Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Sepharad

SepharadSepharad: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2003. 400 pp)

Antonio Muñoz Molina is a Spanish writer and member of the Royal Spanish Academy. He studied art history at the University of Granada. While working as a journalist in Madrid, Molina published a collection of his articles for his first book. As an author, he has won Spain’s National Narrative Prize twice and the Planeta Prize once. Molina currently lives in New York City.

Margaret Sayers Peden is an American translator and professor who received her Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Currently a Professor Emeritus, she teaches classes on Spanish, Spanish American literature, Translation, and Interpretation. Her English-language translation of Molina’s Sepharad won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2004. She resides in Columbia, Missouri.


Since as early as the 2nd century, Spanish Jews have labeled the Iberian Peninsula – the land mass of Portugal and Spain – as “Sepharad.” To this day, Modern Hebrew still refers to Spain as “Sepharad.” For many, “Sepharad” is a word that signifies the culture of Spanish Jews.

Photo by Daniel R. Blume
In Antonio Muñoz Molina’s work, Sepharad, the author details the consequences of World War II on this population. Put simply, the holocaust acted not only as a heinous genocide, but also as a divider. In the horror of a fascist-occupied Europe, Sephardi Jews dispersed throughout the world.

The Diaspora

While “novel” hardly conveys the experience of reading Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina utilizes beautiful prose while telling the stories of the Sephardi diaspora.

In other words, each chapter in this tome provides an unconnected look at the life of the Sephardi. Whether depicted during the war, in its aftermath, or in current times, each chapter poetically narrates the story of this broken community.

Speaking on the dispersal of community, Molina writes of the unspeakable connection between the Sephardi,

“You go away and forget the habits and figures of that little enclave in the heart of Madrid, and years later remember, for no reason, a place, a face, a fragment of a story with no beginning or end, a novel we each carry but never tell anyone” (228).

While the Spanish Jews maintain this fragmentary connection, their new communities certainly change them:

“You are not an isolated person and do not have an isolated story, and neither your face no your profession nor the other circumstances of your past or present life are cast in stone. The past shifts and reforms, and mirrors are unpredictable. Every morning you wake up thinking you are the same person you were the night before, recognizing an identical face in the mirror, but sometimes in your sleep you’ve been disoriented by cruel shards of sadness or ancient passions that cast a muddy, somber light on the dawn, and the face is different, changed by time, like a seashell ground by the sand and the pounding and salt of the sea” (288).

The Horrors of World War II

Photo by Za Rodinu
Alongside this sense of connection between the Sephardi, Molina discusses World War II in brutal detail. With stories detailing the holocaust, Russian communists, and interactions between Jews and Nazi sympathizers after the war, Sapharad explores the depths of hatred, violence, and war.

In one poetic passage, Molina writes

“The war was filled with coincidences like that, with chains of random events that dragged you away or saved you; your life could depend not on your heroism or caution or cleverness but on whether you bent down to tighten a boot one second before a bullet or shard of shrapnel passed through the place where your head would have been, whether a comrade took your turn in a scouting patrol from which no one came back” (303).

More Memoir, Less Novel

As I hinted with my quotations earlier, Sapharad is not your common form of a novel. Molina explores many true stories in the book including the love letters of Franz Kafka and many personal interviews with the Sephardi.

At one point, Molina in a memoir-voice mentions,

“On one internet page I found, in white letters on a black background, a list of Sephardim the Germans deported from the Island of Rhodes to Auschwitz. You would have to read them one by one, aloud, as if reciting a strict and impossible prayer, to understand that not one of these names can be reduced to a number in an atrocious statistic. Each had a life unlike any other, just as each face, each voice was unique, and the horror of each death was unrepeatable even though it happened amid so many millions of similar deaths. How, when there are so many lives that deserve to be told, can one attempt to invent a novel for each, in a vast network of interlinking novels and lives” (365)?

Few Adventures in Life Tie Up All the Loose Strings

Ultimately, Sepharad is a difficult read with little narrative direction. For those looking for a story, Seapharad will leave them disappointed. In fact, Molina contends,

“People always want to know how stories end; whether well or badly, they want the resolution to be as neat as the beginning, they want sense and symmetry. But few adventures in life tie up all the loose strings, unless fate steps in, or death, and some stories never develop, they come to nothing or are interrupted just as they are beginning” (285).

But, the people of Sepharad have a long and complicated history worth documenting. In the wake of the holocaust, the Sephardi diaspora have many unique stories, and yet, remain connected through cultural lineage.

Antonio Muñoz Molina writes some beautiful prose and Margaret Sayers Peden deserves recognition for a masterful translation. While I am glad to have read this book, I am unsure if I am able to recommend it. Sepharad is a laborious read that requires every ounce of a reader’s attention. If you can’t handle that, don’t read the book.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: Business for the Common Good

Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace (Christian Worldview Integration)Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace


By Kenman L. Wong and Scott B. Rae (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011. 288 pp.)

Kenman Wong, professor of business ethics at Seattle Pacific University, teaches courses in the fields of ethics and microfinance. A graduate of Biola University, the University of Washington, and the University of Southern California (where he received his doctorate in social ethics), Wong as also authored Medicine & the Marketplace, Beyond Integrity (also with Scott B. Rae), and many articles published in scholarly journals.

Scott B. Rae serves as professor of biblical studies-Christian ethics at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Dallas Theological Seminary, and the University of Southern California (where he received his doctorate in social ethics), Rae has published many books and scholarly articles in the field of ethics.

Another Way of Doing Business

The School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University teaches that the purpose of business is to serve the common good.

This philosophy, titled "Another Way of Doing Business," has, in turn, inspired SBE scholars to research and explore supporting and complementary ideas. As such, Business for the Common Good is the perfect companion to SBE Dean Jeff Van Duzer’s Why Business Matters to God.

Where Van Duzer’s Why Business Matters to God focuses on the theoretical justification for the intrinsic value of business, Wong’s book shows practical examples of how leaders in the business world could implement Christian principles in the marketplace.


Increasing Profits, or Profitable Service?

Stated another way, Wong’s and Rae’s book furthers scholarship on the principle of approaching business from the position of service.

Typically, business is considered an enterprise whose sole purpose is increasing profits. When pursued from this limited perspective, business is capable of — maybe even conditioned to — harming stakeholders in an effort to appease shareholders. We see this play out in the business press in myriad ways:
  • The potential arises for customers to receive an inferior product as companies cut corners to save money.
  • Some employees suffer from unsustainably low wages, or poor and unsafe working conditions.
  • The environment serves as a dumpster for growing amounts of waste and pollution.


Transforming the Status Quo

Wong and Rae understand the necessity of net earnings. Yet they question the lofty pedestal on which most business people place profit.

In suggesting that business exists for a greater purpose, the authors argue that "work is transformational service to God in his new creation" (52). Instead of entering the marketplace in order to attain the necessary resources to live, Christians might operate in the marketplace to provide resources for others.

In other words, transformational service means that business exists both for the provision of resources for others and for the moral formation that service provides for the worker.

Through diverse topics, such as globalization, workplace ethics, management philosophy, marketing, and the environment, the authors tackle some of the difficulties inherent in transforming much of the status quo in modern-day business practice — without presenting a full-scale condemnation of contemporary business.

In fact, Wong and Rae assert themselves as pro-business. But they also suggest that the intrinsic value of business, which they defend so rigorously, can be diminished if the prevailing model of profit maximization is the "invisible hand" that guides all future action.


Creating Culture From the Top

If you run a small business, manage a group of employees, or carry executive status, Business for the Common Good offers valuable insights into the ways you can influence your company’s culture for the good of society.

For those who are in a more-limited role of organizational leadership, the lessons in this book may not be immediately applicable, but may serve as a guide for the types of companies for which you might want to work.

Regardless, Business for the Common Good supplies a valuable resource for readers interested in the intersection between faith and work, and specifically Christian theology and business, on a practical level.

Originally published at the Center for Integrity in Business.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Album Review: Bon Iver

Bon IverBon Iver by Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar, 2011. 39 minutes)

Founded by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, Bon Iver is an indie folk band featuring Vernon, Michael Noyce, Sean Carey, and Matthew McCaughan. The band began when Vernon self-released his first record, For Emma, Forever Ago, after spending three months working through the breakup of a band and a relationship. With much critical praise surrounding the first record, Vernon signed with Jagjaguwar. In the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon collaborated with Kanye West on his latest record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Bon Iver released its self-titled second record on June 12, 2011 and entered the Billboard charts at number 2.

Sending Chills Down the Spine

In certain ways, music contains the curious ability to be felt when heard. At times when I hear chords and melodies that I love with all my being, these musical phrases send chills down my spine and manufacture goose bumps throughout the epidermis.  Sometimes, a song needs no deep underlying point to remain effective; it only needs a feeling.

With Bon Iver’s latest self-titled release, Justin Vernon builds on his songwriting fundamentals from his debut while replacing the sparse coldness of For Emma, Forever Ago with heavy production and electric instrumentation. In short, Bon Iver is a record that conveys a feeling.

This point reveals itself clearly when an overdriven guitar with hints of a chorus effect soars over a double-bass pedal and crashing cymbals in “Perth.”


As the album unfolds, it becomes evident that Vernon leans heavily on the 80s stylings of Peter Gabriel and Bruce Hornsby.

In all honesty, each track (titled after a City, State, or made-up place) on Bon Iver is perfectly positioned. As such, it is hard to discuss the work from a “song” perspective because the tunes not only blend well together but also each song carries such a high quality that it is hard to privilege one song over another.


Despite this fact, some songs are worth mentioning. First, “Holocene” might signify the prettiest song I have ever heard. With bright-as-the-sun fingerpicked guitars and Vernon’s trademarked falsetto, the song conveys ethereal feelings as he sings,

“And at once I knew I was not magnificent / strayed above the highway aisle / (jagged vacance, thick with ice) / I could see for miles, miles, miles.”


Additionally, the album’s first single, “Calgary,” blends cryptic lyrics, a unique chord progression, instrumental counterpoint, and a four-on-the-floor rhythm. With a clear link to the work of Peter Gabriel present in the song, Vernon croons,

“Joy, it’s all founded / pincher with the skin inside / you pinned me with your black sphere eyes / you know that all the rope’s untied / I was only for to die beside.”


Yet, in perhaps the most daring move to date in Vernon’s career, Bon Iver’s ending track challenges all previously held opinions about cheesy 80s music. Channeling every over-the-top tone found on records in that decade, “Beth/Rest” goes for the gold and, honestly, succeeds.

As a long-sustaining solo builds toward the end of the song, Vernon screeches,

“This is axiom!”

Taken at face value, Vernon affirms the self-evident simplicity and beauty of this record. It does not attempt to fit into a defined “hipster” mold. Instead, it is written with a feeling.

Erudite Lyrics

Of course, as with most of Vernon’s undecipherable lyrics, “This is axiom” could exist for the purpose of its sound and feel. In fact, strewn throughout Bon Iver are many erudite words and little narrative focus. While listening to the record, you’ll hear terms like “fide,” “Noachide,” and “soffit.”

Without an overall narrative sense in the lyrics, it is best to view the lyrics as an extension of Bon Iver’s sonic palate. In other words, Justin Vernon not only meticulously placed each note and produced sound to convey an emotion; he also penned each lyric with an overall feeling in mind. As I listen to Bon Iver, I get goosebumps and I know that is the feeling Justin Vernon wants me to have.

Bon Iver is currently my frontrunner for album of the year. Justin Vernon wrote a masterpiece and I suggest that you listen to it. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: Falling Sideways

Falling Sideways: A NovelFalling Sideways: A Novel by Thomas E. Kennedy (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011 304 pp)

Born in New York City, Thomas Kennedy wanted to become a writer after reading Dosteovsky’s Crime and Punishment. Kennedy earned a B.A. in language and literature from City College of New York. Immediately after his undergraduate studies, Kennedy took a job as News Editor of World Medical Journal based in France. After a few years at the journal, Kennedy took a job with the Danish Medical Association. It wasn’t until 1981 that Kennedy published his first work in a literary journal. In 1985, he received his MFA from Vermont College and, then, received a Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Copenhagen. Kennedy has won the O. Henry Award, a Puschart Prize, the Frank Expatriate Award, and two Eric Hoffer Book Awards. He lives in Denmark.

Review copy courtesy of Librarything Early Reviewers

A Nominee for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award

While I do not consider myself a prude, I often find the descriptions of sex in novels to be awkward, misplaced, and unconvincing. Of course, I would rather find authors willing to mention these taboo subjects encountered in everyday life than having them merely avoiding it. But, it seems like authors tend to lean on shock value and graphic description instead of artful representation.

Humorously, Literary Review has hosted the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the last twenty years. Highlighting the worst in sexual encounters, the award honors the misuse of sex in literary fiction.

Thomas Kennedy’s new work, Falling Sideways, ought to be the frontrunner for the 2011 Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Inserted in most chapters and shamelessly described, sex is the central narrative feature of the book.

The Tank

Set in Copenhagen, Denmark, Falling Sideways follows the lives of employees at the Tank, an ambiguously defined company that monetized some sort of intellectual property but is currently falling on hard times.

The actions of the company are, in fact, so pointless, that Jes, the son of one character, proclaims,

“It seemed to [Jes] that almost nobody in Denmark actually did anything anymore; they all just sat in offices sending e-mails to one another or went to meetings where they sat around a table and talked about the e-mails" (105).

Downsizing Brings Out the Worst in People

With an unstable economy, the Tank’s CEO, Martin Kampman (a calculated and unemotional individual), must reshuffle the organization, trim its fat, and promote efficiency.

These swirling rumors about downsizing make most employees work in fear; they release tension through various addictive tendencies such as smoking, drinking, and sex.

As an example of one addictive tendency, Kennedy writes,

“It seemed smoking was responsible for just about all the evils of the world now. It had gotten to be embarrassing even to buy cigarettes. Maybe they would pass a law that would require you to say to the shop clerk: I am an idiot. May I have a pack of Prince Silvers, please? And if you didn’t: Sorry, madam, but you didn’t say you were an idiot. The law requires…” (89).

A Snooze in Copenhagen

Sadly, despite an intriguing premise behind the book, Kennedy’s prose and narrative structure are merely adequate. Of course, the previously mentioned insistence on bluntly depicting sex provides a hindrance to the storyline. But even more, Kennedy spends little time creating compelling characters. 

Aside from the ease of reading the book, I found little enjoyment in reading it. Moreover, not many literary themes held my attention throughout the book.

In perhaps the only interesting twist, Kennedy has created a world of anxiety, depression, and regret in a setting well known as the happiest place on earth. Yet, such an observance only bolsters a book in conjunction with deeper characters and plotlines.

Despite being a frontrunner for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, I find little reason to recommend Falling Sideways.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell

Based in San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit has authored thirteen books on art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. A product of the California education system, Solnit attended San Francisco State University as an undergraduate and the University of California, Berkeley where she received a Masters in Journalism. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s and often contributes articles to During her career, Solnit has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and a 2004 Wired Rave Award.

Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short

In his groundbreaking work, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously states, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Describing life outside of a political institution, Hobbes believes that humanity resorts to a chaotic competition for scarce resources. Under this assumption, Hobbes argues for the existence of social contracts and, ultimately, the importance of an absolute sovereign.

A Selfless Humanity

With A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit offers a discourse contrary to this Hobbesian state of nature. For the critical thesis of the work, Solnit suggests that the gracious and altruistic actions of communities encountering disaster provide evidence for a selfless humanity.

In this tome, Solnit outlines the aftermath of five disasters in the past century. These events are:
  1. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906;
  2. The Halifax Explosion;
  3. Mexico City’s Earthquake; 
  4. 9/11;
  5. And Hurricane Katrina.

The Influence of Hollywood

While Hollywood mimics the Hobbesian state of nature in its disaster movies, Solnit’s sociological work suggests that horrific disasters function as a unifier rather than a divider. She writes,

“Near death experiences and encounters with one’s own mortality are often clarifying, tools with which to cut away inessentials and cleave to the essence of life and purpose” (103).

The Classical Form of Anarchy

For Solnit, these actions in the wake of catastrophes illustrate a classical form of anarchy. Of course, the term “anarchy” in today’s age carries significant baggage; it conjures tattooed punk rockers citing the term while destroying property and people’s lives.

Anarchy in a classical sense, however, denies the necessity of ruling institutions. Its etymology comes from Greek: “An” means “without” and “archy” means “ruler.”  In other words, classical anarchists believe that humanity contains the capability of living in harmony without an authority.  

What about Looting?

At this point, I assume the objection, “what about looting” pops into your mind. Solnit recognizes this point early in her argument. She claims with much backing evidence that fears of looting and disorder begin with a panic of the elite. Those in power have the most to lose when the status quo is interrupted.

Thus, after a disaster, the common citizens unite and the elites seek to reassert authority. As such, people in authority seek property over life. What is the difference between looting and raiding a store for life-saving supplies? Why do we consider looting horrible while such actions are, more often than not, performed with altruistic intentions? For the elite, preserving property is more important than preserving life.

Utopian Society

Ultimately, Solnit uses these extraordinary examples to make a case for a classical form of anarchy and an attempt at creating a utopian society. For her, these disasters prove that humanity is capable of noble self-governance. Yet, she sadly admits,

“The conundrum we call human nature readily rises to the occasion of a crisis and as readily slacks off when the living is easy” (119).

It Takes One Bad Apple to Ruin a Pie

This admission sums up my problem with this book. Written in an unwavering style, it is clear from page one that Solnit has a distinct purpose for writing the book. She wants to convince her readers that elites ruling under the form of a government are unnecessary.

As such, her disaster stories feel cherry picked. Of course good people engage in altruistic actions during heinous acts of nature. This fact, however, does not guarantee that humanity on the whole is capable of acting well at all times.

It takes one bad apple to ruin a pie. Likewise, government often functions for the one bad apple more than it does for the rest of society. Of course, civic leadership is capable of making atrocious mistakes and I am not arguing for a business-as-usual government. I am only contending that Solnit’s thesis might be too simplistic. Institutions can serve a purpose just as much as they can be the problem. Likewise, common citizens can perform good deeds just as easily as they can act poorly.

Therefore, I have a hard time recommending A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca Solnit tells intriguing stories about people acting selflessly in the wake of horrible disasters. As such, it is important to know that humanity outside of its government boundaries does not act brutishly like Thomas Hobbes suggests. However, the existence of these stories does not necessitate the promotion of anarchy over common forms of government.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Film Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick (Cottonwood Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, and River Road Entertainment, PG-13, 139 minutes)

Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain.

Why Me?

Do you remember the last time you cried uncontrollably? In those moments when tears threaten to disrupt breathing patterns and life seems to change course, did you ask, “Why me?” Though circumstances differ from person to person, we all encounter these life altering and painful-to-the-bone scenarios. With Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning opus, The Tree of Life, such existential crises are exquisitely depicted on film.


As the movie commences, Job 38:4 flashes over a blank screen. In this biblical passage, God declares, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” For those unfamiliar with this ancient Hebraic story, Job – a Godly man – encounters immense suffering as he loses his family and economic clout. Despite hollow encouragement from friends, Job questions his suffering.

In a slightly dismissive manner, God responds to Job’s inquisition in the previously mentioned passage. And with this background acting as the sole hint behind its nonlinear narrative, The Tree of Life unfolds.

Universal and Particular

Ambitiously attempting to portray the entire history of the universe alongside an account of one family in small-town America, Malick simultaneously presents both a universal and a microscopic point of reference. With scenes depicting the creation of the universe, Malick makes visible the actions of God laying the foundation of the earth (extra kudos for a leviathan reference too). Likewise, The Tree of Life is imminently particular as Jack (played by Sean Penn in adulthood) reminisces about childhood and questions why the death of a family member was necessary.

As Jack remembers his childhood, his parents – Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) – illustrate the conflicting realities of grace and human nature as they attempt to teach, nurture, and develop their children. With a loving but heavy hand, Mr. O’Brien demands respect of his children. With quiet expectation, Mrs. O’Brien urges her children to blossom.

Encountering Evil

During perhaps the most moving section of the movie, Jack and his siblings evolve from the innocent purity of early childhood to the mischievous curiosity of childhood. Jack develops a goading sense of authority. In one scene, he challenges his brother to lick his finger and put it in a lamp socket. Without a resulting shock, the younger brother declares, “I trust you.” Moments later, Jack takes advantage of this trust by convincing his brother to put his finger over the barrel of a BB gun.  In the instant after Jack pulls the trigger, his brother’s look of shock, sadness, betrayal, and pain pours over the screen. Such actions leave the viewer enraged but also implicitly involved in this treachery. At the end of the scene, it feels like humanity is incapable of acting in a noble and just manner.

A Film of Contrast

This film, told in a stream of consciousness narrative, juxtaposes conflicting ideals. Through universality and particularity, nature versus grace, and innocent beauty next to tainted imperfection, The Tree of Life brilliantly depicts the ancient themes of Job where God seemingly permits purity, love, and uprightness to exist side by side with the reality of evil

The Tree of Life is not for everyone. It’s unclear narrative format and artistic focus requires attentive viewing and an acceptance of ambiguity. Let’s be honest; it’s an art film. However, The Tree of Life is exponentially more accessible than many films that frequent the film festival circuit. Additionally, my review has only scratched the surface of this movie. If you are interested in deeper takes, please direct your browsers to these fantastic reviews at Biblioklept and ThinkChristian. In short, I highly recommend The Tree of Life.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guest Book Review: Moloka'i

Moloka'iMoloka’i: A Novel by Alan Brennert (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 400 pp)

Born in New Jersey and raised in Southern California, Alan Brennert received a Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University at Long Beach. In addition to novels, Brennert writes short stories, screenplays, teleplays, and musicals. For his work on L.A. Law, he was awarded an Emmy in 1991. During his career, Brennert has also won a People’s Choice Award and a Nebula Award.

When Disease Alters Everything

Set in Honolulu in the 1890s, Rachel Kalama lives a normal life as a typical five-year-old girl when her mother discovers that she has a sore on her leg that won’t heal. The official health inspector quickly discovers Rachel’s malady (Hansen’s Disease, better known as leprosy) and she is torn from her family. Shipped out to an island of isolation, Rachel finds herself in the company of other lepers in the city of Kalaupapa.

Happiness and Loss

Rachel’s story is both one of happiness and of loss. It’s a sort of dualism that plagues the book, perhaps an effective commentary on our own lives. She experiences the loss of people she loves constantly throughout the book, meanwhile gaining new loves.

I’m amazingly moved and impressed by Brennert’s ability to find the depths of the soul where very few authors try to tread. Through this novel, Brennert poignantly tugs at the heart of the reader by forcing the reader to emotionally invest in unusual characters and their unique circumstances.

The Burden of Hansen’s Disease

Few readers want to dive into the life of someone with Hansen’s disease. Yet, Brennert forces the reader to dwell with these people. He forces the reader to know the life, the adventures, the love, and the loss of someone whose life has been drastically changed by a debilitating illness. The reader knows Rachel just as well as she knows herself, and eventually comes to the realization that Hansen’s disease took everything from Rachel, but also gave her something more in the end.

I obviously enjoyed the book. I think Moloka'i would be great for people that love Hawaiian culture and I’d strongly recommend it for anyone wants a simple, easy read.


Andrew Jacobson is the director of Choral Studies at Bellevue Christian School in Bellevue, WA.  He holds an MM in Music Education from Boston University, as well as a BM in Music Education from the University of Washington.  He loves wine, food, reading, music, and movies.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Looking for a Job? Consider Writing a Personal Biography

We all want to grab the attention of someone we hope to impress, and we’re tempted to do just about anything to be noticed. Remember Elle Wood’s pink and scented resume in Legally Blonde? She is not alone; officious employees have tried a myriad of attention grabbing techniques over the decades.

Photo by Jason Tavares
With a new crop of fresh graduates submitting resumes on the open market, Michael Margolis at the 99% suggests in a recent article entitled, “The Resume Is Dead, The Bio is King” that job applicants should reconsider submitting a weighty resume in an effort to impress. Instead, a well-crafted narrative will do a better job of piquing the interest of potential business associates.

On the surface, the reason for the shift in viewpoint seems simple: thumbing through a large stack of resumes can be a daunting and mind-numbing task for potential employers. A captivating bio can break the monotony of an endless sea of self-reported accomplishments, former employers, and schools attended.
Richard Nelson Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute writes, “an employer is going through a whole stack of resumes, and on average he or she is giving each resume about eight seconds of their time… Then that resume goes either into a pile we might call ‘Forgeddit,’ or a pile we might call ‘Bears further investigation’” (73).
The bio, as Margolis suggests, has a greater chance of ending up in the second pile because it helps the employer distinguish who one really is beyond a tedious list of deeds done.
But the bio, apart from offering a release from the monotony of reviewing resumes, has a deeper influence: the human psyche seems predisposed to story. From an early age, we are drawn to the hero or heroine, enraptured by the ensuing conflict or struggle that inevitably comes, and renewed by a character’s victory or hope of redemption. As children, stories ignite our imagination when protagonists battle dragons and slyly outwit venomous villains. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes, “Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children” (53). And we might add, adults, too. We never lose our appetite for a good story.

And herein lies our point: story transforms who we are as human beings. We’re shaped by it, and we shape it. When we tell our story (or attend to the story of another), we wake up and experience more of life. Story, like few other experiences, stirs passions and remembrances of days foregone, and reminds us that pain from failure and disillusionment from broken promises can bring growth. Through story we become more human.
Photo by Stephen Poff
In A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller asserts, “I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgement. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants” (59).

Yes, in today’s limping economy a bio might increase your prospects of landing a job, which is good news for the job seekers out there. But maybe you should write your bio with a desire to become more integrated, as well as connected to the world around you. Drafting a resume is safe; penning your story and sharing it with others requires risk and fortitude. In a slowly recovering economy, let’s take time to look inward, outward, and upward. It is these postures of learning and our capacity to intuit self and the larger world that makes one truly desirable in organizational life.
John Terrill is the director of the Center for Integrity in Business.
Donovan Richards is the research assistant for the Center for Integrity in Business.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake: A NovelOryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood (New York: Anchor Books, 2003. 376 pp)

Born in Ottawa in the autumn of 1939, Margaret Atwood grew up in Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She attained her B.A. from Victoria College, University of Toronto and her M.A. from Radcliffe College. Atwood has written more than 50 works of poetry, children’s fiction, fiction, and non-fiction. While she is most known for her many novels, her book, Blind Assassin, received highest acclaim winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Currently, she lives with Graeme Gibson in Toronto.

Patenting Nature

Last year, my wife and I watched Food, Inc. on Netflix. While much of the movie shocked us, nothing was more appalling than the brazen business practices of Monsanto. Both by genetically modifying the soybean and patenting the new strain, the company, in reality, held a monopoly on soybeans.

As it stands, if a farmer desires to grow soybeans, he or she must work through Monsanto. To make matters worse, Monsanto decrees that farmers are not allowed to save seeds after harvest for next year. Instead, farmers must buy another set of seeds from Monsanto.

Despite the many unreasonable practices seeping out of this corporation, what really bothered me about Monsanto was its ownership over nature. By modifying a seed commonly found in nature, Monsanto staked a claim on that portion of nature for as long as it exists. The very idea that a corporation can own an aspect of nature – something we typically consider part of the global commons – is absurd.

If Monsanto Ruled the World

Depicting the corporation taking over the natural world, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake explores the frightening possibilities of a dystopic world transformed from natural to synthetic.

Our protagonist, Snowman – known as Jimmy before an apocalyptic event removed humanity from earth – looks after the genetic creations of his best friend, Crake. Inhabiting a barren wasteland with both a midday sun too scorching for human skin to withstand and a collection of genetically modified creatures seeking the feast of human flesh (the wolvog, or part wolf part dog, is particularly frightening), Snowman hovers on the edge of insanity.

Comparing this wasteland to civilization at its peak, Atwood pens,

“Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind” (45).

The Struggle to Survive

Convinced that he is the last surviving human and faced with dwindling supplies, Snowman must decide between guarding the children he swore to protect and enduring another expedition for supplies.

During the narrative, Atwood brilliantly interposes scenes from before Armageddon. Tracing the story through Jimmy, Crake, and the interest of both their affection, Oryx, Atwood links the current maladies with a society governed by corporations who seek profit above human good.

In this society, the virtues and altruistic behavior of civilization has been replaced with the carnal desires of base human beings. Atwood writes,

“When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. It must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good. It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays. Sublimation, all of it; nothing but sublimation, according to the body. Why not cut to the chase?
But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance” (85).

The Children of Crake

As the book unfolds, the reader learns more and more about the mysterious children of Crake, the creation of Snowman’s best friend. Without releasing too much detail, these creations act like humans but aren’t exactly part of the classic category, homo sapien. Amongst other oddities, the children of Crake lack much of the understanding gained over a lifetime in culture. This point is exemplified when Atwood writes,

“’What is toast?’ says Snowman to himself, once [the Children of Crake] run off. Toast is when you take a piece of bread – What is bread? Bread is when you take some flour – What is flour? We’ll skip that part, it’s too complicated. Bread is something you can eat, made from a ground-up plant and shaped like a stone. You cook it… Please, why do you cook it? Why don’t you just eat the plant? Never mind that part – Pay attention. You cook it, and then you cut it into slices, and you put a slice into a toaster, which is a metal box that heats up with electricity – What is electricity? Don’t worry about that. While the slice is in the toaster, you get the butter – butter is a yellow grease, made from the mammary glands of – skip the butter. So the toaster turns the slice of bread black on both sides with smoke coming out, and then this “toaster” shoots the slice up into the air and falls onto the floor…
‘Forget it,’ says Snowman. ‘Let’s try again.’ Toast was a pointless invention from the Dark Ages. Toast was a ritual item devoured by fetishists in the belief that it would enhance their kinetic and sexual powers. Toast cannot be explained by any rational means.
Toast is me.
I am toast” (98).

As the final line in the quotation suggests, Snowman echoes the general feel of the book as he becomes increasingly pessimistic regarding his living scenario. Atwood asserts,

“Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo” (147).

The Human Condition

Ultimately, Oryx and Crake explores what it means to be human. Without a civilization around him, is Snowman a human? Does culture constitute humanity or is it physical existence? Despite their peculiarities, are the Children of Crake more human than Snowman simply because they have culture, albeit an odd one? 
Stated differently, Atwood asks,

“Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” (371).

 Oryx and Crake is a book of heartbreaking beauty. With love and disaster, Atwood explores the human condition through a world controlled and destroyed by big business and genetically modified organisms. Where Monsanto terrifies me with its patenting of nature, Oryx and Crake applies this concept in its fullest scale. Despite the horror portrayed, this book is masterful. Highly recommended.