3.08.2018

Recently Read - January + February

It seems that one could accurately deduce the breaks in my semester by paying attention to my otherwise unpredictably-timed blog posts.  I am on spring break this week (glory be) and I wanted to bang out a post about some really amazing books I have read recently.  So far, I have surprised even myself by the number of books I have managed to read (or listen to) during the first hectic months of the year, and I can only hope that I maintain such a pace.  But without further waffling, let's talk about the books.  That's what we're here for, right?

The first book I want to talk about today is an essay collection by Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books.  I read this collection in January during the last of my Christmas break and I totally loved it.  Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors I've always wanted to read, and while she is most well-known for her fiction, she is admired as an essayist as well.  This collection was her first, and it includes pieces on theology, culture, and the social and political climate of America.  I was blown away by her incisive commentary and the intellectual rigor she brings to these essays.  She pulls zero punches, and her writing is sharp and smart.  This essay collection was beautiful and piercing and deeply insightful.  I plan on reading everything Robinson has ever written.  One of my favorite essays from the collection was one entitled "Wondrous Love," and this is perhaps my favorite passage: 
"If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents' lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these [Biblical] stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children's. What gives them their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold — by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren't any songs about him."  
 The next book I have to talk about is one I read for one of the history classes I'm taking this semester.  The book is The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and it is a moving story about a Kenyan tribe during the mid-20th century as it wrestles with the implications and consequences of British colonialism.  I did not expect to appreciate this book as much as I did.  First of all, I had never heard of the author, which for me is a little rare, and, while I enjoy reading books for class, there is always a suspicion about assigned reading that somehow it is less promising because it's assigned.  All of that to say, I was rather floored by this book.  This book is barely 150 pages long, and it is written over several of years as it traces the life of Waiyaki, a character who is sandwiched between a passion for the education that the English have brought and which he longs to use for the enlightenment of his tribe, and the insistent conviction that the British are tearing the tribe apart and quietly, insidiously destroying the land.  One faction of the tribe has, under the leadership of the esteemed Joshua, converted to the white man's religion and turned away from the tribe's culture and traditions.  The other faction has set itself firmly against the British and is allied in hopes to get out from under imperialism.  Waiyaki is uncertain of where he stands and he vacillates between his own convictions and fears.  While I believe colonization and decolonization are processes far too consequential and heavy to simply take an interest in, they are deeply important and the outcomes are often heartbreaking.  I have become more aware of and interested in stories of de/colonization in various classes I've taken and as a white American, I believe I have a responsibility to understand them to the best of my ability.  Beyond that, however, I think that we have a responsibility as Christians to understand colonization and how it happens because throughout history evangelism and missions have gotten tangled up with colonization in ways that are not only antithetical to the Gospel of Christ, but do serious, lasting damage to the people for whom the message is intended.  I may do an entire post at some point discussing various historical examples, but here I will simply share a passage from the book that is so profound and eye-opening I still think about it all the time.  
“For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad.  Even his religion was not essentially bad.  Some good, some truth shone through it.  But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal.  And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.  A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight.  That way lay disintegration.  Such a tribe would have no roots, for a people’s roots were in their traditions going back to the past, the very beginning, Gikuyu and Mumbi.  A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless.  It would not satisfy.  It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality.  It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost.  Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua.  He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white.  He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe" (141). 
This book is brilliant for so many reasons, and since reading it, I have made it an unofficial goal to read more books by classic African authors this year.  I want to read other things by Ngũgĩ, but next on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which I have embarrassingly never read.

The final book I want to talk about is a nonfiction book called The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.  I listened to the audiobook on a whim and I was immediately hooked.  Moore's book tells the stories of a number of women who were employed during the early 20th century as dial painters.  They painted the dials of watches and aeronautical instruments with a type of innovational paint that contained small amounts of radium.  Because of the nature of radium, this made the numbers of the dials glow in the dark, making such items invaluable during the first world war.  During this time, radium was considered to be completely safe and even beneficial.  It was marketed as a sort of magical cure-all and was used in hundreds of new products.  The dial painters painted the small watch faces and instruments with tiny brushes, which they placed in their mouths to try and make the point as tiny as possible in order to produce the precise detail their job required.  This method was called lip-pointing and it was used in several factories by hundreds of young women.  The jobs paid well and the girls were assured the practice was completely safe and they could even benefit from investing radium.  Suddenly, however, a couple years after the dial painters began, women started to get sick.  Dentists were confounded by strange cases of women complaining of toothaches.  When the dentists started removing teeth and performing surgery, the women's mouths refused to heal and instead continued to disintegrate.  The unknown disease spread to other areas of the women's bodies, in a seemingly random pattern that completely stumped every medical professional they consulted.  Moore's book documents every part of the women's journey as they began to protest their mistreatment by the corporations that employed them and the country came face to face with the shocking and horrifying radium poisoning hundreds of women experienced as a direct result of working with radium.  This book was so stinking good.  I had no idea about these discoveries or events and my mouth was wide open at numerous instances while listening to this book.  I am passionate about hidden or unknown stories of women in history and that's exactly what this book was.  Moore's research is breathtaking and the way she humanizes the women's experiences and makes them come alive is remarkable.  She portrays these women as the heroes they are: brave, courageous, determined to do what is right, and fearless in the face of the worst odds.  I was by turns moved, inspired, angered, and stunned by this book, and I highly recommend it.  If you are doing Women's History Month-inspired reading in March, put this book on your list.

I have managed to read some great books so far this year, and these are only a few highlights.  I hope my glowing recommendations will move you to give them a try, and as always, thanks for reading.
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