Tuesday, August 31, 2010

IAM Reader's Guild review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

My blog reviews of the IAM Reader's Guild gatherings in 2010.  (see previous Readers Guild posts here)

August 2010:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Endicott, NY chapter of the IAM Readers Guild

Perfect for summertime reading, the eight short stories that make up Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth received unanimous approval from the Endicott gathering of the Reader’s Guild.  We were drawn into the lives of each skillfully-written character.  The few celebrations and the much heartache.

The unobtrusive manner in which Lahiri writes the cross-cultural tension for each Bengali-American family increased our empathy toward those among us trying to live as citizens of one country, yet honoring the traditions of another.  Some readers related to this tension through family stories of immigrant grandparents, handed down one or two generations.  Some readers, those who have lived out of country, have experienced a level of the culture shock themselves.  Others related to the hardship of straddling two worlds in other dynamics of life:  serving as a bridge among family members, relating to other walks of life in educational or socio-economic indicators.

The author describes the tension between cultures and generations so skillfully that we, as readers, felt it grow on us in layers, story after story, character after character.  The opportunity to discuss together the themes, settings, relationships found in the book helped us gradually awake to the author’s perspective, rather than have it thrust upon us. Like a slow burn leading toward a burst of flame, the three-chapter novella in part two of the book serves as a summary to this motif of cross-cultural and intergenerational disconnection. The romantic tragedy of Hema and Kaushik proves this almost dispassionate disconnection Lahiri writes so well.  Once again, the generations miss each other, the cultures miss each other, the lovers miss each other.  In the end, life goes on in almost parallel worlds. 

Ms. Lahiri chooses an excerpt from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” as an epigraph for the book.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

She describes in these stories the subtle complexities and the muted longings of her characters for fortunes in a fresh soil, but it seems too many times the roots do not grow deeply enough for relationships to thrive in the new terrain.  The second generation all receives excellent opportunities in a new homeland, but it doesn’t seem that they are building on the strengths of tradition and culture in the motherland.  If the author’s intentions are for us to empathize with the sacrifices and lament the loss of culture between generations, to wonder if the “ends justify the means”, she succeeds brilliantly.  If nothing else, she gives us pleasure in reading and insight into the commonality of the human struggle – no matter the earth in which we are planted.

Monday, August 30, 2010

monday mix tape [the creative spaces edition]

i chose a theme as inspiration and made you a mixtape of some of my recent favorites!

*note: I've made some changes to the weekly mix tape post.  If you want to know why, you can read about it here.  If you don't care, just skip this part!*

track 1: the teaser

track 2: notes on a theme

Last March, I wrote about my love for this book:
I think I'll wrap this book and give it my daughters and daughters-in-law when my children form their own households.  It's a classic book that is more culturally relevant than anything on the new title shelves today.  In fact, I think it's the fact that it is an older book that makes me trust it even more.  The ideas Mrs. Schaeffer shares are timeless.  She was green before green was a buzzword.  She was handmade before handmade was a buzzword.  She was organic before organic was a buzzword.  You get the picture.  Even more than that, her world view of Christians as stewards of earth and home and family and self is straightforward, yet eloquent.  She also reminds me -- in several important ways -- of my mother.  And my grandmothers.  I hope my own children will be able to say the same some day.
In Mrs. Schaeffer's own words: (italics, hers)
One can be led by God to live in a miserable slum in the heart of a teeming city, but one's little spot there can have some sort of beauty of leaf, flower, rock, branch and candle, whether there is a table or an orange crate upon which to arrange it. Even a mud hut can have ivy growing over it, and a flower arrangement within it on the flat stone, or the sawn-off plank which serves as a table. ... There is no specific kind of house you must live in to be 'spiritual' -- only the house the Lord has chosen for His chosen purpose for you, and the house with you in it. But whether it be a palace or a tree house, beauty is important...
As a woman who follows Jesus, Mrs. Schaeffer includes a specific challenge to her Christian readers:
...a Christian above all people, should live artistically, aesthetically, and creatively. We are supposed to be representing the Creator who is there, and whom we acknowledge to be there. It is true that all men are created in the image of an Artist, then we should look for expressions of artistry, and be sensitive to beauty, responsive to what has been created for our appreciation....Whether you are married and have a family; whether you share a house or a flat with one or a number of people; whether you still live with your parents; whether you live alone and have guests in from time to time; whether you are a man or a woman: the fact that you are a Christian should show in some practical area of a growing creativity and sensitivity to beauty, rather than in a gradual drying up of creativity, and a blindness to ugliness.

This week's mixtape is inspired by a few of the many friends I've met, online and in real life, who live life fully alert to the importance of making lovely happen in the everyday.

track #3:  a few recent links

  • Baby Shower Fun:  I've never read shutterly lovely before, but discovered this link and adored her ideas.  Out of all the pretty, whimsical, elegant design ideas I see online, only a few make me want to cut out the pictures and throw them in my idea book. Who wants me to throw them a baby shower?!
  • Best Ways to Organize a Homeschool Classroom: Ann Voskamp's blog, Holy Experience,  is full of lovely.  Lovely photos, lovely children, lovely words.  Rarely does she talk about the practical aspects of design.  This post had in mind fellow homeschoolers busy setting up fall classrooms, but the ideas she shares would work for any of us wanting to surround ourselves in an interesting, intellectually-stimulating environment.
  • Jt Christensen Studio opening: Philly Chit Chat covers the opening reception for a new design consultant in Philadelphia.  The reason I'm including this in my blog?  Jt happens to be my cousin and I'm proud of the work he is doing.  Congratulations, studio christensen!

track #4:  friends make everything lovelier

Almost every memory I have of lovely in the everyday includes something that happens in community.  Whether it be around the family dinner table or camping with friends.  Many times it's celebrations that call out the best in us:  a birthday, memorials, weddings, anniversaries.  In June our oldest son graduated from highschool.  Our whole family worked hard to make the day special, but it was the people who showed up that made the event sparkle.

One of the highlights was the "photo booth" my friends Tracy (a connoisseur of lovely in the everyday and blogger of lovely things) and Macia helped me dream up.  They brought the supplies, but it was the friends and family who were willing to throw caution to the wind, pretend, have fun, dance around the yard in funny hats that made the lovely happen.

Click play and turn up your speakers to see for yourself!
Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

Now it's your turn!  Link up your own words or images about beauty in the everyday to the mixtape below.  If you don't have a blog, you can still share your thoughts in the comment section. 

 To participate:

1. Blog about the theme. Write a story, share a photo, link to a video, craft a haiku, whatever you want as long as it has to do with this week's theme. In that blog, mention that you are participating in “monday mixtape” at livingpalm.blogspot.com and link back to this post.
2. If you don’t have a blog, add to the mixtape right here by simply adding a comment to the discussion thread below.
3. Share your information (links, media, etc) and encourage others to do the same.

Friday, August 27, 2010

post script

new words to add to the conversation

1.  Last week, I posted my thoughts about Brett McCracken's new book.  Then I read Books & Culture editor John Wilson's thoughts and wondered if there was something I'd missed along the way.
My post.
      p.s., John Wilson's article, Adventures in the McCrackenverse.

2.  Also last week, I dug out of the archives a post I'd written about Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.  Then I read Barbara Nicolosi's review of the movie and laughed at myself for thinking I'd been outspoken!
My post.
      p.s., Barbara Nicolosi's blog post, Fawn, Pander, Blather.

3.  I've loved all the fun, happy, even sad, comment and links to the you make me feel like dancing edition of Monday Mix Tape.  I know all of you must have some kind of goofy picture dancing at your sister's wedding or your two-year-old shaking his groove-thing.  Or you can improvise on the theme like the link from Laurelin's Garden.  Either way, keep the comments and links coming!  
My post. (don't forget to click on the links and comments)
      p.s., Laurel's Dance of the Seasons

      post - postscript, a poem I read this morning that I wished I'd found before Monday:

Doesn't the world demand
We dance?
Doesn't it insist on it?
And why not?
At the leaves,
Look at the weeds.
Look at the least blade
Of grass in the breeze.

None of them begs off
Or offers excuses.

None of them refuses.

              -- by Gregory Orr, from Image Journal, Number 66 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a new tagline and an old photo

Last November, I told you about the kindness I received from a blogging "stranger".  That particular week, as a way to show kindness, Sharon at Good, True and Beautiful offered to create blog headers for any of her readers who asked.  I was blown away by her offer -- no strings attached.  

This past week, I had the nerve to contact Sharon again and ask her to edit the tagline in my header.  Since the beginning of this year I've been waffling on the purpose for this blog.  What am I trying to say if it's not just any old thing that enters my head on any given day?  The updated tagline -- like the changes I've made to the weekly monday mixtape post -- is one step more toward clarity.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the Romantics, authored the phrase I've chosen for the tagline, earth's crammed with heaven.  I clipped the four words out of 65 lines excerpted from her nine book, blank verse epic, Aurora Leigh.  In book seven, the fictional Aurora -- an aspiring writer, wondering about the quality of her work --  gives a stunning exhortation to those of us who would try to separate the sacred and the secular, the physical and the spiritual.
TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift        
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points.
If there were a common thread in all that has inspired me enough to create posts here for the last four years, it could be a repentance, of sorts, of my own vulgar days of separating natural things and spiritual.  Of mindlessly consuming futile pictures and unreal verse and missing the whole perfect beauty of all that draws us upward.  Like any truly repentant soul, I wish to convert as many other wayward souls with me as possible.  And so I think and meditate and ponder and struggle and rant and make a fool of myself and, hopefully on occasion, draw our attention upward. 
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,       
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,       
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;       
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, vein├Ęd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul       
Doth utter itself distinct.
I strongly considered my tagline to be "the whole strong clamour of a vehement soul", but thought better of it.  Instead I chose the next line in Aurora's closing thoughts:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware      
More and more from the first similitude.
Won't you take off your shoes and join me?

A picture of my younger brother and me getting rolled around in a "missionary barrel"  when I was about three or four.  This image has come to symbolize so much of the true Tamara God intends to restore, the  adoring, wondering, exclaiming self underneath adult layers of sin, wounds and plain old disappointment with the world.  This is the reason I chose the snapshot for my blog header.*

Monday, August 23, 2010

monday mix tape [the you make me feel like dancing edition]

i chose a theme and made you a mix tape of all my favorites!

*note: I've made some changes to the weekly mix tape post.  If you want to know why, you can read about it here.  If you don't care, just skip this part!*

Track 1: the teaser 

 click on the video to get to full screen

Also, check out the book Where the Hell is Matt?: Dancing Badly Around the World by Matt Harding.

Track 2: notes on the theme

I'm working on some writing about my growing up years.  Years surrounded by a big, loving and very conservative family.  My grandparents totally fascinate me and keep showing up every time I sit down to write.  Here's an excerpt about my Grandfather.
A few years ago, while the two or three-dozen of us still gathered once a year for the Thanksgiving dinner, someone got the ambitious idea to turn the far side of the fire hall into a dance floor.  One by one a few cousins, especially the littlest ones of the fourth generation, an uncle, an aunt began to dance.  After not much wheedling, Grandpa and Grandma took their turn on the floor.  The fox trot never looked so good.  Only a few occasions – mainly heated volleyball matches and whiffle ball games at the cottage – had I seen my grandfather’s blue eyes twinkle with this shade of pleasure, matching rhythm with his four-score-year-old feet.  Standing along the wall my mother whispered to me, “All these years, he thought he wasn’t supposed to dance.”  It’s one of the saddest epigraphs I can imagine.
There’s a few quiet stories told only one-to-one, whispered in sad reverence for this beloved man.  A few stories that reveal the brokenness hidden under the delight and back-breaking labor he has served up all these years.  I don’t know what would have been different about his life – or mine – if he’d known all along he could dance.  Maybe my own feet wouldn’t be so clay-like.   My own brokenness not so hidden underneath...
 Track 3: recent links referencing dance:
Track 4: from the archives
  • My Father Took Ballet by Natalie Murphy  from "The girl can write" here
  • What did the night my friends rolled up our living room rug to dance to In HeavenThere Is No Beer teach me about the discipline of petition?  Seriously.  I'm not kidding. Go here to find out.

    Track 5: shaking what our momma gave us during this summer's family vacation

    Clearly, we've overcome any dance phobia our grandparents may have had.  (I didn't say we're any good...)

    Track 6:  So You Think You Can Dance

    The season is over, but you can catch all of the episodes from the last half on Hulu.  We love this show.  Hardly any cheese and lots of hard work, creativity and mentoring going on here.  Thank you to my friend Margaret for pestering me until I finally gave in and watched the show!

    Now it's your turn!  Link up your own words or images about dance to the mixtape below.  If you don't have a blog, you can still share your thoughts in the comment section. 

     To participate:

    1. Blog about the theme. Write a story, share a photo, link to a video, craft a haiku, whatever you want as long as it has to do with this week's theme. In that blog, mention that you are participating in “monday mixtape” at livingpalm.blogspot.com and link back to this post.
    2. If you don’t have a blog, add to the mixtape right here by simply adding a comment to the discussion thread below.
    3. Share your information (links, media, etc) and encourage others to do the same.

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    announcing big changes to Monday Mix Tapes!

    i picked a theme and made you a mix tape!

    This whole idea of a weekly "mix tape" post happened quite organically over the course of the four years I've been blogging.  I didn't start this site operating from some grand scope and sequence.  But it has made me accountable to myself, my resistance to being a mindless consumer of cultural goods.  To develop stronger critical thinking skills, to mature in my understanding, convictions and beliefs.  And to not take myself too seriously.  The blog kind of talks back to me, charts my growth, connects me to a community wanting to do the same. 

    Somewhere along the way the idea just kind of sprung up, writing a weekly post highlighting some of the best of what we were absorbing from books and articles, movies, television, music and art.  Lately, I've gotten bored with it, though.  It began to lose its purpose, to feel tedious.  And then, on Saturday morning, as I was baking a quiche and listening to This American Life, a new thought was born.  
    It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kind of stories on that theme. Today's program...
    It's my favorite sentence of the entire radio show.  Like The William Tell Overture brought my grandparents around the radio, this sentence from Ira Glass always perks up my ears.  A theme! My conceptual brain does a happy dance.  Why not borrow the idea for this weekly post?  

    Also, I've been writing a lot lately and will try to let the theme inspire me.  If all goes well, I'll include an excerpt or two on occasion.  And, I'll invite you to share some of your best discoveries and writings on the theme.  It'll be a weekly mixtape swapmeet!

    So, that's the big news!  I hope lots of you will enjoy this experiment with me.

    Now, all I need is a great tagline like Ira Glass or The Lone Ranger.  Any ideas?

    Saturday, August 21, 2010


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    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    review of "Hipster Christianity" from an Artistic Searcher (or is it Bookish Intellectual?)

    I can't quite put my finger on the feelings this book provoked: a little bit of squirmy embarrassment (from all the kitschy Christian stuff I liked at one time), a little bit of respect to the author for all the hipster history  he told so well, and a little bit of eye-rolling (but secret, guilty pleasure) at the occasional slips into a sort-of  "I'll sign your yearbook, if you sign mine" voice.  As McCracken reminds us, we all really just want to be cool. 

    Brett McCracken is a historian for his generation. He uses his blog and this book to track the quirks and qualms of a generation in little literary time capsules:  hipsters' favorite music, TV shows, books, clothing preferences.  He acknowledges this as a risk: "...what follows will doubtless be...dated within a few short minutes of being penned."  Likely so, but the work he did in part one, "The History and Collision of Cool and Christianity", helped me understand centuries-old origins of whole swaths of culture, both in the church and in my neighborhood.  I would never have realized, for example, that the hipster persona evolved from the rise of an urban middle class, separating themselves from the medieval lords and landowners.  The noveau riche class stickin' it to the man.  And the hipster is born.  Not quite that simple, but still ironic (in a deliciously hipster sense) since the middle class and bourgeois are the anathema of all things hip.

    McCracken is a researcher.  He states that the book is "seeking to document the movement." And so it does. In part two, he adds specific case studies from his visits among hipster churches in North America and Europe.  From a spacious vantage point, he applies these learnings to the contemporary phenomenon of "cool Christianity"  showing up in churches and "Christian" marketing since the late twentieth century.  The definition of hipster McCracken uses embraces a wide variety of counter-cultural types and this is reflected in the range of churches he features.  Denominational to non-denominational, high-tech to low-tech, large congregation to small he offers a fairly generous sampling of a more "organic Christian hip".  Grassroots movements defined more by specific beliefs and convictions rather than surface strategies associated with mass-marketing Christianity.  This may be his most effective argument against the inauthentic attempts of many "wannabe hip" churches.  Hold up the good work of a real thing and let the reader decide.

    In part three -- the final part of the 247 page book -- McCracken offers his analysis of problems and solutions related to the collision of cool and Christianity. He offers this part of the book as
    "...an admonishment against those who would push for an aggressive strategy of Christian hip in their ecclesiological efforts. It's a cautionary reflection on the presiding impulse these days for churches to be culturally savvy (up on all trends and technologies and entertainment), stylish (designed and packaged to fit the 'young, edgy, hip' mold), and shocking ('not your mother's church!')."
    It is not that I disagree with his thoughts, but where earlier in the book he offers a broad vantage point -- revealing a depth beyond his years -- it feels like this part of the book comes from a younger, less developed voice.  (All the more reason to applaud his chutzpa!) It seems that he does not have a hearty enough language to speak outside of the "youth group culture" he lovingly chides.  His language seems a little more stunted here and I fear that only the most discerning of those McCracken wishes to convince will look past the inside jokes and very savvy marketing he -- ironically -- utilizes to send the message.  I'm not gonna lie; I was quite pleased to discover my own CHQ (Christian Hipster Quotient) was admirably high.  (You can take the quiz for yourself here.)  After all, we all want to be in the cool club, right?

    Still -- and wisely -- he draws on the aged wisdom of the saints who have gone on before, reminding us of our unadorned heritage in the Church across time and space.The ambition of his book is large -- to be a prophetic voice to this generation. To hold a wide-angle lens up  up to those of us too preoccupied gazing in the mirrors of our own ideal reflection. He has my applause for his ambition, my gratitude for his courage and my encouragement to keep on speaking deeply to the beautiful Bride of Christ.
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