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Posts Tagged ‘fear’

Honestly I picked up The Great Believers because in the same week, a friend from college posted about what an amazing book it is and Rebecca Makkai was bullied and threatened over a tweet. These quite disparate bits of information made their way to me via social media and both reminded me that I’d been meaning to read Makkai’s third novel. Trolls are going to troll, but I could read this book as a tiny act of solidarity with its author.

My friend is right. This is a beautiful book. I’d avoided reading it when it first came out because I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to read about young people dying. But it turns out, that while that is a central piece of the story, I needn’t have feared. The Great Believers is not really about dying, but rather about how we live when the world falls apart.

The story follows Yale, a young man living in the Boystown neighborhood in Chicago, and Fiona, the younger sister of one of Yale’s good friends, Nico. Nico is among the first of Yale’s immediate circle of friends to die of AIDS. The Great Believers alternates between the 1980s and early 90s, when Fiona cared for a series of Nico’s friends as they became infected and died, and 2015, when she travels to Paris to find her daughter Claire, who has been out of touch for a few years and is now a mother herself.

Two threads tie the main characters’ stories together — how we live in a time of catastrophe and what those who live must contend with afterwards, and how art both tells the story of the people it portrays and protects their secrets. It’s also the story of the shame and fear that engulfed the gay community in the 1980s as people got AIDS, and the judgement and bigotry society perpetrated on them. I remember the irrational fears about AIDS, and the open homophobia. Makkai writes about these things as an organic part of her characters’ lives, never over or under dramatizing.

That’s one of the remarkable things about this book. Even though she’s writing about life and death, about tremendously painful things — even plumbing what one character calls “the saddest thing in the world, the failure of love” — every word fits. Makkai does not include a single scene, a single character, a single thought, that doesn’t need to be in this novel. She evokes places, times, feelings, without any fanfare and without drawing attention away from the story. I recently read a book I strongly disliked because it felt like the author’s every move was visible and that the book was a series of artistic stunts meant to display her prowess.

Makkai, by contrast, just tells a damn good story, very well. In a way that makes you want to stay home from work, turn off your phone, and keep reading (didn’t, but I sat at my desk wishing I’d done so). I was thoroughly invested in what was happening and even when it was clear what might happen next, the story flowed so seamlessly and the characters gave me so much to think about that I couldn’t stop reading. I’m not going to try to describe the story — it’s complicated and you should just read it.

I’m honestly a little wary of books that win a bunch of awards or show up on “best books” lists, but this one is more than deserving of the accolades it has received. The Great Believers is a very good read, one that tells hard truths and exposes serious flaws in the world while also reminding readers of the best aspects of humanity, and the “miracle” of being alive with the people we love. If you’re looking for a good read, something to get lost in and talk about, something that you’ll be glad to have humming along in your heart after you put it down, read this book.

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I’d read parts of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer with my student success class last spring in the modules on vocation, specifically the chapter called “Now I Become Myself.” My students were impressed with Palmer’s wisdom in statements such as “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” and “Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

Around the time I used this with my class, a friend told me this is a favorite book of his, so I intended to give it a full reading. I had actually checked it out of the library once before and had been too busy to read it. The same thing happened over the summer. This time I swore I’d read it all the way through and made it my “lunch book” — keeping it at work and reading in the sun or in my office each day after I ate.

How glad I am that I kept trying. Palmer’s wisdom is humble and humane and true. He generously shares his own missteps and fears in the service of helping readers avoid their own, or embrace them as the case may be:  “Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations — projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves — and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.” Yep. Ouch. Another gem: ” . . . there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” Not something that’s easy to accept.

But this isn’t just a book about seeking one’s vocation. Palmer writes searingly about his descent into depression and his way back to wholeness: “One begins the slow walk back to health by choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.” And acknowledges how painful, slow, and difficult this is: “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.”

He also expounds on leadership: “These leaders possess a gift available to all who take an inner journey: the knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends only on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” And extolls the benefits of “inner work . . . like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer” and the importance of community: “Community doesn’t just create abundance — community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

In these times this passage will be one I return to frequently: “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thereby engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.” Amen.

This is a brief book, around 100 pages, and small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket or purse or desk drawer. It merits reading and re-reading, and inwardly digesting. It would be a great book to journal with, or to discuss in a small group.

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