february 2013 books.

Here's what I read last month. Ideally, I would've posted it last Thursday. Obviously, ours is not an ideal world.

The Stranger in Big Sur
Lillian Bos Ross
The Stranger sounds really ominous, doesn't it? It took me a good fifty pages of reading about this rancher and his new mail-order wife to realize that the wife was the stranger. She is, in fact, strange to these people who have been living hardscrabble lives in the sparsely populated part of the California coast. The book, told from the point of view of the rancher, is about the two of them figuring out how to live together. Mostly it's about him being forced to adjust his ideas about what a husband is and what a wife is. His only real experience with people is in the home where he grew up under a tyrant of a father. So even though he hates his old man, he still has the impression that being a man is following your own whims all the time, never listening to anyone, nor admitting you were ever wrong.

The rancher is our narrator, and so the book is written is very colloquial language. The characters are painted vividly. I have no idea what they talked or acted like in Big Sur back then, but I feel like I do.

Fall of Giants
Ken Follett
This month's book club selection was this massive piece of historical fiction set during the first World War. The nice thing about reading a 1000-page book is that it's really easy to figure out what percentage you've read.

Lots of people are into Follett, and I can see why. He does a heck of a lot of research into a historical period, then makes up some characters living through it. These characters interact some with actual historical figures, but mostly they represent the regular sorts of people who live in the world. There was a whole lot of war and political maneuvering, but he convinced us to care because we were invested in the characters. It's a good trick. WWI gets less press than its later cousin, so it was nice to learn a little bit about it. For instance, it seemed to have been started over very little.

There were characters on all sides of the conflict, preventing the reader for rooting for any one side. I knew who was going to win, but I felt bad for the specific Germans we were following. Meanwhile, there was a British guy that I really hoped would die. The next book in the series covers World War II, so I am curious as to how he will portray the German citizenry - what they know about what is going on in their name, and what they think and do about it.

More interesting to me than the international battle were the class battles going on within each country, as the men in charge start wars and the peasants die in them. We follow a Russian peasant as he goes to war, then comes back and helps start the Revolution. There is also a Welsh coal-mining family and a pair of suffragettes. Who doesn't like suffragettes?

I'm not going to read the next book or probably any more Follett. While I enjoyed it, the time investment was a little much for me. I'd rather just watch the mini-series.

Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes
Robert McAfee Brown

So the Bible has a lot of stuff in it about revolution. And I guess I knew that. But I have a fairly comfortable life here in the first world. In the third world, those passages about God casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly resonate much more. Brown's specific expertise appears to be with Latin and South America. The book was written in 1984, so there were lots of conflicts fresh in his mind. He starts of by saying that thinking about what you're going to do is a First World luxury. People who are starving or being killed really don't have time for that, so thought and action occur simultaneously in the midst of struggle.

Brown starts with Exodus, where God takes the side of the oppressed and then liberates them with their help. For current oppressed peoples, they read this story as both a sign of hope and a call to action. He further says that this theme is repeated over and over. I knew all the stories he covered in depth, but I don't think I ever realized what a revolutionary book the Bible is. He gives the particular example of a group of people emerging from a church, singing The Magnificat. They are talking about a reversal of the poor and rich, the weak and the strong, but what can the authorities, also good little Catholics, do? That Mary, she's a subversive one.

To have oppressed peoples, you need oppressors. Unfortunately, in the case of the third world, those of us in the first world often fill that role. The final chapter in the book is sort of an explanation for those who might feel a little accused. Not that you or I specifically go down to Argentina and shoot people, but not only does our government play in the domestic affairs of other countries with seemingly little regard for the actual people that have to live there, but we are able to afford such a high standard of living because other, unseen peoples live with so little. He notes that he himself is living very comfortably here.

Last year, I read One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta. It was written right before the Salvadoran Civil War, and there is friction between the government, who wants to keep killing people, and the church, which decided that was no good. The soldiers are told to beware when anyone starts talking about doing anything for "the people," because that meant they were just socialists. It struck me at the time how language can be twisted, and how a concept that most everyone would agree with can be corrupted by slapping a bad word on it. Both books are advocating liberation theology.

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