Caroline Hulse, The Adults: A Novel (New York: Random House), 2018
I was looking for a light-hearted novel for travel and ran across a review of this book. I wouldn’t describe it as light-hearted, but it is an easy read. The scenario of the novel is a couple with a child, who are divorced and both connected with new partners, decide to go on a Christmas holiday with everyone - the two of them with their child and their current mates. The scenario sounds impossible and it is. The complex dynamics of the couples results in all kinds of chaos, from hurt feelings to hints of renewed passion to a breakup and even violence. The narrative story is interspersed with fictional notes of a crime investigation involving the characters. From the beginning, the investigation notes lead one to believe that the investigators aren’t getting the straight story, but it is a bit difficult to figure out who has done what until the narrative story gets to the point. The writing introduces just enough complexity to make the book engaging.
As a relaxing read the book is equally fun simply because the characters’ situations are nearly impossible. I don’t know people who would allow themselves to be put into such impossible situations. It isn’t a serious crime novel, either. Most laypersons know enough about investigations and the collection of physical evidence to recognize flaws in the techniques of the police in the novel. This, however, isn’t a problem for the reader because there is no attempt at surface realism. The reader is perfectly willing to suspend reality for the sake of a good story. It isn’t a great novel, but it is a fun story and worth a read for relaxation.
Juli Berwald, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone (New York: Riverhead Books), 2017
Juli Berwald is a marine scientist or at least a serious marine science writer. She developed a passion for jellyfish and began to explore their impact as indicators of the health of ocean ecosystems. The book is not quite what I expected, however, it is part memoir, part science, part reporting on the research of other scientists, and part ecology all wrapped into a very readable package. I am not usually one to read books about science, but this book kept me engaged from start to finish.
One of the tasks of scientists in this world with its rapidly changing global climate change and huge swings in populations of marine and land-based populations is the job of documenting just what is going on. Berwald is good at describing what has been observed in jellyfish populations and what that might mean for the health of the planet. Along the way she explores the sting of jellyfish and the different toxins with their treatments and descriptions of the pain that is inflicted. She teaches the reader not to draw premature conclusions. A large jellyfish bloom is not necessarily an indication of positive or negative factors in the environment. One has to look deeper to discern what it means.
Jellyfish are among the oldest creatures. The fossil record shows jellyfish very similar to contemporary species were existing during the time of the great dinosaurs. A creature that can survive so well through so many changes may have much to teach us about living in our world. She explore the so-called immortal jellyfish that has been observed reversing the normal cycle of age and returning to a younger, less mature state.
At first glance this book looks like it is for science geeks only. Reading it, however, reveals that it is a book for anyone who is interested in the world in which we live.
Keith C. Kraft, Pain Seeking Understanding: In Search of Hope and Healing (Self Published), 2018
I work with survivors of suicide every week. I have begun to understand a bit of the rhythm of grief and recovery from sudden and traumatic loss. There is no single formula. There are no two experiences that are the same. But there are some things that survivors of suicide share in common and sometimes it can be healing to just hear the story of another and know that you are not alone. I am very familiar with the story behind Keith Kraft’s book. I knew his son Ben and worked with him as a camp counselor. I know the family story well. I was shocked and devastated when the news of Ben’s death came to us. I remember the funeral and the inadequacy of words to express our condolences to his parents.
In the four years since Ben’s death, Keith has written periodically of the experience. Some of his reflections were published to the Internet on a blog. They are raw and honest and direct. I have been appreciative of Keith’s style, openness and most of all his honesty.
Now he has drawn those reflections together, added a few and done a bit of editing to produce a thoughtful and insightful book. It is not the kind of book that you want to sit down and read cover to cover, but rather one that you want to pick up, read a few pages, then put down and reflect. I’ve purchased copies of the book as gifts for my friends and will continue to share it with others. I took a copy to our Survivors of Suicide Support Group and others have expressed interest in it.
It is possible that we will never fully understand death by suicide. But seeking understanding can provide meaning and support for those who experience the deep pain of suicide loss. Keith’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the topic.
Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed: Christianity's Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery and Sexism (New York: Oxford University Press), 2018
Stephen J. Patterson is a dedicated New Testament scholar, writer and teacher. During his decades as professor at Eden Theological Seminary, I had several opportunities to hear him lecture and to read his works. His careful research and ability to see many different points of view make him an excellent Biblical teacher. The Forgotten Creed takes a look at the Jesus movement before there was an institutional church and uses ancient documents, both Biblical and those from other sources to achieve a remarkably accurate look at a part of our story that has been hidden.
A single quote from Paul in Galatians reveals the possibility that the words were part of an oft used and familiar liturgy. If this is the case, the roots of the Jesus movement contained efforts to overcome bigotry, sexism and classism. Patterson takes us on a careful examination of “There is no Jew nor greek, no salve nor free, no male and female.” The journey winds through some pretty obscure texts and thoughts and one needs to have a bit of love for some obscure texts and following the footnotes, but the book is an easy read and one that I’d love to share with a group of lay people some time.
As is typical for Patterson, he allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, but it is also clear which way he is leaning. He is convinced that the words come from a baptismal liturgy and that they were familiar to those who were the first readers of Paul’s words and they illustrate that the struggle with divisions within the church are longstanding. We may have been wrestling with bigotry, classism and sexism for as long as we have been in the church.
Scott H. Galoodt, I'll take the 18: The Story of Beech 18 Freight Flying (Self Published), 2018
I have friends who have nostalgia for a particular vehicle that they once owned. I don’t seem to have that experience, but I have great affection and nostalgia for the twin beech airplane that my father owned. I loved flying in that airplane. I loved going out to the airport in the spring when my father needed to practice with the airplane. We would practice engine out procedures at altitude. I got to select which throttle to pull back. I loved traveling in the plane. It had good speed and range. We flew it to Washington D.C. with one stop. Seattle and San Francisco were non stop from our Montana home. I loved the sound of the airplane. I could identify it from quite a distance when our father was returning home. I knew how he managed the engines and synchronized the props. I knew the sound of him flying that plane. To this day when i hear a pair of radial engines, my eyes automatically turn skyward.
Scott Gloodt shares my love of the Beech 18 and has collected a wonderful treasure trove of stories about Beech 18s, mostly stories of freight flying in the 1970s ad ‘80s. At one point in my life I thought I’d be one of those pilots, but my life took me in a different direction. I didn’t lose my affection for the airplane.
I don’t know how this book would be for those who aren’t in love with the Beech 18, but for those of us who are, this is a wonderful book and a great read.
Joseph J. Bohnaker, Fury of the Norse (Tempe, AZ: Third Millennium Publishing), 2018
I haven't been a big fan of historical novels. I prefer to keep fiction and history separate. But there are a few stories that are simply worth telling and most of our best stories are shaped by our imaginations as well as recall of actual events. I picked up this book because of a review in a boating magazine. I enjoy stories of the sea and adventures upon it. This book is not primarily about seafaring, however. It is the story of the conflict of two cultures with two distinct religious and theological systems. As Christianity spread into the northernmost parts of Europe conflict was perhaps inevitable. The story follows a young Frank whose family was savaged by the Norse. His parents murdered, his sister taken as a slave, Christian flees the remains of his home in search of revenge. Through contacts with the lord of his region and Benedictine monks, he begins a life of adventure and sometimes violence as he pursues the story of his sister, only to fail at his attempts of reconnection after the trauma she has experience. Along the way he finds and loses love and, of course fights battles against the foes from whom he seeks revenge.
All in all it is a fun story and an easy read - a good book for an evening of foul weather while sitting by the fire.
Donald J. Trump (by Accident), edited by the Staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Whose Boat is This Boat?: Comments That Don't Help in the Aftermath of a Hurricane (New York: Simon & Schuster), 2018
OK. This book is silly and short and makes very little sense. It is just like the current President of the United States, whose quotes make up the entire text. Many of us have been dismayed by what seems to be a lack of compassion when our President tours the sites of natural disasters. He seems to be unable to connect with people on the most basic level where communities are often very good at forming. The style of leadership he demonstrates in such situations is distressing to those of us who expect some personal connection between our officials and those who are served. Too often elected representatives forget the servant part of public servant.
This book, put together by those who are certainly no fans of the President, is probably not worth the price of purchase. Still it is a silly way to get a laugh or two and I think there is some benefit in laughing at the hard things in life.
Some day we may be able to laugh more freely about this particular time in our nation’s history. Right now even though the late night talk show hosts are making hay out of the President’s poor spelling, lack of social skills, and general lack of composure and temperament for leadership, the situation in Washington DC is a bit too dangerous for comfort. After all the same person who doesn’t understand the basics of title, ownership and insurance holds the passwords to nuclear weapons capable of destroying all of humanity.
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, (New York: Ramdom House), 2018
I suppose that the times in which we live are not really harder than those faced by previous generations of citizens of the United States. But there are days when it seems that the fundamental principles that established our nation are under constant attack and that democracy is slipping from our fingers and the lives of our grandchildren. John Meacham has set out to put our current political situation in context by examining the administrations of several previous presidents and the crises they faced along with the crises they precipitated.
While Meacham clearly concludes that American democracy is resilient and well able to withstand the personalities of those who lead with less than competence, knowledge and skill. The attacks against our country from those within and without have been resisted and the fundamental commitments of freedom and justice have survived. I must admit that I was far less persuaded by his arguments than some of my colleagues with whom I discussed his book. Despite his assertion that ours is a time that fits into the flow of history, I still have a sense that the threats to our way of life are unique and especially dangerous.
The profiles contained in the book are well-researched and soundly written. Meacham has done his homework and it is refreshing to read an historian who has made an attempt at objectivity. The characters of those he profiles are mixed and some chapters are more compelling than others. I jokingly commented after reading the book that it seems that one thing that all presidents have had in common is insomnia. Many chapters begin with the things that are keeping the president from sleeping.
This is a solid and well-written book. It is well worth reading. It would be an excellent text for an overview of American History.
Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old, (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers), 2018
Some of my most helpful friends are those who are 15 or so years older. They are close enough in age to be able to connect with my experiences and I with theirs, but far enough down the road to have some sage advice and understanding for the challenges that lie ahead. I have face-to-face friends and mentors in this category, but I also realize that they are becoming fewer as the years advance and death takes its inevitable toll. Being by the side of a friend as he or she approaches death is an enlightening experience and valuable, but it also takes its toll of grief and sadness. I have always maintained relationships with others, however. “Friends” known through their writing whom’ I’ve never met face to face have been important to my education and life journey. For several decades now one of those friends has been Parker Palmer. This volume of essays contains many that I had read when they were posted on the “On Being” blog. Still the collection is a wonderful read and one I think to which I will refer for the rest of my life. Palmer has a way of stating the obvious and being wonderfully blunt when speaking of his own frailties and challenges.
On the Brink of Everything is a courageous look at the realities of aging and mortality. None of us will go on forever. Knowing that life is limited makes it seem even more precious. The decisions we make do matter and this book is well worth the time to read it again and again.
Edward St. Aubyn, the Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last, (New York: Picador), 2012.
A sabbatical is a good time to tackle a series of five novels by the same author. This volume made it easy to follow the confused and sometimes confusing life of a privileged British man as he confronts his history, makes all kinds of mistakes, fails to live up to his potential and generally makes a mess of everything. He isn't the first in the privileged history of his family to make enormous mistakes. The victim of childhood abuse by his father, he struggles to reconcile his father's public image with the terrible truth that he knows. His mother's strange and expensive passions after her divorce threaten the financial future of his family - a family that is the product of a combination of a wasted youth and the resolution not to pass down the violence that he inherited.
All in all these are very well written novels with engaging, though not always likable, characters well worth a summer's read. Although the books stand well on their own, there is an advantage to reading them all at once. The completeness of the story that they tell is memorable and compelling. St. Aubyn is an author worth watching for other significant books.
Mitch Landrieu, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, (New York: Viking), 2018.
"There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it," Mitch Landrieu said when he addressed the people of New Orleans in May 2017 about his decision to take down four Confederate monuments. the action took a lot of courage even for a seasoned politician and the son of a courageous politician. His actions and decisions were easily as controversial as had been his father's in the early days of integration. The book is a powerful testament to the courage of leaders in a time when our national leaders are not demonstrating much courage at all. Furthermore it is a needed correction to history. To assume that the lost cause memorials are accurate remembrances of history rather than to identify them for what they are - attempts to redefine history and tell a false story - is to exhibit a subtle form of racism that cripples communities and perpetuates a culture of violence and injustice.
Landrieu spells out the painful legacy of the Civil War and reminds us that some of the most important struggles and disagreements of that time remain unresolved. The monuments we place in public parks and other venues can perpetuate a misplaced nostalgia for a time and place that never existed. Landrieu dares to tell the truth about the south - its history and its present - as he spells out a powerful memoir of the trials and difficulties of leadership.
We live in a deeply divided nation. Perpetuating falsehoods deepens the divide rather than bringing about the healing that is necessary for us to together forge a future.
David Sedaris, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977- 2002, (New York: Little, Brown and Company), 2017.
There have been a couple of times when I've thought that it might be a fun thing to go through my old journal posts, edit them, and put them into a book. There are, however, a few big differences between me and David Sedaris. First of all, he actually did it. He went through his diaries and selected which entries to include. Then he went through the time-consuming and difficult task of editing them and making them into a book. But those aren't the only differences. He has a higher percentage of entries that are worth saving. And, even more importantly, his entries are funny - really funny.
Like much of the other published works by David Sedaris this book is fun to read even though his life and experiences are very different from my own. Gaining a glimpse into his world is entertaining and fascinating. He is an interesting person and his stories have a universal appeal. This, quite simply, is another winner by David Sedaris.
As for me? My journal entries probably will have to stand as they are. It doesn't seem likely that there will be a book anytime soon.