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I admitted to some well read friends recently that I have never read Louise Erdrich before. What? Well. Now I have. The Sentence is a hoot. It’s also a love story — about a man and a woman, about families, about indy bookstores and their loyal customers, about community. It’s also a tribute to all the people who’ve ever worked for a better world, especially the American Indian Movement and the George Floyd protestors, but also just folks who make their loved ones special food when they’re down, or who recommends something good to read, or hold up an ipad so loved ones can visit with the hospitalized. I loved it.

The main character, Tookie, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a very strange crime involving a dead body and unrequited love. Her lawyer recognizes she had no idea of the fact that there were drugs planted on the body, and even though the judge (in Erdrich’s brief but searing critique of our justice system) is merciless, the lawyer works tirelessly to get her sentence commuted. When she gets out, she marries the guy who arrested her, her childhood friend, Pollux. In November 2019, Tookie is working in Birchbark Books (Louise Erdrich’s real bookstore; she even writes herself into the story), when one of their regular customers, Flora, dies and starts haunting the bookstore, especially when Tookie is there. The rest of the book follows the events from that fall to the next – including the beginning of the pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and the Black Lives Matter protests – and how Tookie manages it all — the haunting, lockdown, essential worker status, Pollux’s daughter moving in with them with her new baby.

In the book as in real life, Birchbark’s “staff is of either Native background, or exceedingly Native-friendly” (from the store’s website). They’re also a real community, and several of them help Tookie figure out what’s going with Flora. The sentence of the title is a clue — she died reading a rare journal entitled The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1888. Tookie comes to believe the very sentence she was reading as she died has something to do with her death. Then there is Tookie’s sentence, which changed the trajectory of her life and of a few others’. Reading it now, a couple of years after George Floyd’s death — a man who like other BIPOC people in America was sentenced to living in a racist country — and also the decisions early in the pandemic which sentenced millions of Americans to die unnecessarily of COVID; I can see this novel is also about those sentences.

Tookie is not an optimistic or sunny person; she is a survivor of many traumas. She says about herself fairly early in the book:

“I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they cannot afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.”

What matters? In Tookie’s world, it’s love, it’s family and community, it’s certain customers, it’s the way her grandson jarvis at three weeks old, “saw that what was left of my heart was good and loving.” It may be many other things. Truth, and freedom, and ancestry, and respect and honor. This book, and many others, does contain those things, though. So I am not sure what Tookie means. Unless it is that everyone comes to their own conclusions about what matters. But she herself says that books have helped her with that, so it’s a mysterious statement.

The Sentence is a terrific book, a quick but deep, thoughtful, and actually very funny read. And, as a bonus, it contains a whole lot of recommendations from indie booksellers about what else to read.

I also finished reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, for a book discussion at church. It’s the story of a visit Tutu made in 2015 to Dharamsala for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. He had invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa for his own 80th, but the government there, to please China, denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Abrams and the two holy men’s teams arranged to film the visit and to produce this book as well as a film. It was not just a social call, even though the two men love each other and delight in each other’s friendship. They were working towards producing a legacy, something the world could use long after they have each passed away to apply their teachings about joy — what it is, what gets in its way, how we can nurture it, and why practices meant to increase our own joy can also leave the world better than we found it.

One of the remarkable things is that exile from one’s country and political repression are not obstacles to joy. Neither is such suffering redemptive, in their minds — it is instructive, it teaches us to find compassion for ourselves and others experiencing similar suffering. These two wise elders make note that joy is a reservoir to draw on, that we can tap by connecting with the “pillars” of joy: shifting our perspective, thinking less of ourselves and focusing on others, having a sense of humor, accepting reality in this moment (again not to give up on change, but to recognize the present is what it is), forgiving, being grateful, being generous, and nurturing the compassion that we are all born feeling for others.

None of this is rocket science and if you’ve studied mindfulness it may not be new, but the joy of these two men, as they joke and share and answer questions, makes this book unique. You don’t have to be religious to find it interesting; the Dalai Lama in fact says that after 3000 years of trying to teach people to be compassionate through religion maybe it’s time to try something else (he proposes education). And their teachings are especially poignant now, as we are experiencing a spring COVID surge and both the number of deaths from COVID and from guns in our country — all entirely preventable — is overwhelming.

This book isn’t about turning away from sorrow and suffering, or tuning them out to focus on joy. Abrams explains as they are getting ready to leave, “. . . the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more — incredibly — we are able to bear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This was their true secret to joy.”

A hopeful read, and there are detailed guides to practicing each of the pillars I mentioned. In the past twenty four hours I found the teaching about tonglen — giving compassion and taking suffering — useful although I need a lot of practice.

I heard about Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Dr. Suzanne Simard in April when folks from different parts of my life recommended it within a short time. I always take that as a sign I should read something, when I get multiple recommendations! I’d heard that Richard Powers based his tree scientist character in The Overstory on Simard and her work, and that intrigued me as well. Simard is a forest ecology professor at University of British Columbia, and she is a world renowned researcher, as described on her website:

“Suzanne is known for her work on how trees interact and communicate using below-ground fungal networks, which has led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or Mother Trees, which are large, highly connected trees that play an important role in the flow of information and resources in a forest. Her current research investigates how these complex relationships contribute to forest resiliency, adaptability and recovery and has far-reaching implications for how to manage and heal forests from human impacts, including climate change.”

What I enjoyed about Finding the Mother Tree is that Simard doesn’t dumb down the science — there are what seem to me to be fairly detailed explanations of the discoveries she made and the experimental designs she devised to carry out that work. At the same time, she also tells stories, about her family’s history as small scale loggers, about growing up loving the forests and mountains of Western Canada and exploring them with her siblings, parents, and grandparents, about working in the forest service and realizing that what was happening — clear cuts and then monoculture plantings — was not beneficial either to the forest or to the timber industry, and about the coworkers and mentors who encouraged her to follow her instincts, learn to be a scientist, and conduct her research.

Many of the stories are about the disrespect and misogyny Simard experienced, as Powers depicts in his novel. Simard described these parts of her life without bitterness; if anything she’s a bit hard on herself for not speaking up more firmly. Considering the imbalance of power, it’s understandable, and her work speaks for itself. Despite people reviewing her already peer-reviewed work and sniping at her rather ungraciously because what she proposed was mind boggling and also a threat to the establishment, her research has not only held up but become more and more widely accepted. And she also writes about the many people, in the timber industry as well as in forest ecology and just the general public, who have thanked her and appreciated her work as well.

Simard really captures the excitement, as well as the hard work, of doing science. She also captures the challenges of trying to lead the life of a researcher and professor and still be the mother she wants to be to her daughters. She writes with great vulnerability about the pain of strained relationships and the struggle to manage the many aspects of her life, to be whole. And about what it was like to undergo treatment for cancer at the height of her career as well as at a formative time in her daughters’ lives.

Like many of the other books about ecology I’ve enjoyed (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Braiding Sweetgrass, The Hidden Life of Trees, to name a few), it’s SImard’s philosophy that really drew me in and that makes this book, in my view, a crucial addition to the popular science literature of our time. She writes:

“It is a philosophy of treating the world’s creatures, its gifts, as of equal importance to us. This begins by recognizing that trees and plants have agency . . . . By noting how trees, animals, and even fungi — any and all nonhuman species — have this agency, we can acknowledge that they deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves.”

Simard doesn’t say we shouldn’t farm, fish, or use wood products; she is calling for us to shift our mindset from one of seeing the world’s resources “as objects for exploitation” to seeing those resources in terms of “taking only what gifts we need, and giving back.” This more sustainable way of seeing nature, “Of showing humility toward and tolerance for all we are connected to” is similar to what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in Braiding Sweetgrass, and to what Ellen Davies suggests in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is at the root of both Hebrew scripture’s teachings about land stewardship and agrarian literature. Gratitude, humility, a willingness to share, and a sense of wonder and responsibility towards all of creation, are found in many cultures and traditions, and are key to caring for humankind as well. That Simard brings these sensibilities to forest science is a real gift to the world.

I adore Ali Smith‘s writing; if you’ve been reading bookconscious for a while you’ll know I read her seasons quartet and loved each book, and I’ve read a couple of her other books as well. I was very excited to see that Smith had a new book out in May, Companion Piece. Like many of her other works, this novel features women artists. One, Sandy/Sand, living in contemporary England during the pandemic, gets a phone call from a college acquaintance, Martina, who aggravated her then and still seems to now. Martina tells her a strange story about being detained by British customs with a rare lock she’s bringing to the museum where she works, and asks for Sand’s help understanding what happened. Sand is contending with the social mores of her time during the COVID pandemic, worrying about her hospitalized father, caring for his dog. The second woman is an unnamed young blacksmith who is exceptionally good at her craft, but has no family and loses her home and job when the smith and his wife in her village die. She is contending with the social mores of her time, during the plague pandemic centuries earlier. This woman appears in the modern portion of the story as someone who comes into Sands’ house unexpectedly, with a curlew who also accompanies her in her own time.

Is there meant to be an actual visitation of someone from the past, a touch of magical realism in this novel? Or is this simply a story Sand tells Martina to satisfy, in a way, her strange out-of-the-blue request, as Sand later tells Martina’s daughters? Smith writes, “I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end to the girl, except that she went the way of all girls. Same with the bird, other than it went the way of all birds. If any of this ever happened, if either of them ever existed.”

Why include her in the story? This young blacksmith’s sense of self reliance flies in the face of a patriarchal society that teems with mistrust and dissent in a time when people contended with outbreaks of plague and also with enclosure — the practice of taking common land away from the people and placing it under the sole control of the local aristocracy, which consolidated power and wealth and was also, according to some historians, the end of a cultural connection to the land and the source of the first “satanic panics” in Europe. Not only does she survive, but in Smith’s telling, the girl has many supporters in her community who respect her abilities and subtly help her. Smith reminds us that the official narrative of repression, punishment, and labeling (she’s literally branded with a V for vagabond, a mark for others to know where she fits in society) isn’t the end of the story.

Meanwhile in Sands’ time, Martina’s twin daughters show up at her house accusing her of ruining their family. Sand lets them in, welcomes them in a way. They don’t leave. They don’t wear masks and she can’t get COVID and risk sickening her father, they meddle with her life, her house, her stuff, but rather than call any authorities or make a fuss she does her best to engage with them, and when they won’t go, she goes over to her father’s house. This would be impossible to fathom, she remembers conversation when she was much younger with her father as they were listening to a song about people showing up at your door. Her father says you should “Invite them in. Put the kettle on. What else are you going to do?” When she rolls her eyes he goes on, “And by putting the kettle on I mean polite. Welcoming whatever’s happening, whatever’s going on. That’s resistance too.”

It’s a weird thing, though, that she lets this maddeningly rude family temporarily displace her and use her. They’re really awful, they threaten her. She remains calm and simply explains she told their mother a story, and why. They accuse her of being a liar, and she says “People who tell lies are only interested in the enslavement of their listeners to some cause of their own.” Which really describes politics and commerce in our time, and also the shifting narratives of why we have to open things up during COVID to protect our economy, or why we were told to go shopping after 9/11 to defeat terrorism. Sand also doesn’t need to be right. She muses at one point, “I knew nothing really, about anything or anybody. I was making it up as I went along, like we all are.”

To me, Sand represents the potential we all have to resist — she resists being estranged from her dad who is grumpy with her and has been dismissive of her work as an artist. She resists feeling angry towards her mother, who left when she was a small child. She resists being dismissive herself, of Martina or her rude family. She’s resisted living the way “everyone else” lives — doesn’t have an online presence, not even a website. She resists being disheartened by the people who act like COVID’s over. She finds stories in what’s happening in the world, rather than bitterness. She uses words to enlighten, to enlarge. For me, Sand and the blacksmith are both examples of people living freely in a world that tries to constrain our freedom, through economic and political controls that are meant to divide people in ways that consolidate power. And symbols of a kind of humane resistance, a put-the-kettle-on resistance, that we’re told regularly doesn’t exist. Just think of how often you hear that we’re living in a polarized world.

Companion Piece is beautiful and thought provoking, and also like all of Ali Smith’s work, just a glorious master class is the use of words. Smith not only plays with meanings but with the sound and variation of language — even the title, is it about companionship, is it about being a companion book to her quartet? It’s a lovely read, and I found it a hopeful one. We should all live more like Sand.

Just a little light reading about climate change and racism, right? Actually, here’s the thing: you can become better informed and learn about being a better human without feeling badly. In fact, feeling guilty or ashamed, according to social science research, can actually prevent people from making progress. So yes, you can read and even enjoy reading books that explain where humans have gone wrong on things like treating our planet and each other well, and help readers learn what to do to be part of the solution.

Next week, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action is discussing Saving Us: a Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing by the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Katharine Hayhoe. When I was working on open educational resources advocacy in my previous job, I often joked that I could talk about OER with anyone, anytime. That is Hayhoe’s approach to climate change conversations, and this book is her manual for anyone who wants to get better at this. You might be thinking, why does it matter if we talk about it? Isn’t it too late? Or as the former teen the younger said to me the other day “people have been getting ready to talk about climate change my whole life.”

Again, turning to social science research, it turns out that what we tend to do when there is a huge, seemingly intractable problem is feel powerless, which causes us to withdraw from the issue. Talking with others helps us feel less overwhelmed and better able to contribute to solutions (the fancy term: we increase our sense of efficacy). I wrote about this for my science communication master’s dissertation as I was researching how to best to support the rollout of a household carbon footprint tracker. Quick aside: while households alone can’t cut enough carbon to stop climate change, we can, if enough of us pay attention to reducing our use of fossil fuels, make a significant dent in the U.S. output — five household activities (electricity use, home heating, transportation, food, and waste (yes, trash)) in the U.S. actually make up around 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions for our country. But even better, research shows that learning about your own carbon footprint and working to reduce it can make you more likely to advocate for the systemic, societal changes we need to really mitigate the impacts of climate change and have a more sustainable future for the planet.

What does all this have to do with talking about climate change? EcoAmerica has found that 45% of Americans are “very concerned” about climate change . . . and that jumps to 75% if you include people who identify as at least somewhat concerned. But only 14% of us think other people are “very concerned.” So we currently have a perception gap that keeps us from reaching out to others, sharing solutions, or talking about how important it is to us. If we can bridge that gap, it’s more likely we’ll come together in our communities, and beyond, to work towards sustainable actions.

Hayhoe provides some great examples. First, a man in England showed her a list that has grown to twelve thousand people at the time she wrote the book, all folks who joined conversations about climate change that he started having after he saw Hayhoe’s TED talk about the importance of talking about this. That’s twelve thousand people who starting thinking about what they could do to help. And, the borough where he lives declared a climate emergency and committed to funding a sustainability effort, as a result. All because he listed to her advice to talk with people.

Another example is “solar contagion” — research that confirms what you may have noticed, that once a homeowner installs solar panels, neighbors often do, too. Not because people like to be like others (although we do) but because it becomes easier, once you can stop and ask, “Who did you hire? How’s that going? What do you recommend?” Hayhoe noticed people were intrigued by her plug in electric car when she got it. Seeing someone in your immediate sphere do something you couldn’t imagine doing makes it imaginable.

Saving Us is full of examples like this, plus all the details about climate science, social science research, expert advice, and data to help equip a budding climate communicator. But even better, it’s full of Hayhoe’s practical, open-hearted, very relatable anecdotes about her own conversations. She shares the actions she’s taken in her own life, modeling the idea that by sharing, she can help readers take actions too. And it works. I hadn’t gotten around to figuring out a worthwhile way to offset the impact of flying; I took Hayhoe’s suggestion and gave to Climate Stewards to offset a recent flight to see my dad.

Finally, the book ends with a nice summary of how to apply what you’ve learned from reading Saving Us, summarized in Hayhoe’s “secret formula” for climate communication:

“I have good news. There is a way to talk about climate change that works. You don’t need a PhD in climate science. You don’t need a bulletproof vest. And you don’t need antidepressants, either. In fact, chances are you’ll know more afterward than you did before; you’ll have a better understanding of the person or people you’re talking to than you did earlier; and you’ll be encouraged rather than discouraged by your conversation. So what is this secret formula? It’s this:

bond, connect, inspire.”

She suggests ways to open a conversation, and how to ask questions to learn more about what folks care about or are interested in, notice where you can find common ground and shared values, and talk about what you’re doing and learning and are excited about. Throughout the book, right up to the end, Hayhoe doesn’t sugarcoat our situation or gloss over how serious climate change is, but she makes it clear that ordinary people are not alone but instead are working alongside millions of other folks around the world who also want to make sure we have a more sustainable future. It’s a helpful read, and I really can’t recommend it enough, for everyone!

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed was on a lot of best books of 2021 lists. My Me and White Supremacy alumni group decided to read it before our June meeting so we can understand the holiday better. Gordon-Reed is a historian, and her book reminded me that reading history doesn’t have to be dry and dull. On Juneteenth weaves together historical and cultural information about Texas and its people, especially people of color, and Gordon-Reed’s family history and her own experiences growing up in East Texas. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, history, and social commentary that is illuminating and thoughtful.

If you think you know about the Alamo, about Texas history or about America’s war with Mexico, even about western movies and Giant in particular, this book will likely open your eyes to how these topics are skimmed in school textbooks and have been told mainly from the point of view of white people. Gordon-Reed is very generous in her critique of this, but sets the record straight. As she explains:

“About the difficulties of Texas: Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so. How that is done matters, of course. Striking the right balance can be exceedingly hard.”

Gordon-Reed does it very well. This book is so much more than a cogent explanation of the significance of Juneteenth. It is a snapshot of what it is to think deeply about history and one’s place in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and also highly recommend it.

Siobhan Phillips‘ debut novel novel, Benefit, reminds me of a skit Eddie Izzard does about British films where he says the action consists of a character saying something like “I guess we better had,” and a pause until another character says “Yes, we rather shall.” It’s more of an indie film character driven kind of story rather than a plot driven story (that is not a critique — I happen to very much like that kind of film). The benefit of the title is for a foundation established by the widow of a sugar magnate that provides paid fellowships for students wishing to study at Oxford or the Sorbonne. The main character of Benefit, Laura, was the recipient of one of those scholarships. When the book begins, it’s ten years later, and she has been laid off from her adjunct faculty job and is moving back in with her mother. Her friend Heather, who has had a successful career working for a consultancy, asks her to write an essay for the foundation’s benefit. It’s unclear why a foundation whose original funds came from a sugar fortune needs to have a benefit dinner, but the event draws Laura back into the circle of people she knew at Oxford.

Other than Heather, she hasn’t kept in touch with many of the other fellows. She is the lone literature scholar among them, and her dissertation is on minor characters in Henry James. She loves research but feels that this work is somewhat pointless compared to the accomplishments of her friends. This is perhaps my favorite part of the book — that Phillips shows, through the story, what capitalism does to undermine the value of intellectual or creative work. Laura feels badly about herself because she likes working hard at reading, writing, and thinking, at piecing together research. And she has the least stable work of anyone from her group of fellows because of her preference for this kind of work. Phillips does provide glimpses of what else gives Laura this sense of inferiority, including her family status, and body image,but her occupation is the key to her suffering, both psychological and financial.

For much of the book she enjoys researching the foundation, it’s mysterious widow benefactress, and the exploitative and corrupt sugar industry which yielded the inheritance she gave to fund it. For example, history books talk a lot about cotton, but slavery on a sugarcane plantation was in some ways even worse; similarly the sugar industry pretty much wrote the book on corporate subsidies and buying politicians. Phillips provides sources for Laura’s work at the end of the book. And yet, even this new research path, which Laura follows thoroughly and with relish, leaves her feeling inadequate, and questioning whether her work has any worth.

Or worse, whether any of us can do anything that’s any good. At one point Laura muses, “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you. Or all three.” I think this admirably captures the sense of helplessness that recent history has awakened. Major historical events that happen during Benefit — the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars, the 2008 economic crisis, the occupy movement and its failure to bring about lasting change, have created a sense for many people that Laura is right, there is no way not to be at least tangentially involved in the things of this world that cause other people, and potentially yourself, harm. If you’re among the people who’ve wondered why young people seem so angry — that’s one of the big reasons. They’ve seen that our institutions, systems, and ways of operating are founded on cruelty or will crash or have no use for them, or all three. That’s really spot on.

And it’s what makes this an interesting book. Some of the minor scenes — like a class for people working in “student success” and an interview with one of the sugar widow’s last surviving relatives that turns into an avante garde portrait sitting — are slyly humorous. Most of the characters are not particularly likeable, but I did root for Laura, and hoped she would find some peace and a way to support herself; there is a sense that she has a mentor who can help her regain her sense of herself, but we don’t learn that until close to the end of the book. And yet, despite a glimmer of support, this is a fairly bleak book, where the characters and society generally don’t seem to be heading for redemption. They’re satisfied, but they’re mostly, other than Laura and her mother, pretty self absorbed. And there was a lot about one of Laura’s friends, Mark, in the beginning that led me to think he’d be pivotal later on. He wasn’t, which I guess is true to life as well — how many of us, existing on the periphery of the brightest lights in our social circles, really never connect with them in any meaningful way?

Anyway, an interesting read, and it’s always good to see what Bellevue Literary Press is up to!

As lockdowns dragged on in late spring 2020, Yiyun Li and A Public Space led a worldwide read-along of War & Peace, which they called “Tolstoy Together;” I wrote about it here. SInce then they’ve led other worldwide reads, now called #APStgeother, which culminate in a virtual conversation about the book. It’s been very interesting and enjoyable to participate in some of these (see my posts about Persuasion and Hue and Cry). This spring, two years’ into the pandemic, Yiyun Li was back, inviting the world to read Moby-Dick, a book she explained that she first delved into at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson and has read annually ever since. One helpful aspect of #APStogether is the plan: each author suggests a reading schedule for their selected work, which makes approaching a sprawling classic like Melville’s tale of the white whale much less intimidating. Moby-Dick took a month, and I found that the daily selections were easily read during my lunch breaks or in the evenings.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you might still know something about it, such as the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” that has spawned a million riffs. What you may not know is that this novel, now considered one of the greatest in American literature, was more or less a flop during Melville‘s lifetime. In his lovely celebration of the book, Why Read Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains that it sold only 3715 copies between its publication, when Melville was in his 30s, and his death at 72 (it had already gone out of print by that time). He credits the brilliance of the book as the secret to its longevity:

“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”

Just as Starbuck, the mate on the whaleship Pequod, is unable to stop mad Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of revenge on the white whale, even though Starbuck knows it will bring danger to the ship and its crew, so America was unable to prevent the madness of slavery and racism from rending it. Philbrick notes, “As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears and hatreds in us all.” Which makes this book, written in the 1850s, relevant in every age, including today.

Both Philbrick’s book and Li’s zoom discussion also touch on Melville’s writing. Philbrick notes, “In its willful refusal to follow the usual conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, Moby-Dick possessed the experimental swagger so many authors were attempting to capture in the years after World War I.” Li referred to the novel as “messy” (as does Philbrick) with no emphasis on a narrative arc, a book that contains what she called “a whole universe” that requires readers to “float along with Ishmael” as he digresses from the loose tale of Captain Ahab and the journey of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick onto a wide range of topics that are both factual and philosophical. Li noted that the book is “craftless” — and that this is an important lesson to writers, that a novel “doesn’t have to be finely crafted to be good.”

As he examines everything from the specific details of whaling to the mysteries of the human mind and spirit, Melville is often poetic, as in this line describing Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” And philosophical, as in “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” He not only muses about death and the afterlife, but also revels in the minutiae of Ishmael’s here and now.

So, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, give it a try. Read it slowly, a little at a time, and with a guide such as Yiyun Li or Nathaniel Philbrick to steer you through its turbulent seas. Find someone to read it with you, to talk it over. And enjoy!

This is another book I downloaded from the library for my trip — Sanctuary: The True Story of an Irish Village, a Man Who Lost His Way, and the Rescue Donkeys That Led Him Home by Patrick Barrett (the man in the title) and Susan Flory (the writer who helped him tell his story). It’s not my usual fare, but I thought it would be a sweet travel book. As it turns out, I started it after I got back and as Holy Week began, with Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus riding into Jerusalem . . . on a donkey. So it was timely. Also, Barrett credits faith with saving his life (along with love and donkeys), so it turned out to be a pretty good choice for this week.

The book is a memoir, but Barrett also shares a good deal of information about donkeys. His parents founded The Donkey Sanctuary of Ireland, and Barrett grew up with donkeys. I had no idea that donkeys are as expressive as cartoons make them out to be: “When donkeys feel comfortable and safe with you, they’ll show you a thousand different facial expressions, but you have to watch closely because they come and go incredibly fast.” That’s just one of the fascinating facts I learned from this book. I kind of want to visit with some donkeys . . . .

As a child, Barrett also experienced difficulty learning (due to likely dyslexia and a condition that caused him to feel extreme empathy, taking on others’ feelings) and traumatic beatings in school. He started drinking at a young age and in his late teens joined the army and was deployed to Lebanon and to Kosovo with UN peacekeeping missions, where he experienced more trauma. And the “losing his way” in the subtitle really was the result of PTSD.

But, despite these difficult sections of the book, Barrett’s story is one of resilience, family and faith. The love of his parents and sisters, friends, children, and eventually, his “anam cara” or soulmate, Eileen, help him to survive and thrive. And even at his lowest points, Barrett still prays. He credits a nun who ran a “personal development course” for people interested in becoming counselors with really setting him on a new path with “new eyes” for himself and for the world. When he was about to quit, she brought his group together around him, and spoke “words of truth and goodness and love.” When it was over, Barrett could only say, “Marie, I’m cracked.” She told him “Those cracks can let the light in.”

Ok, maybe Leonard Cohen said it first, but it’s a powerful moment in Barrett’s life, and what makes this memoir interesting in addition to the donkeys is that he really shares moments of vulnerability quite vividly. Flory brings his story to life, but you get the feeling that it’s Barrett’s voice coming through, because he seems to be sharing his truth pretty openly. That might not be to everyone’s taste but right about now, I think we need more honesty, vulnerability, and faith. Whether your faith is in God, four legged creatures, or humanity (or a combination of these), you’ll find something to love in this book. I really enjoyed it, and appreciate Barrett sharing his experiences in hopes of benefiting others who are suffering.

I read Black Buck on a trip, straight through in a few hours. It was everything I’m looking for in a good read: smart, entertaining, thought provoking, funny, both heart-breaking and uplifting, ultimately about love and full of Truth with a capital T. Mateo Askaripour quit his day job to write, which is super inspiring. This is his debut, and he notes it “was written just for Black readers, though white readers are welcome to ‘come along for the ride.'”

Black Buck opens with a note from the main character, Darren Vender, known as Buck. He tells readers he wants to teach us how to sell, but he particularly wants to teach Black people how to sell. To white readers like me, Buck says, “I want you to think of yourself as an honorary Black person. Go on, do it. Don’t go don blackface and an afro, but picture yourself as Black.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that a) that’s why I read, to put myself into another life for a few hundred pages and try to learn something about being human from their perspective and b) I’ve been working on being antiracist and one way to do that is to try to understand the experiences of people of color from their points of view. So I appreciated this invitation.

Buck is a delightful narrator. He is honest about himself and his own foibles. He’s a lot like most of us — good at some things, bad at others, mostly kind but sometimes hard-hearted, a good son, boyfriend, and friend . . . except when he isn’t. Askaripour makes it clear when the novel opens that Darren is also someone with untapped potential; he’s 22, was a valedictorian at a magnet school for science, but he’s working in a Starbucks, moving up, but not really fully fulfilling the promise others saw in him as a teen. And still see in him: Rhett Daniels, the charismatic leader of a tech startup called Sumwun that aims to upend the mental healthcare world, recruits him one morning in the Starbucks.

Rhett is wealthy, successful, narcissistic, and from their first encounter, seems brash to the point of being somewhat unhinged. Initially, Darren isn’t interested. Pressured by his girlfriend and mom to at least hear about the opportunity, Darren, nicknamed Buck during his sales training week at Sumwun, ends up getting drawn into the tech startup atmosphere — the swag, the free food, the partying, and frankly, the success he enjoys in sales. But he is also aware from day one that there are no other Black employees at Sumwun, and that Clyde, the man who trains him, and others at the company expect him to fail. Rhett, however, believes in him, even seems to love him, and Buck is flattered. Who wouldn’t be?

As you can guess, this is just the beginning of the story. As Buck spends more and more time with his Sumwun coworkers (which reminded me of this great article on why workplaces should not call themselves a “family”) he spends less with his mom and girlfriend and friends he grew up with. As in any coming of age story, Buck faces some trials — some bad things happen in those relationships — and then he has to show what he’s made of. Some reviewers called this “formulaic” to which I would say, go read The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; human storytelling has patterns, which make storytelling and listening/watching a delight when done well, as it is in this novel. Anyway, in the process of realizing he could help a friend he nearly left behind in his precipitous climb to wealth and success, Buck ends up inadvertently starting a movement. Which, as sometimes happens in real life, makes him the target of some pretty nasty folks.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the plot for you by giving too many details, but I will say, what makes Black Buck uplifting even though it shines a light on all the excesses of capitalism, consumer culture, and gentrification, and the sins of racism, ableism, and other kinds of bigotry, is that Buck grows as a character. In the process, Askaripour examines the classic conflict of whether to take action against the forces of evil in our world with kindness or to fight fire with fire. His characters — and Buck is great but there are many terrific minor characters who advance the action in the story in different ways — make the social commentary happen, a la Jane Austen, which means you get so caught up in the story that it helps you understand the issues at hand. The ending is a bit wild, but unfortunately, probably not unrealistically so.

Ultimately, Black Buck is about a young man growing up in a world where inequity of all kinds stacks the deck against him and many of the people he cares about, who learns that what will really make him happy isn’t just doing well for himself, but being part of a community that can do well together. And that his own success will be richer for being part of something that helps others; Buck learns that there is no zero sum game when it comes to opportunity. (Yep, here is where I tell you again: read The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee). And as I mentioned, it’s also really funny, and a love story. If you’re looking for a good read, this is it. If you want something for your book club that is both a great deal of fun and also ripe for discussion, again, this is it.

A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist who lives in Kampala, Uganda, is the first selection of the Episcopal Church Climate Justice book club. If you have read this book or just want to join the discussion about it, you can register here — the discussion is this Tuesday 3/22/22 at 7:30 eastern time, online. The book is part memoir, part activism handbook, part guide to the climate emergency from the perspective of someone who will be most impacted because she is young and lives in the Global South. It’s well written, informative, and even uplifting. Despite the dire state of the climate emergency, the challenges of interrelated injustices around gender, race, and culture, and the lack of good governance worldwide that Nakate reveals, I feel confident that young people will do better than older generations have when it comes to helping usher in a more just, equitable, sustainable society.

Nakate is in her early twenties and has already founded an activist network called Rise Up and an initiative to bring solar power and clean cookstoves to schools in Uganda called Vash Green Schools. You may have heard of her as the woman who was cropped out of a photo of young climate activists (including Greta Thunberg) who had come to Davos, Switzerland to bring attention to the climate emergency outside of the World Economic Forum meeting. The AP claimed it was an aesthetic decision because she was in front of a building but she was the only Black person in the photo and also, the only one from Africa. Nakate spoke out immediately about having her entire continent removed from the conversation about climate activism by being cropped out.

She writes about the backlash she faced, not only from people around the world who thought she was making a big deal out of it, but also from fellow Africans who shared views such as as she shouldn’t draw so much attention to herself or that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nakate is generous in explaining what her critics had to say, and thoughtful in her response. She makes the case for the intersectionality of the climate emergency’s impacts as well as solutions — painstakingly and clearly laying out the ways that injustices compound as well as how steps that can secure resiliency in the face of our changing climate can also secure a more just and equitable future.

In fact, Nakate’s book is so bracingly honest about what’s happening, how much the world has to overcome and how much wealthier countries have to face up to in terms of the impact of our actions on those who are least responsible for climate change but suffering the most from the consequences that it could have been a depressing read. Instead, I found it hopeful,because Nakate highlights how young activists are not waiting for self-serving corporate and political leaders but are taking action and supporting each other in their communities and globally. I learned a great deal about Africa and some of the climate related challenges different areas of the continent face. And I appreciated how the book ends with concrete suggestions for how to step up and get involved.

Nakate is an inspiring, smart, hard working, and gracious leader and I look forward to seeing her work continue to grow in the coming decades. As someone working to raise awareness, reduce my own consumption, and advocate for a better future, I found much to admire and to aspire to in her book. As a geek I appreciated her statistics, use of research, and helpful appendices. As a reader I enjoyed her well told stories and the warmth she expresses towards her family and friends who have supported her work.

I’m looking forward to the discussion tomorrow night.

I didn’t set out to read two novels in a week. I was planning to read Ann Patchett‘s The Patron Saint of Liars because the NH/VT chapter of the Companions was having its annual mystery and theology discussion and this was one of the book choices. Then Anthony Doerr‘s Cloud Cuckoo Land became available and I’d been on hold for it for over two months, so I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read it. So read them both, one after the other, rather quickly.

If you are a reader you’ve likely heard of both of these authors. Cloud Cuckoo Land was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall and was on a lot of the end of the year “best books” lists. Although it came out in September, I have heard more about it lately from other readers, especially our older son, who got it just before Christmas and had been telling me I’ve love it. His recommendation was the reason I had placed a virtual hold through the library.

Longtime readers of bookconscious may recall that I didn’t love All the Light We Cannot See. But I really enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s the story of several characters dispersed by both geography and time whose lives are connected through an ancient Greek comedy called Cloud Cuckoo Land. That book is Doerr’s invention, but on his website he talks about the phrase, which is from a real Greek work. In his novel, Doerr tells the stories of:

— Anna, a girl in 1400s Constantinople and Omeir, a boy who is drafted with his oxen into the Ottoman military to sack the city.

— Zeno, a Korean War veteran who decides late in his life to try to translate the known fragments of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

— Seymour, a neurodivergent boy whose love for nature, and in particular an owl in the woods behind his grandfather’s derelict trailer catches the attention of his teacher and a librarian, and also causes him to be radicalized by ecoterrorists.

— and Konstance, a girl from a future time whose family are part of a small group chosen to populate a space ship headed for an earth-like planet where people will try to start over after earth becomes uninhabitable because of climate change.

There are some notable minor characters, in particular a librarian named Marian who makes the Lakeport Public Library a place of welcome and refuge for Zeno (who was also looked after by Lakeport’s librarians as a child) and for Seymour and all her patrons. Seymour’s mother, Konstance’s father, and Omeir’s grandfather also stand out.

The stories are all very compelling, and Doerr’s language can be beautiful. This sentence describes Zeno: “All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk— Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him.” And this describes a daybreak Konstance sees: “In front of her, out on the horizon, the blue rim of dawn is turning pink, raising its fingers to push back the night.”

I think this sentence captures how the novel communicates a kind of “chastened hope” (a phrase Ellen Davis uses to describe the narrative arc of the bible in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture). In Doerr’s fictional worlds, horrible things happen, but individual people are often generous towards each other. He acknowledges the capacity for greed and even evil, but suggests that those will not prevail. Doerr addresses how the poor and people with disabilities — a cleft lip for Omeir, some kind of neurodivergence for Seymour — are treated by others in society. He also comments on our inability to understand that we’re harming the earth and on our inadequate response to climate change, some of which seems to be ceded in the novel to a large technology company that might be a fictional stand in for Google. People suffer because of all of this. But the innate kindness of most of his characters, even misguided Seymour who atones for his ecoterrorism later in life in some very interesting and benevolent ways, speaks to Doerr’s sense that our “interconnections” can help us.

Which is probably one of the themes of The Patron Saint of Liars. I didn’t like the book very much when I started it. Perhaps because I didn’t give myself time to properly think about Cloud Cuckoo Land and I wasn’t ready to jump into another novel yet. The Patron Saint of Liars is the story of Rose, a young pregnant woman who realizes she doesn’t love her husband and leaves, driving halfway across the country to St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in tiny Habit, Kentucky. There she meets Sister Evangeline, an elderly nun who cooks badly but has a gift for seeing into people’s souls. And June Clatterbuck, whose father found a miraculous spring in the family pasture which attracted people to this rural place, including a wealthy Catholic couple who built a hotel for visitors to the springs and then during the Depression donated the hotel to the church.

When one of the girls decides to hide her labor so she’ll have her twins at St. Elizabeth’s and get an hour in the ambulance before giving them up, Rose unwillingly goes along. The experience seems to move something in her and she wanders out into the snow to try to process what she’s been a part of that night and what will happen when her own baby is born. Son, St. Elizabeth’s caretaker, finds her in the snow and offers her a different future. From that pivotal evening, Rose finds her way onto a new path.

The book is also about Sissy, who grows up at St. Elizabeth’s, and Son, who came, like Rose, not intending to stay and ended up making a life there. Our discussion was very interesting — several women did not feel Rose was a sympathetic character nor that she experienced any growth or redemption. My sense is that she was dealing with deeply ingrained shame, the loss of her father, and a mother who did not really treat her as a daughter, but as a friend; I felt like she saw staying as a kind of penance, and that she loved her daughter and provided what she thought would best prepare her in life, having not felt at all prepared herself. The Patron Saint of Liars is an interesting story with a lot to discuss and a number of unresolved threads at the end. One person said she wished there would be a sequel.

In addressing any theology we saw in the book I wondered if three of the women might have represented a kind of feminine trinity after another participant pointed out that Sister Evangeline might represent Christ. I could see June as the Spirit and Mother Corinne as a kind of Old Testament version of God. But what I didn’t say in the discussion is that the theology of The Patron Saint of Liars is that we’re all interconnected and we have to care for one another. (You thought I’d forgotten that — the way this book and Cloud Cuckoo Land are similar? Nope, I was getting to it.)

I think Patchett is telling us, as Sissy and Sister Evangeline understand, and I think Rose ultimately did as well, that we are all signs from God for each other. Rose very much prays for a sign at the start of the novel, and at the end, Lorraine, a girl who has come to St. Elizabeth’s to have her baby, is praying to Saint Theresa for a sign. But Patchett’s story shows that even Rose, whose connections to others don’t look like what we expect from a wife/daughter/mother/friend, cannot avoid the fact that her life is deeply connected with others’ and that if we stop looking heavenward and start looking at those whose lives we touch and who touch ours, we may see the signs we seek.

Perhaps because of this, I ended up liking The Patron Saint of Liars more than I thought I would. The language is relatively plain, but still quite evocative. Take this passage, for example, where Sissy is describing Rose:

“My mother talked in her car.

If there is any explanation for this in all of science, I can’t imagine what it would have been. She didn’t talk in my father’s truck or the nuns’ station wagon. She didn’t talk on buses. But in that blue Dodge Dart that was hers alone in all the world she sat comfortably. She folded her legs beneath her. She even put her foot up on the dashboard for a minute. She smiled and stretched and said whatever came into her head. It was almost like the car was her house, only she was never like this in her house.”

If you’re looking for a good read with a lot to discuss, either one of these novels would be a good choice.