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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church by Richard Lischer (Doubleday) is Richard Lischer's memoir of his early career as a Lutheran minister. Fresh out of divinity school and full of enthusiasm, Lischer found himself assigned to a small conservative church in an economically depressed town in southern Illinois. This was far from what this overly enthusiastic and optimistic young man expected. The town was bleak, poor, and clearly not a step on his path to a brilliant career.

It's an awkward marriage at best, a young man with a Ph.D. in theology, full of ideas and ambitions, determined to improve his parish and bring them into the twenty-first century, and a community that is "as tightly sealed as a jar of home-canned pickles." In their own way, they welcome him and his family, even though they think he's "got bigger fish to fry." Thus begins Richard Lischer's first year as a pastor: bringing communion to the sick (but forgetting to bring the wafers); marrying two unlikely couples--a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend, and two people who can't stop fighting.

Often he doesn't understand his congregation, and sometimes they don't understand him; for instance, why does his wife hire a baby-sitter and instead of leaving, put on her bathing suit, grab a stack of novels, and hide from the kids? Or why can't Pastor Lischer see how important it is for a woman with little money to buy an elaborate coffin to bury her husband in?

There are also the moments of grace, when pastor and parishioner unite for a common goal: when he asks for prayers for his infant son, and can feel everyone in the congregation ministering to him; when old hurts are put aside to help a desperate young woman finish college and raise her baby; or when he helps save a woman from dying of a drug overdose.

In Open Secrets Lischer tells not only his own story but also the story of New Cana and all of its inhabitants--lovable, deeply flawed, imperfect people that stick together. With his sharp eye and keen wit, Lischer perfectly captures the comedy of small town life with all of its feuds, rumors, scandals, and friendships. In the end he learns to appreciate not only the life New Cana has to offer, but also the people who have accepted him, at last, as part of themselves.

MOSES UNCHAINED by Marilyn F. Moriarty ($22.95 hardcover, 192 pages, University of Georgia Press ISBN: 0820319856) is the deeply moving true story of a modern outlaw’s struggle with faith, betrayal, and the accidental nature of life. A contemporary tragedy with as many twists and turns as the Blue Ridge mountain highways where it takes place, it is a powerful, challenging, and unforgettable book.

Zack Rosen was a simple man, but one of many contrasts. An urban Jew from New Jersey who moved south and converted to fundamentalist Christianity, he was not a philosopher or theologian but a man’s man, a tattooed truck driver who built a classic Harley-Davidson from spare parts. In Florida he met and married Shelley, another converted Jew, but their happiness was brief After they moved to Virginia, secrets from Shelley’s past came back to haunt them, and her sudden death from pneumonia revealed a shocking fact: She had AIDS, and she had given the virus to Zack.

Suddenly faced with the loss of his family, his job, his income, and eventually, his own life, Zack became an itinerant evangelist. He introduced himself to author Marilyn F. Moriarty in 1993 with the words, "I got an honorable testimony."

She listened to his story and became his friend and caregiver. At his request, she has told his story here, which encapsulates the human condition at its most vulnerable.

Marilyn F. Moriarty is a professor of English at Hollins College. She is the winner of the Peregrine Prize for Short Fiction, the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and the University of Utah Novella Award.

EVERY SECRET THING: My Family, My Country by Gillian Slovo ($24.95, hardcover, 282 pages, Little, Brown & Company ISBN: 0-316-79923-8)

"Ruth First was South Africa’s Rosa Luxemburg and Joe Slovo was the phenomenal liberation army strategist who became a brilliant builder of peace, both figuratively and literally, since he devised the plan by which enemies were brought together in a government of national unity in which he was the first Minister of Housing. Their novelist daughter, writing of her search for the source of herself in the unknown side of the relationship between her politically assassinated mother and her hero father, where devotion to their daughters took second place to that of the freedom struggle, has written a book that will shock some people. It should not. She loved her parents passionately; if the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined love is only half-understood. This book is an extraordinary expression of the very nature of loving, which illuminates, with the anger and tenderness of deep emotion, that human territory we all occupy, and where we conceal so much of ourselves." — Nadine Gordimer

Gillian Slovo’s life has been extraordinary. She is the daughter of South Africa’s most prominent white antiapartheid leaders: Ruth First — the journalist and political activist assassinated in exile in 1982 — and Joe Slovo — South African Communist Party head and eventual Minister of Housing in the government headed by his old friend, Nelson Mandela.

Gillian Slovo grew up in a household fraught with secrets, where a police tail was commonplace on every family outing, and where letters were written in code and phones were tapped. She tells her story in EVERY SECRET THING, recounting her childhood agony at always coming second to "the cause" and giving us an illuminating portrait of the mysteries and turmoil at the heart of every family’s history. For her own safety, Gillian was sent to England at the age of twelve, leaving behind a troubled family past.

With the end of apartheid, Slovo returned to South Africa to reclaim her childhood — and to confront her mother’s murderer. Delving into her past, she uncovered the parents she never knew. What she learned — about their public roles and their private lives, including their affairs — shocked and angered her but ultimately gave her the strength to make peace with the past. In a voice that makes the extraordinary sweep of history fresh and intimate, she brings sharply into focus all the brutality of the apartheid system. At the same time she provides splendid glimpses of the leaders, who, like her parents, fought against it.

Unwaveringly honest and beautifully evoked, EVERY SECRET THING is a memoir fueled by passionate admiration and love, a portrait of a beautiful, courageous, and independent mother and a stoic and dedicated father. Seeing Joe, as he is dying, become the first white minister m the new South Africa, Slovo bears moving witness to the triumph of everything her family fought for.

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