Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

My 12 year old was reading the The Hunger Games series last year, so I picked up the audio books at the library to listen to while I drive to work.  Some youth fiction is intolerable, but Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series was enjoyable, even if it did get a bit weaker with each book.

The Hunger Games occur each year, requiring each of the 12 districts of Panem to send a boy and a girl to compete in a fight to the death.  Panem, a future incarnation of a sort of post-apocalyptic America, is ruled by an authoritarian elite in the Capitol, with shades of a new Roman Empire.  This annual tribute is a primary means by which they maintain control over the districts.  The Games are televised live; every move of every contender is monitored and filmed, like "Survivor," only with deadly consequences.

The heroine of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, from one of the poorest districts, volunteers to take the place of her little sister when her name is drawn.  Determined to show some independence and not to bow to the demands of the Capitol, she defiantly sets out to maintain her integrity while preserving her life, becoming a folk heroine in the districts.  The Hunger Games tells the story of her first Hunger Games, Catching Fire  has her returning to the Games, and Mockingjay has her leading a rebellion against the Capitol.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss in the movie, releasing in March.
Collins creates a compelling, if not wholly believable, future world, a backdrop against which Katniss's self-realization can take place.  Her character makes the story, a rebellious girl with a big heart, a determined leader, but a relatable, likable teenager who deals with the usual teen issues.  Collins's strengths are her characterizations and the small-scale encounters in the first book.  As the latter 2 delve into larger-scale political and even military machinations, the narrative breaks down a bit.  It was good enough for me to finish the trilogy, but by the time Mockingjay ended, I was done with Panem.

This series is well-written and engaging and worth a read.  Although it's being taught in high schools and middle schools, I'm not sure how much lasting literary value these books have.  Will they be read and cherished for many generations?  I doubt it.  Still, I enjoyed the books, and especially appreciate any time literature promotes resistance to an authoritarian regime.  We need more of that!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rough Crossings, by Simon Schama

They say history is written by the victors.  I know my view of the American Revolution is colored by my having been born, raised, and educated in the United States.  So here comes an Englishman to add a little bit of perspective to my America-centric view of history.

Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution presents a slice of history not often considered in studies of the time during and after the American Revolution.  British abolitionists were ahead of the curve, working to abolish the slave trade.  Some of that spirit was behind the British attitude toward slaves in the American colonies, but, as Schama describes, the war took precedent.  The British made an open offer to colonial slaves: fight with us, and we'll grant your freedom.  Some of these black loyalists took them up on the offer, leaving the fields and taking up arms.  As a reward for their service, they could go to Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, back to England, or elsewhere.  Unfortunately, some were captured and sold back to slavery, and many ended up in servitude little different that slavery.  But others did very well.

After the war, through the efforts of some British abolitionists, one group of over a thousand settlers in Nova Scotia, many of whom were former slaves, were given the opportunity to relocate to Sierra Leone and establish a new colony.  Schama takes the reader through these events with a reporter's eye, bringing the stories alive with first-hand accounts and vivid descriptions.  We know William Wilberforce, the most famous abolitionist.  But before Wilberforce, there was Granville Sharp.  Using natural law and legal arguments, Sharp campaigned against slavery, which he said violated English common law, and published the first major British anti-slavery book.  His activism and advocacy were such that, as Schama writes, there was not a black person in the British colonies who didn't know Sharp's name.

We also meet John Clarkson, whose older brother Thomas was a major abolitionist alongside Wilberforce.  John was recruited to lead the Sierra Leone resettlement movement, and, due to his commitment to the families moving from Nova Scotia, came to be revered by them as a modern-day Moses (or Noah, considering the means of transportation).  One can scarcely imagine the feelings of these former slaves, many of whom were violently torn away from their homeland, suffered under the heavy hand of slavery in the colonies, and now would be returning to Africa as free people with the promise of land ownership and self-sufficiency.

Long before the 20th century civil rights movement, the blacks of Sierra Leone experienced unprecedented equality.  Under Clarkson's leadership, blacks and whites were granted true equality, perhaps for the first time anywhere.  Once they settled in at Sierra Leone, heads of households, including many women, voted for community leadership, "the first occasion on which African-Americans voted in any election."  Schama goes on, "It was momentous . . . that the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom."  In some ways, this band was a truer embodiment of the ideals of the American revolution than the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

If Rough Crossings has a weakness, it's the general lack of context.  I wish I could have gotten a better sense of how many slaves actually fought with the British as a proportion of slaves in the colonies, and a comparison of how the Nova Scotia/Sierra Leone former slaves fared versus former slaves who lived elsewhere.  I also wish Schama would have spent more time on the fact that almost side-by-side with Freetown a major port for the slave trade remained very active.  The hypocrisy and split personality of the British Empire on slavery during this time is astounding.

Schama's book presents a little-known slice of history of the United States and the Africans who were brought here.  His dry but compelling narrative captures the hardships of colonial life in both Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, as well as the promise and hope they held out for a new life.  Tragically, Clarkson's vision was thwarted by some of his countrymen, but Rough Crossings tells a terrific story that hints at what might have been in Africa.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Annie's Coming Out, by Rosemary Crossley and Anne McDonald

It's not often that a book makes me cry.  This book made me cry.

Several months ago I read William Horwood's unique and powerful novel Skallagrigg (read my review here), which follows a young girl's journey from an institution, where she had been placed by her family due to her cerebral palsy, to independence.  Mr. Horwood commented on my review, noting that one of the inspirations for Skallagrigg was Annie's Coming Out, the story of Anne McDonald's journey from isolation in an institution--and in her own body--to communication, interaction, and self-determination.

So what's so sad about that?  First of all, it's heartbreaking to read about the conditions under which Annie and her peers lived.  Institutionalized their entire lives, these children, who had cerebral palsy or other severe disabilities, were trapped in a sort of limbo.  The parents had placed the care of the children in the hands of the hospital.  The hospital had written the children off as little more than vegetables.  They suffered under the most horrible forms of abuse and neglect imaginable.  Annie was a teenager before Rosemary Crossley came to work at the hospital and began experimenting with different  means of communicating and began to build relationships with Annie and the other children.

In spite of the progress Crossley made with the children, using progressively more complex methods by which the children could spell out words and sentences, her superiors refused to acknowledge that the children could think and communicate on their own.  Eventually Annie began to assert herself and started a legal fight for her freedom from the hospital.  Eventually, to the chagrin of the hospital and government overseers, Annie won her freedom, setting a precedent for legal rights of the disabled.
Anne, pictured here with Crossley, died in 2010.
By improving her communication and bringing her case to the attention of the courts, Annie's case drew unwelcome attention to the hospital and its treatment of children.  Hospital officials began to retaliate by separating communicative children from one another and ramping up the neglect.  Annie lived in Australia, and the events of the book take place in the 1970s, but I am sure the attitudes and conditions described prevailed in the U.S. then, and, in spite of many improvements in care and therapy, are probably still around today.  Reading Annie's Coming Out will make you want to stand up for the civil rights of disabled, institutionalized people in your community.

The saddest portion of the book, the section that put me over the edge, was Annie's reaction to her friend Stephen's death.  As part of the hospital's retaliatory measures, Stephen was isolated from other patients and not allowed visitors.  He was given no means of communicating.  In his isolation and lack of hope, he died.  Annie writes: "Stephen's death was the end of my belief in God.  Previously I had wanted to believe in a caring God, who could love even people like us.  No one who loved Stephen could have let him die a prisoner of his own body and of the Health Commission."  I believe in a loving God, but I can scarcely blame Annie for her attitude, heartbreaking as it is.  My prayer is that others in her shoes will get a taste of the grace and hope God offers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

God Gave Us Two, by Lisa Tawn Bergren

When the little polar bear's mother is expecting a cub, Little Cub is full of questions.  Mama and Papa reassure her as best they can: "God gave us you.  Now he's given us two!"  As Mama's lap shrinks, Little Cub becomes convinced that Mama's and Papa's love will only continue to grow when another cub comes along.
With Laura L. Bryant's beautiful art, featuring the bears' Arctic animal friends and lots of snow, Lisa Tawn Bergren's little story makes me want to snuggle up with my little cubs.  I read God Gave Us Two to my two boy cubs, but I think they think they're beyond such cuddliness.  When I asked E, age 12, whether he liked the book, he grunted, "No!  It's for little kids!"  When I assured him that I meant did he think it was good for little kids, he agreed that it was a good book.  Unfortunately, Z, age 10 and infinitely distractible, was long gone.

God Gave Us Two is one of at least a half dozen Bergren/Bryant collaborations.  I would definitely recommend it for the preschool/toddler set.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!
Rate my review of this book here:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, by Jeremy Schaap

Considered by many the greatest Olympian of all time, Jesse Owens took center stage at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, winning 4 gold medals and doing his part to shatter Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy. Triumph follows his story, from his first informal races as a boy in Ohio, to his unprecedented performance at the 1936 Olympic Games.  Jeremy Schaap tells Owens' story in the context of the history and controversy leading up to and during the Olympics, bringing the reader into the passions of the day.
Owens loved to run as a boy--no surprise there.  His gym coach noticed him in class, primarily because of the perfect form of his legs.  Throughout his career, his physical form was noted by many coaches and admirers.  When, as a pre-teen, he ran an impromptu 100 yard dash in world-class time, the coach thought his stopwatch must have malfunctioned, but recognized the talent he had on his hands.  Starting with the great raw material of Owens's natural form and perfect body, he worked around Owens's school and work schedule--young Jesse's earnings were a major contribution to the Owens family budget--and helped him gain the attention of college coaches.  Owens attended Ohio State, where he set multiple records and led the track team, working toward qualifying for the 1936 Olympics.

Schaap spends a lengthy section of the book discussing the American movement to boycott the Berlin Olympics.  The Germans were turning somersaults keeping Jews off their Olympic teams.  Many Americans wanted to boycott the Olympics as a protest against the German's racism.  The hypocrisy of the American position is laughable in retrospect.  Jackie Robinson was still a decade away from playing in major league baseball.  Consider Jesse Owens: the star of the OSU track team, he was not even permitted to live on campus!  When he traveled to meets, he couldn't stay in the same hotels and eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates.  Yet the Americans wanted to call Hitler on the carpet for his racism.

Coincidentally, I recently watched Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, which documented the 1936 games.  Schaap gives details of Riefenstahl's experiences during the filming.  In spite of Hitler's desire to feature Aryan supremacy in the games and in the film, Riefenstahl made Owens the star of her film, just as he turned out to be the star of the games.  Schaap gives some interesting background on Riefenstahl and her film, which was a much bigger deal than I realized.

Schaap presents Owens as a remarkable natural talent who remained humble about his accomplishments, yet always wanted to do more.  When the press and others were famously talking about the snub from Hitler, who didn't formally congratulate Owens after his wins, as he did many of the white athletes, Owens refused to fall into the fray.  He noted that Hitler waved at him after he won.  In fact, he later cheekily went on to say that Hitler hadn't snubbed him, that FDR had by not sending Owens a congratulatory telegram.

Few have ever run as fast or as well as Owens.  Winning 4 gold medals at the Olympics is a rare feat.  Breaking 3 world records and tying a fourth in under an hour at a college track meet, as he did in 1935, may never be done again.  He was truly a one-of-a-kind runner.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Forgotten God, by Francis Chan

Francis Chan, founding pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, and sought-after conference speaker, will tell you that his books don't break new ground theologically.  He's not out to be an original thinker; his goal is to inspire and energize the church.  In Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, he reminds us of the source of the energy and inspiration that should drive Christians and the church.

Chan's point is not that Christians aren't speaking in tongues enough.  This book really isn't a treatise arguing for or against cessationism or supernatural gifts.  Chan wants to focus on the supernatural presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Remember when Jesus, in John 16, shortly before his death, told his disciples about the Holy Spirit's coming?  He said that it's good that he's going away, so the Holy Spirit can come to them.  Imagine that: you're sitting next to Jesus, walking with him every day, eating meals with him, and he says, "I'm leaving, but I'm going to send the Holy Spirit.  You won't be able to see him, touch him, or feel him, and it's really hard to hear him, if you ever do.  But trust me, this is a much better arrangement for you!"  Sounds odd, but if Jesus said it, I'll believe it, even if I don't really get it.
As believers, we have the exact same access to the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples.  So where's the power?  Chan calls on the church and individual Christians to rely on the Spirit's power.  Churches often rely on slick marketing, talented worship teams, fancy facilities, eloquent preachers, and comprehensive programming to drive their growth.  Chan isn't saying that such churches don't rely on the Holy Spirit, but that those features can drive a church without any Holy Spirit presence at all.

By the same token, individual Christians can show all the outwards appearances of following Christ, have effective ministries, raise Godly children, disciple younger Christians, exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, and avoid sin, all on their own power.  But some people are just terrific people because of their character and upbringing, not necessarily because of the indwelling Spirit.

Chan wants to be able to attribute everything good that happens in a church and in a Christian to the Holy Spirit, so that there's no other possible explanation than the Holy Spirit for a church's growth and effectiveness, or for the transformed life of the Christian.  This is a terribly hard thing to measure.  Chan does a great job of reminding us to rely on the Holy Spirit, but also reminds us to do our part.  So I can't get to the point where everything is attributable to the Spirit.  If a church has great music, teaching, and programs, and grows like crazy, who am I to say whether they did it through their own creativity and charisma, or through the power of the Spirit?  How about the fruit displayed by the people in the church?  Who am I to say they exhibit the fruit of the Spirit because of the indwelling Spirit, or because they're nice people from nice families who have lived in a nurturing, supportive environment?

Chan's book does challenge me to be more aware of the Spirit's work in my life and more open to his leading.  But I'm afraid he does little to rest my concern about discerning what I do and what the Spirit does in me.  I know this is one of those theological tensions that will probably never be resolved in this life, but I would have liked a more thorough treatment of it.

(By the way, I listened to the audio version of Forgotten God, read by Chan himself.  It was like having him in the seat next to me for my daily commute.  He is an engaging communicator and brought a lot of life to the book.)