Learning more about Russia

Our Frightening World

Dining on the train

We’re living in a scary time with what is going on in Ukraine and Putin’s disregard for the rule of law as he orders Russia to invade a sovereign nation. In 2011, I took the Trans-Mongolian railroad from Beijing to Moscow and then an elegant overnight train on to St. Petersburg. It was a wonderful trip and a few years later I read Colin Turbon’s book (which I’m reviewing below). The photos in his post came from that trip. I found the Russian people to be warm and welcoming. But sadly, the country has a long history of corrupt leadership (from the Czars to the Soviets, and now with Putin). While it would be wonderful for Putin’s army to be humiliated in his Ukrainian operation and order restored, we must remember that those who will suffer are the Ukrainian people and the Russian soldiers, many who are conscripted into the military. 

Notice the km marker indicating the distance A Rfrom Moscow

When I was in college, I took a class focusing on Russian history. Sadly, most of those books I read focused on the attempts to modernize (or westernize) the country by Peter the Great, the 1917 Revolution, and Stalin. I should attempt to update my knowledge. I found a wonderful Twitter trend by an London bookseller (who is from Eastern Europe) on books to learn more about both Ukraine and Russia. Click here to read through the thread. Who would like to join me in learning more? 

A Russian rail yard

Colin Thuborn, In Siberia

 (1999, HarperCollins ebook, 2009), 270 pages

During the Soviet era, much of Siberia was closed off from the West. The Soviets utilized this vast area (which contains nearly a fifth of the world’s landmass) as the Czars had earlier. Siberia existed as place of exile of criminals and political prisoners. During the Second World War, industry began to develop in Siberia. The remote lands were far from the reach of Hitler’s tanks. The land is blessed with resources including minerals, oil, timber, wheat and cursed with hardship. The coldest temperatures ever recorded in inhabited place was in Siberia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the end of collective farming, Colin Thubron set out to explore this region. Thubron, an Englishman, was familiar with Russia, having spent time there during the Cold War and having written on the nation. In his travels, he takes the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad), a line that runs north of Lake Baikal, and a steamer up the Yenisei River to the arctic. In the East, he flies to remote locations. In all, he covers the region from the Urals to the Pacific, from the “Altai Republic” along the Mongolian border to Dudinka, beside the frozen waters of the Arctic.  

Sunset over Lake Baikal

Siberia, Thubron writes was “born out of optimism and dissent.” (22)  Starting in the 1750s, Siberia became a place to exile criminals (just as Britain exiled its criminals to Australia) and although the number of criminals outnumbered the political prisoners, the later served as a “leavening intelligentsia” for the region. (162) Ironically, Siberia with its vastness became a place of freedom. In the 18th Century, those who moved there had a saying, “God is high, and the czar is far off.” (22)  In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Siberia was a stronghold out for the White Russians who fought against the Bolsheviks. Thubron tells of a discussion in Irkutsk to build a statue to honor Admiral Kolchak, a leader of the White Russians who was shot by the Bolsheviks at Irkutsk and his body pushed below the ice. He doubts the monument will be built. However, in 2011, when I travelled across Siberia, I enjoyed a a beer brewed in Irkutsk named for the Admiral. If you can a statue, a beer seems like a fitting tribute. 

Traveling in the years after the breakup of the Soviet system and the end of state-sponsored atheism, Thubron was surprised to find religion so alive. “Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer,” he noted. (56)  As he traveled, he witnessed new and renovated churches opening. At the dedication of a monastery outside of Omsk, he asked himself, “Why had this faith resurrected out of nothing, as if a guillotined head had been struck back on its body? Some vital artery had preserved it.” (59) Not only does he explore the resurgence in the Orthodox faith, (who seemed to be profiting from the ability to import and sell alcohol and cigarettes tax free (56), but also Buddhism among the Buryat (165ff), a dying Jewish settlement in Eastern Siberia (208ff), Russian Baptist (220f), Old Believers with their insistence of the correct way to cross themselves in prayers (175f), and even a few who were trying to revive traditional shamanistic practices (98ff). In each situation, he meets with religious leaders. One of the more interesting interviews was with an Orthodox priest in Irkutsk, whose father had been a communist and whose mother was a Christian. He told about how in the Army, he began to be convicted of his sin and came to God through his guilt. This priest feared a war between China and Russia and felt that America was a godless land (156-7).

But not all of Siberia is teaming with religious revival. Many of the people Thuborn spoke with felt their world collapse along with communism. One woman, sent to Siberia by Stalin,still refused to criticize the Communist Party. Toward the end of his journey, in northeastern Siberia, he visits Kolyma, the location of some of the deadliest camps. Being sent here was a death sentence. In the winter of 1932, whole camps (prisoners, dogs, and guards) froze to death. It is here that the coldest inhabit place on earth is at, where the temperature has dropped to -97.8 F, where one’s breath will free into crystals and twinkle onto the ground, a phenomenon known as the “whispering of the stars.” (254)  Yet, despite such harsh conditions, they produced nearly a third of the world’s gold in the 1930s. It is estimated that one life was lost for every kilogram of gold produced.  Over 2 million people died here. (251f) The condition of the camps horrified Thubron, who seems concern that the residents of Siberia accept the camps of the past without much thought.

Water tower from the days of steam engines

In his last collection of Stalin horror stories, Thuborn tells of the prison ship, the SS Dzhurma. This ship, according to Thubron, became lodged in ice in 1933 with 12000 prisoners on board. All the prisoners froze to death and half the guards went crazy, according to Thubron. This would also be the deadliest maritime disaster ever, in terms of life lost. When I read this, I thought it sounded like fodder for a horror story and I did some checking. From a couple sources on the internet, found that there are some questions of the validity of this tragedy. Two things don’t fit according to these sources. First, the Soviets purchased the Dzhurma two years later, in 1935. Second, it was only a little over 400 feet long, making it nearly impossible to have had 12,000 prisoners onboard. However, in 1939, another “death-ship,” the SS Indigirka sank with its human cargo trapped below deck. (256) 

I really enjoyed this book and wish I would have read it before traveling through Siberia. At that time, I read Ian Frazier’s excellent travelogue, Travels in Siberia. Thubron’s book is a little out of date, but it is also excellent. His writing is engaging and never boring as he weaves together a story about this vast and unknown landmass. I found reading this book on a e-reader both pleasant (it’s nice and light) and a little troublesome as I couldn’t easily flip back to the map at the beginning. Furthermore, the map didn’t show up well and found myself dragging out an atlas to locate places Thubron traveled. I recommend this book.  

Small village along the railroad tracks

Two stories of mine and two related book reviews

Story 1:

Like a lot of kids, I don’t look back fondly on my Junior High. But the one exciting thing about those years occurred shortly after sundown, especially in the winter. I would wait with excitement as the sky darkened, turning on my receiver and listening as I prepared my transmitter which was tied into a long-wire diapole antenna. Soon, the 80-meter amateur radio band came to life. My headphones became clogged with the sound of morse code. Sometimes I would respond to a CQ (an invitation to chat by morse code) and make a new friend. Other times I would send my own CQ or join a network that was busy handing “traffic.” This was an exciting hour for a fourteen-year-old. Early in the evening, one might connect with someone in Europe or up and down the east coast. As the darkness moved further west, connections were more easily made to operators in the Midwest and, even later, on the West Coast. In high school, I lost the wonder of amateur radio and at some point, my license expired. Occasionally, I think back on those days and wonder if I should study up and renew my license. These two books that I review below helped rekindle such interest.

Story 2:

The first story I remember from a sermon came from Rev. Jessie Parks. He was the pastor of my home church from the time we moved to the Wilmington NC area until shortly after I turned 11. I remember the timing of his move as he had a son a few months older than me. For short time, we were in Boy Scouts together. I was probably ten when he gave this sermon. The story was about the radio operators on the high seas on that fateful night of April 14-15, 1912. I would later learn that Mr. Parks was also an amateur radio operator. I’m sure most ham operators know well the story of what happened that night when the Titanic sank. 

On my recent trip to Savannah and back, one of the books I listened was about the sinking of the Titanic from the perspective of two ships, the Carpathia and the Californian. Then, I listened to an Erik Larson story that wove together the early years of radio and that of a murder in London. Here are my reviews:  

Daniel Allen Butler, The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, the Californian and the Night the Titanic was Lost 

(2009, Audible, 2013), 9 hours and 29 minutes.  

Butler suggests the purpose of his book is to focus, not on the sinking of the Titanic, but on the other ships that were in the vicinity on the night of April 14-15, 1912. However, this isn’t new information as many of the details I had already known. After the sinking of the Titanic, there were major investigations, one in the United States and the other in Great Britain. All officers of the two nearby ships along with those officers and crew who survived the sinking were interviewed by these two investigations. What Butler does is to provide more insight into the lives of the development of the transatlantic shipping in the early years of the century, the captains of the two ships, the details of what happened that night from the perspective of the two ships, and report on the inquiries in the aftermath of the accident. Furthermore, he provides an interesting overview of how radio operated in the early days of wireless, which I found most interesting.

Wireless radio in 1912 was under the control of the Marconi company. The operators on the ships didn’t work for the shipping company, but for Marconi. He trained the operators, assigned them to the ships, and paid them. While onboard, the captain of the ship had authority over the operators, but he didn’t control them as he did rest of the crew onboard ship. Most ships had only one operator, although the larger liners like the Titanic had two. Part of the reason for the additional operator was that by 1912, Marconi’s company had found a profitable niche in sending telegraphs from the passengers of ships in the mid-Atlantic. As evening settled in on April 14th, the Titanic’s operators were busy sending such messages. Therefore, when the Californian operator contacted nearby ships to warn of ice, the Titanic’s operators were busy sending messages of good will from their passengers. His response was rather curt as he told the Californian not to interrupt their traffic. The Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, decided it was unsafe to continue moving through the ice field in the dark. He had his ship stopped for the night and the radio operator, as there was only one onboard, went to bed. The captain also went to bed. A few minutes later, the Titanic struck the fatal iceberg. 

Knowing his ship was in danger, Captain Smith of the Titanic soon had his operators sending out a distress single. The Carpathia, which was fifty-eight miles away, responded and quickly changed course. Arthur Rostron, its captain, immediately began making plans as to how he might best respond. He had the confidence of his crew and pushed the ship to a speed beyond what was thought capable. While in transit, they readied lifeboats, prepared places inside the ship to receive passengers and to provide medical care, and prepared food. However, when he learned how fast the Titanic was sinking, he knew he could never reach the ship in time.

Throughout the night, until the lights went out, the Titanic’s operators stayed at their station hoping to awaken a closer ship who might be able to arrive in time to save the passengers and crew. The Titanic also shot up flares, some which were seen by the Californian, which was probably around 5 nautical miles from the disaster. The officers on the Californian reported such sights to their sleeping captain. The Californian tried to respond to the Titanic by morse code using lights but was probably too far away and received no response. There was even discussion on the ship as to whether the flairs were “company signals” or “distress signals.” Captain Lord never left his bunk to examine the situation. Nor did he wake the radio operator so that he might learn what was happening. 

Early the next morning, around two hours after the Titanic disappeared (those on the Californian through the ship had sailed off and didn’t even realize it was the Titanic), the Carpathia arrived and began to collect those in life rafts. 

Butler tells this story in an engaging manner. He rightly praises the work of Rostron and the Carpathia. And, as has many before him, he condemned the actions of Captain Lord. However, he goes beyond condemning the inaction of Lord, by psychologically diagnosing him. He also condemned the supporters of Mr. Lord. This, I thought, went to far. A historian is in no position to psychologically evaluate someone long dead and I’m not sure who, today, are Mr. Lord’s supporters. To me, attacking Lord’s supporters was to create a straw man to beat up. Nonetheless, I enjoyed his telling of the story of the Titanic from the perspectives of those on the seas that evening. 

Erik Larson, Thunderstruck

 (2006, Audible 2006), 11 hours and 56 minutes.

Like many readers, my first exposure to the writings of Erik Larson was through The Devil in the White City. In that book, Larson tells the story of one of nation’s first serial murderers and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In Thunderstruck, Larson weaves together the story of a murder that occurred in London in early in the 20th Century with the story of Marconi’s development of the wireless radio. 

Hawley Crippen was a homeopathic physician from Michigan who worked in the patent medicine business. He spent much of his life in London. He married a woman who saw herself as an opera star. After failing to break into such trade in the United States, she tried and failed to make a name for herself in the London.  The portrait Larson creates of Crippen’s wife, Cora, who went by her stage name, Belle,” is less than flattering. She was never satisfied. She nearly bankrupted her husband with her shopping sprees. She had several affairs. To most people, Crippen doted on her and did what he could to make her happy. Then, he hired a new typist, Ethel, whom he fell for and with whom he had an affair.

In early 1910, Cora went missing. Crippen said she’d gone to the United States and later said she’d died in California. But some friends of Cora questioned this and brought her disappearance to the attention of Scotland Yard. Knowing he was under investigation, Crippen and Ethel fled to Europe and then to Quebec. Ethel was disguised as a young boy. But the officers of the ship were on the lookout and the captain became suspicious. Using the radio, he contacted authorities. Scotland Yard sent an investigator to Canada on a faster ship, which beat Crippen’s ship and allowed him to make an arrest with the help of Quebec authorities. This high seas chase became the headline in newspapers. Everyone except those on Crippen’s ship, knew what was happening because of radio. Crippen, who was always known as a gentleman, was hanged for this crime. Ethel was tried as an accessory but was found not guilty. 

The Crippen story is broken up by the story of Marconi and the development of wireless radio. In the 1890s, there were great interest in an ability to send messages through the “ether.” While some of this was through scientific means, others sought to do such through magic or the occult. Marconi was the one who figured out how to send wireless over a long distance. But his is not the rags to riches story. His father was a wealthy businessman in Italy and his mother was from the Jameson distilling family of Ireland. It was the Jameson family who helped pull together backers to support Marconi as he began wireless operations that eventually crossed the Atlantic. But there were lots of issues to overcome. Even once it was shown as possible, there were legal challenges from cable companies who saw wireless as an unfair competitor. There were issues of isolating the signal to a particular frequency.  For some reason that was only later understood, wireless worked best at night (as I experienced as a 14-year-old kid in the longer frequency bands). Larson weaves all this together into a compelling story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. 

Book Reviews: Theology, Memoir, & Devotion

I’m reading a lot in this new year but am way behind on my book reviews (but then I never review all the books I read. Here is one I finished in late December, one I finished in January, and a third finished in February: 

Makota Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making 

(New Haven, Yale, 2021), 167 pages including index and notes.  

In this book, Japanese-American artist Makota Fujimura provides an insight into his theology grounded in a belief in an all-sufficient God who created us to create. I find hope in the idea that God created us to create. His theology challenges the utilitarian views from the industrial revolution (and Darwin). While we often think of art as not being practical, he suggests that beauty and mercy (two components of art) draws us into the sacred and is necessary for the gospel to change the world. While beauty and mercy might not be in the hierarchy of the Old Creation, it invokes the New (28). 

Fujimura critiques a common belief that God is there to “fix things”, labeling such an idea as “plumbing theology.” While he agrees that at time things need to be fixed, it’s not the whole message of the gospel. Fujimura’s theology is built around the idea that God is all sufficient, yet choses to delights in us. God calls us to participate in the creation of beauty. The essential questions, according to Fujimura, isn’t whether we are religious, but whether we are making something. He even encourages us in church to ask, “what did you make this week?” (62). 

The author draws heavily on creative authors, poets, and theologians. He reminds us of Emily Dickinson’s referring to Jesus as the Tender Pioneer. A sample of others quoted include N. T. Wright, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, Wendell Berry, philosopher Daniel N. Robinson, and William Blake. While he refers to Scripture frequently, he is especially fond of the Gospel of John and ends with detailed commentary on stories of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. He also draws heavily on the image of the wedding between Christ and the Church, which should remind us that our future hope isn’t in “the end,” but in a new beginning (83-4).

Kintsugi, a form of Japanese art that repairs the pottery of a broken tea service to create a more valuable and beautiful piece serves as a metaphor for Fujimura. Christ doesn’t just “fix us,” but restores us to a new creation. As a part of the new creation, we are to be creating, regardless of what we do. 

Often Fujimura slips in humor. Writing about refusing God’s gift, he reminds us that “we are not just rejecting a vacuum cleaner that is advertised as guaranteed to clean our hearts of sin; we are rejecting the Father love of God.” 69

I enjoyed reading this book. Fujimura gives the reader a lot to ponder and makes me now ask myself, “what did I make today?” That’s not a bad question for us to ask before nodding off to sleep.

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Gregory Orr, The Blessing: A Memoir

 

(2002, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019), 221 pages. 

Last year I learned of Gregory Orr through his book on reading and writing poetry. I enjoyed it so, that I picked up one of his many books of poetry. Still intrigued, I checked out this memoir. 

Orr tells the story of his first eighteen years through a series of short vignettes. The chapters tend to be short, some only a few hundred words. Through the telling of these stories, the author gradually reveals what drew him into art and especially poetry. 

Reading the story of his young life, I found myself amazed that he survived. When the author was 12, he accidently shot and killed his younger brother in a hunting accident. We later learn (as he later learned), his father had also accidently killed a friend after they had “borrowed” a 22 rifle and was using it to “skeet shoot” paper plates. Obviously, such trauma continues to influence the author. But there were more bumps along the road. His father, a physician, supposedly to save the family, took them all to Haiti in the early 60s. There, he worked in a clinic where, following a simple surgery, his mother died of an infection. Afterwards, his father married a much younger woman to whom he had had an affair before moving to Haiti. His father, who seemed to be a devoted doctor who worked ungodly hours in rural New York, lived on amphetamines. He even gave an industrial size jar of such tablets to his son when he dropped him off at college. The memoir ends after Orr’s first year of college, when he headed South as part of the Freedom Riders who worked for Civil Rights. He was young and naïve and twice found himself in a dangerous situation which required his rescue by his father’s friend, an attorney. 

It doesn’t appear Orr and his family were very religious. Orr recalls they occasionally attended a Dutch Reformed Church. However, this book is steeped in Biblical metaphors, especially around the accidental death of his brother. Orr sees himself as Cain, who after killing his brother Abel is protected by God. He too feels protected (even the investigating officer said it was an accident and doesn’t handcuff him). But he also feels guilty and unable to deal with the guilt. Later, as he writes this book, he learns of the guilt his brother had over the killing. His brother had not prepared for a test and prayed there would be a way he could avoid taking it. He, too, carried guilt, as he found the answer to his prayer (not having to take the test that day) to be horrific.

As a memoir, this book doesn’t contain everything about the author’s early life. While he mentions becoming involved with the Civil Rights movement, I found myself looking for a stronger link as to why he decided to spend a summer in Mississippi and Alabama. However, that doesn’t distract much from what I consider an excellent memoir. 

This is a fast book to read. I started it one night and finished it the next afternoon. I do recommend this book and before I preach on Genesis 4 again (the story of Cain and Abel), I will reread much of this book. 

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Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers

 (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2020), 224 pages.  

I picked up this book on the recommendation of a good friend. Ortlund acknowledges that we spend a lot of time discussing and talking about what Christ has done for us, which is important. However, his goal is to go another direction and explore the heart of Christ. Using selections of scripture and readings of Puritan authors (such as Thomas Goodman), Ortlund creates 23 short chapters that explore Christ’s heart. The emphasis is on the love of God, a love that can break through our sin and failures to welcome us into Gods’ family. This book isn’t about fearing the wrath of God (although the author does mention that side of the divine) but a comforting book about a God who will go the extra mile to reach out to us in love. 

Not only does this book draws us into Scripture, but it also helps save Puritanism from the Perry Miller misunderstandings that has shed a dark cloud of the movement since the middle of the last century. Most people think of the Puritans as stern, people who seem overly worried that someone, somewhere is having fun. That’s not a fair representation and these chapters opens Puritanism to a new light.

This book would be an excellent read for a Bible Study group or each of the essays could be utilized as a short devotion.  

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Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr

As today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day (and a day of digging out of a heavy snow that had a layer of ice on top), I thought I would repost a review from a former blog of mine. This is a good biography of the first nine years of Dr. King’s professional life.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988)

This book is an enormous undertaking, for both the author and the reader. The author provides the reader a biography of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s work through 1963, a view into the early years of the Civil Rights movement, as well as showing how the movement was affected by national and international events. This is the first of three massive volumes by Taylor Branch that spans the years of King’s ministry, from his ordination in 1954 to his death in 1968. This volume also provides some detail about King’s family history and his earlier life through graduate school at Boston University. I decided to read this book after hearing Branch speak in Birmingham AL in June (2006). It’s like reading a Russian novel with a multitude of characters and over 900 pages of text. However, it was worth the effort as I got an inside look as to what was going on in the world during the first six years of my life.

Branch does not bestow sainthood nor does he throw stones. The greatness of Martin Luther King comes through as well as his shortcomings. He demonstrates King’s brilliance in the Montgomery Bus Campaign as well as in Birmingham. He also shows the times King struggled: his battles within his denomination, the National Baptist; King’s struggles with the NAACP; as well as his infidelities. The FBI also had mixed review. Agents are credited in standing up to Southern law enforcement officers, insisting that the rights of African Americans be protected. They often warned Civil Rights leaders of threats and dangers they faced. However, once King refused to heed the FBI’s warnings that two of his associates were communists, the agency at Hoover’s insistence, set out to break King. Hoover is shown as inflexible, a man who reprimanded an agent for suggesting that King’s associates are not communists. The Kennedy’s (John and Robert) also have mixed reviews. John Kennedy’s Civil Right’s Speech (and on the night that Medgar Evers would be killed in Mississippi) is brilliant. Kennedy drew upon Biblical themes, labeling Civil Rights struggle a moral issue “as old as the Scriptures.” Yet the Kennedy brothers appear to base most of their decisions based on political reasons and not moral ones. This allows King to sometimes push Kennedy at his weakness, hinting that he has or can get the support of Nelson Rockefeller (a Republican). Although we think today of the Democrat Party being the party of African Americans, this wasn’t necessarily the case in the 50s and early 60s. Many black leaders, especially within the National Baptist Convention leadership, identified themselves as Republicans, with Lincoln’s party.

Another interesting aspect in this book is the role many of the black entertainers played in the movement. King was regularly in contact with Harry Belafonte, but also gains connections to Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin and others. The author also goes to great lengths to put the Civil Rights movement into context based on the Cold War politics. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy found themselves in embarrassing positions as they spoke out for democracy overseas while blacks within the United States were being denied rights.

The book ends in 1963, a watershed year for Civil Rights. King leads the massive and peaceful March on Washington. Medgar Evans and John Kennedy are both assassinated. And before the year is out, King has an hour long chat with the President, Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, who would see to it that the Voting Rights Acts become law. 

As a white boy from the South, this book was eye opening. I found myself laughing that the same people who today bemoan the lack of prayer in the public sphere were arresting blacks for praying on the courthouse steps. The treatment of peaceful protesters was often horrible. There were obvious constitutional violations such as Wallace and the Alabama legislature raising the minimum bail for minor crimes in Birmingham 10 fold (to $2500) as a way to punish those marching for Civil Rights. I was also pleasantly surprised at behind the scenes connections between King and Billy Graham. Graham’s staff even provided logistical suggestions for King. King’s commitment to non-violence and his dependence upon the methods of Gandhi are evident. Finally, I found myself wondering if the segregationists like Bull O’Conner of Birmingham shouldn’t be partly responsible for the rise in crime among African American youth. They relished throwing those fighting for basic rights into jail, breaking a fear and taboo of jail. The taboo of being in jail has long kept youth from getting into trouble and was something the movement had to overcome to get mass arrest in order to challenge the system. In doing so, jail no longer was an experience to be ashamed off and with Pandora’s Box open, jail was no longer a determent to other criminal behavior. 

I recommend this book if you have a commitment to digging deep into the Civil Rights movement. Branch is a wonderful researcher and his use of FBI tapes and other sources give us a behind the scene look at both what was happening within the Civil Rights movement as well as at the White House. However, there are so many details. For those wanting just an overview of the Civil Right’s movement, this book may be a bit much.

Reading summary for 2021

Below is a list to books I read in 2021, along with links to books which I reviewed (Often, I reviewed several books in the same post, so you may have to look down to find the book in question). In 2021, I read 54 books. 41 were non-fiction, 8 were fiction, and 5 were books of poetry. 20 of the books I listed to on audible, the rest were read on paper. I reviewed 30 of the books. That’s one more book than 2020, and seven less reviews. To see my 2020 reading list, click here.

Last year I said I need to read more fiction and I read one more than 2020. Interestingly, when I looked at books by month, fiction often came out on top.

Here’s a breakdown of my non-fiction reading (Some books appear in more than one category).

History (Including Biographies). 13
Theology (Including devotions and commentaries). 16
Essays and Short Stories 8
Humor (I need to read more!) 4
Nature 6
Politics 3
Memoir 10
The Art of Writing 2

My reading list by month (with a photo of the book that I found most intriguing for each month):

January

Ronald W. Hall, The Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy (History)
Charles Simic, The Book of God and Devils: Poems (Poetry)
Lisa Deam, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Theology, History)
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Theology, Politics, History, Audible)
David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls 
(Essays, Humor, Audible)
Amy Peterson, Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (Theology)

Hard to decide between Lopez and Nguyen!

February

Barry Lopez, About this Life (Memoir (Audible)
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Fiction, Audible)
Anne Melyn Cassabaum, Down Along the Haw: The History of a North Carolina River (History, Geography) 
Charles Simic, The Book of Gods and Devils (poetry)
Sarah Arthur, Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany  (Devotion)

March

Lisa Deam, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a way of Life for Spiritual Seekers (Theology, History)
Tilar J. Mazzero, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. (History, Creative Non-Fiction, Audible)
Nick Offerman, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemaker  (Essays, “History,” Audible)
Thomas Long, Hebrews (Biblical Commentary)
Ron Rash, Among the Believers: Poems (Poetry)
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree (Fiction, Audible) 
Karen Cecil Smith: Orlean Puckett: The Life of a Mountain Midwife (History) 
Julie Salamon, Rambar’s Ladder: A Mediation on Generosity and Why It is Necessary to Give (theology)

April

Robin Wall Kimmer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Nature, Memoir, Audible) 
Sarah Arthur, complier, Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Devotion)
Barry Dickson, Maybe Today: Poems  (Poetry)
Garrison Keillor: That Time of the Year: A Minnesota Life (Memoir)

May

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North  (Fiction, Audible)

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (Fiction, Audible)

June

Aaron McAlexander, Greasy Bend: Ode to a Mountain Road  (History, Essays)
Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here  (Fiction, Politics, Audible)
Luke Timothy Johnson: Hebrews: A Commentary (Biblical Commentary) 

July

Gregory Orr, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry (Writing)
Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot  (Nature, Essays, Audible) 
Erik Larson: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (History, Audible) 
John Ketchmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean; Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea (Memoir, Audible) 
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Theology, Race)
Casey Tygrett, As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in our Spiritual Life (Writing)
Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season (Fiction, Humor, Audible) 
Robert Anderson, Daniel: Signs and Wonders, International Theological Commentary (Biblical Commentary)
Chet Raymo, The Soul of Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage (Nature, Essays) 

August

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (Non-fiction, Baseball, Biographies, Audible)
Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Biography, theology)
Admiral Eugene Fluckey, Thunder Below:  The USS Barb Revolutionizes Submarine Warfare (History, Memoir, Audible)
Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery (Memoir) 
Alistair Begg, Brave by Faith: God -sized Confidence in a Post-Christian World (Biblical Commentary) 

September

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (Fiction, Audible) 
George Saunders, Civil War Land in Bad Decline (Essays, Humor, Audible)

October

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2 The Doctrine of Reconciliation  (Theology) 

Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (Memoir, Nature, Audible) 

November

Anton Chekhov, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov, 1882-1885 (Short Stories, Audible)

Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics (Non-fiction, Political)

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell (Faith, Memoir, Audible) 

John Hassell Yeatts, A Long and Winding Road (History, Memoir, Stories)

Gregory Orr, River Inside the River: Poems (Poetry) 

December

Makoto Fujimura, Art of Faith: A Theology of Making (Theology).

Philip Conner, A Song for the River (Memoir, Nature, Audible) 

Anthony Everitt, Alexander the Great: His lLfe and His Mysterious Death (History, Audible) 

I have two of these books on my reading list again, for 2022. I listened to Jesus and John Wayne, but I have the paper copy and I would like to read it and then write a review. I also want to reread and then write a review of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.

What books did you read in 2021? What are your reading plans for 2022?

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Four Books: Memories, Poetry, and a Novel

John Hassell Yeatts, A Long and Winding Road 
(1989), 120 pages. 

The long and winding road referred to in the title is the Blue Ridge Parkway which divided the little community of Mayberry in the mid-1930s. This was at the time when the author was becoming a man. He began working at the Dan River dam project below Mayberry and his life’s work continues as he worked on dams around the country. He later attends college and goes on to work as a reporter and writer, as well as working with agencies such as the March of Dimes and American Cancer Association. In his later years, Yeatts came back to the Mayberry of his youth for the summers. He also published several books about the community. 

These are wonderful memories. The author grew up at a time when chestnut trees dominated the Appalachian Mountains, when most people travelled by horse or buggy, and when life was hard. He was present in the old Mayberry School, when Bob Childress called for the building of a church (now Mayberry Presbyterian Church). His father delivered mail for 35 years, mostly using horses. Later in his career, he’d use a Model T. In the days before UPS, his father had to have extra packhorses for the mail order packages from Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards. Yeatts remembers a car salesman from Mount Airy introduce Ford’s Model T to the community and he travels to Stuart to meet those coming back from the First World War. There, for the first time in his life, he sees a locomotive, as the iron horse pulls the train into Stuart from the main line in Martinsville. He also remembers the lumbering of the chestnut and watching the trees hauled away as the blight killed the forest that dominated these parts. In these stories, we learn about old mills where farmers ground grain, and about his tee-totalling mother, who would have joined Carrie Nation if she had the opportunity. This book is filled with good stories, that take the reader back into a simple but difficult time to make a living on the mountains.

This book, along with the books of Aaron McAlexander, provide a colorful history of Mayberry. The difference in the two books is that Yeatts (who I’m sure is related to McAlexander), is a couple decades older and so his memories extend further back, to a time before the automobile, tractors, and tourists. In both books, the Mayberry store (which has gone by many names) is prominent. 

Gregory Orr, River Inside the River: Poems
(New York: Norton, 2013), 124 pages.

Last summer, when on study leave, I found myself engrossed in A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr. Having not read any of his poetry selections of the University of Virginia professor, I picked up this collection. This book has three major sections. The first, “Eden and After” looks at our first parents in the garden and its aftermath. In the second, “The City of Poetry,” I have a sense that Orr was describing the city of refuge in Genesis 4, where Cain fled upon the death of Able. As a child, Orr had killed his brother in a hunting accident. The final section is titled after the book’s title, “River Inside the River” While Orr explores new themes, he also continues building on themes already introduced.  Overall, I enjoyed the collection. I like his use of words and metaphors. My only complaint was his use of the “F” word. It certainly got my attention and was only used a few times. It was just a shock to read it in such a work, especially since he uses it to describe that which Adam and Eve did in the garden. But that word is just too harsh. Of course, Orr uses this word less than other books I’ve read. In Matterhorn, which is reviewed below, the word is used a lot but in a combat situation it seems more appropriate.

Philip Conners, A Song for a River, 
(Audible, 2018) 6 hours and 44 minutes.

This book was in my to-be-read pile for some time. When it showed up as a freebee for Audible subscribers, I jumped on it and enjoyed the book. Conners spent thirteen years as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness area in Southern New Mexico. I didn’t even know that there were still fire lookouts into the 21st century! This book weaves together several tragedies: his own brother’s suicide, his divorce, the death of his friend John who was also a fire lookout, and the death of three students from Silver City who were killed in a plane crash, along with his own medical issues. Weaving into these deaths and his divorce are stories of fire in the oldest wilderness area in the United States (As a young forester, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, had been instrumental in saving this land).  

Conner also experiences danger as a lookout. One fire sweep through the high country. Conner is saved by a helicopter sent in to rescue him. Throughout the book, we learn of larger and larger fires, that burn hotter and at higher altitudes from global warming. In addition to the danger of fire, Conner talks about risky river trips he makes in this part of the world. Toward the end of the book, we learn that Conner remarries.  While I enjoyed the book, I felt it was a bit disjointed. That said, I do plan to read his other books.

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (Audible, 2010), 21 hours and 11 minutes.

Marlantes was a Marine officer in Vietnam, and this is his first novel. The story takes place in late 1968 and early 1969, as the narrator begins his deployment as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corp. Assigned to a company that’s securing a firebase close to the DMZ, the firebase is named Matterhorn. The young officer dreams of rising rapidly as he serves in combat, in the hopes he can return to law school and become a politician. But as he is thrown in with men who long to survive, he learns important lessons. The story centers around a decision by the top brass to abandon the base, only to then require the Marines to retake it, after the North Vietnamese have repurposed the base for their own purposes. This was nearly suicidal mission, but the mission is ultimately successful. Along the way, we learn of the men in his company, especially the issues around race. There is even a divide among the “black brothers,” between some who are sending back weapons to America to help in the fight against racism and others who just want to survive or to get high. We also learn about the problems that come from above, from officers trying to please politicians and making decisions that are almost impossible to carry out in the field. While this is a long story, it is well told and shows the horror of the war. 

The Death of Politics, A Review

Over the past few years, I have been concerned on the lack of civility in our public lives. We see it in politics, in grocery stores, and on the highways. Before COVID, I was activity attempting to foster conversation about civility. It’s needed in our world. Because of my interest, a parishioner in one of my churches gave me this book.

Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), 264 pages including notes.

The death of politics sounds like a good idea. But is it? Politics is how we work out our differences without resorting to violence. If politics dies, so does our democratic society. 

Peter Wehner is a life-long Republican and a conservative who served in Reagan’s and both Bush’s Presidential administrations. He’s concerned over the current state of our political discourse, believing that we are on a dangerous road. We look with contempt at those with whom we disagree. We despite politics when we don’t get our way. We’re angry. Many people have lost hope in the political process to help guide us peacefully out of this situation. In this book, Wehner begins discussing how we’ve gotten into such a position as a society. While he was concerned over Donald Trump, Wehner acknowledges this slip has been going on in America at least since Vietnam. What gave Trump his power was his ability to harness such negative energy. 

This is not really a book about Trump. Wehner’s concerns are much deeper. He begins with a discussion on how politics is a noble calling. Then he delves into how we found ourselves into a position where we hold politics in disdain. Before offering suggestions on how to make things better, Wehner provides a civil lesson in how politics should work. He draws on the political insights of Aristotle, John Locke, and Abraham Lincoln. As a conservative, he also pulls ideas from the British statesman, Edmund Burke, along with many Americans conservatives, especially Reagan and William Buckley. 

My favorite part of the book are the middle chapters (4 and 5), titled “Politics and Faith” and “Words Matter.” While Separation of Church and State is enshrined in the Constitution, America is fundamentally a religious country. The founders of our nation, while wanting to keep the church and state separate, “argued that religion was essential in providing a moral basis for a free society” (66).  Wehner builds upon the Biblical foundation that we’re all created in God’s image. Recalling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, he reminds that church that it is not the master nor the servant of the state, “but the conscience of the state” (88). He is very critical of many within the evangelical circles and of Trump. He suggests that Trump’s morality is more Nietzschean than Christian and that many evangelicals are “doing more damage to the Christian witness than the so-called ‘New Atheists’ ever could” (80-81). 

Wehner ends the chapter with four suggestions for Christians in today’s political climate: 1. Begin with Jesus, with what he taught and the example he modeled. 2. Articulate a coherent vision of politics, informed by a “Christian moral vision of justice and the common good.” 3. Model “moving from anger to understanding, from revenge toward reconciliation, from grievance toward gratitude, and from fear toward trust and love.” And finally, 4., “treat all people as ‘neighbors they are to love (86ff).’”  Interestingly, in his acknowledgements, he thanked Philip Yancey (whose memoir I reviewed a few weeks ago) for helping him with this chapter. 

Chapter five, on words, he begins recalling many of John Kennedy’s speeches. As a student of politics, even though a Republican, he noted the eloquence of Kennedy’s style that launch a decade in which America made great gains ending up on the moon. It is interesting, too, how Presidents tend to be remembered by their words more than their policies, of which he provides examples across political spectrum and ages. Drawing from David Reynold’s book, Mightier than the Sword, which looked at the impact of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin on changing the discourse over slavery in America, Wehner makes the case that words can help move a society in a more noble manner.

Wehner also shows how words and rhetoric can be misused. Here, he primarily focuses on how words can help foster racial biases toward others. He also notes our tendency toward “confirmation bias,” where we tend to listen and read only that which confirms our own prejudices. He is critical with how words are used as weapons, and how truth no longer matters as long “our side” wins. Wehner suggests as an antidote to our bias, that we read widely. He ends this chapter drawing from the English author, “George Orwell, especially his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He suggests that reclaiming language is necessary for us to reclaim politics (139). 

In chapter 6, Wehner turns to the topic of moderation, compromise, and civility. Here he begins to offer more suggestions with how we might live together peacefully despite our differences. The goal of society is not to have everyone think the same, but to allow people coexistence. Drawing upon the ideas of James Madison, he recalls how the founders of our constitution understood humanity as flawed but also capable of virtue and self-government. Sadly, he sees our current situation as pushing us in the opposite direction, toward alienation from one another. To reverse direction, we need the constitution’s system of checks and balances to work. He makes a case for moderation to temper the populist anger that judges others to be “evil and irredeemable” (151). Moderation understands the complexity of our world and “distrusts utopian visions and simple solutions” (153). When we are moderate in our ideas, we are willing to compromise (which isn’t a bad word, but how we settle differences). Finally, we need to be civil toward one another. Here, Wehner draws from his faith, quoting the Apostle Paul advice to the Colossians, “Let your conversations be always full of grace…” and from his “fruits of the Spirit” which he encouraged the Galatians to demonstrate in their lives (163). 

While Wehner encourages citizens to support candidates for office who model moderation, compromise, and civility, he also realizes that the anger within society has often been fueled by outside sources. He calls for a blockage of foreign web bot sites that spreads false information and encourage civil unrest. Organizations like “Better Angels” and “Speak Your Peace”, as well as columnists like David Brooks and Yuval Levin are offered as good examples that will lead us to a more civil society.  

In his final chapter, Wehner makes the case for hope. He reminds Americans of the social regression between 1960 and 1990, which saw a 500% increase in violent crimes, 400% increase in out of wedlock births, increase in children on welfare, teenage suicide, and divorce. But then, things started to improve, with a decrease in these areas. But we’ve forgotten how things should work.  He chides conservatives for focusing only on the cost of government and not on its effectiveness. Wehner also acknowledges his own failures within George W Bush’s administration in relation to Iraq, admitting that they were wrong in their assumptions. He also admits that its easier for him to be a “Monday morning quarterback” and to critique from the outside than the inside. Finally, he encourages us to care enough to act and to move beyond our current “bread and circus” style of government. 

One of the keys in being civil, which Wehner recognizes, is that it must come internally. Civility won’t be achieved with conservatives demanding it of liberals, or liberals demanding it from conservatives. Instead, we all must realize that more is at stake. The soul of our nation is in danger. What can we do as individuals to help change the tenor of the political conversation? Those of us who are followers of Jesus should be at the forefront in displaying civility. I encourage others to read this book.  

My review of other books of similar interest:

P. M. Forni, The Civility Solution: What To Do When People are Rude

Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal

W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

Arthur Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America

John Kasich, It’s Up to Us: Ten Little Ways We Can Bring About Big Change

Where the Light Fell: A Memoir

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell: A Memoir (Random House Audio, 2021), unabridged, 11 hours, 17 minutes. 

Back in the late 1990s, I read several of Philip Yancey’s book. Twenty some years later, I find myself going back to his books for inspiration. This is especially true for What’s So Amazing About Grace? While Yancey often drew from personal stories, in this book he provides even more personal details of his childhood. Yancey was only a year old when his father died of polio. However, he was a college student, bringing home a date, when he accidentally learns the details of his father’s death. An iron lung kept his father alive, but he decided that instead he would trust God. Supported by all the people who were praying for him and against medical advice, he left the hospital. Sadly, it didn’t work out. Raised in poverty by his mother, he grew up not knowing the reasons behind his father’s death. 

Secrets and mysteries abound in Yancey’s childhood world. A bright student, he starts school a year early and skipped the second grade. Although three years younger, he was a year behind this older brother throughout school and college. The two brothers were raised in Southern fundamentalistic churches with a holiness strain. Although their mother came from Philadelphia, she too had been raised in a church that taught the “curse of Ham” (an interpretation of scripture that assigns those of color to subservient positions within society). The two brothers grow up believing the myth of the Lost Cause and of vengeful God. It’s a frightful time as the Civil Rights movement gains strength as unrest around the Vietnam War increases. In time, both brothers revolted against their childhood. As the book ends, the older brother is attending an atheistic church in California, while the younger has become a popular Christian author. 

From the beginning, the Yancey’s boys were their mother’s hope to fulfill her own dream of becoming a missionary to Africa. From an early age, she tells them the Biblical story of Hannah, who consecrated her son to the Lord and gave him to the priest, Eli, to raise him up in the temple (see 1 Samuel 1-3).  For Yancey, he admits this is his least favorite story in the Bible. The pressure upon these two boys, growing up in the church (at times even living on church property where their mother leads the Sunday School) was immense. 

While there is much to lament about Yancey’s childhood, he’s not bitter. “Nothing is wasted,” he acknowledges. He credits this upbringing for teaching him the importance of language and to develop a love of scripture. While he grew up with sermons mostly from Paul or the Old Testament, he learned enough about Jesus to dig deeper. He also appreciates the way the church of his youth was a family.  “Like a family, [church] is a cluster of dysfunctional people. As he fully understands the gospel story, Yancey discoverers grace and finds the strength to move into a deeper relationship with God and with all God’s children. 


Part of the credit for Yancey comes from his wife, who had grown up in a missionary home. The two found solace with each other. Married for 50 years, Yancey doesn’t say much about their life together. This memoir focuses on Yancey’s early years.  

Sadly, Yancey’s story doesn’t end in a fairy tale. His brother and his mother haven’t spoken in decades. Yancey has sought forgiveness from some whom he’s hurt, there are others with whom he’s not been able to reconcile. The president of his college (which he never mentions by name), remains upset over the stories he told while being a student there. But in other cases, such as with his high school nemeses, Hal, he’s able to develop a new friend. Even one of his childhood pastors, of whom he’d been critical, found himself moved by Yancey’s writings on grace. Looking back, he admits to wishing he had discovered grace much earlier in his ministry. 

Toward the end of the book, Yancey digs again into the story of Hannah, whom his mother had used to make him and brother feel guilty for not following her plan for their lives. He notes that it was not Hannah nor Eli that gave rise to Samuel. God called Samuel. We live for God, not for the expectations of others. Yancey claims there are two universal themes in his writings: suffering and grace. He brings them together in these pages.  

I listened to the audible version of this book. The author read his own work, which is always a benefit. However, I will also buy a paper copy of the book as there is much I would like to revisit.  I recommend this book, especially for those who come out of a fundamentalist background or those raised up in the era of Civil Rights.  

Two Books: Poetry and Ministry

Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery

(NY: Random House, 2001), 242 pages, no illustrations.

A delightful collection of essays that describes Lischer’s first three years as a pastor in Southern Illinois, just east of St. Louis, Missouri. He arrives driving a Ford Pinto. Fresh out of school, he finds his church in the middle of a cornfield. It takes time for this well-educated pastor to relate to his congregation, but he gradually begins to love these people. Nationwide, Civil Rights and Vietnam are in the news, but this little church seems to be far from the headlines. Lischer fights over the American flag in the sanctuary and the gossip that seems to spread so fast that the pastor is the last to know. Providing marital counseling to a couple dealing with adultery, Lischer lets a “shit” slip out. To his amazement, considering their issues, this offends the couple. He conducts a graveside funeral with military honors and learns, at the last minute, that the honor guard made up of local veterans, are firing live bulletins. He deals with greedy funeral directors trying to upsell fancy caskets that are beyond what the beavered can pay. In telling this story, Fischer also shars the quirks of this congregation which publishes everyone’s giving in their annual report. 

While Lischer claims to be a Lutheran, he doesn’t indicate which synod he belongs. But in the essays, he writes about taking on a teaching position at an exile group from Concordia seminary. This would put him on the “liberal” wing of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I know this because in my first church, there was a small Missouri Synod church in town. The pastor had been in seminary at this time of a fundamentalist take-over. He left the seminary to attend and graduate from the “seminary in exile.” Many in the church wasn’t happy with him being cozy with those who supported women’s leadership roles in the church. 

The stories in this collection can be funny and sad. As I was reading them, I thought a lot about my own first pastorate and how many similar stories we shared. This book might be paired with Craig Barnes’ book, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul, which I read last year. Barnes writes about a pastor’s last year before retirement. It would be beneficial for a seminarian or someone considering the ministry to read both both books. 

Gregory Orr, A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry 

(New York: Norton, 2018), 325 pages. 

What an incredible book. While I’m no expert on poetry, or literature about writing poetry, I found this book helpful, interesting, and easy to read. The only other book I’ve read writing poetry was Mary Oliver’s, A Poetry Handbook. I feel Orr’s book to be superior. Unlike Oliver, he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing meter and some of the more technical issues of poetry.  While it has been years since I read Oliver, from what I remember Orr goes much deeper into the use of metaphors and of how words in poetry brings understanding through naming, singing, saying, and imagining. While not spending as much time on meter, Orr does dedicate many pages to how words sound when place together in the process of creating a poem. I found Orr’s writing to be helpful not just for the understanding of poetry, but also for the understanding of life. In this way, the book reads like a gift. While this book could be used as a textbook, with many helpful exercises, it was not dry as one might expect a textbook to be. 

Drawing from his vast bank of knowledge from poetry, literature, mythology, the Bible, philosophy, education, and other fields, Orr sees poetry residing in the paradox of a chaotic world and a desire for order. It takes both to create poetry. Just as God speaks above the chaos in Genesis 1, and creates the cosmos, poetry attempts to bring order to the chaotic. Poetry helps us understand the world in which we live. Drawing from Greek mythology (and from the writings of Nietzsche), he recalls the interplay between Dionysus (the god of chaos and ecstasy) and Apollos (the god of beauty and harmony). Art requires both. 

Poetry allows us to image a better world as we cross the “threshold” between chaos and order.  In this manner, poetry can be political and used by the powerless to challenge their oppression.  

Orr sees two ways of our ordering the world, that lead to two types of poems: lyric and narrative. The lyric describes something in the moment, bringing intensity to a landscape or an emotion. Orr sees such poetry as being more dominate in America today. Narrative poetry is more story based. Of course, poems don’t always fall into one of these two camps. Many (if not most) poems are somewhere in between the two camps, maybe closer to one form or the other.  For my own poetry, while I see some of both, most of what I have attempted to write falls into (or close to) the narrative camp. 

This book is “illustrated” with many poems drawn from different times in history. While there could have been more poetry from cultures other than the West (there are some), I think this is excusable as he writes for an English-speaking audience. For both the poet and the reader of poetry, he suggests keeping a notebook of our favorite poems, so that we can go back an examine them and learn their meanings. This exercise seemed to be a good idea, but I have yet to do it. 

There is also a very helpful glossary of poetry terms at the end of the book.  I would love to reread this book with friends and hear what others think. 

Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story

Michelle Layer Rahal, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2018), 355 pages, 10 pages of photos. 

         I was introduced to Minh in 2011. I was preparing a sabbatical after leading First Presbyterian Church of Hastings (Michigan) through a building and relocation program. As I was going to be traveling overland from Asia to Europe, we attempted to find preachers from parts of the world in which I would be travelling. Through a connection with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was introduced by phone to Minh. Although I have never met her in person, we talked several times by phone and became friends on Facebook. Of the international preachers the congregation heard that summer, Minh had made an impression. Hers is a haunting story. She connected with several Vietnam veterans and touched everyone with what she had endured as a boat refugee who fled the country as a teenager after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. This is her story, told through her friend and author, Michelle Layer Rahal. 

         This is a brutal and honest book which has come out at a time when refugees are again in the news. It would be scary and dangerous for anyone, but especially for young woman, to be torn from family and alone in a foreign country. Being a refugee is to be vulnerable. Minh’s story illustrates the dangers.

         Minh’s world started coming apart long before she became a refugee. Raised in a family well-enough off to employ servants, her first experience of sexual abuse came from the family gardener. She attempted suicide (it would not be her first attempt and the thought of suicide would continue to run through her mind). Then, at age ten, the Vietcong killed her father and two younger brothers during the Tet Offensive. Minh’s life became chaotic. Sent to live with her grandfather, she found herself verbally abused. Her mother and aunt kept trying to set her up with American soldiers. Then, other family members sexually abused her.

         As the war was ending, her family tried to escape, but was unable to get out of the country. The family split up with the idea that it would be safer. The North Vietnamese captured her and her brother. They were captured, imprisoned, tortured by the conqueroring army. The captain of the prison selected her to be his mistress. Although still abused, he later helped her and her brother Thanh escape.

         On their third try, she and her brother made it out of Vietnam. Picked up by a Taiwanese fishing boat and taken to Taiwan, they could have moved to America. However, Minh had studied French at a Catholic School in Vietnam. With an uncle who lived in France, they decided to move to there. The living conditions were horrible. She eventually relocated to Australia, where she became a nurse, married an American living there, and gave birth to two children. But it wasn’t an easy journey. She was raped both in Paris and in Australia. She struggled with English and then to pass her exams. She was an exceptional worker, which allowed her to care for her family. But she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD), which created many problems for her life.

         Two threads that run through the book are her relationship with God and her dealing with depression, thoughts of suicide, and her struggles with relationships (beyond that with her siblings) which has much to do with her struggles with PTSD. As a young child, she had grown up Catholic in Vietnam. It had given her the foundations so that she would pray when things were bad. But from her experience, she saw God as angry and vengeful and wondered what she’d done to deserve such treatment. It took a lot of work for her to learn to handle her emotions and the way her past colored her world. 

         Minh and her first husband divorced. When he moved back to the United States, taking their youngest daughter, Minh decided to relocate, too. Living in Virginia, she remarried, became involved in Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and went to seminary. The Presbyterian Church ordained her in 2017.

         I recommend this book. The ordeal Minh endured reminds us of how hard it can be for refugees and those without the protection of a country or a strong parent. Minh’s understanding of the role her past trauma played in her life and her coming to understand God as a gracious and loving Father should provide hope to those troubled in the world.