Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, by Dr. Willie Parker. Published in April, 2017. 224 pages.

I used to have a master list of books I want to read, complete with a timetable for when and how I am going to read them. It never works out however, because I visit the library at least every other week, and every turn past the “featured titles” shelf has me leaving with some title which has piqued my curiosity and gotten me off the planned reading list schedule. This was one of those books.

I don’t even know how to review it because although I find the philosophy, theology, worldview, and conclusions utterly wrong headed at best (repulsive at worst), Dr. Parker is a decent writer who wove together a good story and kept my attention throughout this book. None of that however, diminishes the problems with his logic and processing of the Christian faith.

A black doctor who grew up poor in segregated Alabama, Dr. Parker was a fervent and passionate Christian from his teenage years onward, and still confesses Christ today. He held to Christian principles in practice even after becoming an OB/GYN physician, refusing to provide abortion services even as his compassion deepened for the women seeking abortions who came to the office he worked.

Because his theological and moral defense of abortion is hardly original, I’ll lay it out for you here as well a directing you to an interview Dr. Parker gave to Rolling Stone laying out his case. No need to add to the sales that the pro-abortion/feminist lobby will give to this book. It basically comes down to this:

He has a duty to extend Christian compassion to the women who come to him for abortion services by helping them end their unwanted pregnancies safely, and with little pain and complication as possible. They have as much right as any one else to fulfill their god-given potential and fulfill their dreams without having their lives thrown off track because of one mistake and a legal and societal culture who would judge them for it. Giving them their freedom and acknowledging their bodily autonomy is, in his opinion, the right thing to do.

Of course, as always happens when liberals want to justify the unjustifiable, Dr. Parker repeatedly cites parallels between the freedoms of the women seeking abortions in 2017, and the freedom of the former slaves and black Americans who suffered all manner of indignities in the South.

The first commandment of liberal theology: Every person who wants to do something immoral or unnatural and encounters opposition or delay is experiencing oppression equivalent to the descendants of the transatlantic slave trade. The second commandment is like unto it: True Christian love is demonstrated by a willingness to see to it that everyone has or is able to do what they need to feel accepted and good about themselves.

Like I said, despite Parker’s unassailable way with words and compelling story telling there is nothing new to see here. Gloria Steinem’s rave review does nothing to change that. I did learn more about the medical intricacies of abortion than I ever wanted to know, complete with mental imagery I won’t soon forget. I learned a lot about the legalities of the debate as well.

The most compelling parts of the book were Dr. Parker’s retelling of his life story, family history, and educational development.

 B+ for writing, D for philosophical content.

Final grade: C

Content advisory: In depth details on the procedures, nature, and aftermath of abortion in one chapter.

Little House in the Big Woods

I expect this to be the last post of 2016 so if I don’t get back here, have a wonderfully blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year! And keep reading!

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Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Originally published in 1932. 256 pages.

This book was our most recent bedtime read loud and our children enjoyed it immensely. They excitedly looked forward each night to what would happen next in the lives of Laura, Mary, Pa, and the rest of the Ingalls family.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around the reading Laura Ingalls Wilder but I’m very glad that I finally did, and that I get to share it with my children. Children who, incidentally view the life and times of Laura and her family through an extremely idyllic lens. While they find the idea of life in the big woods highly desirable, I could not get past the though of woods and mountain lions right outside our door.

The detail with which Laura Ingalls wilder described all that was involved in making maple syrup, butchering and curing animal meats, harvesting wheat, and other chores that were a common part of 19th century life were also a source of curiosity and research for the kids.

I highly recommend these books for your upper elementary aged child. The illustrations in this particular edition are very well done and the kids liked the artwork as well. Some of the sketches were black and white, others in color, but all were beautiful.

Because of the fascination and interest our kids had with this book, the first in the series which we will be continuing, we have started watching season one of the Little House television series that began in 1974. Because I was far too young to have watched or even remember those first few seasons, it has been an event for me as well. The kids were a little bummed that the episodes they have watched so far didn’t quite match up with the book. It provided a brief lesson on the ways that television shows and movies are adapted from books.

If you haven’t read these books I recommend them. They are great books to read whether you are 12 years old, or 42.

Grade: B+

Food: A Love Story

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Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan. Originally published in 2014. 352 pages.

I can honestly and unequivocally say that if you asked me for a genre of book I thought I would never, ever, be bothered to read, I’d probably say one like this: written by a modern day stand up American comedian. I have no idea what possessed me to grab this off the featured shelf of our library on my way to check-out kiosk. Something about the photo made me snicker, curiosity got the better of me, and my state of mind this holiday season demanded that I read something that might make me laugh.

At least I hoped it would make me laugh, and thankfully, there were several moments as I read this book that literally made me laugh out loud. I read portions to members of our foodie household. The funny parts were so funny that I was able to forgive Mr. Gaffigan for the parts that were patently UN-funny.

This is not high brow, not excellent writing, and book snobs need not even bother to crack the cover. I generally consider myself a book snob, but I’m prole enough to be able to kick back and laugh with someone as low brow as I am. I’m not going to even try and discuss this book from a literary perspective because that would mean pretending that it’s literary. The fact that Gaffigan keeps making the best seller list with these books says as much about American reading habits as his books reveal about American eating habits.

So rather than go any further, I’ll just put up some funny quotes:

It would be embarrassing trying to explain what an appetizer is to someone from a starving country. “Yeah, the appetizer—that’s the food we eat before we have our food. No, no, you’re thinking of dessert—that’s food we have after we have our food. We eat tons of food. Sometimes there’s so much we just stick it in a bag and bring it home. Then we throw it out the next day. Maybe give it to the dog.

Indeed:

In America we have gone way beyond sustenance. Eating is an activity.

Gaffigan’s wife is a devout Catholic, who is also thin and pretty (nothing like him) and his five kids are very cute. This irony prefaces a few jokes in the book. This is when reached a point in his life when he decided to stop trying to get into shape, and embrace his reality:

It wasn’t defeat as much as it was acceptance. I figured, I got a hot wife. If she leaves me for getting fat, that means she’s shallow.

On trusting a skinny person’s word on what tastes (or doesn’t taste) good:

I’d still trust an overly fat person over a skinny one any day. The best adviser would have a very specific body type: pudgy or just a little overweight. This makes it clear they have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with food, but not a clinical problem.If they are morbidly obese, then you can conclude that they will probably eat everything and anything and do not have discerning taste.

My favorite part was probably his exploration of how dumb we have to be to have made bottled water into a multi-billion dollar industry. He even notes that Evian is “naive” spelled backwards, which I somehow never noticed.

Recently I tried Smartwater, which has electrolytes in it, and it’s supposed to replenish your body better than regular bottled water, therefore making you, I guess, smarter. I tried it, and it totally worked. I am now much smarter. Now I only drink tap water.

On second thought, that wasn’t my favorite part. It was this section, which I am going to end with along with an embarrassing confession. Me and my daughters? We are these people. My Benevolent Dictator thinks we are nuts:

Foodies will travel for miles in search of the perfect hamburger. “There is this place in Greenpoint that’s only an hour by train and a forty-minute walk from the subway that has the best burger in town!” It can’t be better than the burger I can get across the street. Mostly, I just want the closest best burger in town.

Yep, we drive for a great…whatever. We even got excited about trying a new local vegan donut shop and we’re as far from vegan as you can get.

Like I said, I laughed, which was the whole point. This book was basically a 300+ page stand up act, with all this implies: Some great hits, and some big misses.

Book snob grade: D

For me, out of book snob mode: Solid B+

Content advisory: The occasional four letter word here and there, but very rare.

I’m No Angel

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I’m No Angel: From Victoria’s Secret Model to Role Model, by Kylie Bisutti. Originally published in 2014. 304 pages.

Recent events, both public and not so public, set my mind to becoming curious about what books have been written on the subject of modesty. I don’t mean the kind of dogmatic, rigid approach that presupposes any bit of attractive femininity is sinful. I was looking to see what was written about the convergence of true modesty and feminine beauty in the context of a walk with Christ in the real world.

So I went to my local library’s website for the express purpose of checking out Wendy Shalit’s book, which I have read much about but never read. Somewhere along the way as I clicked, clicked and clicked some more, I ran across Kylie Bisutti’s book recounting her journey from child model to winner of the Victoria’s Secret Angel competition as a young bride of 19, to deciding less than a year later to walk away from it all as she began to realize how her career as a lingerie model dishonored both God and her husband.

I first encountered Mrs. Bisutti’s story in 2012, and even blogged about her at the time, so I was slightly familiar with it. I expected the book to be slog to get through,  but as I was embarking on a project of sorts, I was willing to tough it out even if it turned out to be horrible. Thankfully, it was not horrible and I read through it in three nights online via hoopla since our library system did not have access to a hard copy.

The book was surprisingly interesting. High brow it is not, and I was a little bugged by Kylie Bissuti’s dependence on the teaching’s of Joyce Meyer as she struggled emotionally through an industry that she both loved and felt increasingly out of sorts with.  Nevertheless, she told a compelling story.

The best parts of the book were without question, the behind the scenes glimpses of what life is really like in the modeling industry. After the release of her book, Victoria’s Secret fired back numerous accusations concerning the facts of her story, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from them.

I felt a bit of compassion for 17-year-old Kylie when at 5’9″, 1115 pounds, her agent called her a cow in front of an office full of people and demanded that she come back from her holiday break 8 pounds lighter. I found this particularly shocking, as she realized that her 36-inch hips was relegating her to the designation of curvy, and not it a complimentary way:

Not big hips, mind you- just hips. In the modeling industry, anything over 30 inches is considered curvy, and curvy does not play well on the runway- especially in high fashion, where being rail thin is considered the ideal. Horrifying as it may sound, some models even go so far as to have their hip bones surgically shaved down to reach that precious 30-inch mark. Others have their bottom ribs removed so that they look ultra thin. It just felt like part of the industry to me when I was starting out, but now it breaks my heart to think of girls and young women using surgery to deform the beautiful way that God created them.

With a recounting of her childhood, teenage years, and the very brief courtship she shared with her husband Mike, Kylie Bissuti makes a run at presenting a well rounded recounting of her life. Interwoven within all of it were the numerous moments of nagging doubt that she felt the urge to walk away and didn’t- starting with her HS boyfriend all the way up to the very uncomfortable party after winning the Victoria’s Secret modeling competition.

In the end this turned out not to be a book about modesty as much as it was about one young woman’s struggle to do the right thing. I didn’t come away from it feeling as if it had been a total waste of four and a half hours of my life, so that’s something.

Grade: C

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoirMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

The memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is an engaging book. While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his story than that unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing up years was so compelling that I almost forgot that it was the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s title references Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she thought they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas makes it clear that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. His grandfather taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and how to rise above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it a bit odd that Clarence Thomas was painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite the fact that I was a faithful, idealistic, 20-year-old card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even then because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a  man born and raised in 1950’s Georgia be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

Of course, I learned later and his memoir confirmed that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind  follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal, state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That isn’t a popular position to take, and it’s even less tolerable coming from a black person as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he began to notice the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and acquiesce in response to every demand made by black “leaders” even if the demands were illogical and damaging to black people over the long-term. What’s more, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was ever called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community actually choke the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated with me.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was simply disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought that gained its foothold during his coming of age years. The fact that he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that the task of raising their son and ushering him to manhood would be best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understands the challenge facing young black men and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike may of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. Of course, his version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, except when he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal began to wear on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. As I watched them I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  Or so I thought, as this was before I started thinking through these issues. Even then I remember having a difficult time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and nothing else.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a senator particularly hostile to him. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” There was no judicial paper trail so the senators tried to gauge his position through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response and one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

the-glass-castle The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.

One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.

If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.

This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.

As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.

Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?

They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.

My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.

The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.

Worth a read.

Grade:B-

Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)

 

 

 

 

 

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

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Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, by Eric Brende. Originally published in 2004. 256 pages.

Eric Brende and his wife Mary embarked on an 18-month sabbatical away from urban life to live among a group of people he called the Minimites,  a community which eschewed all forms of modern technology. The author’s life, along with his wife’s, was irrevocably changed.

I first learned of this book after reading a review offered by Booky McBookerson. I was instantly intrigued, mainly because the author was interested in more than the popular arguments surrounding personal technology so prevalent today. He wanted to examine the way technology has impacted life in ways that we have long accepted as harmless, lifestyle enhancement that “everyone” agrees has made life better. For example, the burdens inherent with ownership of an automobile and the way cars impact our associations with those in our immediate vicinity.

He offers much food for thought and makes compelling arguments, but he does so in a way that is more engaging than academic. The memoir approach to recounting the experience he had with his wife during their time in this Amish community that wasn’t quite Amish enables the reader to think about these issues without a preachy tone. The experiences often speak for themselves.

One of the most important distinctions he makes is the difference between a machine and a tool, and the fact that we have badly conflated the two as one and the same. They are decidedly not, he argues, and I agree, an automated machine is markedly different from a human powered tool.

Ultimately, Brende highlights the things we instinctively know but have crowded out of our consciousness as we build lives and lifestyles which gives as much weight to technological conveniences and necessities as we do to communities and people, if not more so.

He often wrote about the hard physical labor that was a part of the life they lived there, but that it was infused with community and teamwork, giving him a new appreciation for the term “more hands make light work”. The lightness is not only a reference to less labor, but more pleasant labor because it isn’t being done in isolation.

His introduction of the concept of Gelassenheit was of particular interest not only because I’d never heard it before, but because it is stands in direct opposition to the world in which we live, while being exactly the approach to life those of us who are Christians are called to embrace:

…”he who keeps his life will lose it.” These adages, of course, come from the Bible, and they give expression to the disposition the Minimites held chief among Christian attitudes, Gelassenheit, or self-surrender. Gelassenheit referred less to any particular aim than to acceptance of what may be, a larger and partly hidden design that they did not fully understand.

Modern technology, I suspect, far from being neutral in its effects, has more than on underlying purpose or built-in tendency: besides reducing the need for physical effort (a kind of material surrender) it helps us avoid the need for cooperation or social flexibility (a kind of social or metaphysical surrender). All too readily it countermands the uncertainty that goes with Gelassenheit. Cars, telephones, message machines, caller ID, and e-mail give us unprecedented powers to associate with whom we want, when we want, to the degree we want, under the terms we want, finessing and filtering out those we don’t want-and thin out the possibilities of social growth accordingly. p. 80

Lest anyone misunderstand, I am as post modern as anyone else. I like my privacy. I was fairly mortified on the author’s behalf when the neighbor boy walked in on he and his wife at a most inopportune moment because it was the middle of the afternoon so why couldn’t you just walk into someone’s house?

I certainly appreciate my unprecedented powers to self-select with whom I will relate. I also understand however, that community based on affinity is not true community, and that my self-imposed boundaries also serve as a sort of social prison, albeit a very comfortable one. After all, technology gives plenty of opportunity for some sort of social interaction, no matter how imperfect.

For me one of the most profound downsides of our post-modern dependence on technology is the severe deficit of physical activity that plagues most of us. Working out is helpful, but it is truly no substitute for purposeful physical labor. Technology pays the bills here and we are probably never going to go much farther than walking to destinations under 2 miles and cutting the television off a few of days per week.In other words, what we do now.

The thoughts  presented here are well worth considering, and the writing was thoughtful, if occasionally choppy. Brende was good at translating his experiences into philosophical musings, but not so great at story telling in general. The story-telling wasn’t horrible, but it fell a little short from time to time.

I found this book an opportunity for thought and personal reflection on the ways we can slow down and experience life more fully and deliberately rather than a transition to a  completely tech-free life, or even a minimalist one. Technology is here to stay, but we can all re-examine ourselves and our relationship to it.

Grade: B-