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November Reading List

I did a lot of reading in November.  I was almost finished with a book or two in October, so they didn't quite make it on the October list and it makes the November list look good.

Called for Life:  How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic by Kent and Amber Brantly with David Thomas 

     As missionaries in West Africa, we were watching the Ebola story with great interest and, I must confess, a fair bit of fear. What if it spread to our country? What would we do? We were travelling during that time and I remember wondering what if I sat next to somebody on the plane who had it? Then I heard that one of the missionaries in our organization (Nancy Writebol and then later Rick Sacra) had contracted it. While Kent Brantley was with World Medical Mission (Samaritan's Purse), he worked at our mission hospital. So this story was very real to me.
     Having experienced hospitals in impoverished settings, I can just see what is happening and the stressfulness of working with less than ideal conditions. Some of these hospitals are unpleasant under the best of circumstances and in a crisis of a contagious disease, I can imagine how horrible it would be to deal with such desperately ill patients all day long. While I am not medical, I have a pretty good idea of the stress doctors in Africa face under "normal" conditions because of the large number of patients who die.
     I was encouraged by Kent Brantly's faith and his willingness to stay in the face of a horrible and difficult situation. He quotes a missionary I know personally: When things get tough, the tough go back to their calling." Remembering that it is God who has called us is sometimes the only thing that can keep us doing what He wants us to do.

     I thought this was a well-told story and I love Dr. Brantly's honesty. Sometimes the transitions between when he was narrating and when his wife was narrating were a bit choppy, but I appreciated hearing how she faced the fear and anxiety of having her husband so sick. It was also very reassuring that the likelihood of this sort of thing going out of control in the USA is almost nil.  At the same time, it raises a question I often struggle with, living in the poorest country in the world:  Why do westerners get to be evacuated out of the situation and receive the best medical care in the world while local people just don't have those resources available to them?  That is in no way a criticism of the Brantlys, just something I personally struggle with.

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo

     Yejide and Akin met and fell in love at university and married soon after. In spite of their love for each other, they are unable to conceive. They find themselves under pressure by both sides of the family to produce children. This story describes life in modern Nigeria where many traditional ways of life mingle with a more modern style of living. This is a story of heartbreak, of trying to fix problems without communicating well with the one you love most, and of continuing on even when everything is broken.
     At one point Akin thinks, and I believe this is the point of the book: "It's the truth -- stretched, but still true. Besides, what would be left of love without truth stretched beyond its limits, without those better versions of ourselves that we present as the only ones that exist?" And yet, and yet .... if he had quit presenting a better version of himself than the one that existed, the story may not have been so tragic. Later Akin says, "I realised that the ground under our feet had just been pulled away, we were standing on air, and my words could not keep us from falling into the pit that had opened up beneath us."
     I loved this book, partly because Nigeria is the land of my birth and of my childhood and this book takes place in Nigeria, written by a Nigerian. But I also loved it because the story is so masterfully told. The story is about infertility so there is some sexual content and it is raw in places.

Trouble I've Seen: Changing How the Church Looks at Racism by Drew G. I. Hart

     We were recently introduced to a card game called "Scum". In the game there is the President, Vice-President, Vice-Scum, and Scum; other players are Nothings. Everybody's goal is to become president. But not everybody gets the same hand dealt to them. The cards are definitely stacked in favor of the president and stacked against the scum to the point that it's almost impossible for the scum to move up. While this is a fun game, it really illustrates Dr. Hart's point that if life in America is like a card game, the deck is stacked against African Americans and other minorities.

     This book is a serious look at racism, written specifically for white Christians by an African-American evangelical leader. It's a pretty heavy book and there are times when the reader will no doubt feel defensive, yet I feel that it is a book every white Christian should read. I took my time working through it, underlining and taking notes as I went.
     Dr. Hart explains how, in spite of American white society's claims of being "color blind", systemic racism continues. Probably the majority of white Christians feel that they are kind to all, they would never call anybody the "n" word, or in other ways participate in racist behaviour. But, if we really open our eyes, observe the world around us, and take the time to listen to our black brothers and sisters, we will see that systemic racism is still very much alive; the deck is definitely stacked against them. To paraphrase the famous line in Animal Farm that says, "All pigs are created equal, but some are more equal than others": All Americans are created equal, but some are more equal than others. And some are definitely less equal.
     Dr. Hart calls us to be as radical in our behaviour towards others as Jesus was. We are often guilty of looking at the world and even of looking at the Scriptures through the eyes of our culture; and we have made Jesus a western white man rather than a middle Eastern Jewish Messiah who lived in poverty, stood up for the oppressed, and who suffered persecution.
     Dr. Hart's book is pretty hard-hitting but, if you are willing to not be defensive and to be open to what he says, he does give many practical suggestions for moving forward in living with people of color like Jesus would. I highly recommend this book.

Blessings by Anna Quindlen
     Blessings is the name of a country estate owned by the wealthy Blessing family. Mrs. Blessing, an elderly woman, lives alone there. She has a Korean housekeeper, whose daughter, Jennifer, also enters into the story. Finally there is the young male groundskeeper who lives above the garage. Their lives are brought together when a baby is abandoned on the entry to the garage apartment. Not only does the baby bring unlikely people together, but she helps them resolve their pasts. The ending is not a fairy tale one, and even though it doesn't end as nicely as you could wish, it does offer hope. I liked this book a lot. There were some swear words, but no sex scenes. The message of hope for the future and of moving beyond what you've been dealt was good. I did have a hard time sometimes figuring out what was a flashback and what was happening in real life.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

     This book is a memoir of Jeannette Walls' life, but it reads like a novel. Only it would be hard to make this stuff up. Jeannette's family is nomadic, free-thinking, crazy, and they love each other. Unfortunately, both of her parents live in fantasy worlds. In addition to that, her father is an alcoholic and her mother will not get or keep a job and doesn't take care of her children. The children eat out of the trash because they are so hungry; there is no toilet in their house, so they have a bucket in the kitchen; the house is literally falling apart over their heads. Things get worse and worse, to the point that Rex Walls uses his children to get more money for more alcohol. Jeannette and her siblings eventually leave home to start their own lives, which they do successfully. Ironically, it is the very way the children have been raised that enables them to have the courage to head out on their own. I could not put this book down and was very touched by the resilience of the children and of how their parents loved them. It was certainly an unconventional love and was often paradoxical, at times bordering on abuse, but in many ways they prepared their children well for the world in which they would eventually live.

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