Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Forty-Five: The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ (and 45B: Walter Mosley's Fortunate Son) and (45C:Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime)

Note: First, hope you enjoy the new layout. Second, I'm updating my reading blog and Goodreads info. on Facebook as well.

Religious, and specifically Christian, books can be a challenging lot. On the one hand there are plenty of great theological texts to read (Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Rahner, Barth, etc), but suffice it to say they are not the type of book you curl up with at the end of the day. On the other hand, there are too many "Christian-lite" books (I'll be nice and not name names) which touch on Christian themes, but lack the depth to really challenge the faithful.

With his rather bold title, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, SJ looks like he would fall in the latter category. But happily, what we find here is a treatment of the Christian faith (through a Jesuit lens) which is not difficult to digest, but will challenge the reader to reexamine their stance toward faith. This is not just wordplay when I say "stance toward faith." Martin honestly and respectfully engages readers who may be atheists or agnostics, as well as any Christian still examining their faith. He does note that much of what he offers from his Jesuit life could be adopted by non-Christians. But give Martin credit for not being embarrassed of his faith and making a strong case for Christianity.

Martin acknowledges his own wordplay when he addresses his title. "It's not a guide to understanding everything about everything (thus the Almost). Rather, it's a guide to discovering how God can be found in every dimension of your life." The essence of the book is that every aspect of your life is spiritual -- faith is not just concerned with your thoughts on God, but what you say in those emails to a coworker. This is the first of four definitions that comes from Jesuit spirituality, namely, that everything in your life is important. The second idea is "contemplative in action," in which Martin outlines how a contemplative life translates into an active life. This theme plays a major role throughout the book as Martin explores how those of us who are not Jesuits can still actively incorporate spirituality into our lives. Third, not only is everything important, but God can be found everywhere. This carries the theological phrase of incarnational spirituality, but the idea is simple. Finally, many readers may be surprised to hear that people who pledge obedience see their spiritual life as one of freedom and detachment from distracting influences as opposed to a set of rules to follow.

Martin spends a great deal of time looking at the role of prayer in our lives. Again he is not afraid to challenge, as he does with the conventional excuse of "busyness," when it comes to why we find prayer challenging. One of Martin's strengths is that he understands the challenges of the working world. He came to his own faith decisions after a, ahem, active collegiate experience and after having a successful business career. He knows what many people deal with daily, and although not the head of a family, he understands the stresses the life of a parent has to contend with in addition to finding prayer time. But he points out that all relationships need nurturing, and our relationship with God is no different.

He offers several options, but his focus on "The Examen" is the most enlightening. This Jesuit prayer is central to the Jesuit way of life. Created by the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius Loyola (and Jesuit spirituality is often called Ignatian spirituality), this prayer takes a person through five steps at the end of the day. The prayer focuses on the course of the day. In Martin's version (and we learn throughout that Jesuits are a pretty flexible lot on faith issues) we start with gratitude for what went well, and then review all actions of the day. When we recall events we are sorry for we have reached the third step, which leads naturally to seeking forgiveness, step four. Finally, we seek God's grace for the coming day.

Simple as it sounds, and it is simple, the prayer reinforces that idea of all aspects of your life are important to God. All our actions should reflect our faith, and when we fail, we should seek to remedy our wrongs. Regardless of one's faith inclination, a thorough review of the day and an accounting for one's actions is bound to create opportunities to move forward.
Martin's explanations of the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty are enlightening in not only understanding what those vows mean, but what they have to do with the rest of us. No, he is not promoting worldwide chastity in the normal sense, but he does argue that loving chastely lets those even in sexual relationships realize there are many ways to express love. In a sex-obsessed culture, this rather obvious line of thinking is desperately needed. 

This is how Martin works throughout the book. He explains how Jesuit's think and why, and then looks to tie it in with everyday life for the non-Jesuits of the world. While it sounds simple, it is challenging in both content and translation to life. If you just want an easy "feel good" book or "10 steps to live like a Jesuit," look elsewhere. If you want to think about faith and how it underlies your life, this is the place to start. But not to worry, Martin does all this with a sense of humor. He knows when some thinking sounds funny, and he points it out. He loves to tell Jesuit jokes, almost always at the expense of Jesuits, and the book is filled with real-life stories to illustrate his points. How often do you get to read a priest talk about being overwhelmed by sexual obsession just weeks before ordination? Martin does, and he spares himself little in the telling of tales. But his honesty and humor make all this thinking that more fun. And after all, if we cannot enjoy our faith, we must be missing something.
Martin also keeps a friendly, informative Facebook page where you can read about his other comments on life.

I dedicate this week's blog to my daughter who just accepted a placement to volunteer for one year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. I'm proud of her! Now she has to read this book.

Walter Mosley's Fortunate Son
Mosley is at times a "guilty" read, but often just a well written story. Fortunate Son falls more under the "waste of time." I've enjoyed Mosley's past forays into non-mystery writing, but this one was stretched with unbelievable characters who hint at more but never deliver. Read something else by him.
Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime 
I read this again for class. My review of it was in November.

Next Up
On the lighter side I'm reading "The Lightening Thief," a young adult novel now made into a movie. My 10-year-old read it and liked it. He wants me to read before we head off for the movie version, so I'm getting into it now. Quite enjoyable! My "real" book will be another by Mohsin Hamid called The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Forty-Four: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

I understand the temptation. The food is cheap, tastes good, is ready on the fly, and fills you up. Eric Schlosser gets it too -- he loves the fries. But after reading Fast Food Nation you'll never look at the golden arches the same way again. That may be a good thing.

If this was just a book telling you how horrible fast food restaurants are to people, it would have disappeared shortly after its 2001 publication. But it became a New York Times Bestseller and was even turned into a film because Schlosser goes beyond mere name calling. In fact, one of my favorite lines comes at the end of the book. "The executives who run the fast food industry are not bad men. They are business men. They will sell free-range, organic, grass-fed hamburgers if you demand it." In other words, while he documents the overwhelming marketing pressure created by these companies (especially towards children), he also notes we have a say. 

Schlosser is a journalist and he has done his research (the book includes nearly 60 pages of supporting notes), but he is not looking for the headline. There is no single culprit, no single problem, and no single solution. The book takes on not simply fast food, but the culture of fast food in the U.S. and how we have exported it around the world. At times the chapters start in an area which seem to have nothing to do with food, but it always ties into the the food industry. The group taking the biggest hit is the meat industry, and forget McDonalds, you'll never look at the hamburger on your own grill the same way anymore.

Schlosser takes on marketing tatics, meat processing techniques, cattle feeding methods, use of legal and illegal migrants, workplace safety, OSHA standards, FDA standards, USDA standards, school lunches, congressional acts, presidential appointments, franchise operations and contracts, and grass-fed beef. He travels to the restaurants, the factories, the fields around the U.S., to the McDonald's near Dachau concentration camp in Germany, and talks about fast food around the world. He covers so much information that it is clear that this is not some mass conspiracy whipped up in a smoky backroom, but instead the worst case scenario for capitalism which forgets the reason we support it -- for people.

I could offer many stomach turning anecdotes, although to do so would not only just turn you off (ask my family), but would miss Schlosser's point. He did not write this as a "gross out" bestseller, and he gets disgusting only when necessary. Unfortunately, his simply telling of facts is disgusting enough. Tie all this into our increasing obesity issues, which can be clearly tied to our increase in eating fast food (just check nutrition facts at McDonalds or Burger King), and you can see something should be done. Schlosser ends his book with some quick recommendations and I only wish he would have spent more time here. But the one basic one is to ban fast food advertising aimed at children. We banned cigarette advertising and saw a huge decline in smoking. We regulate alcohol advertising because of health issues. Yet food aimed at kids which give them all the calories they need for a day in one meal is allowed? And we wonder why kids are obese? Sure, we need to get kids moving more, but take the low-hanging fruit here and cut back on what kids are told to eat.

One of the best parts of the book is the afterword in which Schlosser quotes the bad reviews which met the original edition. He notes that while the industry and those related to it have called the book nothing but lies, none of them have offered a single refutation of any of the facts he relates. That should give anyone pause to wonder. I'm avoiding details because there are too many, but suffice it to say the book is required reading for anyone who eats. You can still eat whatever you want, but at least you'll be informed about what you are eating.

Oh, and the fries taste good because they were fried in beef tallow -- the Hindus and vegetarians were not pleased to learn that. 

Next Up
Going a different direction as I read a new book about Jesuit life in the everyday world. A friend of mine is a Jesuit priest and my daughter has just signed on to volunteer for a year through the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, so this seems timely. Plus, I have not reviewed anything for Blogcritics lately so I should do that.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Forty-Three: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather and (43B-Food Rules by Michael Pollan) and (43C--Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar)

Yes, I have three books to report on this week, but do not be too impressed. Cather's novel is short, although I'll admit to reading her prose slowly because it is worth the time. Pollan's book is very short and intended to be a quick read. The fairies book has been my bedtime book the last few weeks, although I plowed through it this week just to get it over with (guess what my thoughts are on this one).

A Lost Lady
Willa Cather's work always fascinates me thanks to Mrs. Pepoy's introduction of her to my first-year college writing class through the classic O Pioneers! Both her novels and short stories are strong, but the short novel, A Lost Lady, had sat on my bookshelf too long.

It is a novel which brings in the familiar Cather themes of old vs. new, stagnation vs. growth, and to stretch the idea a bit, love vs. loyalty. Cather published the work in 1923 and in it we see a move away from the pioneers of My Antonia and O Pioneers! as the modern world makes itself felt on the Western expansion. As a result, the idyllic but harsh pioneer life Cather lived and captured are falling away.

The novel centers around Niel Pommeroy, a young boy living with his lawyer uncle in a small railroading town. The object of much of his attention is Mrs. Forrester, the young wife of a older man who has made a comfortable living based on his railroad work. As a growing boy Niel admires the Mrs. Forrester for her elegance, her ease with people, and her promise of something greater than the town. But like most railroad towns, the modern world begins to leave it behind and their social decline is mirrored with Mr. Forrester's financial decline. Niel is close to the childless couple and even takes a year off of college to help care for the ailing husband. The grim future is represented by Ivy Peters, a cruel kid who becomes (you guessed it) a cheating lawyer. He eventually buys up parts of the town including parts of the Forrester estate, and after the death of Mr. Forrester he takes a least temporary possession of Mrs. Forrester.

Niel's dedication to Mrs. Forrester is often described as a love interest by many critics, but I think that misses the point. He loves her, but not as a woman so much as an idea. She represents for Niel possibilities: passion for life, a wider world of experience, self confidence, and elegance not seen in a rural town. Even when he discovers she is having an affair he manages to overlook the reality which denies the possibilities. Only when he sees Ivy groping her in the kitchen does his idealism disappear, although his fondness for her does not since he is still in love with possibilities. What is interesting is that Mrs. Forrester never loses the appearance of these possibilities. She moves beyond Ivy Peters to settle comfortably in Buenos Aires as the wife of a rich Englishman. What Cather shows in that quick end stroke is the facade such possibilities often exist upon. Her life in rural Nebraska and her own struggles with her sexuality doubtless left her with little patience for anything less than reality.

Food Rules
Michael Pollan is a leading voice in making us think about what we eat, how we eat, and how our food is created/produced.  His books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, (both on my short list) have become the bibles for people concerned about our food. Food Rules is like a "Dummy's Guide" to how to eat for the rest of us. The book contains 64 rules, most no more than a short page long, which are split into three categories: What Should I Eat, What Kind of Food Should I Eat, and How Should I Eat.

Pollan clearly expects you to take to some rules more than others, and he is quick to point out that much of what he says is common wisdom. Given our current state of food production and our health issues, I'm not sure the wisdom is too common anymore. The first two parts are what you would expect -- eat real (not processed food), eat more greens, eat meat less often and make sure it is healthy, and don't buy anything your grandmother would not recognize as food. It was the third section which interested me the most. He emphasizes the communal nature of food and notes that when we eat together, we tend to eat better. The French get extra attention because they do not eat the healthiest food, but are in better health than most. He notes they eat less, take longer at meals, and drink wine -- all good things. "Stop Eating Before You Are Full," is one that hits home as I just passed losing 30 pounds in the past three months. Just the other day I ate too much and felt "full," which made me realize how good it is to not fill stuffed. But my favorite rule in the book: "Don't Get Your Fuel From the Same Place Your Car Does." No more six packs of powdered doughnuts for me!  

The Good Fairies of New York
This was a stretch book for me since fantasy does not get much of my attention. Some other bloggers highly recommended this book and since even Neil Gaiman loves it, I thought it would be worth the effort. Afraid I was wrong. While the premise is interesting, the writing is not. The narrative is disjointed and poorly organized, the story line longer than needed, and it even includes those elements which kill fantasy books for most (such as the approval of incest -- and I don't care if they are fairies). 

The back cover promises:
When a pair of fugitive Scottish thistle fairies end up transplanted to Manhattan by mistake, both the Big Apple and the Little People have a lot of adjusting to do. Heather and Morag just want to start the first radical fairy punk rock band, but first theyll have make a match between two highly unlikely sweethearts, start a street brawl between rival gangs of Italian, Chinese, and African fairies, help the ghost of a dead rocker track down his lost guitar, reclaim a rare triple-bloomed Welsh poppy from a bag lady with delusions of grandeur, disrupt a local community performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream, and somehow manage to stay sober enough to save all of New York from an invasion of evil Cornish fairies.

All true, but Heather and Morag are just tiring, whining fairies. Heather helps Dinnie transform from an overweight, obscene, cruel, and untalented person into an object of desire in just a short time, and since it is mainly without magic we know why this is fantasy.  There are about 15 plot lines in here and Millar simply puts an extra space between paragraphs to indicate we are jumping to something else completely. Some plots are built up only to fizzle out, others go on and on (fix the fiddle already! find the guitar! grow a new flower!), and some just push other plots forward. Perhaps I'm just not enough of a fantasy fan to comment more, so I'll hold my tongue. I'm also in the minority on this one since most reviews are glowing, so do not write this off just on my opinion.

Up Next
Every year I co-chair a critical issues symposium at my college and for 2010 our topic is food. Thus the Pollan interest. This week I'm reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Forty-Two: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping is one of those island books..."if you can take five books to an island..." I first read this book nearly 15 years ago in grad school, and it has never been far away since. My copy is so old I cannot even find an image of the cover! But the cover to the left is good since the railroad bridge plays a central role in the novel.

Robinson's book fits in with the long tradition of great American novels, but I will not pursue that thought here. Instead, as I consider using this novel for a college-level English writing course (in which we also read!) I want to explore the idea of approaching life. This short book is loaded with themes (memory, water, transience, death, existence, family, role of women, and the list goes on) that I could write a series of entries on this book alone.

The plot is deceptively simple. Ruth and Lucille are two young girls dropped off on the porch of their grandmother (whom they have never met) while their mother goes to drive a car off a cliff and into a lake. This same lake took the life of their grandfather when the train he worked on went off the bridge "like a weasel sliding off a rock." They are raised by their grandmother until she dies, and two spinster great aunts jump in but eventually recruit the girl's Aunt Sylvie to handle raising them. Sylvie is "a drifter" who is fond of riding in boxcars, only laughs when asked about her husband, and seems in no particular interest to move forward. Lucille eventually leaves the two to live with a teacher so she can be like other girls, but Ruth decides to stay with Sylvie.

Sylvie's approach to life, that of a transient, is reflective of how life truly is. It sounds cliche, but we are just passing through. Sylvie's life is one of working with that direction instead of fighting against it. "Housekeeping" is the attempt to bring order against this transience, but Sylvie shows no desire to fight against nature. In fact, nature itself begins to take over their house, which Sylvie accepts (but does not necessarily welcome or discourage). Her whole life revolves around her ability to move along with where life leads her. Perhaps because her father (Ruth's grandfather) dies when she is young, she understands the transient life. And she does not fear the end of that existence. At one point Sylvie and Ruth spend the night in a rowboat on this lake which has claimed their family and below the bridge which offers escape, yet also death (and the two are often intermingled). As Ruth dips her hand in the water and thinks about how easily they could capsize, Sylvie tells her "There is nothing to be afraid of...Nothing to be worried about. Nothing at all."

Of course, Sylvie draws the attention of the well-meaning townsfolk who do not follow nor understand this transient approach to life. They want her to conform to society, if not for her sake than at least for Ruth's, and for a short time Sylvie tries this approach. But it is not in her, and Ruth sees no reason for the struggle either. Lucille also does not understand their approach and thus goes into traditional society. One way in which this book rises above others is Robinson does not set up flat characters which make it easy for Sylvie to rail against society. Instead, both Ruth and Sylvie seemed awed by the way others can master the rules of society and live in an orderly way. We also see how Sylvie must look to others, with 14 cats living in the parlor with half eaten birds, cans piled to the ceiling, and window panes missing. At times Sylvie seems to wake up and see herself, but her attempts at fitting in are short lived and bound to fail.

So how should we approach life? Of course, Robinson does honestly think we should jump in boxcars and eschew our home and communities. But should we fight the transient nature of our existence? Is there a way to balance this awareness of our mortality with "housekeeping?" The answer may lie in community and relationships, which are also central to the novel. Sylvie may be a transient, but there is a whole community of transients who depend on one another. Ruth and Lucille are torn between two communities, but each makes a conscious choice on how to live. What binds them are those current relationships and the memory (another major theme) of old relationships.

This could go on for a while, so I'll stop. To put it simply -- read this book. Not only is the plot incredible for many reasons, Robinson's prose is, well, poetic. In fact, I remember being told she published parts as poetry before publishing the novel, but that may be grad school enthusiasm. However, the book received an endless amount of praise when it came out and showed up on more than one 100 best books of the century lists in 2000. It was almost 25 years before Robinson's next novel came out a few years ago and won the Pulitzer (and I have a signed copy from when I met her on campus for a reading!). She is a remarkably brilliant yet humble person who spent much of her "time off" educating herself, although she managed to publish two non-fiction works in between the novels. Anything she has written is worth reading, and as you may have figured out, she has not written all that much. But with any luck, she'll continue at a faster rate.

Up Next
Well, Houskeeping was not supposed to be the book of the week so I'm hesitant to venture what is next. I survived a very busy week while reading this (took just three leisurely nights) and next week is not much better. So you'll have to just handle the tension and wait to be surprised.