Category Archives: book reviews

Review: Someone Knows My Name

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Someone Knows My Name
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are in a current funk of self-pity, this is definitely not the book for you. On the other hand, if you could use a vision of courage, Someone Knows My Name will not disappoint. This book explores what it means to be a slave and what means to be free. Through the central character, Aminata, we also also explore what it means to be human.

Lawrence Hill has achieved the remarkable in several ways. First, he successfully writes from the viewpoint of an 18th-century African woman, thereby ensuring we see the extent of how slavery affected “the least of these.” Second, his careful research guarantees just enough detail to facilitate our transport to the world of 18th-century colonization. Finally, and I think this is the most remarkable thing, Hill goes beyond simply indicting European slave traders, or even Africans who fully collaborated. He doesn’t shy from the truth that slavery exists wherever human selfishness, fear, and greed exist. In other words, he indicts us all.

Only after Hill has given the reader a real eye-full of the horrors of slavery does he allow his characters to discuss the issues surrounding slavery and the lies that slave-traders and their collaborators used to condone the industry. And only after ensuring that the reader sees the misery and cruelty as blatantly as possible does he show Aminata’s own struggle to identify the right people to blame. Is it the slave ship owners? Is it those who buy the slaves? Is it the Africans who participate and profit from the trade? Is it even ladies in the drawing rooms of London who can’t live without sugar in their tea? And how does she figure in the fact that her own village once owned a man?

Identifying the enemy was far more complicated that she imagined, and knowing how to fight slavery was equally challenging. At one point, she strikes a bargain with an African slave trader to take her back to her native village. She is pained to realize that this man and his followers, who are faithful Muslims, are actively engaged in profiting from slavery just as easily as those who called themselves Christians or Jews. She also soon realizes that she has participated in the threat of her own re-enslavement by paying for their services. Even worse, as she witnesses new groups of slaves being led to the coast, she is appalled to realize that she is just like the bystanders she had condemned so long ago for watching the captives pass by and doing nothing to stop the captors.

As she tells her stories later to fellow Africans, the chief of the village is incredulous when she claims that not all “toubabu” (white men) were devils. He asks, “How could it be possible to see good in some of them?” Aminata replies, “Do you not know the human heart?”

Aminata spent years associating her identity with her father, her mother, her language, and her Bayo village. As her dream of returning there fades, she begins to realize that Bayo and all that it held is a past that she must surrender. The thing that she cannot surrender and that becomes her new identity is her commitment to freedom.

Hill’s book is a striking illustration of how easily we can justify wrongs, even whitewashing them with words like “progress and prosperity.” He forces us to look at the price of greed and evil, while also considering the power that one soul, completely free from fear, possesses to effect change. Aminata’s ultimate commitment to the truth versus even to her own dreams is one we would all do well to emulate. As she so beautifully said, “I don’t govern my life according to danger.”

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Refrain from the Identical

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Do you flutter from one creative passion to the next, leaving in your wake a trail of unfinished projects and a stack of expensive supplies? If so, I can name your ailment. You are a creative eclectic. Refrain from the Identical: Insight and Inspiration for Creative Eclectics is a guidebook for people who love to explore new avenues of creativity for the pure joy of it.  Author JoDee Luna offers good news and bad news. The bad? You’ll be “this way” forever. The good news? You can learn to enjoy, manage, and embrace your creative self. You may even help friends and family understand you a bit more–or at least you’ll learn to deal with their consternation and befuddlement over your creative wanderlust.

JoDee understands that consternation. The creative eclectic feels it too! She recalls a conversation with her daughter, where they laughed, to avoid crying, about the frustration they shared over their wandering creative eyes.

“I can’t help myself,” her daughter moaned.

I stopped trying,” JoDee replied, and she went on to describe the creative process as something akin to childbirth, complete with post partum depression. JoDee encourages the reader to understand that there is a cycle of “rebirth” in the creative process.  “Like a weary, worn-out new mother, the soul must regenerate and renew.”

Many creative souls fear this depression because they do not grasp the dynamic. As a result they run from subsequent endeavors. Instead, I encourage you to take the time to understand this process in order to mature as an innovator who can deliver many gifts to the world.

JoDee Luna and Elya Filler

Author JoDee Luna with her daugher, Elya Filler

JoDee explores topics such as Exploring Your Creative Temperament, Aligning Your Creative Compass, Practicing Creative Self-Care, Overcoming Obstacles, Developing Creativity, and Refreshing Creativity through Excursions.  Exercises at the end of each chapter encourage readers to push beyond their present boundaries. In her chapter about creative self-care, JoDee challenges the reader to “Identify something or someone who drains your creativity. Write down your feelings about this situation or person. Now decide on one positive step you can make to take care of yourself when encountering this activity or person.”

JoDee understands the dilemma of creative eclectics all too well. She is the poster child. She loves photography, writing, sculpting, gardening, floral arranging, music, home decor. Name the creative venue. She’s been there, done that, and has a closet full of  supplies to prove it. For years, JoDee beat herself up about her meandering creative mind, but time and a tough divorce taught her the healing power of creativity for herself and, eventually, for her students. She gave herself permission to explore new creative paths. Good for us that she did. Her book offers invaluable encouragement and practical help to those of us who long to do the same.

Refrain from the Identical

My copy of Refrain from the Identical arrives in the mail!

From time to time, I do book reviews, and I’ve so looked forward to this one for two reasons. JoDee is an old friend. She was in my wedding, and we worked together in a creative arts ministry. Last year I reconnected with her through Facebook. She had already completed the manuscript for Refrain from the Identical, but she needed editing help, so I offered to help. We even met up for a writing retreat in Colorado. This week, my postman delivered my long-awaited copy of JoDee’s finished book.  Writing a book is, indeed, like birthing a baby and, in some ways, just as painful! (I’ve had two. Without drugs. I know what I’m talking about here.) JoDee is to be commended.

If you need creative inspiration, I highly recommend this book, along with JoDee’s resource-rich website. JoDee will give you permission to let your creative self soar. She’ll also give you wings with fresh ideas, resources, and a feeling that “Maybe I’m really not so hopeless after all.”

Mercy-drenched Morning

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Ever notice the color of things in the morning? Look around at nature before the sun fully rises and washes everything out with its brightness. Cool air, quiet streets, rich hues that you can’t really see during the heat of the day—all serve to clear the cobwebs in your head, especially after a good night’s sleep.

Sienna Morning 1

photo by Kay Johnson

With the morning comes new perspective too. Even Scarlett O’Hara got it right when, faced with increasing pressures, she would say, “But I won’t think about that right now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”  Sometimes, tomorrow really is another day, and it pays to wait.

Sienna breezway

photo by Kay Johnson

“Tomorrow” can bring new perspective.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes one of her darkest nights—a time of personal agony. For the first time in her life, she prays. For hours, she can only sob and repeat, “Tell me what to do!”  To her great surprise, God answers! And what does God say?

Kathryn of Sienna

“Go to bed, Liz.”

And that’s how she knew it was God. At that moment, going to bed was the wise—and only—choice. It was not a time to make life-altering decisions. It was time to rest and let God hold her heart.

In the book of Lamentations, right in the midst of some really depressing stuff, there is this whisper of hope.

I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.

(Lamentations 3:20-23)

Fresh mercies every morning.  I like the sound of that.  I also like the advice God gave Elizabeth Gilbert:  Go to bed!  Such advice is consistent with the character of a God who says, “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.”

Go to bed.

Get some rest.

And see with fresh eyes in the mercy-drenched morning.

Sienna sunrise

photo by Kay Johnson

I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!”
The Lord is good to those who depend on him,

to those who search for him.
So it is good to wait quietly

for salvation from the Lord.

(Lamentations 3: 24-27)

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

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Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless GodCrazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Crazy Love by Francis Chen is a wake-up call to 21st century, comfortable, wealthy Christians, particularly in North America. Chen’s challenge is to recognize the fact that we have been given a treasure beyond our ability to even grasp—but it is given in order to share, not hoard. Even more, we are to share with those who can’t or won’t give back. Chen lays the groundwork by first reminding us to get our eyes away from ourselves and our minuscule worlds, to fasten our gaze, instead, on the breathtaking, vast awe of God. Then, he challenges us to take a hard look at the “lukewarm Christian.” As Chen adds more and more detail to his painting of the lukewarm Christian, I challenge you not to squirm. I would venture to guess that most Christians in America will see some version of themselves in some of Chen’s descriptions. Lest you despair, Chen is quick to add that there is a difference between sometimes acting in ways that are “lukewarm,” which we all do, and living a life that is generally characterized as “comfortably Christian.”

Chen argues that we say we trust God, but we live in such a way that we really never have to trust God. We buy insurance to cover all our risks; we build up retirement funds to cover us in old age; and we make sure we have a healthy savings account for emergencies. Do we ever do what the disciples did—literally leaving their lives and livelihoods behind to follow Jesus, with absolutely no guarantees as to what was next? No. Not really. Not often, anyway.

Chen provides modern examples of those who have stepped out on very long limbs—so far out, in fact, that trusting God had to be part of the equation. His aim is to provide pictures of what a genuine leap of faith looks like, particularly when that leap involves serving something bigger than self. He encourages us to consider what we might do if we stepped out in service, putting ourselves in positions where we had to trust God to come through. He tells of how a trip to Africa led his own family to a decision to downsize so more funds would be available for giving. Chen challenges us to keep our eyes on a very big and capable God who catches us when we leap.

I admit that I felt a little beat up at times as I read, and I wondered if Chen was overstating his case now and then. The book, though, was published in 2008, so we can safely assume that much was written well before the recession had really crippled the country and so many people, who might have at one time been more than comfortable, are now finding themselves in new positions of having to trust God. Even so, the idea of “cutting back” or “doing without” is all relative and carries vastly different meanings depending on your geography. There are people in the world who could eat for a week on the amount that we cut out of our “dining out” budget.

Chen’s book, in the end, is a call to look for opportunities to offer God’s love and grace to others, through tangible and intangible means, and to not be bothered if we don’t know how we can actually make it happen. If the job seems beyond our ability, it simply means we will have to rely on God, and that is never a bad thing. And if people say we are being crazy or extreme, that’s okay too. God loved us relentlessly and beyond all reason. Why should we love any differently?

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Permission to Speak Freely

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Permission to Speak Freely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Jackson’s book, Permission to Speak Freely, is part confessional and part invitation to confess. Her book started as a question on her blog: “What is one thing you feel you can’t say in church?” The question struck a nerve and went viral—a blogger bonanza.

When the responses piled up and went global, Jackson wanted to understand why. Her conclusion is somewhat obvious: We keep things to ourselves out of fear—fear of rejection, of being judged, of losing friends or reputation. You name it. We’re scared to be real and, thus, vulnerable, and sometimes, we sadly have experiences to back up those fears. What is not so obvious is why Christians have a hard time either being real with other Christians or allowing other people to be real? Isn’t the whole point of our faith to acknowledge our need for grace, to accept grace from God, and to then offer it, in turn, to others? Let’s face it, though. In a Facebook world, we have all become our own PR agents. We post our best and happiest moments, and our pithiest comments. We don’t post our shame and brokenness. Maybe we feel it’s bad PR for Christianity to admit our failures. That’s where we have it wrong. Our faith is exactly about how God sees us at our worst and offers us his forgiveness even in the midst of it—even before we acknowledge we need it!

Jackson does not focus on trashing Christians or the church. Her intent, instead, seems twofold: First, by being brutally honest about her own darker sides, she bravely provides a poignant model for Christians to confess their shortcomings and give God credit for being fully able to deal with our failures. Second, by challenging Christians to be the first to confess, she believes we offer to the world the “gift of going second.” People will know they are safe to be real with us when we have the courage to lead the way.

My only caution, as I read, is that sometimes we like to live—even wallow—in the muck of our confession. Confession itself can be sickeningly self-involved and inert. We have all fallen short in loving God or others. Only Jesus got those two things right. He loved God perfectly by loving us. And he loved us perfectly by taking the penalty for our failures, and then freely giving chance after chance to get it right by allowing him to live and love through us. What a gift! Confession should lead us to accept that gift and (the important part) move on to live in a way that reflects such inexplicable mercy. If we stop at confession and live there, we are as full of crap as when we began. We are just better at talking about it. When Jesus forgave a prostitute for a lifelong pattern of debauchery, his parting advice to her is surprisingly abrupt. It wasn’t about getting counseling, support, or new job skills. He simply said, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” And with that, he announced that the time for confession was over. The time for reflecting a life of God-filled grace had begun.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

The Help

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The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No doubt, there will be those who will hate this book and say that Kathryn Stockett was presumptuous to write it in the first place. But I will not be one of them. Stockett’s story about “Skeeter,” a young white Mississippi woman in the 60s who decides to secretly interview the household help of her junior league friends so she can write their stories is brave and remarkable. The book provides a glimpse of Stockett’s own effort to understand what it was like for “colored women” to work for white families like her own. It is brave because she recognizes her own family’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the painfully unappreciated lives of swallowed pride these women led. And Stockett also sees and understands the irony in the inexplicable love that sometimes developed anyway between “the help” and their white employers.

At the same time, while Stockett does not give her white characters a pass for their prejudices, she also does not turn them all into one-dimensional villains. She reveals their foibles, pride, misguided thinking, and fears, and in the process she reminds us that they, too, are simply human—sometimes grand and sometimes pathetic. Stockett’s story is about so many white Southerners who grew up with prejudices that a new generation would take a lifetime to unlearn. Those who cherish those prejudices are hateful. Those who learn to discard them—well, it turns out they were just prejudiced, not hateful. There’s a difference.

I, too, grew up in the South, in Tennessee. While we never had hired help, my mother has often talked of the maid she had back in Alabama. Ruby was her name, and Mama, like Stockett, thought Ruby was family. No doubt Ruby had her own thoughts about that, but I am certain that my mother and grandmother loved Ruby the best they knew how, which, like all human love, very likely fell short of perfect.

My parents grew up and lived in Birmingham through the worst parts of the civil rights struggles, and they determined that their children would not grow up hating people because of the color of their skin. For all their efforts, I’m sure they unwittingly passed on prejudices they didn’t even know they had, but I love them for trying. Like the time they invited a black man to stay in our home. There was no talk, or even thought, of separate bathrooms and eating utensils. He was a bona fide guest and was served as such. I’m sure it was a big step for my parents—maybe for our guest too—but I look back and love the fact that I don’t remember that much about it. I guess I just thought it was okay, and I suppose that was the point. I have no idea what their friends, or my grandparents, thought about it. They never told me.

Stockett does a painfully beautiful job of portraying the reality of what it might cost to reach across racial barriers to extend a hand of friendship. It might mean you lose friends. It might mean you’re at odds with people you love—and you do love them, even when they are wrong. It means that too many times you aren’t sure if you are reaching across racial lines because you really do love color, or you just feel guilty for being white. Probably both. But the alternative is to live in a one-color world—and that just isn’t an attractive option.

The point of Skeeter’s book, and Stockett’s, is that we have more in common than not, so with this book she issues a gracious invitation to both sides to come to the table to find that common ground and, hopefully, find new friends. I applaud Stockett for making the effort. I hope she finds a lot of people willing to join her at her table.

Note: I listened to this book on my iPod, and I have to say this is a book worth listening to. The readers, Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell, bring Stockett’s story to life with such compelling voices, you feel as though you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, and you don’t ever want to leave. I highly recommend it.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

How the Mighty Fall

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How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give InHow The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In by Jim Collins

Another great read from Jim Collins. In this short read, Collins starts with a basic question: How do great companies lose it? Are there common signs to indicate a company–once considered high performing–is now in decline? If so, what are they? And when is it too late to stop the downward slide?

It’s a fascinating little read, actually, containing nuggets for all of us. Collins identifies 5 stages that precede a fall: 1) Hubris Born of Success 2) Undisciplined Pursuit of More 3) Denial of Risk and Peril 4) Grasping for Salvation and 5) Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death. The titles alone read like a great novel, don’t they? And there’s plenty of drama in this little book to back up that feeling. In his storytelling style, Collins breaks down the numbers to show us what they look like in real companies, but Collins is ultimately optimistic. He believes and demonstrates that it is possible for companies who are on the path of decline to reverse that process. Smart companies may fail miserably at times, but a little humility and a lot of reality can go a long way to fixing things.

In this book, as in Good to Great, I was struck by some very basic age-old wisdom that Collins continues to unearth: Treat others the way you wish to be treated. Honor other people just as you would honor yourself. Don’t think too highly of yourself. Be brutally honest about the facts and deal with reality. Find, recognize, and use the gifts of those around you. There are principles of wisdom here for anyone in just about any enterprise. A worthy read…

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Master and Commander

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Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin, #1)Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While O’Brian is clearly thorough about his research and is passionate about the subject matter, I just could not get into this story. I listened to this book on an audio download, and that may have been part of the problem, but O’Brian’s focus on the riggings of a ship and his detailed descriptions of Aubrey’s sea battles and escapades left me caring little for the characters themselves. I still don’t understand the whole point of Mr. Dillon. He was there. There seemed to be conflict between him and Jack Aubrey, and then suddenly he wasn’t there. I suppose if you want to know something about 18th century British ships, this is the book the read. If you’re looking for a great story, though…maybe not. Or at the very least, don’t listen to this on one audiotape unless you already know a lot about the above.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Review: I am Hutterite

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Born from Anabaptist sentiments in the early 1500s, the Hutterites were followers of Jakob Hutter. Similar to Mennonites and Amish, Hutterites differed in their belief that they should share all their goods communally–and they still do. During the early 20th century, Hutterites, who had fled east to Russia over the years, began immigrating to the U.S. and Canada, where more than 400 Hutterite communities exist today. Hutterites have no particular aversion to modern tools and equipment, but they are still, in terms of dress, custom, language, and their self-sustaining communal lifestyle, very much a peek into the past.

I Am Hutterite, by Mary Ann Kirby, is the story of one 20th century family that came to believe they could no longer stay in the community. If you assume the author’s goal is to expose and condemn the isolated and sometimes narrow minded ways of the Hutterites, you will be surprised. Instead, Mary Ann Kirby clearly loves and appreciates the best aspects of Hutterite society while simultaneously understanding she cannot go back.

When her family left the community, Kirby struggled, as anyone would, to transition from a fully communal lifestyle to one where she and her immediate family were on their own. She paints an almost idyllic picture of the Hutterite community from a child’s perspective. It’s a place of plenty and safety. It’s a place where she has a plethora of “aunts” and “uncles” to care for her. It’s a place where she can run and play in carefree innocence with friends. It’s also a place where everyone contributes in some way to the common good. Even a boy who is mentally handicapped has a job that makes a real and meaningful contribution to the community.

Kirby also writes, though, as an adult who has come to understand and appreciate the reasons for her parent’s choice to leave–even though the consequences rendered painful results for many years. They went from a place where they had no money at all, yet they wanted for nothing, to a place where they wanted for everything and needed money. They immediately lost every support system and human network they had ever known. They left a place where they fit in and moved to a place where they were completely odd. The contrast could not have been more stark or shocking.

While Kirby and her family suffered from the choices of others and sometimes of their own, Kirby found a way to glean the best from her past and lay the ghosts to rest. I Am Hutterite is a fascinating read that is ultimately about faith, human nature, cultural differences, and a willingness to allow grace to bring your heart safely through them all.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

What Difference Do It Make?

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What difference do it make? - Stories of Hope and Healing What difference do it make? – Stories of Hope and Healing by Ron Hall

If you have not read Same Kind of Different as Me, the predecessor to this book, you can still enjoy this follow-up that continues the story of the unlikely friendship between millionaire art dealer Ron Hall and sharecropper-turned-homeless man, Denver Moore. This book details how their continuing journey and friendship have taken them to some very surprising places indeed–including a luncheon with at the White House! While that vignette itself leaves the reader feeling as stunned as they must have been, even more remarkable is the impact that Denver and Ron’s story has made on readers across the nation.

This book is as much about the readers as the writers. It seems there was a similar reaction among those, nationwide, who read of Ron and his wife, Deborah, and their journey to “the other side of the tracks,” where they volunteered to work with a homeless ministry in Houston. Ron and Deborah thought they were coming to help others, but they learned, as so many of us do, that the grace and presence of God is found in the strangest and most unlikely places, and that there are lessons to be learned from the most unlikely teachers.

Clearly, Denver Moore has been a teacher to Ron Hall. At the same time, Hall becomes our teacher through his willingness to expose his initial disgust, disdain, and pre-judgments for those he came to “assist.” His honesty provides just enough of a nudge to make the reader question,”Would I be any different?” For most of us, the answer is–probably not.

Hall goes further, though, to reveal how much more work he had to do, even once he had dropped his prejudices and learned to love the homeless without condition. Over time he realized that he freely offered them something that he had withheld from his own father for many, many years. In a surprising twist, Ron learns that loving homeless strangers can sometimes be easier than loving members of our own family, but his continued lessons in love are poignant, sometimes hilarious, and unforgettable.

Hall’s startling honesty and Moore’s simple humility and wisdom permeate the pages of this book. Along the way, we hear the stories of other readers whose lives were changed and moved to action after reading the first book: a young girl who opens a lemonade stand to raise money for the homeless; a marriage restored; an entire church challenged to “go out,” and much more.

Books are a dime a dozen these days, but the wisdom in this book and its predecessor make these two worth their weight in gold. There are lessons for a lifetime here; perhaps the most important from Denver, who reminds us, “You never know whose eyes God is watching you through.”

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

My First White Friend

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Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon

Friendships that transcend color and culture barriers have always fascinated me, so when I first heard of Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend, I knew it was a reading list priority. Normally, I would go into the book itself here, but my personal interest in the book will explain much of my reaction to it.

My parents, Alabama born and bred, were careful to raise my sister and me with the belief that we were no better and no worse than anyone else. They taught us to respect people of all colors and to appreciate differences, but as I was growing up, the South was still fairly segregated—not so much by law anymore as by choice.

When I was 18, though, I moved to Amsterdam where I worked with an international mission organization. I was smitten with cross-cultural life. I thrived on the discovery of living and eating like the locals, enjoying their traditions, customs, and quirky sayings. In turn, I learned to appreciate the quirks and eccentricities of my own culture and language in the process.

The fun of cross-cultural and interracial friendships is in the exchange. Once you get past all the little nuances, though, you realize that we’re all just people. The rest is secondary. Fun. Intriguing, Fascinating. Sometimes frustrating. But always secondary.

But when it comes to African American culture, I learned over the years just how hard it is to reach across the fence and find someone willing to reach back. I learned, in fact, that this fence isn’t so much about language or culture. Rather, this is a well-fortified wall of mistrust, hurt, and anger over any number of insults that African Americans have suffered. I also sense that there is, within the African American community, some sort of mantra that goes something like this: “Be polite. Be kind. But don’t trust.”

Eddie Huff

Eddie Huff

My black friends (those brave enough to reach back across the fence and such gold to me) taught me, through their stories, what racism looks like on a very personal level, and that’s what Raybon’s book does as well. I have heard stories like hers before from friends, colleagues and even students. It always shocks me. I know racist behavior happens every day, but because I am eager to transcend barriers, I’m still surprised when I hear about those who are not. It’s a shame. They miss so much.

Eddie Huff, now a talk show host, was the first black friend who reached across that fence to me. Actually, he jokes that I was his first teenage daughter.  I lived with Eddie and his wife Vickie while serving with the mission I mentioned earlier. Vickie, who is white, was a little nervous when I first moved in. Here I was, this young white girl from Tennessee that the mission had placed in their home. (Ironically, my roommate, yet to arrive, was a white woman from South Africa!) Eddie wasn’t home when I arrived, suitcases in hand. Vickie, a lovely, gracious woman, helped me move in and made me welcome. While we were lugging suitcases up the stairs, she suddenly stopped, turned around and looked at me, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you about my husband.” All kinds of scenarios raced through my head.  He’s a paraplegic. He’s deaf. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic!

I waited. After a beat or two, Vickie smiled sweetly and said, “He’s black.”

I laughed outloud. “Is that all? Geez, you scared me to death.” I was thrilled! Growing up in the South in the 70s was a long, long way from Bull Conner’s Alabama, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of interracial friendships in my schools. So this was my first chance to have a real black friend. Even better, I was part of their family. They had two small children—Talitha, who was 4 and Eli, who was about 3. I became the big sister, and I listened and learned.

I learned that though Eddie’s mother was a white German, the hardships he had faced in life had nothing to do with his white mother and everything to do with his black skin. He experienced the same snubs and insults that so many others have known before him. Yet, maybe because he had lived part of his life in Germany, maybe because his mother was white, maybe because he actually spoke another language for the first few years of his life—maybe all of that together made him a little more willing and able to reach across that fence to befriend anyone willing to reach back. I’m grateful for that.

Racial relationships have come a long way, but each time an African American is ill treated, it reinforces that mantra: Be polite. Be kind. Don’t trust. And sometiMy First White Friend Book Covermes the walls go higher. Raybon’s book provides deeper insight into what it feels like to be judged by your color. A dear Guatemalan friend once told me that she had experienced racist behavior from some of my colleagues.

“Really? I don’t see it,” I was genuinely surprised.

“Why would you?” she reminded me, “You’re white.”

Indeed. I had missed that very obvious fact. My corner of the world looked and responded to me differently simply because I am white. Oh sure, I’ve had my own share of insults for other reasons, but Raybon’s book provides just a taste of what it means to be targeted for no other reason than skin color, and this is a valuable perspective for white readers who have never experienced a similar prejudice.

But Raybon’s book is ultimately about forgiveness–which transcends all colors. Someone once said that unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping our enemy will die. Despite the ways she was treated, Raybon realized that if she did not forgive, she could never be whole herself. She began to see that her life was false and reactionary. A life all about proving herself to be worthy—no, even better—than those on the other side of the fence. After all, hadn’t her anger produced “good” things like career success, achievement, and recognition?

Remarkably, she finally named her behavior for what it was: bitter spite. And she courageously concluded that it provided a poor platform for an identity. She challenges us all with her willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding her identity on something far more profound—the grace of God. As a Christian, Raybon realized that the “love thy neighbor” bit included white people. Still, the reader feels the struggle and weight of the truth that Raybon slowly discovered: The journey of forgiveness is costly and lasts a lifetime.

OnBook Jackete sadness to me in this book was that the “white friend” in the title is barely a blip on the radar. I thought I would be reading a story about a wonderful journey of discovery and love between this writer and her white friend. Instead, the book is about Raybon’s growing awareness of her need to forgive and let go so that such a friendship would even be possible. I admit it: I was disappointed, but in fairness to Raybon’s very personal journey, I left the book knowing that as she embraced mercy, God would give her new friends of all shapes, colors and backgrounds. (Her latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, does indeed reveal beautiful and moving glimpses of just how colorful her world has become.)

I’m not sure who Raybon had in mind for her reading audience: People of color? White people? I’m not sure it even matters. There are nuggets of wisdom here for anyone, and her considerable writing skills—powerful, rhythmic, lyrical, filled with a rich voice—make the reading a pleasure. We all have our biases, whether against another race, or another culture, or even another socio-economic group. The lessons of forgiveness cannot be taught enough, and Raybon’s willingness to reveal her honest struggles to forgive provide encouragement to us all that we can do the same.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Same Kind of Different as Me

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Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together by Ron Hall

Wow–talk about a challenging book. You cannot walk away from this book without feeling compelled to re-examine how you view “the least of these.”

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© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Julie & Julia

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Just finished reading Julie and Julia, and I’m left with mixed feelings. It’s a fun story with an engaging “what if” premise: A frustrated anonymous cubicle dweller is in need of a creative challenge. (Ok, we’re with you so far. We all get that). Insert the self-imposed challenge by said cubicle dweller, Julie Powell, to take one year to work her way through quintessential Julie Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1). Like a good recipe for a cocktail, add to the mix Julie’s high-strung, slightly neurotic personality, her monotonous day job, her personal attempts to create her own Cordon Bleu in Queens by night, an accountability group/cheerleading squad of blog followers, and one incredibly long-suffering husband, and you have the makings for a story that keeps readers happy for days! And it almost holds up, but Powell, unfortunately, allows herself to get in the way.

The story, when not obscured, is highly entertaining. The descriptions of the shopping trips alone were fascinating, leaving would-be gourmets nodding their heads and wondering, “Where DO you find beef suet? And what is beef suet anyway?” Anyone with a love for culinary adventures is automatically on Julie’s side, cheering her on, especially if, like Julie you may not even own decent knife—much less a gourmet kitchen. We want her, like Cinderella, to escape the cubicle and arrive in time for the grand ball (which in this case is a kitchen—so the analogy breaks down a little, but you get the point).

Powell is also charmingly honest about her own failures. We feel her pain through grey, gloppy sweetbreads, failed poach-egg goo, crepes that refuse to un-adhere themselves from the pan, and Boeuf Bourguignon that burns to a crisp when Julie passes out from one too many gimlets. We sort of love her for all the failures and find them completely understandable and forgivable. We cheer her on to try again; and we’re elated with each culinary victory.

On her current blog, Powell herself warns her book may offend some for two reasons: 1) Her coarseness, and 2) Her belief that all Republicans are ignorant and evil. I agree and, unfortunately, both of the above detract significantly from the story. I found myself wanting to breeze through certain bits to get back to the story. She rambles extensively about her friends, whose moral compass is pretty much whatever feels good. The depictions of one friend’s torrid affair with a married man, another who goes through boyfriends like water, combined with Powell’s propensity to look for some way to shock at every turn only detract from the story versus adding anything to it.

The better story is the married romance (an unusual and even brave topic) of Julie and Eric, living a rather unglamorous life, and, against all odds, making it work—even in Queens. By focusing too often on the lurid, the story loses focus from all that Julie is learning about commitment and seeing things through and creating magnificence in the midst of the mundane. Instead, numerous portions of the book seem to scream, “Look how liberated I am. I can talk about steamy sex, I can swear like a sailor, and I hate Republicans. Damn! I’m cool!”

Readers are willing to embrace a writer’s depictions of human foibles and character flaws. We get that. It is more difficult when the writer becomes so “in your face” that we find ourselves wanting to say to the writer, “Ahem…terribly sorry, but you’re standing just in front of the story. Would you mind stepping aside?”

Clearly, a key ingredient is missing in Powell’s writing: Graciousness. It is one lesson she has yet to learn from her guide and mentor, Julia Child. Perhaps, in time, she will.

Julie Powell is funny, intelligent, remarkably adept at turning a phrase, and clearly ill-suited for cubicle work! We all cheered her on and found genuine excitement in her personal challenge and in her frustrating but hilarious journey to victory. So our message is this: We’re with you. You are a writer! You don’t need to shock us (or bash us over the heads) to join you. We’re already here, eager to hear your story. So stick with the story. We’ll be back to cheer you on.

 

© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.