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Archive for April, 2018

I first became familiar with Pádraig Ó Tuama and his work through an episode of On Being. The only word I can think of to describe how I felt listening to him was enchanted, in the sense of delight, not magic. Here was someone whose sense of faith and God and reconciliation and love is thoroughly grounded in the messy realities of this world but is also poetic and hope-filled. I heard him at a time when I needed to. I made a note to read his books.

Fast forward a number of months and he came along again, this time when I viewed the Trinity Institute at my church. I listened to him read during the Friday Eucharist and felt a kinship; we’re siblings alright, if we’re children of God, but here was someone who clearly feels as I feel reading in church. He felt the words, loved them, and shared that, which is how I try to read.

Enough already, I thought. Read his books! I got myself In the Shelter and intended it as my Lent reading; then my church had other offerings so I set it aside for Easter, and here I am. I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks. I finished it this morning and sadly, I accidentally gathered it up with my sheets and washed it. Fortunately it’s a pretty sturdy paperback, and I’m trying to let it dry out. It will want re-reading.

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I’m taking a class called Notes from a Seeker at church, about spiritual writing, and one of our assignments is to read spiritual memoirs. This is that — Pádraig (if he’s my brother, I’m calling him by name) shares in his writing his deep connection to God, a connection he’s had from an early age, one that he hung onto even when he was made to feel  less-than, even to the extreme of undergoing exorcisms and other un-caring treatment by fellow Christians, simply because he is gay.

Yet he also shares his delight in other humans (even when they’re not delightful, even when he’s not delighted with himself) and his love of language. He has a playful way with words (he’s also a poet), and an intellectual way, examining their meaning and exploring their nuances. I love this.

But his meaning is not playful, it’s serious, and he gets to the heart of some of the most challenging things around — otherness, fear, pain, self-loathing, uncertainty. I love this section, where he describes the dilemma of testimony — “the telling of the story of conversion, or re-conversion, of enlightenment or change.” In other words, so much of spiritual writing and talk. People hear this testimony and are impacted, for better or worse, as Pádraig explains:

“Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglad. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shelters some, and it shadows others. It loosens some, and it binds others. Is this the judgement of the message or the messenger, the one praying or the prayer prayed? I don’t know.

Hello to what we do not know.

What I do know is that it can help to find the words to tell the truth of where you are now. If you can find the courage to name ‘here’ — especially in the place where you do not wish to be — it can help you be there. Instead of resenting another’s words of gladness or pain, it may be possible to hear it as simply another location. They are there and I am here.”

That is how I’ve prayed these last couple of weeks, “I am here.” It’s a contemplative practice anyone, or any faith or none at all can try. Name where you are. Even if you do not wish to be in that place. I can’t explain why, but it’s peaceful.

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An acquaintance who reads widely recommended The Muse a few months ago and I remembered that Jessie Burton‘s first novel, The Miniaturist, had been an intriguing read, although I didn’t really connect with the characters. The Muse was even more intriguing and either wanted to be ash main character, Odelle Bastien, or be her friend.

Odelle is from Trinidad, and lives in London. When we meet her she has applied for a typist job at an art gallery. At her childhood friend Cynth’s wedding party, she meets Lawrie, a young Englishman with an incredible painting in the boot of his car. A romance and a mystery ensue.

At the art gallery, Odelle’s new boss is Marjorie Quick, who recognizes in Odelle a woman with creative ambitions. Although she’s clearly a well off, independent woman, Quick takes an interest in Odelle and her writing, and also warns her to be careful of Lawrie. Odelle — and we readers, in turn — isn’t sure what to make of Quick nor her interest. 

The book alternates between 1967 when these things are happening, and 1936, when the painting in Lawrie’s car came to be. In those sections, set in Spain, we meet the Schloss family: Harold, a Viennese art dealer, Sarah, his wealthy English wife, and Olive, his nineteen year old daughter. As soon as the Schloss’s arrive in Spain, brother and sister Teresa and Isaac Robles come to introduce themselves. Teresa becomes the Schloss’s housekeeper, and because she is about the same age, Olive’s friend. Isaac — well, who is is, what he does, and how he becomes involved with the Schloss family is part of the book’s mystery.

I don’t always love alternating storylines but I loved the way Burton built the tension in 1936 and 1967, respectively, leading the reader deeper into the story. The art, fashion, culture, and locations made me fervently hope someone at the BBC has already purchased rights to produce this — I would love to see it on Masterpiece. From the sunny pleasures of Spain before the Schloss’s and Robles’ fully grasp how imminently fascism menaces them, to the everyday racism of 60’s London, Burton brings man’s inhumanity to man to life, slowly, without overwhelming readers.

Also, and I add this because I listed to an interesting episode of The Readers about “impolite” reading, there are a little sex, politics, and violence, but they serve the purposes of the novel, rather than being extra to it. Burton gives readers clues about where things are heading, but they are thoughtful and neatly woven, not embroidered on top of the story. In fact, I’d call the whole book subtle — Burton reels us in with fascinating characters and a story that kept me on the couch a few evenings/afternoons. 

I just had a conversation Saturday with some work colleagues about literary novels that aren’t a bummer. I’m fine with reading about tough subjects if the underlying story offers some hope — a character who grows, a wrong that fate rights, redemption overtaking fear, hatred, or whatever other evil is present. One of the people at my table said that’s not how it works, books that aren’t a bummer are genre fiction (really longtime booksconscious readers know I don’t care much about these categories). I offered Exit West as an example of uplifting literary fiction, and I’d add The Muse as well.

In one of my first bookconscious posts back in August, 2007, I mentioned The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor, who suggests good stories shape kids’ growing sense of the world, and can impact emotional well being. I find myself avoiding the titillating and the toxic in my reading because there’s enough of that everywhere else. But it can be hard to tell before you start a book where it’s going to lead you, so The Muse was a pleasant surprise, a seriously good read about serious truths, challenging ideas, and painful history that still leaves readers hopeful that good people manage and good things happen in this world. And yes, I seem to be on a books about art kick. Leave me a comment if you know another good one. 

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When I was visiting family last week I was in danger of running out of reading material on my iPad (Quick aside: traveling is usually the only time I choose e-reading, and from my informal survey of fellow passengers, that’s pretty common. As I have frequently discussed over at Nocturnal Librarian, the book was not a technology that needed improvement, and e-books are kinda meh to many, many people). I checked for something else to download and found that Overdrive had it’s Big Library Read going on.  So I downloaded their selection, Flat Broke With Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha.

I am not always a memoir fan — I read bad news in the news, so I am not really interested in bad news in my books, too. This one has plenty, from McGaha’s youthful abusive (and thankfully, brief) marriage to the foreclosure that is the main catalyst for the story. But I finished it, and I found it readable and interesting.

It’s always good when a book challenges assumptions. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the basics of the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And I feel for people who lost their homes, especially those preyed upon by the kinds of mortgage brokers and banks depicted in The Big Short. But I found myself feeling a little sheepish as I read about McGaha’s accountant husband, David, to paying taxes for a few years and getting them so far in debt they had to foreclose and work out payments for state and federal tax. I was shaking my head, thinking, “How could an accountant let that happen?” But McGaha writes honestly about how he intended to make everything work, they never expected their troubles to compound, and she trusted him to manage it all so didn’t pay attention.

In fact, her story, one of raising her kids, working part time, and trusting her spouse with the money hit a little close to home. I could definitely get where she was coming from. I could see how it could happen — good people, scrambling to make all the ends meet, stuck in a house that they bought from friends that had a number of major things wrong with it, trusting all the way around.

So, when they lost their house, they end up living in a cabin in the woods near a waterfall, not fall from Asheville, which I visited with my mom a couple of years ago. McGaha describes the woods and the falls, the cabin (pretty rustic for a house), the awful creepy things (snakes, spiders) and the wonderful animals they raise. Yes, goats. Also chickens and dogs and a cat, all in vivid detail. Again some of it will raise your eyebrows, but McGaha is so forthright about their situation, readers end up feeling for her.

My favorite sections were when she was more introspective about how she handled her radically new life emotionally, how she grieved her grandparents, especially her grandmother, and what she felt about her career, the land, and her family history. More of that would have been enjoyable. There are a number of recipes at the ends of chapters, but I felt like maybe an editor suggested those? Maybe not. They seemed a little forced into the narrative, and that’s a trend from a few years ago (tacking recipes onto chapters in memoirs) that seemed to me like publishers grasping at how to compete with blogs or something.

I learned a great deal about goat farming, and humanity, and expanded my view of the world. Not a bad “spare” read while traveling.

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I admit I downloaded What Is Yours Is Not Yours thinking it was by the same author who wrote A Tale for the Time Being – and in fairness, their names are similar. Ruth Ozeki wrote the latter. Helen Oyeyemi wrote the former, and it was a happy mistake on my part because her work is new to me. The last day of my South Carolina trip was rainy and this collection of trippy, braided short stories (linked seems too light a term for the way the characters and themes are entwined) was a lovely diversion.

Keys and books appear throughout the book, and some of the characters appear again years after we first meet them. Some settings are fairy tale-like, others seem to be set in the regular world, others in some sort of strange in-between. There are a lot of people who might fit into an ordinary world doing their best in the stranger ones – in “Books and Roses” and “Is Your Blood as Red As This” there are both ghosts and people, and in the latter there is a section told by a wooden puppet of sorts (the setting is a puppetry school).

Despite all the otherworldliness, much of what Oyeyemi writes about is very familiar – a young man whose family wants him to work at their hotel, a young woman wondering who her biological parents are, a college student annoyed by a male club who plots a prank (they swap out books written by men for books by women – my kind of prank) with her own female only group. And many stories about love and longing; two that really got me are “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” about teen siblings whose pop singer crush beats a woman, disillusioned by the response of other fans as well as the star, and “Presence,” about a married couple of former foster kids who are now psychologists.

Perhaps these recognizable human feelings are why even though the stories are so much like a dream – they make sense when you’re in them but are hard to explain when you wake up – the book is still not hard to follow. A good rainy afternoon book, and I’m curious to read more of Oyeyemi’s work.

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At my book club’s last meeting it came up that I’d never read Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch. I’d always felt I didn’t have time, since it’s such a long book (over 1100 pages as a downloadable library book). But visiting family this week gave me the opportunity to download it. I finished it in only five days; I had no idea it was such a page turner.

For those of you who suspect that is a slight, it isn’t. I’m aware some critics found it unliterary, but I find that whole argument silly. Why shouldn’t a book, especially a long book, tell a story that is absorbing, compelling, even? I don’t see why people found the characters wanting, either. Literature may be full of beautiful mothers who die tragically, sweet father figures, lost boys who must err and be tested before we can call them heroes, roguish but loyal best friends, but isn’t that why humans love stories? And if it were a film we’d laud this “hero’s journey” theme, so why diss it in a novel?

I found it a very good read, one that kept me swiping pages because I cared about Theo, the young hero, and I wanted to know what would happen to him and to the painting of the title. Towards the end of the book Tartt writes, speaking as Theo,”Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.” That seems to me to be the entire point of reading, and recently I’ve read some more universally lauded books that seemed to justify despair rather than sing readers out of it. I could use more of this kind of story, a little bit familiar in some ways, surprising in others, but ultimately more about the human capacity to love, “to wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and heart open,” as Theo says, not letting life’s difficulties, above all death, overwhelm the love we can feel.

Theo is talking about love not only for people but for art. Which is probably why this book gained such a following. If you’ve been avoiding it like I did because of it’s length, give it a try.

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My book club chose Wonder for our next discussion, and I thought Easter afternoon and evening was a good time to relax with a book. It’s written for kids, so I finished it in two short sittings. It’s meant to be “feel-good” and I guess it is, to a point. I get that for kids it’s meant to illustrate the importance of caring about who people are and not what they look like. And its a well told story.

The hero is August, a boy with multiple genetic health issues that cause him to have a deformed face. When the book opens, his parents have let him know he’s going to school – due to his many surgeries and complex medical care, he has homeschooled thus far. He’ll enter middle school in fifth grade. His sister is starting high school.

The book follows August’s travails as he tries to feel normal, and his sister’s as she tries to adjust to changing dynamics with childhood friends and as she enjoys not being the girl with the deformed brother, since no one in her new school knows about August. There are some chapters from the siblings’ friends’ points of view, too.

The parents are sweet, the teachers are benign, kind friends are very kind, the nasty kids are mean without being too awful and their parents are mean too. And rich – the book definitely makes the “average” working people seem nicer than entitled people, which feels likely enough in the story but really is just another stereotype. I don’t see how teaching kids that middle class people are kind and rich people are mean is helpful.

I kept trying to consider what a kid would think as they read Wonder. There is plenty to like – everyone has probably felt some of the discomforts August feels in terms of friendships and school social pecking order. But is that the message? See, this seriously medically challenged kid is just like you? Because he’s not. He loses enough hearing to need hearing aids during the book – and he’s only ten. Left unsaid is the long road ahead, health wise. Or maybe this condition causes early death?

Right, that’s not subject matter for a kids’ book. I get that. The story dances around how much August’s sister struggles with being the well kid in the family. And how people who don’t know August are potentially a danger to him. Those topics are at least introduced, and in that way the book is nuanced enough to appeal to older kids and happy enough to share with younger ones. Theres a subplot about the family dog that seemed like it was inserted just to add an additional emotional mini arc in the story.

To me this book seems to have left out many things that felt like they were just on the edge of the story. The financial and emotional strain such a medical condition would cause anyone in America, where our health system is expensive and labyrinthine. The strain on a marriage and friendships having a seriously medically challenged child may cause. The fact that its really unlikely such a school with a kind principal and close community would be right in someone’s neighborhood. Again, not children’s book material, but where my mind went.

Five years on the bestseller list, though – and lots of schools incorporate it into their curriculum. I suppose even a fairly oversimplified lesson about kindness is better than none. Just know that it may not feel as feel-good as advertised if you’re apt to think about how August and his family would get along in a less open-minded place with fewer doctors than New York. Which is what I thought about.

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