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World War II on an Island…

Today’s book is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann  Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

I had heard about this book quite a few times, so after end-of-the-semester grading was finished I curled up with it and indulged.  The book is written in a unique format– through letters between the main character, a writer named Juliet, and her friends. It is set just after World War II, Juliet lives in London and is searching for a new book to write. She is a single, unmarried women in her thirties, without any family.

At first the book seems confusing, because you have to keep track of the letters, and puzzle out the relationships between the characters. There is Juliet’s editor, the editor’s sister (and her best friend) and then an interesting cast of characters arrives on the scene: That would be the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. This occurs by happenstance– a pig farmer named Dawsey buys a book of Juliet’s from a used bookseller, and he contacts her about the book. Dawsey happens to live on the Isle of Guernsey, which is an island in the English Channel, between France and England (it is closer to France than England) and after Juliet makes contact with Dawsey, a remarkable story flows forth.

Guernsey, as many may or may not have known, was the only English territory to be occupied during WWII. The islanders lived not only under German occupation, but also horrible deprivation and completely cut off from the rest of the world (as the Germans confiscated their radios, did not let them have access to newspapers, etc).  This deprivation included turning over the majority of the island livestock over to feed the German army (thus leaving the people to starve.) The literary society came about because of a lie that a group of islanders told the Germans because they were trying to cover up an “illegal pig” (a hog kept by an island woman who had been slaughtered and enjoyed by her neighbors.)  It turned into an actual literary society after the lie was told (so to not blow their cover) and it is this group of islanders who begin to get in touch with Juliet about their story.

What comes out is the story of strong friendships, humanity and joy that is laced with deep darkness, heartbreak and the scars of war. The islanders who Juliet comes to know and love, survived harrowing times, and depended upon each other to do so. Their circle revolves around an islander named Elizabeth, who loved greatly, and sacrificed much, ending up in a German concentration camp for defying authorities, and who left behind a daughter for her neighbors to raise.

Juliet finds herself, well, trying to find herself, and in the process becomes far more deeply enmeshed in the lives of the islanders than anyone could have imagined. The tone of the book is remarkable. Somehow the two authors managed to develop different voices for each of the characters in ways that were not contrived or precious.  The book alternates between a light, playful tone, and a more  somber understanding and it is this alternating between darkness and light that can sometimes send a punch to the gut to the reader before you realize it. In many ways, the characters show the versatility of humanity– even during the darkest of times, people hang on, and even find joy. The book also is really a meditation on friendship and community. So many of the characters lost their families during war in ways that were profoundly painful, but their friends, their community, their family of choice, is what kept them going despite it all.

I really enjoyed this book.  Beware, in the first few pages it seems all light and frothy, but it will have you gasping in horror as you get into it, and into the lives of the islanders who survived hell on earth. But the book shows that the human spirit somehow always find a way to keep going, a way to heal, and a way to love.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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Dystopian Thriller

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  Lots of things going on these last couple of months that I won’t get into, but I’m going to try to get back on the wagon, as it would be a shame to let this project fall by the wayside.  I decided to go with a short but profound thriller by P. D. James, The Children of Men.

As you’ll have gathered from the title of the post, the story is set in a dystopian society in the not-too-distant future.  The year is 2021.  For twenty-five years, human beings have been unable to procreate, plagued with infertility.  Thus, the youngest members of society are in their mid-twenties, and the population trends geriatric.  The consequences of this plague are numerous: many have lost the will to live, committing ritualistic mass suicide; the lack of fertility has led to a dwindling interest in sex, so that the State purveys p*rn left and right, trying to maintain the societal libido; in England, convicts are shipped to a penitentiary on the Isle of Man where chaos reigns, though crime on the mainland is at an all time low.  In this bleak situation, Theo Faron, our protagonist, is recruited to a conspiracy that advocates for change in the government.  The cousin of the Warden of England, Theo would seem particularly well placed to persuade him to make the desired changes.  After some convincing, he makes the effort, but to no avail.  Thus ends the first half of the novel.

In the second half, Theo once again becomes involved with the conspiracy, learning that, by some miracle (not literal – no virgin birth here), one of the members has become pregnant and needs his help.  The rest of the story describes the group’s efforts to find a place for the delivery of the child safely far away from the government – a task harder than it sounds, as the government is on to the group, which has been blowing up landings from which the mass “suicides” are launched.  Filled with twists and turns, the story rushes to an intriguing and unexpected climax that tantalizingly leaves unanswered many of the difficult questions the story raises.

This is the first James novel I’ve read, and it did not disappoint.  Her style is elegant and engaging, and it is filled with profound insights on the nature of faith and the human condition, without being an overtly religious story.  Take this description of humanity’s relationship to science:

“Western science has been our god.  In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anaesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures… Science was never a subject I was at home with… Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died.” (5)

Or the following dialogue regarding the existence of God toward the end of the story:

“I don’t think [God] bargains.”
“Oh yes He does.  I may not be religious but I know my Bible.  My mother saw to that.  He bargains all right.  But he’s supposed to be just.  If He wants belief He’d better provide some evidence.”
“That He exists?”
“That He cares.”

In a brief nine sentences, James eloquently sums up the strongest argument against the existence of God, and yet in a way that the challenge could be met.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this book is its eerie similarity to western culture today.  Though human beings are not incapable en masse of procreation, the tendency in most western countries is toward reproductive rates below replacement level, and one wonders what kind of future is in store for western civilization.  The Children of Men grapples with these and other questions in a compelling and insightful way.  Highly recommended.

Twenty-three down, (at least) twenty-nine to go.

Ta,
J

The Biography of a Cat

The Aprils have morphed into the Mays, but once the final push of the semester is over, I suspect that J and I will be back at reading the books. Right now it seems that we have both been swallowed by piles of papers and exams to grade. Anyway, with this in mind I deliberately picked up a light book to read the other day- something I saw a while back, and decided that it might be a fun book . So today’s book is Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter.)

The (true) story of Dewey Readmore Books starts when a small orange kitten is shoved into a library drop box on a frigid Iowa December day. He is found by the head librarian Vicki Myron, who nurses him back to health with the help of the library staff. Dewey then becomes the “library cat” for the town of Spencer, Iowa.

Okay, so you are probably thinking, “a library cat, really?” But this book is about much more than a library cat. Dewey’s story unfolds in little vignettes, and as that comes out, so do other themes. The town where this all takes place, Spencer, is a small  town center in a rural area, and Myron carefully plots out some of the problems that the town faced– the losses of the small family farms, the rise of big Agra, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and how life in a small farm-town is markedly different from that of big cities.  She also builds on the importance of the public library in the town, how it serves for a center of civic and public life, and how  libraries are instrumental for regular people. For instance- in many local libraries in small Midwestern towns, the libraries keep fancy cake-pans (yes, cake pans) for people to check out so that they can make a special cake for a birthday or celebration. Yup, Midwesterners do not mess around when it comes to food, and even the libraries embrace this fact.

Dewey, of course, is the star of this book, and much of the work centers on how he, as a cat, lives an extraordinary life. Those who live with animals and who understand animals, know that our cats and dogs humanize us, and that is, in one sense what Dewey did as the Spencer’s library cat. He gave joy to all who came to the library, including disabled children, homeless people, exhausted young mothers, and the elderly. He became a sort of mascot for the town, more popular than the local politicians, and he became Vicki’s cat.

Some of the more moving parts of the book center around how Dewey’s love and affection grounded Vicki— a single mom who escaped a bad marriage to an alcoholic, who managed to graduate from college as an adult despite numerous obstacles. As the book unfolds, you realize that it is about more than just a cat that came to live in a library– it is about ordinary Americans living ordinary lives (that are often filled with emotional and physical pain) but who manage to persevere– much like Dewey himself.

Interwoven into all of this are funny little stories about the cat himself, small-town politics, and how Dewey eventually became a media sensation (long before this book ever came out.) This is a sweet little book, one that could be shared with older children (not the whole thing, a few chapters are pretty dark) but is an easy read about how one little cat came to change the life of a little town in Iowa, and their head librarian. I enjoyed it– it was light and pleasurable and a good book to help get things rolling again.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The West

On a hot July evening, coming in from the west, heading east, I drove down into the southern flatlands of New Mexico. The sun was a scorching, melting ball  of fire on the horizon, I was exhausted (having driven 12 hours already) and the dog was snoring in the backseat while the cat would mew in occasional, but futile protest. We came up over a hill on 1-10 and in front of me was the little town of Las Cruces, NM. The late evening light bathed it in an unreal purplish haze, the city shadowed by the nearby mountains while the sun disappeared in a blaze of orange. I remember thinking to myself  “I have never seen light look like this” as I descended into the city and to my motel room for the night.

A month and a half earlier I had driven through from east to west, with my fifteen year old nephew. It was already dark and we were hot and tired  as we deposited the dog and cat in the hotel room and got dinner. The next morning, as I loaded the car I watched as the sun came up over the mountains. My nephew, noticing the scenery walked away from the car with the dog to get a better look. He  stood and stared in silence at the mountains and the sun, transfixed, for several minutes as it gleamed over the ragged peaks. Even the dog seemed to be staring up, following the emergence of the light over the mountains from her decidedly close position to the ground. “This is the most beautiful place” my nephew said. I remarked to him “Of course it is, this is the land of the gods according to the native peoples. Father Sky and Mother Earth.” He nodded and lifted the dog into the car.

Today’s book is Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather. This is one of the great American classics, that for some, unfathomable reason, I had never read. I am glad, though, that I waited this long to read it, for I think I understand it better as an adult than I would have if I had read it when I was younger.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is not really a novel, or a cycle of short stories, but rather it is a sketching– a sketching of a time, people, place and religion. The book focuses on the 19th century missions of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant– two French Catholic priests who are sent by Rome to deal with the untamed Southwest, which had been left in neglect by the Spanish Catholic authorities for centuries.  The actual material of the book is based in fact, and is evenhandedly presented. It is neither hagiography or condemnation of the Church, rather Cather manages to remarkably present a gorgeous story that is well situated in the facts of history.

The story explores and grows the friendship of the two men, their work, the people of the land (Mexicans, Indians and whites) and the land itself. There are many things that are striking about this book– the first being that Cather allows the  land to be its own character in the book– the land is pulsing with life and meaning, and those undertones richly enhance the stories within the book. Cather’s descriptions of the land are spare, but stunning, much like the actual land itself. Anyone who had travelled extensively through Arizona and New Mexico would realize that right away.

What is wonderful about the book is that somehow it manages to hit all of the cultural nuances it contains squarely and sympathetically. Her portrayal of Catholicism is evenhanded–there are good priests and bad priests, those who were greedy and difficult, and those who are humble and pious– it also captures the faith of the people without being condescending– the way they venerate their saints, the local customs and miracles, their own humble ways of living.  The people were the living church, as the institution had long ignored them and not served them fully because they lived out on the frontier. Cather also manages to capture the Native indifference and anger towards the Church, and roots it well into the history of cultural and spiritual colonization.  All the little nuances here are correct in a stunning way– for instance the matched champagne colored mules that were so highly prized by the wealthy Mexican that Father Vaillant manages to procure– in the Native culture of the Southwest, animals with such a coloring were rare and understood to have “good medicine,” meaning that the rider/owner would come to no harm as long as he cared for and respected the animal properly.

And Cather always comes back to the land- the land that stole the hearts of the two Fathers (out in the desert– oh the Biblical parallels are enormous– there is layer upon layer of meaning in this book.) The land that drives men to madness, the land that is so beautiful and savage, the land that gives and takes away. This is a stunning book, I loved it- it goes on the shelf of my favorite books of all time, because to me, a person of the desert, whose ancestors live in a canyon not unlike those described in the book, who has the land in my very blood, to me, the book spoke in a way that few books have.

When I was nine my parents took me to Canyon de Chelley, (which Cather talks about in the book) on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Our Dine (Navajo) guide took us through the canyon in an open-topped Jeep and at one point paused and pointed to the top of a Mesa and said “Kit Carson and the government tried to starve us out here in the canyon, and some people surrendered. But some of our people remained, because the canyon had been given to us by the Creator. This is our land, and we are the land. The Canyon is a spiritual place.”  At nine years old the canyon look like an extraordinary cathedral of red rock. “God is here.” I whispered to no one. The Dine guide turned and caught my eye, and nodded.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Angelic Doctor

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  As C noted, some of this is due to “the Aprils,” but it’s also just that there have been other things going on and on my mind that have distracted me from reading.  Nevertheless, we press on.  This is probably the longest I’ve kept up with a New Year’s Resolution, and I’m not going to let a little reader’s block stop me now.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, during Lent I thought I would take up one or two more spiritual reads.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to reread a classic by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.  It is a small book about a large man – and I mean large in every sense of the word: physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Since it’s writing, the book has received mixed reviews.  The great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson dubbed it the best introduction to St. Thomas’s life and thought.  Others, however, were not as impressed, labeling it in many ways amateurish (undoubtedly an adjective Chesterton himself would have used of it, again, in every sense of the word).  The book certainly is not a close engagement with the writings of Aquinas, but rather presents an icon, if you will, of the man and what he was fundamentally about.  The story goes that the way Chesterton wrote the book is by first reading everything he could get his hands on about Thomas, then asking his secretary into his office and dictating the entire thing.  As such, it is not a scholarly tome, but a portrait.

For all its faults, the book does give the reader a lively sense of Aquinas the man, the scholar, and the saint.  Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas with the other saint about whom he wrote a biography, St. Francis.  Despite the many superficial differences between the two, Chesterton argues that fundamentally they were at one, particularly in their emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  For both these great saints, matter mattered – creation is good and God-given, and as such it is to be affirmed.  For Chesterton, this devotion to the Incarnation explains much of Thomas’s thought: his adoption and baptism of Aristotle, his obsession with the error of the Manichees, his affirmation of a common sense acceptance of the existence of the world.  In a typically Chestertonian witticism, he writes, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be – that is the answer.'”

More moving than the man’s intellect, however, is his singular devotion to Christ and to following the call of God.  Thomas’s family had plans for him: he was to be the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, at the time a position of wealth and status.  Thomas, however, would have none of it.  Resolute in his conviction that he was called to the upstart mendicant Order of Preachers, he stood his ground against the protestations of his family, casting aside status for the beggarly life of the Dominicans.  Chesterton’s discussion of the famous vision Thomas had of Christ offering him anything he wanted puts the story into perspective.  Here was a man who would willingly trade an entire city for a copy of a homily by St. John Chrysostom, but when the Lord offered him whatever he wanted, he replied, “Only thyself.”  For all his brilliance and scholarly acumen, his devotion took precedence even over the greatest intellectual gifts.

It is perhaps true that The Dumb Ox is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas – this is often the case with books by the great British journalist.  Even if the book may not be the single best introduction to the great doctor’s thought, it nevertheless does convey the spirit and the fervor of this medieval man of mystery.

Twenty-two down, (at least) thirty to go

Ta,
J

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll

We are still here! It has been quiet the last two weeks at the blog, J and and I know– it’s a case of the Aprils. You see in academia, April really is the cruelest month. Why? Well, everything culminates in April. Lots of grading to do, all these events to go, meeting after meeting, graduation coming up, preparing for any travel/research for the summer. It gets chaotic. So we are still here and still reading, just the pace is a bit slow, and might be for a few weeks.

Anyway today’s book is Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I have been on a memoir kick lately, and when this book came in from the library (I placed it on hold months ago) I just had to read it. It is a big, rambling book, with a distinctive story-telling style. The kind of book that is best read leisurely, which is part of the reason why it took me so long since it tops out at 600+ pages. But yes, what a life it is.

Richards is infamous for his life– his battles with drug addiction, his battles with the Stones’s frontman Mick Jagger (who despite it all, he clearly loves as family– but the thing about family is that sometimes they can get you pretty angry even when you love them.) His famous womanizing. It is all in there, with a great amount of frankness (this is not stuff your kid should read– although to be fair, Richards does not glamorize his junkie phase at all. Rather he comes to terms with it with a refreshing pragmatism.) The book is at times entertaining, thought-provoking and quite funny. It is also surprisingly touching, as when Richards addresses the death of his young son, who he clearly continues to mourn, and his relationship with his mom, who he adored– and he is certainly progressive. In an era when segregation was still the norm in America, Richards embraced African-American culture wholeheartedly, as well as the people.  Richards also admits that he has always played to his bad-boy image because it has been what people expect of him. The book is extraordinarily rich and I can’t do it justice really in a few paragraphs.

But the heart of the book is music. Although it was model Patti Hansen who tamed Richards and who pulled him out of his womanizing, junkie lifestyle, I think it is music that his one true love. This book is really great if you are a music lover, Richards goes over how he came up with some of the most memorable Stones riffs– for example, “Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep. He spends a lot of time going over his love of American roots music, both white and black, and he talks about the way that music soothes the soul and opens the heart.

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people became a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and take to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think song-writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”

This is a great read if you are a music or Stones fan. The book focuses more heavily on the earlier portions of Richards’s life, and sometimes you cannot believe that he survived it all. Richards is certainly (in many ways) a lucky man.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Reader’s Block

So I recently ran into my first wall of the year in terms of this reading project.  I’m not exactly sure why – late last week I was plugging along at a good clip, and managing to read half of this book in an afternoon/evening.  Then, I crashed.  Part of it was the book, which I had a hard time getting into (not sure how I managed to plow through the first half so quickly).  Another part was a number of distractions, including, but not limited to, March Madness.  Perhaps now that my team flamed out in spectacular fashion, I can get back into the rhythm.

At any rate, my latest read was Northrop Frye’s classic The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  I had been wanting to read it for some time, and though it skirts dangerously close to my field of study (thus nearly breaking the rules of this little project), my co-blogger gave me a dispensation to read it.  I kind of wish she hadn’t.  It’s not that the book isn’t good or insightful – it is, after all, a classic.  It’s just that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get into it.

In the book Frye attempts to show how the Bible can be read as a unity, not on the basis of religious belief, but in terms of literature.  The Bible, he argues, is a myth – not in the pejorative sense of something that didn’t really happen (though he happens to believe that many of the stylized accounts are embellished to some degree), but in the sense of a continuous narrative with beginning and end.  Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the prominent images and metaphors of the Bible, and though I found it somewhat dry, Frye is a perceptive reader, showing how themes are constantly recapitulated and reframed throughout Scripture.  He also argues that the scriptural story follows a repetitive U-shaped pattern (I would perhaps describe it as a sine curve, hearkening back to my geeky days as an engineer) of alternating rises and falls.  This pattern appears both on the macro level (humanity loses the tree and water of life in the garden in Genesis and regains them in the Book of Revelation) and on the micro level (Israel’s story is a continuous cycle of these rises and falls).

There is much more to the argument than this, and I’m sure it would merit a closer reading, but as I said, for whatever reason, I had a hard time paying close attention to it.  Despite this dryness, Frye did manage to get into a quotation file I’m keeping of my favorite passages from the books I’m reading this year: “[O]ne should doubtless keep an open mind about them, though an open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like the foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake.”  Perhaps the book was worth reading just for that line.  Well, here’s hoping the next read goes a bit more quickly.

Twenty-one down, (at least) thirty-one to go.

Ta,
J

Food is where the heart is

My mother grew up in a large multi-generational Mexican-American household. The memories that she has shared with me often revolve around food– her grandmother rising early to make fresh tortillas every day, the chile being cooked on the stove– how they gave a bowl of beans to anyone who showed up hungry, despite the fact that they were not well-off themselves. Food is one of those defining cultural characteristics of people’s heritage. Often when language and even many customs are lost, people hold onto food. For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without the authentic biscochos and bread pudding I bake every year, the tamales that I sweat through the making of with my mom, and the big pot of posole that my cousin makes for Christmas morning breakfast. And so it is food that drives the memoir Bento Box in the Heartland by Linda Furiya.

Furiya is a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Bento Box focuses on her childhood in post-WW II Indiana. Yup, Indiana- where hers was the only Asian family in town, and where her father had settled when he came back to the US after the war.

This memoir is set up as a story of vignettes, usually revolving around one sort of food or a food theme. In those vignettes you find out about Furiya’s family, their history, and how food comes to be the main way that they try to told onto the culture in “whitebread America.” The book is brutally honest, and at times brutally painful. What is here is the voice of a little girl who never quite fit in– who was always aware of being Japanese-American, of being different (so afraid she would eat her Bento-box lunch in the bathroom rather than let the other students see the “weird” food that she ate.) As the book unfolds you discover her father’s hardship at having been a prisoner of war for years, and her mother’s hardship of giving up a career to marry a man she had never met in a country where she did not speak the language. Both grapple with the hard reality of being immigrant in America in a place where initially, they were seen with some hostility. And Furiya herself tries to make her way in a world with little extended family– most of them were in Japan, and she tried to move beyond her own narrow world and out into the greater world.

Furiya’s book focuses a lot of the act of eating, and getting ahold of traditional Japanese food (mainly when it entailed a 6 hour drive to Chicago) in a place where it was not easy to find the ingredients. There is a great chapter on a family vacation that they take just so her father can go fishing in Florida. Along the way, Furiya comes to grips with her Japanese past and her parent’s past, as well as the roles that they embody (fairly traditional.) There are moments when the book is heart-wrenching but it is also eye opening and powerful.

This is a really wonderful memoir about what it means to be a family and the immigrant experience in America. Highly recommended.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

You can go home again

If you were raised in a religious household, I think that you often spend much of your life living either in accord to what you were raised with, or in some tension with your tradition (whether you leave it altogether, join one that is similar but different, or decide to take an academic turn and spend your life studying it.)  Rhoda Janzen depicts this tension in her memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Janzen, an English professor, hit a nasty patch during midlife. She survived the aftereffects of a major surgery that was botched, only to have her husband leave her (for a man), get into a nasty wreck thanks to a  drunk driver that slams into her, and is then left with a mortgage she cannot pay.

So what does one do when such a thing happens? Well, you go home for a spell, and let the people that love you take care of you. Janzen’s family are rather well-educated Mennonites, her father is a theologian and major leader in the church, and her mother was a nurse. As Janzen goes back home and begins to re-explore her relationships with her family and her community, details about her life emerge in a non-linear manner, and she begins to heal.

A few things about the book. First of all, it is a non-linear read- she digresses a lot– some of it is a bit stream-of-consiousness. And  is not an all-about-Mennonites book. Her family happens to be Mennonites and Janzen has rejected her childhood faith, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about Mennonite life/theology/etc. Her humor has a biting edge to it- although sometimes it is really gut-wrenchingly funny. While she makes fun of her Mennonite family it is pretty clear that she absolutely loves them. Really, truly, loves them and finds a certain amount of security in the faith that she left that they continue to embody– even though it is no longer hers.

As the book unfolds Janzen is pretty honest- she made some bad decisions- her marriage, which lasted 15 years was a rocky one, and her husband had always been iffy about his sexuality, was cruel and often emotionally abusive, but was also charming, smart, funny, and oh, yes, bi-polar. As the book unfolds Janzen realizes that the mess of her marriage was just as much her fault as his, because she allowed herself to get swept into this. Along the way, her family and friends help her sort it all out.

Janzen’s mom almost steals the book. She is caring, hysterical and earthy. I had moments when reading the book when I was reminded of my mom, and Janzen lovingly outlines all of her mom’s quirks, often for maximum humor potential. She also waxes on Mennonite food– and her love for it. So it is clear that even though Janzen became an urbane, educated, agnostic college professor, there are some things from her Mennonite past that she will never shake. Such as her love for borscht.

The book reads quickly and in places is very funny. It is a bit uneven, because I think this memoir in the end was more conceptual and stylized then perhaps a general audience would like. All the same, I really enjoyed it. Janzen has a great voice– honest, funny, and down-home and very real.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

An angry Ocean

I picked up The Wave by Susan Casey the day after the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami hit.I had ordered the book almost two months ago to be put on hold (it was apparently very popular) and I got notice that day that it was in– oh the strange irony of it all.  Now, having grown up in Los Angeles, I know earthquakes pretty well. There is nothing more rude or scary as being sound asleep when a big quake hits (in my case the Northridge quake) and you are thrown out of bed by the shaking and therefore are barely awake as you try to crawl your way across the bedroom floor while the walls heave at you. I remember thinking “this might be it” and I crouched in a ball on the floor– the noise of a quake is terrific– you never knew your house could groan that way and still remain standing. A friend was spending the night and I remember her screaming as stuff came crashing off the walls, my parents yelling from down the hall, the neighbor’s dog howling, and the deep angry growl of the earth. I was silent, huddled on the floor with a stuffed animal over my head.  I know earthquakes well, so I really feel for those in Japan– I know the terror that is a quake– but the idea of a huge Tsunami is something else. It is beyond my imagination.

As it turns out, The Wave is not really about Tsunamis per say– it is about giant rogue waves- chiefly the kind that destroy ships in the middle of the ocean, and the kind that surfers ride while looking for the ultimate high. The author, Susan Casey, travelled the world, seeking out wave scientists, mariners, and surfers in order to learn more about giant waves, which as it turns out, are more common than we think they are.

Rogue waves have long been a part of shipping lore. With an astonishing regularity, large ships sink (at about a rate of 1-2 a week- and yeah you never hear about it unless it is a ferry carrying a lot of people or something of that ilk) and more often than not, they sink and leave behind no survivors. A few ships survive and report that monster rogue waves arose from the oceans (often in a storm or rough seas) and took them out. However, since it is hard to measure such waves, they are often never really recorded. Its sorta like a Bigfoot sighting. People say they see him but there are no pictures. Big waves are like that too. And we are talking BIG waves- 100 footers.

So Casey travels the world in search of the waves and the people who have experienced/studied them. But the heart of the book turns out to be her experiences with Big wave surfers, a small tribe of (mostly) men who defy the ocean to ride the monster waves. This tribe is led by the famous Laird Hamilton, Big Wave surfer extraordinaire. Casey documents the surfers who surf Mavericks, Todos Santos, Ghost Tree, Jaws, and the awesome, mythical, Egypt. (These are surfing spots in Hawaii and California if you don’t know your surfing breaks.)  Hamilton acts as her guide, and the tribe of big wave surfers open up their world to her with amazing hospitality, good humor, knowledge and grace. As it turns out, about 2/3s of the book focuses on this, and frankly I think Casey should have simply just focused on writing a book on Big Wave surfing and surfers– because essentially that is the meat of this book.

Casey documents the new fronts in wave science, but she shines in dealing with the surfers and the way they approach 50-100 foot waves. For them it is a spiritual experience, something that humbles you before God and the ocean, and Casey captures that nicely. The basic line in Casey’s book is that the ocean is an angry, unknowable place, and that while man thinks he can conquer it, he cannot. The ocean gives life, and it destroys life (as we saw in Japan last week) and we cannot control it. The book overall, was an interesting read– especially the parts about Big Wave surfing, but it was a bit uneven. Like I said before, the author should have simply focused on the surfers– because I think in the end she fell in love with them more than the Big waves.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C