Underground Airlines

underground airlinesThis week I read a book that smacked me in the face unexpectedly.

The premise of Underground Airlines is incredibly strong: imagine the present day, complete with modern technology, industry, and trade, but if the American Civil War never happened and slavery was never outlawed in the South. And then imagine an intricately plotted, deeply felt, tautly designed novel about that world.

Of course I wanted to read Underground Airlines for the story, and I know you’d like it for that, too. But I was not prepared for how well Ben Winters, the author, brought the issues home in a way that caused me to think carefully, and perhaps uncomfortably, about my own world.

The book is set in Indianapolis, which happens to be the city in which I live, so that already felt personal. So many things are right on and familiar about the world Winters imagines, and then Winters drops in a grim and startling facet of slavery that jars you in its incongruity. It’s not just the slavery (made infinitely more sickening by it’s modern setting–truly, this is an important narrative to read–history makes slavery feel remote and like maybe there were fringes that weren’t that bad but truly, really, evil is evil all the way down) of the “Hard Four” Southern states that still allow slavery, but the soft racism of the North (this is definitely a thing in our own world–and something that surprised me about living in the North), the deliberate, callous ignorance of people who’d rather save a few dollars on a t-shirt than buy one that was ethically sourced, the smug superiority of freedom activists who still don’t actually care enough about people as people, even as they spout platitudes about injustice.

Underground Airlines would make an excellent book club selection. It’s a fantastic story–fast-paced, full of action and nuanced characters, and a complex mystery that only unravels at the very end. But it’s also a tremendously challenging book from an ethical perspective. We still have slavery in our world (Cheap t-shirts? Cheap coffee? Cheap chocolate? Yes, we’re implicated.), and we still have people who are convinced they are more of a person than someone a different color, nation, or gestational age than they are. And those of us who do care almost certainly aren’t doing enough about it. I don’t even pray about it very often. A riveting, thought-provoking, convicting story. I think you should read this one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How can we let him live? A man like this?”

“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”

Note: If you’re interested in the topic of modern day slavery, I highly recommend Gary Haugen’s book, The Locust EffectIt’s a difficult read, but a crucial topic.


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The Bookmarked Life, #7

2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.–Edmund Burke

…Furnishing my mind

photo (1)Eliza turned 18 months old and is an endless source of entertainment for us all.  She dearly loves reading books (that’s how you can tell she’s one of us!), latching and unlatching things, putting on and taking off her shoes, and dancing.

Recently, she began saying “Yam” for yes ma’am, and when asked to say “I love you” she solemnly blows a kiss and says, “It is.”

…Learning about

After readingThe Locust Effect, I was bothered by the fact that I wasn’t doing anything to help the problems of human trafficking and violence against those in poverty.  Then, just a couple of days after I finished the book, a friend invited me to hear a presentation by a lady who, finding herself an empty nester and very convicted about the problem of human trafficking, decided to start a company that partners with organizations who rescue people from human trafficking and give them meaningful work at a fair wage.  She imports the things they make and sells them here in the US, giving all of her profits back to the organizations she partners with.  I learned a lot from her talk–like the fact that chocolate and coffee are two products that are often implicated in human trafficking, and how by simply spending a dollar more at Costco and buying the fair trade chocolate chips instead of Nestle, I can do something.  It’s tempting to say “well, what difference does it make if I buy fair trade coffee or Folgers?” but even little things do make a difference (see Edmund Burke quote from earlier in the post!).  At any rate, you can learn more about the company–Accessories for Hope–online, and Sherry does travel to speak at churches and community groups if you’re interested.

…Living the Good Life

photoWe took the children to LegoFest over the weekend, and although I don’t think any of us felt it was worth the price we paid for the tickets, once viewed as a sunk cost it was a fairly fun afternoon.  We were expecting more tips and instruction on how to build better, but instead it was more of an exposition of different types of Legos, plus lots of piles of Legos for building random things.  The session we went to was sold out and very crowded, so the kids didn’t get to play any of the games and relays.  Still, it was fun to get downtown and do something random and unusual with our Saturday!


Even as I was reading about modern slavery in The Locust Effect and modern prejudice and genocide in The Sunflower, the kids have been learning about slavery in history.  They were very taken with William Wilberforce, as they all are quite sensitive to injustice.  Then we turned to the topic of slavery in America and have been having deep discussions about the Missouri Compromise, the nature of prejudice and injustice, the ways that black people were mistreated in both the North and the South, the way the Irish were mistreated in the North…the kids are drawing connections I would not have expected from their ages and our discussions have been very rewarding.


So, I’m running over 3 miles most mornings now…in the basement.  I think I need to move this party outside, but now the 5am temperatures are well below freezing and I still often have kids waking up early while I’m exercising.  I did buy a pair of running pants though (on wild clearance, but still) so I feel quite official.  I need to find a way to get my strength training back in, and have considered alternating running with a Jillian workout, but at oh-dark-thirty in the morning I’m much more motivated to run than to have Jillian admonish me to “push the up button!!!!”

…Seeking balance

By Thanksgiving I will have wrapped up the extra work project that has been taking up a lot of my time since August.  I am simultaneously looking forward to more breathing room in the schedule while also hoping that not too much time goes by before the next big project appears.

…Building the habit

The last of my fall habits (order, focus, grace, duty) is also a habit that one of the kids is struggling with right now.  That has been helpful in reminding me to give grace to this particular kid, since I have a hard time doing things I have to do as well.  Duty implies things we ought to do–that is, we have to do them, but we don’t necessarily want to.  Lots of life is this way, and it’s worth it to cultivate a habit of duty.  This is not to say that you should blindly accept everyone else’s ideas of what you should do, but in the things you know you must do, duty means cutting the whining and getting it done.  As an adult, I tend to whine internally and make excuses to avoid things I don’t want to do.  I’m tired, I’m stretched too thin, I don’t feel like it…you know.  I’m working on catching myself in those thoughts and taking time to think them through–is this a case of needing to give myself grace because I really did only get three hours of sleep, or is this a case of needing to be kind and patient even when I’m on my last nerve?  I suppose if there were easy answers I wouldn’t have to work on this habit!

…Listening to

The kids have been listening to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie on audio during quiet times lately.  There are a couple of words I wish had been omitted (the hazards of audio books!) but I think due to the narrator’s spectacular accent they haven’t noticed.  I need more good audio book recommendations!  Send suggestions!

What are you bookmarking this week?


Note: Most of the links in this post are to my longer reviews, but one is to Amazon, and it’s an affiliate link, just so you know! 

The Locust Effect

It was difficult to read The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.  Written by Gary Haugen, who heads The International Justice Mission, the book powerfully describes the realities facing poor people in the developing world.  With careful reference to research and statistics, but personalized with individual accounts, Haugen makes the case for justice and protection from violence as the missing solutions that keep the world from making much headway against issues like human trafficking, disease, hunger, and poverty.

Haugen and his organization investigate these issues and advocate for victims around the world, and Haugen’s background is with the US Department of Justice and the UN, so he writes from personal knowledge and experience.  IJM is a Christian organization, but has the respect of the secular development community too, as evidenced by book blurbs from people like Madeleine Albright.  I first heard about IJM at my church in DC over a decade ago, and I think it’s a great example of an organization that is putting faith into practice.

Haugen’s book Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World is also excellent, and is written to a primarily Christian audience, but in The Locust Effect he broadens his reach to include everyone, while not minimizing the fact that his faith drives his commitment to these issues.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your interests are (although if your subjects are law, law enforcement, or international development you’d be especially interested), I think you need to read The Locust Effect.  The book is that important.  Although it was hard to digest the content because the magnitude of the problem is so vast, the writing is clear and compelling and the prescriptions are thoughtful.  I’m adding this book to my top reads of 2014 and am certain to continue thinking about it and what I can do.  I highly recommend it.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

The Devil Reads Derrida

Because I got so much out of James K. A. Smith’s books on life as worship (Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom), I was interested to read Smith’s book The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts.  In the book, Smith points out that Christian intellectuals tend to focus their efforts in academia, leaving the church and the broader society to the slim (and almost always theologically off) pickings of Christian and secular pop culture.  He calls Christian intellectuals to speak to the church (as well as to academia and the culture as a whole), serving as public intellectuals rather than just academics.

Smith goes on to do just that.  In a series of smart and readable essays, Smith takes on cultural blindspots that afflict Christians and non-Christians alike.  He challenges our cultural mindset on things like partisan politics (of either party), patriotism, movies, pop literature (Christian and secular), poverty, neighborhoods, consumerism and ambition, and many others.

By definition a cultural mindset is something you aren’t even aware is there, and most Westerners probably don’t think twice about these things.  Smith does an excellent job of identifying situations and then applying Biblical theology to them in a way that is at once philosophically rigorous and understandable.

I really enjoyed The Devil Reads Derrida and would recommend it, especially if you’re interested in culture, government, academia, or the arts.  And even if you aren’t particularly an avid fan of those topics, if you’re a thoughtful Christian you would still benefit from this book–you might be surprised at how many of these mindsets creep into the way we do life.


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Half the Church

“At the heart of this discussion is the very real question of whether the gospel’s message for women is merely a kinder, gentler version of the world’s message. Are we only dealing with a sliding scale, where our beliefs move women to a safer, more acceptable zone of human value, or does Jesus bulldoze that system and reconstruct in its place a radically different gospel way of valuing women? Does the gospel’s countercultural message only overturn degrading cultures like those of Reem and Meena [lack of rights and education, human trafficking], or does it also overturn our own more civilized but equally fallen culture by leading us back to God’s original vision for humanity. Are we even asking questions like this? Are we right to think we’ve figured out how God means for us to live as his image bearers because we don’t sell our daughters, or do we have blind spots too and lots more ground to gain?”

In Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, Carolyn Custis James raises the very important point that the church’s view of women needs to be Biblically-based, rather than applicable only to our own cultural and socioeconomic situation.  James point out that God’s view of women transcends time and place, and that if we’re focusing our message to women on standards that only apply to a small minority of women, we tacitly say that the Gospel is not applicable to the vast majority of women worldwide.

The book touches on a lot of issues, but a few that particularly got me thinking included:

  • God hates injustice, and Christians should be known for standing with the oppressed.  James discusses the deplorable conditions women endure around the world (such as total lack of rights and protection, human trafficking, extreme and systemic poverty, etc) and looks to Scripture for the way Christians should respond.  
  • When God created woman as man’s helper (a term that has all sorts of warrior connotations in the original Hebrew, and was also used as one of God’s names and in names of men, so not a soft and sissy word) it wasn’t just for things the man could do for himself.  I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but in the Garden of Eden Adam didn’t really need someone to do his laundry.  And frankly, guys don’t need that now either.  What God gave Adam was someone to help him in his work of ruling and subduing the earth, to bring all of her gifts and talents to the work God called them to do.  James looks at the traits Biblical women possessed, and notes that few men list those traits when looking for a wife.
  • How we view women has implications for our sons.  To the previous point about what men look for in wives, I found a lot to think about in terms of how I bring up my son.  The sentiment that women should step back so that they don’t scare men off from leading is all backwards.  A strong woman shouldn’t intimidate a man, she should inspire him.  I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that his strength and leadership is based on other people being weaker or holding back.  I want him to see that his ability to do the work God calls him to is multiplied when other people bring their best to the table, not compromised by that.  
James doesn’t make prescriptions for women’s roles in the church, but she does challenge readers to think deeply and biblically about the message we give to women and the ways that women should use their God-given gifts to accomplish His work.  If you’ve read Half the Church, I’d be interested in your thoughts!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

The Casual Vacancy

J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy covers important themes, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

I had no intention of reading this book until I read Keren’s thought-provoking review.  I respect Keren’s opinion and often read books she recommends, so I thought I’d give Rowling’s first adult fiction book a go.  As I read, I returned to the review at several points when I would otherwise have put the book down without finishing it.  I didn’t really get into the story at all until somewhere around page 350 (I know!  For real!) and while I agree with Keren that several of the themes of the book are important, ultimately I didn’t like the book and probably wouldn’t recommend it.  Here’s a breakdown:

First, the good part: The Casual Vacancy addresses the important theme of how middle class people, both conservative and liberal, fail in their approach to the poor and underprivileged.

The book does a good, if bleak, job of illustrating how comfortably well off people usually fall completely short in their approaches to people from poor and desperate backgrounds.  At first I found myself repulsed by the conservative characters, who advocate cutting off funding for desperate tenement areas and make flippant remarks about how people on government benefits should just get a job or have their kids taken away.  I personally can’t stand that kind of smug attitude, and don’t have much respect for people who advance it (I find it especially disheartening and disappointing when it comes from Christians).

However, I was surprised by how well Rowling also depicted more liberal characters, as many of them are confronted with the fact that their concern for people at risk and children in crisis is marked by distance and self-preoccupation rather than by true compassion and willingness to get their hands dirty to truly offer hope.  How many of us talk a big game about justice and “caring for the least of these” but don’t really do it?  As one character asks in the book, how many of us are actually willing to take in the developmentally delayed three year old whose mother is a heroin addict who finances her habit in unsavory ways which the child has witnessed?  Are we actually anywhere near people with that level of problems, much less taking an active role in their lives and showing them love and hope?  Probably not.

I also liked how the title worked on so many levels of the story.

The untimely death of a town councillor causes a “casual vacancy” (this is the term for it in British local government, apparently) on the council but in reality the vacancy is anything but casual.  The dead man was one of the main advocates for a tenement area that the otherwise prosperous middle class town was partially responsible for, and his death caused a critical lost vote that made the lives and families of hundreds of people hang in the balance.  The title also applies well to the book’s threads of abandonment, isolation, loss, and spiteful treatment of others.  Finally, at the end of the book, many of the smug and unfeeling townspeople seem to regard the loss of two more members of the community as only a casual vacancy, rather than seeing the loss of the deceased as partially their own fault.

Although I thought the characters illustrated the main theme well, there were too many of them and they were unlikeable.

There were at least seventeen points of view in the book (maybe more, I kind of lost track) and even more characters who never got a POV chapter.  For all that, nearly unbelievably, none of them was the least bit likeable, except for one teen character who redeemed herself at the end in a too-little-too-late sort of way.  In a book that is over 400 pages long, I feel like a tiny shred of likeability in at least a couple of members of such a large cast would help.  While the characters were realistic, the unrelentingly grinding ugliness of their characters got old.  I had to read the book in snippets because I dreaded interacting with the characters.

But the characters did offer food for thought – I’d say another theme of the book is how people are disappointed in relationships.  I think Rowling did a good job of capturing how familiarity often breeds contempt, and that curious way that teenagers can’t stand hypocrisy while at the same time being hypocritical and judgmental themselves.  I found myself thinking a lot about how teens view their parents, and how maybe the only antidote is to develop a family culture of honesty and apology.

Language and Content Issues

I found I had the opposite take on language and content issues than Keren had in her review – I didn’t have a problem with the coarse language (especially since so much of the swearing was British so lots of the words don’t carry much freight for me) and could understand how the language helped to define characters and fit in with their backgrounds, but I had a hard time with the sexual content of the book.  It wasn’t so much the episodes (which were not too lascivious in most cases) but rather then inclusion of so many small but tawdry references to sexual things that wore me down.  I didn’t feel like those were necessary or at all illuminating in terms of characterization.  Had I not read Keren’s review, I would have put the book down after two chapters only for the needlessly vulgar casual references to and descriptions of sexual topics.

So, good grief, why on earth did I finish this book?!

Although I found so much to dislike in The Casual Vacancy, I feel like themes of class difference and social issues in modern society are not well covered in current literature.  I wanted so much to find a thread of redemption in the book that I read to the end still thinking I might find one.  Unfortunately, the smallness of the characters’ inner selves failed in the end, as their half-hearted efforts and pious detachment brought about preventable tragedy and very little indication that anything would ever change.  I realize that’s probably painfully realistic, and perhaps the point of the book is to make us (not just British readers, but all of us) feel revolted by our own inhumanity toward others.

That said, I find myself hoping that another author will tackle similar themes in a slightly less bleak fashion.  I do think the book had some literary merit, and can think of reasons why Rowling might have gone for broke on the ugliness thing to establish her literary bona fides, but overall I’m just not sure the good points outweigh the bad.

If you’ve read The Casual Vacancy, what did you think of it?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.