For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘fiction

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

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The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, Random House, 2013, 347 pp.

FlaggThis book was such a disappointment. If I hadn’t been stranded on a trip with nothing else, I don’t know if I would have finished it. While it wasn’t boring, it was also not particularly interesting. All the richness, novelty and questionable behavior of the characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been replaced by two-dimensional characters and predictable plot developments and outcomes. Even more, the book’s perspective on identity felt dated and even tinged with a level of prejudice and stereotype that made me uncomfortable.

The central character is Sookie Poole, a Southern housewife rapidly approaching age 60 and experiencing an empty nest. Her life is dominated by her mother Lenore Simmons, who has delusions of grandeur about her family heritage, personal talents and Sookie’s potential. While Flagg writes with a lightness and humor, the decision to name Sookie’s children  Dee-Dee, CeCe and LeLe was just too much sugar. Their characters were about as mature and developed as their names, and Sookie is about as deep as hers.

One day, Sookie gets an elusive message that she is “not who she thinks she is,” and discovers she is adopted. The domineering Lenore and her Simmons legacy are not actually hers by blood. For me, Sookie’s reaction made her ridiculous and unlikeable. She believed she was a fraud who owed apologies and resignations to all her Southern organizations. She goes through major contortions to hide her visits to a therapist, as though such a thing would cause her whole community to crumble. Her birth mother’s Polish last name inspires her to indulge in stereotypes about Polish people to see which ones might apply to her. Seriously, Fannie Flagg–do you think someone would be that genteelly horrified to discover they are Polish? If they are, they are not a character I would want to get to know. Sookie felt both unbelievable and unlikable.

The book’s one redeeming element was the unfolding back story of Sookie’s birth family, a group of immigrants raising four girls and a boy by running a Phillips 66 Filling Station. When World War II breaks out, the son leaves for the war, the father grows ill, and the young women take over the business. Eventually, several of them become pilots and join the WASPs. The lead sister is Fritzi Jurdabralinski, an independent, strong-willed woman who eventually becomes a stunt pilot and wing walker, opening the door for the rest of the family to learn how to fly. Her story of life and love in the war is interesting, but she didn’t have a great force of personal character and dynamism. She and all the other family members never emerged from their flat stereotypes. I had the feeling that, though the setting was compelling, I’d met them all in sitcoms already.

I felt no drama or tension or suspense for any of the characters. All the plot twists were predictable. Fritzi and Sookie lacked all the complexity and novelty of Idgie and Evelyn, and Sookie’s transformation has no “towanda” excitement anywhere. Reading the novel all at once, I felt like I’d eaten way too much sugar and candy and now I was queasy. While I’m sure Flagg was trying to open us to the complexity of women’s lives in World War II and make Sookie and Lenore interesting and complicated women, this effort falls flat. It feels like something from another era, when identity was far more rooted in blood relationships, adoption was somehow scandalous, Polish immigrants exotic, and women in men’s jobs unconventional. I couldn’t believe it was written in 2013. What a disappointment.

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane by Kelly Harms, Thomas Dunne Books, 2013, 290 pp.

Good Luck GirlsTime for book number three in the “light summer reading” category. I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and grabbing these for quick 24-hour reads. This was another one that I flew through when I had some free time on my hands. Again, nothing rich or profound, a story that was fairly predictable in its outcome (although with some nice twists along the way), but entertaining throughout.

The premise of the story is that there are two Janine Browns in Cedar Falls, Iowa. One, Janey, is obsessed with cooking. Every night, she comes home alone and prepares enormous, elaborate recipes, because it is the only thing that gives her joy. She has an elderly aunt, Midge, who urges her to leave her apartment and go out in the world, but she refuses. The other, Nean, is a scrappy former foster kid with nothing, homeless apart from a no-good boyfriend.

A television program is giving away a beautiful, enormous home on the Maine seacoast. Nean enters and then has a dream that the house is hers. She is certain she will win. Aunt Midge enters Janey’s name along with her own, in an attempt to secure a new future for them both. When the winner is announced as “Janine Brown of Cedar Falls, Iowa,” all three women travel to Maine preparing to start a new life.

As you can predict, what begins in hostility eventually becomes solidarity and even family. There is love to be found along the way for all, and some fun adventures as the story unfolds. The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane would make a great vacation book, beach book or airplane book. I got an extra kick out of it because I actually know a Janine Brown. Do you know one too? Enjoy the book either way.

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.

Fasting FeastingThe title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.

The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.

The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.

The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.

This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.

PlainsongI am fast becoming a leading member of the Kent Haruf fan club. After discovering Benediction not long ago, I was determined to read more of his work. At the library, they all looked so intriguing I couldn’t decide which one to borrow—so I took home all three. Plainsong was the first one I chose to read, because it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist. It was just as lovely as Benediction had been, and made me glad to have two more Haruf novels waiting on my shelf.

Plainsong unpacks the intertwining lives of ordinary, yet quirky, people in a small town east of the Rockies. (At one point, I became fascinated by where Holt might be, and whether it is a real place. It is a real county in western Nebraska, and the highways described match the highways on the map.) The characters include two young brothers, Ike and Bobby, 9 and 10, left alone much of the time to explore the town and their independence. Their mother is a minor character, afflicted by mental illness and recently separated from them and their father, but their father Tom Guthrie is central. He is a high school teacher who tangles with the family of a student he fails, and has a developing relationship with fellow teacher Maggie Jones. When student Victoria Roubideaux discovers she is pregnant and kicked out of her home, she turns to Maggie for help. Maggie turns to two reclusive brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron to take her in.

Plainsong‘s style and story echo its title: a simple telling of their stories, and how they come together in unison, simple and unadorned. Ike and Bobby lose a bit of their childish innocence, discovering some harsh truths about sex and violence and relationships, but the adults in the story guide them through. Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones help heal one another of broken relationships. Victoria and the McPheron brothers are the most unlikely of partners, and many of their awkward encounters made me chuckle. Still, they were charming and good-hearted, and Haruf has a way of weaving all his characters together such that they are all less lonely by the end of the story.

I was also intrigued by the western setting of the book, with stories about cattle and horses and rural life that offered a unique insight into this region of the country. I have driven through small towns in western Kansas, western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, and I could imagine all the scenes of the story in those locations.

Plainsong was lovely, through and through, with a kind of simple beauty that is only possible by refined, well-worn, carefully crafted prose. I am looking forward to the next Haruf novel in line, and hoping to encounter some of these characters “around town” next time.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 261 pp.

LilaOh, Marilynne Robinson, how you move me! I think she (and especially her character Rev. John Ames) has become one of my favorite theologians in recent years. I have treasured the first two volumes of this trilogy, Gilead and Home, and waited longingly for Lila to finally be available.

Lila completes the trilogy with the story of Lila Dahl, the late-in-life wife of Rev. John Ames, a wanderer with an unknown past. In the previous two stories, she is a mystery. Finally we hear her own voice, and Robinson reveals–in her careful, slow way–Lila’s complicated past. Like Ames and Boughton, hers is a story of loneliness and isolation. Unlike the men, who also had to cope with disappointment, Lila never had any expectations for her life, so her struggle is not so much with disappointment as with emptiness. Her loss is not of an imagined future, but of any comfort and companionship at all.

Everything that happens here between Lila and Rev. John Ames is familiar to readers of Gilead and Home. She comes to church and he baptizes her. They meet and talk in their stilted way. They are married, and soon she is pregnant with his child. What we learn in this book is Lila’s perspective on their relationship, and the intricate back story that leads Lila to Gilead and breaks her heart open to love. Her story begins in poverty and abandonment, grows into love and wandering and being an outlier with Doll, the woman who raised her. When she loses Doll, she loses herself and falls into the realm of violence and abuse. Yet she escapes, she finds redemption, and together with Ames finds a frail happiness she can hardly believe is real.

As always, Robinson offers a deep sense of poetry and theology, even though our main character is not a preacher. Below are a few gems I want to remember.

She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret. (93-94)

The next four passages are words spoken by Rev. John Ames, and they sum up much of my own theology.

I really don’t think preachers ought to lie. Especially about religion. (99)

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)

“If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe.”
“Well, but that’s what you want to believe, ain’t it?” (Lila)
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” (143-143)

‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that the blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ (223)

I mean, just, wow. That’s how I feel the whole time I am reading these books. The aching beauty, the grim loneliness, the frail joy, the probing faith, the way she captures the contour of the soul moves me every time. If you haven’t yet read Robinson’s trilogy, get to the library now and get started. These books will stand among the great works of 21st century literature, I’m certain.

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013, 133 pp.

Reading for PreachingMy credentials as an avid reader are well established by the very substance of this blog. I love to read. I read a lot. I love to talk about books, to invest in them and dissect them and commit them to memory. Professionally, I am a preacher. When I read the title Reading for Preaching, I placed my book order without delay. I thought this book was written for me.

While I enjoyed Plantinga’s book, I quickly discovered it was not written for me. Plantinga makes a compelling case for why a preacher should endeavor to regularly read, especially novels, biographies, poetry and journalistic narratives. I am clearly already sold, and a quick skim through the long lists of reviews posted here will show that I most frequently turn to those precise genres (except poetry, which I should read more often). For example, Plantinga thinks it unrealistic for a preacher to read as many as six “classic novels” each year, and offers hope that preachers will read just one.(41-42) While all my fiction reading is not “classic novels,” I definitely read a lot more than that already.

However, Plantinga does offer great perspective and insight about why reading matters–for me and for other preachers. He begins with the obvious: reading is a source of illustrations for sermons. There is nothing worse to me than a tired, canned sermon illustration, and Plantinga urges preachers to “dig up your own stuff.” (22) He points out the ways that reading can make preachers more attentive not only to the possible illustrations in texts, but events in everyday life that might illuminate the gospel. Reading also serves to “attune the preacher’s ear,” to help a preacher register how best to speak to a given audience. Plantinga identifies a variety of dictions a preacher might use–from tuxedo formal to tank-top casual to upscale colloquial or business casual (49). Each one pitches the message to a particular setting, designed to speak appropriately and engagingly to the audience at hand. Reading a variety of dictions helps the preacher recognize and develop the right tone for his or her own congregation and message. He recommends children’s literature as an especially good tool.

The second half of Plantinga’s book talks about the importance of reading as a source of wisdom for the preacher. While scripture remains the preeminent source of wisdom, other literature also provides a great deal of wise insight into the human condition. He highlights the way literature can open us to a variety of worlds and life experiences beyond our own:

The preacher wants his program of reading to complicate some of his fixed ideas, to impress him with some of the mysteries of life, with its variousness, with its surprises, with the pushes and pulls within it. (95)

Plantinga also points to the ways that literature and journalism can help us explore good and evil, sin and grace with a more complex, nuanced understanding.

The whole book is rich with appreciation and encouragement for the life of preaching, and the importance of sermons in the life of Christian worship. For example, he remarks:

The unpredictability of the preaching event gives no one license to wing it. Faithful preachers work hard on their sermons, understanding that although a fruitful result may be God’s gift, hard work is the preacher’s calling. After all, it is audacious to speak for God. (43)

It is a bold and humble task we do as preachers, and I cannot imagine undertaking it without an army of words behind me from other authors. Plantinga’s argument for the importance of reading did not move me because I am already convinced, but this book did encourage me to see my indulgence in good fiction not as a rest from quality reading, but a different kind of endeavor at building my theological and emotional vocabulary for preaching.

I finished this book and felt much better about setting aside the latest book from a consultant on church leadership, returning instead to the public library, where I checked out nearly a dozen new books, a mixture of quality fiction, history and biography. Now, to read them all!


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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