Saturday, December 6, 2014

It's Been Awhile

I'm about ready to sign up for some reading 2015 reading challenges. At the moment the one that intrigues me has a two fold advantage—read twelve books from my TBR pile and alleviate the stockpile on my shelves. The rules indicate that the books must be ones that were published before 2014. There's also an additional rule—the book must have sat on the shelf for at least a year! No problem.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

Henry VIII, Cromwell, Thomas More—three larger than life personages all appear in Hillary Mantel's book Wolf Hall. While I can't imagine wanting to live in England at that time, I can vicariously, and from a time distance of over 484 years, be involved in the machinations of the realm of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII grows tired of his wife Katherine when she bears him no heir , a son, and he wants the marriage annulled. The fact that he and Katherine have a child—albeit a girl—does not prevent him from desiring the marriage to be nullified, repudiated as if it did not exist because he wished to marry Anne Boleyn.

To be released from a marriage in an age when the Pope's authority meant a strict obedience to his Papacy required stealth, cunning and diplomacy.

Thomas More, a strong Catholic, refused to bend to the King's desire to both have the marriage annulled and later on to take an oath making the king and not the Pope head of the English Church. The refusal to take the vow eventually leads to his confinement in the Tower and then to his death.

Cromwell, on the other hand, enabled the marriage to proceed by a variety of nefarious moves—or perhaps shrewd moves.

Knowing some history—we know that Anne—in time, after giving birth to a daughter and several miscarriages, was beheaded in 1536—only three years after her marriage to Henry. Mantle's depiction of Anne portrays her as a unlikeable and conniving woman.

Henry married six times and beyond the scope of this book—however—his wives didn't fare too well. Poor Katherine, or Catherine, of Aragon's marriage was annulled and her freedom was restricted , under watch and guard, at a grim castle. After Anne Boleyn came Jane Seymour who died a few days after childbirth. Another annulment—Anne of Cleves, but at least she did better than Catherine Howard who was beheaded. His last wife—Catherine Parr became a widow.

Cromwell and More, both enigmatic and fascinating, appear in a number of books and plays. Thomas More, often depicted as a saint while Cromwell is often seen as diabolically shrewd. Recently a few historians have looked at Cromwell in a different light—politically acute, behind the scenes in the rewriting of English policy, and instrumental in the movement of England into modern times.

Hillary Mantel's Cromwell is portrayed in a favorable light—but who knows for certain. That he was disliked by the nobles because of his lowly birth is certain—that he was feared because of his powerful position was also certain. That he used any means to effect the ends is debateable— or certain— depending upon the historian.

Every story must have an inciting incident which propels the story forward. Is the inciting event Henry VIII's desire to be released from his marriage? Does everything proceed from there?

William Tyndale is in the background with his translation of scriptures into English in 1524 . The Church of England was in a period of turmoil and Tyndale moved to Germany where he continued with his work. Initially Henry VIII opposed the translation and confiscated copies of the Tyndale Bible.

Tyndale was betrayed by a friend, tried, and imprisoned near modern day Brussels. Despite being in prison he tried to continue his work of translation. "On October 6, 1536...he was strangled and then burned at the stake. As he died, Tyndale prayed, Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

In 1539 Henry VIII "sanctioned the printing of an authorized version of an English Bible..." * (

Of course, as Mantel indicates, it was to Henry's advantage to distance the Church of England from the Pope, and to require allegiance to himself as the head of the Church of England.

So indeed—the kindling for all the changes may indeed be the desire to be released from a marriage that didn't provide him with an heir.

I suspect that Hillary will continue the story for it is Cromwell who convinces Henry to marry Anne of Cleves as part of his plan to "assure the support of the German princes against the Holy Roman Empire. The marriage was a disaster and the alliance failed. Henry withdrew his support from Cromwell, who was charged with treason. He was executed at the Tower of London on July 28, 1540." * (BBC History)

Odd how things work out.
Cromwell who worked so hard to find a way to allow Henry VIII the chance to nullify his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and have a legitimate heir, was beheaded four years after Anne Boleyn's similar fate.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Empire of Kalman the Cripple

I find myself connected to some book reviewers and the books they recommend—the older books, those books I don't know and authors that are unfamiliar. Several weeks ago I wrote down the name of an author and a book recommended by reviewer—new to me.

The author—Yehuda Elberg and the book The Empire of Kalman the Cripple. According to the short bio on the book flap Elberg descended from a rabbinical Polish family and was an ordained rabbi. Born in 1912 his twenties coincided with World war II. He actively participating in the Polish resistance throughout the war.

His books were written in Yiddish and Hebrew. The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, originally published in 1983, and translated into English in 1997, takes place in Dombrokva, Poland— a shetyl where Jews lived amidst a strong current of anti-semitism.

Kalman, crippled at a young age—unable to walk, drags himself around. He's astute and grows up to become a superior business man in a society where he's dealing with strong anti-Jewish sentiment. Yet, Kalman through his own machinations learns to deal with the people in charge and soon has a large shop that sells everything.

From there he spreads out—brings electricity to the town, builds a mill, and expands his business operations.

Bullying, unkind comments, physical torments all leave him with a spitefulness that he inflicts on others. Over the course of years he inflicts others with his bullying and malice, but then as he begins to amass more money he starts handing out kindness—and he changes.

Although he knows that some of his acts can never be eradicated, nor the harm that he perpetrated be forgotten by one woman.

He is building an empire and surrounding himself with people who see him as a kind man. Before he dies he makes out a will leaving his money to a number of people he's helped. He asks the young man who works for him and is like a son to him to take care of his empire, to keep it growing.

Kalman dies the year before the Nazis come into power—the empire will crumble.

The act that can't be forgotten or erased is a horrible act of rape against a woman he loved and who thwarts his advances.

It is only at the end of his life that Kalman relives the horror of what he did and his impotence in forgiving himself for the rape.
As a protagonist Kalman is a flawed character, molded by his disability, his father leaving when he was crippled,and the intense loneliness of his youth.

One wonders if Kalman, despite the changes, can ever be released from the enormity of what he did to another human being. Perhaps only God can truly forgive Kalman.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Seeing or not seeing.

"The light of the body is the eye..." Luke 11:34

" out in case (you) fail to see the light..." N.T. Wright

Isaac, almost blind and unable to discern which of his two sons deserved to receive the blessing, blesses his younger son.

"Watch that your eye doesn't become darkened."

I'm guilty of too often not seeing or only seeing the veneer, of being in a hurry and accepting a stereotype rather than looking beyond or beneath the outer garment. How easy it is to see things with a one-dimensional view.

It takes time to move beyond the cursory glance to a place where you see the other—really see them.

In Muriel Barbery's book The Elegance of the Hedgehog people choose not to see. They cannot move away from their stereotypes.

Renee Michel, a concierge— a working-class woman, performs her tasks and is invisible as a person to the tenants in the building— who suffer from a serious bout of class-consciousness. Renee hides her intelligence—taking on the mantle of what the people expect from a concierge. She dresses and talks in a manner that fits their expectations.

Two people do see beneath the facade—one a young girl who is a lonely intellectual who sees the world as meaningless. The other person is a Japanese gentleman, Mr. Ozo, who helps unmask Renee.

Seeing involves introspection and contemplation.

To really see another requires time and a willingness to listen and ask questions. But there's also the willingness of the other to be seen.

It's hard to engage beneath the veneer.

Renee's past experiences made her leery of letting the tenants see her as an intellectual autodidact —especially because she knew that they pigeonholed her through the prism of their own biases.

To see —one needs to release, to let go, of preconceived ideas.

To be seen—one needs to release, to let go, of the tough outer garments we wear for protection.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Caller by Karen Fossum

I'm an eclectic reader mixing heavy tomes with mysteries, or poetry, or death defying exploits of intrepid souls determined to push the boundary of exploration, or religious writings—be it the Bible or theologians delving into the meaning of scripture or writing about figures within scripture or inspirational writing.

I often curl up with a book about writing, or a book of letters written by literary luminaries, or a book about sports.

I can't read a review without thinking —do I want to read this book? Reviews of books on arcane subjects often captivate my imagination. Those writers often exhibit a passion for a subject and they capture that affection in their books.

Upon reading a review I often request the book from our library consortium. On rare occasions no library owns the book.

I've been known to stand in the aisle of a bookstore and peruse a book for several chapters prior to a purchase That's getting more difficult with the demise of so many independent bookstores.

Karen Fossum's recent book The Caller reminded me of why it's difficult to categorize books. This is a mystery, but when I finished reading it I wondered on what shelf I'd shelve this book. Obviously it's a mystery. After all the two detectives, Konrad Sejer and Jacob Skarre, want to catch the perpetrator of callous pranks.

A child in a pram is covered with blood, but not her blood—she's fine. Another person is presumed dead and two men from a funeral parlor show up at the family home.

The young man responsible for the pranks—or that's what he calls them— comes from a home devoid of any emotional ties. His mother, an alcoholic, spends most of her time in a stupor. The perpetrator of these hoaxes does have one stable emotional connection—an aging grandfather who needs home health care. In that relationship the reader sees a young man who has the capacity to love.

Fossum creates a protagonist who lacks a moral ballast because he can't perceive of the consequences of each act. This inability to understand cause and effect eventually result in a horrific incident. And only then does he see cause and effect.

The ending is open to interpretation. Someone once asked Eudora Welty how one of her short stories ended because it, too, had several possibilities. She responded, "I don't know."

How easy it is to say or do something that sets off a chain reaction way beyond what we imagined. How simple it is to forget about cause and effect.

Fossum's story releases a metaphor for thinking of the consequences of actions.Some people find the story too brutal.

I'm in agreement with Flannery O'Connor who often created bizarre characters and outrageous incidents because she thought people were so accustomed to seeing so many things as natural that only by exaggerating the grotesque could she hold a mirror up for them to see reality.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and for the space of three days I was transported to the Pacific Crest Trail. This isn't the usual memoir about someone who loves to explore, has the requisite skill set, and then sets out. Cheryl knows nothing about backpacking nor does she know too much about how to select adequate boots for a 1,100 mile trek.

In August the Vail Daily reported that Jim Ellison, a former twenty-year marine, had cycled 71,000 miles and planned to continue until all the U.S. troops are brought home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

On January 10, 2013 a writer, Paul Salopek, began a long walk that will take him from a small Ethiopian village in Africa—through the Middle East, then across Asia—to Alaska, down the western United States—then through Central America. He'll end up in Chile. The total miles— over 21,000.

According to newspaper reports he's replicating our ancestors who made the migration over a 50,000 year span of time. One of his sponsors, National Geographic, dubbed the expedition: Out of Eden. He'll write one long article for them a year and every 100 miles he'll write an update. Paul is not someone for whom writing is a secondary activity—he's a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

He told the Associated Press that "Often the places that we fly over or drive through, they aren't just untold stories, but they are also the connective tissues between the stories of the day."

Paul Salopek has specific plans—walk with local people, learn new languages. He hopes that people will want to read his long pieces. We live in a society filled with people who read their information in small bites. Paul's stories will be long-form journalism and the story will unfold slowly—episode by episode.

Cheryl had no sponsor. She had a friend. Before leaving on her trip Cheryl made up boxes with supplies for each leg of the trip—a clean shirt, new socks, supplies for her feet, a twenty-dollar bill, and always a book. Lisa sent each of these boxes ahead to the drop off points.

Paul is following the migration trail for an estimated 30 million steps over seven years. According to the December 2, 2012 Harvard Gazette Paul's project was "Incubated at Harvard where he was the inaugural visiting Nieman Fellow."

"This walk" he said,"is about the poetry of hidden connections that I missed as a writer and foreign correspondent."

In order to keep his stories coming every 100 miles all the latest technology will be employed—everything from video cameras to satellite phone. He'll use web posts and blogging to tell his stories.

Cheryl's mother dies of lung cancer and Cheryl's world falls apart. She drops out of college, her marriage disintegrates, and indiscriminate sex and heroin can't pull her out of the place of deep sadness.

Four years after her mother's death she sees a pamphlet about the Pacific Crest trail. At the age of twenty-six she's working as a waitress, still at odds with life and she concludes that she needs to do something. That something is to hike the trial—alone from the Mojave Desert to Washington State.

It's 1995. She sets out with a backpack so heavy that she can barely lift its weight and dubs it the Monster. Along the way she loses toe nails and chafes her body raw where the backpack straps rub against her skin.

Despite the weight the box that Lisa sends ahead always contains a book. When she finishes pages she tears them out and burns them to lighten the load.

Her accommodation— a small tent. Her security system: a large loud whistle and a Swiss Army knife. Along the way she encounters unbelievable physical difficulties, hunger, and other hikers. Only once is she really terrified of two hunters she meets who have strayed off their trail.

When she arrives at her final destination she's different—internally and externally. She doesn't write her story upon her arrival in Portland—in fact the story isn't written until she's forty—married with two children. There was no blog, no web presence while on the trail.

When Cheryl reaches the end of her trek she sits by a river and writes:

On the other side of the river, I let myself think And something inside of me released

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Generous Orthodoxy

A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN By Brian McLaren

My church offered a four part series on the Emergent Church. It wasn't a call for a move in that direction, it wasn't a call for denouncing or acceptance. It was instead a look at what is happening in one segment of Christianity. Some people call this the Emergent Movement. I rather think that new ways of looking at something are often termed movements by the people who espouse those beliefs.

One of the books listed as a book explaining the movement was the above book with its long and catchy title. I found one copy in our library consortium and made a request and the book arrived three days later. I expect that there isn't a groundswell of people seeking to read the book despite its gloriously long and catchy title.

I read with an open mind and also to try and understand what the core beliefs were of this movement. I sense that the church in this era, as in previous ones, is in the throes of change. Some of the change is cosmetic—hymns and music reflect some of our present day culture, labels are more fluid. Some churches eschew denomination labels and their names reflect their core beliefs. But there is also this emergent movement and even after the four sessions I was unclear as to the core beliefs.

McLaren says that the church needs to constantly think about new ways to think about God. He also notes that in the present we are seeing more cross pollination between groups. In other words when you go into a church you will find that in their regular practice elements of other christian groups are in evidence.

McLaren's Christianity is a cafeteria model, a model that takes from a number of different groups to forge an emergent church. What he doesn't like or he feels is archaic he leaves behind.

When McLaren presents each one of the titled groups he stresses those elements that can be embraced by the new paradigm. One person said that McLaren "widens the tent" to include more people under the umbrella of emergent christianity. He says that the Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu can remain within their denomination — just add a belief in Christ. And what does this mean?

McLaren asserts that no definitive truth about God can be known therefore the Bible is seen as an ethical document, a local myth. The Bible is the story of a people dealing with God, but not a "propositional truth about God."

After reading through 300 pages I was somewhat confused because I wanted to know what McLaren or the Emergent Christianity movement believed.

I found that one aim of his thinking was to erase some of the barriers between different traditions—an ecumenical view. The audience McLaren addresses are those people who have either left the church or have become dissatisfied with the church and are in the throes of leaving.Despite where they are on the faith journey they still maintain an attraction for the figure of Jesus.

It was Hans Frei who first used the term Generous Orthodoxy—so at some point I guess I'll need to read something that Frei wrote!

I think that McLaren is stating that in order to come to some understanding of truth the Christian community needs to look at all the experiences of Christian faith to arrive at some "kind of truth". In some ways this is seen as a new beginning, a start over.

McLaren spends a good deal of the book discussing why he is a Christian by looking at seven different traditions: Conservative Protestant, Pentecostal, Roam Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Liberal Protestant. Anabaptist and Liberation Theology. One could question how intimately he knows each of these traditions.

He spends a bit of time telling the reader that he is missional which should not be confused with being a missionary. He is also each of the strands mentioned in his title and explains how he is part of that particular strand.

The book ends with McLaren's statement that he is hopeful as he looks forward and not backward.