. Given the fact that I've had several friends endure and survive Stage 3 breast cancer similar to Thebarge's, I most appreciated reading about her experience and her feelings about having cancer. I also always like reading books set in my hometown!

When she got to know and began to help Hadhi, who didn't speak much English, she seemed to relate to the "invisible girls" because of what she had endured. She too felt like a stranger in a strange land.

This book has been accused of the "white savior complex." At times I wondered whether she could teach Hadhi how to fend for herself and survive rather than just rescuing her (do they have a sustainable life in the U.S.?). I was touched that Thebarge went out of her way to make this family feel welcome in the United States...a feeling they had not experienced before they met her. So much of their lives was difficult, but Thebarge brought joy to their poor, struggling family.

I felt that she could have delved a bit more into how she broke away from her traditional religious upbringing, and her feelings of betrayal when very few were there for her through cancer. And during one of the last chapters of the book she mentions some kind of identity theft or fraud but never explains what happened. (It felt like a big loose end was not tied up...perhaps an editorial oversight?)

The final chapter made me squirm a bit, as Thebarge and her friend reach out to a prostitute and do some proselytizing...mostly because, as a Christian, I'd rather that people learn about Christianity through the way we live our lives and not because we hit them over their heads with it. So even though she felt completely oppressed growing up in such a strict Christian denomination--in which women were not allowed to hold any leadership roles in the church whatsoever--she seems to move back to it at the end. That was a bit confusing. 

But Thebarge did help this family in dire straits. She brought delight into their lives and she helped them muddle through, and she too was enriched by the experience. She decided to write this book so she could raise money for the girls to go to college. I hope she is successful in her goal. 

I love this tidbit I found on Thebarge's blog, which is the ultimate takeaway from this book:

"And I realized this morning that solving the problem of invisibility doesn’t require legislation or institutional intervention.  It’s simple, and it’s easy, and it’s free.  It just takes all of us walking through life with open eyes and softened hearts, taking the risk and the time to tell someone else, 'You’re not invisible any more.  I care that you exist.  I see that you’re suffering.  It matters that you’re here.' 
How would our world change if every day, each of us told one person — just one —'I see you.  So you’re not invisible any more.'”
I participated in a campaign on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for Jericho Books. I received a product sample to facilitate my review.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The House I Loved

12122542The House I Loved, by Tatiana De Rosnay

My book group chose this book for October, mostly based on the fact that two members had read De Rosnay's earlier bestselling book, Sarah's Key.

It's the story of Rose Bazelet, a widow who lives in an old house in Paris in the 1860s, an era when hundreds of houses are being demolished to rebuild Paris. She refuses to leave her home, and the book consists of her reminiscences of her life in the house.

I found Rose to be a bit difficult to like, especially because of her neglect and dislike of her daughter, who clearly needed more love. She poured all of her love and affection into her son instead. And to stay in a house and put others' lives at risk all for the sake of principle? I found her to be reckless at best.

It was somewhat interesting to learn about this era in Paris' history, but I'm not sure I would recommend this book to anyone.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown

I loved this book, and it was especially delightful to finish such a fun, well-written, and entertaining book on the evening of a wonderful birthday. 

One reviewer calls this book "Babette's Feast meets Pirates of the Caribbean." If you like historical fiction, cooking, eating, or pirates, you'll enjoy it too.

England, 1819...after pirate captain "Mad Hannah Mabbott" kills Lord Ramsey (big wig of the Pendleton Trading Company, new name for the East India Trading Company), she kidnaps Owen Wedgwood, Ramsey's talented chef. She informs him that he can stay alive if he cooks a sumptuous dinner for her every Sunday evening. 
“Dear Mr. Wedgwood,
Welcome to the Flying Rose. I hope you have settled to sea comfortably. Your lot may improve in direct proportion to your willingness. I do look forward to more of your fare. Let me lay out my proposal: You will, of a Sunday, cook for me, and me alone, the finest supper. You will neither repeat a dish nor serve foods that are in the slightest degree mundane. In return I will continue to keep you alive and well, and we may discuss an improvement of your quarters after a time. Should you balk in any fashion you will find yourself swimming home, whole or in pieces, depending upon the severity of my disappointment. How does this strike you?
In anticipation,
Capt. Hannah Mabbot” 
Wedgwood, a widower, is a bit of a milksop at first...but he makes delectable food out of the crudest ingredients. Meanwhile, Abbot is on the hunt for the elusive Brass Fox, while she's on the run from the British Navy and a Frenchman named Larouche and trying to rout out the saboteur on her ship. Wedgwood makes a few escape attempts but eventually he comes to appreciate the enormous Mr. Apples, fierce Chinese twins, and deaf-mute Joshua, who he teaches to cook and read. Author Eli Brown will make you want to cook and eat, and you will appreciate the fresh and plentiful ingredients in your kitchen and wish you could cook like Wedgwood.
“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey. To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.” 
He discovers the root of Abbot's passions for justice and becomes taken with her love for fine food, quick wit, and extreme bravery. This book sent me to the Internet to look up the opium trade. It also brought back memories of our two visits to Macau, as I read about the pirate era on that island. A wild pirate adventure, love story, and culinary tale all rolled into one!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Midwife

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard TimesThe Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

I'm completely hooked on the BBC show "Call the Midwife"--in fact, I like it even better than "Downton Abbey." The Midwife is the first in the trilogy that inspired the series. It's much grittier and full of hard details than the show. In reality, the conditions were much starker and poorer than what is shown onscreen. For those unfamiliar with the show, The Midwife is about a young nurse-midwife working in Poplar (the East End of London) during the 1950s in Nonnatus House with Anglican nuns (who are also nurse-midwives). Before watching the show, I was not aware there were Anglican nuns!

"Call the Midwife" main cast
The characters I've come to love--the posh and clumsy Chummy (my favorite), sharp-tongued and beautiful Trixie, kind Cynthia, amazing Sister Julienne, aging and memory-lapsing Sister Monica Joan, ever-enterprising Fred, humble Jane, kind and compassionate doctor, and salty, down-to-earth Sister Evangelina--are all in the book in full color. Similar to another of my favorite shows inspired by a book (Orange Is the New Black), the best part about these stories is not the protagonist--it's all the fascinating people around her.

Two stories in particular make me especially grateful for the many advancements in medical care since the 1950s:

  • In her initial training, Worth saw a young woman and baby die from eclampsia, and later at the Nonnatus Houe, she assists a woman suffering from pre-eclampsia. Even in this day and age, women die from full-blown eclampsia and toxemia. If pre-eclampsia is not halted before progressing into eclampsia, the mom dies and nothing can be done about it.
  • Conchita Warren is the Spanish wife and mother of 25 children. Her 25th is born at around 24 weeks (the same gestation as my oldest son), and against all advice, Conchita insists on keeping the baby with her instead of allowing him to go to the hospital, even if he dies. She cradles him between her breasts for the first several months and feeds him expressed milk every 1/2 hour. Later Worth ponders whether a mother's instinct and ability to care for own child might have been even more effective than high-tech hospital care, in which the baby would have been left alone all day and night in an isolette. She also is convinced that if the baby had died, Conchita wouldn't have been far behind. Her desire to protect her baby made her fight for her own life. Of course now, keeping a baby that tiny at home would never be allowed. In my son's case, he definitely would have died if he was not in the NICU--he was very sick and needed that medical care.

Worth tells three stories of mixed-race in which the mom is terrified that her baby will be born black, another in which the baby is born black and the husband pitches a fit, and finally the one we saw in the show, in which the husband embraces the baby as his own and seems completely color blind.
Jennifer Worth as a young nurse-midwife

We learn about Irish Mary, who fled sexual abuse in Dublin to arrive in London penniless and end up working as a prostitute in filthy, horrible Cable Street. (Her tale is far grittier and more tragic than portrayed in the show. Cable Street was notorious for its horrific living conditions, opium dens, sex trafficking, and prostitution, and Mary was an easy victim.) She becomes pregnant and has to flee the brothel, and she ends up meeting Jenny, who tries to help her. Her story finishes tragically.

Think that children were separated from their parents only in concentration camps ala "Sophie's Choice" or when Native American children were sent away from their parents off to boarding schools? It also happened in London through the 1940s, as destitute people were sent to live in workhouses with horrible living and working conditions. We learn the story of Mrs. Jenkins, who entered the workhouse with several young children. They were immediately separated, and she never saw her children again...they all died in the workhouse. She was never the same. When Worth first encounters Mrs. Jenkins, who always stands outside the building where a baby is born and pesters the midwives for news of the baby's and mother's health, she is disgusted by her. When she begins taking care of her and learns her story, her compassion and understanding increase.

At times, Worth's youth, impatience, and British snobbery are on full display, even though she is giving of herself to work in one of the poorest parts of London. One thing she wrote really aggravated me, but it's a reflection of her generation and upbringing, I suppose. In a chapter about how some women have affairs (discovered when they bear babies of a different color), she writes:

"I have often felt that the situation is loaded against men. Until recently, when genetic blood tests became possible, how could any man know that his wife was carrying his child? The poor man had no other assurance of paternity than his wife's word. Unless she is virtually locked up, he can have no control over her activities during the day while he is at work."
Jennifer Worth before her death in 2011
"Loaded against men"???? For a nurse who saw exactly what 1950s-era poor women had to bear (no way to maintain a family unless they get married or resort to prostitution, no birth control resulting in way too many births, no help in the house from their husbands who often ruled with an iron hand, no laws against domestic violence, etc., etc.), this is incomprehensible. "Unless she is virtually locked up?" It sounds like she is recommending such a recourse! As another reviewer wrote, "It wasn't just life circumstances keeping women down in this time; it was powerful social control, such as happens when women of higher, more influential classes, make casual comments about locking wives up." The Guardian's obituary of Jennifer Worth (who died of cancer in 2011) describes her as "A strong personality, Jennifer was dynamic and determined, and her lively imagination is apparent in the books."

For that sexist commentary, I'm giving the book four stars. Otherwise, I loved it and will continue reading the rest of the series (and of course, waiting for Season 3 of "Call the Midwife"!).

Friday, September 27, 2013

Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

This is only the second Bill Bryon book I've read, the first being A Walk in the Woods, which I read three years ago. Bill Bryson lived in England for 20 years after marrying a British woman, and before moving to the United States, he took a 6-week trip traveling around Britain and chronicling his trip. I read this for my book group, and we had a great evening discussing the book, especially as we have a British woman in our book group. It's a love story to Britain--even though it was published in the mid-1990s, so much still applies. Here are some memorable thoughts from the book:

  • The charming way the British react to tea and a plate of biscuits: "ooh lovely!"
  • Bryson writes about how unfortunate it is that communism was left to the Russians instead of the British, who "clearly would have managed it so much better." He talks about their ability to go without, how they are great at pulling together in the face of adversity for a perceived common they "queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets, and sudden inconvenient shortages." He goes on about how they are "comfortable with faceless bureaucracies, tolerant of dictatorships (as Margaret Thatcher proved), will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or delivery of a household appliance." They have a "natural gift for making excellent, muttered jokes about authority without ever actually challenging it...they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low...most of those above the age of 28 already dress like East Germans. Britain would have done it properly, taken it in stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating."
  • He says that the British are easy to please: "They have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their own happiness. Easy to their pleasures many of their treats are cautiously flavorful...they are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake...offer them something genuinely tempting (a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates), and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest throshold is vaguely unseemly. 'Oh, I shouldn't really...'"
  • In the late 1980s the European Union issued a directive about standards of ocean-borne sewage on beaches, and nearly every British seaside town failed to come anywhere near the minimum compliance levels. So instead of cleaning them up, the Thatcher government decided that Britain would not have any "beaches." Nowadays, they are labeled beaches, but they still have a serious sewage problem. I'll remember this next time we go to a British seaside!
  • One of my favorite anecdotes was when he visited a pub in Glasgow and couldn't understand a thing the bartender was saying...such as "D'ye hae a hoo and a poo?" "D'ye nae hae in May? If ye dinna dock ma donny." "Doon in Troon they croon in June, wi' a spoon."
I actually enjoyed the anecdotes and thoughts about Britain and the British more than the traveling bits. Bryson gets a bit grumpy at times, but it's clear that he really loves Great Britain. He ends the book with this:

“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but,' people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.
What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Speaker of the House of Commons to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.
How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.
All of this came to me in the space of a lingering moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I like it here. I like it more than I can tell you.” 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs

I finally got around to reading this book, one of the grand one-year experiments that I am fascinated by. (I actually first read the book that Jacobs' protege wrote, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.) After reading the entire encyclopedia from start to finish during one year, A.J. Jacobs spent a year of his life trying to follow as many biblical tenets as possible. As a secular Jew, he didn't really know much about the Bible, but this made him an especially objective participant in trying to follow the bible's many rules.

One of the first things I was delighted to discover, a few pages in, was that A.J. Jacobs consulted a number of biblical and theological experts during his journey...and one of the subject matter experts he consulted several times was Rev. Eldon Richards, a retired pastor who calls himself a "pastor out to pasture," and who happens to be the mentor and friend of my own Lutheran pastor. So that was very exciting! Pastor Eldon says all sorts of inspirational things such as (discussing that some people will not take him seriously in his quest, because he's not a practicing Jew or Christian): "You just have to tell them that you have a hunger and a thirst, and you may not sit at the same banquet table as them, but you have a hunger and a thirst. So they shouldn't judge you."

Jacobs focuses most of his year on the Old Testament, since it does have more rules, and only a few months on the New Testament. He cataloged a long list of archaic commandments and laws to follow. He stopped shaving his face and cutting his beard, resulting in this unruly hair growth:

He and his poor, long-suffering wife were trying to get pregnant again during this biblical year, and the task of being fruitful and multiplying was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't touch her for several days after her menstrual period. (I think I would have gotten so fed up with him during that year that it would have taken any romance right out of the marriage!) He carried a little stool around everywhere he went so he wouldn't have to occupy the space where a menstruating woman had previously sat. One of the best anecdotes in the book was when he returned home one day to be informed that his (menstruating) wife had sat on every single sitting space in his apartment, just to annoy him! 

Jacobs in full biblical regalia
Some laws, of course, were impossible to follow (such as sacrificing animals and offspring!), although he gets as close as he can to doing these things. He (sort of) stones an adulterer, dresses all in white, writes the Ten Commandments on his door frame, gets a slave intern (the aforementioned protege, Kevin Roose), tries to discipline his son more effectively and honor his parents, does what he can to avoid lying, tries to stop coveting other people's things (a constant challenge), wears clothing without mixed fibers, changes his eating habits, circumcises his sons (not just because of the experiment, but mostly because of his Jewish heritage), tithes 1/10th of his income, visits the Holy Land, consults with many spiritual advisers, explores a wide variety of biblical rule-following traditions (Amish, hardcore creationists, polygamists, Orthodox Jews, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.), and prays and meditates, among other activities. 

At first it felt like he was just going along with the motions, but eventually he actually felt something when he would pray. He wasn't sure what exactly, but something: 

“I'm still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I'm now a reverent agnostic. Which isn't an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance.” 

Throughout this experiment, Jacobs proves the point that you cannot really understand the true spirit of the Bible simply by following rules and laws. I felt that the focus on the New Testament was seriously lacking in this book...along with the words and actions of Jesus that instruct us to love our neighbors, practice radical compassion, care for the poor and downtrodden, and stand up for justice. 

Here's an example: one day he and his wife ran into an old college acquaintance of hers in a coffee shop. After they had caught up for several minutes, the woman mentioned getting the families together again in the future. Jacobs, called to be totally honest and not lie, flatly said he wasn't interested...he already had enough friends and he doesn't want any new ones. His wife, of course, was horrified and embarrassed. Part of me wished I had the guts and honesty to speak this kind of thing aloud (because I must admit that I have often thought this myself--I am very selective about my friendships!), but on the other hand, would this have been what Jesus would have done? No way. 

Even though Jacobs recognizes that life is sacred in the end, he doesn't really seem to grasp the prophecy of Jesus through his little experiment. But maybe that is the point after all. The bible, taken at face value and literally, is worthless without the spirit and grace flowing throughout it.