Few issues polarize America like abortion. 40 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade the abortion debate still impacts our political landscape. Pundits are forever voicing opinions on this divisive issue while politicians proudly proclaim their abortion views in order to solidify votes from their respective constituencies. Conventional wisdom dictates your opinion of abortion in no small way determines where you exist on the political spectrum and says much about your religious affiliation. Evoking passionate feelings one way or the other, it’s usually seen as a hot bottom issue with little, if any room for compromise.
Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Susan Wicklund’s 2007 memoir This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. Wicklund spent decades as an abortion provider, mostly in small town middle America. This Common Secret is not a manifesto or a position paper. It’s her straight-up and honest account of her years in the trenches as a women’s reproductive health physician performing abortions.
I read this book months ago and there are things about it that still stick with me. Of the cases she describes, most the women were scared and all were vulnerable, seeing abortion as their last option. All sought to keep it a secret, hence the book’s title. (Wickland recalls an evening she spent at a local tavern. While dancing on the dance floor several of her former patients began dancing around her as a form of unspoken tribute.) Some of her patients enlisted her services even though the procedure conflicted with their stated religious beliefs. (This included one female anti-abortion protester.) Encountering one patient who didn’t want an abortion but felt pressured due to because of economic reasons, Wicklund convinced a local anti-abortion activist to help cover the woman’s hospital bills so she could give birth to the child. She also dealt with gut-wrenching cases of rape and incest.
No matter your views on abortion, I’d encourage you to read This Common Secret. In her memoir Wicklund comes across as sane, experienced and compassionate. It’s also an excellent book and just like the recently featured The Unlikely Disciple it could very well end up making my 2014 Best Nonfiction List. And just like The Unlikely Disciple I highly recommend it.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who buys books only to let them sit for years ignored and unread on some shelf. I’m also sure I’m not only one, who after finally reading one of these ignored and unread books, exclaims after finishing it, “that was great!” “Why did I wait so long to read it?” That is how I felt after reading Kevin Roose’s 2009 memoir The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. This little gem of a book sat on my shelf for five years before I finally read it. Considering The Unlikely Disciple might be the most enjoyable book I’ve read so far this year, I’m kinda kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Really, I have no excuse. Back in 2011 Claire from The Captive Reader gave it a glowing review and that should have been enough for me to get off my duff and read it. But anyone who owns lots of books while at the same time is a heavy user of public library knows that it’s not easy to read everything you want to read, let alone what you should read.
Published in 2009, The Unlikely Disciple recalls the year Kevin Roose spent undercover as a sophomore at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. After visiting the conservative evangelical college as part of an assignment for writer A. J. Jacobs, he found himself fascinated with the place. Wondering what student life must be like at Liberty, he transferred from Brown University after his freshman year. Believing Liberty’s faculty and students would freak out if they discovered he was really an undercover journalist doing research he kept his mission a top-secret. At Liberty he threw himself headfirst into his covert project. From singing in Falwell’s church choir to faithfully attending prayer meetings and Bible studies and to even spending spring break “witnessing” to young partiers in sunny Florida he totally immersed himself in evangelical Christian subculture. All this from a young man who saw himself as very liberal and not very religious (a nominal Quaker at most).
I loved this book for a couple of reasons. One, it’s well written. Considering The Unlikely Disciple is his first book and he wrote it when he was 19 or 20 years old is even more impressive. Two, when describing his experiences at Liberty Roose is incredible fair and nonjudgemental towards the people around him. They’re never described as evil religious zealots or uber-conservative bomb throwers.
All in all, the Liberty student’s I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I’m getting a skewed sample, but the ones I’ve met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy. They play pickup basketball, partake in celebrity gossip, and gripe about homework just like my friends in the secular world. In fact, I suspect a lot of my hallmates at Liberty could fit in perfectly well at a secular college.
As he grows to respect and develop friendships with his fellow Liberty students the more he feels pangs of regret knowing he’s deceiving them in order to infiltrate their world. (These fears and misgivings also complicate any dating life he might have while attending Liberty.) Expecting to find only people who see the world just in black and white he instead finds the bulk of Liberty’s student body are far more complicated and nuanced to stereotype. He’s also surprised to learn that not all of them follow the University’s strict code of conduct all the time.
This is a fantastic book and I have no problem recommending it to readers of any, or even no religious persuasion. I can easily see it making my Best of List for 2014. I Highly recommend The Unlikely Disciple.
When my book club met a few weeks ago to discuss Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature admittedly, I was a little nervous. I was nervous because I was the one who originally suggested we read it. Problem is, I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I hoped I would. And I suspected I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Therefore, would the members of my book club cast me out for suggesting a turkey of a book? After all, it’s my first book group and I’d hate to get kicked out of it.
I’m happy to report that in the end, no one thought my choice The Blank Slate was a terrible one. Far from it. Pinker’s book sparked intense and intelligent debate among those present. Our spirited and meaty discussion lasted for well over two hours. Judging by the level of discourse and the concepts discussed that night, by the end of the evening I knew my suggestion of The Blank Slate was a good one. I would not have to resign in shame from my book club for choosing the wrong book.
Published over a decade ago, Pinker’s 2002 book The Blank Slate is a highly ambitious work of nonfiction that covers a lot of ground. Therefore, it’s not an easy book to write about. Pinker argues against the three widely accepted explanations of human nature. Chief among these is that of the tabula rasa or blank slate. Along with the blank slate, Pinker also takes on the concepts of the noble savage (we are born pure and goodly, but are corrupted by modern society) and the ghost in the machine (we have a soul that is independent of any biological functions and is solely responsible for our personality). According to Pinker, human behavior must be understood within the larger context of evolutionary psychological. Even though concepts like the blank slate, noble savage and ghost in the machine are revered, have been accepted as dogma for years and in some cases have been heavily politicized, they are obsolete explanations of human nature and need to be jettisoned.
I had a hard time enjoying The Blank Slate and it nothing to do with the validity of Pinker’s ideas. It was the presentation of those ideas that caused me headaches. It’s not that he doesn’t support his arguments with evidence, but perhaps he provides too much supporting evidence. Frequently, I felt he could have easily made his points without belaboring them. Speaking of those arguments, some critics of The Blank Slate have accused Pinker of engaging in straw man fallacies. While I’d like to give Pinker the benefit of the doubt, there’s a few portions of his book that felt like academic pissing contests. Overall, I thought Pinker’s writing was a bit too dense for my tastes and as a result his book could have used a bit more editing. But hey, that’s just my humble opinion.
Even though I’m walking away from The Blank Slate with mixed feelings, I’m optimistic when it comes to his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I’ve read a number of positive things about it and just the other night an acquaintance of mine gave it a glowing recommendation. Who knows, maybe I can even talk my book club into reading it.
After getting a much-needed haircut I’m sitting here in a super busy Starbucks, groggy and a tad sleep deprived. I’m desperately trying infuse myself with enough caffeine to write a blog post or two. It’s hard to feel productive on a cool, lazy fall morning like this. But hey, I gotta at least try? Maybe it’s fall mornings like this that lend themselves to writing about Alan Furst’s novel 2012 Mission to Paris. Brisk air and autumn colors feel appropriate for a light and entertaining spy novel set among the boulevards and night spots of Paris.
As one could guess from the title, Furst returns to his favorite city to tell the story of Austrian-born Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl. In 1938 as Europe prepares for war, Stahl has been loaned to the French division of Paramount Studies to star in its post-WWI film After the War. Far from living the pleasurable high life one would expect of a Hollywood actor temporarily residing in Paris, he’s instead aggressively courted by Nazi agents and their allies from the French political far right to support Berlin’s covert efforts to undermine France’s opposition to German militarism. Revolted by these overtures as well as Germany’s recent annexation of his native Austria, he offers his assistance to America’s nascent intelligence service. And like Furt’s other novels, there are side trips to other European countries, encounters with mysterious guest characters and a bit of romance here and there.
In my reviews of The Foreign Correspondent and Spies of the Balkans I pointed out that Fust’s novels share a number of common elements. After reading Mission to Paris it’s apparent there’s another common theme worth mentioning: the impromptu secret agent. Of the Furst novels I’ve read, his protagonists have been newspaper editors, cops, lawyers and with Mission to Paris, an actor. (The only one of Furst’s heroes who comes close to being a spy in the traditional sense would be Colonel Jean-François Mercier, the French miliary attaché in Spies of Warsaw.) While technically not spies, thanks to the courage of their convictions, as well as their language abilities and international connections they’re enlisted in the fight against Fascism.
If I can ever make a dent in my stack of library books, I wanna read more stuff by Alan Furst. As fall turns to winter, perhaps there’s no better time to immerse myself in the intrigues of pre-World War II Europe. Sounds good to me.
If you’re been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed over the last few years that I’ve been reading more fiction. You’ve also probably noticed a good chunk of that fiction has been international in flavor. Inspired by challenges like Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, Mysteries in Paradise’s Global Reading Challenge and Love Bites and Silk’s Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge I’ve read books set in a diverse collection of countries such as Albania, Afghanistan and Algeria. (In addition to other countries not starting with the letter A.) But for whatever reason, I’ve neglected Latin America. Even though the region has produced a ton of great novelists so far I’ve featured only one piece that could be considered Latin America fiction.
Alas, no more. The setting for Luis Sepúlveda’s novel The Shadow of What We Were is Santiago, Chile. His translated novel tells the story of a small group of aging revolutionaries who reunite after four decades for one last mission. Pinochet’s repressive regime has come and gone and in its place a democracy rules the land. However, due to the inexorable march of time, combined with the elite and powerful’s whitewashing of national history, younger generations of Chileans have little memory or knowledge of yesteryear’s brutality. With the gang’s familiar haunts transformed by the forces of globalization and gentrification, and their former comrades dead or living abroad, like a band of modern Rip Van Winkles they venture forth into an unfamiliar world. But of course, things don’t go 100 per cent according to plan. That’s what helps keep this story interesting.
I liked how Sepúlveda told this story using quirky characters and blending seriousness and humor, much like Algerian-Italian novelist Amara Lakhous. Seeing the contrasts between old Chile and new Chile also made for entertaining reading. Overall, I enjoyed Sepúlveda’s novel and there’s a good chance it’s inspired me to read more Latin American fiction.
This morning I’m at local Starbucks trying to crank out a long overdue post. After suffering through a recent blogging as well as reading slump, I haven’t posted anything for over a month. Well, time to change that. And what better way to get blogging again but with a quick review of Alan Furst’s novel The Foreign Correspondent. Think about it, if a person haven’t been blogging much lately, why not get back in the swing of things by talking about a novel that’s light, smart and reasonably entertaining. Enter The Foreign Correspondent.
The Foreign Correspondent is the fourth novel by Alan Furst I’ve read this year. Some of you might remember from one of my earlier posts, that all of Furst’s novels I’ve encountered so far share a number of common elements. The Foreign Correspondent is no exception. Set in Furst’s favorite city of Paris in 1938, it follows the adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile living in Paris. A foreign correspondent by trade, while covering battles in the Spanish Civil War he finds himself recalled to Paris to serve as editor for one of the City of Light’s many underground Italian newspapers. Right after becoming editor of the clandestine publication Liberazione, Weisz draws the attention of host of shadowy international players including the British and Italian secret services, French State Police and a small but formidable cell of the anti-Nazi German covert dissidents. Even though he’s an anti-Fascist committed to battling Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and their many agents, he nevertheless finds himself as a somewhat reluctant pawn in the struggle against European totalitarianism. Those attempting to enlist his assistance also includes his lover, a beautiful and aristocratic German noblewoman who’s secretly working against the Nazis and trying to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo.
Like I said earlier, Furst’s novels are light and fast-paced, but at the same time smart and entertaining. They’re also perfect for my Pan-European Lives series because the action takes place across Europe spanning multiple countries. (In this particular novel by Furst, while set mostly in Paris there’s also side trips to Spain, Germany and Czechoslovakia.) With that in mind I’m quite smitten by them. They’re the perfect books to read on the bus after a long and trying day. I’ve also found myself on more than one occasion engrossed in one of Furst’s novels while lying in bed at night. But I think it’s significant that even though his novels share similar themes and parameters they haven’t felt cookie-cutter or predictable. If anything, I’ve found them considerably addictive. So get used to seeing more novels by Alan Furst featured on this blog.
With 75 per cent of the year over, when I look back on my reading I feel like a lazy slacker. That’s because so far this year, only I’ve read and reviewed about 10 books for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Last year I was cranking them out right and left. This year, not so much. Sadly, I doubt I’ll exceed last year’s total of 21 books. Bummer. So much for my plan to read the most books and win the challenge’s reading contest.
The good news is despite my pathetic rate of participation I’m still reading some very good books about or set in Europe. I’ve also managed to discover a few European authors here and there that were completely off my radar until this just year. For example, until about a week ago, I’d never heard of the Finnish author Tuomas Kyrö. Or for that matter, ANY Finnish authors. But a few days after a trip to my public library I soon found myself reading his quirky, funny and quickly paced novel The Beggar and the Hare.
Kyrö’s novel follows the adventurous wanderings of Vatanescu, a blue-collar Romanian everyman who travels to Finland in hopes of making enough money to buy his young son a pair of top-notch soccer shoes. With few resources no official authorization to work abroad, Vatanescu has to enlist the services of former Russian security services agent turned human trafficker. Dumped on the streets of Helsinki and forced to panhandle to earn his keep, one day he flees his oppressive mobster boss with a handful of cash and embarks on a picaresque odyssey from one end of Finland to another. With a friendly rabbit as his loyal companion the two travelers encounter individuals from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Almost always humorous in nature, their interactions with foreign guest workers, politicians, upper class retirees, bureaucrats and criminals not only entertain, but also provide thoughtful social and political commentary on life in today’s Europe.
Not knowing what to expect when I grabbed this novel off the shelf, by the end I was left pleasantly surprised. The Beggar and the Hare feels fresh, funny and smart. Kudos to David McDuff for providing the novel’s English translation. At the end of the year, when I compile my “best of” lists, don’t be surprised if The Beggar and the Hare makes the cut.