Monday, February 20, 2012

Author Interview: Donna Johnson, Part II

Continued from Part I...

One of the most alarming parts of your book comes when  your mother leaves you with strangers in order to dedicate herself more completely to the Lord’s work (or Terrell’s work). Did you ever discuss with your mother how her work with Terrell affected her parenting? Did she ever indicate that she regretted her choice? Since your father was largely absent from your life, did Terrell ever become in any way a surrogate father?

I have discussed my mother's choices several times with her throughout my life and she has apologized many times. She absolutely regrets many of her choices. Don't we all? As for Terrell, I say at the beginning of the book that he was as close to a father figure as I would get. Once my mom stopped traveling, he supported our family. We looked forward to him coming home. He was kind to me and my brother. He sold one of his trucks to buy my first car. He was a sort of distant father figure, as were many men of his generation.

How would you characterize the pull that followers feel when their religious leader directs them in ways they believe to be wrong, or strongly misguided? 

I think it's like growing up in an alcoholic family. You know something is wrong, you can feel it, but the people you trust keep telling you that everything is okay. And so you are deeply divided. You believe what you are told more than what you perceive, and therein lies the problem. 

There is a certain innocence for kids with this kind of upbringing—it was not our choice, after all, to follow this charismatic, but dangerous, leader. What sense do you have of what it does take for an adult to turn her life over completely to a near-stranger?

I think the overall impetus often comes when an individual is seeking meaning, or at least something "bigger" or more important than what he or she finds in everyday life.  Once people find someone who seems inspired and willing to provide answers, perhaps they are relieved that they no longer have to carry the burden of that seeking. It becomes the leader's job to provide answers, and the people's job to believe.  And of course fundamentalist religion casts doubt in such negative terms. I think that's probably the most negative thing about fundamentalism of all kinds, it discourages doubt and critical thinking. And that leaves people open to the worst sorts of abuse. Perhaps a better, or more helpful, mode of religion would point us all back toward to our own hearts, something like the Buddhist perspective that the answers lie within.

It seems to me that our generation would never give up autonomy in the same way our parents’ generation did. Can you discuss what it might have been about that particular time in history that perhaps produced a certain kind of person who was ready and eager to become a follower?

I think there are people who are always ready and eager to become followers, but I also think that earlier generations were taught be more accepting of authority. We have since seen so much abuse of authority, in almost every institution, that trust seems overly naive. Part of the 1960s ethos was to question authority and perhaps we've carried that forward. However, there are many today who follow the party line without  questioning, who accept the politically correct or  the conservative point of view without question. I think it's a very real danger to democracy and part of why the cultural divide is so deep.

The book pretty much ends as you come of age. Do you feel that you’ve been able to lead a “normal” adult life? How did your childhood affect you as an adult?

The answer to this question depends on how we define normal. I married, had children, furthered my education and have had what most would deem a successful career--so on paper I sound normal. My childhood has affected my adult life in a myriad of ways--as childhoods do. For a long time stability felt like a kind of death. I've had several failed relationships and marriages. The sameness of day-to-day life grated on me, and sometimes still does. As a result, I don't think I was a great mom--and that is very painful for me. I hate that my childhood has affected my daughter. On the positive side, the Jesus message of housing the homeless, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked has stayed with me. I have a deep empathy with outsiders that I think comes from that emphasis of caring for one's neighbors, with the idea being that we are all neighbors.

Thanks a bunch to Donna Johnson for this interview; I'm looking forward to her next book!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Author Interview Donna Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl

A few weeks ago I posted a review of Holy Ghost Girl, about a family who traveled with a revival preacher in the 1960's. The author of this book, Donna Johnson, graciously agreed to answer my questions about the book. Here is part 1 of the interview; part 2 is coming soon!

Did you hold on to any of the religious beliefs of your childhood? 

I carry a belief in social justice that stems from the teachings I absorbed as  a kid. I inherited the idea that there is something huge and mysterious afoot in the world, though I think that religion often makes that "something" too small by trying to define it. I am a sort of cultural Christian, much more of a contemplative. I read Buddhist writers and thinkers and they have influenced the way in which I think about existence. I would like to feel more connected to my own tradition, but find I still have quite a bit of resistance, even though I've attended an Episcopal church on and off and years.

As I mentioned in my review, I was expecting a sort of tongue-in-cheek sendup of the “crazy Pentecostals,” but your book is a far cry from that. You seem to be writing from a position of ambivalence – an even-handed acknowledgement of the good hand-in-hand with the bad. Would you say there was more good? Or more bad? Would you trade your childhood for a “normal” childhood?

I don't know if there was more good than bad. On a day to day basis, there may have been more bad times than good. But there was also great deal of love, and that redeemed my childhood to a large extent and gave me some sense of goodness in the world. In terms of trading my childhood for a normal one--because of my daughter and because I now see so much dysfunction being passed down through the next generation, I have to say yes, I would trade my childhood for something more normal. I would have liked to have had an experience of stability and safety to pass on.

If a religious leader is going to have “feet of clay,” it often seems to be in the area of sexuality. Why do you think that sexual sin is so common among admired Christian men?

I've thought a great deal about this. Statistics show that divorce and affairs are as common in the church as outside of it, so I don't know that Christian men are more prone to sexual misconduct. Several Buddhist leaders and Hindu holy men have been accused of misconduct similar to Terrell's in terms of money and women. I tend to think that power is a corrupting force. Look at the secret and not so secret lives of performers and politicians. I think sexual misconduct stands out in Christian and religious circles because we expect more from these men, as we should. Terrell's sexual misconduct was on a grand scale, more like a rock star's maybe. But I do not think it is an anomaly in any circle, especially where there is unchecked power and ego.

Your brother was younger than you. How has he reacted to the upbringing the two of you shared?

My brother has recreated a life style that is similar to the one in which we grew up with a couple of large exceptions: he treated his wife far better and he didn't leave his children behind. He often says he doesn't like to talk about the past, but I think it is because it is so very painful for him.  And I'm not sure that talking about it makes it any better or any less painful.

Your book describes a kind of parallel existence with kids in the rest of the world—for example, the scene where some of you visit a local swimming pool, where the town kids watch you swim in your church clothes—because you don’t own bathing suits. Did you (collectively) feel superior to “normal” kids? Envious? Can you describe how you came to realize that you had something in common with them? As an adult, do you now feel “assimilated,” or do you still have something of that wall between you and outsiders?

We felt both superior and inferior to "worldly" kids. We knew we were different and to compensate for that difference, we feigned superiority. I say feigned, but we were taught that we were the elect, the chosen ones and we absorbed that teaching. In later years, as a preteen, I was very envious of normal kids. I think I first realized I had something in common with the rest of the world through reading. Good books allowed me to see the commonality of humanity. I never discussed my innermost feelings with anyone until I reached my twenties. I am certainly more assimilated than I've ever been, but it's been a long process, and yes, I still often feel like an outsider. It's habit. I have to remind myself on occasion that the reality is I am no longer an outsider and have not been for a long time.

Watch for part 2, coming soon!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: Delivered with Love

Author: Sherry Kyle 
Title: Delivered with Love
Description: Jobless and newly homeless, Claire takes off in pursuit of her mother’s mysterious past. Arriving in the town from which her mother was sent a letter signed by the unknown “M,” Claire reconnects with an old neighbor, rents a house from someone who might have written the letter, and falls for her hunky neighbor who cooks for her (who wouldn’t?)
Review source: This book was a freebie on kindle.
Plot: Pretty clunky. It’s obvious early on that it’s Christian fiction of the most annoying sort. Lots of coincidences (although in Christian fiction, they’re never just coincidences, are they?)
Characters: The characters are also pretty generic. The abused wife. The hunky neighbor. The sweet old lady.
Writing style: Well, I didn’t HATE reading this book.
Audience: This is pretty much straight-up Christian romance/chick lit. If that’s totally your thing, give it a try. If it’s not, don’t bother.
Wrap-up: This book would have been better with fewer coincidences, a less naïve heroine, more subtle spirituality, and a less predictable plot. For starters. 2/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (14/15), the why buy the cow challenge, and the unread books challenge.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: The Tao of Pooh

Author: Benjamin Hoff  
Title: The Tao of Pooh
Description: The book uses characters from Winnie the Pooh to explain principles of Taoism.
Writing style:  The real enchantment of the book is that it borrows from Milne’s originals. If it has been awhile since you read Pooh, you’ll no doubt be delighted and surprised at Milne’s wit. When Hoff tries to write in the same style, it falls a little flat for me.
Audience: People interested in Taoism. I read it because I received the book for free and it was a quick read.
Major ideas: I’ll say right off the bat that I don’t know that much about Taoism, so I don’t know the extent to which Hoff is faithful to its orthodoxy, if there is such a thing. Taoism seems to be mainly about doing nothing and letting events “flow” around you. The author himself seems to have difficulty with this concept.
Wrap-up: There are obvious benefits to a lot of the philosophies Hoff advocates here; I’m not sure you need to be Taoist to believe them (cf. Paul: I’ve learned whatever state I’m in to be content.) The selections from Milne are worth reading and almost make me want to go back and grab House at Pooh Corner. If my to-read list weren’t so long… 2.5/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (13/15) and the unread books challenge.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review: Hamlet's Blackberry

Author: William Powers 
Title: Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
Description: Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose a burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.
How to solve this problem? Hamlet’s BlackBerry argues that we just need a new way of thinking, an everyday philosophy for life with screens. William Powers sets out to solve what he calls the conundrum of connectedness. Reaching into the past—using his own life as laboratory and object lesson—he draws on some of history’s most brilliant thinkers, from Plato to Shakespeare to Thoreau, to demonstrate that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness. Lively, original, and entertaining, Hamlet’s BlackBerry will challenge you to rethink your digital life. (Marketing description)

Writing style: The book is very readable, combining anecdotes with ruminations.
Audience: The book was written with a general audience in mind; anyone who uses technology probably struggles with the compulsion to be constantly connected conflicting with the stress of being constantly connected.
Major ideas: Powers calls on philosophers from the past (Plato, Shakespeare, Thoreau) to provide ideas that he can apply to our connected society.
Wrap-up: This book is more realistic than some dealing with the subject; complete unplugging isn’t recognized as a viable solution, so moderation is offered as a way to keep control of our electronics, rather than having them control us. Powers’ facility in dealing with the ideas of past thinkers is also a good model in general for folks who want to apply wisdom from centuries past to our much different lives today. 3/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (12/15) and the unread books challenge.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: I've Got Your Number

Author: Sophie Kinsella 
Title: I’ve Got Your Number
Description: Poppy is engaged to the suave intellectual, Magnus. Ten days before the wedding, she loses the (family heirloom) ring, but the same day, she finds a cell phone tossed into a trash can. Hilarity ensues.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: The phone Poppy finds is connected to Sam, a businessman who rarely answers his messages. While she is waiting for her ring to turn up, Poppy does some tidying up of Sam’s emails. This results in just what you would expect: embarrassing situations and a good deal of lying to get out of them.
Characters: Kinsella does a good job of rounding out the main characters—Poppy is scattered, kind, and funny, while Sam is harried and brusque.
Writing style: The story builds and builds; by the climax, I was pretty much flipping the pages as fast as I could. There were plenty of funny bits.
Audience: Kinsella is one of the top names in chick lit, and she certainly delivers here. I doubt the appeal of the book to folks who don’t like chick lit, though.
Wrap-up: The book was admittedly lightweight, but kept me roundly entertained while I was reading it. 4/5*

I'm claiming this book for the new author challenge (11/15).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book Review: Ironweed

Author: William Kennedy
Title: Ironweed
Description:  Francis Phelan is pretty much unapologetically a bum, who spends pretty much any money he can get his hands on to take his next drink. Francis wasn’t always this way, though. He had a career as a promising baseball player—he shared the field with Ty Cobb. He had a loving wife and family. An unfortunate accident cost him a finger—and his baseball career. Then he was the cause of his baby’s death. The Depression meant jobs were scarce and fought over, and Francis caused another death in a labor dispute. Francis misses his family, but believes that they are better off without him; he now has a partnership with Helen, who once had a promising career as a concert pianist. In spite of the difficulty of finding food, warmth, and a place to sleep, Francis maintains some dignity and in his way, helps those who share his plight to maintain some self-respect, if it is in his power.  
Plot: The book opens as Francis visits, for the first time, the grave of the baby son he lost.  The ghosts of his past are never too distant as he looks back on everything that went wrong in his life, while at the same time negotiating life on the streets. Francis warily circles the neighborhoods of his past, unsure about the welcome he might receive, but drawn to see his family again.
Characters: In Francis Phelan, Kennedy has drawn a nearly perfect character study. Flawed by alcoholism and a quick and violent temper, yet loving and protective of those for whom he cares, Francis tries to maintain an existence to which every day is a challenge just to stay alive. Helen too is bedraggled and blowsy, but maintains the vestiges of the woman she used to be in a way that makes her worthy of Francis’ love. Even the secondary characters—the junk man, the neighbors of Francis’ youth, the other inhabitants of the streets and flophouses, are pitch perfect.
Writing style: Spare—the book is short for a novel—but beautifully written. Somehow the sordid conditions of Francis’ lifestyle are ever-present, yet transcended.
Audience: This book is a Pulitzer winner—it’s literary fiction, but definitely accessible to anyone who might want to read it.
Wrap-up: I never had the desire to read this book because Jack Nicholson starred in the movie, and I have a revulsion toward any movie or connection with Jack Nicholson. Once I got started in the book, though, Jack faded away to be replaced by the real Francis Phelan who has nothing to do with Jack. This was a beautiful book that I loved reading. 5/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (10/15) and the unread books challenge.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Book Review: Holy Ghost Girl

Author: Donna M. Johnson
Title: Holy Ghost Girl: A Memoir
Description: A single mother with two small children, Donna Johnson’s mother still felt a call to the ministry which prompted her to leave her Assemblies of God clergy parents’ home to join the entourage of revivalist David Terrell.  A tent-preacher in the faith-healing tradition of Oral Roberts, Terrell and his small group of followers traveled from town to town, mostly in the civil rights era South, holding revival meetings. From the time she was a toddler, Johnson grew up attending several preaching services a day, witnessing healings and speaking in tongues as everyday events, and associating only with other holiness converts.
ARC source: I received this book as a part of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
Writing style: Previous books that I’ve read in this genre tend to be pretty tongue-in-cheek, demonstrating that the author now knows better than to believe all that claptrap. And you have to admit that this type of lifestyle, while not generally prone to drunkenness and high living, has its own extremes. I was surprised at Johnson’s even-handed approach. While she does not cover up the flaws of the adults involved (Terrell was sexually involved with several women in the group in addition to his wife and Johnson’s mother seemed to have many priorities higher than parenthood), she also readily affirms the good memories and the seemingly miraculous events that surround Terrell.
Audience: This book will appeal to those who enjoy reading memoirs and those interested in revivalism and religious history.
Major ideas: Although Johnson felt like her family was mostly broken, as an adult she comes to realize that perhaps she can define “family” in a way that will include the jumble of people who surround David Terrell. She also seems surprised that she has managed to become as normal of an adult as she seems to be.
Wrap-up:  I had a not dissimilar upbringing, so maybe I was way more fascinated by this book than other folks would be, but it still struck me as being gracefully written, evenly paced, and always fascinating. 4.5/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (9/15) and the Memorable Memoirs challenge (2/4).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

Title: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty
Description:  When Big decides to uproot the beloved willow tree behind the house, the small box that is unearthed sets in motion a series of events that rocks the whole household—Big herself, the strong matriarch, Liza, Big’s daughter, who recently suffered a stroke and has lost the ability to communicate, and Mosey, Liza’s fifteen year-old daughter. Each of them takes a different approach to tying together the past and the present, eventually turning up blackmail, drugs, and a couple of old love affairs.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: Jackson had me captivated from the first sentence. This was the first book in a long while that I couldn’t stand to put down and couldn’t stand to finish. I would literally sit at work and pine for it, waiting until I could get home and read some more.
Characters: The three main characters, Big, Liza, and Mosey, are wonderfully fleshed out. Liza seems the most problematic, since she is so severely limited by her physical handicap, but Jackson lets the reader know what is going on in her mind. Big and Mosey are both sympathetic and smart.
Writing style: I thought this might be magic realism when I started reading it, but it turned out not to be, though the style was like that. There is this sort of tale-weaving that goes on in magical realism that is just spellbinding, and this book had that same feel.
Audience: I would think that those who enjoy chick lit and those who enjoy cozy mysteries would both enjoy this book.
Wrap-up: It’s hardest for me to review books I love because I’m just so tempted to break out into song. Imagine, if you will, angel choirs singing about how fun this book is to read.  5/5*

I'm claiming this book for the new author challenge (8/15).