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It’s been some time since I read a Europa Edition novel, but if you go back through the years of posts here on bookconscious you’ll find that I have read many titles from this wonderful publisher. Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle, reminded me why. Europa consistently brings interesting voices to print, and good reads.

Fresh Water for Flowers is the story of Violette, a woman who grew up in foster homes and marries at 18, has a daughter, and soon realizes that she is going to have to support her family while her husband chases other women. They work (well, she works, Phillipe fools around) at a “level crossing” — she goes out multiple times, day and night, to lower the barrier so cars won’t cross train tracks when the train goes by. Her little daughter waves to all the people on the trains.

A series of events leads Violette to move with Phillipe to another part of France, to become cemetery caretakers. Again, Violette does all the work. She takes the job after the previous caretaker, Sasha, has taught her everything he knows about gardening, and entrusts her with tending his extensive garden and caring for the people who work in and visit the cemetery. One day, a detective named Julien comes and tells her he needs to know about a man buried in the cemetery, a prominent lawyer named Gabriel, because Julien’s mother Irène has left instructions that her ashes are to be interred with Gabriel’s.

Julien reads about the man’s funeral in Violette’s records, and later returns with Irène’s journal. It becomes clear that Julien not only wants to lay his mother to rest, but also to help Violette solve some mysteries that can help her move on in life — with him. I’m trying not to give away any of the intriguing plot. It’s a lovely book, full of sensual details like the kinds of scent and clothing the different characters wear, the types of flowers, vegetables and herbs Violette grows, wonderful descriptions of food, and many musical references. There are also many details about the places the characters inhabit. It’s vivid and evocative.

It’s also very emotional — there are some relationships that are sad and harsh and hurtful, and there are beautiful friendships and deep kindnesses. At the cemetery, Violette’s circle of coworkers become a family of sorts for her. I loved the descriptions of meals in her kitchen or garden, conversation flowing, and the many cats and a dog the gravediggers and Violette have taken in swishing around the humans. I could see many scenes in my mind and read somewhere that there is already a deal in the works to adapt the book to television.

One of the intriguing things about Fresh Water for Flowers are the chapter epigraphs — every one a little poem of sorts, like this one: “November is eternal, life is almost beautiful, memories are dead ends that we just keep turning over.” Perrin uses a mixture of dialogue, narrative, and journal entries to unspool her story. In the end, I felt I didn’t want the book to end, as Violette says: “I close Irène’s journal with a heavy heart. The way one closes a novel one has fallen in love with. A novel that’s a friend from whom it’s hard to part, because one wants it close by, in arm’s reach.”

A terrific escape.

Sometime in the summer of 2019 I was in our local bookstore (where I used to work) and chatted with one of the staff who said she had been trying to get advanced reader copies of books into the hands of customers, to help find good reads and talk them up. She let me look through a pile. I grabbed Walking to Jerusalem by Justin Butcher. By the time the pandemic hit 6-7 months later, I hadn’t read it yet, and picked it up. I quickly decided my dad might like it (he recently celebrated walking the equivalent of twice around the earth) so I sent it to him. A few weeks ago he sent it back as he is weeding his collection. I picked it up again and am very glad I did.

Yes, it’s a book about a very long walk, from London to Jerusalem across 11 countries over several months in 2017, but mainly it’s a book about why the walkers did this. The event was called the Just Walk, and as Butcher explains early in the book, it was conceived as a way to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was a statement made by the government of Great Britain in 1917 that paved the way for the modern State of Israel. After outlining briefly the political reasons for the statement, Butcher notes that it was also inspired by antisemitism — there were plenty of British leaders (and ordinary people) who felt Jews couldn’t assimilate into English life and so the idea of a Jewish nation appealed to those who wanted Jews to leave England. And although the Balfour Declaration did state that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” the British government’s subsequent actions were more concerned with establishing a Jewish state than with protecting the rights of the majority Palestinian population.

Along with describing what it’s like to travel on foot, Butcher provides colorful commentary about the places the walkers passed through — in particular he writes about many sites that have welcomed pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land for centuries, as the group stops in those places. As he walked he used the voice recorder on his phone as well as journaling, so there are passages where he quotes some of the local guides at length. It’s all very interesting. Their Albanian host, for example, talks not only about the way Albania protected Jews during WWII but also about the economic collapse in the post-communist era caused by a government bond scheme fraught with corruption that bankrupted people and caused a violent uprising. I didn’t know anything about that, even though it happened only a couple of decades ago.

And Butcher describes the landscape near Kryezi, Albania: “The little grove surrounding the farmstead is a Tolkienesque glade of fabulously gnarled, ancient, twisted trunks of olive trees, with huge distended girth like baobabs, sprawling and stretching over the shelves of the hillside . . . . Between the vegetation, where the mountain slopes are too steep for any cultivation, there are great pale escarpments, riddled and marbled with fantastical swirling rock formations.”

Still, the most compelling thing about Walking to Jerusalem is the stories of the many Palestinians Butcher and the others meet or knew before the trip, people whose entire lives for generations have been impacted by displacement, occupation, intimidation, and violence. There are stories of so many individuals and groups in the Holy Land trying to bring people from Israeli and Palestinian communities together. So many acts of nonviolent resistance. So many stories of illegal settlement, of Israeli police and military ignoring the systemic abuse of Palestinians by militant settlers, of houses demolished, farmland encroached upon, collective punishment. I’m not going to quote one or two, because I think the cumulative effect is what is so powerful in this book.

Walking to Jerusalem is a moving read. It’s not any better in the Occupied Territory since the Just Walk — Butcher actually writes that things are worse by the time he is finishing the book. But the Palestinians he meets tell him again and again that what he can do for them is tell their stories. Let the world know that they are people trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of systemic injustice. It’s indifference that allows oppression to continue. I’m grateful for the people who did the Just Walk and all the organizations around the world and in the U.S. who are working to end both indifference and oppression.

I have read a number of books about equity over the past several years. I’ve also heard various books recommended or critiqued by people learning to be antiracist. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee is unique in that every person who has told me about this book had not only highly recommended it, but had different reasons for raving. For nerds, there is data. For organizers, there are examples of what’s worked. For those new to this work, it’s clear. For those feeling frustrated by racism and greed, there is encouragement. It’s a hopeful book, because McGhee has the clarity and depth of knowledge not only of the intricacies of our racial inequity in America but also of the ways even the most intransigent issues can be overcome. Her life’s work has been analyzing inequity and advocating for policy changes. What strikes me is that she has incredible empathy and listens deeply, because she tells story after story of people being incredibly honest with her about their views.

The main point of The Sum of Us is that the zero sum narrative we’ve all been told — that if any group of people receives some benefit, such as affirmative action, higher pay, universal health care, etc. — others will lose is both false and is at its core, a racist lie. In example after example, relating to jobs, health, housing, environmental safety, financial security, education, neighborhood vibrancy, and more, McGhee cites research and real life example of how multiracial coalitions working for antiracist solutions can win better lives for everyone. McGhee calls this these societal benefits the “solidarity dividend.”

The ways racism is upheld in our laws and policies, the brokenness of American democracy, the damage dealt to most of us by unbridled capitalism, are problems so huge and seemingly intractable. One reason this book is so compelling is that although McGhee presents each issue as part of these systemic, interlocking inequities that seems hopeless, she moves on to stories of actual people who have come together to work for a better world, and have succeeded. They have made their communities better, for example, by breaking down segregation and getting to know each other, or by bringing about changes like succeeding in winning a higher minimum wage, holding a polluting factory’s owners accountable, or successfully lobbying for laws ensuring paid time off or other worker protections.

McGhee connects the dots between the vastness of what faces us and the need to work together: “The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on her own.” A few pages later she notes, “. . . we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.” McGhee’s infectious optimism, backed by studies and examples, makes it plausible to believe what she says is possible:

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

The Sum of Us is a kind of civic liberation theology for our time. Add me to the people raving about this book. And re-energized by it to keep on keeping on with the work of making progress for all of us.

After reading Conditional Citizens and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami, I checked out her most recent novel, The Other Americans. It opens with a tragic event in the lives of the the Guerraoui family, longtime residents of a small desert town in California near Joshua Tree National Park, originally from Morocco. Through different characters’ perspectives, a technique she also used in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Lalami introduces the family, especially the younger daughter, Nora, who comes home from the Bay area where she is a classical and jazz composer. A few days after she arrives, she encounters Jeremy, a former high school classmate who served in the Marine Corps and is back in town working as a police officer and trying to help an angry fellow Iraq war veteran. Jeremy, we quickly learn, had a lonely childhood and found solace in Nora’s friendship when they were kids.

Nora struggles with not being the model daughter — her older sister both became and married a dentist — and with understanding her parents’ marriage, her mother’s constant critiques, and the expectations placed on her. She’s also dealing with anger and grief, and feels driven to help the police get the bottom of what has happened to her family. She tries to understand whether her growing feelings for Jeremy are a reaction to the pain they both feel or something more. And to understand not only her difficult family dynamics, but also her own sense of self.

As the story unfolds we also meet Coleman, a detective working on the Guerraoui case and trying to understand what is going on with her teenaged son who is also an outsider in the small desert town, Jeremy’s angry friend, Nora’s family members, Anderson, another classmate of Nora’s and Jeremy’s, and Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who struggles with whether to go to the police with his account of what happened the night of the tragedy. From all of these stories weaving in and out of Nora and Jeremy’s story we get a sense of what it was like to grow up in this small town, what it’s like to be an immigrant – legal or not — in a country where people whose heritage is non-white are othered, no matter who they are and what they do.

There is no thriller-level tension; rather than any dramatic twists and turns, the investigation is marked by plodding progress and a little luck. The family dramas happen in bursts followed by lulls. Same with the conflicts between friends. The pace seems very realistic, as each character mostly lives with whatever is bothering them held just under the surface as they move through the ordinary activities of life, just trying to do their best.

But even with the tragedy and the social undercurrents — and there are so many in this book as Lalami touches on displacement, war, PTSD, alcoholism, homophobia, xenophobia, racism — Lalami also spins a love story. Not only between Jeremy and Nora, but between parents and their children, and for places that hold painful memories but continue to draw people home. In fact the meaning of home, the sense of home, permeates the story and the characters’ lives as they leave, return, or long for home.

Late in the book, Nora’s mother is in the place where Nora has been staying: “As I cleared out the rest of her things from the cabin, I murmured a prayer for her, as I had so many times in the past, only this time I prayed for more than her health, more than her safety, more than her happiness. I prayed for her greedily, for the thing I had given up years ago and never found again. Home.”

Ultimately, The Other Americans is about people trying to be at home somewhere they don’t expect to be, don’t want to be, or can’t be. Although that sounds sad, some of them manage, and there’s the hope. A lovely read.

After reading Laila Lalami‘s recent nonfiction book, Conditional Citizens, I wanted to read more of her writing, so I downloaded her novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits from my public library. Lalami tells the story we see in the news as “illegal immigration” from the point of view of four very different people, Moroccans who try to reach Europe from Tangiers by paying a smuggler to take them in a small boat at night. The novel opens with the crossing — which ends badly. Then Lalami shifts the perspective back and forth. In part one of the novel, “Before,” she introduces us to Murad, who is unemployed and feels disrespected in his family; Faten, a young woman radicalized in her faith whose comments about the king put her in danger; Aziz, who wants the opportunities available in Spain so badly that he leaves his wife and mother behind, waiting for his return; and Halima, mother of three young children trying to escape her abusive ex-husband who risks everything so she and her kids can have a better life. In part two, “After” we find out what happens after the botched crossing, and learn more about the lives of Murad, Faten, Aziz, and Halima and their families and friends.

Each of them balances their hopes with the reality of having to live, to put food on the table, to navigate the challenges of their circumstances and find joy where they can. Lalami captures the tensions of relationships between spouses, grown children and their parents, and friends. Her characters are whole people, prone to the same kinds of small missteps and small right actions, small meanness and small kindness that all people make. It’s this ordinariness that gives their lives fullness and dignity. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is a book about the way all the moments of our lives make up the bigger themes of our stories, and how those themes are common to people whose lives on the surface seem very different. Men and women, educated or not, working or not, religious or not, these characters all hope for a life that will be free of oppression and want, for themselves and their families, and in each case, they give something up in pursuit of that hope. And when their hopes come to fruition, in each case it’s not what they thought it would be like. But they each feel a kind of gratitude for the imperfect flowering of their hope.

For example, Faten, the formerly ultra-religious teen whose new life is predicated on lying all the time (including to herself), decides to make a meal for Eid for her roommate, Betoul, a rather judgemental woman who doesn’t really approve of Faten. Lalami writes:

“Betoul looked as though she wanted to sleep rather than eat, but she said thanks, went to wash up, then sat at the table. Faten served her a generous portion of the lamb. Betoul had a taste. ‘A bit salty, dear,’ she said.

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

It’s this kind of moment, this sanctifying of the ordinary, that makes Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a book that is not only a good story, but a penetrating one. These characters will stay with me, icons of the millions of people who are trying to live freely in this world.

This would be a good choice for book clubs, and I enjoyed it so much I am now reading her most recent novel, The Other Americans.

A bunch of books

I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

My Dad sent me Max Perkins: Editor of Genius because he enjoyed it so much. It was made into a film several years ago, but apparently the book was published in the 1970s, and grew out of A. Scott Berg’s college thesis. The author went on to write several other biographies over his career. The book is interesting and fit into the time period of several other books I’ve read recently.

If you haven’t seen the film or don’t know about Max Perkins, he was an editor at Scribner’s and he discovered, mentored and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many other authors in the early-mid 20th century. The book describes his methods (he encouraged, cajoled, instructed, and even gave ideas to his authors) and quirks (worked at a standing desk before they were a thing, wore a hat all the time, doodled Napoleon during meetings, etc.). He lent Fitzgerald money, was a father figure to Wolfe and really constructed his novels out of thousands of pages of raw material, and vacationed with Hemingway. He was quite a character, and certainly had a genius for spotting and nurturing literary talent.

That said it was hard to read this as I was at the same time facilitating a conversation about Stephanie Spellers’ The Church Cracked Open, which addresses, among other things, white dominant culture. There were SO MANY incredibly talented Black authors working at the time Max Perkins was in publishing — off the top of my head, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and I am sure there are more I am not thinking of. Either Perkins and Scribner’s didn’t publish anyone who was Black or Berg doesn’t mention them. Either way it seemed like a strange omission.

Still, I’m weeding at work and I’m in the literature section; this book reminded me of some Pulitzer and National Book Award winners that I retained in the collection.

I went on an unexpected trip to see my mother who needed some help last week, and on the way out the door I downloaded a couple of library eBooks. On the first day/evening I read Kevin Wilson‘s Nothing to See Here, and it was perfect for the stress of travel and uncertainty of caregiving. It’s a funny, moving, razor sharp novel of manners. Lillian, former “underprivileged” scholarship kid at an elite girls’ boarding school, has never quite gotten her life together after taking the fall in her freshman year for her roommate and best friend, Madison, and being expelled. As the book opens Lillian gets a letter from Madison (it’s pre-text messaging time) inviting her to her rural Tennessee mansion, where she lives with her Senator husband and beautiful little son. Madison says she has a job for Lillian.

It turns out the Senator has two children from a former marriage, Bessie and Roland, who self-combust whenever they are agitated, as young children often are. Madison wants Lillian to be their “governess” — to keep them safe and out of the public eye. I feel like Jane Austen would adore this book. Lillian had less than stellar parenting from her own mother and is pretty dubious about her ability to do this, but she has nothing else to do. The rest of the novel tells the story of what happens when Lillian gets to know Bessie and Roland.

Wilson does a beautiful job of showing how Madison and Lillian are alike despite the cavernous economic and social gulf between them, and why they became best friends at school. HIs trenchant descriptions of Madison’s and her powerful husband’s class — rich, entitled, influential southerners — made me both angry and amused. But he manages to make Madison understandable, if not entirely likeable. Lillian explains, “It was so nice to hear her voice, to hear her voice and listen to her talk about what she wanted. I never quite knew what I wanted, the letters I sent her so wishy-washy and pained. Madison, she fucking wanted stuff. And when she talked or wrote about it, with that intensity, you wanted to give it to her. You wanted her to have it.”

And yet, this is a lovely book, terrific escapist reading but also thought provoking. I loved the little details of Lillian’s and Madison’s lives that Wilson shares — their mutual love of basketball, the stuntman gel and fireproof long underwear that the Senator’s body man Carl thinks Lillian can use to keep the children safe. I think it would be a wonderful book club choice, and also fun and interesting vacation reading.

Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, was a gift from my friend Joan, who was one of my sponsors during my discernment in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. We certainly had as many conversations about fiction as we did about faith (although I think we’d both say those topics often intersect) and she has pointed me towards some wonderful reads over the last year. Migrations is both a fascinating story that keeps readers engaged with piecing together the main character’s story and an examination of the fragility of life for all earth’s inhabitants.

When the book opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland, pleased to have banded three arctic terns in terrible weather, and anxious to find a ship captain she can convince to follow the birds on their epic migration. Fisheries are terribly depleted, so much so that her pitch is that the terns will lead them to a catch. She thinks she’s found a likely ship to take her on when she rescues Ennis, captain of the Saghani. Until he says she didn’t rescue him. An intriguing start to the story, and I read on, assuming that Franny is a scientist and that the story would revolve around some kind of plan to save the birds. It’s doesn’t.

Turns out much of the book is about how nothing is as seems, particularly when it comes to Franny. Migrations is set in a time in the not very distant future when human selfishness has caused extinction of nearly all wildlife, a book that spotlights humans as a “plague on the world” as Franny’s husband Niall says. But McConaghy doesn’t tell the story of environmental degradation — she plunks us down in the midst of it to see how people are living with it.

And Migrations is about the big ideas that should have prevented mass selfishness and mass extinction: love, faithfulness, truth, hope, family. It’s a page turner, as Niall helps Franny delve into the mystery of her family, as we learn of a crime, as we see how far Franny and Ennis will go to finish her quest, and what she’s really set out to do. And it’s a story of someone who seems flighty and unreliable — fickle, as her mother-in-law implies — but is really traumatized. Like some of the creatures she loves, Franny is among the last of her family, and for much of the book, people around her mistake her restlessness with what seems to me an almost primal need to find a way to escape what’s harmed her, and somehow survive it.

Migrations would be a good vacation read — short, intriguing, and offering plenty to discuss with others. And I don’t know for sure what the connection is, but it sounds like the setting of McConaghy’s next novel, Once There Were Wolves is set in a place where Franny and Niall spend time in Migrations? Or a place very like it — a research and conservation station in the Scottish Highlands. I hope it will be as full of details about creatures and places as Migrations is. Part of what brought the book alive are things like a vivid description of a small ship steering up and over waves in a rough sea.

Because I don’t want to give away any more about the plot, I will leave you instead with a bit of McConaghy’s lovely writing:

“Most mornings I wake to a kiss as he leaves for work. This morning it was so early there was barely any dawn light peeking through the shutters and in the dark his lips could have been a dream.”

I’ve had The Murrow Boys for years; I read (and blogged about) Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London in 2010(!) and gave that book to others as a gift that year. My dad liked it so much he read Olson’s other books and he sent me The Murrow Boys at one point when he was done with it. I had it on a shelf, and then recently when I read a Maisie Dobbs book that featured a character who wanted to become one of Murrow’s “Boys” I remembered it and decided to pick it back up. Both Olson and her husband and co-author Stanley Cloud were journalists themselves.

I enjoyed this detailed history of Murrow and his “band of brothers.” It provides their stories and the story of early news reporting. I didn’t really realize that prior to Murrow’s work, radio news was just someone reading bulletins. Murrow pioneered the idea of reporters providing context either through the details and observations his team became known for that made the Blitz come to life over the radio in millions of American homes, or through analysis.

As interesting as the stories of these reporters and their adventures are, the book opens with a scene at Eric Sevareid’s memorial service in 1992, where one of the other Murrow Boys, Larry LeSueur, was more or less ignored and the celebrity journalists of the day pontificated without really honoring Sevareid’s contributions. The book ends on that same note. The trajectory from the rise of intelligent, carefully reported and deeply considered news presented by people who had a good deal of knowledge and understanding of the topics they covered to the media landscape of the mid-1990s when The Murrow Boys was written is sad.

Early on, Murrow clashed with the people at CBS who wanted “objectivity” over analysis. Olson and Cloud note that there is a difference between what Murrow noted CBS’s Ed Klauber brought to newsroom ethics — “standards of integrity, responsibility, and restraint” — and thinly veiled control by management and sponsors over what reporters can say and how far they can go in calling out propaganda and untruth. Murrow and his Boys struggled against both wartime censorship and the meddling of CBS’s ownership and commercial sponsors. Later in the television era, they struggled against the network’s pursuit of profit as well.

And really nothing has changed today. I was just reading yesterday about Walter E. Hussman, a newspaper publisher who has given millions to University of North Carolina, derailing UNC’s tenure process for Nikole Hannah-Jones. He apparently believes that he has more of a right to define “impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking” than someone whose Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project threatens the white dominant narrative of America’s origin story. In her excellent piece in the Charlotte Observer, Paige Masten, a recent UNC graduate, points out, “. . . this debate isn’t a question of whether we should continue to do our due diligence and thoroughly investigate both sides. It’s about whether we should give both sides equal weight when the facts clearly favor one side over the other.”

Murrow and the Boys made that argument when they were told to stop reporting on the rise of the Nazis, and later, when they were pressured not to question Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunting. They were told that they had to be “objective” in reporting about these things — but what that meant, in fact, was that they were expected to refrain from saying that they were wrong. Did that serve the public good? No. And they struggled against it, working to get their analysis — which was always based in a clear understanding of the facts — across anyway.

Today I read a column, “Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts,”* and this stood out to me: “Neutrality provides a way to stay silent and observe injustices instead of commenting or acting and making that silence seem to be a moral triumph instead of a moral failing.” What the owners of CBS wanted in Murrow’s time and what Hussman wants now, is to make staying silent on injustice in the name of “neutrality” into a noble act. When the truths the media expose, both in reporting and commentary or analysis, challenges what the powerful or dominant say is the truth, it inevitably leads those who identify with the powerful and dominant to cry “bias.” What they are really saying is that they want reporters to be more like the early pre-Murrow news broadcasters on radio who just read a list of what happened.

Or the TV news producers that the last of the Murrow boys watched turn news broadcasts into entertainment. As Olson and Cloud note, on commercial stations (rather than public television and radio) “broadcast news seemed to have little interest in helping viewers and listeners make sense of bits and pieces of information it put on the air, providing illumination and context.” And our media landscape today, twenty-five years after The Murrow Boys was published, is rife with misinformation and edutainment, punditry that is simply about repeating the ideological stance of powerful sponsors and owners, and a steady barrage of fear mongering.

At least it’s nothing new. My dad always says that reading history, he is somewhat comforted that we’ve been through all the things we’re experiencing before, and that while things do get bad, they sometimes also get better. I hope that’s the case. The Murrow Boys is a good read, and important one, that doesn’t spare Murrow or his Boys from critique, but also shines a clear light on the dangers of putting profit and power ahead of truth.

  • Bussmann, J., Altamirano, I., Hansen, S., Johnson, N., & Keer, G. (2020). Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, (95). https://doi.org/10.29173/istl2570