The Great American Read

The Great American Read

Image from https://www.facebook.com/GreatAmericanReadPBS/

Have you heard about The Great American Read? On May 22, PBS will premiere an eight part series exploring the power of reading, hosted by Meredith Viera. The program explore this through the lens of 100 works of fiction selected through a poll of the favorite works of 7200 people and narrowed the list to 100 books. The series will consider how and why the authors of these books created their fictional worlds, how these books affect us, and what they say about the diverse mosaic that makes up America.

The first episode will run two hours and introduce the 100 books. The next five episodes will look at concepts common to this list. Then the final episode will announce America’s favorite book. And how do they discover that? Beginning May 22, we all can vote either online or on social media. Voting will continue all summer with the results announced in October 2018.

A few caveats on the books. Only works of fiction are included in this list. They must be in English. Series are allowed but only count as one book. Only one book per author is included on the list. The list ranges from classic works to contemporary novels, and covers various genres of fiction from mystery to thriller to young adult to science fiction.

So, what books are on the list? By going to “Read the 100 List” you can see cover images of the book and can click on a link giving a short summary of the book and a brief profile of the author. My only wish is that they had a downloadable list of the books. Obviously, some of the items on this list have not yet stood the test of time such as The Martian or Ready Player One. Young adult fiction like The Outlanders and The Hunger Games make the list.  I was surprised to see Christian thrillers by Frank Peretti, Dave Hunt, and Tim Lahaye, and Paul Young’s The Shack. I was pleased to see literature from an ethnically diverse selection of authors: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Another Country James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and others. Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien make the list, but Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton are missing. I’m also surprised at the absence of William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and John Le Carre.  There are others on the list I easily could replace with them. The list is called America’s “most loved” books–not the greatest works of fiction in English.

You can take a quiz as to how many of the 100 you have read. I’ve read 35 of the works on this list. There are some I will take a pass on, like The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, this is on the list), but I also got a few new ideas like The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I seriously hope I can read Don Quixote and The Count of Monte Cristo one of these days.

There are many different lists of great books, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. But one of the delightful aspects of this series is that it gets us talking as a country about books we care about, which might be a better conversation that much of what passes for public discourse. Having a vote for the most loved book is kind of like American Idol for book nerds. You can geek out on social media, following them on Facebook and Instagram and tweet about them at  #GreatReadPBS. The only thing I’d suggest is make sure you find a few on the list that interest you, and take some time to talk with others about what you like about them. Wouldn’t it be great if The Great American Read could become the Great American Conversation?

Review: Love Big, Be Well

love big be well

Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.

Summary: Letters written through the seasons of the church year by Jonas McAnn to the people of Granby Presbyterian Church on the varying facets of believing and living as a church, the warmth of friendship and the dark nights of doubt, each ending with the words “love big, be well.”

It is still early in the year, but I think this book is going to end up on my “best of 2018” list. Perhaps it is because I resonate with so much here, and because it is written so well.

A disillusioned pastor making his living selling insurance receives a letter written by Amy Quitman and signed by rest of the search committee at Granby Presbyterian Church. In it, she writes:

“Here are our questions. We’d like to know if you are going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience?…Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church-thing straight? Or might we hope that our church could be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us? 

In other words, the question we want answered is very simple. Do you actually want to be our pastor?”

Jonas writes a long and frank response about why he’d packed it in as a pastor, and why he started looking to serve a church again. He confesses, “The truth is, my give-a-shit’s broke.” But he concludes,

“This letter is too long, just like my sermons. I’m working on it. But all this is to say that if our conversation leads anywhere and I were to join your motley band, being your pastor is the only thing I’d know how to do. I’m at an utter loss on anything else.” 

And then he adds,

” If I were your pastor, I’d want to continue this letter-writing thing. We’re on to something.

Love big. Be well.

Jonas McAnn

The church agrees and this is the first of many letters from 2008 to 2014, when he takes a sabbatical. The letters sparkle with the warmth of his growing friendships with the people of this church, notably big Don Brady, a hulk of a man who came to faith later in life, and who later experiences a recurrence of a cancer that had been in remission. He reflects on the nature of this thing they call church and the high-blown language and cant that obscures the reality of friends on a journey together in a place. He honestly confesses to the mystery in much of which he preaches, and his own struggles to believe the things he proclaims from the scriptures–how often he preaches, prays, and lives into things when the feeling of confidence is absent.

The letters continue when the honeymoon is over and they wrestle with the hard realities of this relationship between church and pastor. Toward the end, he includes a letter from Luther, chair of their elder board, the lone black, and what it is like to “represent” his people when he is just Luther, and yet how he does in feeling the pain and the disjuncts of racial history, even in their own congregation.

One of the letters that summed up the ordinary and yet compelling vision of church being worked out in this book is titled “The People Who Bury You.” It concludes,

“As the church, we’re the people (whenever we live true to ourselves) who will welcome you into this world, who will join you in marriage and in friendship, who will bless your coming and your going. We will pray for you to prosper and know love’s depths even if you think our prayers are foolish or offered in vain, and we will mourn you when you leave us. We will bless the land and the nations we share, and we will grieve together through tragedy and heartache. We will celebrate, with you, everything beautiful and good, everything that comes from the hand of mercy. And then, when your days conclude, we will bury you. We will return you to the earth and pray God’s kindness over you.

This is who we are. This is who I hope we will continue to be.”

This was one of a number of passages that caught my breath with the beauty, or the blunt acknowledgement of things for which I did not have nearly the words. I’ve been in a church for twenty-eight years that has been doing all these things, groping, imperfectly to be sure, to live out the realities of what it means to live in Christ both through the seasons of the church year, and all the seasons of life. We’ve been through vision and church growth processes, the products of which mostly reside in a file drawer somewhere. We’re not a large bunch but we are blessed with a pastor who reminds me of Jonas McAnn. We celebrate births, seek to teach our children well, revel in marriages and housewarmings and summer barbecues. We’ve marveled as we’ve walked alongside saints like Betty, whose life seemed to burn brighter and brighter as cancer consumed her body. And we’ve sat with families in times of loss.

Winn Collier describes a reality both of pastoral ministry and church life that seems from another time, what with all our language of “missional communities,” all our strategies, and what not. In a society of virtual relationships, of celebrity pastors, and transience, I wonder how many find places like Granby Presbyterian? And I wonder how many simply want to be pastors of such places?

Perhaps some will read this book, and it will feel like waking from a dream, and wondering if the good stuff here really can be so. My hunch is that there are places like Granby Presbyterian in neighborhoods and small towns that you have driven past many times. Maybe it is our church building you’ve driven past, oblivious to the beautiful and good that is happening among our people. The only thing that I’d ask if you decide to stop in is that things will work a lot better if you leave your grandiose dreams and “flaming visions” at the door.

Don’t Forgive Us Our Transgressions?

Stockholm_8187

Stockholm, Sweden, where much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo takes place.  Photo by Hedwig Storch – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the ideas that keeps cropping up on several literary sites I follow is that of the “transgressive.” Goodreads defines transgressive fiction as “Books that contain depictions of behavior that violates socially acceptable norms, often involving taboo subject matters such as drug use, violence, incest, crime.” At Goodreads “Best Transgressive Fiction” site, these works are the top 5 in transgressive fiction:

  1. Chuck Palahniuk, The Fight Club.
  2. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
  3. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
  4. George Orwell, 1984
  5. J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

One of the others on the list (and hence the image above) was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I understand includes significant episodes of rape (male and female) and violence.

I have to admit that, apart from 1984 I’ve not read anything of these five. In the extended list are titles like Crime and PunishmentThe Stranger, and Slaughterhouse Five. This suggests a few things about the attraction of such works. One is the acknowledged fact among writers that an evil character generally is far more interesting, and interesting to write, than a good one. Another is that the transgressive often seems to be acting against oppressive social norms or controlling circumstances. In 1984 the transgressive is an attempt to throw off the yoke of oppressive tyranny.

I also suspect that it may sometimes be attractive to explore what it is like to do things we don’t have the courage to do, or would never think of, except in our imaginations. We often wonder why a sociopath, or psychopath does what s/he does.

What troubles me is what seems to me a growing preference for the transgressive over the virtuous, in fiction, and perhaps in life. In matters of sexuality, it seems that the effort is to extend the “normative” to whatever one wants to do, with even consent optional. I understand this is a statement against hetero-sexist hegemony. Yet whether we consider sexuality, violence, substance use and abuse, or criminal acts, one has to ask whether the celebration of crossing boundaries is always a good thing. Are there any reasons for norms beside an exertion of power by a dominant group?

This is something I’m wondering about. I’m not sure I want to say more because I suspect there is much I don’t understand. But I’ve often written about “the good, the true, and the beautiful” and I wonder if making the transgressive to be a kind of good, or truth, or beauty is to destroy the meaning of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie. New York: Grove Press, 2013 (20th Anniversary edition, first published 1993).

Summary: A collection of short stories all relating to growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation. This collection of short stories followed a critically acclaimed book of poetry, and so is one of Alexie’s earliest works. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, Alexie describes these stories as “thinly disguised memoir.” And to be truthful, it has that feel to it. He describes his style as “reservation realism” and in this collection one finds a mix of the starkly realistic and the fantastic.

What is starkly realistic is his portrayal of life on the reservation. Of course there is a strong web of friendships, families, kinship and love relationships. There is the sense of a people attempting to keep the core of a cultural memory together when much of its substance has been gutted. It’s also a portrayal of financial destitution, un- and under-employment, fighting, government issue cheese and housing, and alcohol and substance abuse. Alexie admits that his own father was an alcoholic and that in his extended family only a dozen are currently sober and only a few that never drank.

One of the most interesting characters in this whole mix is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix” accompanies the narrator and covers most of the cost of flying from Spokane to Phoenix to re-cover his alcoholic father’s remains. Thomas is a story-teller to whom no one listens. In a subsequent story more on the fantastic, Kafka-esque side, Thomas goes on trial for his storytelling, going to prison for murder as he tells the story in first person of another Indian who had killed two soldiers a century before.

From the absurd, Alexie moves to the sad in telling the story of the death of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, a hotel maid who uses his money to pay Indian prostitutes to take the day off, is laid off, gets drunk for the first time in his life, trips and falls on railroad tracks and does not get up as an oncoming train approaches.

There is the funny and sad. The title says it all in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” In another, the narrator talks about his father, who heard Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and whose son would always turn it on for him when he arrived home from a night of drinking. In “Amusements” a young couple at a carnival spot an old drunk from the reservation and load him onto a coaster, on which he rides until he comes to and gets sick to his stomach.

So much of this seems like autobiography. “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” begins in 1966, chronicles the growing up of a boy dropped on his head (Alexie was hydrocephalic) yet has a fairly normal boyhood while the narrator plays basketball, similar to Alexie’s high school self. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” describes a young man who went off to Gonzaga, felt out of place and left without graduating. Alexie also went to Gonzaga, leaving after two years, although he completed a degree at Washington State.

Alexie gives us twenty-four stories that explore the life of a people displaced, consigned to make some sense of life in a world they’ve not chosen, fighting addictions that may have been the worst depredation of them all upon their lives. You have accounts of people who want to live, love and make their way in the world while holding onto a cultural heritage, a way of living in the world out of step with the American culture in which they are embedded. It is admittedly one perspective but it does begin to help us understand “the American experience” of these First Peoples and the stark realities of reservation life.

  [Note: Adult language and situations.]

Review: The Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do Good

Drucker

The Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do GoodPeter F. Drucker. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016 (forthcoming, expected publication date June 14, 2016).

Summary: The two novels of management guru Peter Drucker, the first of which is an interlocking tale of the lives of bankers and aristocracy in pre-World War I Europe as they face an impending meeting, the second a tale of an act of kindness by a Catholic college president that goes horribly wrong.

Yes, this is that Peter Drucker who was known for his insightful business books and management consulting practice. He also wrote two novels, which are combined in this forthcoming edition.

The first focuses around the lives, loves, aspirations, and choices of four aristocrats or bankers. First is Prince Sobieski, Austrian ambassador to England, beseiged by his daughter to help her husband, a military man. All this leads him to consider his life, his, and his wife’s affairs, financial empire and more. We turn next to McGregor Hinton, a British banker whose real love is mathematics and a mulatto prostitute to whom he is secretly married who is dying of cancer. The third figure is Julius von Mosenthal, an Austrian Jewish banker preparing for a major restructuring of a bank in which Sobieski and Hinton are partners. The final figure, Baronness Rafaela Wald-Reifnitz, does not quite seem connected to the rest except by class. The novel ends rather than resolves and what we have is really a set of portraits of a class and a time that died with the guns of August 1914. Drucker explores the choices we make that shape and preclude the realizations of our aspirations. While insightful in places, this seemed more a set of character sketches than a novel with a real plot line.

The second novel focuses around Father Heinz Zimmerman, the visionary and energetic President of St Jerome University. Father Zimmerman, confronted by the unbalanced wife of a faculty member who had been refused tenure, attempts to secure him another teaching position. The plot line unfolds as an example of the axiom that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The wife begins a campaign of innuendo against the university and impugns the character of Father Zimmerman. Virtuous people overreact inflicting pain upon Zimmerman and his long time administrative assistant, and jeopardizing Zimmerman’s highly effective presidency. Around this swirls an underlying tension of whether a university can be both great and Catholic. What is fascinating here is the development of a plotline underscoring the banality of evil, in the form of the pettiness of university conflicts.

The latter novel, while having a more interesting plot line seemed a bit heavy-handed. For those who are fans of Peter Drucker (as am I) you might find this edition of his two novels interesting to see how Drucker would write a novel. Insightful as each is at times, I cannot commend these as great writing. Give me The Effective Executive any day.

______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Bob on Books Best of 2015

Not to be outdone by all the other “best of 2015” lists coming out, I give you Bob on Books Best of 2015! This is different from many of the lists which just list books from 2015. This is the book blog of a reader who happens to review, and so some of my best books of the year weren’t actually published this year, and I’ve just gotten around to reading them.  I happen to think there are a number of really good books out there, and they weren’t all published this year!

One other thing I’ve done this year is segment my list into fiction, non-fiction, and Christian. I do read a number of Christian titles, which connects to my work in collegiate ministry, and I think my choices are worthy reads, but skip over this if it is not your cup of tea!

I should also mention that the weblinks here are to my full reviews. Those reviews include full publication information and a link to the publisher’s website, if this was available at the time of the review.

Fiction: 

All the Light We Cannot SeeDun CowBel CantoBrendanbeowulf

  1. All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr. Hands down my Book of the Year. Incredibly beautiful writing, finely drawn plot that brings together a blind French girl and a German orphan become soldier during the invasion of St. Malo. Written by an Ohioan!
  2. The Book of the Dun Cow, Walter Wangerin, Jr. A contest between good and evil in a barnyard, a modern animal fable.
  3. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett. A dinner party held hostage in a Latin American embassy and the relationships that emerge. Patchett’s best.
  4. Brendan, Frederick Buechner. An account of the life of St Brendan the Navigator as he confronts both external and internal limits.
  5. Beowulf, unknown, translated by Seamus Heaney.  I’ve read but not reviewed this yet. Heaney’s translation of this classic work brings it to light in all its power and pathos.

Non-fiction:

The Wright BrothersThe Road to CharacterThe FellowshipBuffalo for a Broken HeartBully Pulpit

  1. The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. Outstanding account that highlighted their engineering and experimental skills honed through bike-building, and their work ethic.
  2. The Road to Character, David Brooks. An effort to initiate a conversation about “moral ecology” by exploring the quests for character of a diverse group from Augustine to Bayard Rustin.
  3. The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski. A fourfold biography of the literary lives and influence of the four principal Inklings.
  4. Buffalo for the Broken Heart, Dan O’Brien. Part memoir, part nature writing on restoring life to a Black Hills ranch by converting to herding buffalo.
  5. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Not only great for accounts of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and their relationship, but also the “muckraking” journalists brought together by Sam McClure.

Christian:

17293092 (1)A Glorious DarkSufferingSpiritual Friendshipslow church

  1. Playing GodAndy Crouch. An important book that looks at power, considering not only the possibility of corruption, but also the redemptive uses of power, which we cannot help but wield in some measure, as creatures in the image of God.
  2. A Glorious DarkA. J. Swoboda. A marvelous set of reflections on the darknesses of life and our glorious hope organized around the Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
  3. Suffering and the Search for MeaningRichard Rice. A concise, clear, and pastoral exploration of some of the ways Christians attempt to address evil and suffering.
  4. Spiritual FriendshipWesley Hill. This books seeks to restore to the church a high view of friendship, and its importance for those seeking to live single and chaste lives.
  5. Slow Church, C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Modeled after the “slow food” movement, the authors call for an embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Those were my “best of the best”. Since this medium is interactive, I’d enjoy hearing what yours were. That might give each of us all some good ideas of something we’d like to read in 2016!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Bob on Books!

What I’d Place in a Little Free Library

Little Free LibraryI posted yesterday about Little Free Libraries, the free lending library you can “Steward” in your front yard. At the end of the post, I asked what books you’d put in a Little Free Library if you had one. So, it is only fair that I give a list of a few of the ones I’d put in there.

This is an interesting exercise, because at least some of the books I read wouldn’t be ones my neighbors would be keen about. So, here’s the compromise between things I feel good about and that I think others might like. Tell me what you think:

First of all, some children’s books:

  • Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen. We always loved reading this aloud to our son.
  • Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak. Great pictures and story to address children’s fears.
  • Good Night Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. We loved saying good night to the moon and everything else!
  • The Cat in The Hat, Dr. Suess–either this or one of the others. We always loved Yertle the Turtle.
  • I Am A Bunny, Ole Risom with illustrations by Richard Scarry. Our favorite board book and frequent baby gift. The illustrations are amazing.

Then some books for older children and young adults:

  • Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White. I first heard this story in 5th grade and we read it aloud as a family.
  • Carry on Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham. Tells the story of a young sailor who becomes a renowned mathematician.
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. A sci-fi book with strong character values.
  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. Evokes a mix of summer vacation memories and fantastic elements.
  • The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis. I feel like this book is the Wardrobe to the whole series of Chronicles of Narnia.

Adults: Fiction

  • Bel Canto, Ann Patchett. Just read it, her best in my opinion, and something I think both men and women could like.
  • Surreality, Ben Trube. Have to get my son’s in here. Besides, I really think if you like techno-thrillers, you’ll find it as good read. Kept me up at night!
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie. Her most famous, and introduces you to one of her most famous characters.
  • The Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters. The first of her Amelia Peabody stories. We have loved following Amelia Peabody from one hair-raising adventure to another.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. I think this is one of the best science fiction books, an early post-apocalyptic book envisioning a post-nuclear world.
  • Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy. I thought some of his early stuff was best.
  • Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella. The book that served as the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. A wonderful tale for anyone who loves baseball.

Non-fiction:

  • The Wright Brothers, David McCullough. Ohio boys who were the first to figure out powered flight. Well-told by this master historian and biographer.
  • Great by Choice, Jim Collins. One of the best business books I’ve read.
  • Genome, Matt Ridley. Fascinating science writing on the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make us who we are.
  • Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard. The fascinating tale of the short presidency of James Garfield, another Ohioan, and the crazed assassin and incompetent doctor who contributed to his untimely death.
  • Unbroken,Laura Hillenbrand. Tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic-level runner and POW.
  • Shiloh, Shelby Foote. His account of the battle of Shiloh and a great introduction to this great Civil War historian.
  • Both-And, Rich Nathan. This is a book written by a pastor in my home town that talks about how the church can overcome the polarities that are tearing apart American society. He articulates a picture of what many of us long for church to be.
  • Prodigal God, Timothy Keller. He takes the parable of the prodigal and turns it on its head, showing that the real prodigal is the father, who represents God, prodigal in his love for both is profligate and self-righteous sons.

Of course, there is probably not a single person who would agree with this list. And that’s the great thing about Little Free Libraries. You can add your favorites to someone else’s while discovering something new for yourself.

By the way, for right now, probably the way I will support Little Free Libraries in my area is to visit that box a few blocks away, and add a few of these books, and see what they have that I might like.

So, if you were to take one from and leave one with my hypothetical Little Free Library, what would you take, and what would you leave?

 

 

Review: Supreme Justice

Supreme Justice
Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a conservative administration has put in place a conservative Supreme Court, the US has overturned Roe v. Wade, implemented expanded police powers, and civil liberties are in decline. Then one night, a conservative associate justice and his clerk are having dinner when apparently a restaurant robbery goes bad and the justice is killed. Or so it seems.

Joe Reeder, a former secret service agent is called in by his best friend who is leading the investigation. Reeder took the bullet that saved the conservative president’s life, a president whose policies he detested. Now, as he looks at the death of a justice who overturned Roe v. Wade, he discovers that this was no ordinary robbery but an assassination. Another follows and it becomes clear that this is a conspiracy that originates from somewhere within the government, intent on changing the court’s composition now that a liberal president is in office.

This is a classic “trust no one” plot where Reeder and his partner, Patti Rogers (who is not certain she can trust Reeder at points) must attempt to uncover and bring down the conspiracy before further deaths transpire without tipping off someone close to them that is part of the conspiracy.

The book’s a page-turner, a diverting read with an exciting end that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A perfect vacation book, which this was for me. It’s not great writing necessarily and some elements such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade (essential to the plot) may stretch plausibility. But if you like legal thrillers and don’t overly care about such matters, this is a diverting read.

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Review: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am the first male of all my friends to read this book. Maybe it is just that men often don’t read something other than adventure or detective fiction or stick to non-fiction or sports or don’t read–or maybe I’m just indulging in stereotypes! At any rate, this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories is well worth reading by both men and women because of the exquisitely fine writing and large themes captured in short narratives.

Lahiri is a woman of Bengali Indian descent, born in London, raised in Rhode Island by a mother who valued her Bengali Indian heritage, and educated in Boston. These short stories reflect the complicated challenges of negotiating heritage, immigration to a new country, and the impact these have upon relationships as modernity and traditional cultural values clash.

Jhumpa Lahiri (c) Marco Delogu

Jhumpa Lahiri (c) Marco Delogu

The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies” typifies this clash as a Bengali tour guide for Americans explains that his other job, serving as a translator for a physician opens up an odd intersection of these two worlds with a foreign couple he is serving as guide. In “This Blessed House” we have an Indian couple who buy a house in the US that is filled with the trappings of its previous Christian owners and we have the comical and thought-provoking clash between husband and wife of what to do with all these artifacts of a foreign religion that were part of the home. In “Mrs. Sen’s” we have a traditional Indian wife of a university professor in the US, who supplements the family income by watching children, and who struggles between her traditional role and the pressures of her husband to learn to drive.

There are also stories about the clash of traditional cultural values and modernity in areas of marriage and sexuality. In “A Temporary Matter” we see a struggling arranged marriage that comes to a crucial turning point during a series of power outages. “Sexy” narrates two affairs, including one between a Bengali and an American, who works with a Bengali friend who has just told her about her cousin’s husband’s affair. “The Third and Final Continent” explores the dynamics of arranged marriages and immigration and an unlikely catalyst to real love forming in the person of a 103 year old landlady.

A last category seems to be the ephemerality of relationships, which include the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” “A Real Durwan”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”.

What it seems all these stories have in common is change. Relationships that grow, and those that die. People that come and go. Ways of living confronted by the circumstance of migrating to a new culture. We long for permanence and hope that in a place, in a person, in a set of values, we can find that. In the world Lahiri describes, we see in these short pieces the large, existential drama of the search for what lasts in a world of change.

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Reading Choices

Now that I’ve posted a number of reviews, you may be wondering about my reading choices. I suspect that like most of you, the books I read are shaped by a mix of deliberate choices and impulse.  Let me share with you as best as I can figure out why I choose the books I do.

1.  I work in a collegiate ministry working with graduate students and faculty.  Most of the people I work with are probably far brighter than I.  My role is to help them with connecting faith and their chosen discipline with its questions and challenges.  For this, I read books to feed my soul, to go deeper in my own theological grasp of the faith, and also to understand their world.  Most of the people I work with know a great deal about a little.  I read to know a little about a great deal–not so that I can impress any of them in a conversation about their work, but simply to know something about what they are doing. So I will range widely reading about science, technology, law, the humanities and social sciences.  Right now, I’m looking for some good recommendations on neuroscience.

2.  I work for an organization that has a publishing house, InterVarsity Press, that sends me most of its publication at greatly reduced prices that are considered business expense.  That is a nice employee benefit, and so I feel obliged to read a number of their books, which are quite useful in advancing my first aim.  Many are quite well written but I won’t give a glowing review just because our organization published the book.  If I have problems with the ideas or the writing, I will say so.  They haven’t fired me yet!

3.  Some college history professors nurtured my love for history.  I read history because I believe life is understood backward.  The present only makes sense in light of the past.  I think that’s true personally and I also think that it is true with the wider human story.  I tend to enjoy U.S. and European history but also seek to read the histories of other cultures in the world, past and present.

4.  Related to history, I enjoy biographies.  I have always been intrigued with the practice of leadership and love to read of those who have led well, and sometimes badly.  Favorite figures of mine are Churchill, Lincoln, any of the founders of our country (I even read a biography of Aaron Burr a while back!).

5. I read all sorts of fiction.  I have this crazy thing for 19th century British authors–Dickens, Disraeli, Trollope, Collins, Hardy among them.  I read contemporary authors–Ann Patchett was a recent discovery.  I enjoy a good mystery novel and was saddened by the recent demise of Elizabeth Peters, who wrote the delightful Amelia Peabody stories.  And after many year of reading more “realistic” books, I’ve dipped my toe more into science fiction of late, reading some Orson Scott Card, Philip K Dick, and Stanislaw Lem.  Fiction captures the imagination for me and is an intriguing way to explore alternate perspectives and realities.

6.  It is a summer ritual every year to read a baseball book.  I’ve always loved the game of baseball, whether playing it as a kid, watching a sandlot game, or spending a summer evening watching our minor league Columbus Clippers. This year I read Summer of  ’49 by David Halberstam.

7.  A small category that cross the line between fiction and non-fiction would be books on “place”.  Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, John Steinbeck, and other authors appeal to me as writers on place.  I believe who we are is in part shaped by where we are.

8.  Finally, sometimes I read “assigned” books.  These could be for book groups I’m in or for conferences or task forces.  Great by Choice was one of those books.  I’m currently reading John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University for our Dead Theologians Society reading group.  I’m also reading a manuscript of a forthcoming book to provide an anonymous review–that is a new experience–and while I can’t comment of the book, I might comment on the process some time.  That’s what I’ll be reading this weekend!

What are your book interests?  And what will you be reading this weekend?