Wednesday, January 31, 2007

River Secrets

This is the third Bayern book by Shannon Hale. I don't have much to say about it. The writing, although mostly wonderful, felt slightly less polished than her others (but it's been a while since I read them). Not too surprisingly, we meet a water-speaker in this one. She does a great job in creating and filling out the character of Razo, but the other characters are not quite as vivid as before.
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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Places in Between

Over the course of 40 days, the author of this book walks across Afghanistan a mere 6 weeks after the fall of the Taliban. In the dead of the winter. What kind of crazy guy is he? He describes his treks through the snow, in blizzards, across mountain passes. He relies on the goodness of villagers along the way to provide him shelter and food. He picks up a large retired fighting dog along the way that accompanies him for much of his walk. In the opening chapter, a member of the newly reformed Security Service warns him: "It is mid-winter. There are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." My main reaction was incredulity that anyone would subject themself to such a daunting task.

Through his journey, he meets members of all four of the main ethnic groups in the country and through the recounting of his experiences with them, I got a tiny taste of Afghanistan: the regional differences, the narrow local focus, the differences in worldview of Afghans compared to Westerners. I wish he would have given a bit more of the history and filled in details. More, he simply describes his trek.
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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mother Teresa

In February, our book group will be discussing Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography by Kathryn Spink. I don't think there could be a drier biography of such an amazing woman. The information about her life was fascinating, but the manner in which it was presented was so hard to get through. But because there are several other things I want to read, I forced myself to push through it in short order.

As to the writing:

  • She records events, but doesn't have a compelling narrative to string it all together
  • It is a jumble chronologically, and the themes of her chapters aren't strong enough to carry it by (supposed) topic
  • It is full of Catholic terminology, without much explanation. I assume the author is Catholic, and she seems to be assuming that I am Catholic.
I also am innately suspicious of the "authorized" biography. What is she leaving out? What is she scrubbing clean? I do feel like we don't get a very full picture of Mother Teresa's personality, but I don't know if that's due to poor writing or to Spink's desire to never make even a slightly negative comment about her subject. There are a few times when she mentions something that was controversial, but its discussion is always limited to only a few lines, and it's clear that the author feels like she is writing about a near perfect person.

It is truly amazing, though, the things that Mother Teresa did. Her vows of poverty and her consistent and steadfast desire to serve the poorest of the poor. The leprosy houses and the death houses, where people could be treated with dignity and respect. She obviously had a calling to this work, and she was successful in helping so many of the downtrodden of society. I thought it interesting that each Missionaries of Charity chapel was inscribed with "I Thirst". however, I didn't end up with a great feeling of regard and love for Mother Teresa after reading the book. She felt flat to me, and I think I will look for some documentaries about her in order to hear her speak and give her a bit more body.

And honestly, the feeling I came away with from the book was that while she would be an amazing person to meet, someone to hold in high esteem, and someone who did so so much good in the world, she was also inflexible, bossy, and someone you couldn't really sit down with and have a chat with. But really all of those things helped her in her single-minded determination to help the poor.

This line in the book struck me: "In the historic struggle between Galileo and the church, Mother Teresa would have taken the side of the Church, the side of obedient faith against radical progress based on rational faith." Spink seems to be suggesting that taking the side of the church against Galileo was the higher road. She also suggests here and other places that Mother Teresa never questioned the church's authority and position. And that she would follow the church no matter what. That's very different from what I naturally do. "Obedient faith" is not my forte, and I am a thinker and questioner and doubter.
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Addressing envelopes

One of my major pet peeves is receiving a letter addressed to Mr and Mrs John Doe. My mom recently addressed an envelope this way. My identity is completely subsumed inside my husband's name. UGH! I am not just a subset of my husband! I am my own person. Please distinguish me from him by including MY NAME on the envelope. Jane and John Doe would be just fine.

Last night, as I glanced at a letter than had come to us addressed this way, I slammed my fist onto the counter top. Here was my husband's name, exactly the same name he had been given at birth more than 30 years ago. But there was absolutely no vestige of any piece of my birth name. In this way of addressing, the girl I was has completely disappeared. My marriage has transformed me into someone different, to be identified only by my relationship to my husband. Yet, his identity as going from a single to married man has remained intact. UGH and UGH again!
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Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Blink was the selection for book group this month, and so I reread this widely popular and fascinating account of the way humans can make instantaneous decisions by Malcolm Gladwell. I found that my reaction the second time through was quite a bit different than the first.

The first time, I was taken, amazed, and intrigued by Gladwell's anecdote after anecdote: speed dating, the health of marriages, Greek statues, and food tasters to name just a few, all woven together in a narrative about how humans are wired to make sound judgements in short order. I love reading Gladwell in the New Yorker. He turns an argument on its head, but in such a logical and unimpeachable manner, and tells the stories to back it up that I am led to believe him and feel he is a harbinger of social change. Blink reads like a series of New Yorker articles with the same clear narrative, embedded in larger arguments.

This time through, though, instead of focusing the majority of my attention on his examples, I concentrated on his over-arching theory. He starts out the book with quite grandiose claims:

1--Blink will convince the reader that decisions made quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately. Ok, so I think he met this objective with me.
2--We will learn when to trust our instincts and when we should be wary of them. "When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood." Totally failed with me. With all the examples where accurate judgment was rendered instantly and where it failed, I couldn't see the big lessons. "If someone 'looks' like a president, I should be wary of his ability to be a good president?" (Warren Harding example) "If someone is black, I need to know that I probably have unconscious biases towards them?" (Implicit Association Test and the Amadoo Diallo example)
3--We will be convinced that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled. I might be slightly convinced, but I don't have really a good of how they can be trained.

I read a couple of reviews that echoed what I felt:

From Still, it's hard to know what to do with this news about how our unconscious works...If you're looking for one, this is the main flaw in Gladwell's work: He sees great meaning in the connections between many bodies of research, and he claims nothing less than that the meaning he has extracted could possibly change life as we know it. But in the end he's not very specific about how such changes will occur, or about how we should proceed in implementing the things he shows us. There are likely to be many readers who'll feel empty by the end, who will question whether the entire theory actually means anything or whether, instead, they've just been treated to a tour of Gladwell's really fabulous cabinet of strange wonders, and that all there is to do about it is discuss what they saw. (I love that language!)

From NYT: If you want to trust my snap judgment, buy this book: you'll be delighted. If you want to trust my more reflective second judgment, buy it: you'll be delighted but frustrated, troubled and left wanting more.
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Ines of my Soul

When I started reading Isabel Allende's newest book, I didn't realize that Ines, the book's narrator, was based on a real person. Ines Suarez, who left her life as a poor seamstress in Spain in the 1530's, was a conquistadora and influential in the formation of the modern nation of Chile. Allende wrote the book, I think, in large part to give voice to a woman who although had contributed greatly to the conquest of Chile and the building up of Santiago, had largely been forgotten by historians.

The story telling is wonderful and I really enjoyed reading this book. AJ gave it to me for my birthday, and I read it the first week of January as I sat in the hospital with MJ. I learned quite a lot about the Spanish conquest of Chile.

I would love to learn more about Allende's process of putting the book together. She makes Ines into a fiery, independent, and tough woman, and I wonder how she found out about her in the first place and what documents she used to piece the story together. How much is really known about Ines?

I listened to a short interview with Allende on NPR and she (first?) found Ines in the Inquisition records of Ines' lover, Pedro de Valdivia. Pedro was married and had left his wife in Spain to come to the Americas as a central figure in the conquest of Spain. Allende describes the love that motivated Ines to follow him to Chile and help him fulfill his dream to extend Spain's territory to the south. Allende said that one she found Ines' connection to Valdivia, she was researched other Spaniards involved in the conquest of Chile to piece together a story. Still, though, I am left unsatisfied with the back story of the novel.
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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Approaching Prayer

As part of my newly aquired taste for easily accessible and interesting audio, I have jumped on the Podcast bandwagon. Two of my favorite NPR shows (This American Life and Speaking of Faith) are offering free podcasts of their shows, so I can easily download them to my IPod and listen to them whenever I want. This contrasts with the hit and miss (and partial listening) to them on the radio.

Yesterday as I was driving around in the car, I listened to a recent Speaking of Faith episode called Approaching Prayer. Then, tonight, as I was doing the dishes I relistened to portions of it. There were three guests that discussed with the host different modes of prayer. I have a lot of thoughts stemming from listening to this. But, I wanted to specifically talk about Steven Mitchell, one of the guests, and some of the things he shared. He has translated many sacred texts. As mentioned in the show, one reviewer said that he translates God into English. He talked about the love that he has for sacred texts--both prose and poetry--and his desire for intimacy with them. So, he immerses himself in something specific for a given period of time. He used an analogy that really caught my attention. If someone is pointing their finger at the moon, we don't look at their finger, but at the moon. Sacred texts are valuable inasmuch as they point us to something bigger. We don't want to get trapped staring only at the texts, but trying to glean their larger message. What shines through the words is what we really care about. He talked about what is at the edge of the words. The most they can do is speak with a kind of depth and beauty to point beyond themselves.

This reminded me of a talk given by an undergrad in our Princeton ward. James was a recent convert with a non-Christian background whose family lived in Long Island. He discussed how words are meaningful only inasmuch as we give them cultural significance. We use words to describe abstract concepts. As soon as the words leave our mouths, they exit and disappear forever into the universe. But, what we are trying to represent with those words maintains.

But, back to Mitchell and the program. It was amazing and I really felt spiritually invigorated and excited in a way that I haven't in a while. I felt inspired to look to other faith traditions at their sacred texts. The first guest on the program was Anushka Shankar who plays the sitar. She talked about Indian (and Hindu) chanting. But, as I listened, I thought that there must be certain cadences in the universe and that there are probably many ways to tap into them. I would like study texts from other religions to see what kinds of insights they have. Mitchell has a few anthologies that I want to look into.

In general, though, it was so refreshing to hear prayer talked about in a different way. In a way that really made me want to improve my dialogue with God, rather than feeling like "yeah, I really should work on that."
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Ten Circles Upon the Pond

Another book. I read this one a while ago. It is the memoir of a mother with 10 kids. 10 kids! wow. She and her husband are Catholic and that played a big role in her decision to have such a big family. She stays home with her children and writes this book when she is older. She devotes a chapter to each child. On one of her children's 4th or 5th birthday, she took her alone to an event. The little girl was scared. "I've never been alone with you before." Yikes! I can really see how my relationship with MJ has changed since T was born. And I can't imagine how parents could maintain individual relationships with each child in a large family (although I believe it could be done.) Just so hard.

It was hard for me to really "get" this book. Not only the desire for a big family, but wanting to live in rural areas.

One of my other problems with the book was that it was hard to keep all the pieces together. First, all the different children. But also, there weren't many larger themes that drew the chapters together, at least that I could. (Besides family)

Not much else to say about this one. Just wanted to put up a bit about it. (But 10 kids!)
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