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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

Sometime in the summer of 2019 I was in our local bookstore (where I used to work) and chatted with one of the staff who said she had been trying to get advanced reader copies of books into the hands of customers, to help find good reads and talk them up. She let me look through a pile. I grabbed Walking to Jerusalem by Justin Butcher. By the time the pandemic hit 6-7 months later, I hadn’t read it yet, and picked it up. I quickly decided my dad might like it (he recently celebrated walking the equivalent of twice around the earth) so I sent it to him. A few weeks ago he sent it back as he is weeding his collection. I picked it up again and am very glad I did.

Yes, it’s a book about a very long walk, from London to Jerusalem across 11 countries over several months in 2017, but mainly it’s a book about why the walkers did this. The event was called the Just Walk, and as Butcher explains early in the book, it was conceived as a way to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was a statement made by the government of Great Britain in 1917 that paved the way for the modern State of Israel. After outlining briefly the political reasons for the statement, Butcher notes that it was also inspired by antisemitism — there were plenty of British leaders (and ordinary people) who felt Jews couldn’t assimilate into English life and so the idea of a Jewish nation appealed to those who wanted Jews to leave England. And although the Balfour Declaration did state that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” the British government’s subsequent actions were more concerned with establishing a Jewish state than with protecting the rights of the majority Palestinian population.

Along with describing what it’s like to travel on foot, Butcher provides colorful commentary about the places the walkers passed through — in particular he writes about many sites that have welcomed pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land for centuries, as the group stops in those places. As he walked he used the voice recorder on his phone as well as journaling, so there are passages where he quotes some of the local guides at length. It’s all very interesting. Their Albanian host, for example, talks not only about the way Albania protected Jews during WWII but also about the economic collapse in the post-communist era caused by a government bond scheme fraught with corruption that bankrupted people and caused a violent uprising. I didn’t know anything about that, even though it happened only a couple of decades ago.

And Butcher describes the landscape near Kryezi, Albania: “The little grove surrounding the farmstead is a Tolkienesque glade of fabulously gnarled, ancient, twisted trunks of olive trees, with huge distended girth like baobabs, sprawling and stretching over the shelves of the hillside . . . . Between the vegetation, where the mountain slopes are too steep for any cultivation, there are great pale escarpments, riddled and marbled with fantastical swirling rock formations.”

Still, the most compelling thing about Walking to Jerusalem is the stories of the many Palestinians Butcher and the others meet or knew before the trip, people whose entire lives for generations have been impacted by displacement, occupation, intimidation, and violence. There are stories of so many individuals and groups in the Holy Land trying to bring people from Israeli and Palestinian communities together. So many acts of nonviolent resistance. So many stories of illegal settlement, of Israeli police and military ignoring the systemic abuse of Palestinians by militant settlers, of houses demolished, farmland encroached upon, collective punishment. I’m not going to quote one or two, because I think the cumulative effect is what is so powerful in this book.

Walking to Jerusalem is a moving read. It’s not any better in the Occupied Territory since the Just Walk — Butcher actually writes that things are worse by the time he is finishing the book. But the Palestinians he meets tell him again and again that what he can do for them is tell their stories. Let the world know that they are people trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of systemic injustice. It’s indifference that allows oppression to continue. I’m grateful for the people who did the Just Walk and all the organizations around the world and in the U.S. who are working to end both indifference and oppression.

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I have read a number of books about equity over the past several years. I’ve also heard various books recommended or critiqued by people learning to be antiracist. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee is unique in that every person who has told me about this book had not only highly recommended it, but had different reasons for raving. For nerds, there is data. For organizers, there are examples of what’s worked. For those new to this work, it’s clear. For those feeling frustrated by racism and greed, there is encouragement. It’s a hopeful book, because McGhee has the clarity and depth of knowledge not only of the intricacies of our racial inequity in America but also of the ways even the most intransigent issues can be overcome. Her life’s work has been analyzing inequity and advocating for policy changes. What strikes me is that she has incredible empathy and listens deeply, because she tells story after story of people being incredibly honest with her about their views.

The main point of The Sum of Us is that the zero sum narrative we’ve all been told — that if any group of people receives some benefit, such as affirmative action, higher pay, universal health care, etc. — others will lose is both false and is at its core, a racist lie. In example after example, relating to jobs, health, housing, environmental safety, financial security, education, neighborhood vibrancy, and more, McGhee cites research and real life example of how multiracial coalitions working for antiracist solutions can win better lives for everyone. McGhee calls this these societal benefits the “solidarity dividend.”

The ways racism is upheld in our laws and policies, the brokenness of American democracy, the damage dealt to most of us by unbridled capitalism, are problems so huge and seemingly intractable. One reason this book is so compelling is that although McGhee presents each issue as part of these systemic, interlocking inequities that seems hopeless, she moves on to stories of actual people who have come together to work for a better world, and have succeeded. They have made their communities better, for example, by breaking down segregation and getting to know each other, or by bringing about changes like succeeding in winning a higher minimum wage, holding a polluting factory’s owners accountable, or successfully lobbying for laws ensuring paid time off or other worker protections.

McGhee connects the dots between the vastness of what faces us and the need to work together: “The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on her own.” A few pages later she notes, “. . . we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.” McGhee’s infectious optimism, backed by studies and examples, makes it plausible to believe what she says is possible:

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

The Sum of Us is a kind of civic liberation theology for our time. Add me to the people raving about this book. And re-energized by it to keep on keeping on with the work of making progress for all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Dad sent me Max Perkins: Editor of Genius because he enjoyed it so much. It was made into a film several years ago, but apparently the book was published in the 1970s, and grew out of A. Scott Berg’s college thesis. The author went on to write several other biographies over his career. The book is interesting and fit into the time period of several other books I’ve read recently.

If you haven’t seen the film or don’t know about Max Perkins, he was an editor at Scribner’s and he discovered, mentored and published F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and many other authors in the early-mid 20th century. The book describes his methods (he encouraged, cajoled, instructed, and even gave ideas to his authors) and quirks (worked at a standing desk before they were a thing, wore a hat all the time, doodled Napoleon during meetings, etc.). He lent Fitzgerald money, was a father figure to Wolfe and really constructed his novels out of thousands of pages of raw material, and vacationed with Hemingway. He was quite a character, and certainly had a genius for spotting and nurturing literary talent.

That said it was hard to read this as I was at the same time facilitating a conversation about Stephanie Spellers’ The Church Cracked Open, which addresses, among other things, white dominant culture. There were SO MANY incredibly talented Black authors working at the time Max Perkins was in publishing — off the top of my head, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and I am sure there are more I am not thinking of. Either Perkins and Scribner’s didn’t publish anyone who was Black or Berg doesn’t mention them. Either way it seemed like a strange omission.

Still, I’m weeding at work and I’m in the literature section; this book reminded me of some Pulitzer and National Book Award winners that I retained in the collection.

I went on an unexpected trip to see my mother who needed some help last week, and on the way out the door I downloaded a couple of library eBooks. On the first day/evening I read Kevin Wilson‘s Nothing to See Here, and it was perfect for the stress of travel and uncertainty of caregiving. It’s a funny, moving, razor sharp novel of manners. Lillian, former “underprivileged” scholarship kid at an elite girls’ boarding school, has never quite gotten her life together after taking the fall in her freshman year for her roommate and best friend, Madison, and being expelled. As the book opens Lillian gets a letter from Madison (it’s pre-text messaging time) inviting her to her rural Tennessee mansion, where she lives with her Senator husband and beautiful little son. Madison says she has a job for Lillian.

It turns out the Senator has two children from a former marriage, Bessie and Roland, who self-combust whenever they are agitated, as young children often are. Madison wants Lillian to be their “governess” — to keep them safe and out of the public eye. I feel like Jane Austen would adore this book. Lillian had less than stellar parenting from her own mother and is pretty dubious about her ability to do this, but she has nothing else to do. The rest of the novel tells the story of what happens when Lillian gets to know Bessie and Roland.

Wilson does a beautiful job of showing how Madison and Lillian are alike despite the cavernous economic and social gulf between them, and why they became best friends at school. HIs trenchant descriptions of Madison’s and her powerful husband’s class — rich, entitled, influential southerners — made me both angry and amused. But he manages to make Madison understandable, if not entirely likeable. Lillian explains, “It was so nice to hear her voice, to hear her voice and listen to her talk about what she wanted. I never quite knew what I wanted, the letters I sent her so wishy-washy and pained. Madison, she fucking wanted stuff. And when she talked or wrote about it, with that intensity, you wanted to give it to her. You wanted her to have it.”

And yet, this is a lovely book, terrific escapist reading but also thought provoking. I loved the little details of Lillian’s and Madison’s lives that Wilson shares — their mutual love of basketball, the stuntman gel and fireproof long underwear that the Senator’s body man Carl thinks Lillian can use to keep the children safe. I think it would be a wonderful book club choice, and also fun and interesting vacation reading.

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I’ve had The Murrow Boys for years; I read (and blogged about) Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London in 2010(!) and gave that book to others as a gift that year. My dad liked it so much he read Olson’s other books and he sent me The Murrow Boys at one point when he was done with it. I had it on a shelf, and then recently when I read a Maisie Dobbs book that featured a character who wanted to become one of Murrow’s “Boys” I remembered it and decided to pick it back up. Both Olson and her husband and co-author Stanley Cloud were journalists themselves.

I enjoyed this detailed history of Murrow and his “band of brothers.” It provides their stories and the story of early news reporting. I didn’t really realize that prior to Murrow’s work, radio news was just someone reading bulletins. Murrow pioneered the idea of reporters providing context either through the details and observations his team became known for that made the Blitz come to life over the radio in millions of American homes, or through analysis.

As interesting as the stories of these reporters and their adventures are, the book opens with a scene at Eric Sevareid’s memorial service in 1992, where one of the other Murrow Boys, Larry LeSueur, was more or less ignored and the celebrity journalists of the day pontificated without really honoring Sevareid’s contributions. The book ends on that same note. The trajectory from the rise of intelligent, carefully reported and deeply considered news presented by people who had a good deal of knowledge and understanding of the topics they covered to the media landscape of the mid-1990s when The Murrow Boys was written is sad.

Early on, Murrow clashed with the people at CBS who wanted “objectivity” over analysis. Olson and Cloud note that there is a difference between what Murrow noted CBS’s Ed Klauber brought to newsroom ethics — “standards of integrity, responsibility, and restraint” — and thinly veiled control by management and sponsors over what reporters can say and how far they can go in calling out propaganda and untruth. Murrow and his Boys struggled against both wartime censorship and the meddling of CBS’s ownership and commercial sponsors. Later in the television era, they struggled against the network’s pursuit of profit as well.

And really nothing has changed today. I was just reading yesterday about Walter E. Hussman, a newspaper publisher who has given millions to University of North Carolina, derailing UNC’s tenure process for Nikole Hannah-Jones. He apparently believes that he has more of a right to define “impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking” than someone whose Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project threatens the white dominant narrative of America’s origin story. In her excellent piece in the Charlotte Observer, Paige Masten, a recent UNC graduate, points out, “. . . this debate isn’t a question of whether we should continue to do our due diligence and thoroughly investigate both sides. It’s about whether we should give both sides equal weight when the facts clearly favor one side over the other.”

Murrow and the Boys made that argument when they were told to stop reporting on the rise of the Nazis, and later, when they were pressured not to question Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunting. They were told that they had to be “objective” in reporting about these things — but what that meant, in fact, was that they were expected to refrain from saying that they were wrong. Did that serve the public good? No. And they struggled against it, working to get their analysis — which was always based in a clear understanding of the facts — across anyway.

Today I read a column, “Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts,”* and this stood out to me: “Neutrality provides a way to stay silent and observe injustices instead of commenting or acting and making that silence seem to be a moral triumph instead of a moral failing.” What the owners of CBS wanted in Murrow’s time and what Hussman wants now, is to make staying silent on injustice in the name of “neutrality” into a noble act. When the truths the media expose, both in reporting and commentary or analysis, challenges what the powerful or dominant say is the truth, it inevitably leads those who identify with the powerful and dominant to cry “bias.” What they are really saying is that they want reporters to be more like the early pre-Murrow news broadcasters on radio who just read a list of what happened.

Or the TV news producers that the last of the Murrow boys watched turn news broadcasts into entertainment. As Olson and Cloud note, on commercial stations (rather than public television and radio) “broadcast news seemed to have little interest in helping viewers and listeners make sense of bits and pieces of information it put on the air, providing illumination and context.” And our media landscape today, twenty-five years after The Murrow Boys was published, is rife with misinformation and edutainment, punditry that is simply about repeating the ideological stance of powerful sponsors and owners, and a steady barrage of fear mongering.

At least it’s nothing new. My dad always says that reading history, he is somewhat comforted that we’ve been through all the things we’re experiencing before, and that while things do get bad, they sometimes also get better. I hope that’s the case. The Murrow Boys is a good read, and important one, that doesn’t spare Murrow or his Boys from critique, but also shines a clear light on the dangers of putting profit and power ahead of truth.

  • Bussmann, J., Altamirano, I., Hansen, S., Johnson, N., & Keer, G. (2020). Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, (95). https://doi.org/10.29173/istl2570

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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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Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil is another pick of the ACRL Science and Technology librarians. I started it as a library eBook and then Klara and the Sun was ready in my eBook holds so I set it aside. I got a chance to finish it this morning. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about algorithms would be, but it turns out, the answer is very.

O’Neil‘s own story is also interesting. She started as a mathematician in academia, went to work at a hedge fund, and had an epiphany there that math in the wrong hands could be used for bad. Since then, her bio on her blog notes, “She hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?”

Weapons of Math Destruction is one answer; those who read it will be better informed and have the potential to advocate for a better world. O’Neil explains, “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics,” and then lays out how they can become WMDs: they “encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” In addition, they can’t make exceptions, and, O’Neil notes, “often punish individuals who happen to be the exception.”

Then she goes through any number of systems where WMDs are functioning: college admissions, predatory recruiting in the for-profit college industry, online advertising, the justice system, employment (hiring, scheduling, health monitoring), credit, insurance, social services, and of course, elections. She touches, along the way, on Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their use of algorithms to control what news and information we see and through that, influence our decisions. It’s a tough book. Even if, like me, you enjoy a fair bit of privilege, you are probably being impacted in some way by these WMDs. And we all are impacted when the most vulnerable are made more so by these out of control tools. They touch nearly everyone in America.

O’Neil does make recommendations about how algorithms can be improved and companies who deploy them can be held accountable. She recommends reversing much of what makes an algorithm a WMD — make the models and algorithms transparent; notify people and let them appeal or dispute decisions and information produced by algorithms; make things that are considered unethical or illegal in real life also unethical or illegal online, where so much WMD work happens, test algorithms’ results for bias, prejudice, and unintended consequences. She also advocates for revealing “snake oil” math that isn’t really solving anything, but just enables companies to spy on employees and/or make more money (see: workplace wellness programs, which the Computer Scientist has called bullshit on for years). Oh, and do away with the electoral college.

Most of what worries me about Weapons of Math Destruction is that these WMDs exist because our society prioritizes profits over people, and those being hurt most by them are not the powerful/not reaping the profits so there is little incentive for change. And I wonder if O’Neil is (touchingly) optimistic about regulation. She says “the job of algorithmic accountability should start with the companies that develop and deploy the algorithms. They should accept responsibility for their influence and develop evidence that what they’re doing isn’t causing harm, just as chemical companies need to provide evidence that they are not destroying the rivers and watersheds around them.”

As the new Guardian and Consumer Reports study of drinking water just revealed, that’s not actually going so well. I live in a state where there is PFAS in drinking water because chemical companies did not provide evidence and the EPA allowed them to get away with not revealing the harm they were doing. The drinking water study illuminates how regulatory agencies themselves are designed to protect profit making companies and the bottom lines of municipalities, not people’s well being. So I can’t say I have a ton of confidence that regulating algorithmic accountability will work, at least not as long as we continue to allow our wealthy corporations/people (one and the same in the USA, don’t you know) to purchase political influence, and continue to allow a revolving door between industry and government agencies.

As for O’Neil’s suggestion that context can solve many of the issues surrounding WMDs — I was fortunate to hear Ruha Benjamin give an online presentation in February about her work at the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, which is focused on just that solution. O’Neil and Benjamin both advocate for including input from people (actual human people, not corporation people) and communities impacted by the use and misuse of data as part of the solution. That makes sense; however, see my previous concerns. What incentive is there for the Googles, Facebooks, banks and insurance companies, etc. to listen?

A very clear, challenging read. I’m going to have to think about what I learned and what to do with it.

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First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

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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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