Saturday, July 01, 2017

Ruined by Ruth Everhart

It took me a while to psych myself up to read this book. I felt I needed to prepare myself to handle it. I read about Ruined a while back when it first came out, and I even read an excerpt of the beginning pages. That excerpt, in fact, was why I waited until I felt ready. My aunt read it and told me I should, and I knew I would eventually. I finally did.
Ruined is a memoir. Ruth Everhart was Ruth Huizenga, and she went to Calvin College, where I also went, and grew up in the Christian Reformed Church (the CRC), which I also grew up in (although my dad was a chaplain in the Air Force so my experience was quite different). The crucial event in her memoir happened in my graduating year at Calvin, 1978.

It was...I don't know what to call it...strange? funny? odd? eerie?...to read her descriptions of her life at Calvin and in the CRC that were so familiar to me. Reformed worldview. Synod. Marchienne Rienstra. The White Rabbit. Grand Rapids. Bob Dylan. Names like Huizenga, Hoekstra, Terpstra, John Timmerman. Calvinettes.

The main reason I waited until I felt ready was that the book starts with a moment by moment telling of a night in November, 1978, in a house in not such a good neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where Ruth lived with 4 of her best friends from Calvin, that was broken into by two young black men. The men held the girls at gunpoint for 4 hours, and they raped and robbed them. It must have been incredibly hard for Ruth to write it.

Another reason I hesitated to read this book is I knew from what I read about the book that Ruth left the CRC. I wondered how bitter she was toward it, and how she would portray it. I figured people failed her and since those people are the church, the church failed her. It made me wince, thinking of that. I know the people -- the church -- have failed me, too. I stuck with it. She didn't. I was afraid to learn why.

I was right. It was tough to read that night's story. The writing is vivid. You feel you're there with Ruth, feeling the confusion and fear, the cold gun on her temple, the rapist's hands and lips on her body, hearing his voice, and the voice of his "leader," as the girls called the other perpetrator. You feel the carpet and bare floor where the men forced all the girls to lie, your mind echoes the prayers and Psalms Ruth tried to think of as she struggled to survive what was happening.

The church did fail Ruth. People like ministers and chaplains, college administrators and others, who might have been a source of comfort and healing, were not. Ruth looks back on them now with mercy and understanding. She is not harsh or blaming towards them.

As she describes her life after that night, and the thoughts she was working through, her biggest struggle was trying to understand how God could let this happen to her. It's the question of how there can be evil in the world if God is in control. And that belief that God is in control is a big part of the Reformed worldview. Ruth describes that view this way:
Here's the Reformed worldview in a nutshell, meant to be ingested in one swallow. The sovereignty of God means that God is supreme and rules over all. Nothing can happen apart from God's will. Total depravity means that we are sinful in every part of our being. Redemption means that despite our sinfulness, God loves us and saves us. Well, some of us anyway--the ones who are elected to salvation, which is referred to as limited atonement. Predestination means that God has already chosen the people who will choose Him. Perseverance of the saints means that once a person is saved, then you're chosen, and so are your children. That's called "covenant theology," although there's more to the covenant, of course. Still the family package is the spoonful of sugar that makes the whole system go down.
I just asked my brother and another minister for recommendations on books about the Reformed worldview. I want to study it more and learn more about it so I can write about it. When I went to Calvin and started learning about the Reformed worldview, it was life-changing for me. I felt like walls were falling down in my brain. To see it written in this way, not really bitter or sarcastic, but not what I'd consider super flattering, takes me aback. Why do we need a "spoonful of sugar" to make it go down? I think it's sweet already.

From this worldview where, like we often say, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” (Abraham Kuyper), Ruth extrapolates:
But the idea that everything is preordained meant ... that God's finger had hovered over the map of greater Grand Rapids, passing over the neighborhoods of Eastown and Heritage Hill in ever-narrowing circles until it landed on our roof. Alexander Street.
Tap tap. This house. These sleeping women. These are the ones who will get raped tonight.
What an awful thought. No wonder Ruth struggled so hard and so long with this belief. No wonder we all do. Later in life Ruth goes to seminary in the Presbyterian denomination. There she writes about "theodicy," the problem of evil in the world. In the book, she writes:
I wish I could say I definitively solved the problem of theodicy. But I was unable to reconcile God's sovereign power and the image of God in humans. At least I was unable to reconcile the conundrum like a mathematical formula. Each side of the equation was necessary and gave life comfort and meaning, though the two sides appeared to cancel each other out. But both sides are real and necessary. On the one side, God is all-powerful and loving, and God's will prevails. On the other side, humans are made in God's image and can exercise their will to make choices that matter, which God allows.
Ruined also contained information and thoughts about the CRC's "women's issue" -- the question of allowing women to serve as ministers, elders and deacons. How well I remember, and still see evidence of, this struggle. Ruth talked about one Synod meeting where this question was discussed. While at Calvin I sat in the Fine Arts Center building where Synod met, and I watched the men of Synod having this discussion. One man said the change was like a big ship turning -- it goes slowly, and takes a long time. Boy, did it. And it's still an issue. Less now, but by leaving it up to each congregation it has taken years and years. In my own church, where I have been a member close to 40 years, I am just ending my term as the first woman elder in my congregation.

I think often of those years where I tried to work within the church to change the way women were perceived and considered for serving in the various roles of the church. During those years my daughter grew up and became an adult. I felt I needed to stay in the church because there was so much more to it than that one issue. I loved -- and still love -- the members of my church family who, even when they disagree with me on this issue, love me back, and helped me and my family in times of need.

But Ruth left the church without losing her faith. She went on to find a home in the Presbyterian church, which still has the Reformed background like the CRC. But she found this church welcomed women. The first pastor she knew at that church was a woman. The day she and her husband visited, the congregation voted for a woman to become their pastor. Ruth was joyfully astounded that all these people would actually vote in favor of having a woman minister. Ruth went on to become a pastor herself in the Presbyterian denomination. I can't help but wonder if I should have done that -- left the CRC for a denomination that welcomes women in this way --, both for myself and for my daughter's sake. At least I wonder what my life would have been like if I had.

Ruth called the book Ruined because that is how she felt after she was raped -- ruined. Ruth writes about the sexual-shame paradigm, about how she and her friends felt so much shame at being raped that they even contemplated not reporting the crime. At the end of the book she writes a letter to her daughters and includes a memory of reading an article about the gunman who went into an Amish schoolroom. He tied up the little girls and may have had plans to rape them but he ended up not doing that and killing them by shooting each one in the head, execution style. One father was quoted as saying his daughter had escaped "a worse fate." Ruth's reaction to this was visceral.
I did feel sorry for this father and the loss he had endured. But I didn't understand him. Or maybe I did. Maybe that was the problem...Could a parent think his child's survival was second to anything? Was he suggesting that his daughter's perceived bodily purity was more important than her retaining breath in that body?...[Would he] prefer his daughter dead over damaged? What is this alleged "worse fate"? ...
Imagine saying such a thing about another injury--a broken bone or a punctured lung. Are those fates worse than death? ...
The truth is that women who have been sexually violated have the same intrinsic value as women who have not been sexually violated. Period. Another human cannot damage a woman's sexual self and by doing so destroy her life.
Daughters, don't believe the lies! You are more than your virginity. You are more than your sexual history. You are more than what happens to you. You are immensely valuable.
Amen.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the World was a book club choice but I missed that meeting and had not read it yet. In fact, I had forgotten all about it or ordering it. A nice surprise when it arrived in the mail!

Once again, I was charmed by the physical aspect of the book. I like the feel of the front of the paperback cover, kind of rough and thick. And I like the rough-cut pages, also a little thick with uneven sides. There's a word for that. I just googled it: deckle-edge. As I started writing about this, I was thinking it's probably kind of strange for me to care and like the physical things of a book like this. But then I thought it's probably not so weird or publishers wouldn't do it, right? So there you go. There are other weird people like me who are fond of books for their feel, their look and even their smell (at least in my case).

News of the World is historical fiction. The main character is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71-year-old man who travels around the U.S. to small Western towns where the people do not hear or read "news of the world." They often are aware, and even contentious about, local politics, but they do not hear of the news of far-away places such as events in lands like India, Ireland, England, even Chicago, and other far-away cities, "THE LATEST NEWS AND ARTICLES FROM THE MAJOR JOURNALS OF THE CIVILIZED WORLD," as Captain Kidd's posters said.

At one reading:
He read about a great windstorm in London that toppled chimney pots (What is a chimney pot? He could see it on their faces.) and then of the new packing plants in Chicago which would take any amount of cattle if they could only get them...The Captain read of the Irish pouring into New York City, ragged crowds from the passenger steamer Aurora, of the railroad driving into the plains of the new state of Nebraska, of another eruption of Popocatepetl near Mexico City. Anything but Texas politics. (p. 89)
Captain Kidd purchases several newspapers at larger towns and finds good articles to include in his readings. He tries to make his readings almost fairy-tale like, taking the listeners out of their ordinary life, to other lands and other peoples. At the readings, he passes a bucket for people to pay a nickel apiece and in that way ekes out enough to make it.

The book is set after the Civil War, in Reconstruction times.  Captain Kidd served in the Civil War and two other wars, the War of 1812 and "President Tyler's war with Mexico." He is a widow with 2 grown daughters who live in San Antonio. Until the war caused him to lose everything, he was a printer. He had his own printing press and shop, and loved being a printer.

The main storyline of the book is the story of Captain Kidd and "Johanna Leonberger, captured at age six four years ago, from Castroville. Down near San Antonio," or as she says, "My name is Cicada. My father's name is Turning Water. My mother's name is Three Spotted. I want to go home." An acquaintance of Kidd's gives him a fifty-dollar gold piece to deliver her back to Castroville. Johanna's parents were killed by the Indians who captured her, but she has an aunt and uncle who have paid to have her returned to them.

The book was a good read for many reasons. The story is exciting, the writing is good, I learned some new things about life during those times, and the subject of captured Native Americans is fascinating. In a note from the author about her research, she wrote:
Anyone interested in the psychology of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes on the frontier should read Scott Zesch's book The Captured. It is excellent. His book documents child captives from the Texas frontier, including his own great-great-uncle, and in each instance gives the background of death and terror these children endured before they were adopted or claimed within the tribe. There has not been a definitive study of the psychological strategies these children adopted in order to survive but one would be welcome. They apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families for less than a year.
 In News of the World, you get glimpses of Johanna's thoughts as she is surviving the trauma of being torn at the age of 10 from the only family she knows, in the Kiowa Indian tribe. Mostly, though, you read the thoughts of Captain Kidd, who grows fond of Johanna. He resists in a way, telling himself he's already brought up his daughters and doesn't want to go through that again, but there is no doubt he cares about Johanna and all she is going through. He saves her life and she is also instrumental in saving his.

I found the fact that the author did not use quotation marks for dialogue or thoughts mildly distracting, but I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I bought several books by Mary Oliver today. They are beautiful little books with soft covers that have beautiful pictures on them. With beautiful poems inside in attractive fonts. I like looking at and feeling them. Reading them, too, of course. I kept taking various books out, trying to decide which to get. Then I bought four. That didn't quite work out the way I intended. But anyway.


Here's the first poem in the book A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver.

               I Go Down to the Shore
               by Mary Oliver

               I go down to the shore in the morning
               and depending on the hour the waves
               are rolling in or moving out,
               and I say, oh, I am miserable,
               what shall--
               what should I do? and the sea says
               in its lovely voice:
               Excuse me, I have work to do.

This poem makes me smile every time I read it. It reminds me of how God responded when Job said, Why did these terrible things happen to me?

Your thoughts?

Scape by Luci Shaw

I am at Lynden this week. I came for my mom's funeral and then stayed an extra week to help close up accounts and take care of all the things that need to be taken care of after the death of our parents. (My dad died January 27, and Mom April 14).

It's April, which, thanks to Facebook, I know is the month of poetry. I bought several books of poetry at Lynden's bookstore. One was Scape by Luci Shaw, which I thought was extra appropriate since she is a local poet, living in Bellingham I believe. My sister Jan has gone in the past to some literary nights that Luci Shaw has held. I also saw and heard her at The Faith & Writing Festival.

Here is one poem from Scape.

States of Being
by Luci Shaw

Isn't stability greatly over rated?
Why would I ever want to sit
     still and smug as a rock,
     confident, because of my great
     weight, that I will not
     be moved?
Better to be soft as water,
     easily troubled, with
     at least three modes
     of being, able to shape-
     shift, to mirror, to cleanse,
     to drift downstream,
To roar when I encounter the rock.


I like this poem because it seems to describe an aspect of me -- someone not stable -- and it says that is okay, in fact is it overrated, to be stable.

I tend to think of being unstable instead, someone who doesn't say the right things many times, who blurts out tactlessly. I like thinking of it as being "soft as water" instead. And still someone who roars sometimes.

What do you think?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Silence by Shusaku Endo

I put off reading this book for quite a long time. I was worried it would be too sad and make me depressed. I knew that it was about persecution of Christians and included torture, death, and suffering. But I discovered that I am able to handle these sad events and story parts when I am left with a feeling of hope rather than despair.

Years and years ago, when Randy and I were dating, we used to have dinner and a movie on Fridays. We'd go to the movie theater and just watch something that was there -- no planning. One time we walked into and watched the movie "The Deer Hunter." Wow, that left me in despair. Days later I was on the phone with my mom and dad and Mom said, "Mavis, what's wrong?" She could tell by my voice that I was down.

Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests from Portugal who go to Japan to find their beloved teacher, Christovao Ferreira, who, "an experienced missionary held in the highest respect," after 33 years in Japan, had apostasized (shown and said that he did not believe in Christ--he was not a Christian). The book takes place during a long period of time in Japan where Christians were persecuted.

The two priests who followed Father Ferreira were Francis Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues. They had "vivid memories of their old teacher Ferreira from whom they had learned theology," and asked themselves, "Had that face with its clear blue eyes and soft radiant light--had it been changed by the hands of the Japanese torturers?"

The story of their journey to Japan begins with letters written by Rodrigues. Through those letters, you learn of their harrowing, secret, forbidden trip to Japan and of them meeting their first Japanese person who took the journey with them:
What am I to say about this man, this first Japanese I ever met in my life? Reeling from excess of alcohol, a drunken man staggered into the room. About twenty-eight or nine years of age, he was dressed in rags. His name was Kichijiro. When finally he answered our questions we learned that he was a fisherman from the district of Hizen near Nagasaki. Before the famous Shimabara insurrection he had been adrift on the sea and had been picked up by a Portugese ship. Whether or not it was due to his drunkenness I do not know, but there was a crafty look on his face, and as he spoke he would roll his eyes.
Kichijiro reminded me of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. He was a betrayer, someone used by the enemy, weak, cowardly, a liar, extremely unlikeable, and yet the missionaries needed him to show them the way, and near the end of the story, he was even an example of God's great love.

A big part of the story in this book is the "fumie." To prove you are not a Christian, you are told to step on the fumie, described as "a board to which was attached an image of the Virgin and child." Christians' faith was tested not only by having to step on the fumie, but they were also betrayed by the way in which they took this step, as when the reaction of the watching officials was described: "What had caught their attention was not the actual fact of the Christians placing their foot on the fumie, but the expressions on their faces as they did so."

Throughout the book runs the theme of God's silence. "Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God...the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent." That silence causes a crisis of faith for Rodriguez.
No, no! I shook my head. If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotions? (But supposing...of course, supposing, I mean.) From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist...
Rodriguez does not answer his own question, nor does God. Rodriguez just keeps going. As Christians are martyred because the officials find out he is with them, as he sees entire villages wiped out because of their Christian faith, he continues. In a way, this reminded me of Job. But in the story of Job, God speaks. He practically yells at Job when Job asks why me. God says over and over, "Where were you when I..." God doesn't answer Job, but he is not silent. In this book, there is no voice of God in response to Rodriguez. Just silence.

Another question troubles Rodriguez in this book. He wrote:
And there arose in my mind that terribly dramatic scene at the Supper when Christ turned to Judas with the words, "What thou dost, do quickly." Priest though I am, I find it difficult to grasp the full meaning of these words...What emotion had filled the breast of Christ when he ordered away the man who was to betray him for thirty pieces of silver? Was it anger? or resentment? Or did these words arise from his love? If it was anger, then at this instant Christ excluded from salvation this man alone of all the men in the world; and then Our Lord allowed one man to fall into eternal damnation.
Kichijiro acts as Judas for Rodriguez. Kichijiro betrays Rodriguez to the government officials.

As the story continues, Rodriguez is not asked to apostatize (say and show he is not a Christian) to prevent his own torture and death, but to prevent that from happening to others. This puts a whole new aspect on the question of whether or not to apostatize.

As I read parts of the book again in order to write about it, I noticed that there were a few times where Rodriguez had a vision of Christ's face, Christ's eyes looking into his, once with a tear. I did not remember this. It makes me think of the Jesus looking across the courtyard to Peter when Peter denied him the third time. I've always pictured the face of Jesus at that time filled with love and sorrow.

I will write about the conclusion of Rodriguez' story, so you are warned that this is a spoiler. I am writing more to think through the story than to rate or recommend it, although I do that as well.

After much time in prison, Rodriguez finally meets his beloved teacher Father Ferreira. Ferreira has turned away from his faith and is now working for the Japanese government himself. He has taken a wife and children, and a new name. He is writing about astronomy, which is something he seems proud to be able to do as a contribution to the Japanese people. He is also writing about why Christianity does not work in Japan. He speaks at length to Rodriguez about that. 

He tells Rodriguez that the Japanese never did believe in the Christian God, even during the wonderful period that Rodriguez has heard of, and that Ferreira was present for, when the priests were loved, there were thousands of Christian believers, and the faith flourished in Japan. Even then, Ferreira says, "They did not believe in the Christian God...The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God and they never will...The Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human...The Japanese imagine a beautiful, exalted man--and this they call God."

He tells Rodriguez, "This country is a swamp...a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp."
 
Ferreira repeats words like these and more when he talks again to Rodriguez in his final imprisonment. Rodriguez hears what he thinks is snoring but is told that it actually is the moaning of Christians being hung over the pit. One of the dastardly tortures for Christians is to tie them up and hang them upside down over a pit. Slits are cut behind their ears to allow blood to escape from the pressure. It's a horrible, slow, painful death. Rodriguez asks why they do not apostatize and he's told they have, but they will not be set free unless Rodriguez steps on the fumie. 

Rodriguez is in agony while facing this decision. Ferreira brings up the question of what would Jesus do in this situation, how would he show his love. "Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed," said Ferreira. Rodriguez thinks of that face of Christ he has seen before him. Now he is looking at Christ's face on the fumie. As he lifts his foot, "the Christ in the bronze speaks to the priest: 'Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.'"

"It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world."

There was a final scene, too, with Kichijiro. Kichijiro asks Father Rodriguz, now called Okad San'emon, to hear his confession and give him absolution. Rodriguez talks to Jesus:
"Lord, I resented your silence."
"I was not silent. I suffered beside you."
"But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?"
"I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now"
Rodriguez then gives Kichijiro absolution, and he feels he is not betraying his Lord, even though he knows that his fellow priests would think so, since he performed a sacrament only a priests can administer. But Rodriguez thinks, "He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. 'Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.'"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott

I read this book just before my mother died, shortly after my father died. I felt like it was very good timing. I love Anne Lamott. Her books Traveling Mercies, Plan B, Grace (Eventually), Stitches, Small Victories and Help Thanks Why are some of my favorites.

It's been a while since I've read those books, but it seems like one difference between them and this is that Hallelujah Anyway has less stories or vignettes, and more where Anne is talking about mercy or life, without necessarily telling a story.

This review speaks a little to that. At first, I wasn't so sure I was liking this book as much as her others because of that. I often think I am "all about the story" when I read. But as I read and re-read this book, I appreciated it more and more.

The title comes from a gospel song that Lamott quotes as "'hallelujah anyway.' Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy." That feels true to me. In spite of the death of my dad, followed by the death of my mom 2 months later, and the death of my young cousin in what seems like the beginning of the prime of his life, and the pending death of a friend's son at the age of 11. In spite of all that, hallelujah anyway.

The subtitle of the book is "Rediscovering Mercy." She draws her theme from Micah 6:8 "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Lamott says, "Oh is that all?" and calls herself and her friends "Arrogance R Us" when she says that walking humbly "isn't going to happen anytime soon." See what I mean? Don't you love it? She also writes, "We think that if our values aren't the correct ones, we would have other ones, which would then be the correct ones." Ha ha. But of course.

And more. "We know mercy is always our salvation...But I wish it was something else. I wish it was being able to figure things out, at which I am very good, or to assign blame, at which I am better, or to convince people of the rightness of my ideas." Yes, wouldn't it be nice if that were true? If God and everyone else valued my figuring-out and blame-assigning and rightness-convincing skills, life would be so much easier!

I love her thoughts on schadenfreude (I love that word, too!).
But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall The New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other, "It's not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail." This is the human condition, that in the face of death, cats must lose.
"Mercy means we soften ever so slightly," says Lamott. Maybe that's what I mean when I say my heart feels softer. Sometimes I imagine my heart feeling like a cool, kind of mushy but not drippy and messy thing. Maybe something like softened silly putty? Anyway, I seem to have more sympathy than I used to, less feelings of judgment. I still, as Anne says, feel that I am good at convincing people of my rightness, and often not only that, but others would be much better off if they would just realize my rightness, but somehow even that response is usually softer. Often I am able to feel have a better, more right opinion...and not say it! How about that?!

Lots of Anne's writing makes me laugh. It tickles me. A mis-reading also made me laugh. I read one sentence as "All I have to do in order to begin again is to love mercy, if I am to believe nutty old Mitch." It wasn't Mitch, it was Micah. But for a minute I was picturing good old Mitch, nutty and saintly, kind of like the angel Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Her turns of phrase are so funny, and often so wise.
"The good news is that God has such low standards."
"Jonah is burped onto dry land..."
"But everyone steps on the cosmic banana peel sooner or later."
"We learned that we were all animals, like monkeys and goats, but with Edward Gorey minds..."
"Raising my son brought me the greatest, happiest years of my life. And it was hard, which somehow people had forgotten to mention would be part of the mix. Oops."
She writes about Peter's denial of Christ in Matthew's Gospel, when Jesus called Peter Satan, and said, "But Luke loved Peter and Photoshpped this part out."
About a room full of "alkies" near Skid Row, "The sober people Tom knew in Berkeley all seemed like David Niven in comparison."
Silence has been a fascination for me recently. There's the book and the movie Silence. I haven't seen the movie yet but I did read the book. The silence in that case is the silence of God. I heard a podcast by a writer who collects silence and talks about it as an "endangered species" that made me want to visit Olympic National Park. Lamott write about silence.
Holy silence is spacious and inviting. You can drink it down. We offer it to ourselves when we work, rest, meditate, bike, read. When we hike by ourselves, we hear a silence still pristine with crunching leaves and birdsong. Silence can be a system of peace, which is mercy, easily offered to a friend needing quiet, harder when the person is one's own annoying self.
I am sure I will re-read this book, as I will Anne Lamott's other books. So much to absorb, to think about, and to laugh with.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

This book is written by the same author who wrote the sreenplay for The Imitation Game, which I thoroughly enjoyed as well. He wrote another book called The Sherlockian that I may read later.
Last Days of Night is a novel that really is a biography of a young lawyer who works for George Westinghouse, and through it meets Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, among others. It was interesting to me to learn more about these legendary people. I associate them with things like light bulbs and inventions, but this made them real people.


We read this book in my book club and one of the members pointed out that there is a section in back where the author talks about what parts of the book are true, based on reports from the time, and those where he imagined what scenes were, and places where he either changed the order or combined things that happened at different times, and so on. I was glad to know that. As I read those notes, they seemed to point out that, really, the book is good history - the changes made it a story, a novel, instead of a textbook.

George Westinghouse.jpg
I liked the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. They were often by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and others of that ilk. It was interesting to read again Thomas Edison's quote "I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that don't work." But one of Tesla's issues with Edison was that when he was working in Edison's lab, they would have to experiment over and over and Tesla found that a waste of time. He felt he could determine if something would or would not work through, I think, exploring it thoroughly in his mind, and he didn't need to do all that actual experimenting.

Image result for thomas edisonThe main character is a lawyer named Paul Cravath. He is based on a real person, too. Paul becomes employed by George Westinghouse pretty much straight out of law school. Westinghouse is suing Edison for the light bulb patent. The courts keep ruling that Edison invented the light bulb and Westinghouse improved it, but Westinghouse believes he truly invented something new, not just an improvement.

There was also a big hullabaloo about DC and AC. I had no idea! Direct current and alternating current were big concepts that had a lot to do with safety and costs and what worked over a distance and therefore what made sense to provide electricity for cities, and from there, everything else. In that fight, the invention of the electric chair was a tool to prove a point. The description of the first use of an electric chair is just horrific. And to think we are still figuring out if that is cruel and unusual punishment or not.

Here's a good passage that helps illustrate how the book is historical and you can learn a lot, yet it's a story, it keeps your interest, and it's characters "acting" to tell the story, not a textbook.
"I am being sued."   [George Westinghouse]
Paul was well aware. In the time since his invitation to dinner, he'd devoured all the newspaper accounts of Westinghouse's legal troubles. The dispute was highly public. "Thomas Edison has sued you for infringing on his patent on the incandescent light bulb."
"Edison's bulbs are terrible--poor-quality designs, two generations behind mine. There are a dozen companies across this country making bulbs of more advanced design than Edison's. Mine just happen to be by far the best."
"Yours are better. But Edison's were first. It's the latter issue that is of legal concern. Your difficulty is that he's the one with the patent."
"I did not copy Edison's design for the light bulb. I improved upon it. Tremendously. My light bulb is to his as a motor wagon is to a horse-drawn carriage. Would there be justice in forbidding Mr. Benz from selling the former because of the existence of the latter? Of course not. Edison is not suing me--he is suing progress itself because he lacks the ability to invent it."
"It sounds," suggested Paul, "as if you're in need of a very good attorney."
This book is a good story. Even if you, like me, have no special interest in learning about electricity, Thomas Edison, or Westinghouse, you'll enjoy the book for the story. Good writing, good plot, good characters.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace was a good story from the Prologue to the Epilogue. The first sentence of the Prologue is, "All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota."

The second paragraph of the Prologue begins, "It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that seems tragic and I do but not completely so."

So the book is the story of that summer. The narrator is Frank, the son of a Methodist preacher in the small town of New Bremen. He has a younger brother Jake and an older sister Ariel. It's set in the year 1961. The way the story is told, or maybe the way it felt as I read it, reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird and also A Prayer for Owen Meany. And Gilead. A small town, several decades ago, and a family going through a seemingly ordinary time, but full of significance.

I loved the turns of phrases in conversations. In an early conversation between Frank and Jake, Jake wants to go along with Frank and Frank says, "Like hell." Jake: "You said hell." So simple, but I can just hear them saying it. And I felt like I was right there, in New Bremen. I could see the roads, the houses, the paths by the river, the woods, the trestle bridge, the river.

This was one of the most skillful uses of foreshadowing I've seen. Sometimes foreshadowing bugs me. It almost seems like a spoiler. Or I'm frustrated and think, "Stop hinting around and get to the story already." But that didn't happen in this book. Those 2 first sentences I quoted above had foreshadowing, right out of the gate. In this case, those hints made me want to keep reading.

At the beginning of this blog entry I thought about writing that the book is compelling, but I didn't want to make it sound like some kind of suspenseful mystery or something. Yet it is compelling. It was a good story, and I wanted to see what would happen. It was one of those books where I stayed up much of one night just to keep reading.

I think the foreshadowing was effective because I was more than content to stay in the story where I was. I didn't want to rush to find out what would happen next because I was happy right where I was, in whatever part of the story I read one of those hints about what was to come.

Frank is a kid who wants to be good but who also is filled with curiosity and eager to know everything there is to know. When his father gets called to situations, Frank always wants to go along. His brother Jake wants to go with Frank anywhere he goes. Sometimes -- often -- Frank's curiosity and wanting to know everything doesn't make him happier. But it definitely makes the story better.

Jake has a stutter. Kids make fun of him for it, and even though Frank sticks up for Jake over and over, Frank, when he wants to rile up Jake, sometimes mocks his stuttering. Because of his stuttering, Jake doesn't speak much, but he sees and understands much, often surprising Frank with insights Frank himself never would have noticed.

You get to know everyone in the family and they all have interesting personalities. Probably one reason the book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird is because the father, Nathan Drum, like Atticus, is a respected, honest, wise man of few words. The characters in the book love him, and you know he loves them.

Ariel, Frank's older sister, is in high school and looking ahead to going to Julliard to develop her musical talent. She plays piano and sings, and has inherited that talent from her mother, Ruth. Beyond the family, there are several other important characters you get to know and love.

I highly recommend this book. Good story, great characters, gives you food for thought, too. Kirkus review said, "A novel that transforms narrator and reader alike," and I would agree.