Thursday, May 23, 2013

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church, by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

I feel ambivalent about this book, which I finished several days ago. Lauren Drain's family moved to Kansas to join the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) after her father, an atheist libertarian, was making a documentary about the group. He soon become absorbed and went full bore. They were one of the few families who were not part of the Fred Phelps dynasty.

Lauren became an enthusiastic picketer, truly believing that WBC had a straight line to heaven...even though they apparently believe in predestination. A couple of things about the WBC surprised me: they highly value education and encourage all members to pursue careers...even women, although in many other ways, women are treated as second-class citizens. Conversely, the second in command at WBC is Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred Phelps' daughters. Another thing I learned is that WBC pickets and protests not to convert or save people from hell, but only to proclaim what they believe.

Some reviewers have commented that Lauren should have waited a few more years to write her memoir--she comes across as a teenager, even though she's now a young woman. I don't think she would have left the church on her own volition--she seemed to love it too much, even though she was beginning to chafe against the favoritism shown to the Phelps family. She did not leave because she disagreed with the church's teachings. Essentially, she was kicked out because she was asking lots of challenging questions and she was drawn to have relationships with men. The WBC rules forbid any contact with people outside the church, and Drain had only one marital prospect within the church. She says now that she stayed in the church because she couldn't bear to leave her family.

In the epilogue, Drain apologizes to gay people for being so hateful, saying the classic "some of my friends are gay" (can't believe her cowriter actually included this staple of prejudice!). But it didn't feel completely genuine to me...I think I might have felt more convinced had the writing been stronger. When I finished the book, I had the impression that if Lauren's family wanted her back in the church...and she could still have freedom to have a relationship with a man outside the WBC...she would be back in a heartbeat. It just didn't ring true to me. She seemed to get such a high level of enjoyment out of the picketing and didn't seem to realize, even later, the depth of hatred she espoused.

However, when I watched an interview with her, I felt more convinced that she was glad she was out. Drain describes the WBC as like a gang. When you are part of it, you feel a sense of belonging. But if you leave, they pray for your doom and destruction.

Drain was treated horribly by her family and the rest of the church...and she is still scarred from that treatment. She hasn't seen her parents or siblings for 5 years.

I did find it interesting to get inside of the WBC and try to understand their hate and evil...but the book itself could have been better.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Vanishing Acts

Vanishing Acts, by Jodi Picoult
Wow--this is the 11th book I've read by Jodi Picoult. Some are definitely better than others. The only two I've given five stars to have been Keeping Faith and Sing You Home. This one I would put in the "average" category.

I like Picoult's books because she always poses ethical dilemmas and creates complex characters, many of whom have deep flaws but good intentions. They often have courtroom drama and surprising twists at the end.

The main character, Delia Hopkins, raised by her widowed father in New England, is now a mother and is engaged to her daughter's father, Andrew. Then she discovers that she was kidnapped by her own father when she was just four...and her mother is still alive. Andrew is an alcoholic and just happens to also be a lawyer, so she asks him to represent her father, even though he doesn't have much experience with trials...and is not licensed to practice in Arizona, where the case goes to court.

As usual, Picoult's books are highly readable and accessible...but this one will not stand out in my memory. The plot seemed to meander. The characters frustrated me at times. The "surprise" wasn't really much of a surprise. I found it hard to understand why Delia made the decisions she did, and I didn't like what happened to the most intriguing character in the book. The prison scenes were awful and implausible...her dad is supposed to be this great guy, yet he helps manufacture meth and shoots a staple into someone's eye??? And I know prison can be awful, but is it typically this brutal? And are alcoholics never allowed to have happy endings?

In summary, this book was okay...but Jodi Picoult has done so much better.

Sexist book covers

What if my husband's beloved Game of Thrones series had been written by a woman?

Yesterday author Maureen Johnson tweeted "I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, "Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. Signed, A Guy." So she challenged her 77,000 followers. A challenge that she called Coverflip.
Check out the full story and see some of the gender-twisted covers here. They are a true wake-up call! For example, here's one book written by a woman--and its girly cover--followed by what it would have looked like if written by a male author!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is the first full-price hardcover book I remember purchasing for myself, ever. As I wrote in February, Ozeki has long been one of my favorite authors, and I was thrilled when I read that she had finally published her third novel. I went to see/hear Ozeki read from this book at Powell's, and I was enchanted. In the intervening time since she published All Over Creation, she became a Zen Buddhist priest. Clearly, this experience informs this novel.

She explained that she has always wanted to do the audio recordings of her books, but publishers prefer not to have authors read their own books. She realized that if she put enough Japanese words in the book, they would let her do her own reading. After listening to her read, I think I might like to listen to the audio book too. This is a highly unusual reaction for me, as I don't often read books twice--at least not until many years have passed. Take a look at this beautiful trailer for the book--you can see what I mean when you hear Ozeki's voice:


I found myself reading this book very slowly--it took me most of April to read, in fact. Ozeki is a poetic, lyrical writer. I am often drawn to her books because they are set in Japan or the United States (or both) and feature Japanese or Japanese-American characters. This was no different.

It's the story of 16-year-old Nao, who is living in Tokyo but spent much of her childhood in Sunnyvale, California. She is mercilessly bullied by her classmates and even her teachers. Some might find it difficult to believe, but bullying is an extreme problem in Japan, and it's even tolerated and sometimes encouraged by the adults in charge. Her father, who lost his job in California and has become unemployable back in Japan, keeps attempting suicide, which is considered an honorable out in Japan. The only bright spot in Nao's life is her 104-year-old great-grandmother, who is an anarchist, feminist, novelist Buddhist nun, who she calls Old Jiko. She decides that she's going to commit suicide, but first she wants to tell the story of Old Jiko's life in her diary.

Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist living on an island in British Columbia, finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach. The resemblance between Ruth the character and Ruth the novelist is more than just their name, ancestry, and location. Ozeki has actually put herself, and her husband Oliver, into the novel.

As Ruth begins reading the book, she becomes captivated by Nao's life and begins to care very deeply about what happens to her. Not too long after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, initially Ruth believes that this is what has caused the diary to come into her hands.

I loved so many things about this novel...the way that Nao finds such deep solace and healing in writing down her pain, the wisdom of old Jiko and the way she connects with her young great-granddaughter, the connections between Japan and North America--present in each of Ozeki's novels, the way Ozeki describes the sparsely populated island on which she and Oliver live, the poignant reflections of Nao's great-uncle's time in the Japanese army and Nao's connections with him, and the spiritual, symbolic activities of the crow, cat, and the sea. So many things have changed since I left Japan, and so many things remain the same.

As Nao goes to visit Old Jiko up on the mountaintop, I envisioned the monastery to look something like Koya-san, where I visited while I lived in Japan. I could picture Nao riding the bus up that mountain and communing with the trees and spirits while she visited there.

So many things about this story were deeply sad, but ultimately, the novel had great redemptive power and spiritual meaning. I highly recommend it--A Tale for the Time Being will definitely be at the top of my book list for the year. It was worth the full price, as the story will stick with me for a long time.