Book Review: The American Spirit

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForThe American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough

The American Spirit is a collection of speeches that David McCullough has given over a span of seventeen years, from 1989 until 2016. They include university commencement speeches and speeches at events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the White House, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette. There is also a speech given at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello in 1994.

David McCullough is one of the most engaging writers of American history for general audiences. His writing is optimistic and focused on the positive while still acknowledging the tragic episodes in the history he is recounting. If you are looking for nonfiction that will give you hope—not unshakeable confidence; that’s asking too much—for the future of America, this short book is worthy of your consideration.

Thanks as always for stopping by.



Book Review: The Lord of the Flies

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding

In his introduction to the 2011 Perigee centenary edition, Stephen King tells a story from his youth of a librarian giving him The Lord of the Flies in response to his question “Do you have any books about how kids really are?” This book is certainly a story about how kids really are, or really can be given the necessary circumstances. It is also a story about how the behavior of people in general can devolve.

It seems almost too easy to easy to compare the behavior of the boys on the island with people in the United States in the current era. How quickly we mock, question, challenge, or ignore one another. How quickly we pay lip service to ideas that we think are important for our good and the good of the community, then proceed to forget those ideas and follow our own selfish paths. How quickly we break up into tribes, follow those who will speak loudly enough or fashion the cleverest memes about their opponents, and turn on one another with little thought for the consequences.

I appreciate the fact that William Golding could, as recently as 1954, tell a story as full of interpersonal conflict as The Lord of the Flies with only the mildest of profanities. More contemporary fiction, especially twenty-first century fiction, can’t tell any kind of story without language that still gets bleeped out on broadcast media.

It took too long for me to get around to reading The Lord of the Flies. (Although it was assigned reading in high school I remember not finishing it and maybe not getting beyond the first chapter or two.) For reasons that have nothing to do with most of the action in the book taking place on or near a beach, it’s not necessarily a beach read, but it’s a great book for stirring one’s thinking about human nature and the things that we are capable of doing.

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Book Review: In the Beauty of the Lilies

In the Beauty of the LiliesIn the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike

In the Beauty of the Lilies appears in a list of five books that bring science and Christianity together. The list was compiled by Greg Cootsona, who describes this novel as “an eloquent and challenging narrative of American life in the 20th century.” The list appears in the March 2018 issue of Christianity Today. That’s how I came to read In the Beauty of the Lilies.

John Updike’s genius and storytelling abilities are well documented. These stories are reminiscent of An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie. In some ways Updike is kinder to his characters than Dreiser is. I thought, for example, that Teddy Wilmot would end up like Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, but he does not. Saying more than that would spoil the plot for those who have yet to read this novel.

Beyond the storytelling, Updike’s genius is revealed in the details that he includes about settings and contemporary events. I particularly enjoyed reading about Paterson, where I have been many times, in the opening story about Clarence Wilmot. Updike devotes an entire page to acknowledging the people, institutions, and published sources from whom he obtained the details he includes. Twenty-plus years after publication of In the Beauty of the Lilies, I don’t know how many of us have the attention span for all of the description, but it is still a pleasure to read.

Numerous philosophical and spiritual themes run through this novel. Among them are faith and the loss of faith, narcissism and the worship of beauty, betrayal and forgiveness, family loyalty, and the drive for success and wealth. In the end the temporal values and virtues in which we invest so much of ourselves are found to be hollow and impotent, but Updike does not provide us with a nicely packaged moral to these stories. Instead he provides us with dialectics that we must work through to arrive at our own judgments.

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Book Review: Salvage the Bones

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

It is difficult, from a position of white privilege, to imagine the lives that the characters in Salvage the Bones lead. It is also difficult to imagine the power and fury of Hurricane Katrina. The electricity in my neighborhood stayed on when Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012; it went out for about three days a year before during an October snowstorm. The roof remained intact during both storms and Sandy did not bring a major body of water into my neighborhood.

Despite a lack of relevant experience, I find Jesmyn Ward’s description of the Batiste family and their ordeal believable and hard to forget. The story has its brutal moments and its compassionate moments. The reader can be drawn into both without voyeurism or sentimentality. The narrative, descriptive passages, and dialog are clean and unpretentious. I’m not sure where the title comes from, but maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

I don’t want to know what it’s like to face a category-5 hurricane. I do want to be able to see past white privilege to get a better view of the plight of the real Claudes, Eshes, Randalls, Skeetahs, and Juniors on the Gulf Coast who did face it. Salvage the Bones helps.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

A human is sent to a planet in a solar system that is reached only after decades of travel at speeds close to the speed of light. He is an envoy and his mission is to determine if the inhabitants of that planet are willing and able to join an interplanetary confederation referred to as “The Ekumen.” The inhabitants of that planet, called Gethen or Winter, are human and resemble the humans of earth in many ways, with one major difference. More about that later.

The envoy, the protagonist, is also the narrator for much of the story. His name is Genly Ai, although he is also referred to as Genry Ai in several places because the inhabitants of Karhide, one of the geopolitical regions on Gethen, can’t pronounce the letter L. His interactions first with the Karhiders and later with the inhabitants of Orgoreyn reveal just how human the inhabitants of Gethen are. Intrigue, mistrust, conflict, betrayal both presumed and real, and political machinations drive the story throughout. The king of Karhide himself tells Mr. Ai to “trust no one.”

The intrigue and conflict entrap and buffet Mr. Ai and the secondary narrator, a Karhide courtier named Estraven. To say more would be to spoil the plot.

Gethen is much like Earth. The year on Gethen is almost as long as the year on Earth. There are seasons, although Gethen has the alternate name of Winter because the snows begin to fall at the end of the summer season. In the depths of winter the roads in some regions are not plowed because plowing snow would use up most of the government’s budget. Instead motorized vehicles are sent to pack down the snow, and runners replace wheels on most modes of ground transportation. The descriptions of the climate raises questions about how the people of Gethen, being carbon-based life forms, are able to grow enough food to sustain themselves.

The people of Gethen are ambisexual. For most of the twenty-six to twenty-eight–day month they are neither male nor female, although the narrator uses masculine pronouns to refer to Gethenians. Once a month they enter “kemmer,” a state that resembles estrus in mammals. In kemmer a Gethenian becomes either male or female depending on the hormonal balance in effect at the time. While this characteristic of Gethenians is imaginative and interesting, what Le Guin says in developing this description also provides insight into her egalitarianism. Two excerpts illustrate this:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else (page 93).

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter (page 94).

The description of gender on Gethen includes the theory or legend that the ambisexuality is the result of an experiment conducted in the distant past: Humans or Terrans (from Earth?) established a colony on Gethen and modified the genetic code of some of the colonists. The modifications apparently produced some monsters but also resulted in ambisexuality for those colonists who otherwise retained “normal” human characteristics. Exploring possible reasons for such experimentation, which the narrator characterizes as barbarism, this commentary is offered:

Another guess concerning the hypothetical experiment’s object: the elimination of war. Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or, like Tumass Song Angot, did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped? God knows. The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem to be not very aggressive; as they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war (page 95).

Readers won’t find much futuristic technology in this story, which may arise from a desire to keep the focus on interactions among the characters. Genly Ai traveled to Gethen in a star ship and spent the voyage in suspended animation. He uses a communication device, the ansible, capable of instantaneous communication over many light years. A remarkable heater-and-stove combination called a Chabe stove is employed in a critical episode. The terrestrial vehicles described in the story could easily be from Siberia, Antarctica, or New York.

What readers will find is a finely crafted story of human behavior, bad and good, with characters who are all too human, and themes that don’t require willing suspension of disbelief to appreciate.

Thanks as always for stopping by.


Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian EssaysThe Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry

Norman Wirzba edited this collection of essays and wrote the introduction. Mr. Wirzba himself has written and edited books, essays, and articles on caring for creation, living in harmony with creation, food and faith, and related subjects.

Wendell Berry’s writing is a joy to read. In it we find such sentiments as these: “It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.” (from the essay “A Native Hill”) and “Respect, I think, always implies an imagination—the ability to see one another across our inevitable differences as living souls.” (from the essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.”)

Wendell Berry’s writing is difficult to read. His writing is prophetic; he does not write to make his readers comfortable or to make his readers feel good about themselves. He hands down indictments of many institutions that are embedded in Western culture: consumerism, corporate greed, and the leisure and entertainment cultures.

Not everyone who reads Wendell Berry holds him in high regard. Allen T. Stanton, a Methodist pastor, wrote Why I Hate Wendell Berry for Duke University’s online publication Faith & Leadership. The argument is easy to understand. Wendell Berry’s writings, especially his essays, are seen as idealizing, or romanticizing small-town and rural life. Those of us who’ve never lived in a small town or spent time on a farm often buy into the idealized vision. If we’ve read enough of Berry, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals), or even Ragan Sutterfield (Cultivating Reality), we assume that we know how to fix America’s agricultural and food systems.

It brings to mind this quote from Meaghan Hammond in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm: “This second-guessing of basic animal husbandry, often to satisfy a grocery shopper who has never been on on a farm, is a sore point for almost anyone engaged in raising livestock these days.”

What, then, is the point of reading agrarian writers or those who write on related subjects? It is to try to understand what has been lost in our relationships with the food that we eat and to try to find ways of restoring a proper relationship with food and with those who produce it from wherever we are in the food supply chain.

If Wendell Berry’s writing is nothing else, it is  call to action for thoughtful readers. In that spirit, please consider these action items from the final essay in this collection, “The Pleasures of Eating,” which also appears in his collection What Are People For?

  1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.
  2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.
  3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.
  4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by such dealing you eliminate a whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.
  5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?
  6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.
  7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

I have not read many collections of essays, and I would imagine this is true of other essayists: All of the essays in this book have also been published in other collections. Each of the following collections of Berry’s essays includes at least two of the essays in The Art of the Commonplace:

  • What are People For?
  • Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community
  • The Gift of Good Land
  • The Unsettling of America
  • Home Economics

Wendell Berry might have mixed thoughts about this observation. On the one hand, if your public library consortium has a fair collection of Wendell Berry’s works, you can probably read all of essays without buying any of his books of essays. Patronizing a community resource such as the library is certainly in the spirit of the lifestyle that Berry advocates. On the other hand, he earns an income from the sale of these collections and other works. My first choice is always to borrow books from the library if I can.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Review: The Peregrine Returns

The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor RecoveryThe Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor Recovery by Mary Hennen with Illustrations by Peggy Macnamara

During a recent visit to Chicago my son Andrew and his wife Jodi stopped by the Field Museum. There they purchased a copy of The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of Urban Rapture Recovery, written by Mary Hennen and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara. They gave it to me for Christmas. I wish I had a coffee table. I would leave the book there indefinitely.

The Peregrine Returns is an informative, charming, and encouraging book. The writing is spare and clear. If the writer had been a journalist or other professional writer the text could easily have become florid. Instead, Mary Hennen is a scientist employed by the Field Museum, and her concise prose exhibits an unforced affection both for the Peregrine falcon and for Chicago.

Each chapter begins with either a “Scientist Note” or an “Artist Note.” The Scientist Notes are brief vignettes, written in the first person, that discuss personal encounters with the birds and their environments. It is here that we see the affection and dedication of the writer and her team of scientists most clearly. Their joy is demonstrated in one passage that describes allowing young volunteers to give chicks such names as “Banana Peel” and “Marshmallow.”

The “Artist Notes,” written by Peggy Macnamara, are brief lessons on the techniques used in rendering the illustrations. Each of the watercolor illustrations is itself a lesson, as the artist has included lines, circles, arcs, and other geometric features in the paintings to demonstrate some of the techniques used to establish perspective, proportion, and balance. Attempting to further describe features of the illustrations, such as the clever enlargement of details, would not do them justice. At least one online bookseller includes some illustrations in its preview of the contents and it is worth scrolling through the pages to see some of the beautiful paintings.

Peregrine falcons were missing from northern Illinois for many years because of human activity. It is encouraging to see falcons returning to northern Illinois because some of that activity has ceased—the use of DDT has been banned—and because humans have reintroduced the species and taken steps to help the species thrive once again. We as a species can learn about our mistakes, learn from them, and take steps to undo their effects. Where else can we apply this principle to mitigate damage that we have done to our environment or to our relationships with one another

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Review: Woe is I

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain EnglishWoe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

This book is recommended reading for a course on Grammar, Mechanics, and Usage for Editors offered by UC Berkeley. Patricia O’Conner’s portfolio and the list of endorsements at the beginning of the book make her work unassailable, at least by the likes of me. Woe is I is, nonetheless, entertaining and enlightening. If you like Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, you will probably like Woe is I, and vice versa.

Beyond its entertainment value, Woe is I is a valuable reference for an editor or writer. It would be helpful if the chapter titles and subtitles, for example “Spellbound: How to Be Letter Perfect,” were a bit less cryptic, but that is a minor quibble. The glossary, bibliography, and index are helpful. Keep a magnifying glass handy for reading the index. I also wish the author had said more about reading good writing to improve one’s own, but that coverage is limited to the last paragraph of the last chapter. Again, a minor complaint.

I don’t think of myself as a grammar nerd, but I might use “shall” instead of “will” when writing or speaking in the first person. More pedantic authorities might say that is good and proper, but O’Connor does not. Subject and verb must agree, but prepositions don’t always need to precede their objects. This is not iconoclasm for its own sake, but in the service of effective communication.

If you find English grammar puzzling or unappealing but would still like to improve your communication skills, reading Woe is I is worth reading and keeping for reference.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Review: Becoming Wise

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of LivingBecoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is the host of On Being, a weekly program broadcast on NPR stations, including WNYC, where I listen when I have the opportunity. The program is also available as a podcast from On Being’s Web site. From 2003 until 2015 Krista Tippett engaged in conversations with over 400 individuals whose names are listed in the back of the book. Some are people whose names would be familiar to many listeners: Jimmy Carter, Charles Colson, The Dalai Lama, Martin Sheen, Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Barbara Kingsolver, Phil Donahue to name a few. The conversations consist of one-on-one interviews, sometimes in front of a live audience.

In Becoming Wise Krista Tippett conducts the inquiry described in the subtitle by discussing five themes: word, flesh, love, faith, and hope, and expanding those discussions with excerpts from the conversions she has had through those years. The goal of Becoming Wise is not to provide instruction in how or what to think about these themes, although as a journalist the author certainly wants to inform her audience. The goal seems to be to express how wonderful, complex, frustrating, and even heartbreaking human existence can be when viewed through these five lenses.

That description doesn’t really do justice to the book, though. For another perspective, here is Ms Tippett herself expressing near the end of the book what she has experienced in writing it. She has just describe the work of Benedict of Nursia, who set forth a principle for living that, in time, would keep Western civilization alive:

I take courage in this story. Even with all of my resources as a journalist, and my efforts to focus on what is good and wise and nourishing. I probably do not see the small bands of inventive people, the blips of action setting something in motion that will save the world a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Still, I am dazzled by the great good I can discern everywhere out there. I’ve shared a sliver in these pages, just a sliver. I have a heart full. arms full, a mind brimful and bursting with a sense of what is healing us even as I write, even when we don’t know it and haven’t asked for it. And I do mean healing: not curing, not solving, not fixing, but creating the opportunity for deepened life together, for growing more wise and more whole, not just older, not just smarter. (p. 236)

A bit later the author elaborates on the reason for the book and for her pursuit of conversations with the people cited in the book:

Still, all of this begs the question of why a simple, natural, refreshing thing like taking in goodness, wherever and whenever we see it, requires any effort at all–why it needs all these words. There’s a telling social scientific term for people who defy the “realistic” expectations of a simplistic “survival of th—e fittest” understanding of evolved humanity: “positive deviance.” My profession of journalism, which I love, too often covers whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise as a positive deviance. This is a form of reverse moral imagination. Everyone I’ve cited in this book is a positive deviant, easily written off by portenders of doom as an exception to the distasteful human rule. (p. 261)

Both in Becoming Wise and in her work through On Being Krista Tippett practices positive deviance. That is not a bad trait for anyone to cultivate and practice. Anyone reading this review would do well to find a copy of Becoming Wise or listen to some episodes of On Being to learn how we might cultivate positive deviance.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


Book Review: Accidental Saints

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Krista Tippett for an episode of On Being that aired on 23 October, 2014 and it was this interview that introduced me to this Lutheran pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Accidental Saints is a series of stories about some of the folks at HFASS, their pastor, and most importantly the God by whose grace and mercy they are called saints. Other individuals not directly associated with HFASS but whose lives have had an impact on Bolz-Weber are also featured in some chapters.

One of the striking characteristics of Nadia Bolz-Weber and her ministry—and there are many striking characteristics—is her liberal use of profanity. I want to get this out of the way quickly because it features prominently in my desire to read this book. It is shocking, and I still wonder why it must be included. However, I understand that frank and shocking language is the currency of ministry among those who would not find themselves in most American churches. So unlike Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which I cannot recommend enthusiastically to an audience that includes my preteen granddaughter because of the inclusion of profanity, I can unreservedly recommend Accidental Saints to an audience that includes thoughtful, intelligent, Godly, conservative Christians. We may be shocked by the language but we need to get past it to see that there are significant ministry needs and opportunities among those who would not find themselves in most American churches.

The core of the book is the truth that Jesus came to a world that is, and always has been, seriously messed up. All of us are weak, broken, damaged, lame, and inclined to lie, cheat, betray, and steal our way out of the difficulties we face, or to avoid admitting that we are weak, broken, damaged, and lame. Nadia Bolz-Weber owns her own brokenness. It is as inescapable and unerasable as the tattoos on her arms. She is as much in need of redemption and God’s forgiveness as the most unlovable addict or misfit in her congregation.

Accidental Saints is a thoroughly memorable book, but one passage jumped out at me. In Chapter 11, entitled “Parlors,” Bolz-Weber discusses death, funerals, and birth. She points out that even well into the 20th century, when someone died, it was common for the preparation of the body and the viewing or wake to take place in the home. In a commentary on how modern Westerners have turned over activities such as dealing with death to professionals, she includes playing a musical instrument in those activities.

Accidental Saints is a humbling, challenging book that is uplifting and encouraging at the same time. It is especially valuable for those of us in American Christianity who have convinced ourselves that the world needs to conform to our standards of holiness and purity before it can be welcomed into our faith communities. As Bolz-Weber would say, that’s bulls___.

Thanks as always for stopping by!