A Veneer of Culture

Mixed Media
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At a dinner party, you ask a question, a simple question. Everyone stops talking, all amazed that you really do know less than a fifth grader. Embarrassed, you stare at your plate and wish you could melt into the floor.

Fear such social disasters no more. David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim have come to the rescue with The Intellectual Devotional: Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class (Rodale).

The title caught my eye as I wandered through the reference section of a local bookstore. The secularized devotional format struck me as being somewhat sacrilegious, but also intriguing. A clever marketing ploy hooked me, and I took the bait to the coffee area for careful consideration.

Instead of Bible meditations, this devotional presents daily tidbits on Western civilization. During week one, the reader learns of the alphabet, James Joyce’s Ulysses, France’s Lascaux cave paintings, cloning, the basics of music, the philosophical distinction between appearance and reality, and the nature of the Torah. After a year’s reading, you should possess the veneer of culture needed to roam confidently at a cocktail party.

Back in the bookstore’s reference area, I discovered a host of similar books, such as Don’t Know Much About Anything (HarperCollins) by Kenneth C. Davis, Schott’s Almanac (Bloomsbury), and The Book of General Ignorance (Harmony). The sales clerk became quite excited when I purchased the “devotional” and Davis’s book. She explained that an American history devotional was also available and that Davis has an entire series of Don’t Know Much books.

The college professor in me felt conflicted. “Why don’t people just read books on a single topic?” I asked. She looked at me patiently and answered my simple question. “People want to learn, but they don’t want to be bored.”

I felt sufficiently chastised. From an academic perspective, these books point to a superficial society where knowledge is trivia, and trivialized. On the positive side, however, they highlight a prevailing desire to learn, as long as learning is presented in an engaging, accessible fashion—something all teachers, preachers, parents, supervisors, and writers need to remember.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

by Atul Gawandereviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Surgeon Atul Gawande asks, “What does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless?” Diligence, doing right, and ingenuity are the three requirements for any undertaking that involves risk and responsibility, according to Gawande. His gripping tales of a polio outbreak in India, battlefield medicine in Iraq, and a Boston hospital’s labor and delivery rooms, among other stories, give readers a glimpse into a world where lives hang in the balance because of doctors’ abilities or lack thereof. (Holt)

greenhour.org

reviewed by Otto Selles

Why does it seem as if kids never play outside anymore? The sad truth is most kids don’t. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American child spends six hours per day in front of a computer, television, or video game. To counter this “nature deficit disorder,” the Virginia-based National Wildlife Foundation has set up the Green Hour program to encourage kids to spend at least one hour a day engaged in unstructured outdoor play. The website offers a host of activities with related podcasts, web links, and book titles for parents whose memory of outdoor games is rusty.

Beyond the Gates

reviewed by Ron DeBoer

Beyond the Gates tells the story of the horrific 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis at the hands of Hutu killers in Africa. Unlike Hotel Rwanda, this movie spends less time on the violence, instead exploring the human conflicts and relationships of the teachers and students at a European-run high school in Rwanda, where U.N. peacekeepers protect the school and Tutsis take refuge. Hugh Dancy plays an idealistic young teacher whose faith and courage is tested by life-and-death events unfolding before his eyes. (20th Century Fox)

Head and Heart: American Christianities

by Garry Wills
reviewed by Wayne Brouwer

Why the noise about religion and politics in a nation that constitutionally separates church and state? Wills claims disestablishment of religion is the genius of American identity, protecting faith from tyranny as much as society from spiritual fanaticism. Wills reviews American history as a dance between “head” (Enlightenment rationalism with Unitarianism as profoundest expression) and “heart” (passionate revivalism shouting through great revivals and marching along Evangelicalism’s beat): whenever one captures American culture, the other quickly pounces back in pendulum-swinging correctives. (Penguin)

Bring Me the Workhorse

by My Brightest Diamond
reviewed by Elizabeth Gonzalez

Shara Worden redeems the female vocalist with her dramatic, classically trained voice, offering her music as her most precious gift to the world—her “brightest diamond.” Bridging the gap between Mozart and modern folk singers, she arranges each song painstakingly, cheekily combining electronic influences with the typical guitar and drums. She sings of feeling outdated in “Workhorse” and cries out to live freely in “Dragonfly.” Worden’s music is poetic, vague in all the right ways, while striking familiar emotional cords with her listeners. (Asthmatic Kitty)

I Want a Hug

by John A. Rowe
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

Two creatures seeking affection—prickly Elvis the Hedgehog and ugly Colin the Crocodile—meet each other after experiencing repeated rejection, and they become friends. Rowe’s heartwarming narrative and endearing illustrations show that love can be found in the most unlikely places when hearts are receptive. (Minedition)

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