Review: Sex and the City of God

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author.

At first glance, the title of this book feels like a teaser, playing off the title of another book by Candace Bushnell and the popular television series that followed. But the book really is about one woman’s sexuality and how her choice to live as a citizen of the City of God led to a larger vision of love, healing of her relationship with her father, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of her sexuality. Add to that a heart-warming love story told by a gifted writer, and you have a truly great read.

The story begins with the father, hospitalized and near death. In his last years, he had come to faith, and drawn close to his daughter, the author. Her mind flashes back to the absentee father of her childhood, and her seventh birthday party, a picture of her in a dress he bought her, waiting for him to come home. He didn’t come.

The story moves forward to her graduate studies at Oxford, and the summer at home after she had started following Christ. In the background of that story is TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome) who had shared with her about God, one of the Christians she’d met with but a remote hope for anything more than a good friendship. Back home is Ben, an ex who shows up. A drive in his truck ends at a summer cabin, interrupted by a knock at the door, and a box of books. In the months ahead, she begins to live into not merely a single, but singular life belonging to Christ, a life oriented around Augustine’s City of God rather than the human city.

Through Bible studies at St. Ebbe’s and reading Augustine, she finds her understanding of sexuality reframed, oddly enough through biblical genealogies. The begotten are not merely part of a human family but the created and adopted family of God:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

It was not as straightforward path. Many frustrating dating relationships. A tempting episode in another cabin with the heat out. Meanwhile, the conversations continued with TDH, who always treated her and other women with respect, was candid in discussion about his own temptations, and his commitment to a chaste life as a Christian. And then he moved back to the States…

The rest of the story, as they say, is a lovely courtship, and then an honest account of marriage with its ups, downs and temptations (including a writing retreat that turns out a walk through the forest from Ben’s cabin, complete with his truck parked in the drive!).

The story ends as it began, with her father, his last voice message and a reflection on how the choices we make in love may well shape who is with us in our last moments. Along the way, Carolyn Weber’s writing draws us into her life, her longings, her temptations and her struggle with them, her hopes and growing faith. Her writing draws us by her descriptions of scenes and places in which we enter into disappointment, into turmoil, into the cold of the cabin, the wildness of a windstorm, the insistent knocking upon a door. This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Long Night

The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression, Jessica Kantrowitz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2020.

Summary: Short readings and personal narratives reflecting the author’s experience with depression, both honest and hopeful.

I’m an odd person to review a book on depression. This just has not been my experience. I tend toward an even temper, and although I’ve experienced real setbacks and discouragement, I can’t honestly say I’ve experienced the “long night” of which the author writes. A book on obsessive compulsive disorder would probably be more in my neighborhood.

But I’ve known people who have lived through depression. In more than one instance, I didn’t see it at the time. In some instances, they didn’t initially either. In the general population roughly 6.7 percent of all people experience symptoms of depression at any given time (about 16.2 million in the US). Globally, the WHO estimates that 300 million experience depression (from this article on Healthline). Inside Higher Ed indicates that among graduate students, a population I have worked with, the numbers may be higher. One study found up to 39 percent scored in the moderate to severe range of depression.

All of this is what makes this book so valuable, whether you are experiencing depression, know someone who is, or, like me, was pretty clueless when it came to recognizing symptoms of depression. Jessica Kantrowitz gives us an honest account of her own experience through depression. She doesn’t offer promises of healing or “six steps out of depression.” She offers herself as a companion to those walking in the pain and darkness of depression. She doesn’t offer answers, but shares her own questions and how she has struggled with them.

She describes her own experience with episodes of depression, sometimes so bad she could not get out of bed. She describes the migraines that accompanied her depression, quitting a ministry job because she just couldn’t turn around her work performance quickly enough. She described the companions who helped her, the friends who simply listened, said “That sucks,” and stayed. She tells us about trying as hard as she could, and of those who stuck with her through barely incremental progress punctuated with setbacks. She describes other companions, writers like Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner, whose writings helped.

She narrates learning new prayer practices that involved the body and practices of centering prayer, that instead of suppressing emotions or distractions allowed her to notice them and learn to let them go, like clouds passing overhead. She tells us about leaving an unhelpful community and finding a new one, as well as a number of fellow travelers online. She names some of the ways depression lies and distorts reality. She talks frankly about suicide and what it takes to love someone in the pain of depression.

There is so much of value for those who haven’t been through depression. Kantrowitz helps us understand how much it hurts. She invites us to see how those in the midst of depression are “doing their best” to get out and the long process of dealing with medications, food, exercise, sleep (which often is a problem), and so much more, what she calls learning healthy coping mechanisms. From her own experience we learn that the way to help is to listen, to pray, to empathize, but no advice. Our best present is simply to be present.

At the same time, this is a book of hope. Not quick fixes, but the growing awareness that God accepts us in weakness, and that we are not alone in the dark night. There is the hope of becoming more truly and fully human and oneself in the process. She offers hope that it will not always be this way against depression’s lie that it always will. A quote on the book’s cover says, “You are not alone, and this will not last forever.”

The hope offered seems to be that one may live with and grow through depression. She suggests resources to help and offers in herself the hope of finding companions on the journey. Not sermons but stories. Not cures but companionship. Not happy thoughts but hope toward the dawning light.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: My Life in the Cleveland Zoo

Life in the Cleveland Zoo

My Life in the Cleveland Zoo, Adam A. Smith with Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2014.

Summary: A memoir recounting numerous stories from the author’s years of working at the Cleveland Zoo as a tour train driver, a night watchmen, and a animal keeper with pachyderms.

Most of us who have ever been to a zoo spend most of the time noticing the animals. Rarely do we notice the other creatures in the zoo, the human beings who make the zoo work day in, day out. I found this book, sent to me by the author’s brother Rob and cousin Craig (both former Youngstowners), a fascinating account of the people behind the magic of zoos. It also brought back memories for me of the Cleveland Zoo. We lived in Cleveland for nine years, and I have memories of pushing my son around in a stroller in the mid-1980’s, particularly up and down the hills that are a part of this zoo. One thing. If you were a county resident, you could get in free, at least when we went.

Adam Smith first started working at the Zoo as a college student in the late 1960’s and continued on and off until about 1983. The book recounting these years consists of three parts corresponding to the three jobs Smith held: tour train driver, night watchman, and animal keeper with the pachyderms. Each of the sections is filled with stories of the people, and the animals, that turn driving around and around the zoo, or walking night watchman rounds or mucking out elephant stalls and hippo pools into a combination of riveting adventures or laugh out loud funny accounts–sometimes both.

One aspect of Cleveland culture was the story of going to the teamsters union hall to sign up for the union before starting work, complete with the ripped enforcers guarding the receptionist communicating, “don’t mess with the teamsters.” In the tour train years the funniest story was the great Tour Train Race. Along the way are fun stories of hi-jinks with the concession and ticket girls, and the zoo manager who keeps rehiring him long after college while he sorted out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Time and again, he came back to the zoo after trying a range of other jobs.

Eventually he had the opportunity to work as a night watchman, a full time job. His sketch of John Sich, the longtime watchman who oriented him, fleshed out a person not unlike many of laborers I grew up with Youngstown–a combination of a hunter who loved killing rats, a guy with street smarts (“never punch in early”), and utterly punctual and regular on his rounds. Adam took a very different approach, and the stories of his adventures with the junior rangers who basically slept through the shift or accompanied him in his mouse eradication ventures were hilarious, except for the time when a bow hunter was in the park and killed a deer, and easily could have killed him as well. And there were those frigid winter Cleveland snow storms!

Then the job as an animal keeper turned up on the job postings–and no one signed up. Adam learned that it was because of the feared Simba, an elephant who had attacked and injured several keepers and could easily kill you. What’s more, she was utterly unpredictable. Perhaps one of the most edge-of-the-seat and heart warming stories was when the day came that he either would establish his dominance with Simba, or wash out as a pachyderm keeper. Coached by the diminutive woman head keeper Ellen, he succeeds, followed by the tender moment of rewarding and stroking the once-fearsome Simba. The scarier incidents were actually with the hippos.

For a memoir, this is a long book with a lot of chapters, a lot of stories. In the epilogue, written by the author’s brother Rob, who edited the book posthumously, we learn that this was a much longer book. It seems that Adam Smith was a storyteller, and the truth was that I didn’t mind, because his stories drew me in. At a deeper level, they were stories of camaraderie with other zoo employees, tinged with deep respect for a number of them. They were stories of love for the animals, even the ones that could endanger his life. Finally, it was a narrative that brought back memories of a part of our life I hadn’t thought of for many years.

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Thanks, Craig Smoky Roberts, and Rob Smith for sending me this book. As always, the views are my own, but I do hope they reflect well on your cousin and brother respectively, whose stories far outshine my rendering. His was a good life.

Review: Living in Bonus Time

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.”

I still remember the day when I opened the video from then President of InterVarsity/USA, Alec Hill, and heard the news that he was stepping down from his position to fight a rare form of cancer, Myelodysplasia Syndrome (MDS) that could take his life within eighteen months. I work for InterVarsity and Alec had energetically led us in fourteen years of growth. He communicated personal concern for us as a couple when my wife faced a cancer diagnosis for us. I was stunned, and joined with thousands of others in prayer for him.

alec hill

Alec Hill

This book describes his journey from that time onward. The first part of this book describes a journey of descent.  A bone marrow donor match was critical to his survival. As it turned out, his brother Grant was an exact match. For Alec, this meant toxic chemo and full body radiation to destroy his white blood cells, while Grant received injection to boost his stem cell production. Hill describes the side effects of this treatment, including the risk that any infection could kill him, requiring isolation from all but his wife Mary, and scrupulous sanitizing of surfaces. He also describes the struggles with depression and the “dark night of the soul” through which he went, and his struggle to hang on to the disciplines that had sustained him in health. He struggled with why this had happened to him. Had he done something to cause it? He warns against the prosperity preaching and false messengers who unhelpfully approached him. And when the treatment worked and his blood counts rose and health returned while friends in treatment died, he wrestled with survivors guilt.

The second part of the books focuses Hill’s transition to new realities as he realizes that he is among those who survive cancer. He describes the lessons of control–over-control like that of Steve Jobs, who thought he could out-think pancreatic cancer, or under-control, which becomes passive in the face of cancer. He recognizes that appropriate control involves humility, trust, gratitude, and rest. Cancer forced him to learn dependence on others–family, friends, professional caregivers, and other cancer patients. In this section, he also discusses the challenges caregivers face and the needs caregivers have for self-care. Perhaps the most significant chapter in this book was his one on identity. He talks frankly about the experiences he faced in self-perception, bodily changes including those affecting sexuality, social roles and spiritual identity. He writes:

Cancer is a watershed event that divides our lives between BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). If given a choice between our BC and AD selves–what we look like, how we feel, how we perceive others regard us–most of us would gladly select the former.

The final part of the book describes how Hill came to terms with “bonus time” (a phrase he draws from soccer, where at the end of regulation time, the referee can extend the play with bonus time. He identifies how survivors often show growth in grit, spirituality, and boldness (e.g. why am I afraid what people think when I’ve had cancer?). Surviving cancer can lead to a clarifying of purpose as one faces one’s mortality. He proposes that clarified purpose comes through surrender of control to reliance on God, assessment of our responsibilities, resources, capabilities and calling, and attentiveness that requires slowing down. For Hill, it meant a shift from executive leadership in a fast-paced collegiate ministry to the thoughtful mentoring of young leaders. He concludes with a pair of chapters on redeeming the time and on wonder that get to the most important aspects of bonus time–savoring one’s life, loving, living freely, giving of himself, and delighting in wonder.

No two cancers are alike. Neither are cancer journeys, some of which end one’s life and some that pass through the valley of the shadow of death into survivorhood. One thing that is true is that one is not the same–physically, emotionally, mentally. There are bodily changes, fears of recurrence and survivor guilt, and chemo brain. But there are also the opportunities of additional years of life and the question of how one will live those years. Alec Hill has given an incredibly honest, but also life affirming account of his journey. He takes us through his process in the hope that it will be helpful to others. In this, he practices something he learned through cancer–no one survives alone, but rather with a host of others who walk with one on the way–including other survivors. He supplements his own story with those of others, questions and scriptures for reflection, and a helpful bibliography organized around chapter topics.

This is a wonderful resource for cancer survivors and caregivers. It should be noted that Hill’s Christian faith pervades this memoir, not in a preachy way, but rather as what sustained him and helped him as he clarified what life in the bonus time of surviving cancer would look like. Hill’s aim is not that people imitate him, but rather through his reflection questions and insights, discern their own paths in “bonus time.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Brave New Medicine

brave new medicine

Brave New MedicineCynthia Li, MD. Oakland: Reveal Press, 2019.

Summary: When a physician trained in internal medicine experiences a debilitating autoimmune illness that the medical establishment couldn’t heal, she pursues a journey addressing both body and mind that allow her body to heal.

Cynthia Li was proud of her training in medicine. After surviving a tragic loss, she marries David and begins a family. And with the birth of her first child her own health begins to unravel because of an autoimmune illness beginning with her thyroid, an illness where her immune system attacked her body–a racing heart, sleeplessness, loss of energy and a host of other symptoms that left her unable to get off the couch. She had become the “difficult patient.” There seemed to be neither cause nor remedy that doctors who shared her training could find. She struggled through a second pregnancy, with tensions in the marriage growing.

The book traces her journey toward healing that began with asking a new question, “how to get off the couch?” She began with her sleeplessness by addressing her daily rhythms and sleep rituals. She gives herself permission to receive and become part of a community of support. She discovers the importance of daily doses of nature. She recognizes that toxins in her home and her body can contribute to inflammatory responses and takes steps to detoxify. She learns to pay attention to intuition for what to work on next. She discovers the connection between mental states and gene expression and learns the importance of moving from flight or fight stress to “rest and digest” states that heal rather than inflame tissue.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters was the one on learning to inhabit your body. She recognizes how we are often disconnected and out of touch with our own bodies. She found a great deal of help through meditative techniques, qiqong practice, and acupuncture to harness and release the power of qi. She mentions in passing weird occurrences in her home as she was engaged in these practices, and this raised a red flag for me. As a Christian, I believe in a God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and in whose presence and power we are strengthened both spiritually and bodily. I also believe there are influences not of God that may be malign. I think there is a larger conversation to be had about mind-body meditative practices than can be had in this review, and the need for spiritual discernment in their practice. None of this is to question the experience of Dr. Li, nor the importance of reconnecting mind and body.

She also discovered what many are discovering–that our gut health, the biological mix of organisms in our intestinal tract–can be out of whack.  She practiced and proposed a 30 day reset diet and ongoing dietary practices to address this. She found the importance of breaking old habits that no longer serve one well. It has often been said that “laughter is the best medicine” and she discovered how important play and laughter are in improving our immune function. She started investigating hidden root causes behind chronic conditions, especially food allergies and stealth infections like the Epstein-Barr virus. Having experienced loss, she learned how to “bring grief out of the shadows.” Finally, she learned that in coming out of chronic illness, it was important to reclaim one’s purpose and find and tell one’s story.

She summarizes this journey in fifteen steps of “how to get off the couch.” After the narrative, she includes a section with practical advice and websites for following the fifteen steps, practices she has now integrated into her own medical practice.

This work is a gentle but powerful critique of Western medical practice. She notes the pressure of fifteen minute patient visits, the shortcuts taken in listening to patient histories that may ignore childhood traumas and family histories that may be at the root of health problems, the over-reliance on lab panels that can come back normal even when there are real problems.  She observes the neglect of the factors learned in medical school that contribute over time to disease and our definitions of “health,” our neglect of the connections between mind and body, and the importance of seeing patients as whole people, and the importance of what our bodies are exposed to and what we put in them.

More importantly, Cynthia Li articulates a whole-life approach to health, nearly all of which happens outside doctors offices. It addresses how we eat, sleep, work, and play, and the environments within which we live, and our relationships with other human beings. Her book reminds us that before what we do, we are human be-ings. She explores how we “be” healthy, something no doctor may do for us, but can only do with us.

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Disclaimer: This review, like the book, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, which if needed, should be sought from a trained professional.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

Review: A Life of Listening

a life of listening

A Life of ListeningLeighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so.

I have been listening to Leighton Ford most of my life. As a young boy, I heard him preach on The Hour of Decision on occasions when Billy Graham was not on the broadcast. As a college student, I participated as a counselor in a crusade he led in Youngstown. Even then, his voice was different from Billy Graham, quieter, rich with cultural and spiritual insight. I was moved by his account of the death of his son Sandy, a parent’s worst nightmare, and how he went on with God afterward. I saw a turn in his ministry as he focused on leadership and found his book Transforming Leadership deeply helpful as a rising leader. Much later, as I found myself giving increasing attention to the inner journey, his book, The Attentive Life, captured for me what seems the connecting point between those who love God and love learning, the practice of attentiveness. Now, as I think of this question of what it means to finish well in Christ, comes this memoir, in which Ford looks back and sums up a journey of listening to God.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:

   I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.

The narrative traces this listening story from the early years as the adopted son of Charles and Olive Ford. Olive was the one who first taught him to read scripture and pray and took him to the Keswick conference where he responded to the voice of Jesus. He describes his teen years as he struggles to differentiate the voice of Jesus from Olive’s strong, controlling, and protective voice. He narrates his first encounter with Billy Graham at a Youth for Christ rally he had organized, and how, amid discouraging results, Graham encouraged him, encouraging his own response to the growing sense of God’s call to preach.

Graham also told his sister Jean about Leighton, and when they went to Wheaton, they eventually began dating, and in a decisive break with Olive, who disapproved, married Jean. The following years were one’s under Graham’s mentorship, first as an associate accompanying him and sharing some of the preaching, and then forming his own team and booking his own crusades as part of the Graham organization.

He describes the shift in his own ministry as he increasingly included social advocacy and outreach in his crusades, began discovering his inner life as he wrestled with depression,  and met his birth mother and understood more deeply the pulls in his life between the sense of loss and longing represented in his birth mother, and the impulse to separate Olive’s voice from the voice that was calling him. Then came the devastating death of his son Sandy, and the discovery of “places in our hearts we don’t even know are there until our hearts are broken.” His preaching was changing, and it became apparent, first to Billy Graham, and then him, that it was time to part ways organizationally, a move that actually deepened their friendship, and collaboration on things such as the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization.

The last part of the book covers the period from his fifties until the present as he embarks on what Susan Howatch called “the second journey.”  He learns both to listen more deeply for the Lord’s voice and to find his own. He recounts the several year journey to developing a new ministry focus on developing rising leaders and evangelists. His last chapters explore the anamcharas through whom the voice often comes, his growing appreciation of beauty and hearing God’s voice as he took up art, and the distinguishing character of God’s voice and how it comes.

No two lives are alike, no two paths the same. Yet, at least for me, listening to those who have been listening to the Voice of the Master is a rich source of wisdom. Such is this book by Leighton Ford; not a substitute for listening to the only Voice who can lead us safe home, but as sage counsel for how to recognize the only true Voice from the many competing for our attention.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Bookmarked

bookmarked

Bookmarked: Reading My Way from Hollywood to BrooklynWendy W. Fairey. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2015.

Summary: A literature professor who is the daughter of a famous Hollywood columnist writes a memoir interweaving her life with significant books and characters.

“I want to write of the private stories that lie behind our reading of books, taking my own trajectory through English literature as the history I know best but proposing a way of thinking about literature that I believe is every reader’s process. We bring ourselves with all our aspirations and wounds, affinities and aversions, insights and confusions to the books we read, and our experience shapes our response.”

In Bookmarked, Wendy W. Fairey draws upon her own life, both experienced and in books, as an illustration of this thesis. The daughter of famous Hollywood columnist Sheila Graham, she grew up in a home with one of many Graham’s lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who selected books for Graham, a “College of One.” Reading through Fitzgerald’s books started her on a lifelong journey with books, books that helped make sense of her life.

In David Copperfield, she sees in brutal Mr. Murdstone the violent male paralleling “Bow Wow,” one of her mother’s lovers. She takes us through Jane Eyre and Vanity FairDaniel Deronda, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Henry James The Portrait of a Lady, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Forster’s Passage to India, and more recent authors from India.

She intertwines four themes from these various books, also paralleling her life–the orphan, the new woman, the artist, and the immigrant. As she does so, she traces her own discoveries that her mother was a Jewish orphan (not unlike Daniel Deronda) and that her true father was British philosopher A.J. Ayer. She takes us through the ups and downs of her marriage to Donald Fairey, her own self-discovery as a woman in academia, and her love affair and eventual marriage to Mary Edith Mardis. She reflects on Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse as well as “Tonio Kroger” in Thomas Mann as she recalls her affair with Ezio Tarantelli. She considers the immigrant experience as she recounts her travels in India and growing familiarity with Indian, ex-pat Indian, and Indian-American writers.

As we read, we listen to a skilled literature professor critically reflect on issues of class and gender, even as she also considers her own life. We read someone who both thoughtfully engages books on their own terms, and yet not in a way detached from her life. She both reads these books with her life, and in some respects, finds the books reading her.

At times I wondered if all of this might be considered a bit self-indulgent. And then I reflected on the self-indulgence that is reading–an exercise in which we both lose ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves as well, making sense of ourselves, our lives as we have lived them thus far, and perhaps making some sense of our world. Isn’t this, as she contends, “every reader’s process”?

The book made me wonder what books I would use in narrating my life. It clearly would be a different shelf of books than the author’s. But I have no question that there were books that resonated with my experiences, and others that served to shape and crystallize my understanding of the world. It is an exercise I would like to pursue further as time allows.

 

Review: What You Take With You

What you take with you

What You Take With YouTherese Greenwood. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2019.

Summary: Therese Greenwood had minutes to evacuate her home as the Fort McMurray fire approached. The book recounts both her escape, and reflects on what she took, and what this revealed about her life.

A wildfire is rapidly approaching. Floodwaters are rising around you and you have minutes to escape. Thousands of people face this every year. Sometimes we idly think of what we would take if we only had minutes to flee our home. Therese Greenwood, who always feared she would die in a fire had such thoughts as well. She even worked in with an emergency preparedness organization for a time. And then she found out what she would really take when the order came to evacuate her neighborhood as the Fort McMurray fire bore down on her subdivision.

This book is both an account of her flight and a reflection on the articles she rescued and what her spur-of-the-moment choices told her about her life. Of course she had her “go bag” prepared that contained insurance policies and other important papers. These would prove necessary in the days ahead. It is what else she took that was revealing.

Her description of the drive to pick up her husband captures the rising fear many must have felt, sitting in traffic jams, smoke all around, windows rolled up (and air conditioning failing), watching the gas gauge creep toward empty. She reaches Steve in an empty downtown office building as flames appear in the distant hills. Eventually they end up in Edmonton, staying in a hotel with many other evacuees, hitting the Walmart for the necessities they left behind, waiting anxiously to find out whether they would have a home to return to. Steve later watches a video of someone driving through the neighborhood. Houses on one side of the street are still standing. Those on the others are gone, a crater where a house once was. Their home was on that side of the street. Greenwood’s narrative captures what is like for evacuees who have lost everything, and the challenge a community faces when thousands have lost their homes.

There are many such stories. What distinguishes Greenwood’s is its reflection on what she had saved from the fire–a rolling pin, a plaster saint, sleigh bells, a Bible and a bee book, a special needlepoint, her father’s musical instruments, an unusual mirror that was a wedding gift, a quilt and an award. Each reflects a chapter of her life and reflected something that endured that was ineluctably hers amid all the loss.

It isn’t all fear and thoughtful reflection. One of the striking parts of the book was her relationship with Hudson, A.K.A. “Big Stinky Dog,” a high maintenance, smelly old dog owned by her husband’s parents, who they stayed with for a time, a time that coincided with Steve’s mother’s death. Steve’s  dad Ray had to leave for a time, and Therese ended up caring for Big Stinky Dog, and found herself refusing a suggestion to put the dog down.

Many of us live in homes made comfortable with the accumulations of years, perhaps carried on one move to the next. This book asks the question of what would we choose when our choices are stripped bare and we act on instincts that reflect our subconscious sense of what may matter most deeply. It explores the lives we forge, the places where we define identity, the people who are dearest in life and memory, reflected in what we take, and in what is left of us when we’ve had to leave most of our “stuff” behind.

One of the greatest treasures in life may be to understand both where we have come from and who we have come to be. It seems that Therese’s reflections gave her some of those insights. Perhaps reading and reflecting with her might do the same for us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Working

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.

It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro’s books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.

In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.

Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro’s books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to “turn every page.” As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.

Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson’s youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson’s youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon’s mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.

He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of “Box 13” in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he “had the story” and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.

In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.

And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.

With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes “the books serve a larger civic purpose.” Caro replies:

   Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.

We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.

Review: The Way Home

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The Way Home: Tales of a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle. London: Oneworld Publications, (Forthcoming in the US, June 11) 2019.

Summary: A narrative of a year without modern technology, and what it is like to live more directly and in rhythm with the immediate world of the author’s smallholding and community.

“It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever strong. No running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. Just a wooden cabin, on a smallholding, by the edge of a stand of spruce.”

In 1925, only half the homes in the United States had electricity, which first was delivered to the public by Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City. It is now hard for us to imagine a world whose technology is not powered by this source, or by carbon-based fuels. Most fundamentally, we relied mostly on the sun for light, with fires, oil lamps, and candles running a poor second. Mostly, when it got dark, people went to bed. Heat came from wood. Water came from springs or wells, was hand-pumped or carried. We wrote with pen or pencil and ink and communicated either face to face or by letter carried by the postal service. Most homes did not have indoor plumbing and provision had to be made for the disposal of waste. Much of one’s food was grown or raised either on one’s own property or locally or secured by hunting and fishing and preserved without refrigerators. Significant labor was involved in washing one’s clothes or one’s self. One’s community was those in walking distance or within a reasonable ride on horseback.

It was to this kind of existence that Mark Boyle decided to return and this book, the narrative of his first year living that kind of existence with his partner, Kirsty. Boyle doesn’t abandon all technology, but rather technology powered by anything other than his own energy, or the heat of a wood fire. What one is struck with on immediate reading is that this is hard, sometimes back-breaking and slow work that often takes up most of the author’s days. It often involves re-learning skills that were once common knowledge, but that have been all but loss, whether that be starting a fire by hand or fishing for pike in a local lake or preserving venison. It gets into the nitty-gritty of our existence, such as turning one’s own waste safely into compost.

Why does he do this? He recites a number of ecological and socio-cultural reasons, but the most critical reasons are ones of existential meaning:

“…I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship and community, and not just the things that pass for them. I wanted to search for truth to see if it existed and, if it didn’t, to at least find something closer to my own. I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, and not merely exhibit the signs of life…”

One has the sense in reading this work that the author does find many of these things, most essentially how his life is intimately connected with the world around him, whether it is the stand of spruce nearby, or the pike he holds in his hand after catching it, that gives up its life to sustain his. He eyes his growing woodpile and food put up for the winter and realizes that these things represent his ability to live into another growing season. He explores the complexities of simplicity, and the complexities we avoid in our technologically simplified lives.

Boyle previously lived for a year without cash, and the cashless life figures significantly here as well. It is not a barter economy but rather communal exchanges: berries for wine, labor for food. Often it is not reciprocal, but rather a community where people help each other, and often “pay it forward.” One senses in the course of the year that his virtual community withers away, as few take the time to put pen to paper, but that he builds bonds with neighbors like Packie, musicians at the local pub, his mail carrier, and others in nearby communities. Even while the experiment goes on, the encroachments of technology continue: local post offices and pubs close, and land is cleared for agro-businesses.

Interspersed in his own narrative of the practicalities of his life and his reflections upon it is a narrative of Great Blasket Island, once a self-sufficient island but now deserted with the advent of modern technology. The island stands as a mute symbol of a former way of life.

I did not find this modern-day Thoreau so much making a statement as holding up a mirror to a world where the boundaries of human and electrically-driven technology are becoming increasingly porous, and asking, is this really a life well-lived? While I suspect that most who read his book won’t embrace the same life he did (in the end, even Kirsty does not), his narrative invites us to ask what kind of life we are embracing, and is it truly life-giving? How are our minds and bodies and communities being shaped by our advancing technology? How in touch are we with our elemental connection with the earth from which we come and to which we will return? It seems that for each of us, asking these questions are important for finding “the way home.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this advanced review copy from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.