Saturday, May 29, 2010

Silas Marner, by George Eliot

Poor Silas.  He can't get a break.  After falsely being accused of a crime, he relocates to another village, where he focuses on working and earning money, living an isolated, antisocial existence.  He loves his money.  In fact, that's all he loves.  Then someone robs him, taking every last coin.

George Eliot, pen name of Mary Anne Evans, wrote several novels capturing life in 19th century England. Silas Marner, first published in 1861, remains a timeless, moving story of one man's struggle and redemption in the face of adversity.  When Silas was a young man, one of his closest friends betrayed him by framing him for a crime and stealing his girl.  As if being betrayed by his friend wasn't enough, he was also betrayed by the church; the drawing of lots declared his guilt.

Moving to a new town, he earns his living as a weaver, and lives a miserly existence.  He had no other purpose in life but to earn and save money.  "His life had reduced itself to the mere functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of  an end towards which the functions tended."  His only pleasure, all he looked forward to, was taking the money out every night, counting it, stacking it, sorting it, and handling it.  Until one night, it was gone.
And as suddenly as the money disappeared from his home, a little girl appeared.  Silas found the mother frozen by the road near his home.  Without hesitation, Silas took on the task of raising her as his own, finding the fulfillment he had been missing all those years: "Now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money."

As the mystery of the missing money and the unknown parentage of Eppie, Silas's adopted daughter, come together, the story comes together in a clash of class and family that, while perhaps bordering on melodrama, is nevertheless moving and satisfying.  When Godfrey, Eppie's biological father and a nobleman, comes to Silas and Eppie, the reader takes heart in Silas and Eppie's love for one another.  On a personal note, I found the  thoughts of Nancy, Godfrey's wife, on adoption were interesting.  After they lost a baby and weren't able to conceive again, she had resisted Godfrey's wishes to adopt a child.  "To adopt a child, because children of your own had been denied you, was to try and choose your lot in spite of Providence: the adopted child, she was convinced, would never turn out well, and would be a curse to those who had willingly and rebelliously sought what it was clear that, for some high reason, they were better off without."  I wonder how widespread this attitude was then, or even today.  Certainly Silas's adoption of Eppie contradicts Nancy's view; Eliot clearly strikes a positive note for adoption here.

As you might expect from a novel of the mid-19th century, many passages seem overly wordy and unnecessary.  But even the dialogue and action that seems irrelevant to the story, like the men chatting in the pub, and the girls chatting as they're getting dressed for a formal dinner, add to the ambience by giving a realistic portrayal of the culture and language of the time.

Eliot, decidedly not a believer, has little good to say about the church in Silas Marner.  But Christians can don't have to try very hard to resonate with the moral lesson of the novel.  The joy and rewards of life can be measured not by how much we save of what we earn, but by how much we give ourselves away in the service of others.  James says pure religion is looking after orphans; Silas certainly embraced that call.

Years ago I saw Steve Martin's adaptation of Silas Marner, A Simple Twist of Fate.  As I recall, even though that story took place in modern times, it was pretty faithful to this story.  I'll have to watch it again sometime.  Eliot's story is timeless and moving, and though it's a bit of a slog at times for the 21st century  reader, it's certainly worth your time.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pebble in the Sky, by Isaac Asimov

There's no question that Isaac Asimov is one of the great sci-fi writers of all time.  It's been years since I've read his Foundation Trilogy and Robot series.  Published in 1951, Pebble in the Sky, Asimov's first novel, reminds us of his greatness and iconic influence on the genre, and makes me want to revisit his other, more famous books.
Cover of the first edition.  If you have one of these lying around, you can sell if for hundreds of dollars.

The story opens with Joseph Schwartz, a twentieth century everyman, suddenly transported thousands of years into the future due to an accident at a nearby nuclear laboratory.  In the future in which he finds himself, Earth is a "pebble in the sky," an insignificant backwater in the Galactic Empire.  Now the political and cultural centers of the Empire are light years away and the Earth is a radioactive, post-nuclear wasteland, with only isolated inhabitable portions.  The catch is that the Earth is actually the cradle of humanity, but no one really knows that.

Schwartz arrives in the 9th century of the Galactic Era at a crucial moment.  The leaders of earth are plotting revenge on the rest of the empire, and it's up to Schwartz, an Earth scientist, and an archeologist from another planet to thwart the plot.  Pebble in the Sky has all the characters and elements necessary for pulp sci-fi: the everyman hero, the hand-wringing megalomaniac with the plot to take over the galaxy (you can almost hear the evil laugh), the almost believable technological advances, the brilliant scientist who is taken advantage of by the evil plotters, his beautiful daughter/assistant, and the famous outsider who sets aside his prejudice and takes the side of the underdogs.

This is a fun, fast-moving story with lots of coincidences to tie the people and events together.  But more than that, it reveals Asimov's prophetic insights in culture, technology, and history.  Some of his insights are dead on, like the readers they use instead of books.  However, they put spools into the readers; maybe Asimov didn't anticipate the memory capacity of today's devices.  As prolific as he was, we could fit everything he ever wrote on an ipod.

I particularly liked the portrayal of discrimination against Earthmen.  Earth was isolated and looked down upon by the rest of the galaxy as filthy and detestable.  I imagine the same kinds of attitudes as the English held toward some of their colonies, or as whites toward blacks.  Writing in the early 1950s, before the civil rights movement took hold, I wonder if Asimov's message was noted; it must have been at least a little controversial in some circles.

This is truly a classic.  Sci-fi lovers shouldn't miss it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What is the What? by Dave Eggers

A while back I read the book God Grew Tired of Us and watched the documentary based on the book.  (See my review here.)  These tell the stories of some of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  More recently, I read The Devil Came on Horseback, in which an American, a former soldier, assists the African Union in the Darfur region of Sudan as an observer, gaining a first-hand glimpse of the genocide.  (There was a film made of this book, too.) These and other stories out of southern Sudan tell much about what is wrong with the human condition, while giving confidence in the resiliency of the human spirit and reason to hope for a future of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Add to these stories the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys.  With the help of novelist Dave Eggers, he tells his story in a moving, gripping way.  Achak and Eggers met through the Lost Boys Foundation, which was founded and run by Mary Williams, Jane Fonda's adopted daughter.  Williams called Eggers, asking him to meet with Achak and consider chronicling his story.  They decided to include historical and political background and to expand on Achak's experiences, turning into a sort of autobiographical novel.

The title is from an old creation story Achak hears from his father.  As his last act of creation, God said, "I can give you one more thing. . . . You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What."  Man asked, "What is the What?"  God replied, "I cannot tell you. . . . You have to choose between the cattle and the What."  Considering the attributes and benefits of the cattle, man chose cattle.  And because man was content with what God had given, "God has allowed us to prosper.  The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow."    In the Dinka version most often told, "God had given the What to the Arabs, and this was why the Arabs were inferior."

When Achak was just a boy, the Arabs began their attacks, determined to purge non-Arabs, non-Muslims from southern Sudan.  Rebels fought the government soldiers in a long, drawn out war.  Many villages were destroyed altogether.  Even thought the rebels ostensibly tried to defend the rights of non-Arabs, they were, in many cases worse than the government soldiers and the raiding tribes supported by the government.

Achak fled his village, embarking on foot on a trek from Marial Bai, in southwestern Sudan, to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.  Conditions along this journey of hundreds of miles can't be imagined by most of us.  The travellers, mostly young boys, most of whom had witnessed the horrors of their parents being murdered, their homes and villages being burned, and worse.  Along the way, the boys (there were some girls and adults, too) suffered every kind of deprivation, going days without food or water, most without shoes, many without clothes.  Many died along the way of starvation, disease, drowning or being eaten by crocodiles while crossing rivers, or being carried off by lions.

When they finally arrived at a refugee camp at Pinyudo, Ethiopia, conditions did not quickly improve.  While there was some degree of security, and some food and other assistance from NGOs, the Sudanese rebels made their presence known and came to rule the camp, bringing it into the conflict.  Achak and the others were forced to flee, and, after another grueling journey, ended up at another refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.

Achak lived at Kakuma for many years.  When Lost Boys began coming to the United States, he, of course, hoped to go.  After years of wondering whether his parents were alive, he learned that they had survived and were trying to rebuild their lives in Marial Bai.  Soon after, he was accepted to go to the U.S.  He managed to speak to his father by CB, asking if he should come home to Marial Bai.  His father raised his voice, "You have to go, boy.  Are you crazy?  This town [Marial Bai] is still ashen from the attack.  Don't come here.  I forbid it.  Go to the United States.  Go there tomorrow."  He insists; Achak starts to resist: "But father, what--"  His father interrupts, "Yes, the What.  Right.  Get it.  This is it.  Go."

Following Achak's story and experiences, What is the What tells the story of the Lost Boys, taking the reader into the world and the mind of these refugees.  Most of us, thankfully, will never experience what they've gone through.  Reading their experiences helps me appreciate the coddled, easy life we experience in the U.S. and challenges me to expand my perspective to engage the needs of others.  I remember when we lived in Grand Rapids, a group of Lost Boys moved to town.  Some good friends of ours sponsored a group of them and told great stories about teaching them about the simple, daily tasks we take for granted.  What is the What tells some of those stories and so much more.  I highly recommend this difficult but ultimately encouraging story.
Eggers and Achak at the construction site of a new school in Marial Bai

Achak and Eggers started a foundation to assist Sudanese refugees and promote development in Marial Bai.  That must be immensely satisfying for Achak to be able to make such a huge difference in his hometown.  Read about the foundation and his work here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Black-White Achievement Gap, by Rod Paige and Elaine Witty

The question of the achievement gap between black has vexed educators and community leaders for generations.  Why, after decades of progress in civil rights, does the gap persist?  We have a black president, black CEOs, black leaders, so why do test scores, grades, and academic achievement skew against black children?  Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, and his sister Elaine Witty, a longtime educator and school of education dean, argue that, as the subtitle states, the achievement gap is "the greatest civil rights issue of our time."  The authors argue that while racial prejudice and discrimination were the "primary barriers impeding African American advancement toward economic, social, and political parity with white Americans" up until the 1960s and 1970s, the primary barrier now is educational underachievement.

The authors are hopeful and optimistic about the prospects for advancement.  Given some historical background, it's little wonder that African-Americans lag behind their peers.  During slavery, slaves were prevented from being educated; in some cases the were legally prohibited from learning to read.  After the end of slavery, few would argue that African Americans have had equal access to educational opportunities.  Even now, we see large discrepancies between many mostly minority schools and districts and mostly white schools and districts.

Paige and Witty are pretty tough on the current national shortage of African American leadership.  They didn't stand behind No Child Left Behind, which, Paige and Witty argue, offers much help in closing the black-white achievement gap.  For them, "party trumps race," so they were not enthusiastic about this Republican-led measure.  In the same way, they have disdainfully rejected the leadership of Michael Steele, the African American chairman of the Republican National Committee.  In other cases, they have rejected specific proposals and actions, such as charter schools in D.C. and voucher measures in Texas, because of partisan concerns, with no concern for the actual success of the children affected by those measures.

The Black-White Achievement Gap is not great literature, by any means.  It's a dry policy book.  Their style is in the flat, quasi-academic style you might expect from this genre: not fully academic, trying to appeal to a broader audience, sometimes pretty readable, but mostly dull.  Paige and Witty do provide plenty of examples of charter, private, and public schools who are enjoying great success with African American students, even students from poor neighborhoods, broken families, and other less-than-ideal learning conditions.  I got first-hand exposure to some of these schools when I attended a "No Excuses"conference in D.C., which featured the founders of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), charter schools who have seen tremendous success with at-risk populations, and other success stories from places where one would expect the black-white gap to be most evident.  I also got first-hand experience of the gap, when I taught at a Fort Worth junior high that was about 50/50 black and hispanic, and was horrible academically.  Unfortunately, I did not do much to close the gap.  I am hopeful, for the sake of my former students, that African American leadership will pick up on Paige and Witty's recommendations and close that gap!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

UnThinkable, by Scott Rigsby

If you ever need some inspiration to overcome obstacles in your life, you need look no further than the ranks of disabled athletes who accomplish feats most able-bodied folks never even try.  Scott Rigsby has accomplished what many never dream of trying, and what many who tried, failed to finish: completed an Ironman Triathlon.  For the uninitiated, a triathlon is a race in which athletes swim, then bike, then run.  Races can be a variety of distances, but the Ironman distance is 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run.  A momentous feat for anyone who attempts it, but for Scott Rigsby, even more so: he did so on two prosthetic feet!  He is the first double amputee to complete an Ironman triathlon.
Rigsby lost a leg due to injuries sustained in a terrible accident.  He was riding in the back of a truck, and when they were sideswiped by an eighteen wheeler, he bounced out of the bed and was dragged under the trailer they were towing.  One leg had to be amputated immediately.  The doctors reconstructed the other, but after years of problems with infection and incomplete healing, Rigsby had the other one amputated as well.

The accident happened the summer after he graduated from high school.  Scott's plans for college went out the window, and for many years he struggled with purpose and meaning.  Seeking fulfillment in drink, drugs, women, and money, he coasted through life until, through the patient ministry of a campus minister, Rigsby gave his life to Christ.  Rigsby is very honest about his life after becoming a Christian.  Besides the usual struggles of a 20-something new Christian, he had to deal with erratic behavior caused by his traumatic brain injury, the emotional and physical pain of being a double amputee, and the difficulties of finding and keeping steady work in light of his TBI and physical disabilities.  He eventually did graduate, but had a hard time maintaining a career.

His moment of revelation came shortly after Christmas in 2005.  After reflecting on what an aimless mess he had made of his life, his mom, a faithful Christian, prayed with him.  He responded by telling God, "If you will open up a door for me, I will run through it!"  He didn't know how literally God would take that promise.  A few weeks later a magazine cover caught his eye.  It featured a single amputee who had completed the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.  He read that article, then picked up another magazine with an article about a soldier who had returned to Iraq after having a leg blown off.  In those few minutes, he sensed that he had found the door he had asked God for: he was going to compete in an Ironman triathlon!

The tone of Rigsby's book, and the tone of his whole life, changed at that point.  He was a high school athlete and an active kid before his accident, but he had never done anything like a triathlon.  He had to learn how to swim again, teach himself to run on his prosthetic legs, and figure out how to ride a bike  with prosthetics.  I couldn't help being impressed and inspired by his determination and commitment.  The best passages are where he describes his experience at the Emerald Coast Sprint Triathlon in Panama City, Florida (1/3 mile swim, 15 mile bike, 3.1 run).  Before this, he had never even run a 5K, and was completely clueless about transitions between events, equipment, and racing.  He finished dead last (I can relate to that) but realized that he could do it, and left that day even more determined to finish an Ironman.

I thoroughly enjoyed Rigsby's story, but I think I would have enjoyed a substantial magazine article just as much.  In the first half of the book he tells every excruciating detail of his life.  I wondered if the publisher said, "OK, this has to be at least 250 pages, so you need to add more filler," and he went back to tell stories and conversations that didn't add much to his story but added to the length.  His coauthor, Jenna Glatzer, has written books about Celine Dion and Marilyn Monroe, so I guess the People magazine style of writing is to be expected.  (And I wonder why they decided to capitalize the T in UnThinkable in the title?  That kind of thing drives me crazy!)

My petty criticisms of the book aside, Rigsby has my full admiration.  He has started The Scott Rigsby Foundation, "dedicated to influencing all physically challenged people and youth to pursue an active lifestyle."  He is an active and inspiring speaker, traveling to schools, hospitals, churches, and companies, telling his story and encouraging the physically disabled and able bodied alike to pursue their dreams and reach for fantastic goals in spite of what might stand in their way.  He challenges all of us to pursue a dream bigger than what we think we can accomplish, and make that dream a mission that can change the world.  Thanks for the inspiration and more power to you, Scott!