April 2018

Sacred Ground

Ebooks Patel, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Boston: Beacon Press), 2012.

Patel Sacred Ground
Patel explores some of the changes that he has gone through along with the movement for increased pluralism education in the Post-9/11 era in the United States. The dramatic increase of anti-Muslim prejudice has been a scar upon our nation in this time. While we have a rich tradition of interfaith leaders, the current era of increased hateful rhetoric, suspicion and animosity toward American Muslims has created a situation in which new approaches are necessary. Instead of just working with his Interfaith Youth Corps and the projects that bring together youth, Patel has found it necessary to confront ignorance and lies with a fresh strategy of the art and science of Interfaith dialogue.

The book is an invitation to share in a better American and to share in the process of making our beloved country better for all of its people. The vision of a place where people of diverse traditions can live together in peace is a vision of our forebears and it is a vision that remains unfulfilled in our time. When we recognize hatred and bigotry as essentially anti-American forces, we can join together to work for a better future for all.

Here I Am

Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I am: A NNovel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2016.

Foer Here I Am
I ended up writing an extensive review of this book for my colleagues, but here is no need for an extended essay here. The book is a bit uncomfortable to read if only for the language and depth of description of sexual fantasies. Mind you these are only fantasies, there is no actual sexual activity in the story other than a bit of description of adolescent masturbation. That aside, the book gains its impact, I think because it represents third or fourth generation post Holocaust Jewish fiction. Issues of what it means to be a survivor, guilt over Israel from both those who live in Israel and those who do not, and a struggle to maintain Jewish identity in a rapidly changing world, all parallel first generation post Holocaust fiction.

The characters aren't completely likable, but they do represent important parts of the story of contemporary Judaism and the connections that run deep in family. I think that the book is best appreciated when it is seen in context with other Jewish fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed the book, but I think it is an important book and represents the passing of the torch, in a sense, to a new generation of Jewish fiction writers.

Theft by finding

David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 (New York: Little, Brown and Company), 2017.

sedaris theft by finding
I guess that it is a sign of success that David Sedaris can go through his old journals, pick out a few entries and edit them into a book that sells well. I bought a copy. I've appreciated Sedaris' sense of humor for some time now and, after reading the Santa Diaries, was attracted to anything that combined Sedaris and Diary. The book does give a fresh perspective on Sedaris. It shows an earlier, less successful, less famous, less confident person. Although his genius and his ability to survive show forth, so do his struggle with various addictions, lack of judgment and inexperience. The result is a slightly more raw and vulnerable picture of a man who already has established a raw and vulnerable presence. I think it is good that I knew that he had achieved a level of happiness, found meaningful relationships and established a career before I read these entries, in which success is far from certain.

Knowing what I know, however, I appreciated Sedaris' courage in pulling together these stories from his past and crafting them into a published and very readable book. It is the kind of thing that inspires me even though there are so few similarities between his life and mine. An open window on his life also gives me the desire to learn more about other complex people who come into my life. Our stories reveal that we are far from simple. And that makes us fascinating. Sedaris certainly is.

A Land Gone Lonesome

Dan O'Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage along the Yukon River (New York: Persius Books Group), 2006.

dan oneill a land gone lonesome
The trip by Dan O'Neill in his square-sterner canoe down the Yukon is only the setting for a much bigger story. With each stop along the way, O'Neill tells the story of the person who settled in that place, built the buildings he describes, or occupied the area. It is a story of a land that is slowly emptying of inhabitants due, in part, to a lack of understanding of the nature of wilderness and attempts to manage the wilderness as a place that humans only visit, rather than as a place to live. I'm sure that there are forest service managers who would take issue with some of his observations, but clearly the book is the product of a love of the land and a deep knowledge of the stories that have opened the land so that it is possible for people to visit.

O'Neill paints what is probably the last portrait of the people living along the upper Yukon as the beautiful and sometimes hostile wilderness becomes a place with fewer and fewer settlers and the cabins and dwellings crumble back into the earth.

Of special delight to a reader like myself who is not from Alaska is O'Neill's insider perspective. He knows the people. He appreciates what they have done to make a living in that place. He tells their stories with honest and genuine love. I suspect that this will be a book worth reading decades from now as people look back and try to remember what it was like.

When Momma Speaks

Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, When Momma Speaks: The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016

I am always interested in serious scholarly Biblical exegesis from a unique perspective. Stephanie Crowder delivers with a series of explorations of Biblical mothers. Hagar, Rizpah, Bathsheba, Mary, the Canaanite woman and Zebedee's wife all inform present families through Crowder's exegesis. I found the first two examples especially engaging, both in what I learned about the perspective of the Biblical mothers and of what I learned about mothers in contemporary African American homes. The book was a challenge for me, but well worth it.

It does seem, however, that Crowder lost a bit of steam on the project. It might just be my perception, but it seems to me as if the early chapters are a bit more engaging and more thoroughly presented than later chapters. Nonetheless it is an important work and especially important for people like me who have had a distinctly white and distinctly male education.

This book would be an especially good book for small group study in a church setting.

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Collins), 2016

This book was recommended to me by several of my progressive thinking friends in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. It was a common belief that educated liberals were out of touch with the pain of working class whites and that we needed to be educated in the specifics of their problems and circumstances. David Brooks called it "Essential reading." The Wall Street Journal proclaimed it " A riveting book." I was much less enamored.

It is not a comprehensive analysis of the situations of all working class whites in the United States. It makes far too many assumptions about the nature of working class people based on its distinctly regional bias. I am not questioning the reporting of a family that started out in Appalachia and migrated to Ohio. But this is not the story of Western farm families or families whose living came from mining or timber or other sources.

Its narrow point of view, frankly, makes the book whiny, s if the troubles felt by Vance's family were somehow unique and as if class decline was something that only people with his color of skin feel. There are simply too many voices in our society today that use the displacement of those at the bottom of the economic ladder by the greedy denizens of the top to make excuses for maltreatment of immigrants and outright racism. Justice is not achieved by reaching out and striking those who are different. The elegy simply doesn't acknowledge how much folks have in common, but rather wants to make the plight of one family somehow greater and more compelling than that of others.

As memoirs go, it is a compelling story. As social commentary, it is decidedly narrow. It is probably worth reading, but falls short of "must read" in my opinion.