Monday, July 28, 2014

Author Spotlight: Dennis Okerstrom

Project 9: The Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II by Dennis R. Okerstrom 

Project 9 is a thoroughly researched narrative of the Allied joint project to invade Burma by air. Beginning with its inception at the Quebec Conference of 1943 and continuing through Operation Thursday until the death of the brilliant British General Orde Wingate in March 1944, less than a month after the successful invasion of Burma, Project 9 details all aspects of this covert mission, including the selection of the American airmen, the procurement of the aircraft, the joint training with British troops, and the dangerous nighttime assault behind Japanese lines by glider.  

The release of the book coincides with the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Burma. In a presentation at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, Okerstrom shared the story of Project 9 with the assistance of World War II veteran Dick Cole, age 98. Cole was with the 1st Air Commando Group, a forerunner to modern special operations units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. Dick Cole served as Jimmy Doolittle's copilot during the Tokyo Raid and is one of only four surviving Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. Cole and Okerstrom are also joined by two other Air Commandos, Patt Meara and Bill Cartwright.

Dennis Okerstrom's The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot's Story is also published by the University of Missouri Press.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Author Spotlight: Kate Saller

The Moon in Your Sky: An Immigrant’s Journey Home by Kate Saller

The Moon in Your Sky: An Immigrant’s Journey Home brings to life the remarkable story of Annah Emuge. Growing up in Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin, Annah and her peers faced hardships few of us can imagine. As a young woman, Annah escaped to the United States, only to face more devastating challenges. How Annah overcame the trials she endured in the land she had thought would hold only promise for her and her family is a riveting story of perseverance that will inspire any reader. Annah’s sorrows give depth to the great joys she experiences as she not only survives but triumphs, devoting her life to the suffering of orphans left by the ravages of war in her homeland.   


I had just finished speaking to the Rotary Club of St. Charles, Mis­souri, about my humanitarian work in Africa when a beautiful, stat­uesque black woman approached me. Without prelude she asked me, “Do you know how to get mosquito nets for fifty-four children in Uganda?” This was my introduction to Annah Frances Acam Emuge, the determined and courageous woman who is the subject of this book.
As I came to know Annah, I was amazed to learn about the joys and tribulations of her life. It seemed as if, every time she told me a story from her past, I was incredulous that one human being could have survived it, and yet that was just one part of her story. Annah was the third daughter born to a poor family in rural Uganda in 1959. I wrote her life entirely through her eyes, to give readers a full sense of growing up as a village child in a country being systematically decimated by its maniacal dictator, Idi Amin Dada. As a child and teenager, this remarkable young woman matured and set the course of her life while enduring the kinds of devastations and threats that we have read about in many such accounts of life in twentieth-century rural Africa. What set Annah’s story apart for me was that it is not about an individual overcoming such an existence, coming to the United States, and finding a clear path back to her roots to improve the lives of those left behind; rather, it is the story of a woman who was faced with even tougher challenges here, and of her extraordinary and largely solitary triumph over all of them.
Entwined in Annah’s tale of grace and strength is the sadder story of her husband, who came to this country filled with hopes and ambitions, only to find that they were all beyond his reach. The loss of his dreams, along with the realities of the life he found here, proved to be more than this talented and brilliant man could withstand.
To accurately portray Annah’s life, I created an outline of the book and then had her tape-record her recollections from each period of her life, one section at a time. I took notes from each recording and then interviewed her to fill out my knowledge of that part of her life. After writing each chapter from my notes, I went over the material with Annah to ensure that she felt it was an accurate and complete picture of her life at that time. As this pro­cess progressed, Annah and I realized that I am unusual among her American acquaintances in that I understand and have observed firsthand the life she led in Uganda, sleeping in mud huts and work­ing on the family’s subsistence farm to survive. Through my affilia­tion with the service organization Rotary International, I have been to five African countries, traveling to and staying in rural areas to immunize children, distribute mosquito nets to orphans, and coordinate the placement of filtered wells in poor communities with no access to clean water. In spite of the unbelievable hardships suffered by the people I encountered there, all of them were warm and wel­coming, finding joy in things like the simple act of offering me a crude, handmade stool to rest on in the shade as I worked. It was this same spirit that drew me to Annah when I met her.
Annah did get her fifty-four mosquito nets through Rotary con­nections, and St. Louis-area Rotarians donated the money needed to purchase them. She has now created a 501(c)(3) organization, the Atai Orphanage Fund (, which col­lects donations to help support the children who live in the orphan­age created by her mother. I am a member of the AOF’s board, and we are proud to say that we were able to raise the funds to place a 240-foot bore-hole well on the orphanage’s land in 2010. Although the children sleep in mud huts and live a simple, poor life that dif­fers very little from Annah’s childhood there, they proudly tell any­one who asks that they have a mama in America who loves them. 

All of the author's proceeds from sales of this book will be used to support Annah and the orphans of Atai.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Author Spotlight: Sam Pickering

The University of Missouri Press has three books in print by Sam Pickering, who some years ago gained fame as one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society. In his most recent book, All My Days Are Saturdays, he writes about teaching and his recent retirement, visits to various locales, and, as he tell us, "the many people I meet . . . who tell me their stories, small tales that make one laugh and sigh." Also by Sam Pickering from the University of Missouri Press are Indian Summer: Musings on the Gift of Life and Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australia. Here he ruminates about a life of writing essays about life.

Vicki’s father bought an old farmhouse in Nova Scotia in 1947, and since marrying Vicki, I have spent summer months in Canada. Last week I watched an old woman with a blue cane shopping for strawberries in Sobey’s grocery in Yarmouth. Flats of strawberries lay displayed on a counter. Atop the flats were wooden boxes, each containing a quart of berries. The woman hobbled slowly past the counter sampling berries. From each of the first three boxes she selected a single berry, eating it slowly and then shaking her head and spitting the green topknot into a scrap of tissue paper. The taste of the berry she removed from the fourth box, however, met with her approval. As she chewed, she nodded. Reaching into the flat, she picked up the box and placed it in her grocery cart.
“Personally,” H. G. Wells wrote, “I have no use at all for life as it is, except as raw material. It bothers me to look at things unless there is also the idea of doing something with them. I should find a holiday, doing nothing amidst beautiful scenery, not a holiday, but a torture. The contemplative ecstasy of the saints would be hell to me.” 
A long time ago, I might have agreed with Wells. Nowadays, observing not only seems good enough but mete and right. Once upon a time I dreamed of legendary faraway places with unpronounceable names. Now I stay at home or, when I travel, wander familiar paths. Yesterday I jogged eight miles along backcountry dirt roads. A haze of bloodthirsty buccaneering deerflies sailed about me, all ready to board my head and shoulders. In past years I studied my shadow on the road and plucked the flies from the air before they unsheathed their sabers. I always bettered the record of the tailor of nursery fame who swatted seven flies in a single blow. During a run I never failed to make at least two of the piratical flies walk the plank every mile, often finishing a run having deep-sixed at least thirty of the one-eyed and peg-legged. Yesterday I ignored the flies and let the boldest settle on my neck and arms. Instead of letting the insects bother me, I looked at the flowers growing on the shoulders of the road, which included flags of blue vetch, sunny two-flowered Cynthia, and woodbine, its blossoms jeweled crowns set with white, pink, and yellow. While constellations of water lilies flickered like stars on the surface of still ponds, balls of bullhead lilies rolled in the currents eddying through slow streams.
A wag recently remarked that the lives of essayists are so dull that in order to enliven their days they eventually start sending themselves e-mails and telephoning their homes and leaving messages for themselves. Some even go bankrupt ordering items they don’t want just so Fed Ex or UPS will rap on the door and disrupt the humdrummery of fitting verbs to nouns and paragraphs to pages. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “a writer’s country is a territory within his own brain.” My country doesn’t fill the atlas. Rarely do I forsake the dirt road for the asphalt highway. Yet my country seems a wondrous place rich with domesticity and good humor—hokey stories that keep me smiling. After a time the lively person slips too easily into the cold grasp of good sense. Nonsense quickens, but it is harder to write. I jog and write in part because I don’t want to settle into an armchair and become one of those rancorous old boys who is not happy unless he is recollecting an aged grievance. Laurence Sterne argued that digressions are the sunshine, the life, and “the soul of reading.” For my part I am a rambler and think digressions are the heart of essays. Yesterday I broke my run to search for snakes, turning over bits of wood and broken fish boxes lying beside the road. I found six red-bellied snakes, small necklaces gleaming with life and, more important, bright with the capacity to make passersby appreciate the beauty of living.
I have written a couple of shelves of books. In them I described the appointments of my days: years when children trod the stage of my life, decades in classrooms, the stacks of many libraries, a few faraway places, and always a lively variety of people. Have I been successful? In my terms, you bet I have been successful. I have enjoyed a rich life and had great fun. Moreover, I’ve perfected the art of writing the unread, and I am now working on writing the unwritten. Last week I received a letter in which my correspondent called me “America’s Most Neglected Literary Treasure.” Of course I immediately carried the letter into the kitchen and read it to Vicki. “It’s always nice to hear from a friend,” Vicki said as she stirred the pea soup she was making. “How did you know the letter was from one of my friends?” I asked. “Oh, come on, Sam. What are friends for if not to praise and exaggerate wildly?” Vicki said. “Now leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m busy with this soup?”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Author Spotlight: Eugene Webb,2137.aspx

Under the broad umbrella of the Christian religion, there exists a great divide between two fundamentally different ways of thinking about key aspects of the Christian faith. Eugene Webb explores the sources of that divide, looking at how the Eastern and Western Christian worlds drifted apart due both to the different ways they interpreted their symbols and to the different roles political power played in their histories. Previous studies have focused on historical events or on the history of theological ideas. In Search of the Triune God delves deeper by exploring how the Christian East and the Christian West have conceived the relation between symbol and experience. 

Q. What prompted you to write this book?

A. There were several stages in the development of my interest in this topic.  I first came to Christianity myself as an adult with no prior attachment to any religious tradition.  At the time I found the doctrine of the Trinity perplexing, especially because the explanations I was given seemed both abstract and arbitrary.  I subsequently found that many Christians felt similarly.  Later, I decided it would be good to create a course on Eastern Christian traditions for the programs on Comparative Religion and European Studies that I had organized and taught in at my university.  Teaching the histories of both Western and Eastern Christianity I became increasingly aware of differences between them, and I found that most of these were connected in some way with their different ways of understanding this fundamental doctrine.  Since I also found that this was mostly unknown territory to both Christians and non-Christians, I decided a book explaining the differences could be helpful.

Q. What is the Triune God?

A. The Christian doctrine of God as triune--i.e., both one and three--was formulated in the fourth century CE in the Nicene Creed as a way of understanding the relation between God as the source of all that is and God as encountered in the personhood of Jesus of Nazareth and in the life of those who follow him and are incorporated into his life.  The development of that way of thinking about the relation between God and humanity goes back well before the Christian era, however, to early Hebrew biblical images of God breathing life into creation (the root meaning of the word spirit, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, is breath or wind) and of God calling Israel into a relation of sonship.  The early Christians interpreted Jesus as the one in whom that calling was truly fulfilled, and they believed the animating breath of God, the Spirit, was also uniting them with Jesus in his filial relation to God. 
Over time, the Eastern and Western Christian patterns of thinking about this diverged, with the West following Saint Augustine’s speculation about what there might be three of in the one God, while the East’s pattern of interpretation tended to be based on the story of Jesus’s baptism, with the Spirit descending to “rest upon” Jesus as a voice from heaven proclaims him “my beloved son.”  Few modern Christians in the West realize that the trinitarian creed they call the Nicene Creed is not the original one formulated and affirmed by the ancient ecumenical councils but an altered version imposed in his domain by Charlemagne (to conform the creed to Augustine’s speculations as well as to serve Charlemagne’s own political purposes in his rivalry with the Roman emperors in Constantinople) and that it was at first resisted by the papacy, which did not itself adopt the new version of the creed in Rome until the eleventh century.

Q. How do the Christian East and the Christian West differ in their conceptions of the relation between symbol and experience?

A. In the pattern of thinking that developed among Eastern Christian thinkers, the symbols of Father, Son, and Spirit expressed their experience of living, as they put it, “in Christ”—knowing the Son of God from within and knowing the Spirit as the breath of God moving them from within and raising them into participation in the Son’s life, a process Eastern Christians call “deification” (theosis).  In this way of interpreting them, Father, Son, and Spirit were experiential symbols that articulated in consciousness the three essential dimensions of the mystery Christians found themselves caught up in.
Augustine, on the other hand, in his book On the Trinity, began with the assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity must refer to three “somethings” (aliquid) inside God, and he tried to work out how to connect the biblical images of Father, Son, and Spirit with those.  In his interpretation the biblical images became speculative symbols used to identify a triad of objective components of the one God; they could have no experiential meanings because Augustine believed the experience of fallen human beings in this life could have no direct relation to the inner being of God.  After trying numerous triads to assess their fit, he concluded that Father must name God’s memory, Son God’s intellect or reason, and Spirit God’s will and that, since a will that did not proceed from intelligence or reason would be irrational and therefore defective, this implied that the Spirit must “proceed from the Father and the Son.”  (“And the Son” [Filioque] was the crucial phrase that Charlemagne added to the Nicene Creed to conform it to Augustine’s interpretation.)

Q. What are some other basic differences between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity?

A. One is that the West adopted Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, which was a particular theory of human fallenness that involved both universal inherited guilt and a disposition to sin that is inexorable in this life (which ruled out the Eastern belief in the Christian life as a process of deification).  A further development growing out of that same theory is that “atonement” (which originally meant becoming “at one” with God), came to be thought of in the West as referring to Christ’s crucifixion as payment of the penalty due for sin, whereas in the East Christ’s atonement has been associated with the union of humanity and divinity in the Incarnation, in which, as St. Paul put it, Christ came as a son in order that he might be the first of many brothers (and sisters).
Still another difference was that in the West, after Charlemagne’s empire became broken up among his heirs and their rivals, the Church entered as an independent political power into the ensuing competition to claim the kind of authority Charlemagne had held, whereas in the East, where the Roman empire continued intact until 1453 CE and was succeeded by the Ottoman and Russian empires, the Church was never in a position to strive for such power.  This preoccupation with power has gone hand in hand with a tendency in the West to imagine the relation between God and humanity in terms of a command system entailing rewards and punishments, with Christ at the top of a chain of command in which he is represented on earth either by a ruler like Charlemagne or by popes or by an inerrant scripture.

Q. How have the differences between them manifested themselves in the lives of Christians?

A. It is important to recognize, to begin with, that there is diversity within both Eastern and Western Christianity and that due to influences passing back and forth over the centuries, individual Christians don’t conform consistently to the basic patterns of one or the other.  That being said, the frequently commented tendency of Eastern Christianity toward the mystical and of Western toward the juridical is not inaccurate as a broad description.  Eastern Christians often say that “theology is lived” and tend to look for examples of this in their monastic tradition (Dostoevsky’s portrait of the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov would be an example).  The Western tradition’s preoccupation with institutional power and its concern with knowing what to do to gain reward and avoid punishment has led to both inquisitions and rigid scriptural fundamentalisms. 
On the other hand, the struggles, both ideological and political, within the Western tradition of Christianity have stimulated valuable intellectual development in recent centuries, whereas that aspect of the Eastern tradition’s life flourished mainly before 1453.  I think both Western and Eastern Christians can recognize that there have been saints (and saintly lives even among people not formally recognized as saints) in both traditions during the whole course of their histories—both before and after they split apart.

Q. How did you first become interested in studying religion?

A. Growing up without a religious tradition but surrounded by a great variety of forms of religion, I first became interested in them because they seemed efforts to address the most searching existential questions: where do we come from, what are we here for, what are the best possibilities for human life?  As an academic study, however, my involvement with religion began rather indirectly.  My degrees were in philosophy and comparative literature, both of which I was also drawn to as ways of exploring such existential questions.  As it happened, after writing a book on religion and literature, The Dark Dove: The Sacred and Secular in Modern Literature, I found myself asked to organize a program on the study of religions in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and I subsequently headed that program and shifted the larger part of my teaching to it.
My reason for being willing to undertake that role was that having studied the way possible visions of life could be explored through logical analysis and through metaphor and narrative, I became interested in the way they could also be concretely embodied and lived, which is what religions try to do.  The reason I have continued to find that a compelling study is that in the history of religions I found both the best and the worst of human possibilities expressing themselves.  I am convinced personally that religion has been and will always remain a powerful force in human life, but that shining as much light as possible on religious traditions may help to prevent their striving toward self-transcending love from being subverted, as so often happens, by the lust for power that Saint Augustine called libido dominandi.