Wednesday, July 1, 2015

We Need Our Differences

This is the full text of the talk (sermon) I planned to give in my ward's (congregation's) Sacrament Meeting (the main worship service for Latter-day Saints) on Sunday, June 28, 2015. The Young Women (girls aged 12-18, I'm the president of the ward's organization) had just returned from a five-day-long camp and were each given the opportunity to speak to the ward about their experiences and testimony. They did a great job and I'm so proud of them! Time ran short and I had to cut my remarks about in half. However, since I've had several requests for the references I used, I thought I'd just post the whole thing here for what it's worth. Hyperlinks will take you to the original sources of the quotes on lds.org, except for one quote by Chieko Okazaki that's in a book that I own.

TL;DR - We're all different in many ways, and God made us that way on purpose. We need to rejoice in our diversity, seek it out, learn from it, and certainly never reject, ostracize, denigrate or ignore others because of it. We also need to work toward unity by reaching out to each other, truly feeling love for each other, and then acting on that love in meaningful ways.


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We have an amazing group of young women. Each is “a beloved spirit…daughter of Heavenly Parents.” As I’ve spend time with these girls over the past couple of days at camp and in various settings over the past couple of years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of their personalities, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and opinions. Girls’ camp can be such a great bonding experience. By putting the young women and leaders together in a different setting from a standard church meeting or activity, we see a new side of each other – who has a limitless supply of hilarious jokes, who is the first every time to volunteer to do dishes or fetch water, who is ridiculously determined to cram that uncooperative tent back into the tent bag. Each of you young women contributes something precious and unique to our group. These differences make our lives richer and more interesting, they broaden our perspective and expand our hearts. Sr. Okazaki, a member of the general RS presidency years ago, said:

“…look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Rejoice in Every Good Thing,” October 1991 GC)

Particularly I think in our teenage years, but for those of us who are grown as well, it can feel like there’s safety in numbers. It’s more comfortable for most of us to not stand out from the crowd, to blend in, to conform. We can slip into the false mindset that if we’re like someone else, we’re safe, we’re ok. I love this analogy from Elder Wirthlin that reminds us that the diversity of God’s children is intentional, not accidental, and we need to be ourselves rather than try to be someone else:

“The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has [her] own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
“This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children…” (Joseph B. Wirthlin, "Concern for the One," April 2008 GC)

It also seems like the teenage years are the prime time for people to feel picked on for being different. One day I came home from middle school upset about someone teasing me for being different, my mom put a label on it, “Middle-school-itis.” She said something to the effect of “Mostly, when people give you a hard time for being different, they’re just scared. They feel threatened. You see, if what you believe or do is different from what they believe or do and you’re happy and confident, then sometimes people get worried that that means that they’re wrong or that what they’re doing is not ok, or not as good. They’re insecure and afraid, and they’re trying to make you feel as insecure and afraid as they are.” President Uchtdorf alluded to this mindset when he said:

“…while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every [daughter] different from [her mother]. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” April 2013 GC)

And another analogy from Sr. Okazaki:

“[P]lease don't think that you must make footprints exactly the same way that everyone else does...I say this because some of you may feel as if you're permanently out of step. Some of you may be single in what seems like a married church. Some of you may be childless in a family-centered church. Some of you may be struggling in a ward where everyone else looks as if their toughest decision is which tie to wear to sacrament meeting. I'm here to tell you you can do it your own way...There are many ways of being righteous. There are many ways of being Mormon..." (Chieko Okazaki, "Following in Faith," Being Enough)

Unfortunately, sometimes we’re not comfortable enough even at church to show our differences – we’re human, scared of how others will react, scared of being hurt or rejected. Church should be a safe place for us to be ourselves, to be vulnerable and genuine. As President Uchtdorf recently said: "We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “On Being Genuine,” April 2015 General Conference)

We all need to contribute to making church a place where it’s safe to be different, where everyone feels welcomed and celebrated and wanted, not just those who fit a certain mold. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone and we need to act like it. Elder Holland had some strong words on this topic:

"Some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them--and the Lord. The Church is made stronger as we include every member and strengthen one another in service and love." (Jeffrey R. Holland, "Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction," Liahona, October 2007)

And I love Sr. Okazaki’s counsel here:

“Let us value everyone’s contributions. Let us not exclude a sister, whatever her life choices and whatever her circumstances. Let us express trust that she used both study and prayer in making her decisions, and provide a supportive environment in which she can carry out those decisions, evaluate them for their success, and modify them if necessary. If change is necessary or desirable, it will be easier in a nurturing, supportive atmosphere…let us never judge another. We do not know her circumstances. We do not know what soul-searching went into her decisions…Let us be accepting and supportive as sisters. Let us trust the Lord, trust ourselves, and trust each other that we are trying to do the best we can.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Rowing Your Boat,” October 1994 GC)

In several places in the New Testament Paul uses a great analogy to describe the members of Christ’s church.  He says:
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or fee; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

Then he sets up a couple of different scenarios, first:
“If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (v 15-16).

Here we have a member comparing themselves to another member and concluding they themselves don’t belong because they are different. And here’s Paul’s response:
“If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.” (v. 17-18)

The body couldn’t function if every member were the same, and God made it that way deliberately. And then here’s the second scenario, almost the opposite of the first:
“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (v. 21)

Here a member is rejecting another member because of their differences, demonstrating pride, claiming they don’t need the other members. Paul’s response is adamant:
“Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundance comeliness.” (v. 22-23)

Every part, every member is necessary for the body to function. The hand might be more glamorous than the elbow, but couldn’t do its job without it.
“That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member by honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (v. 25-26)

All members are needed, and should care for, suffer and rejoice together. We lose something precious and irreplaceable when someone - anyone - leaves.

Don’t fall into either trap. Don’t look around at all the other people and decide that you’re just too different, so you don’t belong in this Church. And for heaven’s sake, don’t look at someone else and decide they are too different, you don’t need them in this Church.

Not only do the foot and hand and eye all need each other, they need their opposite as well. We have two eyes to provide depth perception, perspective. Hearing out of two ears allows us to pinpoint directions sounds are coming from. Having two hands and arms on opposite sides of our body expands our reach. Opening our minds and hearts to different views and opinions, varied life experiences of other members, all grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, provides us with a more complete understanding of each other and how we can work together for the benefit of all and the glory of God.

Quoting Paul's analogy, Pres. Packer said this last fall:

“We seek to strengthen the testimonies of the young and old, the married and single. We need to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to men, women, and children, those of every race and nationality, the rich and the poor. We need the recent convert and those among our numbers descended from the pioneers. We need to seek out those who have strayed and assist them to return to the fold. We need everyone’s wisdom and insight and spiritual strength. Each member of this Church as an individual is a critical element of the body of the Church.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Reason for Our Hope,” October 2014 GC)

We need our differences – “different” doesn’t mean “bad”. It might mean new or uncomfortable or misunderstood or I need to learn more, but different is good, it is vital, it is intentional.

“Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church…As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.
The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” April 2013 General Conference)

So we’ve heard from church leaders that our diversity and differences in talents, experiences, opinions, and applications of the gospel to our lives are a strength, are needed in this church. But we are also commanded several times in the scriptures to “be one,” and Christ must be serious about it because He warns “if ye are not one, ye are not mine”. How do we do that? How do we honor the differences while becoming one?

I noticed something about every scripture I read about unity while preparing for this talk. In every single case, unity was linked with love, and often specifically with charity, the pure love of Christ. First, we need to truly desire unity and then pray for the charity it requires “with all the energy of heart”. Then we reach out to each other in love, to get to know others who are different from us, to strike up conversations, to find ways to serve meaningfully, to open our homes and invite people over, to ask questions, to listen to their stories and learn from their experiences. This is easier for some than for others, but we can all do something to reach out to someone.

If we find ourselves drifting into a judging mindset, “hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm”, we need to take President Uchtdorf’s advice and simply “stop it!” We should assume the best of each other.

“The most important lesson [is] that we are truly all one in Christ Jesus. We are one in our love of the Savior. We are one in our testimonies of the gospel. We are one in faith, hope, and charity. We are one in our conviction that the Book of Mormon is the inspired word of God…We are one in loving each other.
“Are we perfect in any of these things? No. We all have much to learn. Are we exactly the same in any of these things? No. We are all at different points on our journey back to our Father in Heaven…God has given us many gifts, much diversity, and many differences, but the essential thing is what we know about each other—that we are all his children. Our challenge as members of the Church is for all of us to learn from each other, that we may all love each other and grow together.” (Chieko Okazaki, “Baskets and Bottles,” April 1996 GC)


It’s my hope that our Young Women organization and our ward can more fully appreciate, enjoy, and celebrate the God-given differences we have, that we can all help make church a safe place to be different, and come together more completely in love and unity, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 124

~1~

It's baseball season again!  In the past two weeks we've been to three games including opening night, of course, plus the opening social and home run derby and it feels like summer!

Posing with Otto, the world's only
Spokaneasaurus (don't ask, I have no clue...)

Evan showing off his Spokane Indians shirt

Josh being silly :)

What's a ball game without a really messy chili dog??

~2~

I love these "12 Works of Literature Recreated in Legos."  Especially The Lord of the Rings. And Harry Potter.  And Moby Dick is sure impressive, too...

~3~

Aren't these bookstores gorgeous?? I love the first one - it reminds me of the Vienna Staatsoper where I attended dozens of ballets and operas on my study abroad.  And someday I will go to Atlantis Books in Greece.  It's definitely on my bucket list now.

Poplar Kid's Republic in Beijing makes me want to be a kid again, just so I can crawl into some of those hidey holes.

~4~

After recent reports regarding the Red Cross and how they (mis)spent the money donated after the huge earthquake in Haiti, it seems all the more important to research very carefully before donating to any charitable organization.  This website, GiveWell.org, does in-depth research on charities, not only how much money goes to what end, but how effectively it's used in reaching the organizations' stated goals, and how much good is accomplished per dollar spent, and is impressive in its thoroughness and transparency.  They even have a whole section of their website devoted to their own mistakes and shortcomings: what they did wrong, how it happened, and what steps they've taken to make sure it doesn't happen again.

This will be my first stop from now on when evaluating a new charity.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 123



~1-4~

This week has brought some rather startling and tragic news. Between the Rachel Dolezal story, and the shooting and murder of nine black men and women at a bible study at Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina - not to mention dozens of other recent stories - it's clear that race is still a pertinent issue in our society.

And then today is Juneteenth, a holiday I'm ashamed to say I hadn't even heard of until this year.

As a lily-white person of primarily northern European heritage, I feel for the most part it's my job to listen and learn, to step aside and let the voices of people of color be heard, to amplify them when I can, to acknowledge whatever aspects of racism have seeped into my subconscious and work to eradicate them.

I was going to create a list of links to helpful and thought-provoking articles, but instead I'm just going to encourage you each to do your research. Read something - lots of somethings - written by people of color since there is a wide spectrum of responses. Allow yourself to be outraged and moved to action. Don't let yourself take the easy cop-out of "I'm not racist!" Take a good hard look at yourself and how you can do better. If you are a praying person, pray to know how best to help and support those who are hurting right now. We are to "mourn with those that mourn" and to "comfort those who stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9). Let's do that.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Body Image Breakthrough by Jaci Wightman

Body Image Breakthrough is a short but powerful exploration of the concept and real-life implications of good and bad body image, communicated in the language of LDS Church doctrine and faith.

Wightman uses scriptural stories from Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego's refusal to bow down to Nebuchadnezzer's statue to the Fall of Adam and Eve to illustrate how our modern culture sets us all up, though women and girls in particular, to worship the idol of outward appearance and to feel destructive shame when we don't measure up. The book is full of quotes from General Authorities and other Church leaders, Christian speakers and authors, and scientific experts that point out the emptiness of that almost ubiquitous idolatry.

Wightman ties in the money-making motivations that drive the fad diets, fashion magazines, beauty products, weight loss companies, supplements, and specialty foods. She points out the unrealistic nature of the photoshopped images presented to us everyday and the vast efforts made to get us to feel we need to look that way as well. At best, all this emphasis on outer appearances is a huge distraction; at worst, it can lead to life-threatening medical and emotional conditions.

Stripping away all the noise, Wightman boils it down to the most essential truths.
Our ultimate goal is to stop heeding all the voices shouting at us to eat this way or that way, and to turn to the Lord for the truth we need most...One of the most important things I learned is that there's a sacred middle ground that exists between the extremes of body obsession and body neglect. It's a place of peace, a place of balance, and a place of incredible freedom...The only way I can be free is to embrace the real me.
Unlike many well-intentioned books or articles that address this topic, there is not a single word in this book about the hemline or neckline version of "modesty." Not a single one! Instead, modesty is demonstrated to be a characteristic that comes from the heart and follows naturally from a healthy sense of self-worth and value. Rather than using our body "as currency to win people over" by dressing a certain way - seeking approval or acceptance from others either by deliberately flaunting our bodies or by strictly following "modesty" guidelines - we should be glorying in the natural beauty and diversity of our bodies and finding our value in our intrinsic worth.
...take a look at the earth around you. You'll find not a cookie-cutter plan but an incredible amount of diversity in God's creations. Rather than boasting one look, one climate, or one landscape, each part of the world possesses its own unique and individual beauty...the earth stands as a witness that our Redeemer treasures beauty in many different shapes and forms.
I appreciated her chapter on fasting, a gospel principle I still struggle with. At first I was concerned. Encouraging someone who is already obsessed with their weight or body image or, heaven forbid, an eating disorder, to fast is not a good idea! But Wightman's take is much more all-encompassing than the standard twenty-four hour fast from food on the first Sunday of the month. It's "separating ourselves from the things of the world. It's about doing all we can to stifle the voices in the great and spacious building." It includes abstaining from anything that is causing us to sin or distracting us from our ultimate goals. And I love that she emphasizes how individual this type of fasting is. It may mean fasting from media that promotes a false ideal of beauty, cutting up credit cards for certain stores, averting your eyes while going through the checkstand, or even avoiding specific foods that have become an obsession for you.

This isn't a book to just read. It's a work-in-progress-you've-got-to-put-effort-in kind of book, too. Each chapter ends with a section of questions for personal introspection and investigation, pointing the reader back to the scriptures and to prayerfully consider personal applications, individual ways to peel back a layer of false beliefs about oneself and one's worth, and always pointing back to Christ.
As [Christ] teaches us--through prayer and pondering and time spent with Him--to see ourselves the way He sees us, we'll soon view our bodies very differently, not because our appearance has been altered or our trials have disappeared but because our inward thoughts and feelings have dramatically changed. 
Ultimately, what Jesus Christ is offering us is rest--rest from the pressure to conform to the image, rest from our insecurities and fears, and rest from the lies that have run rampant in our heads. To be at rest is to be free of anxiety, to be at peace both body and spirit...It's a rest obtained not by reaching our goal weight or by fitting ourselves to the image but by finally embracing who we are as women of Christ.

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Body Image Breakthrough: Learning to See Your Body & Your Beauty in a Whole New Light
by Jaci Wightman
ISBN: 9781462114382
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Review: Paper Towns & An Abundance of Katherines by John Green


Well, this is a bit embarrassing.  A friend lent me these two books more than a year ago (Thanks, Mary!), I read them and set them aside to write the reviews when I had some free time, and then they kept getting buried by other books or stacks of papers or other paraphernalia on my dresser. So here it is, more than 12 months after the fact, and they're going to have to share a review after I briefly skimmed them to remind myself of basic plot points.

I actually was a fan of John Green before I read any of his books, before I even realized he was THE John Green, from watching some of his Crash Course youtube videos on world history and his social and political commentary as one of the two vlogbrothers. His fast-paced patter and ability to connect dots and articulate concepts in a common-sense kind of way without making the listener feel stupid or angry is phenomenal and sets him apart from many of the other commentators out there.

His fiction is a completely different format, of course, though still focused on making connections and highlighting our shared humanity.

Instead of introducing a vast array of characters in these two novels, Green settles into an in-depth study of just a few, the interactions between them, and what they can teach us about ourselves and about life and humanness in general.

In An Abundance of Katherines, we meet Colin Singleton, a child prodigy who always happens to fall in love with girls named - you guessed it - Katherine. After the first few Katherines, it became more of a quest than a coincidence and now he's on a mission to "prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability" can predict the course of any relationship, all of which, he states, inevitably end "in breakup, divorce or death." Colin and his friend Hassan, who is avoiding the thought of college like the plague, take off on a road trip to help Colin recover from the latest Katherine breakup and meet a girl named Lindsey while passing through Tennessee. Lindsey is in a relationship with a boy named - surprise! - Colin, called TOC for "The Other Colin" for clarity's sake. In the end, Lindsey dumps TOC's cheating butt, Hassan decides to register for some college classes, and Colin has his first non-Katherine girlfriend ever after realizing that his Theorem can't predict the future; it can only explain the past.

Plenty of witty pop culture references and dialogue reminiscent of Green's youtube patter make An Abundance of Katherines an entertaining read.  Of course, there's lots of teen angst and a bit of navel-gazing, too, but it's familiar angst and navel-gazing. Colin says, "I just want to do something that matters. Or be something that matters. I just want to matter." Lindsey's concern is that "I'm never myself...I'm nothing. The thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real." Both of those are very real holes I felt as a teenager and young adult - and some days still do!

Paper Towns takes a different approach. Late one night towards the end of his senior year, someone sneaks in Quentin's bedroom window. It's his childhood friend and current classmate, Margo, wearing black face paint and a black hoodie. She enlists his help in wreaking revenge on eleven people who have wronged her - a boyfriend who cheated, the friend he cheated with, etc. - before she runs away. Quentin, determined to track her down, finds clues in a Woody Guthrie poster, a book of Walt Whitman poems, and old maps. He interprets these disparate hints as a trail of bread crumbs deliberately left by Margo who wants him to find her.

Long story short, when he finally tracks her down, she's not pleased. She didn't leave clues intentionally, and she didn't want to be found and dragged back into what she called her "paper life," "so trivial, so embarrassing...paper kids having their paper fun...", fake and empty. Quentin has to face up to his real motivations for looking for Margo.

The message of Paper Towns seems to be that other people are not just projections of us. They are they protagonists in their own stories, not supporting characters in ours, and are as complex and complicated as we are, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures we sometimes assume them to be as they fill a role in our story. "It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined," Quentin muses.

Both interesting and entertaining reads, I'm intrigued enough to pick up his other novels next.

*****************************
An Abundance of Katherines
by John Green
ISBN: 9780142410707
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Paper Towns
by John Green
ISBN: 9780142414934
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 122

~1~

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose books I've reviewed here and here) delivered some beautiful words of wisdom a couple of weeks ago at the 2015 commencement for Wellesley College.


A few highlights for me:

"Your standardized ideologies will not always fit your life, because life is messy."

"Feminism should be an inclusive party. Feminism should be a party full of different feminisms. So, Class of 2015, please go out there and make feminism a big, raucous, inclusive party."

"All over the world, girls are raised to be make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people. Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are."

"I don’t speak to provoke. I speak because I think our time on earth is short and each moment that we are not our truest selves, each moment we pretend to be what we are not, each moment we say what we do not mean because we imagine that is what somebody wants us to say, then we are wasting our time on earth."

You can read the whole text here.

~2~

Photo credit
Screen-time is a constant battle in our household. From the time the kids wake up in the morning until they drift off to sleep, it seems they are constantly either in front of a glowing screen or asking when they can be in front of a glowing screen.

And it drives me nuts.

It became such a problem that for now, screen time is only allowed on weekends, after chores are all done, and limited even then, but summertime introduces new problems. I've been pondering how to approach screen-time once school gets out and these two posts have given me some food for thought:

Momentum Optimization Project: Summertime Edition

No Screen-time Until

I want to help my boys develop some self-management skills with regard to screen-time, since I won't always be there to tell them to get off. And I want them to add some variety into their daily summer activities. I'm considering requiring completed chores, an hour outside, a half-hour reading, and piano practice before permitting screen-time, but I really like the idea of setting aside "creative time" and a few minutes for school-like stuff, too.

What do you do to manage screen-time madness?

~3~

This video is a brilliant and witty way to explain the concept of consent.  When public figures and elected officials are unclear on what consent looks like, or what qualifies as rape, it helps to break it down simply and with humor. Major kudos to the artists at Blue Seat Studios and RockstarDinosaurPiratePrincess!

~4~

I believe I've discovered my calling in life. I will be a bibliotherapist.

Or at least I'll read the book that Berthoud and Elderkin, a couple of bibliotherapists, wrote, The Novel Cure. From the article linked above:
One of the ailments listed in “The Novel Cure” is “overwhelmed by the number of books in the world,” and it’s one I suffer from frequently. Elderkin says this is one of the most common woes of modern readers, and that it remains a major motivation for her and Berthoud’s work as bibliotherapists. “We feel that though more books are being published than ever before, people are in fact selecting from a smaller and smaller pool. Look at the reading lists of most book clubs, and you’ll see all the same books, the ones that have been shouted about in the press. If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.” And the best way to do that? See a bibliotherapist, as soon as you can, and take them up on their invitation, to borrow some lines from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”: “Come, and take choice of all my library/And so beguile thy sorrow…”

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Book Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

A few weeks ago I attended a women's retreat in Seattle. This meant that I would spend at least twelve hours in the car - six hours driving each way - not including any incidental driving over the weekend. So I decided to try to listen to an audiobook from beginning to end for the first time in, well, ever. The Storyteller was that book.

I generally don't care for audiobooks. Verbally told stories don't seem to stick in my head as well as reading printed words on a page does and it's not often that I find myself doing something that keeps my hands busy but leaves enough space in my brain for listening to and comprehending a complex story. But I didn't mind this one so much. I actually think The Storyteller worked well as an audiobook. The reader did a good job differentiating between characters and her German accent was pretty decent. It enhanced the story rather than being distracting, which was my initial fear.

Here's the blurb from the book's website:
Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences,
they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t, and they become companions.

Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret—one that nobody else in town would ever suspect—and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With her own identity suddenly challenged, and the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?
Josef's deep, dark secret is that he was a Nazi - a guard at Auschwitz, to be precise - and he wants Sage to kill him as he believes he deserves. The story alternates between different perspectives: Sage, Josef, and Sage's grandmother, Minka, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz. So much has been written about World War II and the Holocaust, it can be difficult to find new ground to tread, but Picoult breathed life into these horrific, inhuman situations, finding the slivers of joy, humor, and humanity that remained amidst the tragedy and horror.

Picoult creates interesting characters with rich backstories and believable foibles and traits. I'm not sure I can say that I "liked" Sage - I object strenuously to infidelity, particularly when there's a marriage involved - but I could sympathize with her pain at the loss of her mother, her unhealthy coping techniques, and her loneliness. It was interesting to see how she changed over the course of the book - the strength she drew from the process of learning about Josef's past, turning him in to the authorities (personified by Leo Stein, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, who also develops a romantic relationship with Sage by the end), and settling on her final decision. Even the supporting cast of characters is intriguing. One of my favorites is her boss at the bakery and best friend, Mary D'Angelis, a former nun who found her true calling baking and painting. Minka's relatives from decades ago are three-dimensional and relatable, living as family and friends and reacting to the unbelievable events of the Holocaust.

But with all that, I can't help but feel just a bit emotionally manipulated whenever I read a Jodi Picoult novel. She sets the plot up to move in a fairly predictable direction and then there's always some kind of "gotcha!" twist toward the end designed to throw everything on its head (which actually gets pretty predictable itself after you've read a few of her books - I saw the twist in The Storyteller coming by halfway through).

It's not that I have anything against twist endings, or authors who want to surprise readers into thinking differently about a charged topic, or dealing with heavy, emotional issues, but it seems a bit exploitative to use the suffering and death of millions of people as a tool to get your point across, you know?

So read for the fascinating and well-drawn characters, read for the insight into the incredible depths of inhumanity humans are capable of, read if you're drawn to learn more about the Holocaust. Just brace yourself for the emotional whiplash.

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The Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult
ISBN: 9781439102763
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