Bee People is an enjoyable and enlightening book. When I read the promo paragraphs on the back cover, I was a bit skeptical that one professional book reviewer could honestly describe it as “among the best written books [he’s] ever reviewed.” But Frank Mortimer’s casual, conversational style make this a great read even for those who have no inclination toward bees or beekeeping.
My editing nerves were exercised at a few points, but I realized that a more formal, grammatically proper approach to this content would sap its vitality. The author’s day job is in publishing; he knows what he’s doing when he writes.
Frank’s characterization of beekeepers as people who love their bees is spot on. I count several among my friends and acquaintances, going back several decades. They are devoted to this vocation. Full disclosure: Frank Mortimer and I worked together for several years at a publishing company, one for which neither of us still works. Some of the beekeepers that I know also know Frank. I also count as a friend Frank’s ex-wife, whom he mentions several times, which introduces a dissonance into my appreciation for the book.
You don’t have to take a biased and conflicted reader’s endorsement as a recommendation to read this book. Visit Frank the Bee Man’s website to see all of the accolades that have come in from some pretty impressive sources.
Why might this excellent book be overlooked or set aside by those looking to add to their understanding of these issues? It’s published by IVP Academic, but don’t let the word academic scare you. While the book is well documented and includes eight pages of bibliography, you will find McCaulley’s arguments easy to read and digest.
Also, IVP Academic in an imprint of InterVarsity Press, a conservative evangelical publisher. But “conservative evangelical” can be understood to mean many things now, and in the case of this publisher it means that they publish books that will shine the light of scripture on important issues of the day, not to justify extreme positions but to encourage readers to be more circumspect and true to their faith as they approach those issues. For example, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, published by InterVarsity Press, opened my eyes to the facts of white supremacy several years ago.
As of this writing Esau McCauley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton Illinois. Wheaton College is also a conservative evangelical institution. A large percentage of American’s reading public might want to veer away from anything or anyone connected with conservative evangelicalism, but taking that tack would lead people away from this timely and important resource.
In this brief book (under 200 pages), McCauley asks six questions and provides abundant resources for further study and discussion.
Does the Bible have a word to say about the creation of a just society in which Black people can flourish free of oppression?
Does the Bible speak to the issue of policing — that constant source of fear in the Black community?
Does the Bible provide us with the warrant to protest injustice when we encounter it?
Does the Bible value our ethnic identity? Does God love our blackness?
What shall we do about the pain and rage that comes with being black in this country?
What about slavery? Did the God of the Bible sanction what happened to us? (pp. 166–67)
Regarding the last question, the author makes this observation:
[W]ere the white slaveholders disinterested readers of the biblical material who happened upon an interpretation that justified their physical, psychological, and financial superiority over Africans? Slaveholders were not disinterested exegetes. They put their lust for power and material wealth in front of the text [emphasis in the original] and read the Bible from that perspective (p. 172).
Esau McCaulley applies this standard throughout his book. Readers of the scriptures must read the text and accept what it says without putting self-interest in front of it and accepting only those interpretations that support that self-interest.
I have among my friends (at least as defined by social media) those who reject religion in general and Christianity in particular as being out of touch with the realities that they see in the world around them. Reading While Black may not persuade them to adopt a Christian worldview and approach to social-justice issues. Were they to read it, however, they may find that educated, informed, and thoughtful Christians hold to the same principles of justice and equity that they hold to. Not all conservative evangelicals think of the language of social justice as code for Marxist socialism. I would challenge such friends to read Reading While Black with their skepticism or antipathy toward Christianity in check. I think they will see that it is possible for us to call ourselves Christians while seeking the well-being and flourishing of all, not just those who look like us.
In March 2020 much of life in the United States ground to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic gathered momentum and government agencies at every level looked for ways to slow its spread. My home state, an early hotspot, closed many public spaces, including parks, nature preserves, and even cemeteries, to prevent people from gathering.
As time passed, infection rates dropped, and the weather warmed, health officials determined that outdoor public spaces could safely reopen. People who had felt trapped in their homes headed to parks and nature preserves in large numbers. Visitors to hiking and bike trails may have experienced traffic jams, as my wife and I did, in the parking areas and on the trails themselves.
Although the pandemic has been devastating in many respects, continues to wreak havoc around the world, and likely will do so for several years, it has had the effect of driving millions of people into natural spaces. Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle was written almost a decade before the first cases of COVID-19 infection were reported, but it tells us why it’s a good thing that this has been one of the incidental outcomes of the pandemic. Will that positive outcome last, and will people still visit natural outdoor spaces as restaurants, ballparks, movie theaters, and other entertainment venues reopen? Only time will tell, but we can hope so.
The Nature Principle is a wide-ranging tour through the benefits of human contact with the natural world. Taking walks in the woods, planting a garden, stargazing, and bird-watching can all yield these benefits even with modest commitments of time and energy. More than just encouraging citizens to engage in these practices, Louv obliges government agencies and private and public landowners to take steps to make more resources available for them.
Lila is a worthy read for so many reasons, including writing like this:
The day you were born there was just enough wind to stir the curtains a little, and there was just enough light to make it seem like evening all day long. And there was quiet enough to make it seem as though sound had passed out of the world altogether, leaving the wind behind to sweep up after it. (p. 250)
On 16 March, 2021, a young man armed with an assault rifle attacked three spas, or massage parlors, in metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia. He killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. A few days later I started reading World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s mother was born in the Philippines and her father was born in India.
Whether or not the shootings in Atlanta were a hate crime — the assailant claims to have had a different motive — the attack comes at a time when anti-Asian bias and attacks on Asians have increased in the United States. So World of Wonders is a particularly timely read. It’s part memoir, and part celebration of the extravagant diversity and beauty of the natural world. The memoir recounts incidents in Ms. Nezhukumatathil’s life where her and her parents’ being different from those around them was not celebrated but held out as an object of contempt. She relates habitats, physical features, and characteristics of the creatures that she describes to those incidents and other parts of her life.
In the third chapter, on peacocks, the author writes about being in a third-grade classroom in suburban Phoenix. The teacher had just announced an animal-drawing contest. Having just returned from her first visit to India, the author decided immediately to draw a peacock and wrote in her notebook that the peacock is the national bird of India. The teacher, walking up and down the rows of desks, notes this but allows the author to finish her drawing.
My teacher continues to stalk through the rows of our desks. Some of us misunderstood the assignment, she says. She reaches the front of the room, and cleared her throat. Some of us will have to start over and draw American animals. We live in Ah-mer-i-kah! Now she looks right at me. My neck flushes. Anyone who is finished can bring your drawing up to my desk and start your math worksheets. Aimee — The class turns to look at me. Looks like you need a do-over!
Why in a world filled with extravagantly beautiful natural diversity have we cultivated such fear and loathing of diversity in the human population?
World of Wonders is also a distant cousin to Douglas Adams’s Last Chance to See. Aimee Nezhukumatathil discusses, among other creatures, fireflies, cassowaries, salamanders, mimosas, and even the axolotl. The axolotl is extinct in the wild; many of the other creatures are threatened or endangered. Last Chance to See. recounts Douglas Adams’s world tour to see in their native habitats some of the most endangered species in the world.
Aimee Nezhukumatithil is a poet, and although World of Wonders is written in prose, the writing is lyrical and lean like good poetry. The book is also filled with beautiful illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura. It is published by Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it.” At 165 pages, World of Wonders is perfect for a rainy spring weekend. But then the reader needs to put the book down, mask up, and go out to appreciate the diversity and beauty in all of life around them.
Eden Mine won the 2021 fiction Book of the Year award from Christianity Today. It is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and imprint of Macmillan, and not an overtly Christian publisher. Kudos to both FSG and Christianity Today for recognizing the value of this book.
There are four major characters in the book: Jo is an artist who was paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting that also took her mother’s life. She is the first-person narrator for most of the story. Jo’s brother, Samuel, angry at the government for numerous perceived injustices, has built and detonated a bomb outside the local courthouse. Samuel’s bomb took one life, that of the daughter of Asa Truth, the pastor of a storefront church across the street from the courthouse. Asa and Jo establish an unlikely friendship. Jo’s other friend is the local Sheriff, Hawkins, who is torn between his loyalty to Jo and Samuel. The complexities of their relationships, their personalities, and their doubts and beliefs form the core of the story.
The title, Eden Mine refers to a mine in the vicinity of Jo and Samuel’s Montana home. It also refers to the way Jo sees that home:
It’s one of those lush May afternoons I simultaneously long for and forget once they’re gone, only to be surprised and relieved by their return the following year. The greenest days can be brief in the valley, but they’re intense while they exist: the few deciduous trees are heavy with foliage, the high sun intensifying the color of the leaves, and the meadow is a shocking sort of green, an exaggerated hue that looks like something from one of my brightest canvases. In a matter of weeks the meadow will fade to gold, then to a shade that can most charitably be called yellow ocher, and soon after that the burn bans will start, and then the wildfires. But for now, for this short time, the landscape is a kaleidoscope of greens, and I can understand the decision to call this place Eden. (p. 154)
Jo introduced me to the concept of painting with mud. In looking for ways to bring character and authenticity to her paintings of her surroundings, Jo mixes soil, some of which may be contaminated with mine debris, with water to create paints. In one scene she also mixes in ash from mementos of her family to add the completing touch to a painting of her home.
Aside from some of Ivan Doig’s novels, I have not read much fiction set in the American West. I hope to explore more of it, including S.M. Hulse’s first novel, Black River.
If you are a fan of speculative fiction, you should seriously consider listening to episode 18 of the Englewood Review of Books (ERB) podcast. It features Christina Bieber Lake and Matt Mikalatos. Speak is one of the 34 books mentioned in this podcast. Of the books on the list that I have read, it is the most unusual, and I doubt that I would have encountered Speak unless I had listened to this podcast. I am grateful to the ERB for all they do to make listeners and readers aware of great books!
Home by Marilynne Robinson Home is the second in Marilynne Robinson’s four-book Gilead series. The first was Gilead, for which Ms. Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize. In Home she turns her attention to the Boughton family, whose patriarch, Robert Boughton, is a retired Presbyterian minister and a friend of Rev. John Ames, the letter writer of Gilead.
Robert Boughton lives in the family home, but he is widowed and otherwise no longer able to fully care for himself. A housekeeper had been employed to prepare meals and manage the household, but Glory, the youngest Boughton daughter, returns to fill the need. Why thirty-eight-year-old Glory is able to move home is only partially explained. Suffice it to say that she is not glad to be in her position.
Shortly after Glory’s arrival, Robert receives a letter from his son Jack — John Ames Boughton — who is also coming home after an absence of twenty years. Jack has been the prodigal son of the family. Details of his biography are revealed in bits and snatches, with the biggest surprise revealed in the last few pages. If he had hoped that the people of Gilead had forgotten or forgiven his misdeeds, he learns that hope was misplaced. I hoped for Jack’s redemption, but his story did not follow the trajectory I had imagined. Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel in the series, Jack, has only recently been published, so I will have to read that story to see if my hope is fulfilled. Before I do that, though, I want to read Lila, the third Gilead installment.
I hoped for Jack’s redemption. I hoped for better things for Glory. I winced at the shortcomings of Robert Boughton. It is easy to invest in Marilynne Robinson’s characters. It’s also easy to admire her writing. She won a Pulitzer Prize, after all. Here are a couple of examples:
[Glory’s] family was slower to forgive a failure of discretion than they were to forgive most things actually prohibited in Scripture. (p. 247)
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. (p. 282)
I was taken by the minor role given to coffee in this story. I pictured the glass stove-top percolator that sat on my parents’ Chambers stove during my early childhood. Coffee is brewed, served, burnt, and left to get cold at all times of day and night. As Glory and Jack work out their relationship, making, serving, and drinking coffee enable them to serve one another and let themselves be served. Marilynne Robinson could probably have left that feature out of her already spare prose, but she gives coffee a sort of agency that we may overlook in the mundane details of our lives.
Marilynne Robinson’s themes of the value and importance of family, the pain and frustrations of family, the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, are timeless. She also touches on racial justice, which may be more timely now than when Home was first published in 2008. It is a worthwhile and rewarding story.
It may not be what you think. It’s not what I thought when I first read the title. It is not the liberalism of Ted Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, or Barry Sanders, which might more correctly be called progressivism or, pejoratively, socialism, that has failed. It is the liberalism of Barry Sanders and Rand Paul, of the pro-life and pro-choice movements, of Everytown for Gun Safety and the NRA. In introducing liberalism, Patrick Deneen tells us, “This political philosophy has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political system in which we have swum, unaware of its existence.” (pp. 4–5)
Rather than give you my own paraphrased definition in an attempt to avoid copyright violations, I would refer you, dear reader, to Britannica.com’s article on liberalism for a comprehensive discussion. Then, rather than attempt a review in my usual sophomoric fashion, I would refer you to the review that appeared in 2018 in Christianity Today (CT) that drew my attention to the book. Yes, CT is an evangelical Protestant publication, but it is not a print mouthpiece of the Christian Nationalist movement. Still, if you don’t want to read their review, which gave the book three and one-half stars, you may want to read the reviews in the New York Times and The Federalist. .
Published by Yale University Press, Why Liberalism Failed is a work written by an academic primarily for academics. It includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. I had to plow through it and keep a dictionary handy, which is not necessarily a bad practice. It taught me a lot, and both challenged and reinforced some of my thinking about the state of the world and my place and role in it. Periodically the effort of reading was also rewarded by references to writers such as Nicholas Carr and Wendell Berry. Citing and quoting Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays, Deneen writes, “Community is more than a collection of self-interested individuals brought together to seek personal advancement. Rather, it ‘lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.’” (pp. 78–79)
I read Why Liberalism Failed in the days leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden as President of the United States. Having watched the Trump administration work to remove the federal government from or keep the federal government out of the lives of Americans, arguably to our harm in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, we might be tempted to think that the federal government can now save us from the ills that beset us. Certainly the federal government needs to participate and in many cases take the lead in addressing the pandemic, the economy, the environment, and social justice, among other concerns. But one of the truths that Why Liberalism Failed reinforced for me is that I bear responsibility for much of the work that lies ahead. I need to continue to wear a mask and take other steps to keep from contracting and spreading COVID-19. I need to take better care of the environment for the well-being of future generations. I need to be aware of my privilege and guard against participating in the lingering manifestations of systemic racial injustice in my world. And now I need to stop virtue-signalling and encourage you to find a copy of this important book, find your dictionary, and spend some time with both of them.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
My wife, Jody, and I finished reading Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman recently. So much has been spoken and written about this book; it would be silly to attempt any kind of a review. I gave it five stars. Several things make this event notable, though, and I thought them worth sharing.
Jody and I read simultaneously. (I should say Jody read it and I listened to most of it as an Audible audiobook. More about that later.) We’ve often read the same book, the readings sometimes separated by only a few weeks, but this is the first time that we ever read the same book at the same time.
We read this book so that we could participate in WNYC’s “Get Lit” program, hosted by Alison Stewart. According to the WNYC’s website, “Get Lit” is “a monthly on-air, social media, and live stream book club.” WNYC partners with the New York Public Library to make a number of ebook copies available to New York residents. On 2 December we watched the live discussion between Alison Stewart and Louise Erdrich. That discussion is available for streaming on the “Get Lit” webpage. Ms. Stewart was, of course, prepared with excellent questions, and she also read questions that had been submitted by readers. Ms. Erdrich is a pleasure to listen to.
The Audible version of The Night Watchman, read by Louise Erdrich herself, was made available by Overdrive, a free source for ebooks and audiobooks that can be accessed using my public-library card. Having finally joined the mature twenty-first century (the part of the century with smart phones), I use the Overdrive app to listen while I walked at lunch time. This is the first time I’ve listed to an audio book, Audible or otherwise. While I still greatly prefer reading ink on paper, and I will also read ebooks, I was pleasantly surprised by the audiobook experience. Having a free source such as Overdrive is a great alternative when the local library consortium doesn’t have the print version of a book.
This year many of us who are white have spent a lot of time and energy trying to come to terms with racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. The Night Watchman reveals another chapter in the story of white supremacy. We whites of European descent have abused our power and privilege in an attempt to wipe Indigenous culture, if not Indigenous people themselves, from North America.
If you are looking for some serious reading or listening for the long winter nights ahead, find a copy of The Night Watchman to listen to or read.