Saturday, February 4, 2012

FACTORY GIRLS – Leslie T. Chang


I started this book before Christmas and just recently finished it. It is one of those nonfiction reads that you can, and must for mental health reasons, put down for a few days before picking it up again. No worries about losing your place or forgetting what you read because you will be brooding about it the whole time you are not reading.

Chang is herself of Chinese descent. She notes that being obviously of Chinese heritage helped open doors for her during her research that many before her had difficulty obtaining. She actually lived among the factory girls and scoured the cities herself interviewing the workers for her data gathering. Interspersed with the research are stories of Chang's own family exodus from China and the country's history also. Chang's own grandfather had emigrated to the USA to go to college, returned to China to help his country progress, was murdered and eventually became a hero to his descendents. All of this is woven into a very understandable and engrossing book. This book is well constructed, interesting, and well documented. I would like to find a group reading this for discussion as my book is full of sticky notes!

According to Chang since China is still a male-dominated culture, rural families still strive to have male children. They will and often do have many female children in pursuit of an heir. The males inherit all the property and assets and usually are the only children sent for further education after elementary school. In the 1990s the surplus female children began to flood the cities for work in the American factories. These girls may be anywhere from 12 to 15 when they arrive and will stay usually only until they are in their early 30s when they will feel pressured to marry and move back to the rural areas. If they can and are smart enough some will save wages to educate themselves further. Those who can educate themselves will become professionals, factory bosses, or they will emigrate.

The factory girls live in dormitories in the factory compounds. They have little, their relationships are superficial, and they are transient. Some will transfer to better jobs, some will tire and go home, and some will meet men and start homes. Many simply disappear into lives of prostitution or are killed and no one knows where they went. Chang delivers her material in a very matter of fact way so that you know the problem is complex. It is not as simple as - The Unites States puts a bunch of factories here and slaves work in them. It is true U.S. investors put factories in China and girls will make the products for very little per day. However, there are still millions of young people in China who need jobs. Families in China are still having too many children in the quest for males. Americans still want cheap goods. Americans will not make these goods as cheaply as Chinese workers will.

Chang's book lets you get to know some of these workers. She lived with them, went home to the farms with them, listened to and documented their hopes and dreams. There are other books on the market now that will give you a picture of the upwardly mobile, educated, and wealthy of China but this one is a look at the rural people who have seen, in only twenty years, the focus of their country turn from agriculture to industry and technology. The new generation of floating population is creating new classes of its own. Height is very important in this new generation that is just barely free from starvation. Each factory practices its own version of class discrimination too. If you read this book you will be entranced with the worker's stories. It isn't dark, or somber but it isn't sugar-coated either.

STORIES I ONLY TELL MY FRIENDS – Rob Lowe


Finally getting to my Christmas books. I was skeptical about this one because typically star bios are not for me. But Stories I Only Tell My Friends got such good reviews that I weakened and asked for a copy for Christmas. So glad I did too. It was actually very entertaining and fun.

Lowe came from very well-educated, intelligent, and loving parents. He became interested in acting at a very young age while growing up in Dayton, Ohio where he often acted in civic productions. He seemed, according to this memoir, a pretty well-adjusted child, a good student, a hard worker, and talented. He did suffer from his parents divorce and subsequent breakup of his mother's second marriage as well. His mother did end up moving herself and her sons to California where the Sheen's were neighbors and Rob became good friends with Emilio. Lowe relates many tales of vying for acting parts in Hollywood, navigating neighborhood life, and continuing high school. Before becoming an adult Rob was virtually living on his own in a bungalow behind the family home and basically became the major bread-winner of the family.

Chapters contain many descriptions of Lowe's first encounters with people who would later become famous. Too many to mention them all but as he rose to stardom he met and acted with many young actors including Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. His stories are well written, fun and funny. He doesn't disparage anyone either which I appreciate.

There are a few dark chapters of substance abuse and rehab but even those are not written heavy handedly. Nor does he do any “poor me” or whining about being taken advantage of or blaming anyone else for his troubles. Indeed he seems to take responsibility for his problems.

One of my favorite excerpts is on page 151 when he reflects on his relationship with his own father and what he has learned about what teenage boys really need.
“They absorb incrementally, through hours and hours of observation. The sad truth about divorce is that it's hard to teach your kids about life unless you are living life with them: eating together, doing homework, watching Little League, driving them around endlessly, being bored with nothing to do, letting them listen while you do business, while you negotiate love and the frustrations and complications and rewards of living day in and day out with your wife.”
He has remained married to the same woman for over 20 years and seems to dote on his two sons. Their family story is quite wonderful. While he did not have the stability he feels is so important, he seems dedicated to providing that for his sons. Even so he seems not at all bitter towards his parents and proudly examines the strengths each gave to him and his brothers.

It is clear that Lowe very much valued his acting experience on The West Wing TV series. He takes pride in being part of an unusually high brow project that was demanding, sophisticated, and delivered to the American public quality TV performances. I also learned from him in that chapter that sometimes one must realize that even though you know you are doing a good job, and you know you could do more or do it better if given a chance, if others don't see it, then it is time to move on. That it is OK, and not anything to be bitter about. A book that takes an afternoon to read and when you are done you give a big sigh and a “thank you” before you lay it aside.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

THE CHERRY LOG SERMONS – Fred Craddock



Zion First Tuesday Class discussed this book for the second time this past Tuesday. Sadly Pastor Mark shared that Reverend Craddock is ill and no longer is strong enough to preach. Previously Craddock was Professor Emeritus of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was also Minister Emeritus at Cherry Log Christian Church in Cherry Log, Georgia. In 2001 he was named by Newsweek one of the top 10 preachers in the country. I really enjoyed his book and am so sorry to hear this news.

Originally when Mark hinted he wanted to share this title I didn't want to hurt his feelings but I had no desire to read a whole book of sermons. Now I love my church and our pastor is a great guy and a very good preacher, but I am always ready to go home by the end of service and I couldn't imagine myself sitting for hours reading sermon after sermon. I was so wrong. This is narrative in an easy comfortable style. Each chapter begins with a New Testament reading then Craddock talking about his interpretation, thoughts, and insights. So much brilliance. My responses ran from, “hmmmm,” “really?” to “I think that way too!” He presents his material in a conversational manner, is never heavy handed or judgmental, and I never once felt like I heard echoes of Bible-thumping. So there you have it, a great read to make one ponder and do a little introspection. It's a very pretty book too. The cover is classy with an interesting picture and lovely type. If there is a significance to some of the letters in the title being white I wish someone would enlighten me. It looks like they are like that for a reason but I couldn't figure it out nor why three of them are in italics. Anyone?

The first line to capture my attention was in the first 
chapter on page 5. Craddock says, “I get sick and tired of people always thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up.” The second one was at the bottom of that same paragraph, “I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three-pound Bible and say, “Just do what the Book says.”” When I read those thoughts I said, Me too! After all I live in the middle of the Bible-thumping belt. All my life I have been surrounded by those who profess to know exactly what a “good Christian” is and I particularly love it when they are saying such things with a raised eyebrow insinuating that you may not be one of them. Craddock makes so much sense and makes me feel at home.

My favorite sermons were numbers 8 “What God Wants This Church to Do” and 13 “Who Am I to Judge Another?” The first is based on Matthew 28:16-20. Craddock begins this sermon with a story about going with his family to a Star Wars movie which leads into thoughts about prequels, sequels, having doubts, and knowing what to do. On page 44 he says, “There have been times and places when and where people have been emotionally coerced, socially coerced, even militantly coerced into following Jesus...because somebody misunderstood what it means to make disciples.” He also said he has known some to coerce even at funerals which he calls, a “sub-Christian” thing to do.

Chapter 13 is based on Romans 14:1-12 and on page 74 Craddock gives his interpretation as thus:
“Paul said, If you want to eat just vegetables, just eat vegetables. If you want to eat meat, eat meat. But quit picking on each other. Stop forcing everybody else to fit into your pattern of eating meat, not eating meat, drinking wine, not drinking wine, keeping the Sabbath, not keeping the Sabbath. In other words, Paul said, Knock it off. Whatever you do, whether you drink or not, whether you eat or not, whether you keep the Sabbath or not. Do it to the honor and the praise of God and not in some self-righteous way to judge someone else.” Yea Craddock!

There are so many other good chapters too and if you read this book you will think about the “disease of the successful,” what is integrity, how to approach reading the Bible and many other things to make you go hmmmm. He truly preaches the love of God and how to be a humble witnessing servant. I wish I could know him personally and can only hope I meet him some day. 

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER – Carson McCullers


My hands must have touched a copy of this title innumerable times throughout my career. One or more copies always resided in my library and this title was on our school AP English reading list, but for some reason I never picked it up myself. This year the Adams Central Adult Literati made this a winter reading choice. Seven members attended group and six of us liked it. The seventh didn't dislike it but it wasn't her cup of tea. I liked it very much indeed. We had a great and detailed discussion. This book was published in 1940 and illuminated many issues pervasive in our nation and our culture. As we discussed we realized so much has changed in 70 years and yet so much is still the same.

Silly as it may seem to seasoned readers and to other librarians, I was not aware McCullers was a female and I was finished with the book before I realized that the picture on the cover of my book is her! I have, since finishing the book, looked her up and found many interesting facts. For instance the character Mick and many events containing her are somewhat biographical. Describing what this novel is about is no easy task. With no defined or sequential plot I will say it is a book about people (and there are many of them to keep track of) living and maneuvering in the subcultures of the South during the late 1930s. It almost has the feel of a memoir. It is a coming-of-age story, a story of extreme loneliness, struggle, oppression, and civil disobedience.

In a small town close to Atlanta the reader gets a glimpse of the lives of 17 people whose paths cross and whose lives intersect. They often misunderstand each other and some live their existence not knowing that another is nearby who could or would be of support if they would just reach out. All of the characters have a relationship with one man, Mr. Singer, a deaf mute who lives at the Kelly boarding house. He is like the hub of a big wheel of dysfunctional and lonely people who seek him out because in his presence they feel valued and special. Each character actually attributes to Mr. Singer qualities they believe he has which fill their needs. Whether he has these or not the reader doesn't know. But as each person spends time with him, talking to him, watching his reactions, reading his notes, they work out what they think and what they must do.

Mick Kelly is trying to grow up while shouldering much responsibility. Her father has had an accident which prevents him from holding down any job where he must walk or stand and therefore he is trying to make a go of a watch repair shop in their home. Her mother runs the boarding house with the help of a local black woman. Mick is, in my opinion, the best character in the book. She has drive and spunk with great interest in literature and music. She aspires to study and leave the area to have great adventures one day.

Doctor Copeland the local black doctor supports his community with a purpose and drive that are nearly super human. But he lives a lonely existence since he alienated his family who fled long ago to the home of his in-laws. His children fear him and yet he still tries to instill some drive to better their lot in life only for his “sermons” to fall on deaf ears. Even though it is easy to feel sympathy for the family and to see why they wanted to be away from him, it is still heart breaking witnessing his loneliness for them and feeling his frustration with their lack of motivation and their use of black slang and improper English which he feels is so denigrating. Mr. Singer is the only white person the doctor has ever trusted and feels is an equal.

Jake Blount is a drifter and a drunk. He gets a job as a carnival worker while also reading books about philosophy. The reader doesn't know why he has isolated himself from family and friends but he has some of the best thoughts and lines in the book for examining the times and mores of the 1930s. My favorite is on page 158. Referring to our founding fathers these lines speak volumes;
“They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that means every man was equal in the sight of Nature....This didn't mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live.”
The paragraph is much longer and says a lot more but that is the essential part. How much that same sentiment remains today!

Biff the local cafe owner is a wonderful character also. His wife dies leaving him alone and pining for children. He loves his neighbors and he particularly loves Mick Kelly. He gives away food and watches out for his patrons. I think his loneliness is the most troubling because the reader knows he is passionate and good and could be a wonderful family man if he could just reach out.

The scene that haunts me the most happens quickly close to the end of the book. Several are together in Mr. Singer's room and they find they cannot communicate in each other's presence. No one ever asks Singer about his feelings or wants or plans. He is the loneliest one of all and no one seems to notice.

Those are only my favorite characters. This book is so full of things to think about and characters to ponder. Dysfunction and loneliness a plenty to examine, social issues to break your heart and beautiful writing. What else could you want?