Say You’re One of Them, by Uwem Akpan

Say You’re One of Them was the May read for Books, Brew, and Banter.  Written by Uwem Akpan, published in 2008, chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club Selection in 2009, it shows daily life in turbulent, war-torn, Africa.

In five short stories, all set in different parts of Africa, Akpan, an African Jesuit priest educated in America, shows us life through the eyes of African children. In “An Ex-mas Feast,” Akpan pours out Nairobian poverty on the page so vividly that it takes a reader’s breath away.  In “In My Parents’ Bedroom,” he shows us a loving, educated, enlightened Rwandan family ripped apart by tribalism.  In “Luxurious Hearses,” he narrates the ultimate sacrifice of a teenage boy to the bloodlust of people running for their lives in western Africa.

It’s a difficult book to read.  Because of the content, sometimes continuing to turn the pages is an effort.  And because Akpan sprinkles the stories generously with the mélange of languages spoken in Africa, parsing the meaning of what people are saying can be hard too.  But on those difficult-to-turn-and-understand pages, Akpan always splashes a generous measure of the best of humanity:  love, loyalty, responsibility, empathy, self-sacrifice, and faith.

In these stories of children’s lives, general themes emerge:  the variety of religions and languages in Africa, the power of faith, the role of the media, the relationship between men and women, the struggle of families to stay together, the driving force of the sex trade, the relentless force of tribalism, and always the plight of the children.

Deacon Jeanie Smith described the book as “beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking” – as the kind of book a person can’t just read.  Afterward, there’s the need to do something.

—Sharelle Moranville

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner

During most of July, the Books, Brew, and Banter group read and discussed Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety.  Although Stegner made his literary debut with Remembering Laughter in 1937 (set in Iowa Farm country where Stegner was born), and wrote prolifically and with distinction for fifty years, most of the BB&B group had never read his fiction.  And, in the end, everybody agreed that we had found a treasure in Crossing to Safety.

The story begins in 1938 and ends in August, 1972.  It’s narrated by Larry Morgan, a novelist and academic.  In 1938, Larry and his wife Sally, of modest means and low on the academic totem pole, meet Sid and Charity, also low on the academic totem pole but from backgrounds of immense wealth.  The couples quickly become close friends and remain so until the story’s end.  Through Larry’s eyes, we follow the birth of children, academic careers, literary success and failure, illness, recovery, and death.

Although the narrator is usually the most important character in a novel, in this case, the reader soon figures out that while Larry Morgan is telling this story, it ultimately belongs to Charity – much like Nick Caraway tells Gatsby’s story in The Great Gatsby.  And like Gatsby, Charity is larger than life.  She is epic.  Iconic.  Driven.  Difficult to understand.  Awe inspiring, in her way.  And at the end, the reader is left a bit shaken and full of questions.  What does “crossing to safety” mean?  Who has managed to do it?  How have they managed to do it?

Written in really lovely prose, the joy of the book is as much in the language as the action.  It’s a sensitive, imaginative look at American academia over thirty years, an examination of gender roles, a depiction of mid-century American values, and an interesting slice of American history.

— Sharelle Moranville.

A Call to Action, by Jimmy Carter

I have read many of the two dozen plus books written by President Carter over the course of his career, many of which I have found to be most enjoyable and easy reads, and all of his writings are moored by a deep-seated belief in the equality of all people.
While his new book continues in the tradition of that belief, the members of St. Timothy’s Books, Brew, and Banter book club unanimously agree that it certainly isn’t an enjoyable read as he grimly tackles head-on the subject of the subjugation of women in cultures throughout the world.  Since leaving the White House in 1981, he and his wife Rosalynn founded the Carter Center, dedicated to advancing peace and health worldwide, and they have been firsthand witnesses to the shocking and disturbing human rights abuses inflicted on women. He carefully outlines that women and girls are routinely deprived of education, forced to suffer servitude and child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual assault and rape, and the undercurrent of discrimination that results in fewer promotions, lower pay and unequal representation in business and politics.
He examines the entrenched links between interpretations of religious texts of Christians, Muslims and Jews that exalt the status of men in the eyes of God, and connects the problems to the world’s excessive use of war and violence. In particular, he reports, that since the birth of the United Nations, American forces have been involved in combat in over twenty three nations, evidence that our previously firm commitment to peace and human rights has been largely abandoned, increasing the suffering of the innocent and defenseless.
All this makes one sad, angry, and horrified. On the other hand, though, he chronicles the Carter Center’s subsequent good works around the globe, ranging from campaigns to eradicate Guinea worm in Ghana to monitoring elections in Egypt. President Carter goes into the specifics of some important work being done, and gives numerous examples of dedicated people throughout the world who have struggled and often righted wrongs.
He concludes by listing twenty-three calls to action and invites us all to participate. It gives one hope that the world can be made better for struggling women and girls. A tough read, but a must read. —Kenneth N. Johnson, Ph.D.