Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Here’s the great thing about book groups: they challenge you to read all sorts of books that you’d normally avoid.  This is one of those books.

The subtitle for this book is “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”  The family in question is the Dodd family, a US senator and his wife and two grown children, entering Berlin in 1933, as Hitler is gaining power.

Dodd himself is a bit of a bore. He’s a professor type (of history), and he goes to bed early and continually whines about missing his farm in The South and his lack of time to write a massive history book about The South.  He’s a bit of a cheapskate and steps on all the wrong toes by trying to convince every other diplomat to pinch pennies like he does.

It’s his daughter that provides much of story, as she’s a wild child who seems to have little inhibitions when it comes to men, especially ones in high power positions.  Through her we learn about the lives of high-ranking Nazis and other diplomats and high profile figures.  She gets a little too much attention, but sex sells.

What fascinated me about this book was the antisemitism that was rampant throughout the world at this time. It’s easy to point the finger at Germany, but it was really bad in The States as well.  And it’s heartbreaking to watch the progression of the persecution of the Jewish people go unheeded by the US because the US didn’t want to offend Germany (largely because Germany had lots of unpaid bonds we were hoping to collect).  Also, high ranking US diplomats felt a bit hypocritical to call Germany on their persecution of the Jews when we still hadn’t worked out our civil rights issues yet.  But you can bet that the Jews in the US were making a big noise from very early on, trying to convince our countrymen that something very wrong was happening to German Jews.  Nobody was listening.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering.  It’s an impressive feat to weave that much historical material into the story of one family.  It loses focus a lot of the time and leaves a lot of story lines unfinished, but if this doesn’t bother you, then it might be a great way to learn about a period in history we don’t focus on much (we focus more on the war itself). I think it’s helpful to know how evil comes into power, so we can be on the lookout for it in the future (and stop it before it goes out of control, as there were many opportunities in this case).

Larson is a local writer (living in Seattle), which is one of the main reasons we picked this book. It’s great to support local writers, wherever you live. And you never know when you’ll bump into them, which for book nerds like me, is a thrill.

Oh, and for movie buffs, rumor has it that Tom Hanks is making the movie (playing Dodd), with Natalie Portman potentially playing the daughter.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Me, the Pharisee

Rules, Rules, Rules.  Why in the world do I keep making so many stupid rules for myself.  I’m turning into a regular Pharisee.  And I don’t exactly like that association.

I’ve been blogging on a regular schedule for the past couple months.  On Monday, I post a personal reflection, on Wednesday, I post a book review, and on Friday, I post a book list.  It sort of turned into a pattern that I kept up.  But eventually, it became a rule.  And last week, when I was on a mini vacation to California, I was feeling horribly guilty about missing my final Friday post.  I was really stressing about it.  I eventually realized that I’d created a rule where none needed to exist.  My priorities were out of line. I was being a Pharisee.

Jesus loved to make fun of the Pharisees.  They were his favorite target for rebuke:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 23). “You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 3:7). “Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mathew 16:16).  

The Pharisees were a very strict group of Orthodox Jews who loved to add extra rules to the Bible.  For example, they had extra-Biblical rules about hand washing, a precise method about how it was to be done for eating.  The disciples and Jesus weren’t following their rules, so the Pharisees got upset.

But these weren’t Biblical hand washing rules.  They were just some rules a Pharisee made up once upon a time, and they took the place of the Bible.

When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about it, he showed them their folly: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.  You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as almost those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:39-41).   

Like me, the Pharisees loved their rules more than they cared about what was most important: the heart.  Instead of focusing on hand washing ritual, their time would have been better spent cleansing their heart before God.  And for me, I was on vacation in California for heaven’s sake. It was far more important for me to spend time with my husband, enjoying our time down there, than it was to try to cram in some writing time, all for the sake of a silly, made up rule.

I wish I could say this was the only example of a rule I create that interferes with my ability to do God’s will.  I like to apply plenty of restrictions to my diet, exercise, and my work schedule. Some rules are, of course, worth protecting and enforcing.  But others need to be re-evaluated and should budge often. 

Jesus thought it was a big deal, worth a little yelling and name calling.  So I should too.

Amy’s Marginalia: Tuesdays With Morrie

tuesdayswithmorrieI picked up this little book at a book sale recently, recognizing the author from The Five People You Meet In Heaven (a book I haven’t read yet but have been meaning to for awhile).  It seems that Tuesdays with Morrie is also fairly well known, so it warranted a read, especially since one of our local theaters is staging a production of a play based on it. 

The premise is very simple.  A beloved Sociology professor is dying from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and a former student reunites with him in his final days for a series of lessons about life, love, and dying.  What sounds like a very morbid and depressing book is actually one of the more uplifting stories you can read because it embraces life.  The constant irony in the book is that only a dying man can teach us about living.

Morrie’s a great mentor for me as a teacher.  It sounds like he connected with his students in remarkable ways and taught them important lessons about life.  Students continued to seek him out long after graduation for his wisdom and companionship.  You can’t say that for many other professors. And teaching was his true vocation, one that he chose to pursue even with his dying breath. 

Faith is a complicated issue in this book.  Morrie is Jewish by heritage, and he attended synagogue while growing up and was buried by a rabbi.  But he claimed to be an agnostic for most of his adult life.  In the 10th anniversary edition, Albom includes an afterward which mentions Morrie’s potential conversion back to theism.  In his dying days, Morrie, when asked about death, says, “This is too harmonious, grand, and overwhelming a universe to believe that it’s all an accident” (196).

Most of Morrie’s lessons, which always take place on Tuesday, are very much in line with Judeo-Christian values.  But there are times he pulls from Buddhist thought as well.  Albom explains that “Morrie borrowed freely from all religions,” but thankfully, his advice ends up being rooted in his childhood faith foundation.

Morrie freely criticizes our culture for its excessive focus on materialism, its repetition of “more is good,” ad nauseum. He rightly calls this idolatry: “These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes.”

He discusses the importance of marriage and commitment to it.  He says that the most important value in marriage is “your belief in the importance of your marriage.” 

Morrie is right about a lot of things, but he’s missing the boat on the most important lesson of them all.  He doesn’t mention Jesus, the ultimate answer to all the questions.  His advice is filled with a lot of truth that falls in line with biblical practices, but without Jesus at the heart of it, it’s empty and self-seeking. 

Morrie is a wise teacher.  He offers a lot of insight learned from life.  But Jesus is the best Rabbi, who not only teaches you, but he transforms you into someone better, someone more like him.   He’s the one that satisfies our longings for false idols, giving us his true love that we seek.  And in our marriages, our greatest value is to love and serve him, and everything else will follow.

Passover Preparations

This is a busy week in the Letinsky household.  I have a lot of things going on, and in the middle of it all, is Passover.  I’m not sure how this happens, but every year, Passover sneaks up on us.  We always plan to do better each year in making preparations, not to leave it to the last minute or to rush through it, but somehow, it always ends up that way.p1010084

Dan and I were talking about how we were preparing for the Passover this year.  He has a list of notes from the past year that he consults as he studies the Haggadah, in preparation for the evening.  Me, I took down the recipes I was planning on preparing and started making a grocery list. 

Yes, it’s pretty pathetic, but my Passover preparations had nothing to do with my heart but everything to do with my stomach.

When I read about Jesus getting ready for the Passover, I tend to start at this point in scripture:

 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover. (Matthew 26:17-19 ESV)

Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for the Passover, and the focus is on the material things, the food and the location.  These are the things I excel at, so I suppose it’s only natural that I read this part and get out my checklist. 

But I forget to read the entire chapter.

Back in verse six, another form of preparation takes place, from another one of Jesus’ followers.  A woman anoints Jesus, the Passover lamb, to prepare him for his sacrifice. 

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:6-1 ESV)

Mary of Bethany also prepared for the Passover.  She spent time with Jesus by sitting at his feet and letting down her hair to wipe the perfume, a very intimate act for a woman of her day, even for a woman of today.  She also gave him a precious gift, a major sacrifice as an offering.

As I prepare for Passover, sure, I can spend time, like the Disciples, tending to the details of the feast.  But first and foremost, I need to sit at Jesus’ feet and get close to him, the true Passover Lamb.  In this busy week, my greatest commodity is my time, and I will gladly give it to him as my offering. 

Chag Pesach Same’ach 

(Joyful Passover Feast)

Amy’s Marginalia: Daniel Deronda

danielderondaMy mom and dad gave me a beautiful copy of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda for Christmas, so I had just the excuse I’ve been needing to dive into this 800 page classic.  Sure, it’s taken me awhile to read it, but the effort has been pure pleasure.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

Some of you might be familiar with Eliot from her most famous novel, Middlemarch.  Others might have read her shorter novel, Silas Marner, as part of a college literature course.  That’s where I first encountered her work.
Eliot wrote at the end of the Victorian era, with over 40 years between Jane Austen’s final published book and Eliot’s first one.  Daniel Deronda was her final work, written in 1876, a time when Thomas Hardy, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Fydor Dostoevsky were writing (Twain published Tom Sawyer in this same year).

When I mention that George Eliot is one of my favorite women writers, I often get funny looks.  People wonder what sort of parent would name their girl “George.”  In fact, “George Eliot” is merely a pen name for a single woman named Mary Ann Evans who wanted to be taken more seriously.  It also didn’t hurt that the name gave her some anonymity from her scandalous living situation, with a married man.

Eliot turned her back on the church early in life, when she met free thinkers who made her question the miracles in the Bible.  Her upbringing in the Church of England as well as her wide range of reading, give her insight into the workings of parish life, as depicted in many of her novels.  So although they are situated in a “Christian” culture, they lack that deeper connection with Jesus and faith.

Although it’s hard to summarize an 800 page novel in a few sentences, I’ll do my best to give you gist of the book.  The main character, Daniel Deronda, is the adopted son of a wealthy landowner named Sir Hugo, whose estate is entailed to his nephew, Grandcourt.  Everyone assumes that Deronda is Sir Hugo’s son from out of wedlock, but nobody knows for sure who he is.  Deronda loves to help people: a Cambridge chum, a Jewish woman he saves from drowning herself (Mirah Lapidoth), and Gwendolyn Harleth, who competes with Deronda for the role of main character.  Gwendolyn is a beautiful, recently poor woman who falls into Grandcourt’s clutches and seeks Deronda’s help. Then, we get the classic love triangle, with Deronda in the middle and Mirah and Gwendolyn on either side.

Mixed with this relational intrigue, comes the larger political and philosophical focus of the work: Zionism. Here, in 1876, a full 72 years before Israel becomes a nation and 20 years before the Zionism movement gains full momentum in Europe with Theodor Herzl’s publication of The Jewish State, Eliot is making the case for a Jewish nation state in Palestine.  Through the character Mordecai, she gives the arguments supporting the creation of Israel.  But she also depicts anti-Semitism in all its ugly forms but turns each and every example on its head by giving alternatives pictures of real Judaism and Jewish people.  The book doesn’t come across as preachy, but I can see how it could work to change negative attitudes about Jews.

At a time when the news constantly features tension in Israel, it’s worth looking back to the trials the Jews have faced before they got their own country, the reason why in 1948, they were granted their own nation state.

danielderondamovieFor those who aren’t as interested in the Zionist elements of the plot, Gwendolyn Harleth’s character provides ample reasons to read the book.  She’s considered by many to be Eliot’s finest character creation, and I can’t help but agree.  A strong woman, wanting to have her freedom and independence but struggling to meet the demands a society places upon her, while also battling a conscience fraught with guilt, Gwendolyn transcends time and place and easily connects with a modern reader, who battles these same demons.

I recognize that many of you aren’t about to read an 800 page novel.  Instead, you might consider the BBC’s excellent 2002 production, written by the same screenwriter who wrote the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice that I love so well.  The casting is very good, especially for Deronda and Gwendolyn.

Amy’s Marginalia: Foreskin’s Lament

foreskins-lamentI’ve been reading a lot more memoirs lately, thanks to some memoir loving friends and NPR’s This American Life, which features several humorous memoir writers, including my all time favorite, David Sedaris.  Shalom Auslander also occasionally reads portions of his books on the show, and I found his tale of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family bitingly satiric and downright funny.  It also had a painful edge about it that made me want to read the book, to find out more about this guy’s relationship with the God of Orthodox Judaism.

Shalom Auslander, ironically named “peace” in Hebrew, was raised in New York, in an Orthodox Jewish community.  He chronicles his growing antagonism from his childhood faith, intermixed with stories of his contemporary struggles to decide whether or not to circumcise his firstborn child.

Auslander’s god is an angry, vindictive, petty god, who demands legalism to ward off evil.  If Auslander doesn’t obey the Sabbath, his favorite hockey team will lose.  If Auslander eat’s pork, his grandmother will die.  Or at least, that’s how he sees it.

His faith (or perhaps we should call it anti-faith) journey is one that ebbs and flows from extreme zealous conservatism to extreme liberalism.  While living in Israel under court and parental order to clean up his act, he grows out his sideburns (Leviticus 19:27) and begins to routinely visit the Wailing Wall. But, like all religious attempts to white knuckle it, he eventually backslides, and ends up slipping a “F-you God” note into the wailing wall.

I think one of the reasons that I found this book so funny is because I sympathized with him in the times where I too can get angry with God.  In my sin, I get petty, and think that God is out to get me.  It’s mostly when I get caught up in a works mentality, when I think it’s all up to me to earn my salvation.   I lash out and do sinful, immature things, hoping to send God my own form of a “F-you” message.

But the difference between my God and Auslander’s god is extreme.  Jesus is my God, and he offers grace and mercy.  I don’t have to white knuckle it, to follow all the rules to earn my salvation.  Jesus did all that work for me.  He’s not out to get me; he’s out to save me, from myself, from my sin, from my own evil inclinations.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Amy’s Marginalia: The Samurai’s Garden

samuraiA woman in one of my book groups gave me a copy of the Samuri’s Garden with a touching inscription:  “To my beloved samurai: I love you now and forever. I respect and admire your brave heart.”  Needless to say, I’ve been anxious to dive into the book for awhile, to learn about the inspiration for this beautiful sentiment.

The story takes place in Japan during the late 1930s, in a remote sea coast village.  Stephen, a young Chinese man stays at his family’s vacation home while recovering from tuberculosis.  He struggles to befriend the taciturn Matsu, the housekeeper and master gardener who also inhabits the home.  Meanwhile, war breaks out, as Japan invades Stephen’s Chinese homeland.  He struggles to interact with local villagers who regard him as the enemy while making unexpected new friends at a local leper colony.

Yes, I said leper colony.  And really, that’s what I want to talk about, because it’s the most fascinating element of the book.

When I think of leprosy, I think about biblical times. I think of Jesus healing the lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and Miriam’s seven day leprosy (Numbers 12:10-15).  But 20th century Japan? And a leper colony no less?

Gail Tsuiyama has a very fluid prose style.  She creates peaceful worlds, rich with flavor and colors.  Somehow, she even managed to lend beauty to the horrors of leprosy, which is no minor feat. Seeing leprous people in this way, for the first time, I wonder, is this how Jesus looked on them when he reached across the social, cultural, and religious barriers to touch and heal them?

Since reading the novel, I’ve tried to learn a little more about the disease.  I asked Dr. Husband to share some of his medical texts on the topic, but they were incredibly obtuse.  But I can now tell you that you can get leprosy from an armadillo. Bet you didn’t know that.  I’ve also learned that today, it’s highly treatable. Modern day antibiotics go a long way to curing many plagues of the past.  Even so, it seems like it wasn’t very contagious in casual contact, and only people with immune deficiency were most susceptible.  Essentially, it makes those leper colonies unnecessary, but perhaps the colonies had a lot to do with the stigma and less with the contagion.

In Jesus’ day, lepers would hide in their colonies and emerge, only to say “unclean, unclean” whenever they would approach people, as a warning for them to stay away.  Leviticus 13 details the method for detecting leprosy, and chapter 14 discusses the ritual cleansing if someone has been healed of leprosy.  I love that there’s a plan for if God decides to heal someone from an incurable disease (as it was back then).

I’m not the first to create this analogy, but it’s worth noting anyway. It’s the similarities between sin and leprosy, as it was in Jesus’ time especially.  It may start out small and barely noticeable, but it spreads and eats away life.  Sin corrupts and destroys. Its end is death.  It also isolates you from the people you love.  It’s an incurable condition (or was back then), but Jesus brings healing. Jesus sees you in your sin and shame, as he saw the lepers with their ugly scabs, scars, and missing appendages.  And he loves you and sees the beauty, despite all that.

In Tsukihama’s book, Matsu, the gardener “samurai,” loves the lepers.  He has Jesus’ heart for them.  Just as Jesus has a heart for you.

A Great Miracle Happened There

christmas-dreidelHappy Hanukkah everyone!  Today is the third day of the Jewish festival of lights, which takes place over a total of eight days. This year, Hanukkah and Christmas overlap, making it a great year to discuss the ways that we can celebrate them together.

Last year, I discussed how we can worship Jesus, the light of the world, as we light the Hanukkah menorah (click here to read about that).  This year, I want to focus on another element of the Hanukkah tradition and how we can incorporate Jesus’ birth into it.

Most people have seen a dreidel, but few know why they are significant, or what they have to do with a festival of lights.  Most people think they are simply a glorified gambling game, and it’s true that to some, that’s all they are.  But, the dridel points to the core meaning of the holiday, and it can also be easily integrated with some of our favorite Christmas traditions.

Tradition tells us that Jews in the Diaspora made dreidels while in captivity.  It was a way to study God’s word without attracting too much notice. These four sided tops simply looked like toys, not tools of reflection and meditation.

dreidel-bowlEach side contains one Hebrew letter:  נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hey), and ש (Shin). These letters are an acronym for the words נס גדול היה שם, Nes Gadol Haya Sham: “A great miracle happened there.”  It refers to the miracle of Hanukkah, where God made the temple oil last eight days for the rededication, when there was only a one day supply.

In the Letinsky home, we play the dreidel game at Hanukkah.  We spin the top and play for M&Ms, gelt (chocolate coins), or pennies. Each letter has different rules.  If you land on Nun, you lose your turn and get “none.”  Gimel gives you the entire pot (“gimme”).  Lading on Hey gets you half the pot.  Shin wipes you out, and you go broke (which seems appropriate, since it sound like the word “sin”).

dreidel-lineSo how in the world does this little game have anything to do with baby Jesus?  It’s all in the letters.  Especially this year, when the holidays overlap, we can truly say “a miracle happened there” and apply it to both the Hanukkah oil and the miracle of our Savior’s birth.  I made it even more obvious for my nativity and placed a banner under it with all the dreidel letters facing forward, proclaiming that a miracle happened there, 2000 years ago.

large-dreidelOkay, one more little dreidel factoid because I love this kind of stuff.  Some orthodox sects of Judaism study the Bible by interpreting the numerical value of each of the Hebrew letters.  They often look for prophetic significance in them.  This form of study is called Gematria, and if you’ve ever read Chaim Potok’s classic, The Chosen, you’ll see several mentions of it.  Don’t ask me to explain how this works, but I’ve heard rumors that the numerical value of each of the Hebrew letters on the dreidel adds up to the word “messiah,” which is another great reason why the dreidel works well as a reminder of our Messiah, Jesus.

So, spin a dreidel.  Think about Jesus, the promised Messiah, who was prophesied about long before his time on earth, and the great miracle that happened there, in Bethlehem, when he was born.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!

Sukkot: Jewish Camping and Thanksgiving in October

Fall is a great time to be Jewish because it’s when all the fun feasts take place.  The last one started last night, and it will continue for 7 days.  It’s called Sukkot (pronounced Sue-Coat), and it’s a fun combination of Thanksgiving, harvest festival, and camping, all rolled into one big celebration.  Last night, Dan and I were trying to figure out a way to honor the holiday, and our efforts came up a little bit short.

The holiday is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament, and even once in the New Testament.  In Leviticus 23:39-43, we learn the requirements for the annual holiday:

“‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest.  On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.  Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month.  Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’ “

Believe it or not, observant Jews construct huts outside their homes and live in them for a week.  If it’s cold, they might only eat their meals in them, but the real hard core ones will pack their entire family into the “booth” for a mini camping experience.

I began my attempts to observe the holiday by consulting my official Jewish cookbook, which has come through on many obscure holidays with tasty, festive recipes.  The food for Sukkot was downright bizarre, involving lots of cabbage, which I didn’t have on hand, and oddly enough, lemons, which made no sense to me.  I did read that casseroles were popular features of Sukkot meals because they are easily transported to the outdoor booths.  So, what did I make?  Stir fry.

But it’s a seven day feast.  Tonight, I’ve got a more traditional stuffed bell-pepper dish planned.  Stuffed foods are also a tradition, and this also has a casserole feel to it.  My cookbook said it counted, so I’m going with it.  Dan, on hearing that it was a Jewish thanksgiving, automatically wanted turkey and stuffing.  Somehow, I just can’t handle a Jewish pilgrim turkey fest in October.

Over our Chinese/Jewish thanksgiving dinner, we talked about whether or not we should construct a booth.  Living in an apartment complex, this gets a little tricky.  Dan volunteered to make a fort out of pillows in our living room.  I passed on the offer.  Actually, I told him HE could sleep on the deck in our tent.  Neither option suited us very well.

I read him a section from a book I’ve been reading about a man who is trying to live “Biblically” by following all the laws in the bible, including all the holidays, for a year.  He had a similar problem with Sukkot, and he ended up building a booth in his living room.  Maybe next year.

But I think that instead of focusing on following the letter of the law here, the spirit of the law has a lot to teach us in this holiday.  We have seven full days to be thankful for a lot of things.  First, we get to be thankful that we don’t have to live in a tent, either in the wilderness with the Israelites or in our backyard with all the Jews who still live under the law.  I’m also thankful for the freedom in Christ to eat all sorts of great foods, including Chinese stir fry (even though I couldn’t bring myself to make it a seafood or pork stir fry…that was a bit much.  Just like I can’t do a Passover ham, no matter how much they are on sale.).

This week, have Thanksgiving a bit early, and spread it out over the whole week, not just one day.  Go ahead, be Biblical.

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 11:19 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: ,

Amy’s Marginalia: Three Cups of Tea

As a thank you for reviewing a composition textbook for them, my textbook publisher sent me a free bestseller for my “summer reading” pleasure.  I was pleased to receive something other than the typical reader, filled with college essays to assign to my students *snooze*. They sent me a copy of Three Cups of Tea, a book that’s been on the New York Times’ bestseller’s list for awhile now. 

I don’t feel obliged to review the book, since I got it as a thank you for reviewing another book.  But, maybe I’ll get one more if I keep this up. =)  However, I found the book so surprisingly good that I wanted to share my thoughts (or marginalia) on it with you all. 

As a believer, here’s the main take home point I got from the book: God can use even the smallest person to do incredible things.  Read the book for that message alone.

Here’s the plot synopsis because that’s what these reviews are supposed to have (it’s been awhile since I wrote a “proper” book review):  Greg Mortenson is an American mountaineer whose failed attempt at climbing K2 becomes the beginnings of his mission to transform Pakistan and the war torn middle east through building schools and educating girls.  He’s one man singlehandedly fighting the Taliban, and his weapons are books. 

With a title like Three Cups of Tea, you must think I’m pulling your leg.  My husband certainly did.  I think it was a clever marketing idea to get 30-50 year old women, the largest book buying segment of the population, to purchase this. 

So guys, if you think your ego might take a hit if you’re seen carrying around a book with women in burkhas and the words “tea” on the cover, consider buying a book cover (or even better, make one out of duct tape), or just get over it.  It’s a book men would enjoy too. 

Mortenson isn’t a Christian, as far as I could gather.  Even if he were, I’m sure that openly embracing the Christian faith would create many roadblocks to doing his work in that part of the world. He continually needed to prove that he wasn’t indoctrinating the children with his western ideas. Interestingly, his parents were Christian missionaries in Africa, and he grew up there.

Many parts of the story read like a faith based narrative of divinely appointed encounters when the right person shows up at just the right time, or someone feels called to help out without an explanation, saying things like “I’m not a religious person…but I felt I’d been brought there for a reason” (186).  When you read the book as a believer, you can see how God could be appointing this work, organizing non-believing people, despite their disbelief.  After all, he’s done it before (see the Bible for a few thousand references). 

The book resounded with my experience in the Middle East, in Israel.  While studying abroad in Jerusalem (at Jerusalem University College), Dan and I met a very hospitable Muslim shopkeeper in the old city named Suliman, and he welcomed us into his shop with a cup of tea.  We returned to visit him several times, and each time, we’d have a cup of mint tea with him.  Before we left the city, at the end of our time there, he gave us each a present, a circle of beads, known as worry beads, or to some devout Muslims, they are used to facilitate prayers.  We’d taken a picture with our friend Suliman, and when Dan’s parents travelled to Israel, we sent the picture with them, in case they met him, by means of an introduction.  They found our friend, and once they shared the picture, they were welcomed as old friends.  As far as we know, a picture of us is still hanging in his shop in Jerusalem.

A cup of tea can’t solve all the world’s problems, neither can three, but if everyone sat down long enough to talk over tea once in awhile, I’m sure the world would be a much better place. 

If you want to know how to make Suliman’s tea, I’ve tried to approximate it at home.  Here’s my best shot:

2 cups boiling water
2 bags of green tea (use loose leaf for best flavor)
6 fresh mint leaves (ripped a few times to release more flavor)

Steep for 5 minutes.  I like to make my tea in a French coffee press, but you can manage in a tea pot if you strain the ingredients as you pour the tea.

Pour into cups with a couple teaspoons of sugar, to make it nice and sweet, just like Suliman served it to us.