Book Read: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

Over the last few years, and especially over the last few months, people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have been coming to terms with issues of racism, racial justice, and white privilege and supremacy. We’ve read books and periodical articles, listened to sermons, podcasts, and radio programs, and watched videos. Personal stories abound in these resources, from Emmett Till’s to George Floyd’s. Those stories help us understand that racism and related behaviors and issues are not abstractions. They affect real people.

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals to school her readers on racism in the United States. These three are among the six million Blacks who left their lives and homes in the South behind between 1916 and 1970 and moved north and west in a sociological phenomenon that became known as the Great Migration.

I don’t remember learning about the Great Migration when I learned U.S. history in the 1960s and 1970s. It is alluded to briefly, although not called the Great Migration, in John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, which I read several years ago. Wilkerson does not refer to the great Mississippi Basin flood of 1927, but it is easy to see how it might have fit into her narrative: During the flood, Blacks in Mississippi were conscripted and ordered at gunpoint to work on reinforcing the levees along the lower Mississippi.

Wilkerson does not spare details when describing the mistreatment, abuse, and violence that Blacks have endured. She is also clear that the mistreatment and violence did not end when the migrants crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. White residents of communities where Blacks wanted to live would not permit that to take place. Landlords, employers, real-estate brokers, home sellers, banks, healthcare systems, school systems, and countless other individuals and institutions erected and maintained barriers to Black progress and well-being.

Those barriers might be less visible now, but they still exist. The Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and subsequent efforts to treat Blacks as equal partners in the American experiment might have been the beginning of the end, but the end is still not in sight in many respects.

I write this as a white male who has enjoyed the benefits of white privilege my entire life. I make no claim of being woke or anti-racist. I still bear prejudices and attitudes that I might not rid myself of in my lifetime. Nonetheless, The Warmth of Other Suns has opened my eyes a little more to the injustices Blacks have endured in America for over four centuries. If you are looking to understand how Black lives have not mattered, or how they do matter and always have mattered, The Warmth of Other Suns is a great resource for gaining that understanding.

Thanks for stopping by. Be well!

Pat

Book Read: Inconspicuous Consumption

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don't Know You HaveInconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have by Tatiana Schlossberg

Readers might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance as they move through this book. The message of the book could easily be “If you aren’t experiencing waves of panic, you aren’t paying attention.” But the text reads like the transcript of a comedy routine in many places. Here are a few examples:

As we covered in our section on monocultures that everyone will force their children to memorize because of the beauty of the prose and the fundamental wisdom of the insights, crops that are planted as monocultures are more susceptible to extreme weather events and pests.
(Page 91, in a chapter on food waste)

And what do we do with that excess of stuff that we now have? Do we treasure it and thank our lucky stars that we can buy an imitation Gucci bomber jacket for $10 and kiss the ground and love our parents and their parents for putting us on this verdant, splendid earth? Yep.
(Page 152, in a section on fast fashion)

There are so many things to give the British credit for: scones with cream and jam, Shakespeare, the idea that no one is above the law, ruthless colonialism, warm beer, I could go on.
(Page 186, in a section on using wood as a fuel)

In twenty-four chapters, Schlossberg covers much of our daily lives and activities, from entertainment to shopping to food to fashion to transportation to heating and air conditioning. In short, if we put on clothes, eat breakfast, go to work (even if we’re working from home), eat dinner, or watch a movie before heading off to bed, we’re doing something that in some way is damaging the environment. What’s worse, those of us who are fortunate enough to be considered middle class are damaging the environment in ways that will have a greater effect on those in lower socioeconomic strata.

At the moment it’s a bit harder than usual to focus on the environmental impact of my choices. I read the last chapters of Inconspicuous Consumption one evening. The next morning I was in line outside the local supermarket at 5:55 a.m., waiting to try my luck at finding ten days’ worth of groceries on shelves that had been stripped bare by panic shopping. It was five weeks into the state of emergency declared by the governor of New Jersey to curtail the spread of COVID-19. I’ve ordered things online, from e-tailers that I’ve never done business with before, that I can ordinarily find in the local supermarket. We haven’t had to put gas in our cars for weeks, which is a blessing, but we’ve used more soap and hot water, bleach and paper towels, in those five weeks than we have in the past five months.

On the other hand, It would be easy to pat myself on the back for long practices of composting kitchen scraps, recycling, drinking filtered tap water instead of water from plastic bottles, using reusable grocery bags, and wearing clothes until they are frayed and threadbare (much to my beloved wife’s chagrin). But I leave our WIFI router, cable TV box, digital clock-radios, and other devices that are constantly drawing power plugged in all day, every day. I can do more. I should do more.

I seldom say things like this, but every conscientious American should borrow this book from their local library and read it. It will open eyes and change attitudes. It won’t prescribe behavior or remedies to every concern that Tatiana Schlossberg raises. She admits in several places that there are no easy or obvious solutions, and it is impossible to say that things like e-commerce, fish farming, and large-scale agriculture are completely bad for the planet. But she connects enough dots to allow the reader to draw some pretty firm conclusions in many areas and take appropriate remedial action. She does so in a way that is approachable, not filled with dry statistics, nonjudgmental, and engaging in many places.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: Borne

Borne (Borne, #1)Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is not the ideal time to be reading a postapocalyptic novel, especially one with passages as brutal and horror-filled as Borne has. I’ve read a few other postapocalyptic novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The Children of Men, and The Road. They all have violent passages, but much of the violence takes place off the page. Or maybe the images of the violence have faded in my memory. In any case, Borne has been a challenging read.

Interested readers can find plenty of synopses and reviews of the story, so I won’t attempt to provide one here. There is a clear environmental message—the apocalypse comes about through climate change—but Jeff VanderMeer also takes on corporate attempts at world domination and government collusion in those attempts. To balance those messages, VanderMeer weaves narratives of friendship; childlike playfulness and eagerness to learn; trust, mistrust, and distrust; courage, resilience, hope, and loyalty.

How do those narratives fit into such an outwardly dark novel? Surprisingly, they fit well. If the reader can tolerate sometimes graphic violence set in a bleak landscape, Borne will reward persistence.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: An Ongoing Imagination

An On-Going Imagination: A Conversation about Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of RelationshipAn On-Going Imagination: A Conversation about Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of Relationship by Walter Brueggemann

My first real exposure to the work of Walter Brueggemann came in 2017, through reading one of his earliest and best known books, The Prophetic Imagination. I had also listened to his conversation with Krista Tippett, host of On Being, which I heard in December 2018. The title of the On Being episode was also “The Prophetic Imagination.”

An On-Going Imagination is a memoir or autobiography composed by interview. It consists of edited versions of conversations that Brueggemann had with his coauthor, Clover Reuter Beal, over several years beginning in 2011. Clover Reuter Beal is the Colead Pastor of Mountview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. She and her spouse, Timothy Beal, who edited the book, are former students of Brueggemann’s.

The book retains its conversational origins in its tone. It includes conversations about some complex theological subjects, and if time were to permit I would want to read further on those subjects in Brueggemann’s books and essays. That is the genius of the work. Walter Brueggemann is a brilliant man with a lot of intriguing things to say about scripture, theology, the state of the ancient world, and the state of the modern world. Further reading of his work on any of those subjects would be time well spent. It’s interesting, though, that the list of works cited and suggestions for further reading includes only sixteen titles. Then again, Walter Brueggemann has published over one hundred books.

In the chapter entitled “Divine Irascibility: An Astonishing and Scandalous God,” Brueggemann admits that some of what he sees as he examines the scriptures “confront[s] orthodox Christian theology in disturbing and fascinating ways.” I find some of his positions challenging. In challenging orthodoxies, though, Brueggemann’s goal is not to tear them down but to stretch them in ways that adherants ultimately will find beneficial.

John Knox Press sent me this book by way of a giveaway hosted by Englewood Review of Books. They asked for feedback, so this is an attempt at providing that for them.

Thanks for stopping by. Be well!

Pat

Book Read: Down to Earth

Down to Earth: Christian Hope and Climate ChangeDown to Earth: Christian Hope and Climate Change by Richard A. Floyd

Wipf and Stock, located in Eugene, Oregon, publishes under several imprints, including Cascade Books, which is the imprint that Down to Earth bears. I’ve also read one of their novels, Death Comes to the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor, published under the Slant imprint. Wipf and Stock periodically makes free epub downloads available to readers who subscribe to their newsletter and who are willing to create an account with them. Down to Earth was one of their recent free download offerings.

At 142 pages, Down to Earth packs many thought-provoking arguments into a short work. It is well researched and documented, including 325 endnotes and a nine-page bibliography. As the subtitle suggests, Richard Floyd approaches climate change and other elements of ecological diminishment from a Christian perspective, specifically a Reformed Protestant perspective. He discusses the work of theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Sally McFague as they consider ecology and theology. The specific branch of theology where Floyd engages both theologians is eschatology: what will become of the creation and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, at the end of time.

Related questions come up from time to time in my reading and in my contemplation of the things I read. Were there predators and parasites before the fall? Will the restored creation include predation and parasitism. Isaiah 11 looks forward to what we refer to as the peaceable or or peaceful kingdom. The wolf will live alongside the lamb, but if the wolf no longer preys on lambs, does it lose its essential wolf-ness? Richard Floyd thinks that wolves might still prey on lambs in the restored creation.

In discussing Moltmann’s and McFague’s eschatologies, Richard Floyd finds much to commend and much to disagree with. I’m not qualified to take up his arguments, defend them, or prosecute them. I have been challenged in my thinking, however, about what happens to the creatures with whom we share this planet when Christ returns to restore all things. He is clear in his assertion that God cares deeply about what happens to them. God’s intentions toward them may not be the same as God’s intention toward the creatures who are capable of fellowship with God, but God’s intention is for their welfare nonetheless.

How are we to respond to that knowledge? In humility, in “taking our stand with the dirt,” which is the title of the fourth chapter. Here is how Richard Floyd closes that chapter:

When we take our stand on the bit of dirt beneath our feet, when we commit ourselves to solidarity with the dust and, by that, solidarity with the entire interconnected web of existence, when we embrace humility, it is this cosmic process and no other—this beautiful and broken, graced and grieving creation that God so loves—to which we finally consent (p. 101).

How does that work itself out in our daily interaction with the creation? Floyd cites efforts by the PC(USA), in which he is an ordained minister, to separate itself from the fossil fuel industry. Of greater interest to me is the work that churches and religious organizations in the southeastern United States are doing in sustainable and regenerative food production. Readers won’t find checklists of steps that they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Concerned readers can find plenty of sources for such lists. What readers will find are pleas to see and contemplate our connection to the creation and to act in concert with it rather than exploiting it. Here’s how he closes the final chapter:

But we may have a foretaste of glory divine, we may experience the beauty of the new creation here and now, by contemplating the world as a good in itself, rather than simply as a good for us. True, we cannot do this perfectly; we still need to eat, we still need to use creation. But we may contemplate it in this way haltingly, and we may practice to deepen our capacity for such contemplation. We may go out to meet the beautiful other; we may become beautiful ourselves in so going out; we may be suffused with the divine beauty that both lures forth ever-new, fecund possibilities and gathers up all that has become. Hope for the new creation is hope for the creation itself, in all its fragile beauty. It is hope for the dirt, the dirt in which we stand, the dirt of which we are made. In such hope we may not only taste the new creation; we may also learn to cherish and preserve the creation we already have. We may even discover that they are one and the same (p. 133).

Down to Earth: Christian Hope and Climate Change has made an important contribution to my understanding and thinking about creation care and the restoration of creation at the return of Christ.

Thank you for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: Tenth of December

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December by George Saunders
Karen Swallow Prior includes three short stories in the list of titles she discusses in On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. The first two are “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor. Characters in those stories are held up as examples of humility. The third short story is “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It is included in a collection of his short stories that also bears the title Tenth of December.

The main character in “Tenth of December,” a pudgy schoolboy named Robin, is held up as an example of kindness. Robin exhibits kindness on a day when the air temperature barely reaches ten degrees Fahrenheit. Driven by a heroic fantasy, he sets off on an adventure in the woods adjacent to his home. He finds a coat on a bench near a pond, the coat belonging to a terminally ill man who has come to commit suicide by hypothermia. Robin sees the man, grabs the coat, and sets out across the frozen pond to reunite the two. It’s a great story; I encourage you to read it yourself to see how it plays out.

The other nine stories in Tenth of December are also worth reading. In my limited experience, especially with short stories, I find several to bear similarities to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The characters are realistic but with some exaggerated flaws. There are elements of science fiction in several stories. One story “Escape from Spiderhead,” reminds me of Ted Chiang’s story, “Understand,” which is included in Stories of Your Life and Others. In “Understand,” a victim of a near drowning in an ice-covered lake is given an experimental drug that expands his cognitive abilities immeasurably beyond the range of human intelligence. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a convicted and imprisoned criminal is given experimental drugs through a remotely controlled IV pump. These drugs can do such things as “lower [one’s] shame level to nil” or “pep up [one’s] language centers” (p. 48) with astonishing and even tragic outcomes. “My Chivalric Fiasco” also features a drug that wreaks havoc on the main character’s life.

George Saunders is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow. I am not qualified to analyze or critique his writing. I can get on my hobbyhorse for a few seconds, though, and wonder why he needed to use language that is still censored in broadcast media throughout most of the stories in this collection. Now for the dismount: I enjoyed all of these stories. They are thought provoking, challenging, and sometimes funny. I commend them to your attention.

Thank you for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeEthan Frome by Edith Wharton

Reading Ethan Frome is my first exposure to Edith Wharton’s writing. That admission makes me wish, once again, that I had paid more attention in high school English classes and taken a more English literature classes in college. The edition that I borrowed from the local library features an introduction by Bernard DeVoto. I suspected I was in trouble when he used the word “dithyrambs.”

Edith Wharton’s text is finely crafted. The writing is formal, proper, precise, and a bit spare. Owing perhaps to that spareness, Ethan Frome is a novella; the edition that I borrowed is 181 pages long, not including the introduction. It begins with an unnumbered chapter that serves as a prolog and is set in the recent past from a first-person narrator’s perspective. The main narrative concerns a few days twenty years earlier in the life of Ethan Frome, his wife Zenobia (Zeena), and Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver, who lives with them and serves as Zeena’s housekeeper and cook. A final chapter serves as the epilog, set once again in the more recent past.

Zeena is presented first as a sickly woman, although it is suggested that she has worn herself into this condition by helping Ethan care for his ailing mother. Zeena is no longer capable of fully meeting Ethan’s needs. Ethan enjoys Mattie’s company much more, and he learns near the end of the main narrative that she has feelings for him as well. A crisis arises that threatens to separate them forever. Ethan and Mattie discuss several options for escaping the crisis and remaining together, finally settling on a drastic course of action that—minor spoiler alert—ends in a way that they do not anticipate.

Mr. DeVoto tries to convince the reader that Edith Wharton did not care about her characters and how they got on (or didn’t), that the perfectly constructed story was her sole aim. I’m not convinced, but I will let his assertion stand without further comment. Ethan Frome does remind me of other characters from American fiction. His desire to have Mattie for himself, despite her being pursued by at least one eligible bachelor, reminds me a little of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ethan’s tendency toward unfaithfulness also reminds me of Clyde Griffiths from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, who sets aside and ultimately causes the death of his pregnant shop-girl girlfriend Roberta Alden in his pursuit of socialite Sondra Finchley.

Ethan Frome is one of twelve works of fiction that Karen Swallow Prior discusses in her outstanding book from 2018, On Reading Well. Each work of fiction is analyzed as a story about a virtue. Swallow Prior treats Ethan as an antitype for chastity. I’ve read half of the twelve works that Swallow Prior discusses; the rest are on my to-be-read list and I’m thinking of making the reading of them one of my goals for 2020.

If you’re a competent reader, and you’ve never read Ethan Frome, it could take you as little as a couple of hours to finish. That would be a couple of hours well spent.

Thank you for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: The Dirty Life

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and LoveThe Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty Life is filled with enough quotable lines to fill several reviews or blog posts. That suggests that if you are at all interested in how the food that we eat can be grown, you will find a few hours invested in this book well spent. As someone who has spent many hours pulling weeds on a local urban farm, I found a lot in this book that I understand and appreciate. There is also much about this book and the life that Kristin and Mark have built on Essex Farm that is truly humbling. I’m looking forward to reading Kristin Kimball’s second book, Good Husbandry.

 

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: NO TIME TO SPARE

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Between 2010 and 2017 Ursula Le Guin wrote a blog. No Time to Spare collects forty posts from that blog written between 2010 and 2015. These posts discuss aging, vulgar language, letters from adult readers, letters from readers who are children, literary awards, war and the journey home from war, The Great American Novel (it’s The Grapes of Wrath, by the way), the place and value of fantasy in literature, feminism, soft-boiled eggs, sacrifice on behalf of others, a food bank, a child’s quest for knowledge, and many other things that were on her mind at various times. Le Guin also tells the reader about her cat, named Pard, an abbreviated form of Gattopardo or Pardo.

If you have finished your summer reading and are not yet ready to turn to the more serious literary pursuits you have planned for autumn, No Time to Spare will provide you with a couple of hours of enlightening, funny, and thought-provoking reading.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: PROUST AND THE SQUID

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

I don’t recall how I first learned about Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, but I know that the reference included this quote:

As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child learns to associate the act of reading with a sense of being loved. (p. 82)

Any adult, whether a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or unrelated friend who has ever read to a small child understands that sentiment. So it was sentiment that first got me to start reading this book. Sentiment only took me so far; the details of the development of writing and the neuroscience of reading that fill most of the book soon proved too intimidating. I returned the book, unfinished, to the library.

The quote stuck in my head, however, as did the sense of disappointment at not finishing. So it was back to the library for an interlibrary loan of the only copy in our consortium. In the meantime I’d also become involved with an organization that advocates for evidence-based approaches to dyslexia, a form of neurodiversity in which the brain must learn to use different circuits to decode the letters on a printed page and make sense of them. Coincidentally, as I was finishing Proust and the Squid, I started reading Ordinary Grace, which features two characters who, in the time period in which the novel is set, were considered retarded or mentally defective because of the differences in the ways their brains worked.

Having finished reading on the second attempt, I can affirm that Proust and the Squid is a great read. Beginning with technologies that are tens of thousands of years old—knotted bits of rope, scratches in clay or stones or turtle shells—Wolf traces the history of written communication in the first section of the book through the development of alphabets. As humans moved from one technology to another, the human brain adapted to the changes and contrived new changes to make the process of passing on knowledge both easier and more robust. Alphabets in particular had the biggest impact on the brain’s ability to acquire and process information through written records.

The second section discusses the development of an individual’s ability to read. Here’s where the neuroscience can seem a bit dense, but a complete apprehension of the details is not required to follow the narrative arc. When a person reads, certain circuits in the brain are activated. With practice, the brain needs less energy and time to process, or decode, the information that the eyes encounter on the printed page or digital device. Wolf describes in enlightening detail that is timed in milliseconds what happens when a fluent reader sees a word, applies past experience and existing knowledge to it, and grasps the information that is being communicated in the current encounter.

This is where Proust comes in. According to Wolf, Proust saw reading as “a kind of intellectual ‘sanctuary’ where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is capable of transforming readers’ intellectual lives without ever requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs.” (p. 6) What a gift the ability to read fluently is.

Where does the squid come in? In the third section Wolf likens dyslexia to a young squid’s inability to swim fast. The squid is both predator and prey. In order to survive, a squid must be able to swim fast. “Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but cunning squid to understand how neurons fire and transmit to each other, and in some cases to see how neurons repair and compensate when something goes awry.” (p. 6) The young squid that can’t swim fast must compensate and develop different survival strategies and tactics, and those strategies and tactics must function automatically. This requires that the squid brain be reconfigured to compensate for the lack of ability to swim fast. (Wolf does not state this explicitly; I infer this.) The child with dyslexia must also compensate when the brain circuits that usually enable reading fail to function properly.

Wolf concludes the section on dyslexia by identifying numerous famous individuals who are said to have, or have had, dyslexia and who have accomplished much in spite of it. Children and adults who have dyslexia or any one of a number of differences are not defective or inferior, as was once thought. Like any science worthy of the name, neuroscience is constantly learning and adjusting its understanding of how to help people with dyslexia and other examples of neurodiversity thrive.

If, as I do, you have a family member or friend who has a form of neurodiversity like dyslexia, reading Proust and the Squid can help you understand that person’s strengths and challenges. It’s not a beach read; maybe wait until the evenings get a little cooler and start a little earlier and give yourself a few undistracted hours to learn how it is that you can process such marvelous writing.

Thank you for stopping by.

Pat