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Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington.

Does a journalist need to participate in his subject’s life and culture in order to write with insight and understanding about those subjects? For instance does one have to handle snakes in order to write about snake handlers, Pentecostal Christians who believe that they are showing the world their faith in Christ when they drink poison and handle snakes, taking their cue from Christ’s words?

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Luke 10:19

Or is a journalist who participates in such rituals not only a little crazy, but also devoid of journalistic objectivity? I would say the latter, but this book did make me think. It didn’t make me want to handle snakes, nor did it convince me that those who do so are anything other than thrill-seeking cultists. (There are other issues with the Jesus-only, legalistic, spiritual gift-seeking doctrine and practice of these snake handling churches.) What it did make me think about is the lines we draw between emotion and spiritual experience and reason, the way try to keep ourselves so safe that we wall out the Holy Spirit himself and become bored with our safe, unemotional, non-experiential Christianity. There’s a balance somewhere, and even though I see the kind of presumptuous testing of God that the snake handlers do as dangerous and somewhat prideful, I also see that we lose something precious when we say that God cannot and will not ever perform the kinds of miracles and signs that were common in the New Testament.

This book is about more than just snakes. The author reaches back into his own past and into his family heritage to try to understand just where the snake-handling preachers and testifiers have come from and what they really are experiencing when they “handle”. Mr. Covington also muses on the essence of a good story and how the ending is surprising but somehow inevitable. The book would fascinate fans of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and in fact Covington begins his story with a quote from O’Connor:

“The descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cried in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking.” ~Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners.

Covington descends deep into himself and his region to try to explain the lives and actions of the people he comes to know and care for, such as:
Preacher Glendel Buford Summerford, accused of attempted murder of his wife by snakebite.
Darlene Summerford, the alleged victim, who keeps a photograph of her favorite snake in her purse.
Charles McGlocklin, end-time evangelist and snake handler.
Aline McGlocklin, his wife, also moved by the Spirit to handle on occasion.
Punkin Brown, legendary evangelist who would wipe the sweat off his brow with rattlesnakes.
Aunt Daisy, the prophetess.
Anna Pelfrey, who is said to have died twice and been revived by prayer.
Diane Pelfrey, her daughter, age 21 and a third-generation handler.

And others. Mr. Covington doesn’t make fun of these people and their beliefs, but rather he becomes a part of them, to an extent. Yet, it is the reservations he holds, the core of sanity and even dedication to something higher than mere ecstatic experience, that brings about an ending to the story of Dennis Covington and the snake handlers. It’s a good story and a good ending, and I learned something from the journey, although I’m not sure I can put it into words. If any of this rambling interests you, read the book. Then, come tell me what you learned.

Note: This book was published in 1995. Wikipedia says, “In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne “Punkin” Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama.”

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Spic and Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen by Monica Kulling

Spic-and-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen by Monica Kulling. Illustrated by David Parkins. Tundra Books, 2014.

If you’re a fan of Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel Belles on their Toes, this picture book biography of the mother of the clan, Lillian Gilbreth, will certainly be a welcome addition to your reading list. If you and your children like to read about interesting people, strong women, inventors, engineers, and/or creative adventurers, then this book is the right one for you, too.

Lillian Gilbreth “was the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the subject of two movies, and had a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor.” She was “an efficiency expert, an industrial engineer, an inventor, a psychologist, an author, and a professor.” She also raised eleven children, many of them by herself after her husband and fellow efficiency expert, Frank Gilbreth died of a heart attack.

The book begins with Lillian’s privileged childhood and marriage to the strong, outgoing Mr Gilbreth, but it’s a book about Lillian Gilbreth, not about her husband or her large family of children. Her strength in continuing to care for and support her family after the loss of her husband is inspiring. And her creativity and inventiveness only becomes evident when she is forced to the forefront in order to maintain her family’s livelihood.

Spic-and-Span is just a great introduction to the Gilbreth family, especially mother Lillian Gilbreth. Many children (and adults) who read this picture book may be inspired to read more about the Gilbreths in Cheaper by the Dozen or may be led to look at the workspaces around their own homes to see how they could be designed more efficiently.

Five Things That Made Me Smile on February 10, 2015:
1. Gingerbread for breakfast. It seems that a lots of the things that make me smile are food-related. I’m glad God invented food.

2. Mrs. Gilbreth’s inventions for the kitchen: the electric mixer, a foot pedal that opens the garbage can, storage compartments in the refrigerator door, and the Gilbreth Management Desk (wish I had one of those).

3. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington. Review thoughts coming soon.

4. My sweet Engineer Husband took care of the car registration at the courthouse on his way to work this morning. He demonstrates his love for us by doing so many things for our family.

5. Several friends and relatives have contributed money to help Brown Bear Daughter go back to Slovakia this summer to teach English and Bible classes in a church there. I am thankful.

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Briefly Noted, Nonfiction

Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy by Paula Butterini. This story of two journalists who dealt with injury by criminals and terrorists and then multiple bouts with clinical depression for the husband made me crave Italian food and admire the courage of those who struggle with depression and of their spouses.

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind by Margalit Fox. “In a remote village (in northern Israel) where everyone speaks sign language, scientists are discovering the essential ingredients of all human language—and uncovering the workings of the human mind.” Too much technical information about linguistics, but the stories about the village and its inhabitants were interesting. Ms. Fox seemed overly concerned with the particular clothing people wore, especially the T-shirts for some reason; almost every person in the village is described in terms of what words or images adorn his or her T-shirt. The author is also mightily concerned about the status of ASL and other sign languages as full-fledged languages. I agree that ASL and other sign languages are truly, really, completely languages, but I find it odd and somewhat disturbing and uncaring that the linguists in the story want to preserve the languages by preserving and protecting deafness and the genetic transmission of deafness in the community.

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Written to a secular audience, the book has a lot of good and useful information about how to evaluate charities and giving opportunities. There’s even a chapter about church-related charities that is fair and open to the possibility of giving through one’s own church or church-related organization. Specific charities are recommended, and the criteria for evaluation are well-thought out and take into consideration the fact that you often have to spend money and invest in advertising to get money for the charitable endeavor.

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Careless People by Sarah Churchwell


Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

Essentially, this book focuses on the autumn of 1922 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was beginning to think about writing The Great Gatsby and when all of the reading public was fixated on the salacious details of the Hall-Mills murder case in New Jersey, a bizarre and celebrity-driven murder and investigation that played out in the newspapers and probably influenced Fitzgerald’s story of murder and infidelity in several aspects. Ms. Chruchwell also includes the before and after stories of how Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda came to be the celebrities that they were and of how Scott Fitzgerald finished writing his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, and even what happened to him and to Zelda after that novel was published.

I learned several facts that I didn’t know while reading this volume of history and literary criticism combined. F. Scott Fitzgerald was only twenty-six years old in 1922 when he began planning his novel, and only twenty-eight when it was published. Zelda was even younger, born in 1900, twenty-two years old in 1922. She was only nineteen when she married Fitzgerald in April, 1920.

Their daughter, Scottie, was about a year old when they decided to move to New York from St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m not sure how the baby survived, although they did hire a nurse to take care of her, since the parents seem to have been constantly and continually drunk throughout the entire time that they lived in New York. I also am not surprised that Fitzgerald didn’t get far beyond the planning stages in writing his Great American Novel; I am surprised that he was able to write a coherent sentence, much less a number of short stories and the seminal beginnings of what would become The Great Gatsby.

“In May 1924 the Fitzgeralds sailed for Europe, to put the temptations of the New World behind them, with the conviction that they had left their old selves behind forever.” The temptations accompanied them; they got drunk in France just as well and just as often as they did in New York; and their marriage began to disintegrate. But Fitzgerald did write his novel, set in 1922 and based on the characters and the adventures that he and Zelda experienced in New York in that memorable fall of 1922. In particular the Hall-Mills murder case became a part of The Great Gatsby, inextricably intertwined in the characters of Daisy and Tom and Nick and Jordan and Gatsby himself and in the ideas of romantic adultery and carelessness and mistaken identity, insoluble crimes and American idealism.

If you’re fascinated by the Jazz Age, Prohibition, flappers, Scott and Zelda, and The Great Gatsby, Careless People has some good factual material as well as speculation and philosophy about the era and the meaning of the history and the novel and their intersection. The author gets a little carried away at times with passages like the following, coming at the end of each section of the purportedly nonfiction prosaic tome:

“Life is always there waiting to be transfigured into a splendid fiction, however sad or sordid its origins. A story of adultery ends in the violent extinction of a woman of tremendous vitality. A dreamer keeps faith with the faithless, an a double shooting draws coder in the cooling twilight, as e writer tires to determine whether what he holds in his hand is the past, or the future.”

However, reading about Scott and Zelda did make me think about sin and its intractable hold on our lives, about how genius can transcend even the tragic and injurious decisions we make, sometimes, and about what the real meaning of The Great Gatsby is. Did Scott Fitzgerald understand the tragedy of his own novel? Did Zelda? Do I?

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Scott and Zelda were careless, too, and sort of rich, but there came a time, later, when the piper had to be paid, and the party was over, and both their lives ended tragically. I wonder how many “messes” the “golden boy” and his “first American flapper” left in their wake? If sound self-righteous and Pharasaical, I don’t mean to be. I also wonder how many messes I’ve left for others to clean up and how many more I might have run away from if I had been rich and able?

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Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior


Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior.

I was captivated by “extraordinary life” of this woman of God, “best-selling poet, novelist, and playwright, friend of the famous, practical philanthropist, and moral conscience of a nation.” Hannah More may be a forgotten woman nowadays, but she was far from unknown in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England and even throughout Europe and America. She was a protege of the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson, close friends with the famous actor David Garrick and his wife, a co-laborer with the abolitionist William Wilberforce, and acquainted with almost all of the eminent writers and evangelical gentle women and men of her day. She wrote multiple volumes of letters, essays, tracts, stories, plays, and one best-selling novel. She influenced the abolitionist movement to end the British slave trade, the animal welfare movement, the Sunday School movement, and the efforts of anti-poverty reformers and literacy activists.

In fact, she would be something of a patron saint, if Protestants had such saints, for those interested in the promotion of literacy and reading. She opened Sunday Schools in many poverty-stricken communities and villages where no school of any kind was to be found. These Sunday Schools were not just pretty little Bible story times, but rather full-fledged schools for the poor and illiterate which met on Sundays because that was the only day when poor children and adults did not have to work all day long. She also wrote books and tracts and story papers for the poor and for the burgeoning middle class. Her stories and poems were generally pleas for morality with a neat a little lesson or message embedded therein, a style of writing that’s somewhat out of fashion now but was very much in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Hannah More was a witty woman with a ready tongue, but tamed somewhat by her allegiance to the Lord Jesus. Here are a few Hannah More quotations that I found delightful:

On the poet Alexander Pope, who is buried, according to his wishes, at St. Mary’s Church in Twickenham instead of at Westminster Abbey: “You will easily believe, madam, that I could not leave Twickenham without paying a visit to the hallowed tomb of my beloved bard. For this purpose I went to the church, and easily found the monument of one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey. . . . Pope,I suppose, would rather be the first ghost at Twickenham than an inferior one at Westminster Abbey.”

On Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . he is an entertaining and philosophic historian, yet, as Ganganelli said to Count Algarotti, ‘I wish these shining wits, in spite of all their philosophy, would manage matters so that one might hope to meet them in heaven; for one is very sorry to be deprived of such agreeable company to all eternity.’ It requires an infinite degree of credulity to be an infidel.”

On Dr. Samuel Johnson: “In Dr. Johnson some contrarieties very harmoniously meet; if he has too little charity for the opinions of others, and too little patience with their faults, he has the greatest tenderness for their persons. He told me the other day he hated to hear people whine about metaphysical distresses, when there was so much want and hunger in the world.”

On reading and writing: “I read four or five hours every day, and wrote ten hours yesterday.”

On Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Samuel from the Old Testament: “I love this great genius for not being ashamed to take his subjects from the most unfashionable of all books.”

Hannah More is most associated with the literary, artistic, and political community that established itself at a place called Clapham and became known as the Clapham Sect, although they were not a sect and not all of the members actually lived at Clapham. They were a group of evangelical Christians with in the Church of England who worked together to bring about the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of what they called “manners”, what we now would call culture or worldview in action.

The greatest value of this little book, aside from reviving the memory of a forgotten saint, is to give a sort of generalized pattern for Christian community that can begin to change the world, as the often trite phrase is. These people—Wilberforce, his cousin Henry Thornton, preacher John Newton, Hannah More, publisher Zachary Macaulay, abolitionist James Stephen, poet William Cowper, and other perhaps less famous—worked together as a community, each using his or her own special gifts, to promote various causes and reforms that they saw as advancing benevolence and the cause of Christ. They fought against the slave trade by preaching, writing poetry and essays, publishing tracts and pamphlets, promoting the boycott of East Indian slave-produced sugar, producing art and decoration that illustrated the plight of the slaves, making speeches, and introducing legislation to abolish slavery and the slave trade into Parliament again and again and yet again. They took up other causes at the same time, and they endeavored to live out their Christian commitment in relation to one another and to the world at large. They truly “spurred one another on to good works.”

It seems to me that such a group could be an inspiration to those of us today who want to work together to do our own small part in advancing the kingdom of God. The Clapham sect were not a commune. They did not live monastically. They were not exclusive. They worked with others, such as Horace Walpole and Sir William Pitt, who did not share all of their beliefs. And yet they were a force to be reckoned with in merry old Georgian England. If the Inklings are a model of Christian literary community, Hannah More and the Clapham sect are another example to which we can look and from which we can learn. I would love to hear from others who have read the book and who see ways that we in our day and time could use what they did to revitalize our culture and nation.

Ideas anyone?

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North Korea in Books


North Korea is notoriously the most closed society and country in the world. I couldn’t take a trip there even if I wanted to or had the money to go.However, reading these books about North Korea and North Korean defectors made me want to know more —and inspired me to pray for those who are trapped in Kim Jong Eun’s “socialist paradise.”

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. The man is Shin Dong-hyuk. His story is just about as intense and harrowing as that of Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, but Shin’s story of torture, tyranny, and brainwashing begins from the time of his earliest memories. Shin was born in North Korea’s infamous Camp 14 to parents who were matched and allowed by the authorities to reproduce in a very limited way, to parents whom he never learned to love and from whom he received very little love or encouragement himself. He is the only known prisoner to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” prison camp in North Korea alive. Here you can hear a taste of Shin’s story in his own words:

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s story is not over, or even near over, and it remains to be seen what God will do in his life.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick follows the lives of six north Koreans (and their families to some extent) over the course of about fifteen years, from the early 1990’s until 2009. All are former residents of the city of Chongjin, located in the northern part of North Korea near the border with China. All six escaped North Korea to go first to China, then to South Korea. Ms. Demick, a journalist who spent some time living in Seoul and covering both Koreas, interviewed these defectors and worked to understand and enter into their lives to write this book about the famine in North Korea that extended through the last decade of the twenty-first century as it was experienced by average people in that country. The title comes from the children’s theme song of the 1970 North Korean film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World. The irony is inescapable as one reads of children eating grass and tree bark to fill their stomachs and old people dying quietly of starvation. The people of North Korea, for the most part, actually do have nothing to envy because information is so tightly controlled and limited that they don’t even know that the rest of the world does not share the harsh conditions that their succession of dictators, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong Eun, have inflicted upon them.

I plan to read more about North Korea soon, including the following books:

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden (the same author who wrote Escape from Camp 14).

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Lone Journey by Jeanette Eaton


Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams by Jeanette Eaton. Illustrated by Woodi Ishmael.

Four of Jeanette Eaton’s books received the Newbery Honor (runner-up), but her books, mostly biographies for young adults, never won the Newbery Medal. Lone Journey was published in 1944, and was a Newbery Honor book in 1945.

I found the book quite fascinating in its portrait of a man who was ahead of his times in many ways. Roger Williams began life in an orthodox Church of England family, became a Puritan as a youth, and then moved on to become a separatist and a dissenter who certainly preached and believed in Christ but eschewed all churches and denominations as holding undue sway and authority over the conscience of the individual. Williams, according to the book, made a life study of government and the relationship of church and state, and he came to the conclusion that the civil authority and the church were to be wholly separate, ruling in different spheres, and that the individual conscience before God was to reign supreme in matters of religion.

Betsy-Bee just read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for her English class, and we had a good discussion of which of God’s laws were to be enforced by the state (laws against murder and theft and others of what Williams would call “civil crimes”), which laws should be enforced by the church upon church members (laws against gossip, profanity, adultery, and other sins, perhaps?), and which laws were up to the individual before God. Or should the church become involved at all when its members sin against one another? How should the church discipline its members, if it does?

The Massachusetts Bay colony and its leaders eventually banished Roger Williams, but his exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise, even though it entailed much hardship, since he was able to found a colony in which:

“We have no law among us, whereby to punish any for only declaring by words theire mindes and understandings concerning the things and ways of God.”

In a letter to a friend, Roger Williams wrote of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations:

” . . . We have long drunk of the cup of as great liberties as any people that we can hear of under the whole heaven. We have not only long been free (together with a New England) from the iron yolk of wolfish bishops, and their popish ceremonies, but we have sitten quiet and dry from the streams of good spilt by that war in our native country.
We have not felt the new chains of the Presbyterian tyrants, not in this colony have we been consumed with the over-zealous fire of the (so-called) godly christian magistrates. Sir, we have not known what an exise means; we have almost forgotten what tithes are, yea or taxes either, to church or commonwealth.”

Williams was a friend to the native Americans of the colony, and he led the colony to accept both Quakers and Jews as full citizens with the rights to vote and own land. He was a preacher and a practitioner of religious liberty for all, and it is from Roger Williams and others who followed in his footsteps that we learned many of the principles that eventually went into the U.S. Constitution and became enshrined in American government and culture. This biography is somewhat fictionalized, with dialog that is obviously made up, but the events of Roger Williams’s life are faithfully chronicled, as far as I could tell.

Jeanette Eaton was a prolific biographer, and she wrote biographies of all of the following persons over the course of her career:

A Daughter of the Seine: The Life of Madame Roland (1929) (Newbery Honor 1930)
Jeanne d’Arc, the Warrior Saint (1931)
The Flame, Saint Catherine of Sienna (1931)
Young Lafayette (1932)
Betsy’s Napoleon (1936)
Leader By Destiny: George Washington, Man and Patriot (1938) (Newbery Honor 1939)
Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer of Oregon (1941)
Lone Journey: The Life of Roger Williams (1944) (Newbery Honor 1945)
David Livingstone, Foe of Darkness (1947)
That Lively Man, Ben Franklin (1948)
Buckley O’Neill of Arizona (1949)
Washington, the Nation’s First Hero (1951)
Gandhi, Fighter Without a Sword (1950) (Newbery Honor 1951)
Lee, the Gallant General (1953)
The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1954)
Trumpeter’s Tale: The Story of Young Louis Armstrong (1955)
America’s Own Mark Twain (1958)

Wikipedia calls Eaton a “suffragist” and a “feminist”, but judging from the subjects of her books, she also had an interest in religion and religious leaders.

Woodi Ishmael, whose woodcut illustrations, grace the pages of Ms. Eaton’s book, seems to have been a rather successful World War II era illustrator, producing numerous advertisements and drawings and paintings for the armed forces, especially the Air Force. You can look at some of his Air Force artwork here. And here’s a blog post that shows several of Mr. Ishmael’s illustrations for another Eaton bio, Narcissa Whitman.

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Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink.

Warning: this book is deeply disturbing. After reading it, I became even more distrustful of doctors and of the medical profession than I was before I read the book. I also lost some confidence in the government and in the justice system (already low). I decided to buy a small generator as soon as possible if I can afford to since we live on the Gulf coast in hurricane country. I thought about end-of-life decisions and hospitals and who to depend on in an emergency. I was reminded of how thankful I am for my sister who came to Texas and spent many weeks caring for my mother last year when she had to go to the hospital and then into a rehab facility. I’m not sure anymore that it is safe to be in a hospital without a family member nearby who will spend time at the hospital with you daily—and at night.

So, Five Days at Memorial is the story of the five days after Hurricane Katrina as they were experienced at Memorial Medical Center (formerly Baptist Hospital) in New Orleans. As you might imagine, or you may have seen or heard news reports, conditions at the hospital went from bad to worse in the wake of the storm. Hospital employees, doctors, nurses, and patients who were stranded at the hospital, surrounded by flood waters and rumors of riots and violence outside, began to think that they had been abandoned. Rescue was slow to come. Information going in and out of the hospital was confused and intermittent. Patients died. The question woven throughout the book is: did they die because of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of government or corporate response to emergency conditions, or did some of the patients die because doctors and nurses gave up hope and decided to euthanize them, “put them out of their misery”?

I’ve thought about what I might do to care for myself and my family in the event of a major crisis such as a hurricane. I’ve thought about the hard end-of-life decisions that health care professionals and families have to make together and about how those decisions could be made easier and more loving and kind to all involved. I’ve thought about how doctors and nurses can sway patients and family members to make decisions that meet with the professionals’ ethics but perhaps not the family’s. And I’ve thought about journalistic ethics, and how a writer of true-life stories can show us a story as the journalist sees it, but not necessarily give full credence and weight to all sides of the story. I think Ms. Fink tried to see all of the possibilities and complications of this particular event and present them fairly, but then again, I wasn’t there.

As I said, it’s a difficult book to read. There are stories of great courage and perseverance, but there are also questions, many disturbing questions. When evacuating a hospital with a range of patients from ambulatory to critically ill with probably very little time to live, who goes first? What is the purpose of triage, and who decides which people will be given the best chance to survive? What is the ethical basis for those decisions? What is a health professional’s responsibility in a crisis? Are doctors and nurses obligated to sacrifice their own well-being, perhaps their lives, for their patients? How can hospitals be better prepared for a crisis? How much should hospitals and other public service agencies spend on preparing for a crisis that may never materialize? What is the government’s role in protecting the public and preparing for an emergency? What is the responsibility of the health care corporation that owns the hospital or nursing home? Many, many more questions, and some answers, are embedded in this very personal story about what happened in a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I would recommend that all people involved in health care professions, especially in hospitals, read this book. You may or may not agree with the author’s conclusions, but you will be given lots of food for thought—and even prayer.

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Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone


Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone.

I think I heard about this book on NPR; I’ve had it on my TBR list for a while. I’m glad I finally got around to it because it definitely gave me some things to think about.

First of all, I’ll issue a disclaimer or a warning: a couple of pages in the book are about Mr. Stone’s rather uninformed opinion that Jesus was probably “a magician, and that the gospel miracles—water into wine, multiplying loaves, levitation—were stage tricks drawn from the conjuror’s repertoire.” This superficial evaluation of the miracles of Christ only lasts for a few paragraphs, thankfully, and then Mr. Stone is back to writing about what he knows: the world of legerdemain, illusion, and prestidigitation.

Ninety-nine percent of this book is about modern-day magicians, mentalists, con men, card sharps, and other performers and about how they learn to do what they do. Mr. Stone, to the undoubted dismay of some of his fellow magicians, even reveals some of the secrets of the trade, but not all of them. As he tells about his journey through the world of Magic Olympics (really, there is such a thing), and Las Vegas magic shows, and monte mobs on Canal Street in NYC, psychics and telepaths, and neuroscience research, not to mention clown school, Mr. Stone describes a labyrinthine world of swamis and sages, con artists and card counters, that is “shrouded in secrecy, fueled by obsession and brilliance.”

Show me a world where real people focus their lives and talents on a consuming pursuit or passion, and I’m hooked. I’ve read books, fiction and nonfiction, that introduced me to other communities and subcultures where people spend their lives immersed in a game or a hobby or an interest or a place or even an occupation that it never would have occurred to me to even notice:

The World of Hotel Management: Hotel by Arthur Hailey.
The World of Competitive Scrabble: Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis.
The World of Horse-Racing: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.
The World of a Super-Rich Eccentric: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
The World of Competitive Rowing: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
The World of Friday Night Football: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger.
The World of Poverty in Mumbai: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.
The World of ICU in Hospitals: Coma by Robin Cook.
The World of Scientology: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.
The World of a Prison Library: Running the Books by Avi Steinberg.
The World of Ethiopian Adoption: There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Greene.
The World of Chinese Food: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: A Book Adventure through the Mysteries of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
The World of Computer Geekdom: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder.
The World of Fifth Grade: Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder.
The World of a Mental Hospital: Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam.
The World of Mormon Polygamy: When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular.
The World of Chocolate: Hershey by Michael D’Antonio.

I didn’t even include all of the historical “worlds” and the exotic, foreign places I’ve visited in books. Books truly can take us to so many places, times, subcultures, and worlds, and I am so thankful to be able to travel into these worlds through the books I read. I enjoyed Fooling Houdini‘s description of the world of magic and its discussions of the ethics of deception and performance and fiction and trickery. The authors draws interesting distinctions between a performance in which the magician and his audience collaborate in some conscious or subconscious way to create a fiction and puzzle that is fun for everyone involved and the deception that so-called mentalists and mind readers foist upon unsuspecting and gullible people who are looking for comfort and for something to believe in.

As I said, the book was thought-provoking. Anyone who’s at all interested in performing magic or in the techniques and practices of magic performers will find Fooling Houdini indispensable.

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Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn


Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn.

Author Walter Kirn wants his readers to know that he is a published novelist, a graduate of Princeton, and a very intelligent man. The importance of these qualifications will become clear as the story progresses.

Blood Will Out purports to tell the story of Clark Rockefeller, aka Chris C. Crowe, aka Chris Chichester, aka Charles Smith, aka Chip Smith. His real name is Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German national who came to the United States illegally in 1978, obtained citizenship by marrying and then deserting an American citizen, moved to Hollywood to become an actor, and eventually in 1985 murdered his landlady’s adopted son and possibly the victim’s wife. Mr. Gerhartsreiter then moved back to the East Coast, New York City, and became Clark Rockefeller, a rich young banker and art collector with ties to the famous family with the same surname. Clark Rockefeller married Sandy Boss, a high-paid business executive, lived on his wife’s earnings, and moved to New Hampshire. He and his wife had a child, but they eventually divorced when Sandy found out that “Clark” wasn’t who he said he was. Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter then tried to kidnap his own daughter, got sent to jail for that, and was indicted for the 1985 murder in California. Christian Gerhartsreiter was

Most of the facts in the preceding paragraph I gleaned from Wikipedia. Mr. Kirn’s book includes a few of the facts, buried deep or mentioned in passing, but the majority of the book seems to be about Walter Kirn and his very strange, very conflicted friendship with the subject, Christian Gerhartsreiter. Kirn is deeply distressed over the idea that Gerhartsreiter conned him. How could a criminal like CG deceive a Princeton graduate and published author? As far as I could tell, Mr. Kirn lost the price of a few meals that Gerhartsreiter stiffed him for, a trip to New York from Montana to deliver a dog that he feels he was underpaid for, and a lot of time listening to CG’s stories and lies. Yet, Kirn says of himself and CG, late in the book after all has been revealed, “He (CG) knew a perfect victim when he saw one, and I’d sacrificed myself for him before.”

Sacrificed himself? “I was part of his audience, he thought. But in truth I was acting much of the time. He was conning me, but I was also conning him. The liar and murderer and heaven knows what else was correct about the writer: I betrayed him.” Kirn says he “betrayed” CG by writing book about him. I say Kirn betrays himself, in that the book is mainly about Walter Kirn. Maybe that’s because there had to be a book (finances? a contract?), and no one, not Kirn nor anyone else, understood what Christian Gerhartsreiter was all about, what all he did, or why he did it.

“All my questions drew the same response from him, just phrased in different ways. His evil was his prodigious, devouring appetite for other people’s vitality and time, which he consumed with words, words, words, words, words. Clark loved to talk but had nothing much to say, nothing of his own, which was surely another reason that he lied, and plagiarized lies, and recycled his old lies. He had ten thousand ways to tell you nothing. I felt like I’d heard all of them.”

The book is like CG’s lies: interesting for a while, somewhat sordid, but strangely empty and dissatisfying in the end. The topic of lies and deception is one that is much talked and written about recently, both in fiction and nonfiction. This Literature of Deception speaks to something within all of us that recognizes our own fabrications and false images and yet longs to know and trust others and to be truly known and trustworthy. I’m not sure I learned anything about how we get to a place of deceiving others and ultimately ourselves from reading this book. Nor did I gain any insight into how we break free of the lies that so easily entangle us.

There is another 2012 book about CG, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor by Mark Seal. Perhaps that book is more weighted toward fact and story and motivation and less toward amateur self-analysis. If you’re interested in knowing more about “serial imposter” Christian Gerhartsreiter, what he did and maybe even why he did it, I’d suggest you try that book first, although I’ve not read it and so can’t give a definitive recommendation.

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