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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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Several friends have recommended James Martin‘s Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and one of them lent me his copy, so I took it along last weekend when we moved the man formerly known on this blog as Teen the Elder (he’s now 24!) to grad school. I read it in an evening and a morning. It is very thoughtful and interesting and should provoke fruitful conversations for interested groups of readers.

Martin explains at the beginning that it’s an expanded form of a talk he gave at New Ways Ministry, “a group that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics.” There’s also a section of bible passages Martin has found especially relevant in his work on this topic, with reflection questions, and “A Prayer for When I Feel Rejected” which Martin wrote. Each section is interesting in its own way. The premise of the essay is found in the book’s subtitle — Martin calls on the church and the people in it, in particular the LGBT community and those who accompany them, to “enter into a relationship of respect, compassion and sensitivity.” The phrase comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church section on how Catholics should treat homosexuals, but the idea is to foster genuine mutual understanding.

It’s challenging to consider that Martin calls on LGBT people to treat the church the same way — some people would say that the church, as an institution, doesn’t deserve respect, compassion and sensitivity when it’s done so much psychological harm to LGBT people over the long term. Martin acknowledges this and suggests it’s still possible to build a bridge. He gives concrete examples, such as praying to see a person as God sees them when that person’s views or actions seem impossible to respect or feel compassionate towards. Martin also calls on church leaders to take a strong stand, through public statements as well as individual actions, against the mistreatment of LGBT people. He goes so far as to say this is a moral imperative, and he calls out by name the relatively few bishops who have spoken up in this way.

This brief book is sure to provoke both progressive and conservative people, but that’s the via media for you. Martin would have made a good Anglican. I like the metaphor of building a bridge and reminding people that reconciliation is a two way street. I found the bible study section, and the invitation to consider the scriptures through our imaginations in the Ignatian way, placing ourselves in the stories, very interesting. I hope this book makes a difference; I have my doubts that it will institutionally, but think it’s more likely to change hearts and minds on a person to person level.

 

 

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I’m working on two Book Bingo cards this summer, one from Concord Public Library and one from Regina Library. For “a book with a summer word in the title” on Regina’s card and “a book set in a country you’ve never been to” for Concord’s I read Finnish Summer Houses by Jari and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen. I’d listened to a 99% Invisible episode which introduced me to Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and then I looked in the catalog for a book with summer in the title and came across this gem, which seemed serendipitous since i had Finnish architecture on my mind. This book made me want to move to Finland and get a summer house. Which my offspring pointed out I probably can’t afford.

Anyway, fantasy aspect aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I read on my iPad. The design aesthetic of Finnish summer houses varies, but most in this book were meant to fit into their natural surroundings — lots of boulders, which are probably my favorite landscape feature, trees, lakes, coasts — which are pretty reminiscent of northern New England’s natural surroundings. So the houses are mostly simple and seamlessly relate to the land. And they are very practical, meant to be low maintenance places where a family can relax and enjoy themselves and enjoy nature. Lots of wood and windows, utilitarian kitchens, and built-in or built to fit furniture.

Several people I know whose reading tastes I admire have recommended another Scandinavian book, A Man Called Ove by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. I read My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Brit Marie Was Here back in March but Ove scared me because I knew it dealt with the main character’s suicidal thoughts. I needn’t have worried — it’s as charming, funny, and humane as Backman’s other books. Ove is a classic grumpy old man, tired of missing his wife, whose been dead six months. He decides he wants to die, but he keeps getting interrupted by various goings on in his neighborhood, where he’s lived for forty years. His neighbors all think he’s angry and unapproachable but as the book progresses readers come to know that under that exterior, Ove is kind, loyal, hard working, honest, and dependable. He cares about other people far more than he lets on, and he may use politically incorrect language  (he refers to a gay character as “bent” ) but he is tolerant and caring — he takes that same young man in when he has nowhere to go after coming out, and Ove convinces the young man’s father to talk to him later.

It may seem a little bit tired, the curmudgeon who is really a good guy underneath the gruff exterior, but Backman makes this archetype fresh and he works in social commentary in a way that pleases this Jane Austen fan. A Man Called Over is a brief book but it addresses masculine stereotypes and manliness, the lack of practical knowledge in today’s society (fixing a bike, making things, repairing an engine, etc.), immigration, social services bureaucracy, globalisation, aging and elder care, “problem” children in schools, and NIMBY-ism and gentrification, to name a few. Plus his main characters are just interesting. Parvaneh, one of Ove’s new neighbors, is someone I’d like to be friends with. Actually I’d like to live in their neighborhood. And, Ove takes in a half-frozen at missing a good bit of fur. Anyone who (however grumpily) adopts a needy cat is ok by me, even if he’s fictional.

A good read, probably just the thing if you can’t bear to look at any more news. it’s definitely the kind of book I’d take on vacation.

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

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I’m over halfway through my 7 week class. It’s been hard to read much. In fact, the only things I’ve read are my textbook (which I don’t care for) and some things for work. One of which is Callings, a StoryCorps collection about work. We’re considering it at my university as a common read for the freshmen. Other than the subtitle, which includes the word “passion” (I told my freshman student success class that I think “follow your passion” is crummy advice), I enjoyed it. Like other StoryCorps books, it’s a collection culled from the interviews people submit.

There are actually several examples in the book that fit the advice I prefer over “follow your passion” — follow opportunity and try to be happy where you are. A number of people interviewed discovered things about themselves by taking jobs they needed but didn’t necessarily want. Or their career took a turn in a direction they never expected and that became their life’s work.

An example I really loved was Rev. Eric D. Williams of Kansas City, Missouri. He talks about being asked to hold a funeral for young man who died of AIDS, because his own church wouldn’t have it. Rev. Williams didn’t want to either but he listened to his heart, which was telling him that being rejected by your church when your kid has died is wrong, and he needed to help. After that he realized his community wasn’t talking about AIDS, and that he could educate people about it, to help end the fear and prejudice.

What he said that really got me was this: “I came into this work kicking and screaming. I just didn’t want to do it. But my heart was pulled. Everything good that I’ve been able to accomplish in ministry, has started with some kind of burden, and AIDS burdened me.” I find that really interesting. I’m not even sure what to make of it. Burden as a breakthrough . . .  I really want to ponder that.

What Rev. Williams, and many other people featured in Callings, did was ask themselves questions about their life and the world and the work at hand, and take action for themselves as they answered those questions. The other book I recently read (albeit very quickly; I hope to go back and spend more time with it when I can), was Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions  by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Over on Nocturnal Librarian I blogged about coming across the work of the Right Question Institute in an interview about the Question Formulation Technique and librarianship. I decided to read Make Just One Change so I could try QFT. It’s a good guide to the technique and has helpful examples of real life applications. But I wasn’t sure when I’d try it.

Well this week, I used QFT with my Student Success class. This is a one credit year-long course all freshmen at my university take, and I’m teaching a section of it this semester. We’ve had a few weeks to explore the idea of vocation — not an easy concept for anyone, let alone 18 year olds, to wrap their heads around. After a week where there wasn’t much discussion and a fair number of bored looks, I decided to shake things up a bit. I asked them to read the rules of the QFT (Ask as many questions as you can; Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions; Write down every question exactly as it is stated; Change any statement into a question) and then come up with questions using this question focus: 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(No, I haven’t yet read Let Your Life Speak but I’ve read excerpts)

Once they had questions, they looked at which were open and which were closed (could be answered with yes, no, or another one word reply). They practiced changing questions from one kind to the other, and thought about what the pros and cons of each kind of question are. Then they prioritized three of the questions they chose and wrote down why those were their priority, and thought about how they might use those questions. Finally, they reflected on what they had learned about asking questions, what they had learned about the question focus, and what they would do with what they learned.

It was fabulous. I had split them into groups of three, and each group came up and talked about their question creation and analysis, and I could not have been happier. When I handed out the papers, one of my peer mentors had already said she didn’t get it and didn’t think they would, and I had enjoyed (not really) a moment of panic that the whole plan was going to flop miserably. But they got into it — conversation was livelier than it had been in weeks. And, they came up with some really good questions, like “How will I know if my life is speaking?” and even “What is life?” and they had amazing ideas about how to use what they learned, from asking questions in order to study for hard exams (many in my class are nursing students) or using the questioning method we had explored to look hard at issues in the world around them.

If you’re an educator or leader of any small group, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Of course this means I need to come up with something really good for our next class, which is also our last. We’re talking about service, and I have a surprise field trip planned, so there isn’t going to be time for a full QFT, but I will remind them to use what they learned as they write a reflection.

This weekend I have to read a pre-pub novel for Kirkus, but I hope to be back to pleasure reading very soon. Only three more weeks of adolescent development class!

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