Thursday, November 17, 2011

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson

A couple of months ago, I received a call from Donna Johnson, who identified herself as a former student of my college. She told me she had written a memoir of her life growing up on the “sawdust circuit,” otherwise known as the world of tent revivals. It didn’t seem like something I would be interested in, but she offered to send me a copy of the book. She also asked if she could speak to my creative writing class. I am always happy to accommodate this request, because writers invariably tell my students the same things I tell them about reading, writing, persistence, and discipline.

When, I got Holy Ghost Girl, I was still skeptical, but publication by a division of Penguin must mean something. So, I called her back and made arrangements for her to speak to my class.

Whew! Am I glad I did not let these two opportunities slip by me. First of all, Donna did a terrific job – not only in my class, but also at a reading at the local Barnes & Noble a couple of days later.

When we agreed on a date and time, I decided I should at least begin to read the book. Once I started, I could hardly put it down.

Tent revivals encompass a world entirely off my radar. I knew about them in a vague sort of way – mostly from television. But Johnson has created a vivid world of the showmanship, the greed, the shameless begging, and obviously faked “miracle cures.”

Donna tells the story through her eyes as a young child. She acknowledges help with some of the memories from her sister and mother and some scholarly sources, but the truth of her story pours off every page. I never doubted a word of her tale for even a moment.

The rationalizations, the excuses, the canard “It’s all part of God’s plan,” and the ubiquitous “God told me (fill in the blank).” Needless to say I was appalled at the pandering for the last dollars and coins of people living on the edge. Most of the revivals seem to have taken place in the rural south, including Texas. David Terrell is still active, and his website lists a number of revivals.

The real tragedy of the story involves the effect this life had on Donna and her brother and sisters. CPS would be all over Donna’s mother, Carolyn Johnson for abandonment of her children in the care of near-strangers. Donna captures the terror of every move, every all-night drive to the next revival site, every time the children watched their mother drive away for an unknown destination for unknown length of time.

Donna has her doubts, but somehow she cannot turn completely away. Of course the child is awestruck by the charismatic preacher, but the adult has questions. She writes, “Doubt is a lot like faith; a mustard seed’s worth changes everything. Away from the tent, the questions kept coming. How can Brother Terrell claim to be without sin? Why doesn’t it matter that he is committing adultery and lying? [italics Johnson’s] .(256) and “”Why did Brother Terrell and my family have so much stuff, when Jesus said to sell everything and give it to the poor? Why had an omnipotent God let that child die?” (257). Why indeed?

As Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so inevitably, the mansions, the Mercedes, the planes, the fast living, all consumed David Terrell, and, inevitably, the tax man cometh. Eventually, Terrell was convicted and spent a few measly years in prison for the millions he bilked off of poor, gullible people who desperately wanted to believe a better life awaited them in the beyond.

An absorbing story, and I recommend it highly. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/17/11

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I haven’t read any Julian Barnes since Flaubert’s Parrot and History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters in grad school. When the 2011 Booker Prize went to Barnes for A Sense of an Ending, I pounced on it. My complete set of Booker Prize winning novels is one of my prize collections.

Ending is divided into two parts. The first tells the story of four friends in high school: Colin, Alex, the narrator Tony Webster, and a newcomer to the school, Adrian Finn. The boys graduate and slowly drift apart. Then Adrian dies unexpectedly, and the memories come crashing down on Tony. Part of his past also reappears in the form of Veronica – a woman Tony cared about deeply, but who dropped him rather abruptly and unkindly. That’s it – no more plot.

The story is a lot more complicated, as Barnes delves into the sometimes distorted memory of Tony, who as Veronica says, “doesn’t get it.” Tony hasn’t really given much thought about the details of his life in years. The novel opens with a list of images, which re-appear throughout the novel. These images, first out of, and then, in context provide an interesting backdrop to the story.

Barnes has written a novel which begs to be read in a single sitting. His prose mesmerizes the reader and creates a hunger for more of the details of Tony and his friends.

Appropriately enough, the opening scene is a history class, and the boys offer differing interpretations of the past. Professor Hunt asked Tony, “What is history?” Tony replied, “History is the lies of the victors” … and then Hunt says, “as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated” (18).

Later, Tony muses, “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others” (88). I wondered, who is the victor? Who the defeated?

The themes of history and memory run through the novel, and Barnes has his narrator constantly turning over the stones of his past to understand himself and the context of his life. Barnes writes, “Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new was being born – even if that something new is our very own self?

A most interesting question! Ultimately, Tony determines the significance of his memories, but a surprise ending brings the entire story into focus. 5 stars

--Chiron, 11/11/11

Sunday, November 06, 2011

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman

Some might call this “chick lit,” but I think it has a bit more to it than that. I have done some pretty heavy reading lately, and when I left for a weekend in Charleston, I needed something a bit lighter.

Chantel and Philippe are lovers. Along with their friend Nico, all work for a tutoring school in Paris. As is the custom, they meet for coffee before beginning a day with their students wandering around Paris, helping them learn French. Philippe has been cheating on Chantel, and she has “revenge sex” with Nico. The novel breaks down into three parts. Nico instructs Josie, an American escaping to Paris after the sudden death of her lover, Simon, the married father of one of her students. Philippe pairs up with Riley, an ex-pat American with two children, and a husband, Victor, who spends way too much time on the job. Chantel strolls about the City of Lights with Jeremy, married to Dana, an American actress making a film. At the end of the day, they all arrive at the set of the movie on a bridge over the Seine.

Quite a few erotic scenes pepper the story, so this is definitely an NC-17 novel. But the discussions and the introspection elevate French Lessons quite a bit above an ordinary romance. Furthermore, the plot develops in an unexpected way for each pair of characters, and the ending has a nice twist.

A nice read for a rainy, damp, fall day curled up with a cup of tea and some soft music. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 11/6/11

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Forty some years ago, as I gathered textbooks at LaSalle College for another semester pursing a degree in political science, I happened to pass a textbook for a class which not in my major. I grabbed a copy, and thus began a lifelong interest in the history of Russia. Robert K. Massie has written a definitive biography of Tsarina Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great.

Well-educated, multi-lingual, cultured, free-spirited, graceful, with a good measure of beauty and charm only begins to describe this complex, intelligent woman.

Catherine, a voracious reader of the great enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot, Montesquieu, Beccaria, and, perhaps most importantly, Voltaire, attempted a radical reform of the Russian legal and economic systems. She titled her document the Nakaz, or “Instruction.” She believed a benevolent autocracy was the only form of government able to hold together the vast Russian Empire with its mind-numbing variety of ethnic groups, languages, philosophies, religious views, and social classes.

The same men who profoundly influenced our founding fathers, instructed Catherine in equal rights for men and women, religious freedom, strict limits on capital punishment, and the banning of torture. Unfortunately, the serfs, considered property tied to the land, would only receive limited benefits from this proposal. When the nobles finished hacking and sawing the 500 plus articles in her manifesto, barely a quarter of her two-year’s labor remained. Yet Voltaire hailed it as masterpiece of Enlightenment thought and practice.

I was particularly struck by some ideas and quotes of Voltaire’s incorporated into the Nakaz. For example, Catherine wrote, “Experience shows that the frequent use of severe punishment has never rendered a people better. The death of a criminal is a less effective means of restraining crimes than the permanent example of a man deprived of his liberty during the whole of his life to make amends for the injury he has done to the public” (350). This sentence is worthy of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, or Lincoln.

In prohibiting censorship and promoting free speech, she wrote, “censorship can be ‘productive of nothing but ignorance and must cramp the rising efforts of genius and destroy the very will for writing” (351).

When Catherine ascended the throne in 1761, she immediately put an end to a pointless, costly, and destructive war in Eastern Europe. She believed, as Voltaire wrote, “The victorious nation never profits from the spoils of the conquered; it pays for everything. It suffers as much when its armies are successful as when they are defeated. Whoever wins, humanity loses” (335).

This meticulously documented biography covers Catherine’s life from her birth as Sophia in 1727 through her 34-year reign as Empress Catherine II to her death in 1796.

The only shortcoming – and a minor one at that – is the lack of genealogical chart to separate all the Catherines, Peters, Pauls, and Ivans which populated the Russian Empire during the enlightenment. Due for publication November 8th, be sure to add this fascinating biography to your TBR list. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 10/27/11