I bought Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle in summer of 2015, because it was on the reading list for Teen the Younger’s mandatory “Catholic Moral Theology” class. Over the summer the instructor who’d selected this book decided not to come back to her school, and the new theology teacher chose to teach from an very old and uninspiring textbook, and from a series of impenetrable and frankly uninteresting essays.

Which is a shame, because Tattoos on the Heart is a book that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” It’s not really a story so much as a series of stories about Father Gregory Boyle’s work with “homies” in Los Angeles. He was pastor of a church in one of the poorest areas of the city, and over the past thirty years has worked to help gang members find jobs and turn their lives around. His work grew into the nonprofit Homeboy Industries.

What’s most heart-expanding about this book is what Father Greg has to say about how he and his companions have done this work: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” And,”We seek to create loving communities of kinship precisely to counteract mounting lovelessness, racism, and the cultural disparagement that keeps us apart.”

In between such cracking insights, Father Greg peppers his writing with “dog,” (sort of like dude) “cabrón” (jackass), ‘spensa (sorry), “homie,” “mijo” (my son) and other  English and Spanish slang that gives this book a down-to-earth feel. It’s thought provoking, too, as Father Greg writes about the stereotypes and bias people feel towards gang members and poor young men in general, and also about the endless pain of burying so many victims of gun violence. He also notes his own mistakes or moments of frustration and impatience.

It sounds silly to say this book made me laugh and cry but it’s true; Father Greg cites his own laughter and tears and it’s easy to join him. I found this book’s wisdom profound and also obvious — we have to stop thinking some people are more valuable than other people, and the only way to do that is to practice caring for each other with radical “no matter whatness.” Is that easy? Nope? Will be make mistakes? Yes. But as a society we could follow even an iota of Father Greg’s example, the world would be a far better place.






I don’t usually write about sequels but I love this series. Maisie Dobbs, “Psychologist & Investigator,” is one of my favorite characters. Journey to Munich seems to be a transitional story — when we last met Maisie, she was trying to escape the pain of losing her husband and child. In this book, she is still mourning but has resolved to make her life in London and Chelstone again. Circumstances at home and abroad lead her to Germany, however, at the behest of her former mentor Maurice’s old friends in the British secret services.

Maisie takes on the assignment somewhat reluctantly, and while in Munich she begins to exercise her former skills as an investigator. In an effort to put the past behind her she agrees to a side project, locating the spoiled Elaine Otterburn and urging her to return home. And she meets an American operative, Mark Scott, whose assistance proves invaluable to her as she locates the man she was sent to bring home, a businessman and “boffin” whose engineering ideas are valuable enough that the British government has negotiated with the Nazis for his release from Dachau, where he is being held for allegedly supporting a subversive underground newspaper.

By the end of Journey to Munich it’s clear that Maisie is ready to re-enter her former profession, one she had been willing to give up when she married James Compton, and even better, it’s clear that her former associates, Billy and Sandra, will be working with her again. Other than Maisie’s old friend Priscilla, and the gentlemen from the secret services, Robert MacFarlane and Brian Huntley, few of the wonderful supporting characters from the previous books appeared in Journey to Munich, although we met a couple new ones, including Mark Scott.  I am hoping very much that Winspear is at work on the thirteenth book in the series, because I look forward to seeing what Maisie gets up to next.

I’d heard good things about this debut novel about a young couple from Cameroon living in New York, trying to become Americans, around the time the Great Recession starts. I like books that offer a perspective different from my everyday life, so I gave it a try.

It was an entertaining read. The main characters, Jende and Neni, are working hard, trying to reach their American dream. Jende came first, working and living in a cheap apartment with several other people in order to save enough money to bring Neni and their son, Liomi, to New York. Neni gets a student visa and enters community college, hoping to become a pharmacist. She works, too, as a health aide. Jende gets a job through his cousin, working as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark, and his family.

But Jende’s visa has run out and his application for asylum doesn’t seem to be going well. The novel deals with how this family decides what to do — stay in New York illegally, continuing to struggle and try to avoid any potential legal issues, or return to Cameroon. Meanwhile Clark’s family, wealthy beyond Jende’s and Neni’s imaginations, suffers a number of “first world problems” which only get worse as the financial crisis begins.

This juxtaposition between Jende and Clark and their fates and families is interesting reading. Mbue allows her characters to be flawed and conflicted — no one in this book has a smooth path or impeccable morals. The story got bogged down a few times, maybe to reflect the slow, imperfect progress of the immigration system? The ending was a little bit of a letdown, but again, this may be more art than accident, because there is no clear end of the story for the characters, only more change.

Mbue writes very well, and Behold the Dreamers kept me reading. Worth an evening or two of your time, if only to imagine what life is like for someone whose life is very different than your own.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.


At work we’ve started a “RivRecommends” (short for Rivier University) cart where library patrons can put a slip in a recently returned book or DVD they enjoyed and suggest it to the community. One of my co-workers recommended Soft in the Head. It’s a French novel about a man, Germain, whose mother has always told him he was a mistake, who never learned to read properly, who is very tall and is often the butt of his friends’ jokes. Germain lives in a trailer in the back yard of his mother’s house, where he can keep an eye on his garden, he works at a temp agency mostly on manual labor jobs, and he likes counting pigeons in the park. One day he sits on a bench with Margueritte, an elderly woman as small as he is large.

Margueritte doesn’t find it odd that Germain counts the pigeons. She seems to enjoy his company. Eventually, she reads to him. They talk about all sorts of things. As Germain puts it, “. . . I thought that sooner or later she’d end up treating me like a pathetic moron. But she always talked to me like I was a person. And you see, that can change a man.”

Germain narrates the book, which keeps it from being a sappy story; my co-worker calls it charming, and I think that’s a good description. Regular bookconscious readers know I have a soft spot for books in translation. I feel like they take a reader somewhere new even more than books set in unfamiliar places but written in one’s native language.

I’ve also always liked books about unusual friendships, and Margueritte and Germain are terrific characters. This was a nice book to keep my mind occupied in this, our first week of being empty nesters — yes, Teen the Younger has gone off to college. And a good book for reading in the sun on a well-earned three day weekend.


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I’ve been wanting to read Brooklyn for some time but like many other books that slip down my to read list, I’d sort of forgotten it. Then it was found several shelves away from it where it was supposed to be after having gone missing in the library, and so when it turned up, I was reminded, and checked it out.

Brooklyn  is the story of Eilis, a young woman in a small town in Ireland in the 1950’s, whose sister Rose arranges her passage to America with a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn. Rose and Father Flood set the plan in motion and soon Eilis has a job at Bartocci’s department store and a room at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house. Eilis isn’t sure this is really the life she wants, but she lets the plans proceed rather than hurt her mother or Rose.

The novel follows her on the voyage, her first days in Brooklyn, her life among the women at work and at Mrs. Kehoe’s. We see her grow into her new life, taking courses in accounting, having a serious boyfriend. It’s a quiet book, closely examining her feelings and observations.

Even though I sometimes wanted to take Eilis aside and tell her to make up her mind, there were things about her that felt familiar and evoked my empathy. The way she did not quite know how to deal with men’s attentions, and how she wanted to be careful of other people’s feelings, for example. Still, even though she grows up a little, she mostly lets life happen to her, unless someone else brings pressure to bear, and then she is redirected.

The ending did leave a few things unpleasantly unresolved — I am not after a tidy ending every time, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but Brooklyn ends with several characters lives about to be impacted, and I wanted to know more. I enjoyed the historical details, and the atmospheric feel to the novel, enough to want to see the movie. A diverting, well written book, satisfying enough for a couple of nights.


When I was looking for nonfiction for a summer reading display at work last month, The Forgiveness Project caught my eye. The subtitle, Stories for a Vengeful Age, seemed very timely in a summer of violent act after violent act being beamed to us constantly. I read it this weekend and it is terrific.

Cantacuzino includes forewords by Desmond Tutu (longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of this prophet of our times), and Alexander McCall Smith, whose work I also admire. Tutu writes, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk of forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you.”

McCall Smith notes that his interest in forgiveness came about from his work in criminal law, and later as he wrote novels featuring Precious Ramotswe, a lady detective in Botswana who would “often forgive those whose misdeeds she had unmasked.” He was surprised that readers did not seem to mind this, despite the fact that it was an unconventional approach to crime writing.

Cantacuzino explains in her introduction that she felt a need to make sense of the world in 2003, as Britain marched towards war in Iraq despite massive protests. Within a short time she saw a photo of an Iraqi boy shell shocked by the war (much like the photos we see now of Syrian children) and a man on television embrace and forgive the doctor whose mistake had killed his small daughter. It hit her, as a journalist, that people trying to deal with the former might really need stories like that of the former, of people who were overcoming pain and suffering by letting it go. She used her skills as a journalist to get to work gathering such stories.

When she was through she named her collection “The F Word,” because she found “forgiveness seemed to inspire and affront in equal measure.” She created an exhibit and showed it at a gallery in London. It was so successful it led to Cantacuzino’s nonprofit, The Forgiveness Project, and this book.

Each short chapter is someone’s first person story. Some were perpetrators of violence and hatred, some were victims. All had experienced the transformation brought on by forgiveness, whether granted informally, person to person, or through a reconciliation or restorative justice program. I was delighted to see stories from members of Combatants for Peace; I wrote in March 2009 about having gone to see two members of this group speak here in Concord. One of the men I heard speak, Bassam Aramin, is featured in The Forgiveness Project. 

A man named Oshea Israel who was only 16 when he committed murder says “I have learnt that if you hold on to pain it grows and grows, but if you forgive you start to starve that pain and it dies. Forgiveness is pretty much saying I give up holding on to that pain. Hurt people usually haven’t forgiven and have so much pain they end up causing even greater pain.”

I’ll let you sit with that a moment.

I’m not sure what is most striking about this book. That there are so many people who are willing to undergo the process of trying to forgive, or that we almost never hear about it? That there are so many people who recognize that children are not born murderers or white supremacists or  suicide bombers and that we therefore must learn what damaged them, or that damage of that nature continues to occur?

I think what’s really gripping is that there is no right answer anywhere here — Cantacuzino makes it clear that forgiveness isn’t neat or simple. The only universal is that it seems to radically change the people involved. I highly recommend this book, but I would advise you not take it all in at once like I did. Keep it around and dip into it. Discuss it with people you love, people you don’t know well, people you don’t get along with.