A Review of “Incendiary”

IncendiaryIncendiary by Chris Cleave
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Epistolary books aren’t generally my taste, but this one surprised me. As with most books that take me aback, I read this at the suggestion of friends…it was nominated by popular vote in a book club in which I participate. First off, the narrator of the audiobook version adds an amazing amount of depth to the book, even to the point of leading me to pick up on some British humor that I might otherwise not have grasped. The book is a relatively quick read, weighing in at just over 300 pages in paperback, or 8 hours in audio.

And it is funny!

In fact, Cleave is amazingly adept at stepping between dry, witty humor and poignant explorations of loss that leaves the reader wanting to cry. The narrator, during a sexual romp with her lover, loses her husband and son to an al Queda terrorist attack on London. This book is her letter to Osama bin Laden following that attack. As you can see, the premise is humorous from the beginning, and it only gets funnier…and more heartbreaking.

On the surface, this is a gripping story about a woman who has lost everything to a senseless act of terror, and, while traveling a grief-stricken journey to determine who to blame, slowly loses her grip on her sanity. At a deeper level, there is cultural critique here: not just on the barbarity of terrorists, but on the barbarity of the civilized world’s response. As Cleave’s protagonist loses her sanity to grief, the world around her (read: us) loses its sanity to fear. The image of a dark, near-future London with balloons hanging over the city bearing painted images of the dead haunts the reader for some time.

The fascinating development of characters runs even deeper, however. The protagonist’s lover’s girlfriend is nearly a mirror image of our distraught narrator, and the juxtaposition of a woman who loses while holding onto her core values against another version of herself who wins through self-serving, opportunistic means is amazingly well done. This, I think, is what stayed with me the longest from this book.

Incendiary is a quick read that will take you through an emotional journey that is well worth your time. The mirror that this novel holds to a post-September 11 world is provocative, and the conspiracy theorist twist at the end…well, let’s just say that it is all too believable.

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You can purchase Incendiary here.

Taking My Cue

This weekend I attended a conference on applied theatre. Applied theatre (overly simplified) is the practice of using the art of theatre to contribute to the social good. For example, theatre techniques can be used as very effective treatment modalities for individuals on the autism spectrum, or as conflict resolution techniques. One of the tracks available at the conference was “theatre of the oppressed.” While this wasn’t the track for which I had registered, I had an opportunity to participate briefly in two of the exercises that this track hosted, and I was moved beyond words.

Theatre of the Oppressed was originated as a concept by Augusto Boal, and is (way overly simplified) a theatrical technique used to draw the actor and audience into dialogue with each other. The exercises place you into someone else’s proverbial shoes, forces you to appreciate another’s perspective. The participator in the exercises in which I engaged this weekend is forced to feel the discomfort of someone in a less fortunate position than he or she is. The participator goes from being comfortable to uncomfortable, and is forced to consider why.

The first exercise in which I had a chance to participate is called “Columbian hypnosis.” With another actor, one holds his or her palm toward the other’s face, and the second actor has to keep his or her face the same distance away from the first actor’s palm (without touching it), regardless of where the first actor moves the palm. Then, the actors switch. Then, a third actor is added to the group, and all three have an opportunity to be leaders. Did I mention there can be no talking? First, I was the second actor. The only thing you can focus on is the palm of the hand in front of you. Some participants felt at ease, others felt discomfort at a loss of control (although anyone feeling any acute emotions, of course, stops the exercise whenever they like). During the three-person variation, a male actor was leading two females, and expressed a feeling of unease at this. One of the female actors expressed something similar initially. I discovered this huge sense of responsibility in leading two other actors around, knowing that they had to go wherever I told them during the exercise. I recognized that I had to take care of them.

In the second exercise, a huge group of people (around 70 or more I think), were divided into groups of three. Each actor began making a specific noise and movement combination, whatever they liked. They then had to “morph” with the other two until all three were doing the exact same sound/movement combination. Then that group morphed with another group of three, and then the larger group with another, until all 70 + of us were doing the same sound/movement combination. This was an exercise in compromise. Each person initially, and then each group, came into each “morph” with something they weren’t willing to give up, and others that they were. In a sense, the final unison of all of us contained a part of each of our original sound/movement choices, and was arguably better than the first. Some gave in immediately and morphed, others held out. In the end, there was respect and sense of commonality among all the actors.

Those two exercises moved me through a sense of humility, to a sense of responsibility, to a sense of respect. Obviously, I don’t have to tell you the implications. These exercises are physical imagery to assist one in appreciating the powerlessness or passion of another, another that one has the ability to impact. We are all in a position of influence or power over another: a parent to a child, a police officer to the violator of the law, an employer to an employee. There are just and unjust ways to exercise that power, and erring on the side of the just begins with appreciating the position, feelings, and humanity of the other person. These theatre techniques assist you in recognizing those things.

As though to come full circle, I listened to a great conversation after returning home about appreciating differences and being human with each other despite those differences. The person being interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah, talked about the immediacy of expression in our digital age…how we’re quick to send a caustic email when frustrated with someone else, saying things that we likely wouldn’t say with an hour to cool off (I have painful first-hand experience of that). He also talked about making an intentional effort to talk to people that hold opposite perspectives than yours, and recognizing them as people, regardless of their perspectives. He doesn’t advocate discarding your own beliefs to do so, or to affirm a perspective that you believe to be wrong, but to (in my words) become acquainted with where the other person’s views originate. 

What I’m inspired to work more diligently toward (appreciating others’ perspectives) by the interview, the theatre exercises had already motivated me to begin. In spiritual language, we call that “convergence.” The theatre activities that I experienced this weekend were profoundly moving, and I believe I’ll be adding as well as giving up during the rest of the Lenten season: endeavoring to add patience and respect to those relationships in which I find myself in a position of influence. 

Because, if we all took our influence as a more sacred obligation, we just might make this whole experience a little better for everyone. 

Photo Attribution: Steve Snodgrass 

Abbreviating Ourselves to Death

I remember my first graduate course. Specifically, I remember looking though the pages and pages of the syllabus until I reached the term paper assignment. I think most former grad students remember that moment. It’s traumatic, after all. My eyes grew wide and my complexion grew pale as I familiarized myself with the requirements of that one assignment, one of many. I remember well the sentence on the syllabus that said  “…qualities valued will include brevity…” How exactly does one achieve brevity in a paper that size? The point was that the professor wouldn’t tolerate any padding or fluff. Every idea and point of that paper had to stand on its own, and there had to be enough of them to make the work cohesive.

Well, I passed. Ever since, though, the word “brevity” has been etched into my brain. It sprang to mind again when I read this op-ed piece over the weekend, in which the writer argues for using shorter (much shorter) writing assignments for his undergraduate English students. He uses the word “concise” instead of “brevity,” but he’s arguing for something similar to my first semester grad school professor. Cut the cliche, cut the filler, and give the facts. Only important material should be in the paper. After all, the writer argues, we live in a culture that values the ability to succinctly communicate your thoughts in a few words. We don’t have time for essays in our day to day lives.

My fellow blogger Jan over at The View From Her asked this week if anyone else was growing “bored with the whole blog thing,” pondering if ideas weren’t communicated that way any more, or at least that most of us didn’t have the energy to say them in that format. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the question asked. Is blogging dying? Certainly the blogosphere looks different, and is arguably less active, in our current culture of frequent status updates and 140-character sound bytes. Remember when Facebook wasn’t a real-time stream, but a place to communicate with your friends (before it attempted to copy Twitter)? Many have left blogging behind, preferring the quicker stream-of-consciousness that is the status update world. Quick and concise thoughts, without the elaboration.

I’m concerned by this. My initial reaction is that blogging is too valuable a medium to let die, both as a snapshot of the thoughts of the masses and as a game-changer for journalism. Sure, there are bloggers who just write about what they did that day and ate for dinner, the same as there are vloggers that waste YouTube’s bandwidth talking about their haircut. Those, I think, have gravitated much more easily to shorter mediums. There are many, though, who have something to say, something that requires more words to effectively communicate their thoughts.

We’ve all read books and reached the last page groaning about the verbose writing of the author…you know, the writers who take pages of non-fiction space to say what we could have said completely in three paragraphs? That’s one thing. And as much as I love the idea of every thought standing on its own merit, there has to be room for the complete thoughts, as well. I’ve heard it said that, in prose writing, every thought must stand on its own, while in poetry, every word must stand on its own.

Perhaps, if we were moving more toward the poetry, I could more easily accept the idea. Even if we were, though, embracing poetry doesn’t eliminate the need for prose. And, at the end of the day, we’re not embracing any sort of increasing literacy…a fact that is glaring us in the face every time someone uses “2” instead of “to” or “lol” in a tweet (those abbreviations barely even have a place in text messages in an age when many phones have full keyboards).  Not everything can be abbreviated effectively, and doing so not only robs the idea of some of its coherence, but works toward the degradation of the language in which the thought is being expressed.

I think of my professional life as an example. I don’t look good on paper, at least not when I’m reduced to a few succinct sentences. Given a seven page CV, I shine, but on a one page resume, not as much. There’s more nuance, more complexity, to anyone’s life than that. Should I find myself applying for a specific position that requires a specific skill set, then that can certainly be achieved in one page. There is much, though, that must be left out, and those things that are left out are important.

Perhaps the issue is that we’re too rushed and impatient to read the depth of anyone’s thoughts. Perhaps the issue is that we’ve forsaken depth in favor of fast-moving trends. Perhaps the issue is that we’re permanently re-wired. Certainly, all of those things are true. Whatever the case, I see the larger issue being the impatience and unwillingness, leading not only to a failure to express our thoughts at length, but also to a failure to entertain others’ thoughts at length. There’s probably something to be said for the narcissism of always wanting to be heard, as well.

Expressing something in its entirety does not mean expressing it verbosely.

Expressing something while valuing brevity does not mean reducing it to a rapid-fire tweets, either.

Should blogging actually be dying, then I think its death is a statement that we aren’t wise enough to recognize the difference.

Photo Attribution: ilovebutter 

The Galvanized Grump

It’s so unjust, you know? A little pragmatism and you get the reputation for being a grump. There’s just some things that I tend to get passionate about, is all. And…well…I have difficulty shutting up when friends get on those topics. And then, well, I suppose I might get a little negative about them…perhaps even monopolize the conversation a bit. But a grump? Never.

As Lent arrived this year, I began pondering what it is about my life from which I might choose to abstain for several weeks. All of the immediate answers that I was hearing from friends and connections felt contrived if I tried to apply them to myself. I mean, abstaining from caffeine and the Internet and various other things are all perfectly valid spiritual exercises, don’t get me wrong. I just wasn’t feeling any passion about any of those things. I didn’t see how they would cause any forward momentum in me on a spiritual level.

So, with concrete actions failing me, I started moving into the realm of the abstract. I think what works to make me a worse person (at least lately) is that I get angry. I get angry at social injustice, and I really get irritable when I think about politics lately (it doesn’t help that I live in an area in which I’m surrounded by a very, very conservative political climate…a climate in which I am certainly an alien). It had began altering the way I see friends…causing me to apply stereotypical judgements to them. Knowing that anger and frustration and irritability is always cancerous to one’s soul, I  decided that I what I needed to abstain from for Lent was things that brought this out in me. I needed to detox. And, while that would certainly take the form of a great deal of political news, I wasn’t sure what else it would entail.

So, a few days ago, I indicated by way of my Facebook status that I was “giving up negativity for Lent.”

Amazing how a semi-humorous remark like that can spark a comment chain that takes on a life of it’s own. Hilarity ensued. Friends that I haven’t spoken to in a while (and who apparently perceived me as the aforementioned grump) moved from asking me if I could really do it (and alluding to pessimistic but hopeful wishes for my success) to wanting to reconnect with each other. The end result was the planning of a party. I suppose you can’t do much more to combat negativity than that.

There’s been other interesting effects, though. Sometimes detoxing from things that take up too much of our emotional energy leaves empty spaces, and those spaces can then fill with much more important things that require our consideration. It’s like a chamber filled with stale air has been vented to the outside world, and suddenly fresh air comes rushing in to fill the space. That space has to be filled with some sort of air….and positive thoughts are always better than negative.

The things that came rushing in to fill that void keep me up at night sometimes. I spend so much emotional energy being frustrated and anxious about things that I didn’t do when I was younger, things that I needed to do but that honestly just didn’t occur to me. Other things that I just wasn’t motivated enough to do. Things that I said I would do later. Now it’s not only later, but it’s beyond later. I’ve been spending so much time catching up and trying to re-make these passive choices from earlier in life that I’ve neglected things that I need to be taking care of now. Practical things. Important things.

I’ve often hypothesized that I reach emotional milestones late in life. That’s become more than a hypothesis now. I feel as if I’ve been living the last ten years of my life perpetually thinking that I was twenty years old. Recently I’ve awakened, and realized that I need to be dealing with things that I’ve sorely neglected in the present because I’ve been expending valuable (and finite) emotional energy regretting the past.

Replacing that negative vibe with a positive vibe has led me to a conclusion. I need to grieve over those decisions, and let them go. There is a present and future (involving a family) that require my attention. I’m not giving up on correcting some choices that I’ve made…I still think there’s room for maneuverability there. I just can’t let that consume my entire thought process.

Essentially, I can no longer approach it negatively, when there’s a positive way to approach the situation…one that doesn’t require forgoing the present. There’s so much more freedom when I look at it in that way…like a sculptor seeing the shape within the negative space.

Amazing what seemingly random and abstract Lenten practice can do for our emotional states. Here’s to hoping for more productive epiphanies.

Photo Attribution: cameraworx 


In some random coincidence after my last post, I read this piece over at Transpositions on the difference between art and craft. It’s an interesting read, because I think the perception of creativity is all too frequently confined to the “artistic types,” while craftsmen are very under-appreciated.

A year or so ago, Karen and I taught a workshop on creativity as a spiritual exercise. Our launching point was that everyone is creative. As much as our mathematics-obsessed, industrialized culture tries to drill it out of us, we are all creative in some capacity in our daily lives. Or, at least, we have the ability to be. Creativity, after all, isn’t confined to just the passionate painter who begins splashing paint onto the canvas while staring off into the distance and creating a masterpiece, or the novelist who locks herself into a room for weeks on end and forgoes all semblance of a life in devotion the characters she is creating. Those, after all, are stereotypes. I have a friend who is an engineer. He’s a problem-solver on a daily basis…he has to think outside of the proverbial box. Teachers do it, counselors do it, police officers do it. If we don’t do it in some capacity in our vocation, we do it in our avocation. I have friends who are pilots and attorneys who are great musicians in their free time. My father worked with wood. He has a wood shop, and, although he doesn’t make it out there much any more, I remember the intricate creations he would emerge with after being absorbed in his work for hours. I’ve spoken before about my grandmother’s quilts. These are not the things of which we would frequently think when we think of creativity, because they are “crafts” more than “arts.” I think, though, that they necessarily go together.

In theatre, there’s a very technical process to putting together the visual spectacle and story that you see unfold before you as a member of the audience. Sets have to be designed and built, colors chosen, lighting equipment focused and programmed, sound effects designed from scratch and microphones balanced. Costumes are sewn. Make-up is methodically applied. All of these disciplines are very technical in nature, but all must come together to create the artistic medium we know as theatre. The modern children of theatre, film and television, are the same in nature. In fact, even more technical expertise is required for these.

The post from Transpositions that I linked to above was the first of two. In the second, which posted today (and was the reason I waited to publish this post), moves more toward the conclusion. Summarizing the book the bloggers are reviewing, they decide that crafts are created with functionality in mind, whereas art is created with communication in mind.

While art and craft are equally important, I think there’s a danger in equating the two, because the functionality of the craft transforms into utilitarianism in art. When this occurs, beauty is not acceptable on it’s own terms…art suddenly needs a justification to exist, which is a burden of proof that should never be imposed on art. Yet, it is imposed all too frequently (anyone been to a Western Evangelical church, lately?).

I think it’s extremely important that all of us recognize our creative potential, because it’s there in all of us, whether we are artists or craftsmen/craftswomen. What does it take to achieve this today? Slowing down, making space, prioritizing…that would take another post entirely. For now, it’s critical to realize that your creativity is very capable and very much alive inside of you, patiently awaiting release. And, while the quality of the end result must stand on its own, the act of creating never, ever needs justification. Creation is its own justification, an impulse that is central to every human being.

Photo Attribution: Jeff Belmonte