Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

I got behind on several of my book club’s selections and this is one of them that I’m catching up on.  Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber was highly discussed and recommended by my fellow book clubbers and I’m happy that I can now share in their enthusiasm, having just finished it last night.

AccidentalThe buzz around the book and the author is that Ms. Bolz-Weber isn’t your typical ELCA pastor.  She’s tattoed, swears, and drops truth bombs like no other.  While I haven’t met her, just from her prose alone I can tell that this isn’t a show.  It comes across that she is herself, for good and bad, and that’s what’s attracted all of the accidental saints to her church.  Beyond all the outward distracting features, she has a heart for ministry.  She’s open to sharing her doubts, fears, and questions with her congregation (and her readers), she struggles to be like Jesus in every moment, but she loves with a heart of gold.

One of the most moving moments in this book was when she discussed how her church dealt with the shootings at New Town, CT.  The shooting occurred around the Christmas season and Ms. Bolz-Weber felt like their church community couldn’t ignore the shootings and plow through the uplifting Christmas liturgy.  Instead, they decided to look at the Christmas story, but include a discussion of the killing of the innocent children by King Herod.  I’m familiar with this part of the Nativity story, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve ever heard a pastor bring it up around Christmas.  As Ms. Bolz-Weber points out though, to ignore this tragic event is to ignore the crux of the Nativity itself.  Jesus was born into a world that killing innocent children.  Christianity shouldn’t be a wall that its believers hide behind when tragedies like the New Town shooting happen.  Instead, they should mourn and connect with the people around them.  Which is really the heart of Ms. Bolz-Weber’s ministry–to accept the people around her and treat them as Jesus would.

The Bassoon King

My wife and I have started this tradition of choosing an audio book to listen to on car trips.  It’s a nice change from just listening to music, plus it helps us up our Cannonball Read counts (we are a competitive pair).  For me, I prefer to read a book rather than to listen to one.  Listening to more podcasts recently, has made me develop more of my auditory literacy so I’m trying to see if I can’t also develop a liking for audio books.  The Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson is the first non-fiction audio book to which I’ve listened and being read by the author himself, I think I’ve found a way for me to really enjoy audio books.

BassoonHaving Mr. Wilson himself read to me felt more like he and I were having a conversation rather than me just listening to someone tell me a story.  Since it’s his story to tell, it just seemed more natural to hear his inflections, tone, and humor conveyed in his own voice.  The whole experience of listening to it, with him sharing it with me, felt more like I was invited in to his story, rather than me just barging in on it.

Being a huge fan of “The Office”, I was interested to hear Mr. Wilson’s behind-the-scenes story of the development of the show and some of the cast details.  I was not disappointed.  Hearing about all the work casting, then shooting, then working hard to create a fan base reminds me how demanding the film and television industry is, and how much work goes into to the movies and shows we watch.  One of the interesting facts about filming on “The Office” is that while they filmed specific people, say Michael, the rest of the cast has to just sit in the office because the camera catches them in the background.  For the first season, they didn’t have internet, so a lot of the cast had to just pretend to do something on the computer.  Apparently filming could go on for twelve hours.  Talk about boredom!  They finally begged and got the internet for the remainder of the seasons.

Besides his acting career, which he’s very passionate about, Mr. Wilson also shares with us his eclectic childhood and upbringing in the Baha’i Faith.  I didn’t know much about the Baha’i Faith, but Mr. Wilson’s love for his beliefs and willingness to share with his readers served as a good introduction.  His faith seems to be the one constant in his childhood as he moved around a lot including a stint on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast.  While I’ve never lived that faraway, having moved around a lot as a kid myself, I could really relate to Mr. Wilson’s experience.  I highly recommend this humorous and heartfelt autobiography.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015) has been on my to-watch list since its premiere this summer.  Sadly, I was never able to see it in theaters, but I was lucky enough to just get it sent to me thanks to Netflix.  Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the review, I think it would be good to give you some background on my relationship to the film.  I was born and lived in California for a good part of my life, so I had heard of NWA, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tu Pac, and Snoop Dogg.  However, it wasn’t until I was 13 and living in Washington state that I actually started listening to their music.  By that time (1997), Ice Cube wasn’t making music, Dre was producing, Tu Pac was dead (but still making albums?), and Snoop Dogg was doing his thing.  I was more familiar with a lot of the cultural events surrounding the film’s era, that of the Rodney King riots in 1993.  I was actually living in Ventura county at that time and remember seeing the events unfold on the television.

What impressed me with this film is that it morphed from being a film about a group of friends in Compton trying to make it big to adults looking to settle into careers, and find out what matters in life.  There was a lot of people who buzzed about this being a “black” film, which always bothered me.  We don’t label movies that feature white individuals as “white” movies, so why should this apply to minorities?  Sure, I’ve never lived in Compton and never had to navigate drugs and gangs, but that’s not the only focus of this film.  For me, the film shifts the focus from this subculture and instead shows us how each one of the individuals reacts to becoming adults and professionals as well as reacting to volatile current events.  That’s where I feel the universal access lies.  I can relate to those life situations and am therefore able to sympathize and relate to the conflicts and the characters.  Obviously that’s not to say that I’m boiling down all of the conflicts regarding the music industry, but that’s my job as a viewer is to try and find the theme of the film and dialogue with it.  The actors and directors should be telling their stories in such a way that I’m able to access this universal theme without watering down their stories. It’s not an easy job, but movies that can transcend entertainment and reach universal access to their viewers are art in my books.  After all, isn’t art supposed to be the artists interpretation of life around s/he?

Having viewed the film, I’m very disappointed it wasn’t nominated as a Best Picture.  To think that events in the early 1990’s are echoes of what we are STILL dealing with today is exactly what art-as-film should be doing.  By ignoring this dialogue with our contemporary culture I feel that the Academy is ignoring an important analysis of our society.  Shame on them.

I highly recommend this film.  Before you view it, just know that the film was produced by several individuals who are the subjects of the film, so there’s some editing to make them look better than I’m sure they actually were in real life.  However, I didn’t get the feeling that they were telling a story that was fake.  I do think the message the film leaves us with is so pertinent to our discussion of race relations.  It also makes a good cultural piece along with Beyonce’s “Formation”.  If I were teaching a cultural literacy course, I would teach these to as part of a unit.  I would probably also add Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as well.

Hobbies: A Development

One of my goals for this has been to really develop and evolve the hobbies that I’m interested in.  Right now my list of hobbies includes reading, watching movies, listening to music, and cooking.  So far reading has taken off as the hobby that is the most developed.  That’s mostly thanks to me being and English teacher but also thanks to being part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge to read at least 52 books in a year.  I’ve also started a similar program with my students, so I feel very confident that this hobby is well on its way.

Movies.  I’ve become very selective with what I watch.  My time is valuable and I know what I like.  Plus theaters are starting to charge an arm and a leg these days.  (A BIG shout out to Cinemark in Woodridge, IL for having a 1/2 Tuesday special.  They’ve become my theater of choice).  But what about movies I watch at home?  Good question.  I’ve recently begun to re-watch movies that I own just to see if my tastes have changed so much that I still enjoy the film or not or whether it’s time to send the film elsewhere.  I also have a Netflix queue that is longer than the day is long.  So, that’s where the next set of blogs is going to come from.  I’ve decided that I’m going to add my voice to the conversation regarding films.  I’m already a few films behind, but that’s the nice thing about hobbies.  I get to go at my own pace.  So be on the lookout for film reviews from here on out.  Let’s hope that this becomes a habit.  I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the films I review. I’m open a good respectful discussion.

The Trivia Lover’s Guide to Even More of the World

I can remember back to middle school when we’d get the Scholastic book order catalogs, I’d skip over the Goosebumps, Encyclopedia Brown, and other stock middle school series, to get right to the section on geography.  Be it a book on flags of the world, a specific region of the world, it didn’t matter; I wanted it!  When the book would arrive I’d race home and begin absorbing all of the information it had to offer.

This turned into travel lust as a teenager and collegiate.  By that time I had embraced my knowledge of random facts of the world and the ability to state the country based on any given flag (my friends loved to try and prove me wrong!).  Now, as a teacher myself, I love to drop some of these nerd-facts on my students and watch them process their how-does-he-know-that look or the is-this-going-to-be-on-a-quiz stare.  It’s all part of the game.

So to Gary Fuller’s book, The Trivia Lover’s Guide to Even MOre of the World.  The title itself Triviaseemed to be written just for me and I snatched it off the library shelf as if someone was going to fight me fore it.  I’ve devoured the book in two days, not a huge feat but a success in my book.  However, it was a let down.  There’s a lot of interesting facts and maps, but they were loosely related so it seemed quite random. Each chapter has a theme and some questions related to the theme that Mr. Fuller addresses, but the theme is broad and the questions are only superficially related.  The best part was the author’s infrequent snarky remarks that added some much needed humor. I’d recommend this as a book to read while traveling.

The Alchemist

I’m going to do my best not to throw too much shade on this book.  A lot of people REALLY like it, and it’s not my place to ruin that for those that do.  I didn’t like this book and couldn’t believe the hype that usually surrounds it.  I’ve heard a lot of good things about this book, and maybe that’s why I was so disappointed. I didn’t feel like this book had anything really powerful to say. There was an interesting philosophy that was hiding in the background but I never felt like it was really developed.  Instead, I felt like Coelho just expected me to accept what was being written at face value without really demonstrating it.  There were moments where I was curious to see where he was going to go with the idea of the Soul of the World and the Language of the Universe.  But he doesn’t develop it.  He just uses the shepherd to stand in for the reader and have these spontaneous moments of understanding.  I don’t know about you, but I have to wrestle with new ideas.  Especially if I was a young teenager.  I know it’s a parable/fable or whatever, but it felt like it was trying too hard.

The characters weren’t well developed, the Shepherd doesn’t struggle with the abstract concepts that are thrown in his way. The moments where he’s confronted with a new conflict on the way to finding his treasure and instead of working hard to overcome the obstacle, he accepts the concept, understands what needs to be done, and moves on.  There’s no conflict and no epiphany.  Everything just felt way too easy. There were a few quotes that stood out to me, but other than that there’s nothing I’m taking away from this book that will leave an impact on me.

Atonement

This book got to me. No, really.  There were a few times I thought I was going to have to put the book down.  Luckily my wife has read it before (and the movie was our first date), so she coached me through it.  I’ve never experience the awesome power of a writer’s artistry before.  The conclusion of The Book Thief was the first time I had experienced the gut punch of a author’s power.  But Ian McEwan’s powerful writing, and ability to make the characters and events feel real in Atonement were less like a UFC fighting championship and more like experiencing a long, slow tortured conversation with an Inquisitor.  

AtonementMcEwan’s artistry of taking life and drawing me into it left me no room to distance myself from the tragic events and characters of this novel. Like no book I’ve read before, McEwan reveals our innermost fears about life and happiness and doesn’t let us escape into fantasy or entertainment. It’s like he knows what my deepest fears/nightmares are and he subtly draws them out.  As he does so, you’re horrified and yet awed by the beautiful way he brings them to life.  But then he doesn’t let you shy away from what you know is coming.  It’s like he’s holding your hand while forcing you to watch something you know you don’t want to.  But you let him anyway.  What was worse is that I knew what was coming.  Seeing the movie DID NOT help prepare for the book.  Instead, I wanted the catharsis of having the worst events in the book over, but McEwan slowly and adroitly builds up to them.  A first time reader, who’s not scene the movie, would probably not struggle with the plot this way. (McEwan’s relationship with his readers…still a better story than Fifty Shades of Grey).

Oddly, I don’t feel that he’s beating me over the head with it. Once I got past the most intense part of the novel and I was forced to realize the worst had happened.  There comes a point where you accept it and move on.  For me, this is an author using art to discuss life. And for that, I am grateful to have experienced this tome.

I Am Malala

I’m already in the phase of the year where I think ahead to what I want to teach next year.  I’m not happy with my Sophomore curriculum, so I’m looking for some updated works that can fill some gaps.  I’m interested in some non-fiction particularly involving young people.  I Am Malala fits this bill, plus it stresses the importance of education and involves somewhat current events.

MalalaI wasn’t sure what to expect with this book.  I had heard that it was a good book but nothing of what the details of her life were outside of her infamous shooting. Since its autobiography, and Malala is only 16, I figured there had to be more to the book than just her shooting. It started out a little slow, but with some interesting history of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the ethnic Pashtuns that are divided by those countries borders.  I was worried we were headed for a meandering life story, but once the background was laid, Malala, and her ghost writer, picked up the pace and caught us up to speed.

Surprisingly, she discusses a lot of world events that we Americans can relate to. I appreciated her point of view of events in the Afghanistan war that spilled in to Pakistan. While she isn’t anti-American, she does look at events through a critical lens offering up a perspective that shows how convoluted the Pakistani government and U.S. Military’s actions were in that part of the world. I do recommend this book, if only for that perspective. Her insights into education and religion are the icing on the cake.

On Immunity: An Inoculation

It’s hard to ignore the raging debate between the pro- and anti-vaccinators.  I, my self, tend to side with the pro argument, but I do believe there shouldn’t be a blind faith in vaccinations.  For anyone considering vaccinating his/her child or who is interested in the topic, Eula Bliss is right there with you.  This book is Ms. Bliss’s journey finding out what she believed and why she believed it.

ImmunityNot only does Ms. Bliss share her struggles as a parent to decide whether to vaccinate or not, but in an intelligent, academic way she analyzes the arguments and complex facets of immunology.There’s moments where it seems she’s about to declare herself for one side or the other, but adroitly avoids that decision and leaves the responsibility of deciding to the readers.  Instead, she’s more interested in presenting the arguments and issues behind certain decisions. At some points it seems that she’s not framing the argument to side one way or the other, but then there’s moments where she reveals the complexities of immunity and you realize there is no perfect solution.  There’s a gamble either.

Instead of explicitly telling the reader what to do or not, she simply lays out all of the evidence and conclusions she’s arrived at and let’s us put the pieces together.  There’s a lot of background issues I had never considered when thinking about vaccinating, but Ms. Bliss weaves them together so well they don’t take away from the overarching narrative.  While addressing some very technical elements such as how exactly the immune system works, I appreciated that Ms. Bliss was very open about the questions she had, because most of the time I had the same ones.  I also felt that she was able to explain a lot of the complexities of this topic as if we were sitting down to discuss this over a cup of coffee.  I never felt she was speaking down to me, rather I felt that she was right there with me as a peer.

I would recommend this regardless of whether you have children or not.  It’s a really good work to read if you’re in a book club, because there’s a lot of discussion that can come out of this.