Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review of "Given" by Wendell Berry

In Animal Vegetable Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver wrote glowingly of her friend, Wendell Berry. When I learned that Berry is a Kentucky farmer, activist, novelist and poet... I knew I had to check him out for myself. My husband's cousin is pursuing her MFA in poetry this fall, but I haven't read much poetry since high school, so I thought I'd start culturing myself with this slim volume from my local library. "For those who believe that life and the world are gifts, this is an invaluable book," reads the Booklist quote on the cover of Given: Poems. I'm a fan of Ann Vosskamp's "One Thousand Gifts," so the recommendation sold me. The first half of the book is made up of  two chapters: "In a Country Once Forested" and "Further Words." These are mostly short poems observing nature's beauty and honoring his wife and other loved ones. In these poems, he lovingly paints a word portrait of his wife's white head in the fields.  In a series of Spring Haikus, Berry describes a wild plum tree as a bride dressed in white blossoms and a cluster of Mayapples as a crowd under little umbrellas. In "How to Be a Poet," Berry reminds himself to find a quiet place away from screens and electronic distractions and really listen for "what comes from silence." As I read and reread these gentle words, it seemed to provide instructions for more than just making good poetry. The third section is written as a play called "Sonata at Payne Hollow," and read like an enchanting dream. The fourth section, "Sabbaths 1998-2004" features poems written on his long Sunday walks around his farm. As the name implies, these poems often have a spiritual substance to them, pondering life, death, God and our purpose as reflected in nature. Poem VIII from 2004 spoke of our yearning for "the Word that calls the darkest dark/ Of this world to its lasting dawn," and describes people as "separate as fireflies or night windows," who piece together "a foredream of the gathered light." So beautiful.

I enjoyed Given and read through the entire book twice, lingering on a few of my favorite poems longer. I also checked out Berry's "The Mad Farmer Poems," but couldn't quite get into them. Berry has written several novels, and I felt as though Mad Farmer poems were told in the voices of his characters, without the benefit of the back story to enlighten me. They have an angry, activist tone to them, which some readers might find more exciting than the contemplative tone of Given. If you, like I, enjoy staring out the window or listening to bird sing or contemplating how a river has shaped the terrain through which it runs, I think you'll enjoy the imagery in Given. If you feel that God cares for His creation beyond His initial act of speaking it into being, then I also think you'll enjoy Berry's words.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Words can hurt or heal with Rosemary Wells

Stephen and I really enjoyed Rosemary Well's newest book, Stella's Starliner, which tucks a deep message into a sweet, sparkling picture book. I grabbed it off the library shelf because I grew up with Wells and I thought from the title this one might include some imaginary space travel. Actually, the story is mostly grounded on earth, with one fantastic sky travel scene in the middle. But I still highly recommend this one!

Stella is not rich in material possessions, but has a life rich with pancake breakfasts, farmer's markets, bookmobile visits and weekend fishing trips. Her compact but practical trailer home is replete with fun hiding places and novelties like a sofa that converts to a bed with the touch of a button. Cherished by her mom and dad, Stella feels secure in knowing she "had everything she needed in her silver home." It seems nothing can shake her idyllic childhood until a band of sneering weasel bullies berates poor Stella and her silver home. Their jokes "stung Stella's heart like the sting of bees." (After just one read through this book, Steve recited that line back to me in a very serious voice.) I always thought that the old rhyme about sticks and stones and words that can never hurt me was unhelpful, especially when it seems that words are what can most damage a tender heart. In Stella's case, the weasel's jibes pricked so deeply she couldn't eat or sleep that night.

I won't give away the ending, which, of course, is a happy one. The message of this story? Just as cruel words can cause people to see their glasses half empty, some encouragement can set things right. Always on the look out for books that promote simplicity, I was happy to find another book can help children see that happiness is not in wealth, having stuff or pleasing everyone. It also promotes loving family relationships, finding joy in the little things and speaking positively. So go out and get Stella's Starliner, and start talking with your pre-K to early elementary students.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stephen's Pick: Munching Machines

Stephen enjoyed another robot related book from our local library, Junkyard, by Mike Austin. He calls it "Munching Machines" because that's what the author calls the two bots who crush, crunch and munch their way through am unwieldy salvage yard before planting a garden, sculpting mountains and upcycling garbage into cool playground equipment. I recommend this richly illustrated picture book with fun rhyming text for young robot lovers and parents who like a subtle environmental slant. The story celebrates two hardworking, resourceful robots as they create beauty out of garbage.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Review of "Letters from a Skeptic"

I love brainy books from time to time, and Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity by theology professor turned megachurch pastor Greg Boyd fits the bill. Not only is the book a compilation of apologetic essays from a very smart person, but a dual between Boyd and his then agnostic father Edward Boyd as they exchanged correspondence over a period of three years back in the early 1990s, culminating with the senior Boyd's joyful conversion at age 70!

These 30 letters were a quick and interesting read as Edward Boyd raises some of the most common criticisms to the Christian faith, while also revealing deep-rooted hurts from his past, including the premature death of Greg's mother.

The father and son touch on issues that anyone seriously considering or contending for the Christian faith should chew on: reconciling unthinkable human violence with an all-powerful and loving God and understanding why God gave humans free will, the nature and occupants of hell, the sometimes odd and mythical nature of many Bible stories, and how and why Christ's death is God's acceptable propitiation for mankind's sin. I suppose some Christians might find places to nitpick with some of the responses. For example, the younger Boyd is slightly open ended about whether Hell is eternal conscious torture or whether those sent there will eventually cease to exist and cites verses that could validate either view. This might bother some Christians who feel the strength and quality of their faith relies on their level of certainty on all matters of theology. I'm not one of them, so I found Boyd's answers to be sensitive, intellectual and nuanced in a way that really invited and encouraged faith.

Overall, the author's thoughtful responses encouraged me to test the rational ground on which I base my own faith, and it was exciting to watch Edward Boyd's gradual salvation unfold. Also valuable is the way the younger Boyd models a loving, respectful, hopeful attitude as he witnesses to his father, who in early letters expresses his disbelief that his Yale and Princeton educated son would "buy into" Christian beliefs. Whether or not they agree on all the minutia of his answers, I think all Christians can learn from Pastor Boyd's example and be encourage by the result.

As with many of the books I review and reflect upon in this blog, you can find the hard copy of Letters from a Skeptic at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library... as soon as I return it!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Reflections on "Half the Sky"

I've been reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn bit by bit over several months because the atrocities it exposes are so graphic and heart rending. While each chapter drew me in, it's not exactly easy reading because of the emotional investment. But I still heartily recommend it as an antidote to complacency and discontentment and ignorance. In 14 chapters, Half the Sky takes readers from impoverished villages in the Middle East to seedy red light districts in Asia to bare bones hospitals in Africa where corruption and indifference toward women lead to countless stories of culturally ingrained oppression and violence against women. Kristof and WuDunn also show the effects of female oppression on children and economies in general, driving home the point that injustices women face are not mere "women's issues" but human rights issues.

Despite the heavy content, I didn't close the book in despair. Each chapter begins with an impressively intimate portrait of a real woman in a destitute situation and ends with that same woman, against all odds, finding her footing and helping others. Most of these vignettes are also paired with a profile of an aid organization or another woman that helped her. The authors (who happen to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning power couple) encourage readers to take action, supporting grassroots efforts that effect the most bang for buck. They also urge people to travel and meet those they support to gain a fuller understanding of women's experiences worldwide.

Before I finished this book, I'd already followed the authors' lead and signed up for a account, where members can make micro loans to individuals on the other side of the globe.