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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

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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A couple of summers ago I read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My mom gave me Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, for my birthday last fall but I hadn’t read it yet. It’s the time of year when I admire the wildflowers (which some people call weeds) and mosses in our lawn (the less grass the better as far as I am concerned), so I pulled it out of the teetering pile beside my chair a couple of weeks ago.

Kimmerer opens the book by describing how we humans “contrive remarkable ways to observe the world.” We make powerful telescopes and microscopes, but, she goes on, we “are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust the unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”

Among the things we don’t see? Moss. Gathering Moss is all about what Kimmerer has seen and learned of and from mosses as a biologist, professor, and mother. She writes with expertise but also with vulnerability. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she combines indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants with stories about being human, and this book opens eyes, minds, and hearts to all that we could know if we paid attention, particularly to the natural world.

Jacqueline Winspear writes about her father teaching her to pay attention to the natural world in her memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. When I placed a hold on the new Maisie Dobbs book recently, I saw that Winspear had written a memoir. Since she’s written about how the Maisie books are based in part on the impact the two world wars had on her own family, I was intrigued. Readers of the series will notice people, events or places that are familiar, and in some cases Winspear points them out. I enjoyed hearing more about the hops harvest.

It is an interesting book, and very personal. Winspear writes lovingly but also with a frankness that reveals the difficulties she had as a child (including eye surgeries) and the challenging relationship she had with her mother. It’s a book infused with gratitude and appreciation for the many people in her life who were kind or generous or loyal, including her parents. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is also about being true to your ambitions — Winspear wanted to be a writer from early childhood but a test indicated she should be a teacher, a far more practical career in her parents’ view, and she spent many years working in education. But she did not forget her ambition, and eventually worked to realize it.

And that theme of being true to who you are and what you want to do also appears in a book I read last weekend, Jojo Moyes‘ most recent novel, The Giver of Stars. A departure from her other books, this one is historical fiction set mostly in a Kentucky coal mining town. It’s the story of a young English woman, Alice, who marries an American, son of a coal mine owner, and moves to Baileyville. She is lonely, tired of her overbearing father in law, uninterested in trying to fit into the gossipy local society, and confused about why her husband seems unattracted to her after a romantic courtship. When she attends a town meeting about a new mobile library service, a WPA project that is part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to improve literacy, Alice sees an opportunity to get out of her house.

She meets the other librarians — Margery, orphaned daughter of a notoriously violent moonshiner, Beth, only girl in a houseful of men, Izzy, carefully protected survivor of polio, and eventually Sophia, the only real librarian among them, a black woman who worked in Louisville but has come home to the mountains to care for her brother, who was injured in a mining accident. Alice finally has friends, purpose, and eventually, intrigue. I really enjoyed the story, even if it was bit dramatic. Moyes says in an author interview at the end of the book that she wrote it to highlight the real life horseback librarians, and that she traveled to Kentucky three times to research the book. She also noted that it made sense to her, an English woman, to tell the story from the point of view of an English main character, rather than try to make all the characters American, and I think that works well in the story.

Three excellent reads!

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I’ve had I told my soul to sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay for some time; I bought it during some kind of special Paraclete Press was running a few years back. For some reason, I had pulled it out and set it on the teetering pile of books on an end table to remind myself that I wanted to read it. I’m on a committee to revise the reading/resource list for discerners in The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and it occurred to me this book would be an interesting addition.

And I was looking for a Lent book. Flipping through it, I thought this seemed like a good choice. I started it, reading here and there from it, around Ash Wednesday, and as you know, read a few other things in that time. Sometimes I keep “spiritual reading” for the weekend, when I have more time and am less apt to be reading myself to sleep. But I’ve found myself dipping into it on weeknights as well.

And then I realized, in the second week of Lent, that Kristin LeMay is also recording conversations with the brothers of SSJE, who she mentions often in I told my soul to sing, this Lent: you can find the videos on the Brothers’ YouTube page (it’s the Come, Pray series). I realized I pulled the book off my shelf for a reason!

LeMay is a warm and intelligent guide to Dickinson’s work, and goes into great detail in analyzing poems. I admit to having no more than a survey course understanding of her work. More recently, I’ve tried to visit her house in Amherst twice and both times arrived when it was closed. Like many people, I’d heard that she was a sort of recluse, seeing only family (not entirely accurate) and that she was not religious. And that her poems were a little mysterious.

LeMay sets readers straight on the popular misconceptions and opens up the poems. And she makes the case, poem by poem, theme by theme, that Emily ( as LeMay calls her), had profound experiences of God in her life and wrote copiously about God.

For example, in the section on prayer, LeMay explains how Emily wrote this poem:

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be —

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?

LeMay muses that this poem addresses her own sense that we don’t need to “find” God but rather, become aware that God is present. She writes, “Emily’s poem records precisely such a dawning of awareness. The poem is actually crafted out of two distinct couplets, each one penciled on a separate scrap of paper. The two scraps become a poem only through the presence of a pin, which literally holds the two thoughts together. . . . Emily pinned the poem together when she knew, at last, and for herself, that God cannot come because God never goes away.”

I appreciate LeMay’s own “wrestling” with the Emily’s poems and letters as well as with her own faith. She weaves the story of her own seeking and doubt into the story of Emily. If you’ve found it hard to pray, or felt your faith wax and wane, or wondered about immortality, or felt God’s presence in some beautiful music or even birdsong, there is something here for you.

It’s a lovely book, one to read slowly. And yes, it makes me want to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. And read more of Emily’s writing. And someday, get back to the house when it’s open!

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A few years back I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It’s a delightful combination of history and memoir, a record of journeys (physical and imagined) and a story of connections to family, to aesthetics, and to meaning. It’s the kind of book that leaves the reader feeling better educated and better acquainted with a bright mind. The White Road: a Journey Into Obsession is similar in that regard.

In a way The White Road is the story of porcelain. DeWaal travels to different places important to that history. The story begins with Jingdezhen, China, where pottery was made for centuries in large quantities and de Waal finds ancient shards and both ancient and contemporary stories and objects. He also visits Dresden, and traces the story of Augustus, who visited Versailles as a teenager and saw a porcelain pavilion and became obsessed with porcelain once he became king. De Waal presents the mathematician, Tschirnhaus, and the young alchemist, Böttger, who together reinvented porcelain for Augustus, the famous Meissen porcelain. He tells the story of English porcelain, of the Quaker apothecary William Cookworthy who determined — by reading and by quietly talking with people all over the southwest of England where he lived and worked, much as I picture de Waal doing on his journeys — that the types of clay and rock needed to create porcelain were in the nearby soil. He traveled to South Carolina to the mountains where the English took similar clay from the ground in Cherokee lands around the time America gained its independence. And to Dachau, where prisoners were forced to create Nazi porcelain.

Throughout the book, de Waal muses on his own history as an artist and his own relationship with porcelain as well. He also reveals his process, how ideas intersect and connections form. When he visits Dresden he makes an appointment to visit inside the Japanisches Palais, which Augustus built “in his porcelain madness,” and de Waal notes, “It has taken me over twenty years to get here to the palais. I had an ink sketch of one of these rooms pinned up above my wheel for a very long time. It was a challenge. Did I want to make porcelain that could be shuffled around, or could I make more of a demand on the world, shape a portion of it with more coherence?” And he tells the story of a porcelain room he created for an exhibition. These glimpses into his artistic process are found throughout The White Road.

He also shares that he often orders books, even expensive rare ones, when he’s unable to sleep: “Buying a book is my default holding position.” And his affection and empathy for these historical people he gets to know — for Tschirnhaus, Cookworthy, and Hans Landauer, a Dachau prisoner who wrote a memoir about working in the Allach porcelain factory — are palpable. I admire that he doesn’t just read history and report it, but feels it as well. I also like the way he chases connections. Towards the end of the book as he reviews where he’s been and what he’s covered he wonders about visiting Wittgenstein’s house because “Wittgenstein wrote a response to Goethe’s response to Newton on colour.”

He notes, “There are books in my room upstairs at the studio still in their packages, bought at night, necessary for all my journeys. I have the score of John Cage’s 4′ 33″ on top of the pile. I run my hands over this ridiculous heap of possibilities, of weeks of detours and re-routings.” After explaining where he thought he’d go with this book, and wondering “What have I missed?” he adds, “I’ve given up on my lists. My three white porcelain cups have become five objects of porcelain. My three white hills have become four. I’ve been taken elsewhere.”

And that is why I admire de Waal — he takes us elsewhere with him, allowing the connections to develop and sharing the process with us. This was a delightful read. I enjoyed it most when I sat with it for longer stretches rather than reading a couple of pages before sleep. Treat yourself joining de Waal as he immerses himself in his subject.

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My dad sent me For Love & Money: Writing. Reading. Travelling 1969-87 by Jonathan Raban. He’s a fan of Raban’s travel writing. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to read this book for a few reasons. First, between the election and COVID, I’ve been a little distracted by news (ok, to be honest, I’ve been, like most of us, compulsively scrolling). Second, I have been watching more television: the four part screen adaptation of Summer’s Lease, the Great British Baking Show, and season 4 of The Crown. Third, For Love & Money just isn’t a quick read.

For starters, although the narrative is about Raban’s development as a writer, the three parts are only related in that way. It’s not like reading a book with a beginning, middle, and end. Raban tells us about his childhood and early aspirations as a writer, his starting out as a professor and his chucking academia for the freelance life. But along the way, there is a whole chapter that unless I’m really missing something, is someone else’s story (A Senior Lectureship), which I didn’t quite understand. The reviews section is very interesting, and shows readers what Raban was doing as a reader and writer, but require a little insider’s knowledge, either of the authors and their works or England and English history and society.

This makes for a sense of starts and stops rather than a smooth, flowing book. Some sections read more as narratives. I loved the part about The New Review and Raban’s early days as a freelancer. I admit to laughing out loud reading the section on Freya Stark rafting down the Euphrates and the section on Florida. Describing Stark calmly embroidering on the raft while all around, rain fell and tempers rose as the BBC crew and the locals argued about logistics Raban writes, “You need to have that peculiarly Arab sense of the absurdity of most human endeavor in the face of anything as mighty and unyielding as the landscape of the Euphrates. That is exactly what Dame Freya has: a serene humor that can be maddening to the sort of people who live off nerves and sandwiches.”

Raban visits Florida in the 80s because he’s been reading the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald and he wants to meet him. He’s utterly amazed by the wildlife (“I had only seen alligators in zoos. Here they littered the banks of the ditch by the side of the road.”). And the natives (he describes meeting a man wearing a hat that says “If God made man in his image he must be a redneck” and the conversation they have about hunting; he also describes American senior citizens in “pastel romperwear” driving around in golf carts that are reminiscent of “tricycles and sandpits”). And the the commercial hucksterism (“It was a goldrush landscape, torn to bits by the diggings of latterday prospectors. The skyline was jagged with unfinished condos, the roadside a bright mess of of advertising hoardings that begged the passing motorist to invest in his own patch of heaven before it was too late”). “Everywhere I looked, someone was trying to bribe me to inspect their condominiums,” Raban writes. His description of touring one complex in exchange for lunch was especially funny.

He also meets MacDonald and writes admiringly about him as well as his writing. And that is the kind of writer Raban is, generous, truthful (he doesn’t hold back in the more critical of his reviews), observant, smart. There were a few places where I felt lost, because I think at times the books pieces that appeared elsewhere read a little awkwardly strung together to try to make a narrative. But I have a sense that if I’d dipped into this book here and there instead of reading it start to finish, that wouldn’t have seemed like an issue. I also really enjoyed the personal essays, in particular the story of Raban’s family and how he both grew up and grew out of his childhood and came to make peace with it.

For Love & Money ends with Raban’s finding the boat he ended up sailing around the UK in, which he wrote about in Coasting. That sounds like one of his best books. Anyway I’m glad to get to know one of my dad’s favorite writers and to be reminded of how much I enjoy travel writing. Not the kind that reads, as Raban dismissively describes, “as a more or less decorated version of the ship’s log” but the kind that tells a story about a journey. Raban explains the difference very nicely.

As a bonus, I hadn’t heard of Eland, the publisher of this book. Its purpose is to “revive great travel books” that are no longer in print, and publishes other works “chosen for their interest in spirit of place.” I’ll have to explore their list!

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I’ve heard great things about Atul Gawande‘s books, but hadn’t read any of them. My dad sent me and my brother each a copy of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End so we can have a conversation about how he’d like things to be if he reaches a point that he can’t care for himself and what he’s prefer the end of his life to be like. Gawande notes that many people avoid this kind of conversation.

Gawande explains why this matters by telling stories of patients and his own family members facing such decisions. He also briefly outlines the history of aging and dying, and the state of geriatric care (not great) at the time of his writing in 2014. It turns out, like so many other things about healthcare in America, this situation is mainly caused by money, and yet investing in more geriatric specialists or at least training in geriatrics for doctors and nurses would improve health outcomes and save money. As Gawande notes,

“If scientists came up with a device — call it an automatic defrailer — that wouldn’t extend your life but would slash the likelihood you’d end up in a nursing home or miserable with depression, we’d be clamoring for it. We wouldn’t care if doctors had to open up your chest and plug the thing into your heart. We’d have pink ribbon campaigns to get one for every person over seventy-five. Congress would be holding hearings demanding to know why forty-year-olds couldn’t get them installed. Medical students would be jockeying to become defrailation specialists and Wall Street would be bidding up company stock prices.”

Just after the study came out, however, the university where the doctors worked closed the geriatrics department. There is a shortage of geriatric specialists — because this is not a profitable specialty for the corporations that run hospitals and medical practices — even as we have an aging population. Gawande points out similar information about hospice care, and about supportive services that help seniors stay in their homes. These things all improve quality of life, well being, and mental health for both seniors and their family members, result in fewer invasive medical procedures, emergency room visits, hospital stays, etc.

Besides discussing these unpleasant aspects of our health care system, and the way the vision of the founder of assisted living was abandoned to economic efficiency and legal protections, Gawande also tells some very inspiring, and even sometimes funny, stories about people who have attempted to reform the way we care for the elderly. Like the Eden Alternative, which simply introduced cats, dogs, birds, and children into a nursing home with terrific results, and its offshoot, the Green House project. And NewBridge, a community in the Boston area where people live in private rooms with communal shared spaces. And Peter Sanborn Place, a housing project for disabled and senior citizens where the remarkable director created her own version of aging-in-place supportive care so that her residents could have full lives.

As Gawande learned all this, he came to change the way he talks with patients himself. He credits a palliative care professional, Susan Block, with teaching him to ask patients, “What do they understand their prognosis to be, what are their concerns about what lies ahead, what kinds of trade-offs are they willing to make, how do they want to spend their time if their health worsens, who do they want to make decisions if they can’t?” Block notes that the purpose of these conversations isn’t necessarily to learn people’s last wishes or determine which treatment options to pick, but rather “to learn what’s most important to them under the circumstances.” To help them “negotiate the overwhelming anxiety” that comes with “arriving at the acceptance of one’s mortality and a clear understanding of the limits of medicine.”

With these conversations, which Gawande acknowledges take time and skill, he envisions a cultural shift from the mindset that medicine should fix everything. He counsels courage, “. . . to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped.” And, “to act on the truth we find.”

This is an excellent, if difficult read. It may make you angry at the systems we have erected in our society that prioritize profit instead of people. But it will also give you hope, that there are people within those systems working to make a difference. And it will give you tools to empower yourself and your loved ones when you find yourself facing mortality.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl is a book that caught my eye when it came out. I skimmed a review (librarians do, you know — we have a lot of reviews to get through) and read that it was about monarch butterflies and birds and insects. That sounded good, and the subtitle, I thought, referred to species in decline, and someone who loved nature. Sounded great.

I missed the fact that it’s the story of Renkl’s family as well, mainly her family of origin but also somewhat about her life as a mother and spouse. When I started reading I was mildly annoyed by the structure, which weaves back and forth between natural history and family stories. But eventually, this grew on me, as the book seemed to weave themes together, like the spiders or birds whose webs and nests Renkl admires.

It’s a beautiful book, which is the other reason it grew on me. Renkle admires ” . . . he red-tailed hawk fluffs her feathers over her cold yellow feet and surveys the earth with such stillness I could swear it wasn’t turning at all.” And describes finding herself outside in college, when she “headed out” after weeks in which she “followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria.” As she walks away from the crowds and into “red dirt lanes” that remind her of her childhood, she says, “I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense of the glory that was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once — feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where dark and light exist simultaneously.”

That is not precisely the way I picture eternity, but that’s a minor quibble. Renkl’s writing is lovely. I could see the places and creatures and relatives she described, and could empathize with the emotions she described. And she doesn’t glorify things; her descriptions of early motherhood, caregiving for frail and ill elders, and grieving are not prettied up, even if the words she uses are a delight. The experiences she relates are things most of us go through, but don’t necessarily reflect on the way she has.

A good read, thoughtful and serious, but also humorous in places, moving, and evocative.

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I know I’m late to the party on this one; it’s not that I didn’t want to read Educated, but I hadn’t, yet, even though a number of readers I know had recommended it. My son picked up on the fact that I hadn’t read it and got it for me for Christmas. Over the last two days I’ve read it at breakfast and lunch and in the evening. It’s a very compelling read.

Most of you have probably heard enough about it to know the gist — Tara Westover was raised by survivalist Mormons, in a family led by a patriarchal father who suffers from mental illness. Her siblings and she all suffer serious injuries working for him, but their mother is an herbalist and treats them at home. Her older brother manages to get out and go to college, and encourages her. Out in the world, Westover realizes, gradually that she has been living in a world of her father’s making, not in the real world. And that she is a scholar. These realizations cost her everything she’s known, but it’s not a tragic story. What she gains, in her own life and her coming to know her family better, seems to far outweigh what she loses.

In some ways this book is similar to KooKooLandwhich I wrote about last fall. A mentally ill father, a violent home, a girl who never even realizes education could be hers goes far because of the power of her own mind. Both Gloria Norris, who wrote that book, and Tara Westover seem to have a deep well of empathy to draw on, and both trust that their flawed fathers do in fact love their families, despite the harm they cause.

But Westover’s story is ongoing, while Norris’s story has more closure to it — she’s older, her parents have died, but she explains in KooKooLand that her parents and sister were supportive of her telling the truth in her memoir, even if it reflected poorly on them. Westover is younger and her family are still alive and in fact, disputed her story through their lawyer when the book came out. Both women are courageous, but I am especially admiring of Westover’s fearlessness in light of the fact that there are people in this world who wish her ill because she told the truth. And her compassion for those who hurt her, combined with this resolve.

I also find the narrative structure of Educated very compact and clear. This story takes us from Westover’s girlhood through most of her twenties, to the point where she has become educated, not only in the worldly sense, as a historian, but in a personal sense. There are no tangents, or loose ends, no over dramatization (honestly, Westover’s life is dramatic enough already) and a good deal of honesty about what she remembers, what she journaled about, what she consulted other family members and friends about, and what is disputed. It’s also a beautiful book; here’s a bit of the gorgeous prologue that describes the wind in a wheat field, “. . . each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, as is as close as anyone gets to seeing the wind.”

A really good read.

** I kept musing about this book — head over to Nocturnal Librarian to read more.

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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