Friday, February 28, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 55

Here are some sweet acts of service that renewed my faith in humanity and made me smile (and maybe shed a tear or two) this week:

~1~

This 84-year-old grandma has been waving to passing high school students every school day - morning, lunchtime and afternoon - since 2007.  This simple act made such a difference to the teens that they organized a special school assembly to honor her on Valentine's Day and thank her for helping them smile.

"You can always count on her to be that warm smile on a dreary day."

~2~

Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) is an organization of some of the roughest, toughest, meanest-looking men and women with absolute hearts of gold.  They volunteer their time to escort victims of child abuse to and from court appearances or therapy, to support them in court, to take them to school, to form a human wall around their homes until they feel safe again - whatever it takes, as long as it takes.

Some quotes from the 6-minute video:
"These children become part of our family. They get their own road name, they get their own cut, they become a biker. Any time they're afraid they just call us and we'll be there."
"We are scarier than their perpetrators, we are scarier than their demons, it works."
"The transformation in them in physical, it's visual. You see them going from an abused child to an empowered child. They smile more, they laugh. It's really something to see. They get that any one of us would gladly take a bullet for them."
"It is probably the most important role I've played in my life...We're that single strand of barbed wire between hell and happiness for them...These kids get to you. All these kids are our heroes."
~3~

This experiment, filmed by the Norwegian branch of SOS Children's Village International to draw attention to the plight of internally displaced Syrian children, warmed my heart. I don't speak Norwegian, so the conversation part is lost on me, but the message comes through loud and clear.  The opening words are along the lines of "What would you if you saw a child freezing?" They reported that almost everyone offered the boy something: a scarf, gloves, or their coat.  People are really good at heart.

~4~

Harold Krueger served as a Marine in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, wearing the uniform for 44 years.  His wife of 63 years, Lavina, passed away in January of this year, less than a month before Harold's 90th birthday on February 21.  So his daughter, Debra, posted a simple request on facebook for friends to send cards or letters to cheer him up on his first birthday in more than 60 decades without the love of his life by his side. The response has been overwhelming as her post was shared hundreds of times and messages poured in from all over the globe.  According to her facebook page, they are still receiving dozens of letters a day!

If you want to send him a card, the mailing address is at the end of the video in the link.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society is a fun adventure/spy novel for older children.  Stewart deftly draws on several tropes - questing orphans, long-lost family members, child prodigies - as well as the general sense of unease children often feel about the grown-up world, to create a pleasant diversion for, well, perhaps a little longer than it should as the book clocks in at a whopping 485 pages.  (But it's fairly big print and reads relatively quickly.)

Anyway, out of hundreds of children who answer an advertisement in the paper - "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" - four are selected to form a unique team for the brilliant Mr. Benedict's project to save the world from a nefarious take-over scheme.  Messages are being transmitted through television broadcasts that are causing trouble across the globe, politically, economically, socially, in what's called the Emergency, but is basically shorthand for absolutley everything that's wrong in the world today.

Let me introduce you to these four children: Our protagonist, Reynie, is an orphan all alone in the world except for his friendship with Miss Perumal, his tutor. Stinky is a runaway with a photographic memory and is a certifiable genius. Eminently resourceful, Kate always has just the right item in her ever-present bucket. Constance is a pain; she's stubborn and rude and can't keep up with the others because she's so small, but she has hidden talents that, of course, prove to be vital to the success of the mission.

On one side you have the forces of The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, or L.I.V.E., which stand for control and fear and deception.  And on the other, you have Mr. Benedict and his rag-tag handful of operatives who stand for truth, freedom, and cooperation.

I appreciate the recognition that there are many different gifts, all of which can be useful and needed as part of a team; that's a great lesson for kids - and anyone - to learn.  And the oft-repeated counsel that teamwork is vital for success in life: "You are a team now.  Whether you always agree is inconsequential, but you must take care of one another, must rely upon one another in all things."

Important in a story with so many children separated from their families is the reminder that not all families look the same: "You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn't depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family."

All in all, it's an enjoyable read, though as I mentioned before a bit on the long-ish side, and I'll probably pick up the sequel to see what this collection of kids does next.

****************************
The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
ISBN: 9780316057776
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook, audiobook)
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, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings

Because I Said So! is a conglomeration of research into scads of the well-meaning but outlandish exclamations your parents spouted at you in your youth.  "Don't go swimming for an hour after you eat!" "Stay away from the poinsettia - it's poisonous!" "If you swallow your gum, it'll stay in your stomach for seven years!" And my personal bugaboo - "Don't crack your knuckles, you'll get arthritis!"

At turns hilarious and serious, Ken Jennings gathers research and scientific findings that address dozens of these parental edicts passed down through the generations. "That's the dirty secret of parenting: it's a big game of Telephone stretching back through the centuries and delivering garbled, well-intended medieval bromides to the present."

I distinctly remember, for example, my mother carefully inspecting every piece of Halloween candy we gathered trick-or-treating.  She never explicitly said that she was inspecting it for signs of tampering or poison, but the strictness with which we were charged not to eat any candy until mom had checked it out impressed upon my young mind that there was some hidden danger of which I was not aware.  Ken Jennings to the rescue!
Here are some things that are more widespread than Halloween poisonings:
* Death by elephant stampede
* Octuplets
* Being hit by a meteorite
That's because there hasn't be a single reported case of a Mad Halloween poisoner in history.
(I'll still insist on going through my kids' candy every October 31, however, to sort for food allergies and to lay claim to all of the Reese's and Snickers.  One benefit to having children who can't eat dairy, soy, and/or peanuts!)

Another standard of my childhood that I have carried on as a parent is that during recovery from a stomach bug, little sips of ginger ale is the first step back to "real food".  But Ken Jennings points out that the Centers for Disease Control actually discourages soda for upset stomachs "because too much sugar in your GI tract can cause osmosis, which will make diarrhea worse."  In addition, the carbonation can cause bloating, and there isn't enough nausea-calming ginger in standard ginger ale to actually help, well, calm the nausea.  Pedialyte or diluted fruit juice are better options.  Thanks for taking that single silver lining of stomach flu away, Ken.

Oh, and that gem about how eating carrots is good for your eyes?  We have military misdirection during World War II to thank for the popularity of that tidbit. Britain's Royal Air Force claimed that its pilots' impressive accuracy shooting down German bombers was due to "megadoses" of vitamin-A-filled carrots to hide the fact that they'd invented airborne radars and installed them in their fighters as early as 1939.

Jennings takes a more serious tone in the section titled "Just ignore bullies and they'll leave you alone!"  In fact, he says, that advice is "in many cases, the worst possible advice" and adult shorthand for "I have no idea how to solve your problem, which makes me uncomfortable."  Using recent research on bullying, he explains that "bullies are looking for the path of least resistance, and many will interpret silence as acquiescence: they got away with it, they 'won,' they'll come back for more the next time they need peer validation."  A lot of times - 22 percent of the time, according to a study done in 2012 - ignoring a bully "actually made things worse." The better option? "Telling someone--a parent, a teacher, or a friend--worked in up to 38 percent of all cases." Rather than telling kids to "solve their own problems" or "don't tattle", we should be teaching them "smart coping strategies" like "standing up for themselves, enlisting peers to help, confiding in adults" - the same strategies adults would use if they were being harassed.

Each article is brief and entertainingly presented.  The ones that stick in my head were the ones I heard most frequently as a kid, so I'm sure those that were a part of your childhood will be most meaningful to you as well.  All in all, an interesting and educational trip down memory lane.

*************************
Because I Said So!: The Truth behind the Myths, Tales and Warnings Every Generation Passes down to Its Kids
by Ken Jennings
ISBN: 9781451656251
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
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, February 21, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 54

~1~

The other day Gene came upstairs to find me giggling and speaking inarticulately in an annoyingly high-pitched voice, ooooh-ing and aaaah-ing at the computer screen.  I had discovered the Animal Planet show Too Cute! 

Gene's exact words were, "Who are you?!"

I believe that I've mentioned my aversion to sentimentality and cutesy-ness before, but my cold heart was no match for those adorable little baby kittens.  The scene that finally did me in involved some 10-week-old Persians getting a bath. I was staying strong until little Gizmo got sopping wet and looked at me with those big reproachful eyes as she shivered on the towel...

Whoa, sorry.  Didn't see that coming.  I'm fine now. *Ahem.*

But really, who wouldn't melt over this:

Photo courtesy Ctwirler12 via flickr
Or this:

Photo courtesy Helena Jacoba via flickr
And their cute little tiny "mew"s are just too irresistible and the way they play and pounce and stumble around trying to learn how to walk...

*Ahem* It's all right.  I'm back now.  Let's move along.

~2~

This is a delightful little hide-away for your kids, especially if you've read the Narnia books with them. Kudos to the creative parents for putting this together!

~3~

Back in 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College called "This Is Water."  A friend posted this 9-minute video excerpt on facebook a little while ago and it really hit home for me.  The full 22-minute speech is on youtube, if you're interested.
Most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. 
If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
~4~

I'm sure most of you have already seen this, but I had to link to Ellen Page's brave, beautiful, and heartfelt speech at the Human Rights Campaign's Time to Thrive Conference.  It's well worth eight minutes of your time.


One brief excerpt:
This world would be a whole lot better if we just made an effort to be less horrible to one another. If we took just five minutes to recognize each other’s beauty, instead of attacking each other for our differences. That’s not hard. It’s really an easier and better way to live. And ultimately, it saves lives. 
 Yep, yep, yep.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

It's hard to know whether reading the book before seeing the movie/watching the TV series, or watching the film/TV show first before reading the book upon which it was based is best.  As a general rule, I've found that reading the book before seeing the movie/watching the TV series is a good rule of thumb, but occasionally the reverse is true.  And I wonder if we generally prefer whichever we experience first, whether through a sense of loyalty or simply the fact that whatever we saw or read first preempts the other in our minds.

The difference in medium (written word or film) necessitates some changes, of course, with a wide range of fidelity to the original story and general quality of the outcome.

I recently watched the first season of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and enjoyed the feisty, independent titular character as portrayed by Essie Davis, as well as the appealing cast of supporting characters.  The overarching backstory that gives shape to the entire season, and provides much of Phryne's motivation for solving crimes in the first place, involves the disappearance and death of her younger sister when they were children.  Each episode starts with some dastardly crime being committed or discovered which Phryne, her friends, and the devoted police inspector solve by the end of the hour. It's not high art, the plots are not complex, but they are entertaining and interesting period pieces of Australia in the late 1920s.

The first episode's plot follows the general outline of the inaugural Phryne Fisher book, Cocaine Blues, though with a few major changes. The murder that occurs in the TV episode is only attempted in the book, Phryne's relationship to the victim and his wife is much closer, and the police inspector plays a much larger role. None of these are unreasonable or insurmountable changes to make for a television show.

However, Phryne's sister is revealed to have died of diphtheria and starvation, during her family's days of poverty before World War I eliminated the several people between them and a rich inheritance. This shifts Phryne's motivation significantly.  The story becomes much more focused on class issues and wealth inequality than Phryne's quest for justice for her sister and all others who have been harmed. This is reinforced throughout the book through Phryne's observations, such as this one as she arrives at a lavish party.
Phryne surveyed the iced-cake frontage of a huge house; the red carpet and the flowers and the army of attendants awaiting the guests; and cringed inwardly. All this display, while the working classes were pinched beyond bearing; it was not wise, or tasteful: it smacked of ostentatious wealth. The Europe from which Phryne had lately come was impoverished, even the nobility; and was keeping its head down, still shocked by the Russian revolution. It had become fashionable to make no display; understatement had become most stylish.
Still, this shift in focus isn't bad, just different - very different - from the television series.  Both are intriguing areas to explore and I think both can be enjoyed for what they are rather than by comparing them to the other unfavorably.  But what I found most disconcerting were the changes to the personalities of some of the supporting characters. In the TV series, Dot, Phryne's personal maid, provides a conservative and "sweet" foil to Phryne's outlandish modern woman personae. In the book, she's just kind of dull and low-class.  Likewise, Phryne's two assistants, Cec and Bert, are two-dimensional anti-capitalist almost-indistinguishable-from-each-other "Reds" on the written page (which fits in well with the class warfare focus of the book), but are far more distinct and complement each other much better on the screen.

All in all, I'd have to say that the television series wins this round, though I'm not quite ready to give up on the books yet.  So we'll see how the second book in the series plans out.

*************************
Cocaine Blues
by Kerry Greenwood
ISBN: 9781590582367
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
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, February 17, 2014

Book Review: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

In high school and during my undergrad years, I ate, drank, slept, and breathed theatre.  It was not at all uncommon for me to read a new and different play every day and I lost track of how many plays I was in or performances I attended.  I loved it.

But life happens and theatre is not really much a part of my life anymore.  I miss it.  And I'm occasionally a bit jealous of those of my theatre friends and compatriots who have found ways to keep at least one foot in the theatre world where I have not.

So in some ways, picking up August: Osage County, the first play I've read in years, was like coming home.  It also reminded me how very rusty my theatrical reading skills are.

I was drawn to this play by the quality of actors starring in the film of the same name, closely based on the original play.  Anything with Meryl Streep catches my attention, and when you throw Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, and Benedict Cumberbatch in the mix it's hard to resist.  Any work that can attract that caliber of acting talent really must be something else.

Dysfunctional family relationships, truth-tellin', the consequences of our actions, the tension between generations, August: Osage County hits every note dead on.  Beverly Weston, the patriarch of the family and a poet who never was able to match the acclaim of his first publication, goes missing. His wife, Violet, has cancer of the mouth, a chemical dependency, and a sharp tongue.  Their three daughters converge on the family home to help deal with his disappearance.  The oldest, Barbara, brings along her adulterous, estranged husband and their teenaged daughter.  The middle daughter, Ivy, has a secret she's not sure she's ready to tell the family.  The youngest, Karen, brings her fiance to meet the family for the first time.  Dysfunction abounds in just about every relationship, though there are glimmers of hope here and there, and several laugh-out-loud moments, too

Reading a play is very different from reading a novel.  So much is explained in the prose surrounding the dialogue in a novel, whereas with plays there's a bit of stage direction, but very little else to direct your reading of the dialogue.  And when all you have is the dialogue, so many readings are possible!  Now, I'm a bit of a literalist when I read, so it takes some work to get the between-the-lines stuff and August: Osage County is full of that. It's also described as a skillful mix of black comedy and epic tragedy, but being a literalist makes it easier to see the "tragic" and makes the "comic" more difficult to find.  That doesn' t mean it's not there, but I had to work a bit to find some of it, rereading portions and taking the time to try out a few different readings in my head.  But I think that's as it should be.  If you read a play and only come away with one possible reading, I think you've missed a wealth of human possibility and cheated yourself out of a richer understanding of not only the play, but human nature in general.

I think I need to start reading plays again.

Note: There is quite a bit of language in this one, so keep that in mind if you plan on picking it up.

***************************
August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
ISBN: 9781559364669
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).

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 53

I've been reading a lot about intersectionality on some feminist websites and facebook groups over the past several months, and thought I'd pass along some blog posts that have been particularly helpful in helping me understand intersectionality and various forms of privilege, as well as how to be a better ally.  This can be an incredibly uncomfortable topic because it requires introspection and personal acknowledgement of the prejudices we all have, wish we didn't and try really hard to suppress, but I encourage you to take a deep breath and give it a shot.

~1~

In this article, Mikki Kendall, the writer who started the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen last summer, provides four steps white feminists must take in order to include black women in feminism.  The first step? Listen.
Listen. Not to rebut, or chime in, or do anything else but hear and understand what is being said, blogged, tweeted, etc. Just listen. Understand that your role is not to lead, or speak for women of color. We’re more than capable of speaking up for ourselves.
If you must do something, do it internally. Interrogate yourself about why listening is so hard, why you want to do something right now, or why you’re so upset to hear that your action/inaction has hurt someone. This is probably going to be the hardest part, because active listening isn’t something most of us are used to doing, especially when the topic is one so fraught with emotion.

~2~

Here, Jamie Nesbitt Golden points out how white feminists have ignored, diminished or silenced women of color in various ways.
...for most of us, intersectionality isn’t a buzzword or a catchphrase. It’s our life. When Quvenzhan√© Wallis was insulted by the Onion, brown feminists were told by their white allies to take the joke or reclaim the word used to insult a 9-year-old girl. Others, as Clutch writer Kirsten West Savali pointed out, chose to remain silent. When George Zimmerman was freed by five white women, many white feminist allies still chose to remain silent. Our stories are ignored or half-told or erased completely. (A perfunctory Google search about the hashtag will yield several stories from sites like Jezebel and Al Jazeera where Kendall’s involvement has been minimized or glossed over — Jezebel has since edited the story to include Kendall’s contribution.) These aggressions — both micro and macro — along with a host of others, have made bridging the divide nearly impossible.
Make sure you check out all the sites Ms. Golden links to throughout her essay as well.  She provides easy access to a treasure trove of topical reading material written by women of color.

~3~

Jessie-Lane Metz deconstructs the well-known "invisible knapsack" essay and explains how painful it is when others appropriate the pain of racism and "re-center" the experience on whiteness instead of on people of color.
When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences. This is not helpful to intersectional practice, as it implies that only by making an oppression about the oppressor can power-holders work towards becoming allies. Secondly, it disregards the feelings of Black people by exposing them to further racism in an effort to work on white privilege. I do not consent to being confronted with racism in the hopes that white folks can maybe start to exorcise their own internalized issues. Allies need to do this work on their own.

Ms. Metz speaks about the Travyon Martin verdict and the pain and anger many experienced in connection with Zimmerman's acquittal. Regardless of your personal opinions on that event, please read with an open heart to the pain of others.

~4~

This piece, written by a German woman and drawing on her country's horrific history of racial discrimination to the point of genocide, addresses the defensiveness of those who, understandably, want to distance themselves from culpability in past racist institutions, events or experiences.
Being German, I had to embrace a history of racism that was not of my doing. I also had to embrace the guilt of this history, and carry the burden as a German to redeem ourselves from these wrongs. I could have shrugged my shoulders many times, and claimed that this wasn’t my problem. I wasn’t there during WWII. I did not choose to believe the lies of racism spread at that time. Why should I have to pay for the faults of my forefathers? However, by absorbing the wrongs of my country’s past, accepting the pain and guilt, and in part monetary restitution through taxes, I have become a tool for change. Germany as a whole will pass on an improved society, because we were willing to stare our collective worst self in the face, and accept our wrong-doings. Once we accept that something is wrong, and accept our part in it, healing and change can happen. We work harder at not repeating the mistakes of the past, and purge ourselves of the mindsets that can lead to similar mistakes again. Now, as a post-WWII German, my role is to learn the lessons, live the new truth, and make sure I pass it on to the next generation. This is impossible if I close my eyes to the past, and refuse to see myself as part of the needed change.


Well, those four pieces - and all the ones they link to in their text - are a good start if you want to educate yourself on intersectionality and begin to recognize the wealth of experiences that exist outside your own.

On a day dedicated to the celebration of love, we can all try a little harder to care about and understand each other. It's not always easy to listen and allow your worldview and opinions to be challenged, to open your heart up a little bit more, but people are worth it.

People are worth it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams tells two overlapping stories that enrich and inform each other. One describes the environmental havoc wreaked in and around the Great Salt Lake, particularly as it affected the bird populations, as water levels reached abnormal highs in the 1980s. The other chronicles her mother's struggle with cancer and the family's struggle coming to terms with their matriarch's illness and eventual death.  In her words, "an individual doesn't get cancer, a family does."

This beautifully written account of a daughter's grief is profoundly moving.  Raised as a Latter-day Saint, Williams 
was raised to believe in a spirit world, that life exists before the earth and will continue to exist afterward, that each  human being, bird, and bulrush, along with all other life forms had a spirit life before it came to dwell physically on the earth...And if the natural world was assigned spiritual values, then those days spent in wildness were sacred. We learned at an early age that God can be found wherever you are, especially outside.
This love of nature and the outdoors becomes a strong connection between women of different generations. Terry, her mother, and her grandmother watch and identify hundreds of birds around the Great Salt Lake, observing their behaviors and patterns, missing them when the environmental and man-made changes chase them away, rejoicing when they return.

She also draws Mormon history in to her story, as it is so much a part of her.  "Genealogy is in our blood.  As a people and as a family, we have a sense of history."  The Brigham City Cooperative, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to live the United Order in the late 1800s, becomes a lesson in the importance of creativity, diversity and interdependence.  "History has shown us that exclusivity in the name of empire building eventually fails.  Fear of discord undermines creativity. And creativity lies at the heart of adaptive evolution."

A recurring theme is authority and the tension between obedience and personal revelation.  And she links this to our tendency as a people to be immobilized by change rather than accommodating, much less welcoming, it.
Mimi questioned her, "Why is it then, Diane, that we are so willing to give up our own authority?"
"It's easier," I interjected. "We don't have to think. The responsibility belongs to someone else. Why are we so afraid of being selfish? And why do we distract and excuse ourselves from our own creativity?"
"Same reason," Mother replied. "It's easier. We haven't figured out that time for ourselves is ultimately time for our families. You can't be constantly giving without depleting the source. Somehow, somewhere, we must replenish ourselves."
I loved the story Terry told of when President Monson, an apostle at the time, came to her stake to call a new stake president. He interviewed all of the high council members, including Terry's father:
He asked him, if called, would he serve as stake president? My father's reply was no. In a religion that believes all leadership positions are decided by God, this was an unorthodox response.
"Brother Tempest, would you like to explain?"
My father simply said it would be inappropriate to spend time away from his wife when she had so little time left.
President Monson stood and said, "You are a man whose priorities are intact."
Faith and humility are intertwined in this memoir as well.  "Faith is the centerpiece of a connected life. It allows us to live by the grace of invisible strands. It is a belief in a wisdom superior to our own. Faith becomes a teacher in the absence of fact."  Humility buoys faith, and faith requires humility: "We're never going to figure it all out, so we might as well acknowledge the intangibles."

Toward the end of the book Terry outlines the atomic testing that was done in Utah and Nevada during the 1950s.  The government assuaged public fears and published their findings that there is "no basis for concluding that harm to any individual has resulted from radioactive fallout" despite the alarming rates of cancer in the surrounding population, cancer that took her mother, both grandmothers, and several aunts, and countless others.  The government was declared immune to lawsuits, leaving the victims with no recourse. Terry finds parallels between the government's actions and her relationship with the Church and its culture.
In Mormon culture, authority is respected, obedience is revered, and independent thinking is not.  I was taught as a young girl not to 'make waves' or 'rock the boat.'...For many years, I have done just that--listened, observed, and quietly formed my own opinions, in a culture that rarely asks questions because it has all the answers. But one by one, I have watched the women in my family die common, heroic deaths...The price of obedience has become too high.  The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons is the same fear I saw in my mother's body.
The death she sees around her becomes the impetus for her to speak up. Her sincerity, her integrity, her drive to ask questions and be unapologetically open and honest may have a high price, but it is one she is ultimately willing to pay because the alternative is worse: "What I do know, however, is that as a Mormon woman of the fifth generation of Latter-day Saints, I must question everything, even if it means losing my faith, even if it means becoming a member of a border tribe among my own people. Tolerating blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives."

**************************
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
by Terry Tempest Williams
ISBN: 9780679740244
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, 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, February 10, 2014

Book Review: The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

The history of World War II is so varied and multi-faceted. There's always another aspect to consider, another story to learn, another battle to deconstruct.  In the past few years I've read dozens of books set right before, during or right after World War II and they all tell such astoundingly different, and astoundingly human, stories.

The Monuments Men is another to add to the list.  A small handful of art historians, restorationists, and scholars volunteered to find, rescue and protect the priceless works of art that the Nazis are determined to steal, appropriate, or destroy. This effort "marked the first time an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage."  These valiant men (and a few women, too) fought with inadequate supplies, personnel, and transportation and were largely successful. It's impossible to calculate what the loss to the cultural and artistic history of Europe and the world would have been without them.

The officers of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Artifacts section were tasked with several overwhelming jobs.  They were to be on the front lines, advising the commanding officers which areas and buildings to avoid destroying or damaging.  They were to record the condition of monuments after battles, supervise any emergency repairs and see that no further damage occurred.  They were to interview local magistrates and members of the art community to track down pieces of art that had been taken by the Nazis. And then they had to oversee the care, repair, and transportation of any found items back to their original owners, a job that took six years after the end of the war! And for the most part, the Monuments Men worked on their own or with a single partner from the MFAA, covering thousands of square miles.

Their journeys took them to locations as varied as the fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein and the cavernous salt mines of Austria.  They were on the front lines and in small windowless offices back at headquarters.  They discovered invaluable pieces of art in warehouses and bedrooms and tracked down the Hungarian crown jewels to an oil barrel sunk in a Bavarian marshland.  "In the end, the Western Allies discovered more than one thousand repositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures, including church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections." That's just astounding.

What made this effort even more remarkable is that the Monuments Men didn't just work to save the history and culture of the Allied countries.  Their work reached to every artifacts of artistic or cultural significance, including to Germany.  "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing.  To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won...it was unheard of, but that is exactly what Walter Hancock and the other Monuments Men intended to do."  These people had worked in museums and libraries and were well aware that the value of these artifacts was far more than monetary.

There are quite a few characters and they can be difficult to keep straight, so stick a finger or bookmark in the "Main Characters" list at the front for easy access.  It's amazing how much was accomplished by so (relatively) few with so little.  "History is more often than not a messy combination of intention, courage, preparation, and chance." The Monuments Men is a testament to that.

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The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
ISBN: 9780316240055
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
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, February 7, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 52, or One Whole Year!

Yes, ladies and gents, this post represents the 52nd consecutive weekly Friday Four post!  One entire year of interesting little tidbits on books, media, local events, and other happenings.  Woo hoo!!

~1~

Someone on a facebook group I frequent recommended an Australian TV series called Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Phyrne Fisher is an independently wealthy heiress in the 1920s, after having served as a nurse in World War I, and in order to fill her days hires herself out as a "Lady Detective".  The first season is available on Netflix and is really quite charming.  The costumes are my favorite part, truly exquisite.

The second season is only available on AcornTV - kind of like Netflix for British shows - so I haven't seen it yet, but I just discovered that the television series is based on a series of books!  I check the first one, Cocaine Blues, out of the library yesterday and look forward to breezing through some quick, entertaining period mysteries.

~2~

I was intrigued by this buzzfeed list of "32 books that will actually change your life". I heartily concur with the selection of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Crime and Punishment, and Sophie's World.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, too.  Under the Banner of Heaven's irresponsible and inaccurate depiction of Mormonism and its conflation of fundamentalist polygamists with the mainstream LDS Church certainly doesn't put it at the top of my list. I was pretty neutral on Life of Pi, I didn't care for Never Let Me Go, and I thought The Joy of Cooking was a bit of an odd inclusion to a list of "life changing" books.

And, of course, there are other books I'd add to my own list.  The Screwtape Letters, which we just discussed at book club last night, Half the Sky, Left to Tell, The God Who Weeps...

What are your "life changing" books?

~3~

This blog post "3 Reasons I Quit Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin" from back in October has stuck with me.  I've never liked that phrase - "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" - and she beautifully articulates the problems with that mentality.

I love her insight into the story of the woman being stoned for adultery and her observation that "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" is "made of 25% Love and 75% Sinner, Hate and Sin...that ratio is the antithesis of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ actions, and Jesus’ friendships. Does it really come as a surprise to us Christians that a phrase made of 1 Part Love and 3 Parts Sinner, Hate and Sin has failed rather spectacularly to deliver a love message?"

And she closes with this:
This is the time to call out Neighbor! And Friend! And to love on each other with extravagant grace. This is the time to create Sanctuary and to be the Good Samaritan who had no standards when he helped the man by the side of road. Just none. Except generosity and love.
And so, you see, it turns out I cannot love the sinner and hate the sin, because it’s not my job to root out either one in anyone’s life but my own. But I can become a home for Love, and I can Love my Neighbor, who, it turns out, is every single one of us.
Amen.

~4~

And with that, I'm going to pat myself on the back and say "yay for me!" for not missing a single week of Friday Fours for a year.

Yay for me!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

This exquisite picture book - graphic novel, really - captures the challenges, loneliness, and alienation of immigration.  There is not a single word in the 128 pages, but the illustrations tell the story so completely, almost cinematically, that words would be at best redundant and at worse a major detraction from the theme and experience of reading the book.

I knew nothing of the story before opening The Arrival and I think it was most effective to have the powerful realizations this book brings creep up on you slowly and then suddenly burst out in a blaze of recognition that brought tears to my eyes. So if you'd prefer to have that type of experience with the book (which I highly recommend), stop reading this review and just go request it from your library right now!

If you're a "last-page reader" and you just want to know the main thrust of the story, feel free to keep reading.

In an understated, yet emotional leave-taking, a man packs his suitcase and boards a ship to travel to a far-off land, leaving his wife and young daughter behind in a small, rundown apartment. After a long, crowded passage, he disembarks in a world full of unfamiliar buildings, animals, and food.  It's beautiful and exotic, but couldn't be more different from the land he left. The language is a gibberish of symbols. He struggles to find a place to live and a way to work and earn money in this utterly alien land and relies on the kindness of strangers (it's not only for Blanche DuBois!) to navigate the strangeness.

The illustrations make his loneliness so visceral and yet so intimate.  Large cityscapes make it clear that he is but one tiny person among the vast hoards.  Close-ups of the family photo he brought and his hands and face as he explores his new home emphasize his humanity.

He meets other immigrants and makes connections with them through their similar stories of loss and escape from danger and isolation in a foreign land.  Finally, he and his family are reunited in their new home and the story comes full circle as his daughter helps a new arrival find her way in the big city.

In a literary field full of worthy immigration stories, this is a welcome and moving addition.

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The Arrival
by Shaun Tan
ISBN: 9780439895293
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).