february 2014 books.

Ian McEwan
I see a lot of McEwan books in the used marketplace, so I picked one up to see if he was any good. The answer is yes, he is, though I'm not going to start seeking him out. The book was short, funny, and said true things about human nature, but it did not knock my socks off.

And this is what happens if I wait until the end of the month to write down what I thought about a book I read at the beginning of the month.

Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life
Kenneth C. Haugk and William J. McKay
My Stephen Ministry training involves a lot of reading. Between this and the book we are reading in Sunday School, I have a lot of dang church homework. For Stephen classes, we have two workbooks, which have pre-class reading and then in-class activities. We also have three other books, this being the first one. It's about how caring for someone is different when it's from a Christian standpoint. Spoiler alert: the answer is love. Christians are called to love everyone, and so our motivations as Stephen Ministers is following that.

To be honest, the thing that I am most nervous about this whole Stephen Minister thing is the churchy part. Yes, I have much church homework, but I am not in the habit of talking about faith, and I am generally kinda cagey on theological specifics. I'm even a little nervous about working with people who are outside my church - while we are very accepting of different takes on Christianity, I'm not sure that's true of the other congregations. I will be expected to pray with people, which I find terrifying. I'm just waiting for a greiving widow to ask me whether her husband is in heaven now, and...I mean, geez, lady, how should I know? I'm just a peer helper!

But most of this book and the whole program is about doing what Jesus said to do, that whole loving each other stuff, rather than knowing answers to the universe. I think I can handle that.

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, Erin Torneo
Our book club selection this month is about wrongful convictions. A lady is raped, and with her testimony, a man is put behind bars for the crime. Except it turns out he didn't do it, and eleven years later, he is finally released. The lady and the falsely convicted dude later become friends. The book raises a lot of questions about the reliability of memory and eyewitness evidence.

Interesting story, and it all took place in Burlington, NC, which is about an hour from Raleigh. The writing was sort of ho-hum, a straight-forward retelling of facts. But I am always happy for some light to be shed on the issues of incarceration.

A Room with a View
E.M. Forster
I read this as part of an online book club. Remember how I complain all the time about book club, because we never pick anything challenging to read? I joined the online book club partly because they pick two books a month, one of which is in the public domain. So it's old and has stood the test of time and chances are, either Josh and I already own in our extensive library. That's actually why I read Great Expectations last month. I read it and then did not participate in any of the discussions, which was still better than the month before, when I got the book off the shelf and then did not read it.

All that, yet I was not very excited about A Room With a View. I read Howard's End by the same author a few years ago. I do not remember very much about it, except that it was about high class society and how much it sucks to be a woman. I am always happy to see some feminism injected into literature, but honestly, those books can be pretty depressing.

This one also deals with high class society people and their high class rules, which I found occasionally frustrating. There was a lot of drama about people not following the high class rules, but the rules are so fussy and subtle that I wasn't always sure what all the tension was about. Part of that is the joke. For instance, there is a scene where a group of women are scandalized by the fact that a man used the word "stomach" around them. However, they can't even tell the story and use the scandalous word because there is a man in the room.

Isn't it wonderful to live in the 21st century, where we can refer to our innards around men? STOMACH! PANCREAS! SPLEEN!

The book associates different people with either rooms or views, with the clear message being that it's better to be a view. There is a theme of honesty - not just being truthful, but being open as well. The main character, Lucy, has a problem, but she lies about it to everyone as a way of lying to herself. She's not really even lying outright, but avoiding the real truth and running away to Greece (which is what you can do when you're high class). Luckily, she finds someone she can't bear to lie to, the truth comes all stumbling out, and she is saved from a lifetime of being a room. Being a view is about light and truth, while being a room is about darkness and deceit.

I found this book to be incredibly relevant to my Stephen training. While the Christian Caregiving book was sort of an instruction manual, this was a literary take on very similar subject matter. It's not at all explicitly Christian, in fact it's a bit humanist, but the lessons for life are pretty much the same: love! I wrote down a quote about an old man who does not fit into society because he is kind. Lucy remarks that we all try to be kind, and the response is that we do that "because we think it improves our characters. But he is kind to people because he loves them; and they find him out and are offended, or frightened."

I feel like I am in the state where I try to be kind because it improves my character, because I want to be a kind person. It's still about what I want to be, not about how I actually feel about other people. I generally like people, which has not always been the case (progress!), but I don't think I can say that I love people yet. I really want to, if that counts for anything.

The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
I saw people all over the internet talking about how awesome this book is, and it really sounded like something I'd love. Russian - I love foreign writing. Magical realism - what fun! Retelling of Faust and Jesus - supernatural stuff is awesome!

And yet, I kinda wish that I had waited and read it later. I enjoyed it, because it's vivid and interesting, but I felt the whole time that there was something I wasn't appreciating, just out of my reach. Also, based on the commentary in the back, I would've benefited a lot by reading Faust first. It makes me a bit sad when this happens, because I may never go back and read it again. But still, how can one know when one is ready for a piece of literature? Sometimes things hit at just the right time, and sometimes it's too soon. Ah well, better too soon than not at all.

But let's talk about it, rather than just saying I maybe wasn't ready yet. So! We start out in Moscow, when the Soviets have outlawed Jesus. A couple of writers are sitting on a bench at a park, talking about the best way to write a poem about the non-existence of God when the Devil comes and sits with them. He predicts one of their deaths and tells a story about Pontius Pilate. Chaos ensues. There are parallel chapters throughout the book describing the death of Jesus (well, a Jesus, but not That Jesus), while events in Moscow often match tales from the gospels.

The thing that struck me about the Devil is that he seems to be more about mischief than evil. He has a reason for being in town, but it is never clear what the goal is or how it helps his ultimate ends. While he is there, the various members of his entourage cause a great deal of trouble, and many people go mad from trying to resolve what they are experiencing (which is frequently magical and impossible) with reality. A couple of people die, some fires get started, and fake money gets passed about, but it really seems like he's just spreading chaos. I feel like I don't understand who the Devil really is in this story. It's a Faust story, so he makes a deal with someone, but it seems to be a pretty reasonable deal. Bad things happen to people, but a lot of times it's due to their own actions - in this case, the Devil is more punishing people for evil they've done, rather than trying to coerce them into doing it. In the end, a lot of them are forgiven.

So, yeah, there is a lot going on in this book, and I didn't even mention the slams on the Soviet government. There are some truly magnificent scenes, and I definitely enjoyed it. I had to read more slowly than usual, and I was happy to do so. Just felt like I was missing something.

Unrelated note: Before I read the book, I looked up info about various translations. Some of them apparently miss the humor of the book. One disparaging comment about a particular translation says that "the cat doesn't even handle the firearms!" I mean, wouldn't you like to read a book where a cat handles fireamrs? Turns out he's a terrible shot.

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