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I finished two books yesterday,  and  “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum and Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.

First, I read Tatum’s book, which I had bought a used copy of at a small indie bookstore two summers ago, for a discussion group at work. It was written in 1997, which struck me because it is a stark reminder that back then, although I would have said I wasn’t racist, I was not actively antiracist and would have been surprised by much of what Tatum writes about. Knowing what I know now, I was not surprised, but I will say this is a very interesting book because Tatum is a psychology professor so she approaches antiracism from the perspective of an educator, researcher, and psychologist.

Which is not to say this is dry or academic — it’s smart and thorough but completely accessible and replete with anecdotes from her classes and her life as a Black woman, mother, and professor. Her approach is to address racism as it impacts Black or multiracial people from childhood through adulthood as they develop their racial identity. Whatever your race there is much to learn about these stages of development. Whether reading it for your own education and understanding or to support a loved one or friend, Tatum’s sensible advice and authoritative voice will be helpful.

For example, in a chapter on “The Development of White Identity,” Tatum describes how white people, especially those who have gained “an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage” struggle to deal with self-consciousness, guilt, fear, and even blame. Sound familiar? It did to me. But Tatum cautions, “We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride.”

I am really looking forward to the conversation about this book!

Into the Silent Land is one of the books I’m reading as a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I’ve read a LOT of secular books on meditation, and have practiced mindfulness (practice being the operative word) for a long time. I also have a regular prayer practice, and have read about and tried meditative forms of prayer, mostly unsuccessfully. Laird, also a professor, has written a concise and highly informative handbook, which makes me want to try again.

Drawing on the history of contemplative prayer as well as the practical aspects of practicing it, Laird is both systematic and supportive. The combination of practical advice, encouragement, and ancient but still highly relevant wisdom is terrific. I’ve made tentative steps towards trying contemplative prayer. It’s a little chaotic around here right now, but maybe that is a good time to try stillness.

As Laird notes, “When we first begin the inward turn to quiet prayer we are faced with chaos, and the prayer word serves as an anchor in a storm, a shield and refuge from the onslaught of thoughts, feelings, storms of boredom, and fidgeting. But with some practice with the prayer word we grow in recollection and concentration and begin to see that there is something deeper than the chaos within. . . . What exactly is the prayer word doing? The prayer word excavates the present moment. The resulting interior focus eventually sets off and maintains a process of interior silencing.”

Sounds pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?

On a whim, I checked one of my public library’s eBook apps on the day Kelli Jo Ford‘s debut novel, Crooked Hallelujah, was released last week and lucked into checking it out the same day. Ford tells the stories of Granny, her daughter Lula, granddaughter Janice and great granddaughter Reney, four Cherokee women living in Oklahoma (Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation herself). The stories range from the 1970s to a time in the 2000s that isn’t specified but seems to be in the future.

Granny’s son, Janice’s Uncle Thorpe, is a preacher in a Holiness church, a Pentecostal denomination where people speak in tongues, and Lula, after her husband leaves her with three little girls, embraces church life wholeheartedly. She raises the girls to wear “modest” clothes for the Lord; Justine is the youngest, and she rebels against the long skirts, preferring bell bottoms that she hides from her mother. She’s just a kid, trying her best to live in the world and navigate her family’s world as well, and then suddenly she’s sixteen and a single mom, working in factories and trying to provide a better life for Reney than she had.

There is a sense of loss throughout the book, not least because all four women have broken marriages and violence is everywhere — between men and women, mothers and daughters, and in the harsh elements of the dry Oklahoma and Texas settings, where fires and tornados are regular threats. As the stories unfold, we learn more about the trauma that winds through the generations.

Beyond violence loss of culture, language, and tradition are part of the pattern as well. Like other books I’ve read recently, Crooked Hallelujah is also about the systemic racism in our country, and how people live through it. Granny grew up in boarding schools, sent away to unlearn her native culture, but she is the only one who speaks Cherokee well. Justine at one point is cleaning out the junk at Lula’s house and imagines the boxes of language tapes warping in the heat in her own house in Texas. Reney asks her mother, after she moves away to Oregon, about their family history, about being Cherokee. Readers don’t really learn what Justine tells her. Like Reney, we get snippets.

Speaking of snippets, this is described as a novel in stories, but mostly reads like a novel. But there is one story that didn’t seem to me to fit — Then Sings My Soul. It appears more or less in the middle of the book and although Justine is mentioned, it isn’t about any of the women who are the book’s main characters. In fact the characters who feature in this story don’t come up again. It’s also a brutal story, almost unbelievably so. I’m still not sure exactly why it is there.

Perhaps it belongs somehow because it’s a story about love and identity and belonging and the way family makes us who we are. The rest of the book is definitely about those things. In one chapter towards the end of the book, Justine is driving back to Texas after a visit home to Oklahoma where Lula, in her eighties, is ailing. As she drives, she thinks,

“For a long time I thought harmony was just people using air and vibrations at the same time. I thought that once the singing stopped it might as well have never even started. But when the heavy hospital doors close behind me, there is a ringing in my chest like a song. When I close the door to my truck and later when I cross the state line, I can still feel the voices. They carry me home.”

I don’t want to give away too much, but this scene — a daughter driving away, but feeling her family is still with her somehow — is repeated throughout the book. It’s a book about sorrow that is deep in the characters’ beings, even when they are happy. I’m glad I read it.

 

 

I’d wanted to read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for some time; there were holds on it, I forgot about it. Then this summer book group I’m in at work selected it (that was also why I read Honour), and I remembered. I’m so glad. I found it to be an absorbing read. Interestingly this is two books in a row with a narrative that shifts from character to character and to different times and places — something I thought I didn’t like — that I’ve really enjoyed. Maybe I don’t enjoy when it’s not done well, but this book was wonderful.

In Homegoing, there are characters whose lives span a few centuries, in Ghana first, then later, in America and Ghana. As the stories unfold, you see the ways the different characters relate to those who came before. Right from the start, slavery impacts all of them, directly or indirectly. Readers meet people involved in the capture and sale of other people, and their descendants. As Gyasi winds through the generations, it’s easy to see how the tendrils of trauma wind along as well, wrapping around each family. More than once, I was reading before bed, and instead of getting sleepy, couldn’t put the book down. There are so many good stories, and so many interesting people, in this novel.

The writing is lovely, too. Here is a passage from a section about Yaw, a bachelor teacher who has hired a younger woman to care for his house:

“He pretended to be annoyed when she rolled off her list of endless questions, but since that first day, he always answered them all, each and every one. When it was not raining, he would sit outside under the shade of a big, bushy mango tree while she drew water from the well. She carried it back to the house in two buckets, and the swollen muscles of her arms would flex, and the sheen of sweat would appear on them, and when she passed him she would smile, the gap so lovely it made him want to cry.”

And like HonourHomegoing, incredibly, is a hopeful book. There is plenty of heartbreak and greed, bigotry and hypocrisy, violence and degradation. But there is so much love. And as the book comes to a close, with people who are perhaps of Gyasi’s generation, there is a sense of transcendence. After generations of seeing people beaten down by systems they cannot overcome, these two young people seem like they are able to be themselves. And you feel hopeful because if their ancestors (mostly) survived, even better for these two whose circumstances are finally better.

Which makes even clearer the urgent need currently felt around the world, and especially in America, to end systemic racism. Because what if all the people in this long line down through the generations had been able to be themselves?

I’m excited to read Yaa Gyasi’s forthcoming book — out in September!

I read Honour, by Elif Shafak, for a discussion group at work. it’s a complicated novel about Adem and Pembe Toprak, Kurdish Turks who have emigrated to London in the 1970s with their children, Iskander (whose English friends call him Alex) and Esma. In England they have a second son, Yunus. While the family has a decent life in London, both Adem and Pembe bear the scars of their childhoods in Turkey, where rules about propriety, violence, and shame deeply impact them and their families.

Shafak changes point of view and time period frequently, which is something I don’t usually like and often find confusing. But I managed to follow what was happening in Honour, and the shifting narrative works well in this story. Different perspectives remind the reader that the same event, viewed through a different lens, might appear differently. And she is telling different generations’ stories, so the shifting comes naturally.

We learn early — right in the first chapter, from Esma, that she has a brother who is a murderer. The rest of the book marches steadily towards that moment. But it also veers back into the past, into Pembe’s childhood, where she and her twin sister, Jamila, grew up in village, in a family of eight daughters, and where their mother died trying to bear a son. And into Adem’s childhood, where he grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father, whose actions destroyed his family, even though his wife, Adem’s mother, is the one who brought them shame.

This is one of the book’s themes: men do plenty of dishonourable things, but women are the ones who bring shame to the family. And yet, there are a few kindly or wise men, and a few women who judge things shameful or enable or mete out the punishment to those who have brought shame; Shafak doesn’t oversimplify the moral universe of her book. She touches on extremism, nationalism, the pressures to conform to western standards of beauty, the dangers of forcing men and women into set gender roles, and the painful consequences of capitalism, all without forcing any of these things on readers — they unfold in the novel naturally.

Religion and belief play a strong role, but Shafak is once again skillful and nonjudgemental; even the most extreme beliefs appear within their contexts to be part of the lives she portrays. She doesn’t over-dramatize or make the God the culprit when humans act outside their own interest, but she also doesn’t belittle the strongly held beliefs some of her characters have. Love is also a central theme, and the relationships between family members, friends, and lovers. There wasn’t a relationship in the book that felt forced for the plot or unrealistic, and that’s saying something in a story this complex.

Shafak manages to write a book that doesn’t feel heavy or brutal, but empathetic and somewhat hopeful, even as she tells the story of people burdened by heartbreaking circumstances. A very interesting read, that took me into other people’s lives. I always love a book that transports me and this one did that, whether to Istanbul, a Kurdish village or remote areas of Turkey, London, or a jail cell in Shrewsbury. Oddly, there is even a brief outbreak of a deadly virus.

Human Voices is a short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, set during the blitz at BBC headquarters. Fitzgerald worked there herself at that time, when she was in her 20s.  She writes about one department where Sam Brooks is “RPD” (Recorded Programme Director) and he has a young staff of assistants who manage much of the work while he signs endless piles of letters prepared by the motherly Mrs. Milne and designs field equipment for the time in the not too distant future when he expects BBC teams will be sent into Europe to cover the war on the ground. His longtime friend Jeff Haggard is “DPP” (Director of Programme Planning), higher ranking and often in a position to defend the somewhat eccentric and self-absorbed RPD.

Against this backdrop of the men in charge, Fitzgerald also weaves in the stories of the young programme assistants who work for the RPD of the younger people, like Willie, who is constantly planning for a future ideal society; Vi, who comes from a large family and is waiting for her boyfriend in the merchant marines to come home; Lise, a half-French girl who only works a short time in the RPD’s office and has one of the most dramatic scenes in the book; and Annie, still a teen and recently orphaned, who stands up to the RPD in ways none of the others has.

The DPP has another good friend, the American broadcaster Mac McVitie, who breezes in and out of London with gifts. There’s a scene where he’s given out oranges and the assistants in the Recorded Programme office are dividing them among themselves that makes clear how unusual McVitie’s presents are for the Londoners. When he’s there, he records at the BBC and goes out looking for a drink or a chance to meet ordinary people on the street with the DPP.

What’s most striking is that quirky as they are — one team sent into the countryside to preserve quintessential English sounds come back with hours of recordings of a church hall door opening, creaking louder when it’s opened wider — Fitzgerald portrays the entire enterprise as devoted to truthful broadcasting. And despite the tone, which is mainly breezy and focused on the younger people’s cares, which are much like young people’s cares anywhere, anytime, Fitzgerald shows very skillfully how the tension of the time creeps into every aspect of life. Relationships, work, leisure — everything is impacted by the struggle to overcome the daily strain of working in a war zone.

I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and this was just as enjoyable. I happened across it on Hoopla, when I was going through a list of books I’d hoped to find at the library at some point. Entertaining, but with enough humanity and pathos to keep me thinking about it long after I got to the end.

I saw a review of The Imperfects, Amy Meyerson‘s second novel sometime since I’ve been working at home and put it on my library eBook holds list. It came up in my account over the weekend, and proved a good summer read (or Coronavirus and bad news all around read). It’s absorbing in the way I hear coworkers talk about certain streaming or TV series about dysfunctional families, because Meyerson’s characters, the Millers, can’t seem to be in the same room without getting into an argument.

But that, in and of itself, would not for me be very entertaining. Fortunately, there is a page-turning mystery at the center of this feuding family. Helen, the matriarch, has died and in her will, she surprises everyone by leaving her house to her daughter, Deborah, a somewhat flaky new-agey grandma who has failed at three dozen business ideas, can’t keep to her vegan diet, and seems to have had a string of equally flaky boyfriends. Helen also surprises them by leaving a brooch to Deborah’s daughter Beck.

The rest of the book is the breathless story of Beck’s realization that the brooch is not only a valuable heirloom, but also includes a diamond that was probably part of the Habsburg crown jewels, lost since the earlier 1900s. Having no idea why on earth her grandma had such a thing in her possession, she gets to work trying to determine its provenance and how it came to be Helen’s. And to determine how to stave off the many legal claims to the diamond once news breaks.

Because the siblings can’t keep their mouths shut. Beck’s brother Jake, a screenwriter whose one hit capitalized on his family’s dysfunction and caused a major rift, spills the story to his stoner friend as soon as he gets back to California. Worse, her sister Ashley, a Greenwhich housewife and former marketing executive, takes a valuation report to an auction house. And some of the people Beck trusts to help the family are less than helpful.

Helen’s story, and the story of the jewels she came to own drive the book. There is some interesting backstory about the end of the Habsburg empire, and then later, an effort to get fifty Jewish children out of Austria before the Nazis ship most of the adults off to concentration camps. Which Meyerson says in her author’s note is based on a real story of a Philadelphia couple who really rescued fifty children. That was all interesting.

Less interesting, to me, were some romantic (or at least lustful) side plots for each of the Miller family, which I think are included to round them out as characters, so they don’t just look like bickering siblings. I could imagine my grandmother suggesting these interludes were not needed, which is why I gave it some thought and tried to imagine why Meyerson included them. There are also some other non-romantic partner minor characters who play small but key roles, like Karen, the kind and honest HR person at Beck’s firm, Rico, the solid stoner friend, and Clara, a librarian who takes an interest in helping Ashley.

If you’re looking for a distraction, this book has mystery, history, and family histrionics. I read it in an afternoon and evening (and admittedly, late into the night to finish, because I wanted to know how it would end.

Yes, this seems like something completely different. I’m a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and this novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, is on the reading list. It was Salley Vickers‘ debut, and tells two stories: one about Julia Garnet, a retired schoolteacher whose longtime friend and housemate, Harriet, has recently died, and the other, the Book of Tobit. Tobit is found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, and in the Apocrypha in Anglican bibles, as well as in the Septuagint, which is the oldest translation (into Greek) of the Hebrew scriptures.

Julia decides to sublet her apartment and spend a few months in Venice. She is a British communist (like Vickers’ parents) with few friends and no living relatives. As her story unfolds, she comes out of her longtime shell and in a process of self-examination, socializing purely for enjoyment (rather than school functions or party meetings), and immersion in the art and music of Venice, she softens. And regrets the strictness that prevented her from being as kind as should could or should have been, and that has left her lonely.

One of the first things she sees in Venice is the facade of the Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, and carvings of the Archangel Raphael with a boy carrying a fish, and dog in front of them. You can see it here. She later visits the church to view the art inside (including a series of paintings featuring this boy and his dog and the angel), and learns that the boy is Tobias, son of Tobit. A friend she meets, Carlo, tells her the whole story of Tobit, a Jewish exile in Nineveh, and Tobias, who cures Tobit’s blindness and saves his betrothed from a demon, with the help of the Raphael and a dog.

Vickers interweaves a retelling of the Book of Tobit alongside Julia’s story, and adds to the narrative of her personal growth some small mysteries Julia works out, about a painting in another church (Chapel-of-the-Plague), and about the English twins she meets there who are doing restoration work, as well as a mystery about her friend Carlo. It’s not a cozy novel — Julia’s self-reflection is painful at times, and the mysteries she deals with are as well. There are references to the plague years in Venice, to anti-Semitism, and to WWII. It’s not a light read. The story of Tobit is also on the surface just somewhat fraught. There is also a somewhat abrupt and bittersweet ending.

But there is a deep vein of truth running through both, and Julia’s transformation is ultimately uplifting, as is the story of the boy who with an angel’s help, overcomes evil. Vickers’ research shines through and is fascinating, without being “in your face” — it’s woven neatly into the story because Julia has an affinity for learning more about the things she is seeing from books and from friends (including an elderly Monsignor who is, like all of the supporting characters, interesting).

And there is a longing for meaning, for faith in something beyond humanity, something that surpasses the imperfect execution of ideals that Julia realizes she’s observed in British communism. I think that makes Miss Garnet’s Angel a timely read, despite the somewhat quaint circumstances of Julia’s life. As we look at the not-so-solid — in some cases actually crumbling — edifices of our ideals as they crack open to reveal the long history of willful ignorance on the part of many people and outright greed on the part of the powerful, don’t we too long for meaning, and healing, and love?

I enjoyed this and I will look for Vickers’ other books.

 

My son (former Teen the Elder, for longtime bookconscious readers) recommended I read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale after he and his sister (former Teen the Younger) gently disabused me of the idea that police are basically good, and there are just “bad apples.” They recognized that I was conditioned to this idea by our culture and my schooling. They, having been freed from “schooled” thought by their unschooling, had no such illusions. I can’t take credit; other than choosing to unschool them, I had little to do with the amazing humans they became.

Forgive me for digressing. I’ve got to say that if you don’t have any twenty-somethings or teens in your life you should seek their counsel online or via friends. While I have long thought of myself as social-justice oriented, I have learned more in the past few weeks from discussing current events with my young adult offspring than I did on my own for a few decades. Case in point, I had no idea police are not, in their mission or intent, “good.” To be clear I’m not talking about individuals. I still hold that there are good people who unwittingly enter into a career in the police force believing they will bring about good in their communities. I (and Vitale) am talking about the institution of policing, which, as part of our overall elitist capitalist society, serves mainly to enforce the norms of power and wealth at the expense of the poor, people of color, and those with disabilities.

If you are not shocked, or just disagree, with the idea that capitalism is hurting more people than it is helping, then you will at least be shocked by Vitale’s illuminating discussion of how police at best do a disservice to and at worst, outright exploit, the disabled, especially those with mental illness. I was shocked and sickened by two cases described in the chapter on political policing by people who are mentally disabled who were coerced by police into “terrorism plots” that were just meant to ensnare Muslims, who are now serving lengthy prison terms. In our names, as Americans.

Reading The End of Policing in the week leading up to the Poor People’s Campaign “digital assembly” this weekend helped me connect the dots between the social justice issues that have concerned me and policing. Vitale notes that if we actually invested the billions spent on police budgets (including military gear like tanks and grenade launchers that are used in communities’ and even schools’ police presences around the country) in the communities that allegedly need the most policing, many of the criminal and disruptive behaviors the police claim ti be solving would be eliminated. He cites evidence that where housing, education, health care, or other basic needs are met, policing is much less necessary.

And if we’re all equal, whether you come to that belief via the founding documents of our country or the sacred scriptures of any of the major world religions, shouldn’t we all have access to safe, clean, secure, affordable housing? Clean water? Nutritious and affordable food? A living wage and paid time off to care for sick family members or just recharge? Health care? Quality education? The right to vote? The right to peaceably protest? No matter our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, or any other identity? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Vitale points out that “Our entire criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory. Three-strike laws, sex-offender registries, the death penalty, and abolishing parole are about retribution, not safety.” That’s a lot to take in. But when you dive into these, it’s true. They don’t make us safer. They just make it harder for people to return to society, receive mental health care, and become healthy, functioning members of their communities. Vitale goes on to say “Real justice would look to restore people and communities, to rebuild trust and social cohesion, to offer people a way forward, to reduce the social forces that drive crime, and to treat both victims and perpetrators as full human beings.” Yes.

Another point Vitale makes better than I can paraphrase: “We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems. . . . Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs . . . .”

Vitale traces the history of policing, and then breaks down its failures, mostly in the U.S. but also in some international contexts, broadly and in particular areas such as homelessness, the drug war, sex work, the school-to-prison pipeline, the border, gangs, and political policing. I sped through the final chapters after tuning into the Poor People’s Campaign for a few hours yesterday, and it really all clicks. Bringing about a more just, equitable society will secure our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren. Anything less will mire us in the kind of fear, mistrust, misinformation, economic inequality and political paralysis that we currently enjoy.

I highly recommend you read this, and also that you read with care the Poor People’s Campaign’s moral budget. Maybe tune into the rebroadcast of their digital assembly. Think about what you grew up learning about policing and whether it jives with what you know of the world as an adult. And listen to the young people in your life. I have no doubt they will lead us, out the mess we made for them.

I’ve had a couple different people suggest Barbara Pym as pandemic reading. I’d read Jane and Prudence, albeit quite some time ago. I was hunting all over for it, thinking I’d re-read it, and never found it. Tonight I realized, when I looked back at my review, that I took it to my grandmother!

Anyway, after a spate of more serious reading, I decided to take a look at whether any of Pym’s novels were available as an eBook through my libraries. I was able to find A Glass of Blessings and have enjoyed it. Pym’s work is not plot-heavy. Instead she explores the inner life of her main character, in this case Wilmet Forsyth, and the time they live in. Wilmet is a woman in her thirties, a former Wren, living in London in the late forties or early fifties.

Wilmet is married to her wartime beau, Rodney, and they live with his mother. Rodney works at an unnamed ministry. They have no children, and Wilmet is self-conscious about having little to occupy her time. She attends an Anglo-Catholic church, and has a few friends: Mary, a fellow parishioner who briefly explores a religious vocation; Rowena, her best friend from their Wren days, Rowena’s brother Piers. Wilmet, over the course of a year, entertains the idea of taking a lover, flirts with Rowena’s husband Harry, tries to flirt with Piers, and worries that she is “a horrid person.”

But she isn’t. She’s kind to her mother-in-law. She worries about Mr. Bason, who wasn’t any good at his ministry job and becomes the cook and housekeeper for the clergy at Wilmet’s church. She is concerned for Piers, who hasn’t settled into regular work and seems to be going through a low period. She befriends Pier’s flatmate Keith, even though he is a bore. She cares about Mary, who is grieving as well as determining what to do with her life. Wilmet simply can’t see all the ways she is helping people.

Pym captures Wilmet’s feelings, her thoughts, the way our minds work. In one scene, where she is visiting Mary, Wilmet can’t get to sleep. She thinks, “It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road.” And a few sentences later, “I tried to remember our time in Italy, but all that came into my mind were curious irrelevant little pictures — ” The pictures get tangled up with her current life’s pictures as she drifts into sleep. That seemed to me one of the more accurate descriptions of lying awake fighting an active brain that I’ve ever read.

The other striking thing about the characters in A Glass of Blessings is that none of them seem likely to be people whose lives would garner enough attention to be recorded in fiction. A bored housewife. A young, religious woman unsure of her future. A man who doesn’t have the kind of job or apartment expected of someone like him. A widow living with her son and daughter-in-law, with an amateur interest in archeology. A man with a talent for cooking and a taste for “beautiful things.” But Pym makes this mosaic of ordinary people doing ordinary things — living — into a lovely, quiet, and reflective story about who we are to each other.

I also thought it felt quite contemporary in another striking way: Wilmet and Mary are regular churchgoers but the rest generally don’t go, even at Christmas. There are any number of interesting Anglican issues of the day alluded to — the Oxford Movement, the question of the Church of South India (which I had to look up), the question of priest celibacy. There is also a sense of unreality reading something set at a time when ordinary people could afford to live in London.  All of that made A Glass of Blessing an interesting diversion. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but a nice, calm antidote to today’s reality.

War & Peace

I’ve been reading War & Peace since March with the Tolstoy Together plan the folks at A Public Space, in particular Yiyun Li, assembled so that people around the world could read their way through this lengthy classic in manageable chunks (about 12-15 pages a day). I’d read some shorter Tolstoy (although I don’t seem to have written about it here; I’ve read Anna Karenina, What Men Live By, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich). I always admire these kinds of efforts at collective reading and #TolstoyTogether attracted worldwide attention. It seemed at the time so nice to imagine that we’d get through coronavirus by reading together.

That was before we all realized the full extent of how ill prepared the U.S was for a pandemic, how crazy our leadership is, and how disproportionately the poor and people of color have been impacted by the disease. Now we’re in the midst of reopening even though we are still a long way from being done with COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter protests make something as silly as taking time to read a long Russian classic about how powerful egomaniacs can bring their countries’ people to their knees while celebrating how great they themselves think they are seem pointless.

I wrapped up a few days early this afternoon. The main characters in the book are almost all Russian, French, or other European aristocrats. While they grapple with matters of faith, financial “ruin” and war, their problems are not too bad compared with the problems of the few peasants and serfs who appear in the story. Such as being owned by the rich characters. Or being mistreated or harmed. For example, Platon Karataev, who is a peasant and all around good person, has one of the more horrific things in the book happen to him.

Tolstoy interjects several times throughout the novel with nonfiction sections where he holds forth on various topics, mainly the meaning of history and man’s role in it. He points out that if a great man says he’s great but doesn’t actually pay attention to good and evil, he’s not so great, for example. And he notes at the end of the book that trying to make sense of history through these “great” men’s lives (because when he was writing no one would have bothered making sense of history through women’s lives, even noble women) you miss the fact that the story of humans is really stitched together from little stories of individuals, and that because of free will, many of those stories are not great. And therefore, making a grand study of themes of history without considering the illogical acts of willful people, whether historical figures or ordinary people, is fruitless.

At least I think that’s what he was saying. By the time I got to the end I was a little irritable from following actual 2020 egomaniacs with no consideration for good and evil and contemporary illogical acts of willful people in the news. I got a little tangled up in the idea that because of free will, mankind is not free — I get it, I think? The free will of the powerful keeps us all under their thumbs, so the rest of us have free will but only to a point because of the systems that keep us all in place, but is that really what Tolstoy, himself one of the rich and influential who historians credit with the course of history, meant? I am sure if I thought harder about it I’d make more sense of it, but again, since that truth (whether it’s what Tolstoy meant or not) is making itself all too known at the moment in the real world, that’s enough to process right now.

The novel itself was enjoyable enough. Pierre is an interesting character, and Princess Maria. I found it annoying that the kind and good hearted Sonja, an orphan whose true love ends up marrying someone else for money (although he comes to love a rich woman who is also good hearted), is left without a family of her own, more or less waiting on the young and old in the family who raised her.

But that’s probably realistic, and Tolstoy seems to have enjoyed demystifying people and showing them as they are. Even the good hearted have their moments of scheming and/or feeling selfish. And he doesn’t generalize — not all aristocrats are self-absorbed jerks and not all peasants and serfs are good like Karataev. People in War & Peace are mostly excitable and foolish when they are young. Things don’t always go to plan. It’s not a fairy tale, by any means, and Tolstoy is certainly not a fan of neat and happy endings.

I am glad I read it, and I appreciate the efforts of those spearheading #TolstoyTogether. Especially the reminder that everyone can find 30 minutes to read, and if you do so, you can read even a doorstopper of a classic like War & Peace. It’s just not necessarily as fun to read Tolstoy during a global existential crisis as I thought it might be.