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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Last summer I read Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, and this week, I remembered that McConaghy’s second book came out in August and I could check it out as a library eBook. I’ve been reading some heavy stuff — Pauli Murray’s memoir, books about theology and capitalism — and I wanted a good story to fall asleep with. Once There Were Wolves met that need, except instead of falling asleep reading it, I stayed up too late because it is a good story.

I will say, it’s not for the squeamish. McConaghy’s work could be called ecofiction; both books deal with environmental degradation, climate change, and species loss. But in addition to examining the darkness of the world and our utter hubris when it comes to nature, she also explores the darkness within her characters and their lives. In Once There Were Wolves, there is less environmental degradation than in Migrations, where nearly all wildlife is gone. Once There Were Wolves seems to be set in a time more like the present, where species are depleted but things haven’t yet reached the grim state of Migrations. But, the characters in Once There Were Wolves are facing all manner of human darkness.

The main character in this novel, Inti, is an Australian biologist working on a rewilding project, bringing back wolves in the Scottish Highlands, where they were hunted to extinction. She has a rare medical condition, mirror-touch synesthesia, which causes her to feel physical sensations that other humans — and in her case, also animals — are feeling. In addition to facing the opposition of local people who are afraid the wolves will kill their livestock, she and even more so her twin sister, Aggie, lives with the trauma and grief of having experienced violence and loss. Inti is also drawn to Duncan, who is her neighbor, the local police chief, and a fellow trauma survivor. McConaghy makes clear how much trauma impacts not only its victims, but also a community, especially when it’s a small rural place like the village near Inti’s wolf project. When a local man disappears, some believe a wolf attacked.

All the trauma was a bit much right now, as COVID seems to circle ever closer. Still, the combination of interesting ecology and rewilding information, a strong sense of place, some resilient and sensible folks who are in favor of the rewilding, and the mystery at the center of the story kept me reading. I found a few plot points just a step too unbelievable towards the end, but hey, it’s fiction. And actually, if we’ve learned one thing in the past few years, it’s that strange, even unbelievable events are really a part of life. McConaghy’s writing also drew me in. Here’s a passage where she describes Inti watching a wolf pack:

“I spend the morning watching two of them play, one with a long white swan feather, which brings her no end of joy, waving it between her teeth and batting at it with her paws, while the other — the male alpha — dances with the shadows of clouds for hours on end. Old male Number Fourteen, our oldest wolf, watches them serenely, while vigilant Number Ten stalks the riverbank, up and down, mesmerized by something in the water. The more I watch them, the more I understand that I will never know what happens inside a wolf’s mind. I won’t even come close. I smile at the foolish teenager in me who thought she could discover their secrets.”

Definitely an entertaining read.

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I was looking at the shortlisted Booker prize nominees the week the winner was announced and came across this video of Rowan Williams talking about No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I adore listening to him explain what a social influencer is. And to the way he explains that in this funny but serious novel, the narrator’s “social media prattle is somehow enlarged, extended, deepened to try to cope with an experience it’s really not designed for.” Which kind of sums up the book: in part one, the narrator is busily commenting on the world from within “the portal” — Lockwood herself is very active on Twitter, and that seems to me to be what the portal is based on — sharing thoughts and images that veer from profane to profound and back again. In part two, her mother sends her a couple of texts asking her to come back home, because her sister has learned that her unborn child has Proteus syndrome.

The narrator still describes the world the way she did when her whole life was the portal, but her whole life now is her family, especially her sister and niece. Which is what Rowan Williams is talking about — the “prattle” exits the portal and enters the experience of this family trying to live with what’s happening. Someone who became famous for posting “can a dog be twins?” and laments that the world is so messed up, “that people had stopped paying attention to celebrity dogs” now describes her baby niece: “Her face was luminous, as if someone had put flesh on the bones of the moon, and her beautiful blue eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.”

The narrator comments, “That every person on earth might be watched in that way, given a party whenever she waved and raised her little arms arms, breathed just like the rest of us.” She notices her own response, too, in much the same way she noticed her own presence in the portal before, “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life. She was a gleaming sterilized instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency . . . . She wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!”

Lockwood is a poet, and this novel’s style is a cross between poetry and “social media prattle” (I am really pretty obsessed with that characterization). The narrator observes society, comments on the human condition, and wonders at our capacity for dealing with love and loss. She is also someone who “loved to yell, loved to be inconsistent, loved to make no sense in the little awestruck hours of the night, which stared up at her as a perfect audience with their equal little heads.” She can be both absurd and brilliant.

No One Is Talking About This is definitely one of those books that is its own thing, not like anything that’s come before it. I found it funny in places and tender in others. And I was so intrigued by the time I got to the end that I checked out Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. It’s a book that leaves you wanting to know more about the author.

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I was happy to see a Europa Editions book selected for the Booker prize: The Promise by Damon Galgut. If you follow book news, you know this wasn’t the first time Galgut was nominated. It’s the first of his novels that I have read. The Booker judges call The Promise “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?” If that’s the driving question of this novel I guess the answer is not clear cut. It’s not a book that ties up all the loose threads by the end. Characters who act in ways that are just and those who don’t both suffer in this book. But the two characters who seem to care for others and each other more than themselves are not ruined by suffering and loss in the way that the self-centered, immoral, uncaring characters are, which could be described as a kind of justice, perhaps?

The story begins in 1986, on the day Amor Swart’s mother dies. Her unkind aunt and uncle pick her up from boarding school and take her home to the family farm outside of Pretoria, South Africa. Her newly widowed father promised her mother, in Amor’s hearing, that he would give the family’s maid, a black woman named Salome, the house she lives in. Amor is still enough of a child at thirteen to believe that adults’ promises will be kept. But her father, deeply influenced by the local evangelical preacher and by the apartheid system he has benefitted from all his life, has no intention of keeping the promise. Which would have been a gift in name only in 1986 anyway, as Salome wouldn’t have legally owned the house even if it was given to her.

Amor’s eldest sibling, her brother Anton, is serving in the army to protect white South Africa from the unrest of apartheid’s last years. He comes home for their mother’s funeral, the first of four Swart family funerals in the book. He’s both a perpetrator and, to a much lesser extent, a victim of violence. But as the book unfolds it becomes clear that Anton actually begins to lose his life from the moment he takes another’s. Despite (or maybe because of) his confused thoughts about his recent violent incidents, Anton goads his father about the promise Amor overheard. The third sibling, Astrid, is only on the periphery of the conflict at the time of their mother’s funeral, but we learn enough to see she is self-absorbed and hungry for a more glamorous life.

From this beginning, the novel threads its way through the siblings’ adult lives. In fact I’m realizing Amor gets her first period at her mother’s funeral at the beginning of the book and is experiencing menopause at the end. Key moments in South African history — Mandela’s presidency, the 1995 rugby World Cup, the AIDS epidemic, the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies, the recent infrastructure issues and water shortages — are the backdrop to the Swart family’s dramatic unraveling. The novel’s structure includes patterns and chronology (the historical timeline, the family funerals) but the narration is unusual and a little less clear. The narrator is sometimes inside characters’ minds and sometimes observing. Likewise, the narrator sometimes seems to be reliably describing events and is sometimes clearly imagining them. For example, towards the end of the book, when Amor is living in Cape Town, we read: “She has a cat curled up on her lap. No, she doesn’t, there is no cat. But allow her a couple of plants at least, growing greenly in their tins on the windowsill.” Which makes it hard to know: what has been real and what has been imagined? You might think you know, but do you?

The story is tragic but the majority of the characters are pretty hard to feel badly for. The ones that do evoke some empathy appear less frequently, away from the main action, and Galgut doesn’t reveal much about them. All in all a unique read, one I’m still thinking through today after finishing the book last night.

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For some reason I’ve read a few books featuring nuns during the pandemic. In summer of 2020, I read The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s black comedy set in the 1100s through the1300s at a convent. Back in January I read World Without End by Ken Follett (also set in the 1300s) one of the Pillars of the Earth series, in which a nun nurse introduces masks as a way to protect against the plague. Then recently, I read Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix, set in the 1100s. After I finished Matrix, I decided to pull out a novel I’d picked up on either a library book sale shelf or free cart at some point, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Unlike those other three books, this one is set in relatively contemporary times, opening in 1954. Like the others, it is set in England.

Like Groff, Godden sets her book entirely inside a community of nuns, in this case Benedictines in England. The central character, Philippa, comes to the monastery (which is what Brede Abbey is — a Benedictine monastery, which can be a community of either nuns or monks) later in life, after a successful career in some kind of government service. At the beginning of the book she has arrived as a postulant, and by the end of the book she’s been at Brede fourteen years and is a fully professed nun. The nuns at Brede are an enclosed order, meaning they separate themselves from the world; in the church and in the parlors where they may speak with visitors, they have a grille in place that mark this separation.

All of the little details of their communal life are fascinating, the descriptions of the “clothing” ceremony when a postulant becomes a novice nun and wears a habit, the different vows taken, the division of labor, the singing of the services, the hours of prayer, the pattern of life and of the seasons, both natural and liturgical, at Brede. Although much of the novel follows Philippa’s progress, there are many other nuns that feature, including Abbess Hester, who dies without confessing a secret she’s sworn the cellerar, Dame Veronica to, and Abbess Catherine, who has to manage when she uncovers the secret and its cost. In that regard, as with Matrix, readers get a glimpse into the way a monastery is run and all that is involved. Godden, like Groff, also relates the ways that an enclosed community, like any community, has to work out differences of opinion, personality conflicts, jealousies and hurt feelings, etc.

In This House of Brede is different in that Matrix was also concerned with the way Marie, the abbess, bends the community to her will, which she discerns in part through her visions and in part through her extensive political network who keep her informed of what’s happening outside the abbey, especially at the royal courts of France and England. But In This House of Brede‘s central concern is the development of the different characters’ vocations within the monastery, and of their spiritual lives. It’s a fascinating look at how a life centered in prayer and community subtly molds the characters. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they are, how they relate to one another and how they live. You would think such a topic would not lend itself to much of a plot, but there are several interesting twists here and there, and those keep the story moving.

Godden’s writing is lovely. The only other book of hers I’d read is Impunity Jane, a children’s story about a pocket doll that was a favorite around here. This passage nicely conveys how Godden conveys Philippa’s inner thoughts as she waits to hear whether she’s been accepted for Simple Profession, the first set of vows a Benedictine nun takes:

“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains: a quiet, a steadiness. Philippa had thought of a mosque she had seen in Bengal, a mosque of seven domes, eleventh century, and as with all unspoiled Moslem mosques, empty, not a lamp or a vase or a chair; only walls glimmering with their pale marble. She remembered how, her shoes off, she had stood there, not looking but feeling. No one is there; God is there. And here, in Brede Abbey, the quiet was stronger — and close. The light flickering by the tabernacle was warm, alive, and as if they were still there, she heard what the nuns had sung last night at Benediction: ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat,’ with its three soft repeated cadences. ‘Christus vincit,’ and ‘Thank you,’ Philippa had whispered, ‘thank you for bringing me where I am,’ and, ‘Even if you send me away, I shall be here forever.'”

A fascinating and beautiful read.

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Lots of reviews of Lauren Groff‘s new novel, Matrix, reference her previous work, Fates and Furies, but as I read it, I kept thinking of the first book of Groff’s that I read, Arcadia. Arcadia was about a man who grew up in a utopian compound, and Matrix revisits the idea of an ideal community, this time in a 12th century abbey in England. It’s not ideal when the book opens and Marie de France arrives, sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine at the age of seventeen to be prioress. The abbey is poor and run down and the nuns are ill, old, and poorly organized. Marie, a large, homely woman who has already proven herself capable and strong in her short life, quickly takes things in hand. Matrix follows her life’s story as she makes the abbey prosperous, comes to love the community of nuns she cares for, and develops a distinctly matriarchal faith.

Marie is interesting, and not just because Groff creates a backstory that includes warrior aunts, a fairy ancestor, and women lovers including Queen Eleanor herself. I also enjoyed that Marie is both a smart and worldly leader and a mystic who has visions and writes poetry (the only bit of the real Marie de France’s story that is known). When still young Marie becomes Abbess, she realizes that the church leader with jurisdiction over the abbey “seems to believe this abbey of virgins to be a source of personal wealth.” Her response? “She must draw up herself a dummy account ledger to show the abbey’s great debt, which is false, for, she considers, to counter corruption, a similar corruption is only logical and right.”

Her visions give her spiritual and theological guidance — including an image of Eve and Mary in which Marie comes to see that rather than being the source of mankind’s fall and sinful nature, Eve is the first step towards mankind’s salvation, because she is Mary’s ancestress. But the visions also give her building projects — a labyrinth the cleverly hides the abbey from the well traveled roads which make it vulnerable, a building to house not only the Abbess’s quarters but also well appointed apartments for the wealthy widows who retire to the abbey (with their money) and schoolrooms for the young girls sent to learn how to be fine ladies (who will someday support the abbey they remember fondly), and a lock to harness a nearby marsh’s water supply, to divert it to the Abbey year round.

Marie’s own ambitions get her into trouble from time to time, but she maintains her rule, runs a network of spies in the great world beyond the abbey who keep her one (or more) steps ahead of both the crown and Rome, and manages to value her own abilities and achievements and those of her nuns while also maintaining her belief. She’s an astute manager, trusting her own judgement but also understanding when she needs diplomacy, prayer, or even forgiveness. And when Groff writes of Marie’s visions and views of the world, her prose sings, which is another way this book reminds me of Arcadia.

For Marie, Groff writes, “Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

That is both beautiful and as true today as it was in the 12th century. This world is both beautiful and scary, and we live with contradictions that are true (and many that, as Marie herself would also affirm, are not). If you’re looking to escape all this into a beautiful, strange, and in its way, uplifting book, Matrix is a great choice. My only quibble is that I’m still considering the ending; I think I understand what Groff intended but it was strangely deflating for me. Still, I very much enjoyed Matrix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A terrific escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faten smiled, grateful for the truth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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