Memoirs of Faith: Incognito by Andrea Raynor

ncognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity SchoolI know it sounds crazy, but years ago I entertained the notion of attending divinity school. Crazier still, the one school I found myself wanting to attend was none other than Harvard Divinity. You see, I had a couple of friends who also happened to be Harvard Div. grads. One of them, a part-time university chaplain, thought Harvard would be the perfect place for me. Did she not know I was lucky to make it through public high school – only a year later to be kicked out of community college?  Yes, I did learn from my mistakes and go on to graduate from a state university but holy cow, it was by the skin of my teeth. Don’t ask me why, but in her eyes I was Harvard Divinity School material. Poor woman, what was she thinking?

I never made it to divinity school – let alone Harvard. The closest I got was one afternoon when I, along with a few young undergrads from the local university, met for an hour with an admissions officer from Harvard Div. After the meeting I seriously thought about busting a move to Cambridge, Mass. But then not long after that, things seem to change. The idea of spending three years and a ton of money to get an advanced degree in theology or comparative religion when I hadn’t set foot in a church in years (other than the occasional weddings and funerals) no longer seemed appealing. Also around the same time, I received a promotion at work and for the first time I felt I had a career instead of merely a job. So no Harvard Div. for me.

So you can only imagine how I must have felt when I came across a copy of Andrea Raynor’s 2014 memoir Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School during one of public library visits. Of course, how I could not resist grabbing it? Had I attended Harvard like Raynor, this could have been me. Well, maybe.

True to her memoir’s subtitle, in Incognito Raynor recalls her experiences attending Harvard Divinity School, as well the period immediately following graduation. Judging by the historical and cultural references, I’m guessing she attended Harvard in early to mid 1980s. This puts it roughly seven to eight years after the events depicted in André Aciman’s semi-autobiographical novel Harvard Square. It begins with her arrival at Harvard as slightly sheltered, and as a result somewhat naive Midwesterner. (But true to Midwestern stereotypes she’s also comes across as wholesome, giving and unpretentious.) A recent graduate of Dennison University, she’s chosen Harvard not just as a place to obtain a world-class education, but also the launching pad for God’s higher purpose for her life. Starting out anyway, she has no idea what that higher purpose might be. But graduation is a few years away, and in her heart she’s confident it will all be figured out by then.

Along the way she meets a cavalcade of memorable individuals including a young Jewish lesbian intent on being a rabbi, an ex-con from South America who’s turned around his life, left-leaning church workers, homeless shelter denizens and snooty academics. The tales of her love life I found kinda amusing, since her love interests included a Colombian cellist, a medical student and her on and off Dennison boyfriend. As luck would have it, she also gets to take a class from the great Catholic luminary Henri Nouwen. She also gets arrested after taking part in a political protest. And in the end, without revealing too much, she finds her sense of purpose.

I found her memoir incredibly charming. While I wished she would have shared at least a few more details about what she was studying, I also realize that kind of stuff doesn’t always make for the most fascinating and exciting reading, especially for general audiences. My only knock on Raynor’s memoir is it kinda loses focus and energy after she finally graduates from Harvard. But like I said, it’s a charming read. It did not disappoint me.

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Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

Prayers for the StolenAs we pass the mid-year mark, I can honestly say holy cow, I’ve read some great fiction. Something tells me come December, when I post my traditional year-end lists, it’s going to be very hard for me to limit my list of favorite English language works of fiction to just ten books. Harder still it will be deciding which book will earn my nod for overall best. But as things stand right now, one novel that could very well be on that year-end list is Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen. This is yet another novel I found while rummaging through the International Authors shelf of my public library’s New Books section. I took a chance on Clement’s novel and was not disappointed.

Published in February of this year, Prayers for the Stolen is the story of Ladydi Garcia Martínez, who hails from a dirt poor village in the hills of Guerrero, Mexico. Life in her village is no picnic. Since almost all the men have fled to the United States in search of employment, it’s a village of women. It’s also a village where mothers hide their teen daughters or make them look ugly in order to keep them away from the drug gangs who periodically come raiding in search of young beauties to enslave and traffic. Impoverished and virtually forgotten by the central government in Mexico City, Laydi’s village is merely a spot on the map with human beings as its only export. It is these lack of opportunities that compel our heroine to seek greener pastures elsewhere, where she finds employment in Acapulco as a live-in maid for a wealthy family. Then, after a series of twists and turns things get interesting.

This is a somewhat slender yet nevertheless enjoyable novel. While reading it not once was I not entertained. Even though it’s a work of fiction, I thought the author did a darn good job touching on issues important to today’s Mexico such as poverty, corruption, gender inequality, emigration and the drug trade. Therefore, don’t be surprised if Prayers for the Stolen makes one of my year-end best of lists.

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Marshlands: A Novel by Matthew Olshan

The Marshlands: A NovelUpon entering the Central Branch of my public library, one of the first things a visitor sees is a rather extensive looking display of new books. Until just recently, this display boasted a shelf of newly published fiction entitled “Librarians Choice.” For years I ignored this shelf, probably because I preferred to read nonfiction, as opposed to fiction. But a few months ago, I decided to explore the Librarian’s Choice shelf.  So far, my gamble has paid off. It’s led me to both books I thoroughly enjoyed namely Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square and Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for Everything. It looks like this gamble was a good one, since the latest book I discovered on the Librarian’s Choice shelf, Marshlands by Matthew Olshan I quite enjoyed.

Published in February of 2014, Olshan’s novel is told in reverse chronological order. It begins with the release of a mysterious political prisoner who’s been held for decades, presumably in solitary confinement. He’s been released into a world he barely recognizes and left impoverished and broken – both physically and emotionally. His spends his empty days sitting on a park bench, getting robbed and generally living like a homeless person. After being injured in a riot, a local museum curator rescues him and gets him medical attention. Later, she takes him to a dentist who repairs the damage 20 years’ of imprisonment and brutal, physical torture can do to a prisoner’s mouth. The dentist soon recognizes him as “that man”, produces an old photograph from the pages of an almanac and makes a big stink, forcing the man and his new benefactor to leave.

But who is this man? Through two sets of flashbacks, we learn he was a battlefield surgeon with a talent for languages who the served in some unnamed Western military that spent a number of years occupying the country where, 20 years later he now resides. Just like in ‘s Waiting for the Barbarians, this country is never named. Some readers think it’s really Iraq, since much of the action in the two flashbacks takes place in the Marshlands. In addition, based on country’s terrain and culture the novel feels like it’s set somewhere in the Middle East. Decades ago, this surgeon did something presumably treasonous that got him thrown in some hellish prison. But what was it?

I enjoyed Marshlands and thought the writing was superb. I was impressed to learn that it’s Olshan’s first adult novel. (According to the jacket blurb up to this point he’s been a children’s writer.) Looks like this novel was a Librarian’s Choice for some pretty good reasons. I’m glad I found it.

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Africa Reading Challenge: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the SunA few years ago, Kinna hosted the Africa Reading Challenge. As one would probably guess, its purpose was to inspire people to read books about Africa, set in Africa and or by African authors. Knowing a good reading challenge when I see one, I happily signed up. Over the course of that year I read a number of qualifying books. Per the challenge’s guidelines I chose a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, representing or dealing with in some way nations from across the continent. And many, both fiction and nonfiction were by African-born writers. Looking back, I’d have to say it was rewarding experience and I had fun participating.

After the challenge took a brief hiatus, Kinna resurrected it at the beginning of this year. Once I heard the good news I eagerly signed up. Then, just like I do with so many other challenges, promptly forgot about it. So much for me knowing a good reading challenge when I see one.

But fear not, all is not forgotten. Let me present my first contribution to the Africa Reading Challenge. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun recalls the four decades he spent crisscrossing the continent as a foreign correspondent. Because of his insistence in engaging Africa on its own terms – that is traveling by crowded bus, staying in spartan accommodations and venturing where most Westerners would fear to tread – we are treated to visions of Africa not seen in travel magazines or the evening news.

We when we think of foreign correspondents, we usually envision an intrepid American or British fellow hopping from one global hotspot to another.  Not so with Kapuscinski. He was a Pole. When he started his journalistic career back in the 50s, his employer was Poland’s Soviet-aligned  Communist government. (A few years ago speculation was ripe he collaborated to some degree with Poland’s intelligence services.) But according to Kapuscinski, no matter where he went in Africa, because of his skin color Africans assumed he was a wealthy European, regardless of his nation’s ruling ideology.

Partly because Kapuscinski’s Communist employers paid him very little and partly because of his a habit of living and traveling like a local, Kapuscinski experienced more than his share of hair-raising adventures. He battled malaria, had his travel documents held hostage by hostile warlords, risked thirst and exposure after being stranded in the desert, watched his modest living quarters burglarized on a nightly basis and narrowly escaped being bitten be a deadly cobra. But in spite of all the dangers he survived and wrote about the continent’s coups, civil wars, corrupt officials and diverse cultures. And most of all, because he lived and traveled like a local, he also wrote about Africa’s everyday people.

This is a pretty good book for anyone who wants to learn about Africa, but might not know where to start. Although he ignores almost all of North Africa and all of South Africa, the rest of the continent gets a pretty in-depth treatment. I guess my only complaint with The Shadow of the Sun is sometimes Kapuscinski can be a bit long-winded with his commentary. Some readers might also take issue with his particular take on local politics and cultures, accusing him of Western bias. But that’s an issue I’ll let more astute bloggers tackle.

With The Shadow of the Sun under my belt, I hope to read a few more Africa related books. Kinna’s African Reading Challenge is a great one. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

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Filed under Africa, Area Studies/International Relations, History, Memoir

About Time I Read It: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyIt’s not everyday I get to read a novel that’s set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Let’s face it, if you’re from a big place like New York or Los Angeles or London there’s tons of stuff that’s set in your city. But my modest little burg hasn’t inspired a lot of fiction. (Television, of late anyway, seems to be another story. Both Grimm and Portlandia are set and filmed in Portland.) You do have Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fi novel The Lathe of Heaven. Likewise, you can make a strong argument that Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is also set in his hometown of Portland, judging by all the hints he drops throughout the novel. But when it comes to the ole 503 area code, it’s slim pickings.

Maybe that’s what finally made me read Heidi W. Durrow’s 2010 novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. Even though it inspired a ton of favorable reviews and was chosen as the 2012 Everybody Reads selection by my local public library, I never took the time to read it. But as I continue to branch out and read more fiction, it was hard for me to resist The Girl Who Fell from the Sky when I came across a copy of it during a recent library visit. I figured now was the time to finally read it. After all, it’s set in Portland.

And holy cow, it’s great.

In many ways it’s a coming of age novel. Set largely in Portland during the 80s, it tells the story of Rachel, a biracial girl and the offspring of a Danish mother and African-American father. After the death of her mother and Rachel’s siblings resulting from what appears to be a murder-suicide, she relocates to Portland to live with her paternal grandmother. As she tries to put the horrible family tragedy behind her, she also must come to grips with her own racial identity. Of course, like any young woman coming of age she must also deal with relationships, sexuality, authority and sense of purpose.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons. One, it’s creative and well written. Two, it shifts perspective, frequently using flashbacks. Three, since it’s set in a place and during a time when I was coming of age, I found her novel a bit of homecoming. Therefore, I have no problems recommending this fine work of debut fiction.

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The Ice-Cold Heaven: A Novel by Mirko Bonné

The Ice-Cold Heaven: A NovelFor the last few years I’ve taken part in the Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise. Even though I manage to come up a bit short each year I still try to read three works of fiction from, or at least set in each of the seven continents. Since Antarctica isn’t home to a lot of people, to make things a bit easier-and interesting-Kerrie has broadened the concept of the Seventh Continent to cover all kinds of stuff.  According to her,”it can be the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future-you name it.” In year’s past, for my Seventh Continent I’ve chosen zombie apocalypses, alternate realities and post-apocalyptic landscapes. But I’ve never read anything actually set in Antarctica. Until now.

One weekend afternoon at the public library I came across a copy of Mirko Bonné’s 2013 novel The Ice-Cold Heaven. At first glance I wasn’t too keen on reading it, probably because wasn’t in the mood for any fiction. But after closer inspection, once I saw the The Ice-Cold Heaven is Bonné’s fictionalized account of the Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. For years I’ve been fascinated with this tale of astounding leadership and human endurance, ever since the night I saw a TV documentary on the expedition when I was a young. Since then I’ve read an article about it in National Geographic and seen yet another documentary. As I grow older and learn to appreciate the importance of quality leadership (while at the same time have less and less patience with poor leadership) I realize that Shackleton’s ability to keep his team of 28 men alive for close to three years in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica is nothing close to amazing. Therefore, when given an opportunity to read a novelization of that expedition, I jumped on it.

Bonné, a German author, wrote his novel from the perspective of Merce Blackboro, a seventeen-year-old Welsh stowaway. Already the survivor of one shipwreck, with the assistance of several of Shackleton’s men he secretly boards the Endurance while the expedition takes on supplies in Argentina. After being discovered and brought before the Captain, upon meeting the young stowaway Shackleton rages with angry wrath. But his wrath (which was probably an act just to test the young man’s mettle) quickly dissipates and soon Shackleton becomes a father figure to the young Welshman. Of course, like any great tale of youthful adventure, Merce will grow and profit from this relationship. And he will need to because the adverse circumstances these men have been cast into will definitely test their limits.

While this novel didn’t blow me away, I nevertheless enjoyed it. Just the story itself is enough to hold one’s interest. Of course, it’s not everyday one gets the chance to read a novel set in Antarctica. So really, I can’t complain.

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The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore

Sometimes it takes me a long time to review a book. The reasons tend to be as varied as the books I read. Sometimes, I enjoyed the book so much it’s hard for me to articulate all the positive things I wanna say. Other times, I can’t motivate myself to write about a book I that left me disappointed. Then there are times when other writing projects took priority and pushed things aside. Lastly, there are times when I just procrastinate. When it came to writing my little review of Al Gore’s The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, this was a classic case of procrastination. But enough excuses! On to Gore’s book.

This isn’t the first book by Al Gore I’ve featured on this blog. Mere months after I made to move to WordPress, I wrote about Gore’s 2007 book The Assault on Reason. Whereas The Assault on Reason was a modest little manifesto of around 300 pages, The Future is an expansive, content-heavy tome and roughly double the page size of his 2007 book. It’s ambitious, detailed and covers a heck of a lot of ground. It can also be a bit overwhelming. But that’s OK. Considering what the future might hold for all of us, maybe it’s only fitting one could be a bit overwhelmed.

In order to forecast the future, Gore has identified six emerging “drivers” that will shape the our world’s destiny. They are:

  1. A hyper connected global economy
  2. The dominance of robotics, artificial intelligence and nimble, cheap, decentralized forms of production like 3-D printers
  3. A planet-wide power shift from not just West to East, but also from nation-states to nonstate actors
  4. Rising population growth and resource consumption leading to pollution, climate change and ecological destruction
  5. The growing ability to manipulate lifeforms, alter DNA and even create new forms of life
  6. A new understanding of humankind’s ongoing relationship with the global ecosystem

Like I said, this book covers a lot of ground and there’s a ton of information. In places it reads like something from a think tank or policy institute. But that’s OK. If you can make it through this book you’ll have a pretty good handle on where we might be going. And how best to prepare for it.

If I were advising a candidate for public office I’d tell that individual to read this book. (Of course, I’d recommend other books too. Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the Twenty-First Century would be the first one. From there I’d suggest The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been….and Where We’re Goingand The Next 100 years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, both by George Friedman. Topping it all off, I’d also recommend Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Let’s face it, with me as your political adviser, you’re going to read a lot of stuff!) While no one’s crystal ball is 100 percent accurate, Gore’s looks quite impressive. And therefore worth the read.

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