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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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I went to visit the former teen the elder to hear his divinity school senior sermon last week. It was terrific to spend time with him and his classmates — such a smart and spirit-filled bunch of people. I was pleased to see his bookshelves so full, and he knew I’d enjoy popping into the div school bookstore (which is independent!) while I was there. It was hard but I limited myself to two books, and one of them was All About Love by bell hooks.

I’d only read essays by bell hooks, and those have been written for educators, or at least people interested in pedagogy. This book is definitely for everyone. Hooks notes in her introduction that she chose to write a book about love because she realized ours is “no longer a world open to love.” The rest of the book is an eloquent argument for the vital need we all have not only to feel loved, but also to give love.

Hooks lays out what the world could be like if we placed love at the center of our lives, and then gently instructs readers in the skills and mindsets that could accomplish that. For example, she calls on us all to be more open in our communications about love as well as to have a “love ethic” in public policy and civic life. She also approaches romantic and sexual love from the same practical viewpoint, examining common problems with these kinds of love and gently pointing to solutions.

I enjoyed this book for two reasons: first, hooks is not a scold. I’m sure you’ve all read intellectual work that takes a position and then beats readers over the head with it. Hooks instead makes her case in the way a good friend or kind and wise older relative might. Firmly, but with compassion. Second, she quotes a number of other authors and provides a list of their books in the back of All About Love. I always appreciate having ideas for further reading.

Certainly some of what hooks writes is not new — most people are aware there is a lack of love in our common life these days, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t learned some of the lessons hooks explores about interpersonal love. And many people, even if not religious, are familiar with the spiritual idea of lovingkindness found in several of the world’s major religions. But hooks manages to write about these familiar ideas in fresh ways.

For example, she notes “Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart. . . .  Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. Yet young listeners remain reluctant to embrace love as a transformative force. Their attitude is mirrored in the grown-ups they turn to for explanations.”

She goes on to say that when talking to people of her own generation about the ideas in this book, she was sometimes told she “should consider seeing a therapist.” Her conclusion that today’s generations of young people are cynical in part because preceding generations have taught them that love is not to be trusted is both incredibly obvious and not something I’d thought of before. I tended to blame the culture at large — but who makes that culture? All of us.

I’m not really doing this book justice — hooks touches on so many more big ideas, like trust, honesty, justice, divinity, gender, patriarchy, mutuality and commitment — and I think it needs to be read more than once to fully grasp its power. Hooks is an incredible voice for about the most key element of human interaction. It’s a book that makes me want to sit and talk about the ideas with someone . . . someone I love!

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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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A new colleague at work recommended The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater to the One Book, One Manchester committee.  I read it over a few nights before bed and the only problem I have with it is I got less sleep — rather than drifting off after a few paragraphs or even a few pages, I kept reading, wanting to know what happened.

Otherwise, I loved this book. It’s the story of Sasha and Richard, two teens in Oakland California. Richard, an African American young man, is a student at Oakland High. Sasha is a white agender senior at Maybeck, a small private school. As Slater notes, “Each afternoon the two teenagers’ journeys overlap for a mere eight minutes. If it hadn’t been for the 57 bus, their paths might never have crossed at all.”

In a moment that changes both of their lives forever on November 4, 2013, while Sasha is sleeping on the bus, Richard, who has been goofing around with some friends, lights the edge of Sasha’s skirt on fire. This book tells their stories before that moment, and after. It’s an incredible story both because Sasha and Richard are not unique — there are teens like each of them all over this country. And because Sasha and Richard — and teens like them all over this country — are unique.

Slater explodes the idea that there is equal justice under the law, which frankly is an idea that had already imploded on its own. But she also portrays people in the criminal justice system fairly, neither demonizing or lionizing them. And she also manages to make both Sasha’s middle class, educated, liberal parents and Richard’s working class single mom fully human rather than stereotyped representations of their types. The opportunities denied Richard and provided to Sasha are spooled out naturally, as part of their stories. Slater does not club readers over the head with the truth.

But she does make clear that despite Sasha’s suffering, they were ultimately ok. And that despite Richard’s imprisonment, he was also ok. And she celebrates the generosity, compassion, and kindness that Richard’s mother and Sasha’s parents exhibited towards each other and towards their children. You’ll learn about what Sasha and their friends think about being nonbinary, what Richard thinks about being a young black man in Oakland, how they each tried to get what they needed at their schools. And you’ll learn about the media’s influence on a crime’s narrative, and how that impacts what the offender, victim, and their friends and families experience. And about restorative justice, an alternative to criminal proceedings that is about addressing the harm done and how to repair it.

I think this is a beautiful book. It’s honest, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful. Slater did a great deal of research and spoke at length with all the people she writes about. I thought it was a terrific read, and would make for good discussions.  In an interesting twist, Slater’s charge to readers comes at the end of the very first brief chapter, rather than at the end, and it has stayed with me: “Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.”

Of course she doesn’t mean me, or you. She means us. There must be something we can do.

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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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I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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My daughter gave me The Diary of A Bookseller by Shawn Bythell for my birthday. I’d first heard about it in some sort of media report about Wigtown, Scotland and it’s annual book festival. It’s a yearlong diary Bythell kept to share his life as owner of a large used bookstore in a small rural town.

I’ve worked in an indie bookstore and I felt fairly well aware of the threat Amazon has been to booksellers but I was thinking from the perspective of stores that primarily sell new books. I didn’t fully grasp the way Amazon has undermined the value of used books and made it harder and less profitable to run a used bookshop.

I used to fantasize about having a used bookstore and even had a book (which I think I bought at Powell’s) about how to do start and run one, right down to how to build the shelves. I let the book go a few years ago when we were having a big clear out (to make way for more books) and realized then that the business had likely changed so much I’d be better off learning from someone in the trade today.  The Diary of a Bookseller drove that point home for sure.

Some of what Bythell described is recognizable to anyone who has worked retail or in a library — the regulars who are both very familiar and complete strangers, the rude or demanding or opinionated people who feel entitled to provide commentary on the way things are run, the stock, the prices, the staff, etc. Other challenges I hadn’t considered, like the wear and tear on the body of lugging boxes of books, the difficulty of heating a very old building, and the fearful difficulty of clearing a clogged gutter in a downpour to stop it flooding the shop.

I admire Bythell’s desire to be independent, to quietly fight on against giants like Amazon and Waterstones, and to find hope in kind customers and in the beauty of living where one wants, doing something one values. It’s also really interesting to read the quotes from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories at the start of each chapter and realize that as different as the world was in the first half of the 20th century when Orwell worked in a bookshop, many things he wrote about are still true today.

This was an interesting and enjoyable read, and I hope to make it to Wigtown and The Bookshop one day! I also hope the Random Book Club re-opens for membership. In less than a year I’ll be done with my second foray into grad school and free to read whatever I want, so that would be a good gift to myself!

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