Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir



by Sarah Thebarge
Jerico Books    2013
266 pages     Spiritual Memoir

In her memoir The Invisible Girls, Sarah Thebarge relates two intertwined stories in her life—her struggles with breast cancer and the family of little Somali girls that she has helped for several years Thebarge is also a woman of steadfast faith, which is evident in every aspect of the memoir which covers a span of about five years.

Thebarge has experienced a great deal of change in her life. Her family moved several times as she was growing up, and then she as a young adult moves many times as well--first as the daughter of a fundamentalist pastor, and then as she goes to university and graduate school, creates her career and deals with the extremely invasive cancer. This is probably one of the reasons why she identifies so strongly with five young Somali girls and their mother, who have been abandoned by their father and husband. They are lost in this new land, and in many ways, Thebarge is lost as well. The relationship between Thebarge and the Somali family is healing on both sides as they all struggle to adapt to tremendous change.

Each chapter is a short vignette—either of her cancer and her recovery or of the family that she is helping. She also tells of her failed relationship with her fiancĂ©, who is unable to deal with his girlfriend's cancer. Thebarge's writing moves between the various aspects of her life and relationships and also as she struggles with the fundamentalist, restrictive faith of her upbringing. She has many arguments with God over what she feels is God's abandonment of her.  She writes that as she was recovering from the cancer, she plotted the future of her life. She decided that there must be some greater purpose to her life. Thebarge says: "Between the cancer and the pneumonia, I should have died by now. But God had mercifully healed me. So for now, until He cashed out my chips, what I owed Him was not a death, but a well-lived life." She seems to have reached a compromise with God.  It is at this point in her life that she meets the Somali family.

She takes the title, the Invisible Girls, from the idea that women often are invisible in society. At one point she equates the modest dress of the fundamentalist woman to the modest dress of the Somali woman she is helping. This overt modesty helps create invisibility in women, but she also tells of an incident of preaching the gospel to a young prostitute on the street—another form of an invisible woman. Her goal is to help the Somali girls to grow up to be women who are "too confident to wait for a man to rescue them, and to valuable to stay with a man who abused them." I think that adding this "invisible girl" theme to the book is a bit disingenuous because it feels contrived—perhaps the idea came from an editor who thought that the book needed something more than what Thebarge was delivering.

 The Invisible Girls was created from the blog Thebarge has written as a way of sorting out her life. She intends to use the proceeds from the book to pay for the educations of the five little Somali girls so that they can move out of invisibility into productive American lives.The fund can be found on her blog here: http://sarahthebarge.com/invisible-girls-trust-fund/

My hairdresser HIlary has been helping a young Nigerian woman/university student, Rejoice, and her little boy who came to Hilary's church seeking help. Rejoice is a student at Western Michigan University, and because of her unmarried motherhood status, she receives no support from her family. She is seeking asylum in the United States, and in the interim Hilary has taken it upon herself to offer the woman all the help she can. The stories are very similar, and I will take the book to Hilary when I go to see her. (More information about Rejoice and her needs can be found at the Go Fund Me site that Skyridge Church in Kalamazoo has set up.)

When I received The Invisible Girls from the publisher, I did not intend to read the entire book—just enough to get the gist of it so that I could write a short blurb on my blog. Despite its many flaws, it was a quick and inspiring read, and I finished the entire book in a couple of hours. It is one of those books that you read, sigh, and go "Ahh, nice!" and then move on with living. 

An interview with Sarah Thebarge.
Sarah Thebarge's website, blog, and donation site for the Invisible Girls.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead



by Michael Koryta
Little, Brown     2014
391 pages     Fiction

Don't you love it when a book grabs you on the first page and never lets you go? That is exactly what happens with Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta. 

Jace Wilson is a 14 year old who witnesses a murder and sees the murderers face to face while at a quarry swimming hole in Indiana. A private security guard convinces his parents to hide him at a wilderness survival camp in Montana instead of putting him into a witness protection program. Ethan and Allison Serbin run the survival camp for troubled teens, and when the group that includes Jace comes, nobody knows which boy is the one in hiding. The action begins with the murders and ends with a forest fire in the mountains. Along the way there are several deaths and so many breath-taking moments that your heart never stops pounding. In the midst of the danger, Jace grows up, and Ethan and Allison grow older, wondering why they agreed to this craziness in the first place. 

The first chapter tells the story of Jace Wilson being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The details of the crime he witnesses is so graphically written that I had to stop reading at the end of the chapter. I was breathless, and so scared for Jace that I had to take a break to process the situation he is in. Koryta knows how to grab an audience and make them want more.

The assassins are among the most cleverly created villains that I have ever read—almost as clever as the villains in Fargo in their absurdity and menace. They are brothers and are totally bonded with each other—so close that their dialogue is uniquely their own and hard for their victims to follow. They also like to "play" with their victims, in much the same way that the cat plays with the mouse before it devours it. They are seemingly invincible, and as much as the reader hates their guts, you can't help but admire their prowess. They find Jace almost immediately upon their arrival in Montana, and they create a trail of terror, including several deaths and the forest fire that almost kills them all.

And then you can't help but admire the pluck and grit of Jace (or Conner, as he is known to Ethan and the other campers). He is facing a desperate situation, but he is a very smart, quick learner. He also has the good sense to know when he is not just in danger for himself, but that he is also putting other people in danger.  He is wary about seeking out people to help him because he knows that the assassins are on his trail; yet because he is just a boy, he inspires those who meet him to try to save him. The story line would have been entirely different if Jace had been an adult in danger rather than a teenage boy. You would have worried, but you wouldn't have been frantic with worry.

The details of the setting are realistic. That's because Michael Koryta has taken the same kind of survival training that Ethan taught in his survival school in Montana. Koryta and some friends backpacked in the Beartooth Mountains, and that trip became the inspiration for Those Who Wish Me Dead. His group had stopped for lunch at a vista overlooking the mountain range. "I realized I could not see another soul," he said. "I immediately began to think, 'I could put someone in a lot of trouble up here.'" 

Also remarkable, Michael Koryta is just 31 years old, and this is his tenth novel. He first hit the bestseller lists with The Prophet in 2012, and Those Who Wish Me Dead has already been optioned for a movie. One reviewer compares him to Stephen King because of the breadth of material he has created, including science fiction, fantasy, and ghosts. Many reviewers feel that Those Who Wish Me Dead is his best novel so far.

As I was reading the book, I had two major thoughts: The first was that this will be a great movie, and the second was that I wanted my teenaged grandsons to read the book. It isn't a YA book by any means, but one of my grandson's is on his way to the Philmont Boy Scout wilderness camping experience today, and my other grandson wants to spend his life in the woods. They will love everything about Those who Wish Me Dead.

Review on Tor.com.
Article about Michael Koryta in the Wall Street Journal.
Michael Koryta's website.
 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Jennifer, Gwyneth, and Me



by Rachel Bertsche
Ballantine Books     2014
258 pages     Memoir

In her delightful book, Jennifer, Gwyneth, and Me, Rachel Bertche channels some "celebrity muses" to make needed changes in her life. She says: "The point of this whole quest is to follow the examples of those who seem to feel the way I'd like to feel, the celebrities who present themselves to the world in a way I'd like to present myself, and see if it makes me feel glamorous, together, and happier."

And so she picks a celebrity a month to use as a model. She spends a month each--adopting Jennifer Anniston's exercise regime, Gwyneth Paltrow's diet and cooking, Sarah Jessica Parker's clothes sense, Tina Fey's work ethic, Jennifer Garner's marriage, Julia Robert's serenity, Jennifer Lopez's pregnancy, and BeyoncĂ©'s perfectionism. Along the way, she struggles with the lethargy that has come from working at home for the first time,  a lack of exercise, and the desire to spend the whole day in pajamas. She and her husband are trying to have a baby, and Bertsche juxtaposes her desperate desire to be a mother with the perfection of her chosen muses.

And in recording the struggle to conceive, Bertsche moves beyond the gimmick of the plot device to offer us a glimmer of the real woman with the real life situation. She does a remarkable job of moving beyond celebrity adoration to finding a balance that can motivate her life. None of us, including Bertsche, believe that celebrity is perfection. Most of us are happy with anonymity. All of us realize that the cult of celebrity has gotten out of hand. Bertsche explores all of these things as she tries to pick and choose characteristics of her celebrities to emulate. Two things I especially noted—one is that Julia Roberts doesn't pay any attention to social media. Bertsche discovers that her addiction to Facebook is a ploy to be unproductive. I can relate to that. I tend to look at Facebook when I am bored with a project or when I reach an impasse in my writing. The other is that Bertsche notices that Jennifer Garner never says a harsh word in interviews about her husband Ben Afflick.  That is also a good model to follow. Bertsche says that she occasionally will make a joke at her husband's expense just to be clever. I have found myself guilty of the same thing. 

I have to say that I have only had one celebrity addiction, and that was with Michelle Obama's clothes. Early in their first term in office, I found a website that chronicled what Michelle wore every day, how often she wore it, and which designers she used. I checked it nearly every day until last year when the author quit writing the blog. On another note, if I were to use a celebrity to emulate it would be Meryl Streep, because I think she is the world's best actress and seems to live a nice quiet, non-celebrity sort of life. 

Jennifer, Gwyneth, and Me uses a clever concept that follows a whole line of similar books, including Bertsche's first book MWF Seeking BFF, where she chronicles her attempt to find new friends after she moves from New York to Chicago. I didn't read MWF when it came from the publisher because I had just finished a book about friendship called What Did I Do Wrong? and I wasn't ready to read another friendship book. However, I have read several of the books that are mentioned as a comparison to Jennifer, Gwyneth, and Me. If you like her book, you will most likely enjoy these books as well: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs; and Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, which I didn't read but saw the movie.

I do have to admit that I became so worried about Bertsche and her husband getting pregnant that I turned to her arch-nemesis Facebook to look her up to see if she had a baby—long before I got to the end of the book and found out she had a baby girl.  Then I could get back to the fertility struggles.

She closes her journey with the thought: "While I'm happy to have role models, and it's great to find inspiration in others, I need to find my own version of perfect without consulting People." Those of us who have lived far longer than Bertsche will be able to tell her that perfection never happens, but there can be lots of perfect days without perfection, and that "good enough" can be a doable mantra.

Additionally, I want to thank Bertsche for giving me lots of practice spelling Gwyneth!
A review in the Boston Globe
Rachel Bertsche website.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk



by Heather Kopp
Jericho Books     2013
213 pages     Spiritual

At my cousin's wedding many years ago, my grandmother, a Methodist minister's wife, touched her wine glass to her pursed lips. After a small sip, she whispered to her sister, "Try the wine." To which her sister replied, "Well, dearie, I've tasted wine before!" There, in a nutshell, is my upbringing. 

My husband, Lee, and I took a trip to Europe when we were very young to teach ourselves to drink—truly. We were sure that we wouldn't go to hell if we had a glass of wine now and then, but we just had no experience. We wanted to be "cool" and "with it" among our group of friends, and so we learned to drink. Both of us were seminary trained; we were lifelong Methodists; drinking was not part of our life experience. It took us many years to feel comfortable at all with even small amounts of alcohol. On the other hand, when our oldest child was born, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) at our little country church wanted to have us take a pledge that our child would never drink. We refused because we knew that was a foolish pledge for parents to make for a 6-month-old. 

In Sober Mercies, Heather Kopp, a well-known Christian author and a recovering alcoholic, has written a memoir of her spiritual journey through alcoholism and a twelve-step program to recovery. It is raw and very honest. It also questions the roots of Christian ethics and morality that makes a Christian feel that he or she should be beyond or above the sin of addiction. She says, ". . .my Christian background had in many ways actually inoculated me against spiritual growth. For decades, I had heard the same truths over and over in a language that had become so familiar that everything I heard rang of something I thought I already knew. That meant that for years, deep spiritual truths I head in church had bounced off of me like a rubber ball off cement. She adds, "I had mistaken a belief-based faith for an experience-based faith. I'd been on a prideful intellectual journey aimed at being right about God instead of on a desperate soul journey aimed at being real with God."

Healing began for Kopp when she got tired enough of living a lie that she checked into a treatment center and a 12-step recovery program. Of course, her recovery had its ups and downs, but ultimately she found herself on the other side of addiction. Along the way, she learned to accept the mystery of God's grace and let go of a belief system about God that allowed no room for error. Add to that a wonderfully supportive husband who put up with years of abuse from his alcoholic wife, and you have a remarkable narrative of spiritual growth and ongoing healing.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kopp's story is the way in which she began to understand that God works in people's lives in many different ways, and not just in the prescribed ways of the traditional theology of sin and redemption. She ponders the thought, "The God I thought I knew and understood was not the God who could save me. What if I could rediscover God as I didn't understand him—and arrive somewhere closer to the truth?" This part of Kopp's story really resonated with me. As I age, I rely more and more on the mystery of the spiritual experience and less on theology. Many of the people that Kopp encountered on her path to healing called out to God in ways that she didn't immediately understand, but she grew to appreciate their faith as valuable to them and she learned from them. And this is grace, given for all by a merciful and all forgiving God.

In Sober Mercies, Kopp describes her faith journey in a way that is not preachy or didactic. It is the truth, and we can all grow from her experience. She tells us that it is not necessary to try to "pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps." "We have a ravenous appetite for spiritual sustenance." What we crave is grace.

Another outstanding memoir of alcoholism is Ninety Days by Bill Clegg. You can find my review here.

A review of Sober Mercies in the Christian Century: http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2013-11/sober-mercies-heather-kopp
Heather Kopp's website and blog: http://soberboots.com/


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Three



 by Sarah Lotz
Little, Brown    2014
422 pages     Fiction

Four planes crash around the world on the same day, and three children—perhaps four—are the only survivors—one from each crash. It's called "Black Thursday," and it creates a huge sense of foreboding around the world, particularly because a woman who is able to send a message before she died warns her preacher to beware of the boy. The preacher seizes this as an opportunity to make his mark as an evangelist. He claims that the survivors are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He says in a sermon, "Now, John is told that the first four seals will come in the form of four horsemen. We know, and this is a fact, that the four horsemen are sent to fulfill a divine purpose. And we know from Ezekiel that that purpose is to punish the faithless and the godless. The horsemen will bring plague, famine, war and panic to the earth; they will be the harbingers of the Tribulation." Wow! What a burden to place on the survivors? Or are they merely survivors or something more sinister? The goal of The Three, of course, is to figure out who these children are. By book's end, the entire world is in turmoil; 69 percent of Americans believe that the end of the world is imminent, and politics in the United States takes a nasty turn as theocrats win the election. 

The Three's design is a non-fiction book within a novel. An author, Elspeth Martins, pieces together the Black Thursday story through interviews, emails, articles, online chats, and memoirs and publishes it in a non-fiction book, which is the fabrication upon which The Three is based. It is a clever format that spins science fiction, religion, and media madness together to make a compelling novel. By reading each short entry, the reader weaves together the tale. It is very skillfully written, and rather remarkable to read, once you catch on that you have to cull out the clues from each message, conversation and online chat. When the book reaches its climax, you are overwhelmed with the details that led to this moment.

One interesting side note that ended up being crucial to the plot is that one of the planes crashed in a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest is called Aokigahara Forest, and it is where many Japanese go to commit suicide. In actuality, Japan has more than 30,000 suicides each year, one of the highest rates in the world. Here is an article about the forest, with some great photographs. I knew nothing about the Aokigahara Forest, but of course, you can find anything on the Internet. Don't think I want to go there.

Sarah Lotz is a South African screenwriter and author. She describes herself as a writer of "pulp fiction." She says this of the plot line for The Three:  “I do think that an event on this scale would change society to some extent. Perhaps not to the extent that I’ve depicted in my novel, but I do think it’s these disasters that cause us to look at ourselves and reexamine our society. We don’t always learn from them but they do tend to cause a shift either in the way we live in the world, or the way we perceive it.” 

I started reading The Three just before Flight 370 disappeared off the coast of Malaysia. It was all just too real! I had to quit reading, and when I began again, I just couldn't put it down until the very last interview Elspeth makes with a relative of one of the survivors. I kept thinking that the novel would make a great mini-series, and apparently it has been optioned to be just that. 

Believe me! It's a great summer read! One reviewer's conclusion: "If The Three isn’t the year’s most chilling work of fiction, I don’t know what is. Assiduously ambiguous, brilliantly balanced, carefully controlled and in the final summation fantastically crafted, it makes sense that this is the first of Sarah Lotz’s solo novels to be published outside South Africa. The Three is easily the best thing she’s written, and she’s quite right to want to own it." 

An excellent review on Tor.com science fiction website.
A review in the Washington Post.
An interview with Sarah Lotz in Kirkus Reviews.