Tag Archive: Cecilia


Scheming Kings and Queens Part 2

So last week’s other book was A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. This is book two of the seven book long  Song of Fire and Ice  series.

Since I am going to attempt to read the whole series, I have decided to not really go over many plot details in my blogging. I introduced the characters in my first post, and I feel like that is plenty. Anyway, it suffices to say, that the book follows the Seven Kingdom’s disintegration into civil war after the death of the King, the varied adventures, journeys and horrors of the Stark children, the menace at the Wall, and the quest of the Mother of Dragons to take back her throne. Along with all that there is lots of scheming, plenty of blood and war (warning: this book is bloodier than the first) and so much intrigue that you might need a flow-chart to follow it.

Martin’s books are immensely popular, and I think that is because they are so well-paced. Each chapter is told from the POV of an important character, so just as he leads you up to something exciting, he moves on to the next character or plot line so that can tantalize you further. At times I found this frustrating, but the end result of this technique is that I raced through the book, trying to see who lives, who died, and who conquered.

It is said that Martin based the book on the Wars of the Roses, and at the moment it seems like an everlasting struggle for power. I cannot seem to figure out who is the main of driving character in this story (although I have my hunches) and at times Martin sets you up and then it all ends in an elaborate trick. But the book was easy to read and I raced right through it so, I guess I will have to go on to book three. So far, the series is holding my interest, but check back with me when I get to book five or six.  We shall see, but there is a huge wait list for all the books at my city library, so it seems that I am not only person that has been sucked into this series…..

Ciao for now

Bookish C

All the Saints

Okay so I have been a slacker. I have been reading but not blogging, so I figured that I better catch up with the blogging….

So today’s book (really it was last week’s book) is My Life With the Saints by James Martin, S.J. This book was different from the other books that I have read so far. It was part lives of the saints, part spiritual autobiography and part spiritual advice, making it, well, an interesting read. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who entered the priesthood in an unlikely (or perhaps a likely?) moment in his life. He was a young executive for General Electric, who came home one day, burned out, and wondering if all there was in life was the grind of corporate work. He sat down and turned on the TV an caught the last part of an autobiography of the Trappist monk, and great American Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, and everything changed.

Seriously. Everything changed. Like Merton, Martin was an unlikely priest. And this book tells the story of Martin’s encounters with Catholicism (in an non-linear fashion) and interweaves it with the lives of the saints, both those who are official saints (like Thomas Aquinas), unofficial saints, or those who may eventually become official saints (Merton, Dorothy Day) and those on their way to becoming saints (The Blessed Mother Theresa).

There are many things that are lovely about this book. One is that you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it. Father Martin, although a cradle Catholic, was fairly ignorant of the intricacies of his faith. He grew up Catholic, but not deeply entrenched in Catholic culture  (that is to say, he did not go to parochial school, his parents were not active in a parish, etc) so even by the time he decides to become a Jesuit, he is still unsure of  many aspects of Catholicism. In this way, he guides the reader carefully. He presumes little, his voice is non-judgmental, but he is in all ways, gently orthodox.  In that way, he is refreshing writer– it is sort of like having your own personal guide to the saints and Catholicism, one who is funny and insightful.

Each chapter starts off with the story of how Father Martin first encountered each saint. Sometimes it is in surprising ways, such as through a movie, then he outlines the life of the saint, and finally what that saint has to teach humanity. All the saints are different  (obviously) and one of the most moving chapters is Martin’s encounter with Merton (who is, I must confess, one of my favorite saints, despite the fact that he is not an official saint.) But each chapter works through the lesson, the saint’s life, their humanity and Martin’s life.

Now this may sound dry, but it is not. I found it to be a remarkably fast read, and at times very charming and funny. The saints were human, (that is of course, why they are saints) but often people get hung up on this ideas that they are so much greater than regular people. Yet Martin’s emphasis on their humanity and how they interweave with his story of becoming a Jesuit is striking, because it reminds us that we all can become saints. Of course, one would in some sense,  have to want to become one, and becoming a saint is decidedly difficult, but it is always possible.

I really enjoyed Martin’s voice, his light touch and easy style. This is a lovely book that  is full of wisdom from the saints and a particular Jesuit.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Two cultures and a New World

One thing that has changed for me since I began this project is that I am more aware of what is being published. I often go through book reviews or recommended lists and see what looks interesting, and then put in a request with my local library  for the book. That is how I discovered Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks– it was recommended by Amazon, and given the subject matter I was intrigued, so once I had the book I sat down to read and could not stop until I finished. It took me two days to complete, only because I forced myself to pause in order to absorb the themes of the story.

Caleb’s Crossing is a fictionalized account of a young Wampanoag Indian who was given the Christian name Caleb, and became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Little is known of his actual history, but by using the historical circumstances of his time period, and rich research of Wampanoag and Puritan culture, Brooks manages to craft an enigmatic, yet powerful character in her narrative.

The story is actually told from the point of view of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a Puritan minister who settled on the island that would become  known as Martha’s Vineyard in order to preach the gospel to the “savages” that inhabited it. Bethia is an entirely fictional character (as the author relates in her afterword), yet her circumstances were modeled on fact– Martha’s Vineyard was indeed  settled by missionaries intent on converting the local native peoples. Bethia is an unusual girl for her time in place (in this regard, she strikes me as a more modern construct, although the Puritans had plenty of “meddlesome women” in their midst– Anne Hutchinson, I am talking about you my friend.) Her father indulged her and she learned to read and write, and also obtained some knowledge of the classical languages, and also learned the local native tongues.  She runs a bit wild on the island and befriends a local Wampanoag boy, who she christians “Caleb.”   As children often do, they share their worlds with each other– she teaches him english and basic Calvinist theology and he teaches her the mysteries of the island– its animals, plants and natural rhythms. In some sense, they both undertake a “crossing” that will forever change their lives: Bethia never views her world through a purely Puritan lens again, and Caleb is forever changed by his encounters with the minister’s daughter.

The story  is told in a non-linear fashion through Bethia’s spiritual diary– a common practice in Puritan New England, and in the early years, she worries about God’s judgement on her for dabbling with “evil” (that is, native cultures and understandings.) Huge woes befall her family, indeed much of the book is a catalog of intense sadness, but again, this is true to the era– people died easily and often in early New England, and Brooks does a great job capturing how grief shaped the early settlers’ worldview.

Caleb eventually leaves his people and comes to be tutored by Bethia’s father to prepare for entrance to Harvard. His education continues in Cambridge at a preparatory school, and Bethia follows him as an indentured servant to pay for her brother’s (who is not too bright) preparation. The characters then progress onwards to Harvard, and their fates.

I will tell no more of the plot, but instead will address some of the themes of the book. The most obvious is “crossing” or cultural exchange. The Wampanoag, or “People of the First Light” lost much in this exchange, yet this story is not just a story of that grief, but it also shows that some Native people chose to engage European culture, in the hopes of understanding it or protecting their people. This is an age-old theme in Native studies– scholars know that Native peoples had autonomy and often used it in order to try to deal with the onslaught of a different peoples and cultures. Yet it would be imprudent to not think that European culture had been unchanged by its interactions with Native peoples, and Bethia’s character  shows this particular impact. Both she and Caleb were outsiders in their own societies (Caleb as an educated Native, Bethia as an educated woman who wished for more than to “be silent”) and for that reason they understood each other as almost no one else could.

Other themes also color the book: religion being one, and the power of an education being the other. But an education is often more than just books, as Bethia wisely notes in her narration. Caleb faces the prejudice of the other young men at Harvard because he is a “savage” and has to completely “cross-over” into a culture that is not his own, and that never will be his own, no matter how well he fits in. Bethia is defined by her longing for an education, a longing for knowledge, and a longing for her own rightful place in a world that is defined by men.

The book is beautifully written– evocative and Brooks’s language is striking and lyrical. You can smell the salty air of Martha’s Vineyard just as well as the putrid, close stench of Cambridge. Her characters are carefully crafted and they grow as the book unfolds. Some might say that the story does not focus on Caleb as much as Bethia, and some may ask why the story  of Caleb needs to be recounted through Bethia. I think that Brooks did this to reflect a particularity of the early American era: Native peoples were always seen through the prism of European culture; never through Native cultures themselves because Europeans had no capacity for understanding Native cultures through a wholly Native worldview.  So in many ways, Bethia  stands in as a more sympathetic early American narrator, but one heavily influenced by European, Calvinistic, culture.

In the American imagination, Harvard has a sort of mythological status as a great center of learning and innovation, even now.  The history that emanates from there is palpable: I remember standing in the Emerson chapel of the Divinity school as a master’s student, imagining Emerson giving his great “Divinity School Address” where he chastised the young ministers who sat before him. Staring out the window, I tried to imagined the fields and the verdant, transcendental vision that he outlined in the beginning of the sermon, but it is hard to do when the chapel now overlooks a nuclear cyclotron and is so near the hum of the science buildings (that will break the spell for you.) All the same, it is still the same chapel that Emerson preached in, tiny, wood-paneled and dark, and you can feel the history there. The book transported me to Harvard and Cambridge’s early days, and in some ways, it felt oddly familiar in only the way a place can when you imagine it centuries before you stepped foot there.

Brooks’s book is a wonderful glimpse into the cultural battles that faced the early settlers and into the world of the “crossings” that those who stand with a foot in two different cultures face. It is beautifully written and evocative, and will leave you thinking about its characters for a long time afterwards. I highly recommend it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Scheming Kings and Evil Queens

Do you like tightly written books, with a labyrinth of a plot and the size of a doorstop? If so A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin might just be for you.

It is doubtless that you have heard of the book– it has been out for a long time now, and recently was made into a HBO series. I could see why, with all the scheming, conniving, and twisty plots it would work well as a tv drama (not: I have not seen the series. I would be interested but as my cable tv requires $16 a month for a HBO subscription, I just don’t care that much.)

There is too much to describe in terms of plot– you have a fictional fantasy world, where the summers last years and the winters can last decades.  It is seemingly like feudal england, with many petty lords and kings brawling it out, and where deception reigns supreme. There is a great Wall to the north that holds back an invisible menace with only a rag-tag guard called the Black Watch to protect the people. Okay so the principle characters: The House of Stark– Robert Stark, his wife  Catelyn, and their children (who are central to the main plot) Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon, Rickon and the bastard Jon Snow. The king that holds the fractious kingdom together is Robert Barathon, who is married to the scheming and quite possibly downright evil, Queen Cersei, who is from House Lannister. Cersei, as it turns out, along with her brothers, and the whole lot of Lannisters, is rather power hungry. Meanwhile you have the descendants of the deposed old ruling line Targaryen, with Viserys ( the brother) and Daenerys (the sister) left– they live a life of constant exile, on the run.

Okay, so the book starts with the King, asking his best friend Stark to serve as his Hand (think like an appointed Prime Minister, but not– perhaps Cromwell to Henry the VIIIth would be a more apt comparison). Stark fears that it is a trap but he leaves his homeland in the north with his daughters in tow right after tragedy befalls his son Brandon– a tragedy that is suspect at best. Meanwhile he sends his bastard son up to the Wall to serve on the Watch (Black Watch men live out their lives celibate and without families once they “take the black”). Once  he gets to the city all hell breaks loose, and the characters all have to fend for themselves in their own ways. In the meanwhile, Viserys sells his sister to a horseman warlord (think like a fantasy Ghengis Khan) in order to gain the troops needed to regain his crown, but the one who ends up really taking up their birthright is Daenerys, who despite many horrors, comes into her own.

Okay, so that’s it on plot. What I liked about the book: the female characters are as well developed and varied as the men. Some are scheming, some are brave, some are pragmatic, and some are just dumb. This goes for the men too. Most of the characters are multi-faceted and conflicted, there are only a few black/white ones. The plot is quickly paced, it is thick with intrigue and it keeps this enormous book humming right along.

There is violence– quite  a bit of it, but hardly unexpected in a book set in a sort of parallel medieval universe. Some people say that this is one of the Great Fantasy Epics of All Time. Ehhh not so sure of that, but it is well done and much better than a lot of the bad fantasy out there  (there’s a lot), but I would still say the Lord of the Rings, Dune and the Earthsea cycle are the greatest fantasy epics. (I am the biggest Ursula Le Guin fangirl, I know.)

But the book is seriously entertaining. I read this right after I had finished the semester, was done with grading and wanted nothing more than to melt into a puddle on my couch with the dog at my feet, eating strawberries by the pint and reading. This book was good for that, and I am planning to read the next ones in the series (just waiting for them from the library.) So if you need something to keep you entertained and that is well-written, then this is your fantasy novel.  Enjoy.

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

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

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