Monday, April 26, 2010

Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community

By Henri Nouwen
Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2005

Week 17 Spiritual

Originally published in the early 1980s, Henri Nouwen wrote this book in response to rising threats of global nuclear war. He was a Jesuit priest and writer, and a reluctant activist. As he came to understand, resistance is more than an activist response to threats of violence; the work of peace is a force of life and involves far more than placards, arrests, and lying down in front of tanks. He begins to understand that peace activism involves prayer, resistance and community, and it is much deeper than protesting war or nuclear proliferation. And that’s what makes this book valuable today.

Peace work involves first of all prayer, then resistance and finally community. Nouwen believes that activism comes as a response to the vocation of peacemaking. We must truly be peacemakers in every aspect of our lives and surround ourselves with others in a peaceful community. He is establishing a spirituality for peacemakers.

One reviewer mentions that as he begins a Nouwen book, he always thinks Nouwen is simplistic and obvious, but as he gets into his books, he finds the profundity. I found that to be true as well. I thought, “What’s the deal? This guy is so naïve!” but as I read further, I began to want to underline nearly every sentence and memorize quotes. His profound knowledge about spiritual growth is overwhelming.

The point of activism is to help people find a place for themselves as children of God. People are searching for a home, and that by helping people find that home in Jesus, peace will come into their lives and into the life of the world.

I recently edited a dissertation written by a psychologist. The message of her dissertation was that pain extends beyond the generations, and that the pain of the holocaust goes on and on through generations that did not have personal experience with the war or the holocaust. This is the point that Nouwen is making. By eliminating fear and providing a peaceful world filled with Christ-like people, the purpose of Jesus will be fulfilled and the threat of nuclear proliferation will be eliminated.

I would not recommend this book as a first book to read by Henri Nouwen. Many people would recommend The Wounded Healer as a first book. I will remember that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Liar's Club

By Mary Karr

New York, Viking, 1995

Week 16 Memoir

When my brother first married at 19, he married into a household rife with dysfunction, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Years later, he commented, “How was I to know? We grew up in a great family--the Methodist Family of the Year, for God’s sake!” I felt that way too. There is no way that I could write a memoir of my crazy childhood, because it wasn’t crazy, but wonderful and filled with piano lessons and family picnics, and weeks at the cottage.

I like to read about crazy childhoods, however, and Mary Karr entertains and enlightens with scenes from two years of her childhood, 1961 when she was six and 1963 when she was eight, in her book, The Liar’s Club.

Reminiscent of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, The Liar’s Club is about two extraordinarily bright little girls, Mary and Lecia, their mentally ill and alcoholic mother, Charlie, and their hard-working, storytelling dad, Pete. Scene one of the story takes place on the Gulf Coast of Texas; scene two in the mountains of Colorado. An epilogue of sorts fills in some of the gaps in their parent’s lives and takes place in 1980 back in Texas.

I rather like that Karr is able to summarize the gist of their childhood in those two years. They were pivotal years, to be sure. Lecia and Mary have to not only manage their lives, but they must manage the life of their mother, who we are led to believe spends her days in bed, reading, drinking, throwing screaming fits, and sometimes painting. If you were to ask her what her career was, she would tell you that she is an artist, and I do believe that in her saner moments she taught public school art. Some of Mary’s better moments are spent with her Dad at the American Legion, where he drinks, plays pool, and tells stories. In the second part of the book, the parents are separated, and Charlie and the girls are living in Colorado, where the girls have to step in to monitor arguments between Charlie and her boyfriend, Hector, as well as fend off drunken cowboys, who are hired to be the girls’ babysitters. Some very dark things happen--things you pray wouldn’t happen to little girls--and Lecia emerges as the stable, take-charge early-onset adult that she became. When things get too bad to bear, Lecia has the presence of mind to call her Daddy collect and tell him that he must get them and bring them back to Texas. The most touching scene in the book is when they are reunited with their Daddy, and they go to sleep listening to him cry as they all cuddle in the same bed.

This is the first of three memoirs that Mary Karr has written. Before this book, she was primarily known as a poet, and that is one of the things that makes this book a satisfying reading experience. Karr has a precise ear for the dialect of Texas, for the stories and commentary that make up her childhood, and a remarkable visual and auditory memory. She tells the story in a lyrical, romantic style that draws you in and keeps you reading. calls this “one of the best books ever written about growing up female (or growing up, period) in America." Karr’s other memoirs are Cherry: A Memoir, and Lit: A Memoir. Lit was published just last year. Recently Entertainment Weekly rated The Liar’s Club as number four in the top one hundred books of the past twenty-five years.

I have to say that I liked this book, but I loved The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. However, I would like to hear Karr speak to see if she still talks the scrappy way she did as a child or the educated way of the college professor, which she is now.

Well, even though I will never be able to write an amazing, survivalist memoir of my childhood, I am constantly thankful that I had the love-filled empowering childhood that I did have. Thanks, Evelyn and Harry!

Here is an interview with Mary Karr on shortly after she wrote The Liar’s Club.

A snippet of a review in the New York Times:

The title of the poet Mary Karr's extraordinary new memoir is taken from the name that came to be attached to the informal club formed by her father and his drinking buddies....Ms. Karr inherited her father's remarkable gift for storytelling, and she has used that gift to create one of the most dazzling and moving memoirs to come along in years....Her most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthy, down-home Texan.... She's able to describe everything ... with equal poise, precision and wit. It's a skill used in these pages in the service of a wonderfully unsentimental vision that redeems the past even as it recaptures it on paper. Ms. Karr has written an astonishing book.
Michikio Kakutani - New York Times

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

By Alexander McCall Smith
New York, Anchor Books, 2009

Week 15 Fiction

I admit it. I love Precious Ramotswe, and I have for several years. Actually, this is my tenth outing with Precious, her husband Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni, and her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi. My love affair began about ten years ago with the publishing of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, where an eager audience was introduced to Precious and her delightful African way of viewing the world. It has continued with a new adventure every year and more insight into the brilliant and practical Precious and her remarkable understanding of human nature.

Precious is the only lady detective in Gaborone, Botswana—actually the only lady detective in all of Botswana. Her business is composed primarily of helping people through small personal crises, although she sometimes delves into meatier subjects. In this particular volume, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, she investigates the strange losing streak of the local football team and discovers why the saleslady is selling so many beds in the furniture store owned by Mma Makutsi’s fiancé. Precious thinks about solving the mysteries while drinking cup after cup of bush tea, the staple fixture of her life. She also is suffering from the loss of her little white truck, which her husband, an auto mechanic, has deemed unsafe to drive. Bush tea helps with that loss.

What is so amazingly attractive about these books? They are so gentle, so incredibly insightful, and it is so easy to become totally immersed in Precious’ life and the lives of the people around her. It is a look into lives that function in a world quite different from the materialism of the United States, the busy-ness of lives that don’t have time for their neighbors nor the time for a good cup of tea. The reader has time to rest with Precious, to share her morning walks in her garden, and to laugh with Mma Makutsi’s crazy views of the world.

Alexander McCall Smith has a knack for seeing the world through African eyes. He was raised in Rhodesia, and knows Africa intimately, although he now lives in Scotland. He never speaks of HIV/AIDS as such, only of the sickness that has taken so many of the parents of the children in the orphanage that Precious supports. The bush, and the animals, always present in the books, are only peripheral to the plot, just everyday parts of the lives of the residents. Precious and the other characters are exceedingly proud to live in Botswana, one of the most progressive African countries. Smith also understands women. Most of the protagonists in his several series of books are women, and all are interesting, well defined, and spot on.

When my sister and I went on a photo safari to Botswana, we only had two goals: to meet Precious and to share a cup of bush tea! Well, as we got off the plane at Maun Botswana, we were greeted by a lovely young woman named Precious. When we expressed our astonishment, she said, “I know. I get that from every middle-aged woman who comes on safari.” And to add to it, we were given a cup of bush tea as we arrived at our first camp. Our mission was accomplished in the first 24-hours of our trip. The rest of the time in Botswana was just icing on the cake.

Last year, HBO had a six-part series based on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. It was as lovely, gentle, and delightful as the books. Read some of the books first and then watch the series, which is available from Netflix.I highly recommend the Ladies Number 1 Detective Agency books for your summer reading. Begin at the beginning and work your way through the whole series. Your lives will be better because of them.

These books are universally loved, so I have not included a book review in this particular entry, but I have included Alexander McCall Smith’s web address. It is

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

by Barbara Ehrenreich

New York, Metropolitan Books, 2009

Week 14 Non-Fiction

On the days that I was reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, a cabinet fell on my daughter’s head while she was at work, the water heater rusted out, spewing water all over our basement floor, and my daughter’s car died. According to the positive thinking gurus Ehrenreich discusses in her book, I just haven’t been visioning happiness well enough, and I need to expel negative thoughts from my mind.

Ehrenreich was exposed to the foibles of positive thinking in 2000 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it got her researching the history of positive thinking and exploring the culture that has been built around it. While she was feeling very angry about her diagnosis, she was being told that those angry feelings were undermining her healing. She was assured that once this was behind her, her life was going to be so much more meaningful and that she would be glad that she had lived through the experience of cancer. She set out to gain an understanding of what made people think that way.

I had my own exposure to positive thinking in the 1970s when my husband Lee and I had a moderately successful Amway business. In the course of those years, we practiced all the positive thinking techniques she discusses in her chapter on “motivating business and the business of motivation.” We envisioned where we wanted our business to be; we practiced our affirmations; we went to business pep rallies and conventions; we inspired our business colleagues and ourselves. We tried to “think and grow rich.”

Ehrenreich discusses the effect of positive thinking on business, psychology, health, and religion. But she is relentless as she considers what all that positive thinking did as the economy failed in 2008. In fact, she believes that the bright-sided thinking may have caused the real estate bubble as well as the failure to understand what was happening when it burst.

What our country needs, Ehrenreich suggests, is a big dose of realism, “relentless hard-nosed empiricism.” She says that we expect our doctors to be realists, as well as our airline pilots and educators. We don’t expect them to be filled with optimistic affirmations; we expect them to do their jobs. She suggests that an economic recovery is going to happen, not because we “vision it” or “will” it to be, but because we buckle down, face the reality, and do the work that has to be done.

The book is another in Ehrenreich’s studies of American culture. Several years ago, I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and it was an amazing eye-opener on the people around me who were not making a living wage. Others of her books are This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation and Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

I found this an interesting read, especially the part about the mega churches and the preaching about prosperity that goes on in these congregations. Yet, I am not sure that I buy it all. I have always noticed that my attitude affects everything that happens around me, that I am more comfortable with myself when I am happy, and I think that I remain physically healthy because I plan to be healthy. However, I certainly don’t think that the water heater broke because I was thinking negative thoughts yesterday, or that the cupboard fell on my daughter’s head because she wasn’t envisioning greatness. Besides, there is a wonderful saying that encompasses all that isn’t positive thinkingShit happens!

Here is a great interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show:

Here is a review in the Washington Post:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

By Anne Lamott
New York, Riverhead Books, 2005

Week 13, Religious and Spiritual

With a great deal of self-deprecating humor, Anne Lamott continues her essays about the Christian life in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. A successful author and essayist, she is also a single mother of a teenage boy named Sam, a recovering addict, a Sunday School teacher, friend and believer.

Lamott is able to turn the mundane of life into spiritual lessons that are at once truthful and funny. One essay describes the establishment of a Sunday School at her church, which apparently is a downtown Presbyterian church in Marin City, California. The Sunday School began with an idea by Anne. She says, “One day, I could feel something tugging on my inside sleeve, which is the only place I ever hear from God; on the shirtsleeve of my heart.” She wanted to make church more fun for her son, and so the adventure began. The women beginning the Sunday School had no real plan or curriculum other than talking about Jesus and serving peanut butter sandwiches and juice boxes. Some of the children were very needy. “Some were wild. We did not exclude anyone, because Jesus didn’t. On bad days, I could not imagine what he had been thinking.” And she says, the Sunday School lurched forward.

She is first and foremost a mother, and her thoughts are always with her son Sam and his growing up. She says that Jesus would have been among the people throwing the first stone, if the person being stoned was 13 years old. She describes a walk they were taking when he was annoying her every step of the way, but once they stop for a rest, he wanted to sit in her lap. And in the midst of his most mind-boggling behavior, she is amazed by his gentleness and his love when he presents her with a diamond heart necklace for Christmas.

Lamott wrote most of the essays in Plan B during the buildup and the beginning of the Iraq war. A fervent Democrat and a progressive Christian, she really gives George W. Bush the “what-for” in these essays, but at the same time, she wants to believe that life will be good again. One of the funniest passages in the book concerns George W. It occurs as she prepares to go to a peace rally in San Francisco. She is nervous about it and decides to pray in preparation. “But then—a small miracle—I started to believe in George Bush. I really did: In my terror, I wondered whether maybe he was smarter than we think he is, and had grasped classified intelligence and nuance in a way that was well above my own understanding or that of our era’s most brilliant thinkers. Then, I thought: Wait—George Bush? And relief washed over me like gentle surf, because believing in George Bush was so ludicrous that believing in God seems almost rational.”

I envy Anne her friendships, which are so pure and deep. I envy her the dedication she feels to her church and her spiritual mentors, and her ability to remember sermons and her desire to be there for people who are suffering. I envy the profoundness with which she is able to concisely sum up an event in humorous but intensely spiritual terms. I think that I envy her faith, which supports and sustains her.

Lamott is at once profound, crass, irreverent, obsessive, and deeply, deeply Christian. Most readers will love her and be moved by her essays. This is not her first book of essays, but the one that has been sitting on my shelf for several years. Her other books of essays are Travelling Mercies and Operating Instructions, and she has a new novel, Imperfect Birds due out next week. You can also find her essays on

Here is a review of Plan B, from Maureen Corrigan on PBS Fresh Air.

Here is an interview with Anne Lamott made at one of her favorite churches, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.