The August installment of brief book reviews includes the work of a southern poet, John Hersey’s classic on the devastation of the first atomic bomb, and a meditation on church.
- Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans is a mix of memoir and a meditation on church. The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together. In her earlier memoir she talked openly about her doubts with Christian faith that led her to adapt; in this new memoir she details how she left the evangelical church she grew up in, struggled to attend any church for a time, tried and failed to start a church, and then found solace in the Episcopal church. As I said in my earlier review, I could relate in the broad strokes with her experiences (I, too, have found solace in the Episcopal church). But I really appreciate that Evans doesn’t repudiate her evangelical upbringing. For her, it’s the community that introduced her to Jesus and still part of the universal church, so she can’t turn her back on it. I also appreciated her honesty when talking about her judgmental attitudes about churches she would visit. She talked about how she would intellectualize everything and remain aloof in her pride. Her awareness was welcoming and a reminder of my own judgmental attitudes. Later, when discussing the incident in the gospel of John where Jesus refuses to condemn a woman caught in adultery who the Pharisees bring to him ready to stone, Evans discusses judgmental attitudes within the church. She had been talking about sin-sorting: the habit of classifying some sins as worse than others in order to feel better about our own sins. She points out that some use this story of Jesus and the woman and what he tells her at the end (“Go and sin no more”) when they think the church is being too soft on sin. She counters that kind of thinking: “I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when, of all the people in this account, we decide we’re the most like Jesus. I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when we use his words to condemn and this story as a stone” (94). To me this is a strong reminder of the example of the grace Jesus gives that Christians are supposed to emulate. I thought this book was stronger than her first. I’d definitely recommend it.
- Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of those classics that I always knew I should read, but never did until now. I was prompted to pick it up by seeing articles and blog posts on the 70th anniversary of the devastation. I can see why it is a classic. In a plain reportorial style, Hersey tells the stories of six survivors. It begins a few hours before the bomb hits, and then follows the six individuals through the rest of the day and the ensuing aftermath. Hersey never interjects his own thoughts, letting the details of the injuries and deaths and wreckage and destruction and sickness and weariness inform the reader. We see the other burned survivors wandering around the streets (many of whom died later of wounds or radiation sickness); we see the destruction of homes, hospitals, factories, and churches; we see the shadowy outlines of those vaporized in the initial blast. And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere. It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face. As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons. Now some argue that it was necessary, that there was no other way to end the war with Japan, that it was a psychological weapon as much as a physical one. But even if we grant all that, allowing the dropping of two atomic bombs as the least of all evils, we still must look at the evil those bombs wrought. (And this says nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities before the final two bombs.) I did not read the fifth and final chapter called “The Aftermath,” where Hersey revisits Hiroshima forty years afterwards and tells what has happened to the six survivors in the meantime. My copy appears to be a first edition from 1946, though the story itself was published first in The New Yorker a few months before being rushed out separately as a book because of great demand (the original New Yorker article can be read at the link). This is a book everyone should read.
- We Almost Disappear by David Bottoms is the most recent poetry collection from a southern poet I’ve liked for a while now. Here’s a quick taste: “[O]ther than gratitude / so little survives the world’s chronic revision—a boss line, maybe, / from a poem you’ve forgotten, a penny / you picked up in an alley / for luck, / a voice that blessed you in passing.” (from “Romanticism I”). It’s a collection that is concerned with the passage of time and the themes of aging and family. Early poems recollect the poet’s early days and memories of his grandfather. One whole section later in the book concerns the poet’s aging father, with many of the titles describing him as “my old man,” as in “My Old Man Loves Fried Okra.” That particular poem shows the painful moment when someone loses a defining characteristic to age: the speaker’s father is too tired to thank the church lady for bringing over fried okra, and even too tired to eat it. Another section takes up the poet’s relationships with his wife and daughter, and it had my favorite poem in the whole book: “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag.” In this poem, the speaker observes his fifth grade daughter in karate class as she negotiates the physical movements of the martial art and the social movements of being the only girl in the class. The images at times are perfect: “Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist / jab out in glistening precision.” I discovered Bottoms, the former poet laureate of Georgia, from the recommendation of a friend in grad school. He told me to read Under the Vulture Tree, and after I did I was hooked. The collection was full of boss lines; see for yourself in the poem “Under the Vulture Tree.” This latest collection isn’t quite as good, but it’s still worth checking out.