Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rend your hearts

Last Wednesday, which did double duty as Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday, Pastor stood in the pulpit to read the scripture Joel 2:12-17.  First he said that he doesn’t often read from Joel.  Then he read this to us:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments….

On a day when we were called to contemplate both love and death, this was an excellent scripture choice.  But I was left curious about what else is in the book of Joel that makes it unlikely to be read.  That evening I started in on the first chapter, and found this:

Lament over the Ruin of the Country

Hear this, O elders,
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children another generation.

What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten.

I don't know about you, but when I read that, I get an image of teenaged boys at a high school cafeteria table eating off each other’s plates. But put that aside, and ponder the utter destruction here.  In English it sounds like All Locusts All the Time, but in Hebrew, it’s even worse: those are four different types of pests.  In the King James Version, one of them bugs is called the “cankerworm.”  Okay, grossness and not one crumb of food left.  Annihilation.

We have met the locusts, and they are us.  We seem intent upon slaughter of ourselves.  Perhaps it is we ourselves who have not demanded loudly enough a solution to the ills that plague us.  We are content to let the killing continue.  I rend my heart. 

It’s true that I have never had a run-in with actual locusts that ruined my actual crops.  Let’s acknowledge that locusts are Prophet Joel’s metaphor for invading troops, but still, I haven’t experienced that either.  (Although I hear there are some Russian bots…) Life in modern America is, by most counts, a vast improvement over life during the time of the prophet Joel in ancient Palestine. 

I can’t say that my country is ruined (yet), but I will lament over its diminishment. Just this week, there’s the inability of the Senate to pass legislation on immigration, there’s another mass shooting, there’s the gutting of the American with Disabilities Act, and there’s the Secretary of Agriculture’s “American Harvest Box” proposal, a dignity-smashing way to keep poor, hungry people in their place, while enriching canned food and shipping companies. 

Calls for “thoughts and prayers” from my legislators make a mockery of addressing God, as if those legislators had no possible means of bringing change for the better.  No, Mr. Congressman, I will not pray for those who died.  They are dead. 

They are dead, Mr. Congressman. 

I will pray for you, Mr. Congressman, to, at the very least, set up a permanent tax-payer funded pool of money to cover the costs of the people who survive our incessant mass shootings and who, because of your cold-hearted votes, have no health insurance.  I will pray for you, Mr. Congressman, to have the courage to pass a ban on bump stocks.  To have the courage to allow research on gun violence and prevention.  To have the courage to give back the money you took from the NRA.  To have the courage to…

It seems entirely right to rend my heart.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Favorite books read in 2017

Little Free Library

The best fiction I read in 2017

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  
Far and away the best writing of any book I read in 2017.   Based on this book alone, the author's Nobel Prize is well-deserved.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (translated from the French  by Gallic Books).

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.

Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck. 

Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. 

The best non-fiction I read in 2017

Gender Revolution: Special Issue, National Geographic magazine, January 2017.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder. 
I read it twice in 2017. 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah.  
I really enjoyed this fascinating memoir. 

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson. 
This was a difficult read because of the subject matter.  Nevertheless, I recommend it to white American Christians.

How about you?  Do you have any favorites that you have read recently? Have you ever used a Little Free Library?

First Lines: Nov and Dec 2017 edition

My new job is keeping me so busy that all I can do here on the blog is to continue getting caught up on documenting the books I have read during the past year.  Here are the first lines of books I finished in November and December.

Book 1
I remember the plane hurtling above the village.  It left a trail of thick gray smoke, and its engine roared and coughed.  Grandmother and I were working in the garden, digging potatoes.  We could see the plane was an enemy fighter, part of the squadron we’d heard earlier as it growled north, heading up the coast.

Book 2
My grandmother called my grandfather Satrapi, never by his first name.  She said one must respect one’s husband.

Book 3
Chapter 1: Beer and Knees
            On any Friday evening, the Cumberland Bar, just round the corner from Drummond Place and Scotland Street, might be expected to be busy, the meeting place of assorted mercantile tribes, of office workers from further down the hill, of young accountants, of estate agents and lawyers, and, conspicuous by their less formal attire, of some of the more bohemian, the more artistic inhabitants of this eastern corner of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town.

Book 4
Wife kills husband with frozen leg of lamb, then disposes of the “weapon” by feeding it to the cops. Serviceable enough Dahl offering, though Lambiase questioned whether a professional housewife could successfully cook a leg of lamb in the manner described—i.e., without thawing, seasoning, or marinade. Wouldn’t this result in tough, unevenly cooked meat?

Book 5
Deep breath.  Feel the air fill my lungs.  This is the right thing to do.  The country needs to see that our democracy still works, no matter how painful this is.  Breathe out.  Scream later.

Book 6
Sunday, December 12, 1971
I could have stopped at three and called it a miracle. After all, three in a row is good. Not just good—great. You know the odds of that happening by itself? Miniscule.

Book 7
History does not repeat, but it does instruct. As the Founding Fathers debated our Constitution, they took instruction from the history they knew. Concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse, they contemplated the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire. As they knew, Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny.

Book 8
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like
his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.

Titles and Authors revealed:

Book 1
A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin, © 2016. 
I met this author at a talk at Northland Library.  The book is sort of YA fantasy, but not too over-the-top in its fantasy and not too infantile.  The author does use a quirk of not naming any of the characters save one, the one from the fantasy world.

Book 2
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (a graphic novel), © 2005.  Weird.

Book 3
The Bertie Project, by Alexander McCall Smith, © 2016.

Book 4
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, © 2013.
Second reading of this book.  We read this for book club – it made a good read following the heavy, violent book we had read the previous month.

Book 5
What Happened, by Hillary Clinton, © 2017.
It’s rare that I read a book during the year it was published.  Here’s the exception.
The book opens with this epigraph:
If you are tired, keep going.
If you are scared, keep going.
If you are hungry, keep going.
If you want to taste freedom, keep going.
            - Harriet Tubman
Good words from Harriet Tubman.  Just keep swimming.

Book 6
Dreidels on the Brain, by Joel Ben Izzy, © 2016 (YA).
This book seems to be semi-autobiographical.  It covers eight days in the life of 12-year-old Joel, during Hanukkah 1971.  I found it enjoyable.  Sometimes it seemed like it was trying to be a primer to explain American Judaism to people unfamiliar with it, but that may be appropriate for the age of readers it is aimed at.

Book 7
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, © 2017.   (second time reading).  You can read this.  It’s short.  Just do it.

Book 8
Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin © 1953.
Excellent prose. Deep layers of meaning, which I was not in the right frame of mind to explore.  This book is steeped in Christian religious imagery.  It would be a good book to read for a class.

In December I started several books which I did not finish.  One was Do I Make Myself Clear? by Harold Evans.  It’s a book about writing.  I wanted to finish, but got pulled away to read other things.  There’s only so many times you can renew a library book before the library police come to get you.

Soon I’ll post a list of my favorites from 2017.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

First Lines: Sep and Oct 2017 Edition

More self-documentation of my reading habits last year.   I finished only two books in September, because of intense political activity and Jewish holidays.  But in October, book clubs spurred me to read on.

First lines

Book 1
FIRST LESSON: The Most Beautiful of Theories
In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly.  You don’t get anywhere by not “wasting” time—something, unfortunately, that the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget.

Book 2
In 1929, three decades into what were the great years for the blue-collar town of Portsmouth, on the Ohio River, a private swimming pool opened and they called it Dreamland. The pool was the size of a football field.

Book 3
Chapter 1: A Good Café on the Place St. Michel
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

Book 4
For my thirty-third birthday, I wanted breakfast with Mark Twain. 

Book 5
Part One, I: A Very Odd Sort of King
“As Jesus was going along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. When he came to the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began to celebrate and praise God at the tops of their voices” (Luke 19:36-37)

Book 6
Chapter 1: Where Do Old Birds Go To Die?
She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.

Book 7
The Veil
This is me when I was 10 years old.  This was in 1980. 
And this is a class photo.  I’m sitting on the far left so you don’t see me.  From left to right: Golnaz, Mahsid, Narine, Minna.
In 1979 a revolution took place.  It was later called “the Islamic Revolution.”
Then came 1980: The year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school.

The titles and authors

Book 1
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli.
This very short book (96 pages) might possibly blow your mind.  The year 2017 to me seemed like a disturbance in the universe, but consider these ideas:

Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another.

* * * * *
There’s a paradox at the heart of our understanding of the physical world. The twentieth century gave us the two gems of which I have spoken: general relativity and quantum mechanics. From the first cosmology developed, as well as astrophysics, the study of gravitational waves, of black holes, and much else besides. The second provided the foundation for atomic physics, nuclear physics, the physics of elementary particles, the physics of condensed matter, and much, much more. Two theories, profligate in their gifts, which are fundamental to today’s technology and have transformed the way we live. And yet the two theories cannot both be right, at least in their current forms, because they contradict each other.

Book 2
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones. 
Disturbing subject matter.  Somewhat repetitive – how many times do I need to read a sentence that says “Mexicans from Nayarit delivered heroin like pizza.”  But perhaps the author needs to make his point that this addiction is relentless and everywhere and complicated.

Book 3
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.
Published posthumously in 1964 by his fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, 3 years after Hem’s death.  The version I read was a revised edition, published in 2009 by his grandson.  This book is a memoir written about his years as a writer in Paris in the 1920s.  It includes Hemingway’s friendships with, among others, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The memoir was unfinished at Hemingway’s death – he had written neither the opening nor the conclusion, at least not in a way satisfactory to him.  I wonder if this is why the book seems to start in the middle, or if the opening in my version is that way on purpose.  This book includes delightfully snarky portrayals of these Americans who hung out in Europe in the 1920s.  For book club.

Book 4
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs.  (2010)
I borrowed this book from the library in summer 2017 because the library’s “Summer Book Bingo” included a category for books about food.  But I didn’t crack it open until I was on my way to the library to return it.  I saw this epigraph:

“If I have a talent it is for contributing valuable matter to works upon cookery.”
- Mark Twain. 

And that immediately made me want to read the book after all.  This book uses some of Twain’s remarks and experiences about food and cuisine as a springboard to examine changes in American food production and tastes over the past 100+ years.  I found it to be enjoyable and informative.  

The author ventures to eat such things as raccoon, prairie chicken, and sheephead (a kind of fish).  He also reseeds San Francisco Bay with oysters and does some weeding at an organic cranberry farm.  Did you know that the abolitionist Benjamin Rush hoped that homemade maple sugar production would become prevalent, so that it could replace the trade of white sugar (from sugarcane), which was part of the slave trade?

Book 5
Simply Jesus, by N.T. Wright.  Good.  But I think I need to start reading other theologians’ thoughts.

Book 6
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
This was very difficult reading. I liked the characters – the portrayal of a hijra community in India is fascinating   but the story line was quite complicated and hard to follow.  The violence was overwhelming to me.   We read it for book club. 

Book 7
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoir). 

This is the book that made me realize that I am now “the print is too small” years old.  Is it possible to get a large-print version of a graphic novel?  I was glad I read it, though, as the graphic memoir format made the story of the 1979 Iranian revolution accessible.  I read this for the other book club.