Recent Books: Capsule Reviews

Here are a few books I've read over the last couple of months... was hoping to write longer reviews of these titles but short blurbs will have to do right now: Your Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions by John Kotter, Holger Rathgeber Our church's transformation team was assigned this book as part of our training. People really enjoyed it and it spurred a lot of discussion. It's a quick read too: a cute yet wise parable about how to lead people through change in an organization. A colony of penguins discovers that, well, their iceberg is melting. What will they do? What do we do with the naysayers? What are the qualities needed in leadership? Would be an interesting study for a church council/session that finds itself befuddled that "the old stuff doesn't work anymore."

Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman This was also an assignment for transformation training (for the pastors, not the teams). I am totally hooked onto family systems stuff, and find it useful for so many situations. I think if we all "got" this business of self-differentiation, triangles, etc. from an early age, our entire society would be, like, a one thousand times better place. This book is a bit of a slog---dense and filled with historical examples to illustrate Friedman's points. But it's really indispensable reading if you are into systems stuff (probably not a good intro). It's also Friedman's last book---he died before it was completely finished, so it represents the summation of decades of work.

Year of Plenty by Craig Goodwin Goodwin is a fellow Presbyterian pastor, living in Washington state. He and his family embarked on a year-long experiment in which they only consumed items that were local, home-grown, handmade or used. I got the book because I'm interested in the topic but also because I wanted to see how he structured his book, given that I'm writing my own work of "guinea-pig nonfiction." Goodwin is a good thinker and a clear writer, and in addition to describing his family's journey, offers research and theological reflection on issues of sustainability and the environment. I appreciate that his book adds a Christian voice to works like The Omnivore's Dillemma and Animal Vegetable Miracle. I did find myself wanting to know even more about what this experiment looked like on a day-to-day basis; the parts where he's describing his family's experiences were my favorites in the book.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand This was a church book group selection. Though we've had many great reads, and we always have a variety of opinions expressed, we went over time on this one. What can I say that hasn't already been said? This book is utterly astonishing from beginning to end. It has also led me to repent for every time I rolled my eyes at the whole Greatest Generation thing. Hillenbrand's writing is superb; she had to do a whole lot of different things in this book (the narrative itself, piecing together the history of the war, bomber design and construction), and she juggled it all admirably.

Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life by Karen Maezen Miller Miller is a Zen priest, and this book uses the metaphors of everyday tasks (laundry, kitchen, yardwork) to illustrate Buddhist principles. For those of you who like Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World, this would be a good companion book, though Miller weaves in a lot more memoir-ish material than BBT. And she's Buddhist. I find myself really drawn to these kinds of books. As a mother there are so many physical tasks that can be seen as drudgery. And let's be honest, sometimes they are. But shifting one's perspective on them can be liberating.

Survival: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes: A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness by Robert Kull I'm sorta fascinated by people who go off into the wilderness on their own. I read Into the Wild last summer, which is so profoundly sad to me. This book is much more hopeful. For one thing, the guy actually survived his year off the coast of Chile. I read about this book in a Quaker journal I subscribe to. Kull's year in the wilderness was a spiritual struggle in addition to a physical challenge, and he wrestles with his inner demons all along the way.

It is a very long, occasionally meandering book, and would have benefited from a good editor. But it's been fruitful to pick up a little bit at a time and read slowly. Kull had contact with people back home only through e-mail, and only once a month. And it was not substantive contact, just an "I'm still alive" failsafe message. This was in 2001, and he did not find out about 9/11 until after he got back. I'm looking forward to reading the September chapter, just to see what he was doing on that day. That obliviousness is a strange gift in itself.