Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2018 Reading List:

Memoirs of a Porcupine
So this is a difficult novel from renowned author Alain Mabanckou.  Hailing from the Republic of Congo (the good one--hint: if a country has the name "democratic" or "democracy " in it, it's probably not), ubiquitous writer Mabanckou has penned a pointed tale aimed at taking down the role of backwoods superstition amidst modernity--at least that's what really smart people say he was doing.  I will admit I didn't really understand the point of this novel and had to do some research to come to this deeper aforementioned conclusion.  As I finished the last pages of this story, I was pretty disappointed I hadn't picked a different Congolese novel for my Reading the Continent project.  But in my research afterwards, I discovered the book was the 2006 Renaudot prize winner (given to the best original French language novel) and so in the aftermath, I've decided to give it a second chance--at least on an intellectual level.

Sing Unburied Sing (*Audible)
Early on in "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the young son of a barely-there-back-country-voodoo-meth-addicted mother, makes the damning pronouncement that his mother Leonie "kills things."  And indeed, death hangs heavy in this novel and a sense of dread is immediately present as the Ward reveals a forgotten place in the backwoods of the South where everything is upside down, where everything is in decay, and where death is not a permanent state but rather is transitory.  I'd liken this novel to Daniel Woodrell's revelatory "Winter's Bone" in that it unveils a segment of America that is largely forgotten, ignored, and written off.

 Ostensibly, this is a fairly straight forward narrative.  Single mother Leonie, her two children, and her junkie friend embark on a road trip to pick up Leonie's boyfriend when he gets out of jail.  The story's depth emerges as Ward reveals that three of the characters can see certain wandering dead ghosts--ghosts that it turns out are looking for answers.  Ward's literary mastery is evident, though, in the way in which this novel doesn't become a some supernatural story.  She's able to do this because she's created characters with whom she so deeply empathizes that their visions don't seem fantastical but seem instead real and necessary as this family tries to come to grips with its past as they are mired down in a present quagmire.
My full review is here.

Beyond the Rice Fields

Malagasy author Naivo has crafting a heart-wrenching tale of love sets amidst one slave’s seemingly impossible yearning for success and upward mobility.  Impressively, the author’s expansive piece of pre-colonial historical fiction doesn’t hold back in addressing some oft-considered taboo subjects in Madagascar such as slavery and the wholesale execution of Christians under Queen Ranavalona’s reign in the 19th century. The narrative centers on Tsito, a child whose family were “forest people” and captured, then sold into slavery by the ruling Merina highlanders (called amboalambos, i.e., pig-dogs by the atandroy or antakarana--it’s unclear which tribe the author refers to when he uses the denotation ‘forest people).  He grows up with his master Rado’s family and develops a bond with Rado’s daughter Fara.  The story unfolds through dueling narratives between these two characters. 
          The book reads as a mixture of hainteny (oral tale/poetry) and tantara (historical narrative) with a liberal dosing of Malagasy proverbs/adages (I counted 29 of them).  One in particular proves emblematic as Fara ponders her destiny:

Love is like rice, when you transplant it, it grows, but never in the same way.  It retains a bittersweet memory of its first soils. Every time it’s uprooted it dies a little; every time it’s replanted, it loses a piece of its soil.  But it also bears fruit (188).

         Naivo proves himself a skilled and brave writer in Beyond the Rice Fields. With the publication of his novel in English, he has illuminated a period of Malagasy history previously hidden from most of the world.  Along the way, he has brought to life the rich traditions and deep culture of a country and people that are all too often wrongly associated solely with lemurs and coups by radio DJs.

My full review is here.

African Kaiser (*Audible)
Currently listening to.  One hour (of 18) left!

Turn the Ship Around
I first heard about “Turn the Ship Around”  on college classmate Scott Macke’s Service Academy Business Mastermind podcast.  In it, he interviewed the author, retired Captain David Marquet, and delved into both his writing process and his revolutionary leadership philosophy. I let the book rest dormant on my amazon wishlist for months, however, because of my unfair bias against submariners.  Despite some of my best friends being bubbleheads, I just didn’t associate leadership with that community. I wasn’t even a chapter into the book when I realized how misguided my bias had been.

There’s one episode in particular that sold me on Marquet as a leader that I would follow.  My emphasis is on ‘as a leader’ because really, someone can put together a snappy, clever, well-marketed leadership product but people don’t follow a product--they follow a person.  About midway through the book, Marquet shares the story of a nighttime passage the the strait of Malacca. This is a high risk evolution that nearly resulted in a collision with a tugboat if not for the exemplary and timely actions of one of his petty officers. As soon as the sub was clear, Captain Marquet immediately awarded the petty officer a Navy Achievement Medal on the spot.  This floored me because despite it being a recognition that any Commanding Officer can give, I’d never seen it awarded other than at the end of someone’s tour. I’d say with confidence that my personal observations are indicative of trends across the Navy. If anything, commanding officers today tend to be more worried about awards inflation (i.e., too many O-4s getting DSMS for example) than actually providing timely recognition. Beyond that, I’ve had to put myself up for every award I’ve even gotten and usually end of tour awards arrive a year after you’ve already PCS’d (i.e., moved to your next assignment for my civilian readers).  So I appreciated that Marquet not only cut through the bureaucracy (he did the write up afterwards, but also that he quickly and publicly recognized exemplary conduct. Marquet also made sure to have family members present whenever possible for awards--something commands often overlook.

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
Pastor Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor is not a beach read. It’s a hunker-down-with-a-highlighter-and-pen-philosophically-deep examination of what work means to God and what it should mean to anyone following God. Against a backdrop of much dense and completely thorough analysis, Keller seeks to lay out the Bible’s answer to three central questions:

Why do you want to work?
Why is it so hard to work?
How can the story of Jesus’ life lead us to find satisfaction in our work?

It’s in Keller’s examination of this last question that the reader will find the utility of this book. It’s evident from reading the New Testament that Jesus lived a life devoted to changing the culture he was in (i.e., one obsessed with a showy, outward following the letter of the law) through service and love. So in the example of his life’s “work” we see a template for how Christians must also approach work. And indeed, regardless of our station in life, we must seek out how we can serve others in our workplace.

This is obviously easier said than done but it’s a lot easier when we have a true appreciation for God’s love. You see, God made us because he loved us and he even more importantly, he made us for eternal love. In the Bible we have the Trinity as an example of eternal love: that is, three persons who have loved one another from all eternity. We are created to share love and joy. Practically, understanding the magnitude of this should lead us to not discard work’s importance for that of our personal relationships and leisure, but instead it should drive us to make the most of our time at work. While at work it should cause us to pour ourselves into pursuits that help people give and receive more love.

Ultimately, Keller points out that how we approach work from a non-religious socio-cultural aspect can model the Bible’s version of of these things. That is, how we handle adversity, how we handle difficult decisions, how we incorporate our family, how we incorporate colleagues into our own family where possible, can point our coworkers towards Jesus’ examples. More than any marches, protests, online petitions, or Facebook rantings, our work is our greatest opportunity to shape culture. It’s Keller’s hope that readers of Every Good Endeavor will leave it understanding that “We must think persistently and deeply about the shape of work in our field and whether (in biblical terms) it accords as well as possible with human well-being and with justice.”

What the Day Owes the Night (Algeria)
Currently reading at home.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (Ethiopia)
Currently reading at work.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (*Audible) (Congo)

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