An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘favorite books’

If You Think Things Are Bad Now

I like to read history when the news gets me down. After last week’s news about a Michigan militia group plotting to kill a cop then bomb his funeral procession in order to make a point, Alpine School District parents in Utah rallying the troops to protest the district referring to our country as a democracy rather than a republic, and Tea Partiers screaming that the Constitution is hanging by a thread, I find it somehow comforting to learn that human beings have always been irrational and confrontational.

Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce’s 30-year battle to abolish the British slave trade. The British Parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries was as strangled with special interests as our US Congress is today. But one man persevered and eventually prevailed. I wish the story had been told by a more objective, less pious author than Eric Metaxas, but Wilberforce’s eventual triumph is uplifting.

The Age of Louis XIV by Will and Ariel Durant relates the reign of France’s greatest king. Louis supported learning, science, and a degree of religious toleration. Unfortunately, his love of grandeur and wars of aggression bankrupted his country. Yet, France survived this ruler’s excesses just as our country survives presidents who lead with more charisma than common sense.

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts is an honest portrayal of the wives and mothers of the Founding Fathers. These strong women ran plantations, farms, and businesses while the men folk were off warring and politicking. These upper-class women had far more education than the average woman or man in the colonies. Many felt the laws suppressing women’s legal and political rights were unjust, but their priority was independence from England and the creation of a stable government.  Probably few would have claimed the Constitution, which was a compromise condoning slavery and ignoring women as citizens, was a document of perfection.

Historic memoir gives a personal touch to history. My all-time favorite is Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. Cheng survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Few Americans know much about this tragic era in China since foreigners were almost totally banned from the country at that time. Mao, in his declining years, decided the failure of his Communist policies to produce a prosperous country was caused by insufficiently harsh implementation. He unleashed a wave of repression and violence which resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese.  Cheng, a widow in her 50s, was imprisoned for six years. The fact that she survived the brutal treatment and kept her integrity intact by not signing a spurious confession is the most inspiring story I’ve heard. Nothing bad that ever happens to me will match what this remarkable woman endured.

Dark Star Safari, a travel narrative by Paul Theroux, takes readers by land from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 2000. Theroux, who lived in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught at the university in Uganda during the ‘60s, compares present-day African countries with their situation 40 years ago. His conclusion is not hopeful. Poverty, hopelessness, and tyranny have increased despite the efforts of NGOs, Western governments, and church missions. Okay, this book did not make me feel better about the present. But it did raise the question of how to help impoverished countries. Donations are not doing the job. Maybe how to help the poor is the answer for people looking for an issue to embrace. But it’s an issue that needs thoughtful research, not screaming and slogans.

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Pivotal Books

The best thing about bad weather is the time it offers for curling up with a good book.  An English teacher I know rereads Macbeth every November. Perfect timing! November is so like Macbeth—you know things are going to keep getting worse! I came across a list of favorite novels yesterday and started thinking of my own favorites. My son-in-law often asks what my favorite books are and I never know how to answer. How to choose just one or two or even five? Usually, the best I can come up with is my favorite for this year. But what about all-time favorites? The books I’d choose to take to a desert island. Probably I should take the books I revisit frequently. In recent years I’ve opened Sophie’s World by Norwegian author Jostein Gaardner most often. Although the protagonist is a 15-year-old girl, this novel-within-a-novel is much more than a teen read. As the plot unfolds, a mysterious professor teaches Sophie the complete philosophy of Western Civilization. These summaries are the parts I return to when I need a succinct refresher on the thoughts of philosophers and scholars from Socrates to Freud.

And I should include books that have stirred my curiosity of the wide world. My 8th grade English teacher introduced me to Richard Halliburton. His Royal Road to Romance convinced me to explore the world beyond my birthplace. I couldn’t find Halliburton’s travelogues for my own children, but some have been reprinted and are on my list for my grandchildren.

Memoir is the genre that most allows me to participate in lives more exotic than my own. Some favorites are: Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, a Chinese-American girl growing up in California with immigrant parents. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the “Little Rock Seven” who integrated an all-white Arkansas high school in 1957—the year I was a junior at all-white Pleasant Grove High with no idea what was happening to African-American teens in the South. The Road to Mecca by Muhammed Asad, a European Jew who traveled to Arabia as a journalist and converted to Islam in 1926. Asad later became Pakistan’s UN ambassador. And Dust Tracks on the Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s account of growing up in an all-black Florida community in the early 20th century.

Good fiction, like memoir, allows us to experience vicarious lives. Foreign authors teach us how much we have in common with people of different countries, religions and races. Nervous Condition by Tsitsi Dangarembga tells the story of a strained relationship between an African mother and daughter. In “The Bats” from Arranged Marriage by Indian author, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a child narrates the story of life with a mother who keeps returning to an abusive marriage.

I read few LDS authors because I prefer visiting less familiar cultures. Two novels which provide surprising insights into their LDS characters are Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua and Levi Peterson’s Aspen Marooney. Clory, the young plural wife in Joshua, struggles with grinding poverty, sharing a husband, loss of children, and abandonment without the divine intervention and blessings bestowed in traditional pioneer stories. Aspen and her old high school flame ignite sparks at their 40th high school reunion. Though both are active LDS, Church values play little or no part in their decisions.

The wind whips and the temperature drops. What do I care? November was made for good books and a cozy recliner.

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