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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

If you’ve read bookconscious for a long time you know I was a regular listener of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. As they were preparing to go off the air, Michael and Ann recommended other podcasts for their fans and one was The Readers. I listened to Episode 171 a few weeks ago, in which Simon and Thomas were sharing their summer reading plans. I was especially intrigued by Simon’s description of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I decided it to check it out, and I am so glad I did — I loved it. So much so that I suggested it to my new book group on Monday, and happily, they chose it for our August read.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people in a city that is beginning to fall under the influence of militants as the book opens. Nadia, scandalously for a young woman in her city, has broken with her family and lives alone, while Saeed lives with his parents. As the various parts of the city fall and services are cut off, they find it harder to see each other. I don’t want to give away everything, so I won’t say how everyone in their city gets on, but eventually, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave.

What intrigued me is that the way to leave the city is through doors. Ordinary doors. Saeed and Nadia leave through one in a dentist’s and end up in Mykonos. Eventually they get to London, which has been overrun, “some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that.” People not just from Saeed and Nadia’s country but many other places, drawn by reports from other migrants living in places with better opportunities, move through doors to try and make a better life. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move  . . . .”

Exit West is certainly about human migration, the refugee crisis, and what happens when people must choose to leave their homes.  But it’s also the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Some of what they go through brings them closer, but they guard their feelings about some experiences, and find themselves less able to share them, or even to talk lightly. I don’t think I’ve read a lovelier description of a couple growing apart.

The book is also an examination of faith, which Saeed never loses. He prays, as his mother taught him when he was a boy, and when he and Nadia are finally settled he is drawn to a “place of worship” — Hamid never says mosque, although there are indications that Saeed is Muslim (he and his father go to Friday prayers together, for example). The preacher at Saeed’s new place of worship is African American. Here is how Hamid writes about that: “While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found . . . this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.”

At my book club (discussing The Underground Railroad) we got into a conversation about why people suffering at the hands of other people seem to turn to religion. One person suggested religion preys on the downcast and oppressed, but I countered that in my view, religion offers a vision of justice and peace that isn’t fully manifest in the world yet, but is possible. I should have added, that hope can be magnified in the acts of love carried out by believers who represent all that’s possible, and conversely, crushed by fundamentalism and intolerance. In Exit West Saeed and Nadia lose the place they love to militant fundamentalism and Saeed finds his way in a community run by a preacher who “worked to feed and shelter his congregants and teach them English.”

And he prays: “Saeed . . . valued the discipline of it, the fact that it was a code, a promise he had made, and that he stood by.” Now as a refugee in a strange country, “Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” That slayed me, but Hamid goes on:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to . . . .”

I find that very beautiful. As I typed it I realized it’s also a style that may not to be everyone’s taste — a sentence that takes up nearly a whole page of this small book. But even if you are usually a fan of tidier prose, give this book a chance. It’s short but expansive. A simple story but one that provides a great deal to ponder when you get to the end. I’ve been thinking about refugees and and how things could be better and whether where we live makes us who we are, and what it takes to get to that sense of shared humanity through prayer that Saeed has, and whether humans really have potential to build a better world or when starting over are they doomed to repeat the same patterns that shattered their communities in the first place, and why some people can change and others can’t, and whether the African American experience “made possible all future transplanted soils” and why anyone becomes fundamentalist or even listens to fundamentalists . . . . And I haven’t looked at a door the same way since, either. Wouldn’t it be so cool to go through one and end up elsewhere?

I’ve read some good books so far this summer but this may be the best.

 

 

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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I found this book as I find many — I was checking in returns at the library. I’m interested in Tolkien, and have read a number of books by C.S. Lewis. Both offspring the Elder and the Younger have to read Lewis for courses this semester. And the Elder has told me repeatedly, no other fiction satisfied him once he read The Lord of the Rings books in his early teens. I’ve also long been interested in WWI. My grandmother brought Vera Brittain to my attention when I in college, and I have always been fascinated by the literary response to war.

But let me get back to the book at hand, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The point of my digression is that I was primed to really enjoy this book. I found myself marking pages as I read, which is usually a good sign. For example, I was interested in this: “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”

Which is where we are again today — I touched on that a bit in my review of It’s Your World. We believe we can solve poverty, illness, and even conflict. And we can — potentially. We are to some extent. The Computer Scientist quoted some of the latest Harper’s Index last night, which notes, “Estimated percentage change in the rate of extreme poverty worldwide over the past twenty years : –66 Chances that an American believes the rate has “almost doubled” over that period : 2 in 3.” We humans are a complicated lot — we believe we can do anything if we set our minds to it and we also believe we’re screwing everything up. Perhaps because for every person working on ending human suffering there seems to be another who is profiting from it, and it’s hard to tell which is prevailing in the daily stream of bad news.

Loconte goes on to explain however, that Tolkien and Lewis saw in trench warfare “the horrific progeny of this thinking,” about science’s potential, and thus endowed their fictional characters more realistically with “a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” which they related to “the Fall,” which Tolkien claimed “lurked behind every story.” But, it seems a bit of a leap of logic to me to suggest that because science was supposed to be man’s salvation, WWI’s betrayal of that idea caused a loss of faith in mankind, and Tolkein and Lewis, because of their exposure to this, created characters who are both heroic and flawed. I’m not sure all of that follows, necessarily, and even if I agreed with the logic, it’s a very incomplete picture.

Also while Loconte correctly notes that many Christian denominations went awry in supporting eugenics and nationalism and endorsing WWI, I think it’s also over-simplifying to say that the war “instigated a new season of religious doubts.” As this British Library article notes, there were many social and cultural causes for the decline in organized religion both before and after the war. But organized religion is not the same as faith, and while I am sure it’s true that many people struggled with faith in the face of such horrors, others discovered it, or found it strengthened. Churches changed over the ensuing decades, sometimes for the better (like not preaching eugenics anymore), sometimes for the worse (like supporting white supremacy). But religion didn’t die, nor did faith.

And many religious thinkers, or writers influenced by faith, born before, during, or after WWI, continued to focus on how we should live  — Tolkien and Lewis, yes, but also (in no particular order, and not meant to be a comprehensive list) T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Rumer Godden, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Tillich, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Jane Gardam, Alan Paton, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Loconte declares faith rare among “the literarti” which is an overgeneralization. Sure, there were a lot of secular writers in the early to mid-20th century, but those for whom faith mattered are hardly lightweights or unknowns.

The most interesting parts of A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War are the sections where Loconte talks about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship, and other friendships that sustained them as writers and thinkers. I wish those sections had been longer. Also, the book is so heavily footnoted that I began to wonder what Loconte himself thought; was this book simply a review of others’ theories or his own?

So, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. However, it made me think and got The Computer Scientist and me talking about how combat impacted his thoughts on faith, and any book that sparks conversation can’t be all bad.

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When I heard Joanna Brooks on The Daily Show I put her memoir on hold at the library. The Book of Mormon Girl is a thoughtful, warm, intriguing book about Brooks’ growing up in a devout Mormon home, becoming a feminist and gay rights advocate, then an interfaith parent married to “a man whose religious practice entails a combination of Judaism, Buddhism, and ESPN.” And it’s the story of Brooks’ learning to assimilate these parts of herself — her faith, her belief that God is loving and kind, her warm memories, her stories, her search for truth.

To Brooks, Mormonism “is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart.” She is heartbroken when in the midst of her own intellectual awakening at Brigham Young University, beloved professors and feminists are fired and excommunicated. It’s the 1990’s, when Mormon leaders decide that “feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians enemies.” She returns her diploma in protest, despite fearing she too will be excommunicated.

In grad school, she meets her future husband. She marries him, entering “a sweet space of talking, listening, and learning.” At first she’s miserable anywhere near a Mormon church, but when her daughters are born she begins to find her way back, to come to a grown-up understanding that “This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human failings. There is no unmixing of the two.”

During California’s Prop 8 fight she’s horrified anew by the large, well-funded mobilization of Mormons to fight gay marriage. But she continues to find ways to make herself heard, including writing and posting her essays online. When she’s overwhelmed by hateful responses, she prays. And realizes, “I knew what the voice of God felt like, and it did not feel like rocks against the side of my house. . . The voice of God I knew was gentle, kind, and deliberate. And that voice was not forbidding me to write or speak, so long as I did so honestly and without malice.”

The Book of Mormon Girl is very strong for the first 160 pages. I felt like the last 40 were less cohesive, and perhaps even a bit rushed; in just a few chapters Brooks covers early motherhood, losing her grandmother, Prop 8, her budding activism, and her family’s interfaith life. She alludes to reconciling with her parents but says very little about their feelings when she left and married outside the church. Her siblings are almost absent from the book, even though she mentions many times that large, close-knit families are one of the bedrocks of Mormonism.

But her stories and her writing are heartfelt and lovely and capital T true, and those qualities outshine any flaws in the memoir’s narrative structure. If anything, these very minor imperfections add a raw quality that enhances the authenticity and personality of the book. If you liked Mennonite In a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (which I wrote about here) you’ll probably enjoy this book. In fact, Brooks thanks Janzen in her acknowledgements; I wondered if they’ve met since they’re both Californians and scholars who write about faith and family.

If you’re just curious about Mormon beliefs, what a bishop does, etc., reading The Book of Mormon Girl is a nice way to learn. Or if you admire Terry Tempest Williams‘ flowing and spirited prose, which I could sense in Brooks’ writing as well, you’ll enjoy this book. Or, if you yourself have felt lost or wandering or seeking, you may find a kindred spirit here, or at least a safe space in which to rest. By the time I read the last page, I felt as if I’d love to talk with Brooks, which is a nice way to end.

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As I explained in my earlier post, it’s not back to school time in the bookconscious household, but we are learning all the time. In fact, witnessing and supporting my children’s autonomous educations has reawakened the life learner in me, and helped both Steve and I recall that magical feeling of discovery we all felt in childhood when we learned something we really wanted to know, something interesting, maybe even mind boggling.

My own mind has been boggled as I have studied the issues surrounding a book I’ve blogged about before, because after months of planning, we kicked off Concord Reads 2008 with a book talk Monday night at the library, where we discussed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am leading the brown bag book discussion of the same title at the library on Thursday, and I plan to play the devil’s advocate and challenge readers to discuss whether Kingsolver’s activist viewpoint causes her to oversimplify the “locavore” argument about food’s carbon footprint. And, whether the surging local food movement is really making a positive environmental impact. As a scientist (Kingsolver studied biology) shouldn’t she have made the scientific data on food miles clearer?

I have no doubt about her other arguments: that supporting local farmers and food producers builds community, helps consumers to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, improves food security, increases nutrition (less travel and storage time means less deterioration), is healthier for farm workers (big agriculture isn’t known for its good working conditions), and even tastes better — anyone who has had just picked tomatoes from a garden or farm stand knows that. I think being informed is always better than the alternative, and knowing more about how food is raised might protect consumers from food borne illness, exposure to pesticides, or even just loss of knowledge about food traditions and regional growing seasons.

After all, when modern systems break down, as in World Made By Hand, having friends with dairy cows and chickens or knowing when to plant beans and whether your local climate is more favorable for corn or wheat may be essential to our survival! But I think in her sincere concern for the environment, Kingsolver does readers a disservice by glossing over the complexity of weighing the environmental cost of food choices. As I reread parts of the book to prepare for the discussion, I found the tone less nurturing and more didactic than I remembered.

Sure, Kingsolver says it’s ok to make exceptions and choose a few foods you can’t live without. But it had better not be bananas, which she writes about quite firmly as a bad food choice, environmentally speaking. Readers get the impression it is somehow virtuous to give up bananas. But as local writer Hillary Nelson, a panelist at an upcoming Concord Reads event, points out, not all bananas are bad for the earth, and there are even more complex ethical concerns involved. Like nearly everything else in our complicated world, measuring the environmental impact of food isn’t simple and may not be a matter of clear choices, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle occasionally strays a little too much into a black and white tone on a technicolor issue.

It’s an intriguing problem, because although Kingsolver by no means started the local food movement, she has given it enormous publicity, and like any movement, some people are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the angles. The Greatest Story Ever Sold focuses on political journalism, but the behemoth media system that provides Americans with information manages to consume all kinds of stories, including environmental news, and spit them back out at us as dumbed down soundbites. Most of what I’ve read about local eating in the past few months has been that kind of simplified summary, cheering for a wholesome trend. But not all.

As bookconscious fans may remember, not long after I finished the book last summer, I read a New York Times op-ed challenging some of Kingsolver’s assertions about the environmental impact of local eating. Some recent scientific studies have confirmed what Frances Moore Lappe wrote almost 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: meat consumption has a far worse impact on the environment, health, and world hunger than any other food choice. Articles in Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Environmental Science and Technology and its accompanying website are delving into the issue of food miles. I’m heartened that the broader picture is available and that some retailers are actually responding to consumer demand and trying to make information available so buyers can make more informed choices.

Nelson, in her column on bananas, also brings up social and ethical questions, and some readers raised similar concerns last night at the book discussion. Is this a movement that leaves out the poor? Is the environmental impact of locavores traipsing around the countryside in their cars individually tracking down fresh produce worse than that of produce trucked to a central distribution point? Do we have an ethical responsibility to support developing world farmers who feed our year-round fruit cravings? Is fair trade food shipped from far away less harmful to the planet than greenhouse grown equivalents grown nearby or food harvested across the country by migrant farmworkers who aren’t paid a living wage?

Will the energy behind the local food movement make a difference as it is channeled towards lobbying industrial agriculture to take steps to be more environmentally and socially caring? Can we even do that, or is a profit based food system beyond caring? Do we really have accurate ways to figure out the carbon footprints of our choices? Should we even be wasting our time on all of these small things when no less a source than Al Gore tells us it’s way past time for individual action, we need massive, government level changes if we want to reverse the impact of greenhouse gas emissions?

Despite my quibbles, I still felt upon rereading it that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good read and an important book. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, and her writing is excellent. She has certainly caused more people to think about food and where it comes from. I appreciate the way she exposes government involvement in the industrialization of agriculture and food production and the subsidizing of high fructose corn syrup — which, despite the claims of an appallingly duplicitous advertising campaign coming to a tv near you is not only almost impossible to avoid (it’s in everything from yogurt to bread to cereal as well as the more obvious things like sweets and sodas) but also nutritionally bankrupt. And she encourages further inquiry, listing resources and suggesting ways to become more immersed in the issues and to make changes or take action.

However, all of this confusion makes me want to seek relief in another novel. The one I’ve started isn’t promising to be much comfort: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. I’m reading it for the Gibson’s book discussion group; I’ve passed on it up to now. It was certainly widely acclaimed, touted as a best book of 2006 by the New York Times, etc. But reading about self-absorbed not very successful thirty somethings in the context of 9/11 may not be what I’m up for at the moment, even though at least one of the characters has me very curious about what he’ll do next. I’m only a few chapters in though, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Besides, it’s bound to be better than campaign sound bites.

However, I’m also keeping two nonfiction books close at hand to peruse when both the fictional world and the real one overwhelm. Perhaps I was moved by the stories of strong women in history my daughter and I listened to in the car last week, because both are about women who are “firsts” in their field. Annie Griffiths Belt, (who it turns out is a friend of Barbara Kingsolver and also uses her photography to promote the work of Habitat for Humanity, where Steve worked for five years, providing this month’s moment of bookconscious interconnectedness) one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (or any other church in the Anglican Communion), have both written inspiring books.

A Camera, Two Kids, and A Camel is Belt’s photo memoir, describing her life and work and in particular her travel with her kids, who she brought along on assignment all over the world when they were growing up. Besides the gorgeous photos that, like National Geographic, illuminate cultures and places in ways mere words cannot, Belt’s story is interesting and entertaining. She showed her children the good in the world, and shares that with us in her book.

A Wing and a Prayer: Messages of Faith and Hope is the Presiding Bishop’s collection of homilies, released in part to introduce her to the world after her election. It’s not really about her, though you get some glimpses of her life (she is a pilot and was an oceanographer before she became a priest). Instead this collection is just what the subtitle says — encouragement and reassurance that love, understanding, justice, and faith do have a place in the world if we let them into our lives. Schori is coming to the Diocese of NH in a few weeks, and I hope to hear her in person.

These last two books remind me that come what may, people will generally work to be their best selves when given the chance. All of the books I’ve read lately touch on that idea of our basic humanity seeking the humanity in others, however messy that process may be. People go on caring about each other, seeking relationships, expressing themselves, trying to make the world better for their kids, and always, always, finding ways to tell their stories. For that, I am grateful.

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