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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

I read All About Love by bell hooks last February, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. I don’t think I shared before that my introduction to the bell hooks, prior to reading that book, was an essay recommended by the same student who suggested I purchase Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching for the library where I worked, a student who organized a book club for other young men, who told me he was a big fan of hooks’ writing. As I look back, his recommendation was my real introduction to antiracism (as opposed to simply non-racism), although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I am grateful to that young man and hope he is doing well now.

I digress. Back in the spring, I bought Belonging, also by bell hooks, because I had enjoyed All About Love and also Wendell Berry‘s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems which I read parts of along with an accompanying Lent devotional booklet from Salt project, and Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, which connects agrarian themes in the Hebrew scriptures with the writing of Berry and other contemporary agrarians. I knew that in Belonging, hooks talks about how much she admired Wendell Berry’s work, not only on racism (The Hidden Wound) but also on agrarianism; in fact one chapter is an interview hooks conducted with Berry. I was looking for something that was meaningful and also affirming of humankind’s potential and so Belonging floated up to the top of my to read pile.

Because that’s the thing about hooks: despite a tough childhood and growing up in white supremacist segregated Kentucky, hooks write a fair bit about joy, integrity, creativity, self-reliance. Don’t get me wrong, she writes very clearly and searingly about “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and does not sugar coat a thing. But she also writes about what freedom, safety and belonging she felt in the hills of her girlhood, the self-reliance and self-expression her grandparents felt in growing food and making beautiful quilts (like these), and the joy to be found in community. Growing up she learned, “Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy.”

The essays in Belonging focus on community, but hooks has an expansive view of that word, to include environmental justice as well as racial justice. She talks about the sense of loss she felt leaving Kentucky, even though it had been a painful place for her, and the years she spent trying to find and nurture community in cities where she thought she did belong. But for hooks, belonging is as much connected to the human need to be in right relation with the earth as it is to the same need to be in right relation with each other. Her sense of Kentucky as “homeplace” has as much to do with the land as the people, and she writes movingly about the destruction wrought by hilltop removal and her own work to preserve land.

Having just finished Me and White Supremacy, which I was working through as I was reading Belonging, and I found myself feeling hooks was speaking directly to me when she addressed the fact that even though individual white may be anti-racist, as a group, progressive whites are as racist as any others in her experience, especially when it comes to self-segregating in white neighborhoods. I can think of only 3 homes in my neighborhood where either nonwhites or immigrants live. In fact, all my life, I’ve never lived in a truly diverse neighborhood.

In reminding us that racist habits are so deeply ingrained in American culture, hooks addresses all readers. She writes about the psychological impact of racism, systemic dominator culture and white supremacism and how that prevents both Blacks and whites from trusting and moving forward towards community. White people, she notes, are the ones who have to “work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that are still the norm in our society” — so that it is safe for Blacks to do so as as well. And yet, she is hopeful:

“Yet most people still long for community and that yearning is the place of possibility, the place where we might begin as a nation to think and dream anew about the building of beloved community.”

Speaking to how this can come about, hooks says:

“Those of us who truly believe racism can end, that white supremacist thought and action can be challenged and changed, understand that there is an element of risk as we work to build community across difference. The effort to build community in a social context of racial inequality (much of which is class based) requires an ethic of relational reciprocity, one that is anti-domination. With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.”

How to achieve mutuality? Service. Again I can’t possibly say it better, so I will quote hooks:

“Dominator culture devalues the importance of service. Those of us who work to undo negative hierarchies of power understand the humanizing nature of service, understand that in caregiving and caretaking we make ourselves vulnerable. And in that place of vulnerability there is the possibility of recognition, respect, and mutual partnership.”

In the final chapters of Belonging she writes about how that taking care — of friends, of family, of herself, and of the land — has helped her come home. In Belonging readers can both learn and understand the forcers we are up against in contemporary America and how to overcome them. It’s not easy, but hooks shows us the way.

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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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Although I own a print copy of H is for Hawk, I listened to it as an audio book; I’m not much of an audiobook listener, but if I was still driving to work every day I probably would have tried the audio of Helen Macdonald‘s new book, Vesper Flights, because she is an excellent reader. As it is, I was delighted to download the library eBook on the day the book was released, which was lucky. I don’t love e reading, and it takes me longer than print, but while I’m not going to physical libraries, I’ve been pretty happy with the selection of new (and some old) books on Hoopla, which doesn’t have holds and long waiting lists like Overdrive or cloudLibrary. 

Vesper Flights is on Hoopla so I got it right away. It’s a collection of essays, some of which are reprinted and others, new. I hadn’t read any of them before, so it didn’t matter much to me which were which. She writes about the natural world, and many of her pieces are about birds, but as in H is for Hawk, she tends to tie what she’s learned or observed about nature to observations about human nature. 

For example: “So often we think of mindfulness, of existing purely in the present moment, as a spiritual goal. But winter woods teach me something else: the importance of thinking about history. They are able to show you the last five hours, the last five days, and the last five centuries, all at once.”

And: “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken. And if you’re watching urban falcons, this is not a distant world, but one alongside you, a place of transient and graceful refuge . . . . The Poolbeg site is about as far as you can get from a thriving natural ecosystem, but the act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair. Matters of life and death and a sense of our place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.” 

Brexit and the awful conditions for refugees in Britain make their way into some of the pieces. So does climate change. But though there is plenty to be anxious about in human behavior, Macdonald examines the way we take solace in animals and suggests we consider what we don’t know. In the final piece in the book she notes, “. . . the more I’ve learned about animals the more I’ve come to think there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.”

She cautions that the way we experience the world and the way the other inhabitants we share it with experience it are not only different, but beyond us. We can’t feel or experience what other creatures do. She explains, “Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone.”

But Macdonald doesn’t think this means we can’t experience a real connection with other creatures. Yes they are not us, and we are not them, but we do share the places where we both live. She describes a moment when, feeling worn out with worry and computer time, she steps outside and as a rook flies over, and they make eye contact. “Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.”

To enjoy this book, I’m afraid, you’d have to be open to this idea. And to the idea that we are negatively impacting nature by our inattention and self absorption and greed. I would hope that those ideas are commonplace, but that’s probably overly optimistic. I enjoyed it very much. I don’t know when I’ve made eye contact with anything wild other than insects and squirrels that I’m chasing away from my garden, including one squirrel who very well may have nibbled through two strands of solar lights on our deck. I plan to be more deliberate about noticing. I have a feeling that making eye contact with birds and other wild creatures might make us all less self-absorbed.

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I finished two books yesterday,  and  “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum and Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.

First, I read Tatum’s book, which I had bought a used copy of at a small indie bookstore two summers ago, for a discussion group at work. It was written in 1997, which struck me because it is a stark reminder that back then, although I would have said I wasn’t racist, I was not actively antiracist and would have been surprised by much of what Tatum writes about. Knowing what I know now, I was not surprised, but I will say this is a very interesting book because Tatum is a psychology professor so she approaches antiracism from the perspective of an educator, researcher, and psychologist.

Which is not to say this is dry or academic — it’s smart and thorough but completely accessible and replete with anecdotes from her classes and her life as a Black woman, mother, and professor. Her approach is to address racism as it impacts Black or multiracial people from childhood through adulthood as they develop their racial identity. Whatever your race there is much to learn about these stages of development. Whether reading it for your own education and understanding or to support a loved one or friend, Tatum’s sensible advice and authoritative voice will be helpful.

For example, in a chapter on “The Development of White Identity,” Tatum describes how white people, especially those who have gained “an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage” struggle to deal with self-consciousness, guilt, fear, and even blame. Sound familiar? It did to me. But Tatum cautions, “We all must be able to embrace who we are in terms of our racial and cultural heritage, not in terms of assumed superiority or inferiority, but as an integral part of our daily experience in which we can take pride.”

I am really looking forward to the conversation about this book!

Into the Silent Land is one of the books I’m reading as a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I’ve read a LOT of secular books on meditation, and have practiced mindfulness (practice being the operative word) for a long time. I also have a regular prayer practice, and have read about and tried meditative forms of prayer, mostly unsuccessfully. Laird, also a professor, has written a concise and highly informative handbook, which makes me want to try again.

Drawing on the history of contemplative prayer as well as the practical aspects of practicing it, Laird is both systematic and supportive. The combination of practical advice, encouragement, and ancient but still highly relevant wisdom is terrific. I’ve made tentative steps towards trying contemplative prayer. It’s a little chaotic around here right now, but maybe that is a good time to try stillness.

As Laird notes, “When we first begin the inward turn to quiet prayer we are faced with chaos, and the prayer word serves as an anchor in a storm, a shield and refuge from the onslaught of thoughts, feelings, storms of boredom, and fidgeting. But with some practice with the prayer word we grow in recollection and concentration and begin to see that there is something deeper than the chaos within. . . . What exactly is the prayer word doing? The prayer word excavates the present moment. The resulting interior focus eventually sets off and maintains a process of interior silencing.”

Sounds pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?

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My son (former Teen the Elder, for longtime bookconscious readers) recommended I read The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale after he and his sister (former Teen the Younger) gently disabused me of the idea that police are basically good, and there are just “bad apples.” They recognized that I was conditioned to this idea by our culture and my schooling. They, having been freed from “schooled” thought by their unschooling, had no such illusions. I can’t take credit; other than choosing to unschool them, I had little to do with the amazing humans they became.

Forgive me for digressing. I’ve got to say that if you don’t have any twenty-somethings or teens in your life you should seek their counsel online or via friends. While I have long thought of myself as social-justice oriented, I have learned more in the past few weeks from discussing current events with my young adult offspring than I did on my own for a few decades. Case in point, I had no idea police are not, in their mission or intent, “good.” To be clear I’m not talking about individuals. I still hold that there are good people who unwittingly enter into a career in the police force believing they will bring about good in their communities. I (and Vitale) am talking about the institution of policing, which, as part of our overall elitist capitalist society, serves mainly to enforce the norms of power and wealth at the expense of the poor, people of color, and those with disabilities.

If you are not shocked, or just disagree, with the idea that capitalism is hurting more people than it is helping, then you will at least be shocked by Vitale’s illuminating discussion of how police at best do a disservice to and at worst, outright exploit, the disabled, especially those with mental illness. I was shocked and sickened by two cases described in the chapter on political policing by people who are mentally disabled who were coerced by police into “terrorism plots” that were just meant to ensnare Muslims, who are now serving lengthy prison terms. In our names, as Americans.

Reading The End of Policing in the week leading up to the Poor People’s Campaign “digital assembly” this weekend helped me connect the dots between the social justice issues that have concerned me and policing. Vitale notes that if we actually invested the billions spent on police budgets (including military gear like tanks and grenade launchers that are used in communities’ and even schools’ police presences around the country) in the communities that allegedly need the most policing, many of the criminal and disruptive behaviors the police claim ti be solving would be eliminated. He cites evidence that where housing, education, health care, or other basic needs are met, policing is much less necessary.

And if we’re all equal, whether you come to that belief via the founding documents of our country or the sacred scriptures of any of the major world religions, shouldn’t we all have access to safe, clean, secure, affordable housing? Clean water? Nutritious and affordable food? A living wage and paid time off to care for sick family members or just recharge? Health care? Quality education? The right to vote? The right to peaceably protest? No matter our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, or any other identity? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Vitale points out that “Our entire criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory. Three-strike laws, sex-offender registries, the death penalty, and abolishing parole are about retribution, not safety.” That’s a lot to take in. But when you dive into these, it’s true. They don’t make us safer. They just make it harder for people to return to society, receive mental health care, and become healthy, functioning members of their communities. Vitale goes on to say “Real justice would look to restore people and communities, to rebuild trust and social cohesion, to offer people a way forward, to reduce the social forces that drive crime, and to treat both victims and perpetrators as full human beings.” Yes.

Another point Vitale makes better than I can paraphrase: “We don’t need empty police reforms; we need a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, nonpunitive solutions to their problems. . . . Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs . . . .”

Vitale traces the history of policing, and then breaks down its failures, mostly in the U.S. but also in some international contexts, broadly and in particular areas such as homelessness, the drug war, sex work, the school-to-prison pipeline, the border, gangs, and political policing. I sped through the final chapters after tuning into the Poor People’s Campaign for a few hours yesterday, and it really all clicks. Bringing about a more just, equitable society will secure our future, and the future of our children and grandchildren. Anything less will mire us in the kind of fear, mistrust, misinformation, economic inequality and political paralysis that we currently enjoy.

I highly recommend you read this, and also that you read with care the Poor People’s Campaign’s moral budget. Maybe tune into the rebroadcast of their digital assembly. Think about what you grew up learning about policing and whether it jives with what you know of the world as an adult. And listen to the young people in your life. I have no doubt they will lead us, out the mess we made for them.

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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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