Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2017

The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

Advertisements

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2017

by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau trade paperback 2015; copyright 2014)

Bryan Stevenson started working with prisoners on  death row  while he was still in law school. Later, he went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an organization which is “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (from the EJI website).

In Just Mercy, Stevenson presents what he views as some of the worst abuses of our criminal justice system: the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole,  the witch hunt for “bad mothers”, the execution of innocent prisoners due to technicalities, the corruption that allows incompetent defense or prejudiced prosecution to condemn innocent people to life in prison or capital punishment, the incarceration and abuse of people with disabilities, the awful treatment within the prison system, and more.

Chapters about the case of Walter McMillian, an African-American man on death row for a crime that was committed while he was at home hosting a fish fry for about twenty people, are interspersed with chapters narrating other cases. Thus, Walter McMillian’s story begins on page 21, when Stevenson was not yet thirty and he received a call from the judge in the case, warning him not to proceed with it, and ends with the Epilogue and Walter’s death from dementia. This reflects the reality that a single case can drag on for many years without resolution, as it works its way through the levels of the justice system. (Many of Stevenson’s cases made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, such as Miller v. Alabama, which declared the sentencing of children to life in prison without parole to be unconstitutional.)  Meanwhile, the innocent prisoner’s life is running out. It was so evident that Walter McMillian had been wrongly accused, sentenced, and imprisoned (he was sent to death row even before he was sentenced to die), that the reader can hardly believe that this case actually happened. Forget “innocent until proven guilty”. The people that arrested, prosecuted, and condemned Walter McMillian had to have known that he was innocent, yet all they cared about was “solving” the crime (The true murderer was never found.). At one point, after years of trying to get McMillian out of prison, Stevenson was told by a lawyer from the Alabama Attorney General’s office, “Bryan, it’s all going to work out, but you’ll need to wait a few more months. He’s been on the row for years, so a few more months are not going to make that much of a difference.” Oh, really? Try it yourself, Mr. Hotshot Lawyer. You will find that every single day on death row is an eternity.

One chapter that affected me even more than Walter McMillian’s tragic story was “All God’s Children”, which focuses on three cases handled by EJI:  Trina Garnett, an intellectually disabled, neglected and abused child who when she was fourteen unintentionally set a house on fire, which resulted in the death of two other children; Ian Manuel, convicted of armed robbery and attempted homicide when he was thirteen; and Antonio Nuñez, charged with kidnapping and attempted murder at fourteen. In all three cases, older children involved in the same crimes received lighter sentences because they implicated the younger ones, while Trina, Ian, and Antonio were all found guilty and sentenced to life without parole (in other words, sentenced to die in prison).  Stevenson points out that adults convicted of similar crimes usually receive much lighter sentences and eventually serve only ten or twenty years before being released. Children who are sentenced and incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are usually released after spending some period of time in juvenile custody, perhaps when they turn eighteen or twenty-one. But these three minor children were all prosecuted as adults, and all received life without parole. Ian Manuel actually spent eighteen years in solitary confinement, supposedly for his own protection. Even when the victim in his case (who survived and went on to lead a normal life) requested that his sentence be reduced, the courts refused to budge. By the time the EJI took on their cases, Trina, Ian, and Antonio were “broken by years of hopeless confinement” (although Ian had somehow managed to educate himself while in solitary confinement). Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, the EJI was finally able to get their sentences reduced, but they had to serve more time added onto the long time they had already spent in prison.

Reading this book, I was constantly horrified and ashamed of what passes for “justice for all” in these United States. It’s not justice, and it’s definitely not for all.

See also The New Jim Crow.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Tao of Pooh

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Benjamin Hoff (Dutton 1982)

I read this little gem long before I began learning t’ai chi ch’uan back in 2010, but I remember loving it, so I recently purchased a used copy from ThriftBooks, my latest find on the web (cheap prices, great customer service), and reread it. Using Winnie the Pooh as a kind of model (and Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit as counter-models), Hoff explains the basic tenets of Taoism:

  • The principle of the Uncarved Block: things in their original simplicity are naturally powerful (Winnie the Pooh being “the very Epitome of the Uncarved Block”)
  • Knowledge and education cannot provide deep understanding or happiness.
  • Things are as they are. Don’t try to change them into something they aren’t. (“A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”) Accept your limitations.
  • Wu Wei, “without doing, causing, or making”: working with natural laws and our own inner nature without stress or struggle. Acting according to circumstances and your own intuition. (This “can be seen in the practice of the Taoist martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the basic idea of which is to wear the opponent out either by sending his energy back at him or by deflecting it away, in order to weaken his power, balance, and position-for-defense. Never is force opposed by force; instead, it is overcome with yielding.”)
  • People who are constantly busy are missing out on a lot. They are never at peace. (Rabbit is an example of this kind of person.)
  • We should believe in our own power and use it, rather than trying to be like others.
  • Caring/Compassion (Tz’u) give us courage and wisdom.
  • Appreciating ourselves for who and what we are brings us contentment; dissatisfaction brings only misery.
  • An empty mind is receptive to what is truly important. “While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.” (This one really made me sit up and pay attention, because that’s me: instead of just appreciating the beauty of the fallen leaves in the park, I try to identify the tree they fell from.) Nothing has value.

Throughout, Hoff quotes lengthy passages from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, invents dialogues with Pooh and among Pooh and his fellow denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, and intersperses it all with E. H. Shepard’s original illustrations from the Pooh books. So the reader of this book had better be familiar with those books.

Hoff followed the Tao of Pooh with The Te of Piglet, which I also own and have read, but it might be time to reread that too. I didn’t like it as much as The Tao of Pooh, though, when I read it before.

Posted in Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2017

by Susan Moon (Shambhala 2010)

I just loved this book of essays about getting older, written by a Zen Buddhist American woman in her mid-sixties (my age). Susan Moon is direct, honest, and funny. She writes about the challenges of aging (physical deterioration, memory loss, loneliness…) as well as its joys (human relationships, grandchildren…). She writes from a Buddhist perspective, about her changing body and mind, her mother, her friendships, her self-doubts.

I suppose that most people under sixty would not appreciate this book, although reading it might give them the gift of an older person’s perspective on life, which would not be a bad thing.

Some favorite quotes:

My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn’t hold as much at once.

In a way, it adds interest to life to have these small problems to work on. Taking care of oneself becomes a more intricate project and sharpens one’s problem-solving skills. My knees talk to me, and I have to respond. The old bones provide a kind of companionship. It’s not really me who needs things like handrails and hiking poles, it’s my knees; I make these arrangements for them, because we’re family.

It’s not my fault when I have a senior moment any more than it was my fault when my hair turned gray. I’m just a human being, after all. I’ve had a lifetime of junior moments, when one word follows another in logical–and boring–succession, when each action leads to the next appropriate action. For countless years, I have remembered to bring the pencil with me when I go downstairs to use the pencil sharpener. I think I’ve earned the right to break free from the imprisonment of sequential thinking. A senior moment is a stop sign on the road of life.

Gradually, without noticing when it happened, I seem to have let go of trying [to find a mate]. It’s a big relief, I can tell you, not to be scanning the horizon for a spiritually minded socially engaged emotionally intelligent senior bachelor every time I leave the house.

The main thing is, I’m not separate, I only think I am. I’m one of the jewel-like nodes in Indra’s Net, that vast spiderweb of the universe. I’m not a thing at all, I’m an intersection where filaments connect. Pluck me out and the whole thing falls apart, like a knitted shawl unraveling from one dropped stitch. The universe holds me and the universe needs me. No way is the universe going to leave me for a younger woman.

I think of time as the landscape I’m traveling through on a train, and the train is my life. I can only see what’s outside the window. Yesterday was Naperville, Illinois; today is Grand Junction, Colorado; tomorrow will be Sparks, Nevada. I just see the piece that’s framed by the train window, but it’s all there at once, all those places, the whole continent.

 

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »