Review: “Freethinkers” by Susan Jacoby

freethinkersThis one has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I’m glad I finally got to it. The subtitle of the book is A History of American Secularism, and although this could be confused with American atheism, Jacoby is quite clear that both theists and atheists can be secularists.

Logically, the book begins during the time surrounding the American Revolution, focusing on the context in which the Constitution was written. Jacoby purports that several of the Founders, namely Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin, were deists – meaning they believed in a Creator that set things in motion, but does not interfere with the affairs of men. They had individual religious beliefs, but lived in a time when religion was a private affair. The majority of religious people were wary of mixing government and religion, as they’d witnessed first-hand the abuses of the Church of England. Jacoby gives a compelling argument for why the Founders certainly did not intend to found a Christian nation.

The subsequent chapters detail periods of strong rationalism in America as well as the push-back of the religious conservatives, as they grew in strength and influence. We see the pairing of abolitionists with feminists, and how today’s fundamentalists claim religion was the kickstarter to both movements, when in fact the Christian Bible was the primary weapon used against progress in civil rights throughout America’s history.

Jacoby certainly had an agenda in writing this book, but she avoids being unfairly critical of the religious right. In fact, she’s careful to acknowledge that the loudest fundamentalists never represented the American religious majority.

Verdict:

I wish this book had gotten more attention, as I think it’s very important. Too many people insert their own beliefs into American history without ever cracking open a textbook, but Freethinkers is a terrific introduction to America’s secular roots and history.

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Review: “We, the Drowned” by Carsten Jensen

drownedThis is the extraordinary story of an ordinary town and the people that live therein. Marstal is a town of sailors and their families on a small island in Denmark. In truth, the residents are mainly sailors’ wives and children, as the men are home infrequently, often gone for years at a time. The women live like widows, and have grown strong because of it. The young boys’ fates are inevitable – they, too, will sail away from home just after their confirmation at the age of fourteen. The town’s cemetery fills slowly, since most of the men that die are never found.

In this story that is both tragic, inspiring, and darkly humorous, we find a young man searching for his father in order to confront him for leaving his family; an old man who discovers he still has much to learn about the world, even after years at sea, and that he’s still capable of love; a widow who would rather destroy the town than see any more young men leave. It’s the story of a small island town that prospers from war when it’s far from their shores, but the men who sail into the war are destroyed when the war forces its way into their lives with all of its ugliness and destruction. It’s a story about men at sea who learn that there’s no rhyme or reason to the workings of the world. In a storm, good men are taken while bad men are left unscathed. Whether they pray seems to make no difference in the end.

This was my first experience with Danish literature, and I am thoroughly satisfied with it. Jensen has amazing insight into human nature. Although the protagonist is not consistent throughout the book, the transition between protagonists is seamless and so the narrative never feels interrupted. The story dug itself into me so deep that at one point, I got so angry at a character that I had to put the book down for awhile to cool off. The incident I refer to, and my reaction, only made the experience of the book better. It’s not just a book about the sea – it’s about confronting inner fears and desires and atoning for the mistakes of the past.

The book is written in the first person plural, as in the title. It was really an interesting style of narration, and in an author Q&A, Jensen said the following about his choice to use this style, and it reveals some insight into the book itself:

The “we” telling the story represents the collective memory of the town, but not everybody is included. It is the memory of the men, since the lives of men and women are so dramatically different in a seafaring community. The women have their own separate story slowing unfolding in the novel alongside that of the men.

The “we” is a kind of Greek chorus forever present on the stage, always commenting and introducing, but as a storyteller the “we” is also involved in the story, partial and taking sides, which means that it is not always reliable.

The “we” seems all-knowing, but how can it know the most intimate things that go on between people? Well, maybe it doesn’t know. What you don’t know in a small community you invent and that is also called gossip. Gossip is an essential part of people’s lives, and this is what I want my novel to mirror. It is full of real history, fiction, and gossip, too, because that is how the world works.

Verdict:

We, the Drowned is an amazing piece of literature. It’s worth buying. Besides, you can get a used hardcover copy on Amazon for $3.98. Go get it!

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Haruki Murakami really upset these townspeople

Murakami has an entire town (1,900 people) in an uproar, demanding an apology for a comment made about the town in his most recent story. The town is called Nakatonbetsu, and they are insistent that they are not litterbugs, as Murakami implies, and are in fact very dedicated to the cleanliness of their town.

The offending story, called Drive My Car – Men Without Women, was published in a Japanese magazine in December. In the story, the protagonist is driving in a car with a Nakatonbetsu native. When the native tosses a cigarette out the car window, the protagonist thinks, “Probably this is something everyone in Nakatonbetsu commonly does.”

And that, my friends, is apparently enough to cause holy hell to rain down on Murakami. No word yet if the town will receive their apology.

The entire story can be read on The Telegraph.

Review: “The Isolation Door” by Anish Majumdar

isolationGrowing up under the burden of a schizophrenic mother, 23-year-old Neil Kapoor (protagonist and narrator) has never had an ordinary life. His mother has been in and out of the hospital for her mental illness and it’s wearing on him and his father. He finds some escape in his theater classes, where he meets Emily, Quincy, and Tim. As these new relationships grow and become more complicated, Neil finds himself struggling more and more to balance his new life with his sense of familial duty. It’s impossible for him to share his secrets with his girlfriend, even while she is open with him about her own life and struggles. Soon the burden of responsibility of his mother may fall to him, so Neil needs to sort out what is more important to him – the new life he has created or his family.

It was difficult for me to decide what to think about this book. It’s honest and brutal and well-written, but sometimes seems to lack direction. What’s more, I felt little empathy with any of the book’s characters, except for Neil’s tired, beaten-down father. However, it really is a vivid and wonderfully written book. It’s quite dark and at times the characters seem completely helpless, but the author gives them (and the reader) enough hope to get by. This is Majumdar’s first novel, and I hope to see more from him in the future.

A small piece of criticism is that at times Majumdar’s eloquent writing is sometimes brutally interrupted by, what seems to me, unnecessary crassness. A beautiful scene will suddenly be broken by a description of Neil’s girlfriend’s “pussy,” a not at all attractive word. I have little objection to curse words, but “pussy” is just a horrible word in my opinion. It’s a jarring distraction in the context of the rest of the writing. Neil is a generally a gentle and caring person, and “pussy” is not a gentle or caring word (unless we’re talking about a cat…which in this case, we’re not).

Verdict:

Recommended for those who like dark and honest books, but don’t want to be utterly depressed by what they read. It’s not a long book, only 300 pages, and easy to get through.

The Isolation Door is available today from Ravana Press.

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