May 2014: The Month in Reviews

It was a rich and varied month of reading–everything from a long history of genocide to a reflective book on a one sentence prayer. I read primary source accounts of the beginning of the Atomic age and a collection of essays on the challenging theological question of “holy war” in the Bible. There was a book on 19th century efforts to reconcile faith and science, and the cutting edge 21st century science of genomics and its challenges to faith and ethics. I explored a full length memoir of growing up in southern Saskatchewan, a full-length biography of the “little woman that started this great war [the Civil War]”, and a delightful collection of short stories by a Bengali Indian writer. So, here is the month in reviews, with each of the links taking you to the full review of the book:

1. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America, by Walter H. Conser, Jr. The title summarizes the book in many ways, exploring how 19th century theologians grappled, even before Darwin, with discoveries that called into question interpretations of the Bible.

2. The Manhatten Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. by Cynthia C. Kelly. The immediacy of these accounts combined with the skillful editing that fashions these into a seamless narrative makes this a compelling read of the beginning of the nuclear age.

3. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saving “never again” after the Holocaust.

god and natural worldmanhatten projectproblem from hellexcellence in preaching4. Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers, by Simon Vibert. I appreciated both the concept and conclusions of this book but felt it was marred by its exclusive use of white, Anglo male models. Is excellence in preaching really limited to this demographic? I think not.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

6. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler. Mettler argues that in the field of higher education as in the wider society, our education policies and our failure to maintain policies offering affordable access to all, are creating a new educated elite while excluding many from the lower classes of society.

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7. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter. Venter was the leader of one of two teams (Francis Collins led the other) who sequenced the human genome. In this book, Venter talks about what he and other genetic researchers have been doing since, particularly in developing our capacities to synthesize DNA and the ways they’ve applied this research.

8. Holy War in the Bible, ed. by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.  This book represents the proceedings from a conference on this issue and is organized around essays representing six different approaches to the question of how we deal with war in the Bible. Probably the most thorough-going treatment on this issue I’ve read.

9. The Jesus Prayer, by John Michael Talbot. This little booklet reflects word by word on the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). A book at once theologically rich, devotionally nurturing, and ecumenically written.

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10. Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. This is Stegner’s memoir of the settlement of south Saskatchewan in the area of the Cypress Hills and his own boyhood. He punctuates this with a riveting, fictional account of the struggle of cowboys to survive the winter of 1906, that devastated the herds and nearly took their lives.

11. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times made this observation about what books can and cannot do in our lives:

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

That’s what I felt these books do in my life. It’s my hope that one or more might do the same for you!


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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