Books Read in May 2020

To have had 31 days, the month of May passed leaving me feeling like I didn’t read very much. Actually, I read a lot. There were several books I started but didn’t finish. That’s what left me feeling as if I didn’t read much. There are always more books to be read than I have time to read. What a fortunate situation!

The books I chose to read in May were all over the place. Three of them turned out not to be what I expected, which is always disappointing.

A Conspiracy of Bones, by Kathy Reichs

This is Kathy Reichs’ latest novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set in Mecklenburg and Lincoln counties in North Carolina and Lake Wylie, South Carolina, the book features Reichs’ well-known protagonist, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A Conspiracy of Bones, by Kathy Reichs

Temperance is at odds with the new Mecklenburg County medical examiner. Against the medical examiner’s wishes and orders, Temperance pursues the case of a body found in Lincoln County. There are gory details about the state of the body, but the story line concentrates on who killed the man and why.

In the process of solving the crime, Temperance faces bodily harm and attempts on her life. She has a knack for going where she shouldn’t go and getting into all sorts of situations. Fairly early on, Temperance suspects the larger case involves child pornography. Is she correct, or is this a red herring Ms. Reichs included just to throw us off track?

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

After listening to this book for three hours and having 21 more hours remaining – and reading a synopsis of it – I decided I couldn’t concentrate long enough to listen to the rest of it. The synopsis revealed a plot that sounded better suited for a series of books. I just couldn’t finish it.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

The prose was vivid, explicit, beautiful, and at times humorous. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was just another book I couldn’t concentrate enough to see it through.

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain

After Cutting for Stone, this book was a delight. It is the eighth book I’ve read by Diane Chamberlain. I’m tempted to say it’s my favorite of the eight, but that might just be because I just finished it.

Big Lies in a Small Town, by Diane Chamberlain

Set in Edenton, North Carolina in 1940 and 2018, it is a story of racial discrimination, rape, child neglect, trust, jealousy, revenge, and love.

Ms. Chamberlain weaves an intriguing tale of a woman coming from “up North” to paint a large mural on the wall of the post office in Edenton. There is backlash because a local male artist had applied for the job. When a local black high school student is invited by the artist to assist her in the project, tongues in the small town wagged.

Decades later, an artist who is serving a prison term for a crime her boyfriend committed is chosen to get early parole if she will restore the mural. This leads to the discovery of several bizarre aspects of the mural. The restoring artist sets out to find out what became of the original artist and why she included the strange items and images in the mural. Add to this the suspense of an almost impossible deadline for the restoration and opening of an art museum, and you have the ingredients for a beautifully written mystery.

Writing Vivid Plots:  Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer’s Craft Book 20), by Rayne Hall

This book probably won’t interest you unless you are learning the craft of fiction writing. If you are a student of fiction writing, though, I recommend the book.

Writing Vivid Plots helped me in two specific ways. It explained the important differences in plotting a serial and a series. It also had a short chapter about the difference in plotting a novel and plotting a short story.

By the way, a serial is a story broken into different installments that should be read in order. A series is a group of books having the same characters but which usually stand on their own and can be read in any order.

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore

As often happens lately, I can’t remember what prompted me to get on the waitlist for this book at the public library. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. How it had been described to me must have left something out. A true representation of the book wouldn’t have led me to want to read it.

Long Bright River, by Liz Moore

This is Liz Moore’s fourth novel and the first of hers I’ve read. The book is well-written. In fact, listening to it held my attention. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way the book left me feeling hopeless against the drug abuse problem in our world.

Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a Philadelphia police officer. She tires of all the murders in her district. It seems that most of prostitutes. Every time another murder call comes in, she holds her breath for fear that this time it was her sister, Kacey. Their childhoods weren’t happy. There was little love in the family. The two sisters, once so very close, went their separate ways.

The overriding story is that of family drama, but it’s all wrapped up in the opioid crisis. I never lost interest in the book, as I wanted to know what happened to Kacey. Also, there was Mickey’s son, Thomas. Or was he her son? In the end there was some hope that Kacey would stay clean and never start using drugs again, but it left me with scant hope.

This novel left me rather depressed about the outlook for Kacey, Mickey, and the two children they had between them in the end. In that respect, the book is probably a true reflection of family life when a member is addicted to drugs. It’s also a true reflection of how every member of a family is affected when one member is abusing drugs – and what an empty feeling is left when that person dies as a result of their addiction.

I’m glad I listened to the book. After I finished listening to it, I read a review in which the writer talked about how confusing it was to try to read a book with no quotation marks. Ditto that for me. I wouldn’t have stuck with a physical copy of the book.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Having read State of Wonder, The Dutch House, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I looked forward to reading Commonwealth, her novel published in 2016. Commonwealth never drew me in. I was listening to it, which I think probably made it more difficult for me to keep all the characters straight.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I couldn’t identify with any of the characters, so I never felt invested in the story. It started in California at a christening party where every one got drunk. This is not my life experience, so right off the bat I couldn’t identify with these people. Then, it jumped 50 years later with all the same family members, including a raft of cousins.

The book just didn’t appeal to me. I listened to it for three and a half hours but wasn’t motivated to listen to another seven hours.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

It amazes me how time passes. If someone had asked me when I started reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See, but had to return it to the public library before I got even halfway through it, I would have guessed, “Sometime last year.” The joke is on me, though, for when I looked back through my blog posts to see if I referenced reading part of this book, I was stunned to find that it was exactly three years ago! In my blog post on June 2, 2017, I commented that the book had fascinated me “in how it shed light on some of the superstitions held by the Chinese.” Here’s the link to that post: https://janetswritingblog.com/2017/06/02/you-need-to-read-these-books/.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

I also wrote in that blog post: “The novel follows a young Chinese girl who is painfully aware from birth that she is not valued because she is female. Her family has to walk for hours to pick tea leaves for a meager amount of income. It is a difficult life. Her mother is the local midwife and she tells her daughter that she must follow in her footsteps in that occupation. There is a ray of hope, though, because her school teacher tells her that she can leave the harsh mountain environment and make something of herself. I look forward to checking the book out again in order to see how her life turns out!”

Three years later, I checked out the MP3 edition of the book and listened to it on my tablet. There is so much more to the book than my first impressions. I can’t believe it took me three years to return to it. Although the early part of the book was familiar to me, I listened to it from start to finish.

This is a rich story that follows Li-Yan throughout her life. She is intellectually gifted, but life places many stumbling blocks in her path. She falls in love and has a child – a girl. Having a child out of wedlock in China in 1995 was taboo, and out of shame Li-Yan puts her baby in a cardboard box along with a tea cake and leaves the box near an orphanage.

Li-Yan’s life continues to be full of strife, but she never stops loving her baby and wondering where she is and what her life is like. Learning that she was adopted by an American couple and raised in the United States, she could only hope she had a good life.

The novel also follows the life of Li-Yan’s baby, now named Haley. Through an interesting turn of events, Haley becomes interested in tea, which leads her back to her homeland.

My description of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is woefully inadequate. The novel is described on Lisa See’s website, http://www.lisasee.com/books-new/the-tea-girl-of-hummingbird-lane/, as “A powerful story about two women separated by circumstance, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and a celebration of the bonds of family.”

Since my last blog post

Civil unrest has erupted in cities all over the United States in response to last Monday’s death of Mr. George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer who used excessive force against Mr. Floyd which resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death. I am sad, and I am angry. I believe that most law enforcement officers are good people, but there is a growing problem in America of white police officers using excessive force against people of dark skin. It is indicative of a deep-seated racial prejudice.

The events of this past week and conversations I’ve had with other bloggers and friends on Facebook have been eye-opening. I know that some of my Facebook friends – many of whom I have known since first grade – are prejudiced. They have shown their true colors since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and it has surprised and saddened me to learn these things about the people I thought I knew. I have come to realize that the America that I was taught as a young student to see as “a melting pot” is not a melting pot at all. It never was. It is a myth that has been perpetuated for more than 200 years.

America is at a crossroads. We each have a choice to make. Are we going to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we are fine and everyone around us is fine? Or are we going to stand up for the abused? When we see injustice, are we going to turn our heads and keep silent? If so, nothing will ever change. Until those of us with lighter skin recognize that we have benefited and profited from our white privilege, nothing will change. Until we speak up against injustice, nothing will change.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read.

If you are a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post today.

Stay safe. Stay well. Wear a face mask as a show of respect for others.

Let’s continue the conversation OR Our call to action

Examine your life, as I will continue to examine mine. Ask yourself if you truly see others as your equal. Examine your beliefs and look for the myths among them. After taking an honest inventory of your “philosophy of life,” take action. Register to vote. Write letters to your elected officials – local, state, and national – and tell them where you stand. Tell them the changes you want to see. Tell them what bothers you about the status quo. Perhaps more importantly, even during this Covid-19 pandemic, reach out to people who don’t look like you. Find common ground from which you can begin an honest conversation.

If you want some tips about how to have that difficult conversation, I recommend LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens. I wrote about this book in my blog post on April 13, 2020, https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/04/13/leapfrog-and-the-immoral-majority/.

LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

Janet

LEAPFROG and The Immoral Majority

Two books I read in March worked hand-in-hand. I hadn’t anticipated that, so it was a pleasant surprise. I mentioned them in passing in last week’s blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2020/04/06/eight-books-i-read-in-march-2020/.

The two books are The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe and LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

I read Ben Howe’s book first. It addressed something that has dumbfounded me:  How can Christians come down on opposite ends of the spectrum about Donald Trump? How do many evangelicals continue to support him when his speech, Tweets, and actions are in total contrast to the teachings of Jesus Christ?

I took copious notes while reading The Immoral Majority and thought I’d write a blog post about it. Then, I read LEAPFROG, by Janet Givens. I was immediately struck by how the two books could work together. This is probably the longest blog post I’ve written. If the topic interests you, I hope you’ll have time to read it.


The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe

How can Christians see Donald Trump so differently?
The Immoral Moral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe

In the introduction to this nonfiction book author Ben Howe relates a story from 2012 when the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain came under attack for its charitable foundation’s support of several organizations the Huffington Post labeled as anti-gay. Mr. Howe and a gay friend set out to make a video to show that Chick-Fil-A was a good company that did not discriminate against anyone due to their sexual orientation.

About the same time, a man in another state went to a Chick-Fil-A restaurant with video camera in hand to prove that Chick-Fil-A was a horrible company. A video he made of an exchange with the employee at the drive-through window went viral. Ben Howe more or less led a campaign to give that man “what he deserved.” The result of the campaign resulted in the man losing his job and having trouble finding employment for years to come.

In telling that story, Mr. Howe concludes: “It’s not really whether the punishment fits the crime; it’s more about the decisions of those who react to the crime and whether they are carrying out justice or simply joining the wrongdoer in being wrong.”

He asks the reader to imagine what happens when you put millions of self-righteous people together. An echo chamber develops.

“This is a book about what happens when the people who believe they have the moral high ground find themselves on the low road.” ~ Ben Howe

Feeling under attack, evangelical Christians in the United States had to decide whether to cling unflinchingly to Biblical principles or to act “according to Christ’s example.” As a group, they clung to principles and turned their backs on Christ’s example. The result was the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Mr. Howe theorizes that the shift started with Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s January 2016 endorsement of Trump for US president. Although a few evangelical leaders spoke out against Trump, Falwell held sway over the majority. Just as Jerry Falwell, Sr. had helped launch the “Moral Majority” movement in 1980, his son was instrumental in urging evangelical Christians to support Trump in 2016.

The difference was, in 1980 Christians were encouraged to influence politics, but in 2016 Christians were, in Mr. Howe’s words, “being forcefully changed by politics.” In his campaign, Trump played on people’s fears. He told Christians they were being persecuted by the government and the Internal Revenue Service, and he promised to put an end to it.

People like Dr. Ben Carson maintained that Trump was a chess pawn in God’s hands and we needed faith that God knew what He was doing. Franklin Graham also took the pragmatic approach, saying God had always used imperfect people to work out His plans.

Trump campaigned as the one and only person who could save America. He mocked (and continues to mock) people who follow Christ’s admonition that we should pray for our enemies. By offering such counter-Christian ideas, Trump was able to win the U.S. presidency via the Electoral College, even though he did not win the popular vote.

In his book, Mr. Howe presents a chronology of how the old “Moral Majority” lost their way and set their sights on the political power Trump promised them instead of the power, grace, and eternal life Jesus Christ promised them. They somehow – which still puzzles me – fell for Trump’s showmanship and voted for him by the millions. He was that new shiny object that sounded so appealing to so many.

Mr. Howe says the real shift happened on June 20, 2016 when Trump “held a meeting with a thousand value-centric conservative leaders.” Endorsed at the meeting by such respected Christian leaders as Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, and Dr. James Dobson, Trump was able to silence his evangelical naysayers and capture the hearts and minds of enough Christians to put himself in the White House.

The irony is that Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 presidential race, was and is a practicing Methodist. Trump supporters somehow believed that Trump was elected because God is in power; however, the same people believed the world would end if Clinton were elected. I can’t get my head around their belief that the all-powerful God would delight in Trump’s election but that same God would be held powerless if Hillary Clinton were elected.

All this and I’ve only touched on the introduction and first chapter of Mr. Howe’s book. I admit that I just skimmed through the rest of the book.

In subsequent chapters Mr. Howe writes about such topics as how Trump has been compared to King Cyrus of Persia in the 6th century B.C; people who criticized President Trump’s character; the influence of social media in the vitriol in today’s politics; the belief of many Trump supporters that you’re either pro-choice or you’re pro-Trump – there’s no middle ground; political correctness; desire for revenge; racism and the perception of racism; us against them; abortion; gun policy; defense of the indefensible; excusing the inexcusable; separation of church and state; and choosing between immoralities/the lesser of two evils.

On page 161, Mr. Howe states:  “By directly defying their stated desire, ignoring the character of Donald Trump, and creating a ‘Christian’ culture that has become divisively self-interested and bitterly self-righteous, these leaders have taught their flocks to value the things of the world, rather than the things of Christ.”

And on page 205:  “There simply is no pulling of a lever in a voting booth that will deny God His purpose when He pursues it, nor is there any pulling of the lever that will earn His allegiance to your ‘side.’”

Mr. Howe concludes that God will accomplish His plan regardless of who the U.S. president is. I agree.

“If you wish to be all that Donald Trump and his ilk are not, then the greatest service you could do for the world is to love them despite themselves. Love doesn’t require agreement. It doesn’t require compromise. It doesn’t require surrender or shedding of values. It only and ever required the simple truth that we are stuck together. And if things are going to get better, you cannot wait for others to do it first.” ~ Ben Howe

In the current political climate in the United States, the loudest voices to the “far right” seem to think, “If you don’t agree with me politically, you have no right to live.” This must stop!


LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

How we can learn to agreeably disagree.
LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A.

 “If it is our desire to live in a civil society, we must be willing to engage in a dialogue with those with whom we disagree.” ~ Janet Givens, M.A.

Ms. Givens titled her book LEAPFROG — an acronym of four verbs, Listen, Empathize, Assess, and Paraphrase that help us listen, while the nouns Facts, Respect, Observation, and Gratitude “guide us as we present our ideas in a way that will increase the likelihood that we will also be heard.”

Ms. Givens dedicated a chapter to each of the four verbs and four nouns. In a nutshell, here are snippets from the chapters about Assess, Facts, and Respect:

Assess – Ms. Given wrote, “Assess, as I’m using it here, simply means ‘pause and think’ while you ask yourself, “Is this a conversation I am able to have at this time?’ This is more important than you realize.” Are you and the other party coming to the conversation with curiosity and compassion?

Facts – Ms. Givens wrote, “… since understanding is our goal, we must ignore facts. For now. They have their place in any conversation, of course, but first, receptivity, a willingness to hear them, must exist. On both sides.” She gives “a question to ponder before moving on” at the end of each chapter. At the end of the chapter about facts she wrote: “Think back to your last political conversation. Or, your last Town Hall meeting. Or, your last family feast that ended badly. What went wrong?”

Respect – I love Ms. Givens’ chapter about respect. She wrote, “When we forget our common humanity, we create a chasm between us that is hard to bridge. Respect serves as a bridge to cross that chasm,” while “blame lets us abdicate responsibility for our discomfort by putting it on the other.” We’re all biased, whether we realize it or not.

In conclusion, Ms. Givens wrote about human beings’ need for social interaction. She calls difference “the source of all creativity. Indeed, think of difference as the beginning of all learning, Then, consider a disagreement as a difference of opinion that creates an enlightening and stimulating mystery, one which can be solved, together.”

She then lists her concerns about where our society is heading if we continue to be at such odds politically like we have not been since the American Civil War.

Ms. Givens asks many questions for our consideration throughout the book and at the end of her book. I think most people would benefit from reading LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era. I’ve just hit a few high points in my blog post. For more information about Ms. Givens’ work or to contact her, go to https://janetgivens.com/.


How the two books helped me

I approached The Immoral Moral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values, by Ben Howe with the following mindset: I’m a Christian, a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and I have been guilty of being critical of Christians who continue to support Donald Trump. I wanted the book to explain their rationale to me. I’m still trying to understand it.

While I was still contemplating the theories, Mr. Howe gave in his book, I read LEAPFROG: How to hold a civil conversation in an uncivil era, by Janet Givens, M.A., and it really opened my eyes and made me evaluate my opinions.

It helped me see that I tend to listen to the cable news channels I agree with. When I read or listen to “the other side” I approach them with a biased ear and eye. Ms. Givens’ book helped me acknowledge my biases. Overcoming those biases is a work in progress.

If you disagree with my politics, that is your right. I respect your right to disagree; I just don’t understand it. As an American and a Presbyterian I will defend your right to believe what you believe and vote as you feel led to vote. That doesn’t mean I understand how you got there. When the Trump presidency is over, I hope we, as Americans, will once again be able to agreeably disagree.

In the current political climate in the United States, the loudest voices to the “far right” seem to think, “If you don’t agree with me politically, you have no right to live.” This must stop!

I still haven’t had that difficult conversation with anyone whose political views are far from mine, but I will read and re-read Ms. Givens’ book so I’ll be better-equipped to Listen, Empathize, Assess, and Paraphrase when that opportunity presents itself. I’ll have that conversation someday, when the other person and I are ready to approach it with Facts, Respect, Observation, and Gratitude.


Since my last blog post

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my next appointment with my orthopedic doctor has been rescheduled for a week later, which means I’ll have 13 weeks without putting any weight on my right leg instead of 12. I’m disappointed but that’s a small price for me to pay.

Until my next blog post

Please rest your eyes. If you read this lengthy blog post of mine today, you need to rest your eyes.

I hope you have a good book to read.

I hope you have some creative time.

I hope you stay safe and well. It has been a year like most of us have never seen before and it will, no doubt, continue to be so. I hope you will find something positive to do as we all journey through this pandemic.

Let’s continue the conversation

Have you read either of these two books? How did they affect you? Have you acknowledged your biases? Have you had that difficult conversation with someone? How did it go? Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your thinking about politics and your fellow citizens whose views are very different from yours?

Janet