Archive for March, 2010

Thomas Kemper to lead world missions agency

{In the photo by John C. Goodwin of United Methodist News Service: Thomas Kemper, the new leader of the Methodist Board of Global Missions, speaks at a memorial service for the Revs. Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb at Riverside Church in New York. Dixon and Rabb are the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) agency officials who died in the Haiti earthquake.}

John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded my beloved Methodist church and gave us the doctrine, polity, legacy and theology of salvation that we Methodist Christians live by, famously said that “the world is my parish.”

The new leader of our Board of Global Missions has definitely been a man and Christian of the world his whole life. Here’s the word on him from United Methodist News Service:
By Linda Bloom*

Through his United Methodist connections, Thomas Kemper is a citizen of the world.
His passport is German, but he spent two years managing a youth hostel and working with Vietnamese boat people in London. He took up residence in an African village to do research for a master’s thesis and spent nearly a decade as a missionary in Brazil.

As the mission secretary for the United Methodist Church in Germany, Kemper oversaw projects in 13 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. Ecumenically, he has worked with the largest Protestant development agency in Europe and co-founded a Protestant-Catholic commission in Latin America.

A layperson, he often takes on positions normally held by pastors. He is fluent in German, English and Portuguese, can converse in French and basic Spanish, and read Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Now Kemper, 53, has moved to New York. On March 15, he became the top executive of the international mission agency for The United Methodist Church.

“Not every former missionary…is really gifted for leadership in a mission agency, but Thomas was and is a gift to us all,” said retired Bishop Heinrich Bolleter of Switzerland, a former director of Global Ministries who works in the Geneva Office of the World Methodist Council.

He lauded Kemper’s expertise “as an active thinker, planner, communicator and team worker for mission,” and praised his efforts at cooperation with Methodist mission boards in Europe and other Protestant partners.

“He has put in place examples of how to engage the grass roots in mission and also how to build up a new readiness to support the UMC mission in Africa, Latin America and Asia financially,” Bolleter said.

A small boy’s view
Kemper’s exposure to other cultures began when he was a small boy living in Hamburg.

The port city served as a conduit for international visitors who would stop to see his father, the Rev. Gustav Kemper, and his Methodist congregation as they entered Germany, often spending the night. He heard the stories of missionaries and church officials and learned more about their shared faith.

During the same period, his father preached on a regular basis to a congregation of Gypsies, now known as Romas, and often took his son along. Sometimes, the congregation seemed strange and frightening, but more often Kemper was fascinated by the experience.

The seed for a lifetime of international mission work was planted, cultivated by the fact that the German church has always had a strong commitment to mission, dating back to its founding by Germans returning from the United States, “a kind of early globalization,” as Kemper characterizes it.

His formal education built on that commitment. He received a master’s degree in adult education, with minors in psychology and theology, from the University of Hamburg in 1982. His thesis topic was “Global Learning in Church Youth Work.”

Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in development sociology from the University of Bielefeld and spent three months living in a village in Burkina Faso as research for his thesis on “Ecology and the Social Structure in the Sahel.”

His early practical experience included an assignment from 1975-77 at the German Methodist Mission in London, where he managed the hostel and bilingual church, organized programs for international youth groups and worked with Vietnamese boat people.

Assignment in Brazil
After graduate school, Kemper and his wife, Barbara Hüfner-Kemper, shared a missionary assignment in Brazil from 1985 to 1994, appointed through the German United Methodist Board of Missions and the Methodist Church in Brazil. She is a psychologist. Two of their children—Ana, now 18, and Lena, 17—were born there. They also have a son, Joshua, 13.

When the family returned to Germany, he spent three years as director of ecumenical learning at the Lippische Landeskirche, a regional church of the Association of Protestant Churches in Germany, before becoming the mission leader for the United Methodist German Central Conference.

Since 1998, Kemper has led the German church into a wider exploration of what John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, meant when he said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

View in Photo Gallery Kemper has encouraged a holistic perspective of mission that includes issues of social and economic justice as well as evangelism, said German Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.

“Many Methodists learned through his inspiring leadership that mission means partnership,” she added. “The local churches all over the world are the mission points and we send support to each other.”

German United Methodists support more than 80 projects with partner churches in 13 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, often collaborating with Methodists in Great Britain and Ireland.

Among the innovations during Kemper’s tenure is the Christmas Campaign, which targets small donors for specific child- and youth-related projects and extends “well beyond our normal constituency because this was attractive to people outside the church,” he explained.

The 110,000 euros raised for Christmas 2009, for example, are being used to employ young people in Sierra Leone to make furniture for schools. Kemper also began volunteer-in-mission programs for German church members. “These people have really become the best ambassadors for our work,” he said.

Germans support HIV/AIDS ministries in Africa through the Ziegler AIDS Fund, established in memory of a German missionary couple who died in a car accident in Kenya in 2003. “We have raised almost 1 million euros so far,” Kemper said.

The global vision
As the top mission leader for The United Methodist Church, he will apply those skills and experiences to a broader canvas. His vision is “that we really become the global agency for a global church.”

Pontus Fred, a United Methodist from Finland, has served as a Board of Global Ministries director with Kemper and worked with him collaboratively in Europe. He believes Kemper will help the denomination worry less about structure and focus more on engaging local churches in mission.

“Large and financially strong churches are sometimes blamed for going into mission on their own, with no or very loose connections to the Board of Global Ministries,” Fred noted. “Out of a Central Conference perspective, I can certainly relate to this. Thomas knows the hopes we have (with) Global Ministries in this regard, and I believe these experiences can be one of the keys to bringing the agency closer to the local church.”

He already is at work on strengthening the mission agency, which underwent a structural reorganization, staff reductions and change in top leadership in 2009. “The short-term goal is to bring stability,” he declared.

Kemper said he is grateful the staff has carried on so well under those pressures and he expects to have a full leadership team in place by early summer. “We have everything we need to go ahead,” he added.

He would like to see U.S. United Methodists gain a new appreciation of their worldwide connection. “I really hope the church in the U.S. is ready … to be proud to be part of a church that is global,” he said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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Stayed up way too late last night finishing the much-acclaimed biography Mark Twain: Man in White:The Grand Adventure of his Final Years.

There’s worse ways to lose sleep that reading yet another terrific biography of this great American icon who, for my money, is the best writer this country has ever produced.

But then–I’m a card-carrying Twainiac.

I remember loving Tom Saywer in my boyhood–and what red-blooded American boy can’t relate to the mischievous Tom–only to be blown away by the incredible, pathos-filled story of Huck Finn’s great adventure. Tom Sawyer it wasn’t. Tom Sawyer is the story of a little snot-nosed kid who gets by on his wits and clever ways that make for clever moments, as when he conned his buddies into painting the fence for him.

By contrast, Huck Finn is a story that runs so deep and contains so many riches that young kids and the most advanced literary scholars alike still take something new from it on every read.

I’ve read The Adventures of Huck Finn no less than six times in my life, and probably more, though it’s probably been 15 years since the last time. But I always found it to be like the Bible or Shakespeare–every time you read it, it speaks to you in new and powerful ways. I was in 7th or 8th grade the first time I read it and will never forget how it turned my then calloused thinking about race around. It’s still high on the list of banned books every year because of the racial language, but Twain, of course, used the racist language of the times to great effect in exposing the callousness and irrationality of racism. Too bad that his genius in writing an anti-racist book is still seen as simply being racist.

I think labels like “icon” and “genius” get tossed around all too casually these days. Every coach who wins a Super Bowl is instantly branded a “football genius,” for gosh sakes. Or any fly-by-night entertainer or musician or actor gets the “genius” treatment–not to mention any good writer that comes along to make a splash.

But Twain made more than a splash because he truly was a literary genius. And as “icons” go–he was genuinely one of those by the sheer force of his life and his outsized personality–and his intellectual fearlessness.
Here’s the publisher’s comments on the aforementioned biography, which contains some wonderful anecdotes, of one of the greatest–and surely most colorful–of American characters:

One day in late 1906, seventy-one-year-old Mark Twain attended a meeting on copyright law at the Library of Congress. The arrival of the famous author caused the usual stir–but then Twain took off his overcoat to reveal a snow-white tailored suit and scandalized the room. His shocking outfit appalled and delighted his contemporaries, but far more than that, as Pulitzer Prize finalist Michael Shelden shows in this wonderful new biography, Twain had brilliantly staged this act of showmanship to cement his image, and his personal legend, in the public’s imagination. That afternoon in Washington, less than four years before his death, marked the beginning of a vibrant, tumultuous period in Twain’s life that would shape much of the now-famous image by which he has come to be known–America’s indomitable icon, the Man in White.
Although Mark Twain has long been one of our most beloved literary figures–Time magazine has declared him our original superstar–his final years have been largely misunderstood. Despite family tragedies, Twain’s last half- decade was among the most dynamic periods in the author’s life. With the spirit and vigor of a man fifty years younger, he continued to stir up trouble, perfecting his skill for living large. Writing ceaselessly and always ready with one of his legendary quips, Twain would risk his fortune, become the willing victim of a lost-at-sea hoax, and pick fights with King Leopold of Belgium and Mary Baker Eddy.

Drawing on a number of unpublished sources, including Twain’s own journals, letters, and a revealing four-hundred-page personal account kept under wraps for decades (and still yet to be published), Mark Twain: Man in White brings the legendary author’s twilight years vividly to life, offering surprising insights, including an intimate, tender look at his family life. Filled with first-rate scholarship, rare and never-published Twain photos, delightful anecdotes, and memorable quotes, including numerous recovered Twainisms, this definitive biography of Twain’s last years provides a remarkable portrait of the man himself and of the unforgettable era in American letters that, in many ways, he helped to create.

“Shelden (Orwell) centers on the writer’s signature white suit — which first raised a ruckus when he donned it in the wintery month of December 1906 for an event at the Library of Congress. Shelden also sets the record straight with respect to Twain’s continuing humor into his old age in spite of the deaths of his beloved wife and his epileptic daughter, Jean, and his often tempestuous relations with musical daughter Clara. Twain’s last years were chock-full, including a feud with Mary Baker Eddy and encounters with Bram Stoker, Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, and others. Much of the emotional void was filled by Twain’s complex but seemingly platonic relationships with a series of girls. The last part of Twain’s life was cynically managed by a team of his secretary, Isabel Lyon, and business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Here is a well-researched book for all Twainiacs as well as those coming to the subject’s late years for the first time. 46 photos.” Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

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A woman, lighting the Shabbat candles?

Menachem Wecker blogs for my old newspaper stomping grounds, The Houston Chronicle, about religion and art. It’s some pretty sophisticated stuff he gets into both in terms of art and theology–he knows his stuff, and covers not only Judaism but Christian art and others.

Since we’re in Passover this week, here’s his top five list of Passover art works: (Or check out the whole posting at his blog):

Iconia: Wherever faith meets art, with Menachem Wecker

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which commemorates the redemption of the Israelites from four centuries of Egyptian servitude, is a holiday of story telling and teaching. There are actually rabbinic recommendations to obfuscate the services of the seder (literally "order," the ritual Passover program), "k'dei she'yish'alu ha'tinnokot," so that the young children will ask questions — and learn from the answers they receive. The ma nishtana (literally "What is different?"), the so-called Four Questions, are a perfect example of this charge to educate the young. In fact, some rabbis say that even if there are no children at the seder, the youngest person present recites the four questions. Even if someone dines alone, she or he is required to ask the questions of herself or himself.

Here is my hall of fame of Passover culture and art. If you are attending a seder (which is hopefully not sadistic like this one) this Passover, whether as a host or a guest, feel free (with attribution of course!) to draw upon any or all of these items to facilitate conversation. I hope you will find them provocative and fertile ground for discussion about the issues of the day: slavery and redemption, pain and joy, sacrifice and symbolism.

1: Prayer Books of a Feather
The how-to guide for the proceeds of the seder is called a haggadah (from the root "to tell," as in storytelling). Most haggadot (plural) I encountered growing up were glossy affairs with kitschy illustrations of pseudo-Egyptian figures and landscapes. Each year of elementary school, my siblings and I brought home makeshift haggadot with our own attempts to use our markers to color within the lines. But there have been some really beautiful and important haggadot throughout the ages, and one of the most important — and most perplexing — is the so-called Bird's Head Haggadah.

The c. 1300 illuminated manuscript from Germany derives its name from the artist's mysterious decision to represent all the human forms in the book with birds' heads. Scholars have speculated that the artist avoided pure human forms for aniconistic reasons and fear of violating the Second Commandment. Perhaps this book's mystery is what has led many contemporary artists (like Joyce Ellen Weinstein) to address the Bird's Head Haggadah in their own work.

2: Arthur Szyk's $18,000 Political Passover Cartoons
When Polish-born artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) envisioned his version of the haggadah, which he illustrated between 1934 and 1936, he decided to compare the ancient anti-Semitism of Pharaoh with that of Hitler. The book originally sold for $500; today a new version published by Historicana retails for $18,000 and boasts "full-leather binding with contrasting leather inlay and 22 carat gold tooling" and a print of Szyk's signature "stamped in gilt on the front cover."

In the Szyk image on the right (printed courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society) of the Four Sons — a paradigm of wise, wicked, simple and mute/silent children — the wicked son (top left) resembles Hitler. The wise son (top right) is dressed as a pious Hassid, and the son who is incapable of asking a question (bottom left) evokes Socialist propaganda posters of workers.

"We are the 'People of the Book,' and it's my belief that the people of the book should have an excellent book," Irvin Ungar, founder and CEO of Historicana, told me in an interview. One can debate whether it is wise to use such a posh book at a seder, where wine spills are an ever present threat, but it is clear that on the holiday where we recline on pillows and eat an aristocratic cuisine, it is appropriate to have such a regal book.

3: A Woman's Touch
When I first realized that Archie Rand's Had Gadya series depicts God as a woman, I was shocked.

Had Gadya (Aramaic for "one kid," as in goat) is a poem which is part of the haggadah about an unfortunate goat (purchased by the narrator's father for two zuzim), which is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is hit by a stick, which is burned by a flame, which is extinguished by water, which is drunk by an ox, which is slaughtered by a butcher, who is killed by the Angel of Death, who is killed by God, Ha'kadosh baruch hu, literally, "The Holy One blessed be He."

Rand's series represents the entire narrative, and the image on the left shows the Holy One blessed be He — only Rand's figure is better described as the Holy One Blessed be She. (The cartoon bubble includes the Aramaic quotation, "And thus comes the Holy One blessed be He.")

What could Rand mean by casting God as a woman (though the inscription calls for a masculine deity), particularly a woman lighting the Shabbat candles?

Looking at the image now, it strikes me that the story of the kid is one of transience — of big fish eats little fish. God, of course, is the biggest fish and smites even Satan. But surely Rand is setting up an important distinction between the earthly fire that assumes temporary power by burning the stick, and the spiritual flame kindled in the final painting by the feminine God/Shabbat queen. The final flame is a permanent one (perhaps the one that Jewish mystics have said was created at the beginning of time and maintained for the righteous to enjoy in the world to come). And that is, after all, one of the major themes of Passover.

The enslavement in Egypt — the physical bondage and spiritual confusion — was service of a temporary master. The Israelites, in fleeing Pharaoh, became enslaved to a new, divine master. Rand has the insight (and the chutzpah) to give that divine power a woman's face.

4: Hunting Wabbits/Rabbis
If you study enough haggadot, you are bound to run into a rabbit hunt or two. Readers who know a bit about Jewish dietary restrictions (rabbits are decidedly not kosher per Leviticus 11:6, which declares the arnevet impure, because it chews its cud, but lacks split hooves) or the Passover story (I know of no hare references), will no doubt wonder what Bugs Bunny has to do with the Exodus.

I've heard two responses from the rabbis I've interviewed. Some said the illustrations of rabbit hunts (see here and here) were allegories for anti-Semitism: the Jews were the hunted rabbits (much like Christ is often a trapped unicorn). This makes sense until one begins to wonder why rabbits as opposed to any other animal.

The other rabbis invokes a mnemonic called "Yaknehaz" (which stands, in the Hebrew, for the order of the seder on a Saturday night: wine, blessing, candle, havdalah, blessing for the holiday), and said the rabbit hunt was a pun, since the German for rabbit hunt is "jag den Has." Trouble is that the rabbit hunts did not originally appear in German-speaking areas.

There is also the matter that we have several bizarre versions of the motif (like this one) where a dog pours wine into a hare's goblet. Others show the rabbit undressing. Clearly there are more to these strange symbols than just anti-Semitism or German puns.

That's where Marc Michael Epstein comes in. Epstein is director of the Jewish studies program at Vassar College and author of the book Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, which includes the chapter, "The Elusive Hare: Constructing Identity."

According to Epstein, the hare can be found in illustrations of Esau's hunt as well, further complicating the question why the non-kosher animal keeps hopping around where one would least expect it. And here's where Epstein gets creative. The hare, which was a medieval anti-Semitic reference to Jews, who were said to "multiply like rabbits," was appropriated by Jewish artists (or patrons) and converted into a symbol of Jewish pride. "[Jews] transform what is a sign of calumny in Christian culture into a positive symbol," Epstein writes, "a new and indigenously medieval, indigenously iconographic one, in response to that very same state of subjugation."

One might call it a hare-bites-dog circumstance.

5: Serving Up Passover on a Ceramic Platter
Most seder plates I've seen are round and compartmentalized. Mark Podwal's is neither.

Podwal's plate, which is 15 inches squared (and retailed for $110 at the Metropolitan Museum, when I first saw it in the Christmas catalog in 2004), is made of earthenware. Podwal, who has recently done a lot of work on Prague and Jewish mysticism and magic, which he has exhibited in the Czech Republic and the United States, includes a variety of motifs on the Passover plate: a pyramid (made of matzah), the Jerusalem skyline, pomegranates (a symbol of Israel, and a prominent motif in the temple/tabernacle), frogs (the second plague), books (arranged to form a Star of David), a goat (Had Gadya) and Torah scroll cover. The Hebrew words (clockwise from top right) spell out the props that accompany the plate: "shank bone," "horseradish," "apple salad," "dipping vegetables," "bitter herbs" and "egg."

Not only is Podwal boldly rethinking the Seder platter (in a square, without compartments to hold the different foods), he is also connecting the plate with a tradition where the plate holds both the props and the matzah.

It turns out, when the plate first debuted at the Met, the staff happened to have a box of matzah handy, and, miracle of miracles, the wafer fit perfectly in the well of the plate.

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Rev. Dr. Pamela Couture

It may not be within our power to eradicate sin and evil, but it is within the power of each one of us to receive and, by God’s grace, create moments of what the Rev. Pamela D. Couture calls “Palm Sunday” time–at any time.

And maybe we need only look to the little children to see how this works.

This is an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. Couture’s sermon titled “Time Suspended.” **

In the midst of a season that is rightfully serious, the celebrations of Palm Sunday open up a different kind of time, a time of suspended goals, what philosophers call “paratelic time,” time that stands still—suspended time. The lives of adults and, increasingly, the lives of children are crowded with goals and offer little opportunity to experience paratelic time. But, frequently, children remind us of their and our need for paratelic time. Paratelic time, suspended time, Palm Sunday time–whatever you want to call it–is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and ourselves. It keeps hope alive.

Some friends and their children and I recently gathered for an evening at a musical event that was really aimed toward adults. The band was setting up on a stage at the front of the restaurant that was table height above the main floor. As some of the children entered the room and their mother chose a table in the middle I heard one of the boys say, “But I want to sit in front.” We motioned them to the front to join our table, and the performance began, less than ten feet from the four children.

The children became enthralled. First they gazed intently at the performers and then inched their chairs closer to the stage until they poked their feet onto the stage. A mother who was new to the experience began to correct them, but another mother who knows these performers and their attitudes toward children assured her, “It’s okay.” . . . .

Eventually, the waitress brought hamburgers and chicken fingers to the children, and the children used the front of the stage as a table, eating at the feet of the performers, still riveted on their music. As we knew they would, the performers occasionally talked to the children between songs. Knowing they were welcome, the children became more and more intent on the music and, of course, didn’t want to go home. In the music and the relationships they were building, the children were losing themselves in the kind of suspended time that children crave. . . .”

Dr. Couture is vice president for academic affairs and dean and professor of practical theology at the United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. Under her leadership, the contextual education program at Saint Paul has been redesigned to expect students to learn in and from the local neighborhood, a low-income, inner city neighborhood.

She is the author of “Child Poverty: Love, Justice and Social Responsibility,” which looks at concerns related to children and poverty in larger social systems. She also has written a number of articles on children and poverty.

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Illustration: “Take up and read,” from a series of frescos on the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) done by Benozzo Gozzoli in San Gimignano (1465)

Jessa Crispin, editor of bookslut.com, has this review of a book about memoirs, titled Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda. 304 pages. Riverhead. $25.95.

Crispin’s reviews are usually better than the books she reviews. She can wax witty, very sarcastic and occasionally eloquent but always incisive.

Many people write books about themselves, few people actually should, she says in this review. It’s her usual incisive kind of review, and she gets it right about our great Christian Saint Augustine and his powerful (and I would argue fun) memoir Confessions.

By Jessa Crispin**
Poor Saint Augustine. For years now people have drawn the source of the memoir back to his Confessions. As if because of that book, Augustine’s hands now bear the ink stains of James Frey, tales of addiction, incest and mental illness, the word “momoir,” and a dozen Holocaust survivor fakers. Just like Jane Austen, who occasionally bears the blame for the candy-coated chick lit aisle of your local bookstore, Augustine deserves a better legacy.

Even Ben Yagoda accuses Augustine of the crime of inventing the memoir in his new book Memoir: A History. It’s a long road from Confessions — written around 400 A.D. — to the memoir’s current dominance in the publishing scene, although the template hasn’t changed much in all of those centuries: I have done some horrible things, and I would like to tell you about them. The difference comes mostly in the filter. Augustine framed his writings around the concept of sin, an outdated concept that has been replaced with the more vague idea of “recovery,” whether from a trauma or a mental illness or an addiction. Either way, the goal is mostly redemption and so the pathway is the same: confess, confess, confess. {My bold type for emphasis; JB}

There’s a lot of talk about the fakers in the memoir industry, and Yagoda takes a particular interest in them. The Holocaust survivors who turn out to not even be Jewish, the faux Native Americans, the white suburban girls who pretend they are inner city hardasses. We swallow their tales whole, even the bit about being raised by wolves in the European countryside while the rest of the continent tore itself into pieces, and then become indignant when they’re revealed as frauds. It doesn’t even take the James Frey-level deceit to raise the audience’s ire. Judy Blunt exaggerated a scene in her memoir Breaking Clean, saying her father-in-law smashed her typewriter with a sledgehammer when all he did was unplug it. Called on it by the New York Times, Blunt said the machine’s bludgeoning was “symbolic,” not to be taken literally. And so we’re outraged, and we engage in online debates about what the definition of “truth” is, and then someone else comes along claiming he was a teenage male prostitute, and we say, “Oh you poor thing, aren’t you brave, aren’t your books powerful,” never mind the fact that the books were never that good to begin with.

And that’s all very interesting to Yagoda, who fills Memoir with accounts of liars and exaggerators, discussing the malleability of memory and our reality TV culture that really just wants to watch a pretty woman eat a spider for cash, or a “symbolic” memoir equivalent. But lying is not that interesting once it’s divorced from the lie itself. There’s something curious about the fact that everyone, if pressed, could describe what it would be like to survive the Holocaust and could get the atmosphere correct enough to write a convincing memoir. It’s kind of like people who really want to be abducted by aliens, and can rattle off the probing and the big eyes and the telepathic communication well enough to sound like everyone’s story, thereby gaining access to a community of abductees. Maybe they believe it themselves now, too. But in reality, it’s just a bunch of people who wish they had more interesting lives. Maybe things came a bit too easily to them, and they never really had to struggle and as a result their lives lack gravity. So they make up a story wherein they are tested, they survive, and they inspire others with their bravery and their transcendence. “I wanted to tell my tale, you know, because if I help just one other person like me, then it was all worth it,” you imagine them practicing in the mirror for their Oprah appearance.

Meanwhile, in the other corner, live the people whose lives have all the gravity they’ll ever need, so much gravity, in fact, that hey can barely stand up straight. Their memoirs are understated and graceful; they don’t need to add “raised by wolves” just to liven things up. Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday is so bittersweet, a love letter to pre-World War II Vienna, a city that doesn’t love him back. Or Caroline Knapp’s quietly furious Drinking: A Love Story. It lacks the bombast of James Frey’s fairy tale about how hard, how addicted, how strong he is, but that’s because she was hard, she was strong, and she didn’t need this ridiculous “Look at me! Look at me!” persona to get that across.

With all the talk of the liars, however, I want to know more about the people who tell the truth. Not the writers of extraordinary memoirs — the Primo Levis, the Michael Greenbergs, the Calvin Trillins, the Lucy Grealys — but the mid-list authors who now believe that writing a memoir is just another step in establishing a writing career. They’re willing to serve up little bits of themselves, taking something unusual that happened to them and constructing a narrative out of it, handing it over to the world to examine and poke and judge. And the world does judge. When Julie Myerson released The Lost Child, her memoir about her son’s addiction to skunk, I wonder if she was at all prepared for the mess she was about to step into. She was dragged in front of cameras to be chastised as a bad mother on live television, she was called filthy names and accused of being a famewhore, of being willing to sacrifice her son’s future by using his name and calling him a violent addict in exchange for a spot on the bestseller list. Whether you are telling the truth, or spinning fraud, once a memoirist becomes a target, all civility seems to be denied.
It’s easier to hate or judge the writer of a memoir than the author of a novel. The novelist at least has the shield of fiction to hide behind (so long as they bothered to disguise whether they were plundering their social circle for their characters). But if the memoirist is not self-aware, is trying to convince the world that her molehill is a mountain, then it’s easy to sneer and conflate writer and book. After all, they are presenting themselves and their lives as a consumable product. Hence my mean-spirited, petty reaction to a memoirist who wrote a book about cheating on her husband, but without any self-reflection, as the actions happened right before she began writing. Her cheating came off as something she was proud of, something she still took pleasure in, and I started to hate her after a while. I didn’t hate the book, although it wasn’t great, but the author. I began to watch as many interviews with her as I could, smugly reveling in her obliviousness, her self-delusion that the reason people didn’t like the book (it was getting very poor reviews at the time) was because she was telling dark truths people didn’t want to hear. “That’s not it at all! Not even close!” I wanted to howl. Then I felt gross and like a horrible person, but that didn’t stop me from watching more interviews with her whenever I found them.

The memoir is a weird gig. Yagoda barely scratches the surface of that weirdness. When one person is simultaneously the artist, the muse, and the model, you can get a fierce, genius Frida Kahlo. But for every one Frida, you get a couple hundred 22-year-old girls who plaster their Facebook page with faux-arty pictures of themselves and feed off the anonymous male commenters who tell her she’s hot. It’s the 22-year-olds that interest me. I wonder what happens to them when they finally get sick of living their lives in full view of the public. But there will always be another pretty girl for the audience to fawn over, even if in reality the whole thing’s being run by a 50-year-old overweight man.

*Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Berlin, but spent many years in Chicago.

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These are from Jean-Paul Li, who works as a videographer for the American government in Mons, Belgium. Found at:

Photos below:
“After shower,” street scene following rain in Lhasa, Tibet
Water tower in Oklahoma
Statue of Maria Theresa, Prague
“Smile,” 13 year old school girl in Afghanistan
Inside of the Cologne Cathedral in German.

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Just a little something to feast the eyes on. . . .

“Stormshot,” by photographer and artist Sonya Cuellar (along with one of her paintings). Other photo by photographer Jon Lee.

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