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Monday, January 2, 2012

2012 Russian Mennonite Booklist

En Büakschaup – the Bookshelf
My recommended reading list for 2012 looks back over the last 16 months of publishing.  I am recommending twelve books – one for each month, that help promote, expand or establish the historical and philosophical identity of the Russländer Mennonites.  Thanks to an expected research vacation to Winnipeg in 2012, there should be more Canadian selections for next year.
    For 2012, I will be reviewing the following books in the following order online:

Jan – Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature
Feb – Leymah Gbowee’s Mighty Be Our Powers
Mar – Derek Wilson’s Peter the Great
Apr – Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
May – Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great
Jun – Patrick Friesen’s The Shunning: The Play
Jul – Charles King’s Odessa
Aug – Mennonite Girls Can Cook book
Sep – Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands
Oct – Donald Kraybill’s The Amish Way
Nov – Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist
Dec – Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land

The Amish Way:  Patient Faith in a Perilous World, by Donald B. Kraybill, Steve Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 2010, p 288 ($24.95).  

   The same team that sought to explain Amish faith and forgiveness to the non-Anabaptist world in the wake of the Nickel Mines, PA, schoolhouse shootings has elaborated on its explanation of Amish faith as a means of more fully introducing Anglo-American Christians to the peculiar yet very orthodox Christian faith of the Amish. 
 This is a great review for Anabaptists of all stripes as to how basic Anabaptist values are uniquely exemplified in the simple lifestyle.
    I would also highly recommend this book for fans of Christian Amish Romance literature for additional cultural information and as a theological corrective to many of the beliefs, lifestyle issues and fictionalized testimonies found in the books by writers such as Wanda Brunstetter, Suzanne Woods Fisher, Beverly Lewis and Cindy Woodsmall.

The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence has Declined, by Steven Pinker, Viking: Penguin Group, New York, 2011, p 802 ($40.00/CA$46.00).

   Widely being touted as a Pulitzer nominee, The Better Angels is Pinker’s latest evolutionary look into the mind and society of homo sapien.  Counter-intuitively (and he admits this from the outset), Pinker explores the last 100,000 years of human history to discover that homo sapien is evolving into a more peaceful, less violent species and society.  Whether examining warfare or domestic violence, the overall occurrence of incidents or the overall percentages of victims, even incorporating World Wars I & II, Pinker’s evidence is well researched and a bit confounding.  No one will be able to convince you of this until you read the book for yourself.
   If Pinker is correct, his findings should have wide-reaching consequences in almost all aspects of social life from the criminal code to warfare to Fundamentalist Christian interpretations of history.  Whether you agree with Pinker or not – you will soon be arguing for or against his findings.  I myself am a reluctant convert to his thesis.  I highly recommend this book for individual and group study.

Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, Basic Books, Philadelphia, PA, 2010, p 544 ($29.95). 

   While I did not find this book pertaining overly specifically to the Mennonite experience of World War II, it informatively and effectively describes the world of chaos, violence and bloodshed that engulfed the peoples of Eastern Europe caught between the armies of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. 
    This is not a book for the faint of heart – investigating both Stalin’s pre-war Sovietization efforts against Russian minorities and the outlying republics – including the horrors of the Holodomor in pre-war Ukraine, then Hitler’s devastating genocides and ethnic cleansing efforts during World War II, and then back to Stalin’s punitive post-war purges.
    Snyder seems to focus increasingly on the fate of Eastern European Jewry as the book moves into World War II – but even this is useful as one of the cultural challenges for Eastern Europe’s many cultural identities and ethnic minorities – including Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Jews, Mennonites, Russländer, Gypsies and innumerable others, is the lesson of a shared history and a shared fate.  We need to better understand all of these stories in order to better understand our shared narrative.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, Random House, New York, 2011, p 625 ($35.00/CA$40.00).

    I greatly appreciated Massie’s latest contribution to Russian Biography.
    Massie won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Catherine’s predecessor Peter the Great, who also seemingly served as Catherine’s inspiration and model.  He brings the same brilliance and insight to the life and reign of Catherine, focusing on her native intelligence.  Avoiding over-romanticizing Catherine, Massie presents a young and capable woman who rose to the occasion fate offered her.  Massie is to be credited for treating her as merely a capable woman who did what had to be done and was fortunate to have access to a few key advisors (including the infamous Potemkin).
    Potemkin, yes, he of the village façade fame, truly deserves a biography of his own.  Massie treats him respectfully and admiringly, often crediting him with establishing Catherine’s southern front in Ukraine and providing her with the political and geo-strategic stability necessary for consolidating and modernizing the empire.
    Of course, it is in the lands governed by Potemkin that the Mennonites settled in Chortitza and Molotschna, and in the cities of Sevastopol and Odessa wherein the Mennonites traded and sent their produce off to the world markets.
    Also of special interest to Russländer Mennonites is his treatment of the defining relationship between Catherine and Fredrick, also nick-named “The Great,” both being well-loved by the Mennonites of Prussia and Russia.  It was during the reign of Frederick’s nephew and successor, Frederick Wilhelm II, that the Mennonites of Molotschna were convinced to move to Ukraine, aka Little Russia, instead of being forced to conform and assimilate into Prussian society.
    For those who want to better understand the minds and geo-politics that governed the migrations and cultural development of the Mennonites of Eastern Europe, this book (and Massie’s biography of Peter the Great) are highly recommended.

Forgotten Land:  Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, by Max Egremont, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011, p 384 ($28.00).

   Despite recent news in Europe regarding naming and territorial jealousies between the nation of Greece and that of Macedonia over the neighboring Greek province of Macedonia (or the name thereof), Egremont reminds us that territorial tensions quietly exist elsewhere on the continent – in this case by calling to mind the lost realm of Eastern Prussia – the historic German lands ceded to Poland and the Soviet Union as war reparations after World War II.  Even in the USA, calling Gdansk by its historic name of Danzig can quickly clear a room.
   Egremont seems to tread fairly closely in not attempting to restore the map of lost empires while calling modern Europe to task for seemingly washing an entire Germanic culture under the rug.  I was in fact relieved that Egremont does not call for an reapportionment, any redressing of past decisions or a vision of a restored greater Germany at the expense of Poland or Russia.  Rather, Egremont asks a few simple questions in order to help us consider terms such as historic versus geographic culture or history, cultural claims to artifacts (such as the Silver Library of Duke Albrecht) or the justification of war spoils, some sixty years after the war.
   Mennonites, who historically identify as neither German nor Polish, were not historically bothered by nationalist feelings when borders between the two nations switched over, around and between them.  For Russländer he greatest interest in the contestation of this strategic region between two rival cultures that both impacted and sheltered Mennonite refugees.  Much of Mennonite interest in the region rests in genealogists’ attempts to locate long-gone German place names for former Mennonite villages on the Vistula.  While GAMEO is a great resource for finding out what the new Polish-language place names are, Egremont’s book helps to recreate the culture and history of those former place names. 
   For those of you interested in this mostly forgotten time period in Anabaptist history, I would also recommend Peter J. Klassen’s 2009 book, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia

Mennonite Girls Can Cook, by Lovella Schellenberg, Anneliese Friesen, Judy Wiebe, Betty Reimer, Bev Klassen, Charlotte Penner, Ellen Bayles, Julie Klassen, Kathy McLellan and Marg Bartel, Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 2011, p 208 ($24.99).

   By the well-known bloggers of the same name, Mennonite Girls Can Cook is a good common-sense, Prairie-style approach to the family meal. 
   This cookbook is more than a collection of recipes though, it is a contemporary look at faith, family and an impactful contemporary Anabaptism. 

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, by Rhoda Janzen, Paperback, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2010, p 272 ($14.00).

    Sometimes as Mennonites, we just need to sit back and have a good laugh. 
    Janzen’s witty commentary on her start in life and the breakdown of her marriage – a Russländer Mennonite to a gay husband, is both compelling and comforting in the many layers of cultural humor and good-will that recall the traditions and community within which many of us grew up.
    Janzen’s book also deals with the challenges of treasuring these aspects of our heritage while moving on in life, beyond the colony and the gemeinde
    Mennonite in a Little Black Dress would make an excellent choice for a winter book club or for just curling up with under great grandmother’s antique quilt in front of the fire with a perischke or a lapful of pfeffereneuse.

Mighty be Our Powers:  How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee with Carol Mithers, Beast Books, New York, 2011, p 246 ($25.99/CA$30.00).

    Gbowee (pr like David Bowie) should be required reading for all Anabaptists of both political stripes.  The spiritual daughter of a church mission, she is a credit to the Evangelical spirit embraced by Liberia through the efforts of foreign missionaries, immigrant believers and native Christians.  Her memoir is a compelling read for the practical manner in which she used her faith to challenge the warfare, violence and destruction that was ravaging her country, her family and her life by banding together with other women, both Christian and Muslim, to peacefully confront and convict those who were doing the fighting.
    Gbowee’s book is remarkable in that it is a simple story of a rather normal woman – she could be any Christian woman today – who, led by her faith, refused to compromise, refused to be afraid and refused to give up until the vision Christ had given to her was fulfilled.
    Gbowee is co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
    There are many other attributions to her strategy and the result, but in this very readable book, we find a woman whose only strategy was to depend on her faith and in the power of community and personal relationships.
    Again, this is a must read for both men and women of the church – not just those interested in political science or peace studies but in all who rejoice in the strength of faith in fellow Christians.
    For Mennonites – yes, there is a direct connection – Gbowee is a graduate alumni of Eastern Mennonite University with a graduate degree in peace-building and conflict resolution.
    Remarks by Gbowee indicate potential companion books to be read by those interested, including The Peace Book by Louise Diamond, and The Journey Towards Reconciliation and The Book of Conflict Transformation both by John P. Lederach.

The Naked Anabaptist, by Stuart Murray, Herald Press, Scottdale, PA, 2010, p 300 ($13.99).

    The news amongst Anabaptists these days is that of the Emergent church movement – a often controversial Evangelical reaction against the Fundamentalist movements that dominated Evangelical thought for much of the 20th Century.
    Stuart Murray has claimed to find inspiration within the historic Continental or European Evangelical traditions of the Anabaptists  -- Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish, for a new understanding of Evangelical (or even Radical Evangelical) faith.
    I agree with many other reviewers who remain somewhat dubious of the new Anglo-Irish movement and yet am heartened to see them challenge many of the previously non-contested beliefs of the Fundamentalists regarding responsibility, spirituality and community.  I am not sure that Murray’s program is in and of itself an antidote to the excesses of Christian Evangelical Fundamentalists in the 20th and early 21st Centuries but am glad to see those assumptions competently challenged.
    Nor am I completely convinced that the new Anabaptism shares the historic understanding and spiritual context of the historic surviving Anabaptists amongst the Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish who have in many ways evolved into their own religious-ethnic identities and have preserved unique and hopefully non-repeatable historic identities.
    Murray’s book is an excellent challenge to historic or traditional Anabaptists to see our faith in new ways and to find new ways to understand the interaction of our faith in the new context of Anglo-American culture – just keep one foot planted on the ground.

Odessa:  Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011, p 336 ($27.95).

   The first book I have come across dedicated to this topic, King’s Odessa reveals a peripheral outpost of European civilization and culture pinned on the boundary between the Ukrainian steppe and the Black Sea, between the Western Ideals and Enlightenment and the chaos of global borderlands, between development and a libertine desire of freedom.  Part Skagway (or Dawson City for Canadians), part Omaha or even Regina, Odessa is a recent city built mainly to supply 18th and 19th century steppe settlers with goods while marketing their grain to the outside world.  Like Skagway, Dawson City, Regina and Omaha, Odessa was also established as a frontier town to help civilize, order and lay claim to vast frontier resources against the former inhabitants of that frontier and against other colonizers who would encroach on the rights and claims of the present settlers.
   King makes little mention of the Mennonites as a distinct group.  He does note the Mennonite colonies as a source of agricultural commodities and cultural diversity.  King makes much more of the Jewish minority settling in the city from the farms and shtetls of the Pale, perhaps even the Kherson settlements where Mennonite and Jew lived side-by-side learning from each other – yet there is no reason given as to why the surplus of landless Mennonite settlers would not be included in his observations of the Russländer or other “German” settlers inhabiting both the fashionable neighborhoods and Odessa’s vast underground.
   Regardless, King’s treatment of Odessa as a marketing town and imperial administrative center contributes much to the understanding of this city’s impact on Ukraine, Russia and the Mennonites.
  One interesting observation was the ability of the citizens of Odessa to weather economic downturns, invasion, social upheaval and famine by retaining strong ties to the rural farm base of many of the ethnic groups.  As more and more Mennonites leave rural farms and villages for life inside Omaha, Winnipeg, Chicago and Toronto, it is worth contemplating the costs and impact of this out-migration and the subsequent loss of our cultural farm base on the cultural sustainability of the Mennonites.
   For non-Mennonites, King’s book will also explain how Odessa became a center of black market goods and crime, and a nascent community of outcasts, exiles, homosexuals and émigrés and a market for Russia (or Ukraine’s) growing agricultural commodities.  Strongly recommended.

Peter the Great, by Derek Wilson, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2009/2010, p 236 ($29.99).

    Cambridge scholar Derek Wilson wrote a small, easily read tome on one of history’s greatest rulers.  The focus of this book is really on the history of the great tsar and the Westernization of Russia (although Wilson takes great pains to indicate that Peter’s efforts were just as significant in the Russification of Europe as well). 
    Importantly for Mennonite scholars and genealogists, Silson’s Peter the Great helps to answer questions about how the Mennonites ended up in Russia in the first place – beginning with efforts by Peter’s father Tsar Alexis I to invite skilled laborers to Moscow to live in special neighborhoods where they could manufacture their goods and teach Russians their skills.  Objections to this program by the Russian Orthodox Church (notably Patriarch Joachim) led to the lengthy and confusing systems of ethnic segregation, isolation of non-Orthodox Christians from others and other bureaucratic immigration concepts that would later shape the Mennonites and the unique society they would become under Catherine II in Chortitza and Molotschna.
   Wilson’s book also firmly places the pro-Western reigns of Peter, Catherine II and Alexander I in a more secure and informative context.  Though, it would behoove the reader to bear in mind a certain Anglo-centric perspective that Wilson never seems to shake in interpreting this great Tsar of the Russias.  While the Camford-style comes across as charming and quaint under Alexander McCall Smith, it is something to work past in attempting to understand the motivations, challenges and successes of such an important person as Peter, in such an important time, to such an important nation.

The Shunning:  The Play, by Patrick Friesen, Scirocco Drama, Winnipeg, MB, 2010, p 96 ($14.95).

   Admittedly, I enjoy the book better than the play, but for fans of Friesen, Mennonite Theatre or Friesen’s book of poetry by the same name, the dramatic edition of his work is both compelling and true to the original poems.  Anyone with ethnic ties to the reserves of southern Manitoba (Steinbach and Winkler) will understand both the prairie geography and the spiritual landscape of this tragedy.
   The Shunning is a look at place of the individual amongst the greater community in terms of faith, intellect, questioning, creativity and self-understanding. 
    Both Friesen’s original poetry and the dramatic setting are receiving renewed interest as Anabaptists and Anglo-American Fundamentalists look more closely at concepts such as spiritual or social bullying and the inherent violence in a coöptive society.  
   Christian students of sociology, political science and psychology will find this work immensely appealing and instructive.


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