Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Submission

 by Amy Waldman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
320 pages            Fiction

The Submission is an alternate history novel about the development of a memorial to the World Trade Center by journalist, Amy Waldman. Our city, Kalamazoo, Michigan, is reading the book for our community read this month, and my book club is discussing it this evening. It is an excellent choice for a community read because it delves into all the emotional and explosive issues surrounding September 11, 2001.

We all know where we were and how we felt when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. More than a year after the attacks, I visited my son in New York. He had a dinner party to introduce me to all his friends. At dinner, it was very important to my new acquaintances that they explain to me their experiences on that day. In part, it was how they introduced themselves to me; it was their new definition of themselves.

In The Submission, it is just three years later, and feelings are still very raw. A committee comprised of artists, historians, civic and political leaders along with a representative of the families have gathered to choose the winning design in a blind contest. One of the two finalist designs is a beautiful walled garden with the names of the deceased etched in the walls. After a great deal of debate, the garden design is chosen; then the group discovers that the winner of the contest is an American Muslim named Mohammad Khan. This information is leaked to the media and mayhem ensues. As one reviewer says, "The debate moves from the design's attributes to its attribution." A surprisingly intense review in Entertainment Weekly says that The Submission is  "a scathing, dazzlingly crafted indictment of the messes people make when they mistake ideology for morality and bigotry for patriotism."

The many characters in the novel are involved in vigorous debate, much of it recorded by the author. Some of the characters are exactly what you would expect--the Rush Limbaugh character, the blogger, the racists, the politicians, and the haters. There is also the dignified and wealthy woman representing her deceased stock broker husband and the other families on the committee; there is the itinerant younger brother of one of the dead firefighters seeking justice for his brother and his grieving parents; and there is young Bangladeshi widow of one of the World Trade Center's custodians who ultimately provides the moral compass for the novel. My favorite character is the de facto leader of the Bangladeshi community. He is a strong, resilient, loving man who exhibits that which is best in a city of divided loyalties. He remains true to his community and to the young widow he takes under his wing.

I frankly don't know when I have read a novel so compelling in its moral intensity. We are exposed to all sides of the controversy, and quite frankly, we are pulled in every direction. The only direction in which we are not pulled is in the direction of the architect, who comes off as a shallow, rather incomplete person whose motives seem opportunistic rather than altruistic. It is not until the end of the book that we get some real insight into Mohammad Khan's character.

This is not a plot driven novel, but you keep reading the dialogue and keep trying to figure out what should be the appropriate decision. And like almost all such political decisions, the compromise is unenlightened and superficial. Then there is the question about why we need symbolism and why we need to create memorials. I am sure, for instance, that there will be a memorial built to commemorate the children of the Sandy Hook shooting. I kept asking myself if a memorial to the World Trade Center, no matter what is chosen, can possibly solve the issue of terrorism in the same way that a memorial to the Sandy Hook children cannot possibly solve the issue of gun violence. In The Submission, the compromised memorial solves none of the problems nor does it serve as comforter. It is not until the epilogue that we learn what the whole experience has meant to the key players, and in one small heartfelt gesture, the humanity of all the players is brought to a moment of heart stopping clarity. It is the most fitting memorial.

This is Amy Waldman's first novel. She will be speaking in Kalamazoo next Tuesday evening. I will be there and if given a chance, I am going to ask her, "What was your motivation for needing to tie up the loose ends in the epilogue? " In the case of the World Trade Center, it is likely that the loose ends will never be tied up.

Chris Cleve's review in the Washington Post. Chris Cleve is the author of Little Bee which I reviewed a couple of years ago:
An interview with Amy Waldman on NPR:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--And Future

 by Karen Elliott House
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
308 pages     Nonfiction

Over the past thirty years, Karen Elliott House has reported about Saudi Arabia through her work with the Wall Street Journal. Her book, On Saudi Arabia, was published last fall, and my husband and I read it aloud as part of our breakfast reading.

The story of Saudi Arabia for the last half century has really been the story of one family, the Al Saud. The first Al Saud king, Abdul Aziz unified a bunch of disparate tribes to form the present country of Saudi Arabia. The family currently is huge--there are more than 2000 princes. One of the main problem is that the crown has been passed from son to son of Abdul Aziz; the current king is in his late 80s and the youngest son is in his 60s. At some point, if tradition is to be updated for the Al Saud family, the crown is going to have to be passed to the next generation. Who? And which line of succession will continue the rule? The princes are everywhere in the country, and they have their hands in every pie.

The country is so conservative and so traditional because the Al Saud family has control of everything. In the 1980s they chose to impose Wahabi Islam on the people, and religion controls everything. House compares Saudi Arabia to the last days of the Soviet Union only with more money. And the money is spread everywhere. But she also emphasizes that the money is finite. The oil revenue from Saudi wells may be at their peak and on the way down. Sixty percent of Saudis are under the age of 20, and there is great fear that the money will run out and the government largess will have to be controlled.

The high walls that have contained Saudis in their homes with their restrictive religion are crumbling fast primarily because the Internet has opened up so much to young people. There is no cinema in Saudi Arabia; women cannot drive or leave their homes without male escort; there are no nightclubs, but there are thousands of restless youth. In one chapter, House talks about how some young men turn to jihad as a way to find meaning in their lives, and how the government is trying to rehabilitate them with jobs, wives, and money. Yet, there are many, many young men without jobs, and most young Saudi men will not take the kinds of jobs that may be available--those are outsourced to willing workers from Egypt, India, and the Philippines. 

The aspect of Saudi society that I have pondered  again and again is the government policy of exporting students throughout the world to study. Does the king want to totally reform the country and thinks that this is the way? We have had three Saudi students in the small apartment in our home over the past two years. They have been part of the English language program at Western Michigan University where currently there are 500 Saudi students. I have also tutored about 15 of them, men and women, because word has spread that I tutor and edit papers. Each has their own story to tell about why they came to Kalamazoo, about what they are studying, and what they plan to do with their lives. As we have read On Saudi Arabia, I have probed a bit more about their lives, their wives, their children, and their futures.

The first thing I have noticed is that few of them are creative thinkers. Their education system is so force-fed that they have never had to do any intuitive work nor have they had to do any teamwork. So, when asked to form an opinion about something they have read, they have no resources. I have tutored several students who are getting Master's Degrees in education. One young woman is getting a PhD in Special Education, and I asked her about Special Education in Saudi Arabia. She said that she will be one of the first trained PhDs, and that is why she is hurrying so fast to get her PhD. Another man is so taken with the concepts of educational leadership, he can't wait to get home to reform the science education--for which he is a national consultant. What will they find when they return? Will the government let them put into effect the reforms that they are now trained to do?

My favorite story about creative thinking is about Dhafer, who is getting his Masters in Computer Engineering. He had to take a creative writing course in this first semester of his degree. He has found that he has a knack for poetry and fiction writing. He had to write a short story--never having read one in his life. So, we chose an incident that happened when he first arrived in the US and he turned it into a short story about a fictional him. Now, the teacher wants to publish it in a national journal for ESL teachers. He never knew he had it in him.

I have met few wives. I invited one family for Thanksgiving so their two-year-old could play with my granddaughter, but they declined to come; Anood, the wife, would be too uncomfortable because she would have to be covered. Several of the wives, however, just wear hijab, and some even drive the family car and take the children back and forth to school. Most of them want to have a baby while they are in the US so that they will have a US citizen in their family.

On Saudi Arabia gave my husband and me more ways to identify with our Saudi friends. When we have asked them something about what we learned from the book, they questioned where we got the information, but then mostly they begrudgingly agreed. One young man who is studying human resources said that his father is trying to buy a trucking company. (There are not many independent businesses in the country, according to House.) When I asked him about how that was going, he told me that the Prince who has control of the region is willing to help finance the purchase, but then he wants such a big cut of the business that the family doesn't think they will make enough money to support themselves after they pay the Prince.

Well--the stories I could tell. I am grateful that On Saudi Arabia came out while we were in the midst of this experience so that we can understand the country better. We have found our Saudis to be charming, responsible, caring, delightful young men. We are honored to have them in our home. We worry about them when they get home. Will they get jobs? What will happen to their country when the King dies? One man told me that he thinks they are only two years away from revolution. Another told me that he hopes a parliamentary system with a figurehead king (like Great Britain) will be the result. He is afraid for his country.

On Saudi Arabia has been very well received and very well reviewed. Karen House knows what she is talking about. There are extensive notes and references as well as her own observations. Journalism at its best. Here are two excellent reviews.
The review in the New York Times:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Gordonston Ladies Dog Walking Club

 by Duncan Whitehead
Dog Ear Publishing, 2012
189 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

Dogs, a beautiful park, Savannah, intrigue and murder. What more could you ask for? A complicated plot, you say? Ah yes, The Gordonston Ladies Dog Walking Club can provide that as well. 

Gordonston is the oldest suburb in the Savannah area, and about 200 families live in houses that range from brick mansions to smaller Arts and Crafts homes. This is the perfect setting for a murder mystery, and Whitehead has captured the neighborhood beautifully in a novel that evokes the British parlor mystery with quirky characters (including the dogs), a variety of twists and turns, and lots of secrets. And as in all good mysteries, the ending is a complete surprise. It is all the fun of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with none of the reality.

Setting, as we know, is one of the most important aspects of the classic murder mystery, and Whitehead knows this setting very well because it is the neighborhood where he currently lives. I have been to Savannah several times but have never been to this neighborhood. I loved reading about the Gordonston neighborhood and will certainly try to seek it out the next time we drive down that way.

Retired from the British navy, Whitehead is now writing full time and The Gordonston Ladies Dog Walking Club is self-published. From an interview posted yesterday on a blog, I learned that there are apparently going to be two sequels to The Gordonston Ladies Dog Walking Club. He says of his writing: "I love a story that come together and leaves the reader, or viewer, shocked or surprised by twists or connections." 

The good news is that the publicist has told me that the ebook is going to be available on Amazon for $.99 through Feb. 22. Also, Feb. 22 is National Dog Walking Day. Get a ebook now, take your dog to the park, sip a cocktail with some friends and read this delightful mystery. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Blogger's Biggest Fear

From the New Yorker Feb. 11, 2013

Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God

by Jay Bakker with Andy Meisenheimer
Jericho Books, 2013
192 pages     Spiritual

Jay Bakker continues his faith journey with his new book, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed. I read his book Fall to Grace  in 2011 and found it to be refreshingly honest and forthright. I feel the same about this book, although this one reads more like Bakker's sermons than the last book did.

The three themes he dwells on in Faith, Doubt are uncertainty, inclusion, and grace. Grace was the theme of Fall to Grace, of course, and he continues to explore that theme while also expressing his own uncertainty about the certainty of faith. 

He emphasizes exclusion and inclusion extensively; he is known for his gay rights advocacy. Bakker continues to fight against his Pentecostal background with its exclusionary atmosphere and literal acceptance of the Bible. He says, "The Bible isn't the place for answers. If we look to it for answers, we are expecting what it cannot deliver." The Bible is a story of an evolving faith, and we are supposed to evolve in our faith as well. Now I would suppose that might be heretical to some, but for liberal Christian me, it sounds rational and forward thinking.

He also expresses the doubts that come with an evolving faith, and I think that the passages in the book about doubt are probably Bakker at his strongest. I can just see a questioner coming to one of Bakker's sermons at the bar where he preaches on Sunday afternoon. Here is tattooed Bakker telling the skeptic, "You think you've got doubts? Well let me tell you--I've got doubts!" He is telling his parishioners and his readers that doubt is part of what makes us Christian. Certainty is the enemy and the concept of hell that keeps people in rigid conformity is also the enemy. "When people fail or make mistakes, we distance ourselves from them instead of restoring them. We're so reactionary. We don't seek the lost sheep--we thank God that we aren't like them, and we make sure they don't lead any other sheep astray. This is exactly the attitude that Jesus reacted against with the religious leaders of his day." 

Bakker evokes the great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich several times in his book, but he also quotes current movies, music and other aspects of popular culture as he seeks to be relevant to a new generation and a new world. My mainline, slow-moving denomination is also seeking to be relevant to a new generation and a new world. It is much easier for "one punk under God" to move ahead than it is for an unwieldy mainstream denomination to do the same. I stick with my denomination because it is trying to change and evolve. We live in a post-Christian age, and if we are to survive as Christians, we must listen to the voices of change and not be reluctant to the change that is coming.

There is an excellent review of the book in the March Sojourners magazine. The author says "In this honest, searching, and ultimately uplifting book, Bakker pulls doubt out of the shadows where many believers wrestle with it on their own and instead presents it as a reality that Christian communities can and should address together." 

Let the nay-sayers fuss and fume about potential heresies they hear coming out of Bakker's mouth. I for one will read him for what he is--a preacher who is willing to step out and testify about a sustaining faith that is changing, growing, and evolving. He says, "I've found peace thinking that faith is bigger than I used to allow it to be. I've found peace in the mystery, peace as the black and white fade into gray."  

Jay Bakker is the author of two other books: Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows and Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society. There is also a documentary about him: One Punk Under God. I watched it on Netflix.

His website is:

The review in the March Sojourner's magazine:

You might also want to check out my posting about Lillian Daniel's recent book, When Spiritual But Not Religious is not Enough. Or, you will probably also be interested in Rob Bell's book, Love Wins.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Diet Dropout's Guide to Natural Weight Loss

by Stan Spencer
Fine Life Books 2013
152 pages     Non-fiction
read as an e-book

I need to read a nutrition or diet book every once in a while to keep myself on track. The Diet Dropout's Guide to Natural Weight Loss is the kind of a book that you could read several times over just to remind yourself of your nutritional and fitness goals. Stan Spencer, the author, is a biologist, and most of the science-based information is very practical and written in simple, meaningful language.

At the outset, I need to say that Spencer is not advocating a particular diet plan, but he is advocating a lifestyle change. He offers basic information about eating patterns that cause weight gain, some practical ways to break those destructive eating patterns, and suggests basic nutritional guidelines for healthy weight maintenance. He says, "Natural weight loss simply consists of changing the situations, habits, and thought patterns that caused you to gain weight in the first place." And while I would quibble with the concept that natural weight loss is "simple," I certainly can relate to the concept of changing situations, habits, and thought patterns. 

One of his key ideas is the concept of mindfulness. This is a concept that I have practiced many times in my life but I have never consciously used in conjunction with my eating goals. I certainly have planned meals, eaten meals, stolen lots of snacks and junk food, and dieted. But, I never have used meditation and mindfulness to control and confirm my nutritional needs. Practicing mindfulness could be as simple as taking a deep breath before eating, or it could be as complete as spending 12 to 15 minutes a day in meditation. "As you focus on the present, try to keep an accepting, nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever you are experiencing at the moment." When I think about it; I eat the most when I am not mindful...when I am just filling my face without thinking. I guess you would call that "mindlessness!"

One of the major goals of the book is to help people stop emotional eating. He suggests five ways to achieve that goal:
1. Focus on the present
2. Mental relaxation
3. Healthy Thoughts
4. Social Interaction
5. Do Something Productive

Spencer doesn't suggest any particular diet plan, but he advocates eating three balanced meals a day. Each meal should consist of 45-65 percent carbohydrates, 10-35 percent protein and 20-35 percent fat. This ratio will cut down on cravings and emotional overeating. Of course he advocates exercise as one of the key components to natural weight loss.

The Diet Dropout's Guide to Natural Weight Loss is geared to people who have found weight creeping up on them and wanting to stop the habits that have promoted those weight gains. I found a lot of the information very useful, although I didn't read anything that I didn't already know. Sometimes it is important to be brought back to reality. One reviewer said that the book took high level concepts and reduced them to a simple language with specific tactics to make for a healthy lifestyle. I think I would sum the book up the same way.

The book is short, inexpensive and valuable. The Kindle version is only $2.99. Well worth having.
I read a book last year on the same theme: Full-Filled by Stephens and Rose. You might check that one out as well. Another meaningful book was Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth.
Spencer's website: