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Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

August 20, 2015 6 comments

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverSummary:
In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message.  Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters.  When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.

Review:
I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa.  While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book.  Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for.  The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.

The beginning of the book is excellent.  Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.  It is so powerful to see him through their eyes.  To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them.  It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.

It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in.  He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better.  Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them.  His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break.  For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles.  He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles.  It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives.  Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.

Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails.  The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves.  For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist.  While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human.  She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all.  It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something.  The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes.  One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.

Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life.  Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations.  It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded.  I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.

The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant.  It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way.  I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand.  It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell.  That hurts the story.

Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole.  Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

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Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

December 25, 2012 6 comments

White woman with dreads wrapped up in a snakeSummary:
Jeanette has the dubious distinction of being raised by one of the most vocal women in the fire-brand style Evangelical church in a small British town.  Although she at first is different among her school chums for her beliefs, soon she becomes marked as different in her church for her homosexuality.  Her journey from differently religious to outcast young adult is chronicled here.

Review:
I picked this up when I heard that it’s a lesbian classic that simultaneously addresses being raised fundy.  Having been raised fundy myself (and left to become staunchly atheist), I tend to find these leaving the faith stories highly relatable, and I knew the added GLBTQ element would just make it all the more interesting of a read for me.

One interesting thing to note about this book is that no one can quite agree if it’s a novel or a memoir.  Winterson herself says that while this was inspired by her own childhood, it is the lite version.  Hers was much worse.  Given this statement, I choose to respect the author and view this as a novel, but potential readers may want to be aware of this element of the book.

Jeanette (the character) is immediately immensely likeable.  Whereas her mother is overbearing and negative, Jeanette is highly intelligent and witty.  Her observations on the Bible and religion in the early parts of the book before she realizes she is gay are hilarious, particularly to anyone raised in a fundamentalist faith.

I didn’t know quite what fornicating was, but I had read about it in Deuteronomy, and I knew it was a sin. But why was it so noisy? Most sins you did quietly so as not to get caught. (location 533)

As the book moves from Jeanette’s early life to her adolescence the writing style changes a bit.  Winterson inserts various fantastical fancies of Jeanette’s that are clearly her way of trying to discover who she is and explore her options.  Some readers might be thrown by these, but I found them delightful.  It’s a coping mechanism that I think many people use but few authors put down on paper.

Through these periodic fantastical tales combined with the more traditional narrative, we slowly see Jeanette fall in love with another girl at her church.  We then see the fall-out.  The two girls torn apart. The attempts at exorcisms.  Jeanette is left bereft and confused because, unlike myself, she still wanted her faith. She wanted to believe in God the way she was raised to and to be allowed to love women.  She can’t figure out why she can’t have both and thus is left wandering lost and confused.

The novel never makes it clear if Jeanette comes to terms with her lesbianism by letting go of her religion or by finding a more accepting one.  It kind of ends on an uncertain, agnostic if you will, note.  But that’s really irrelevant.  What matters is how beautifully the novel shows the pain that adolescents are needlessly put through when those around them won’t love them for who they are.

At last she put on her gloves and beret and very lightly kissed me goodbye. I felt nothing. But when she’d gone, I pulled up my knees under my chin, and begged the Lord to set me free. (location 1180)

It’s not a book with a clear ending or easy answers, but neither is life really, is it?  What it does possess though is a great ability to show a reader the life of a child raised Evangelical who later just cannot fit the mold demanded of her.  And that’s a powerful story that needs to be told over and over again until people get it that we can’t do that to children.

Recommended to those with an interest in unique story-telling techniques and coming out stories.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Publication Announcement: Short Story in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Hello my lovely readers!

Just a quick post to let you all know that my literary short story “Closest Thing to Heaven” published today in issue 40 of Crack the Spine literary magazine.

Here’s the blurb:

Mama’s sleeping, and it’s super-hot out, so Brother says he’ll take me to the swimmin holler.

I do hope you all will check it out!

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet in red against a gray background.Summary:
Cain explains how the Extrovert Ideal became the norm in Western culture then proceeds to define the reality of the existence of both introverts and extroverts, not just among humans, but in the non-human animal kingdom as well.  She explains the pluses and minuses of both personalities and provides advice for individuals, parents, and businesses in bringing out the best potential in both.

Review:
This book has been all the rage among book bloggers, which probably isn’t that surprising.  Readers tend to be introverts, and the book’s title certainly implies that it’s all about us.  In actuality though, although the book does have a focus on introverts, it also contains lots of information on extroverts and how we are all different but equally valuable to the world.  Indeed, the Introduction features a statement that basically defines the point of the book as a whole:

Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.  (page 2)

After the Introduction, the book is divided into four parts: The Extrovert Ideal, Your Biology Your Self, Do All Cultures Have an Extrovert Ideal, and How to Love How to Work.  As someone who was a History major in undergrad, I found the first section completely fascinating.  It explains how western culture, particularly American culture, went from an introvert ideal to an extrovert one.  It, not surprisingly, was all tied up with the Industrial Revolution.  Before the Industrial Revolution people mostly interacted with people they had known most of their lives or who they would have time to get to know.  After, if you wanted to make it in the business world, you had to make an amazing first impression.  This push to give off the aura of friendly and awesome edged out the prior expectation to develop a moral character.  This section also talks about how Evangelical Protestants take the Extrovert Ideal to an even greater extreme:

If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.  (page 69)

I’ve taken the Meyers-Brigg personality test multiple times at various points in my life. I am always solidly an INTJ.  The I is for introvert.  I was also raised Evangelical (although I am now an Agnostic).  This section rocked my world.  I even mentioned on GoodReads that it basically explained my life to me.  Cain talks about how difficult it can be to be an introverted child or young person being raised in a culture of Extrovert Ideal.  I wasn’t just raised in the American one (who just so happen to be the most extroverted people on the planet, page 186), but I was also raised in the most Extrovert Ideal culture within that culture–Evangelical.  It’s no wonder I had some issues figuring out who I am and being ok with that. I can barely fathom what a difference it would have made in loving and accepting myself if I’d even just been told it is just as ok to worship alone in the woods as to be loud and proud about it in public.

The next section is more sciencey and discusses the biology behind personality differences.  This section can definitely be empowering as it lets people know precisely how you became an introvert or extrovert.  The overarching philosophy is that more sensitive babies, as in ones who are more easily startled or frightened of strangers, are predispositioned to become introverts.  Nurture also affects this, of course.  Cain discusses the good qualities of both highly sensitive and less sensitive kids and how how they are raised can either bring out the good or the bad in either natural temperament.  Of course this is a great area for parents and those who work with kids, but it also explains to the reader how they got this way and what false ideas they might have about themselves.  For me, this is the section that explained to me why I’m so passionate about causes like vegetarianism and mental illness advocacy.  Introverts tend to be oriented around causes.  An example of an introvert/extrovert pair who both got things done in their own way that Cain uses is Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.  This is a wisely chosen example because both are people to look up to who played to their own personality strengths.

Personally I wasn’t so into the next section.  As compared to the other sections that are three chapters, this one consists of only one.  It essentially compares Asian culture to Western culture since Asian culture tends to idealize introversion over extroversion.  I felt that this chapter was a bit rushed and less in-depth.  Cain tried to cover both the experiences of Asian-Americans and all Asian culture as a whole.  I understand that she wanted to address multicultural understandings of personality, but it does seem that this topic could be a book in and of itself.  It felt a bit similar to the instances when in my job as an education and reference librarian that I tell a student their topic is too broad to possibly cover in one paper (or one thesis).  It seems that a quick chapter on introversion versus extroversion worldwide could have been mentioned in the first section as a comparison without devoting a whole section to it.  Similarly, the issues specific to immigrants to America from nations with an Introvert Ideal would have worked well in a different section.  This would have felt more integrated and flowed better.

The final section contains advice on using your personality to your advantage in your life and also on how to strike a compromise with someone you care about of a different personality type.  Overall, this section was well-written, although I felt not enough attention was given to “pseudo-extroverts,” introverts who have learned to pass as extroverts.  This is a fascinating topic, particularly to an introvert who is constantly mistaken for an extrovert.  I think this is the reality for a lot of people, and it deserved a bit more attention and research.  For instance, Cain says in passing:

Emotional labor, which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. (page 223)

I really wanted to know more about this!  Particularly since I care so much about health and wellness.  It almost seemed as if pseudo-extroversion deserved its own chapter.

The rest of the section though was great and quite helpful.  I think if everyone followed the advice in it on dealing with other personality types and creating a loving environment for kids on both ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum that we would have a much more positive world.  Perhaps her best piece of relationship advice is A Free Trait Agreement.

A Free Trait Agreement acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time—in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time.  (page 221)

So for a couple consisting of an introvert and an extrovert they will go out some Friday nights and stay in and snuggle and read others.  Preferably about 50/50.  Mutual compromise.  It’d be good to keep this in mind more often.

Overall, this is a well-written, accessible book regarding personality psychology and the history of it.  It does flounder in some places and could have used another once-over for structure and focus, but it is well worth your time to read.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Reread Review: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Girl in bonnet in a strawberry field.Summary:
Birdie’s just moved to Floridy from Caroliny to farm strawberries with her family.  But their neighbors, squatters headed by a mean drunk of a dad, won’t make life easy for them.

Review:
Rereading a childhood favorite is a dangerous endeavor.  However, last year rereading Reddy Fox went well, so when the ebook version of this Lois Lenski classic showed up on Netgalley, I just had to try it out.  I can see why I enjoyed it as a child, but I can’t really imagine adding it to the collection if I was a public librarian or, in the realm of more possibility, giving it to my nephew.

This is part of a series that Lenski wrote and illustrated in the 1940s about children living in different regions of America.  The thought process was that kids saw children around the world in literature but not the vastly different ways of growing up all over America.  A good idea, for sure.  I can totally see why these books, written in painstaking vernacular to boot, were popular back then.  They just didn’t age as well as they could have.  Or, at least, this one didn’t.

Unlike the Little House series where the problems and dramas and joys are relatable, Birdie’s family basically repeatedly lets the neighbors walk all over them.  There are also odd conundrums, such as how is Birdie’s family so working class and yet mysteriously has money?  Most bothersome, though, is the fact that the central conflict of neighbor worthless father is wrapped up overnight when he gets saved at a revival meeting.  Only the most evangelical of children will accept that as a fix.  Plus, it gives an unrealistic expectation to children that the serious problem of an addicted parent can be solved with some yelling from a preacher.  Not the most useful of message to be giving to children.

Although it’s not an unenjoyable read and the details of life in rural Florida in the 1940s are painstakingly accurate, it just simply hasn’t aged as well as other classics.  It is still well-written, researched, and illustrated, however.  I’d recommend it to adults with an interest in the history of American children’s literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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