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Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

I admitted to some well read friends recently that I have never read Louise Erdrich before. What? Well. Now I have. The Sentence is a hoot. It’s also a love story — about a man and a woman, about families, about indy bookstores and their loyal customers, about community. It’s also a tribute to all the people who’ve ever worked for a better world, especially the American Indian Movement and the George Floyd protestors, but also just folks who make their loved ones special food when they’re down, or who recommends something good to read, or hold up an ipad so loved ones can visit with the hospitalized. I loved it.

The main character, Tookie, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a very strange crime involving a dead body and unrequited love. Her lawyer recognizes she had no idea of the fact that there were drugs planted on the body, and even though the judge (in Erdrich’s brief but searing critique of our justice system) is merciless, the lawyer works tirelessly to get her sentence commuted. When she gets out, she marries the guy who arrested her, her childhood friend, Pollux. In November 2019, Tookie is working in Birchbark Books (Louise Erdrich’s real bookstore; she even writes herself into the story), when one of their regular customers, Flora, dies and starts haunting the bookstore, especially when Tookie is there. The rest of the book follows the events from that fall to the next – including the beginning of the pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and the Black Lives Matter protests – and how Tookie manages it all — the haunting, lockdown, essential worker status, Pollux’s daughter moving in with them with her new baby.

In the book as in real life, Birchbark’s “staff is of either Native background, or exceedingly Native-friendly” (from the store’s website). They’re also a real community, and several of them help Tookie figure out what’s going with Flora. The sentence of the title is a clue — she died reading a rare journal entitled The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1888. Tookie comes to believe the very sentence she was reading as she died has something to do with her death. Then there is Tookie’s sentence, which changed the trajectory of her life and of a few others’. Reading it now, a couple of years after George Floyd’s death — a man who like other BIPOC people in America was sentenced to living in a racist country — and also the decisions early in the pandemic which sentenced millions of Americans to die unnecessarily of COVID; I can see this novel is also about those sentences.

Tookie is not an optimistic or sunny person; she is a survivor of many traumas. She says about herself fairly early in the book:

“I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they cannot afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.”

What matters? In Tookie’s world, it’s love, it’s family and community, it’s certain customers, it’s the way her grandson jarvis at three weeks old, “saw that what was left of my heart was good and loving.” It may be many other things. Truth, and freedom, and ancestry, and respect and honor. This book, and many others, does contain those things, though. So I am not sure what Tookie means. Unless it is that everyone comes to their own conclusions about what matters. But she herself says that books have helped her with that, so it’s a mysterious statement.

The Sentence is a terrific book, a quick but deep, thoughtful, and actually very funny read. And, as a bonus, it contains a whole lot of recommendations from indie booksellers about what else to read.

I also finished reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, for a book discussion at church. It’s the story of a visit Tutu made in 2015 to Dharamsala for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. He had invited the Dalai Lama to South Africa for his own 80th, but the government there, to please China, denied the Dalai Lama a visa.

Abrams and the two holy men’s teams arranged to film the visit and to produce this book as well as a film. It was not just a social call, even though the two men love each other and delight in each other’s friendship. They were working towards producing a legacy, something the world could use long after they have each passed away to apply their teachings about joy — what it is, what gets in its way, how we can nurture it, and why practices meant to increase our own joy can also leave the world better than we found it.

One of the remarkable things is that exile from one’s country and political repression are not obstacles to joy. Neither is such suffering redemptive, in their minds — it is instructive, it teaches us to find compassion for ourselves and others experiencing similar suffering. These two wise elders make note that joy is a reservoir to draw on, that we can tap by connecting with the “pillars” of joy: shifting our perspective, thinking less of ourselves and focusing on others, having a sense of humor, accepting reality in this moment (again not to give up on change, but to recognize the present is what it is), forgiving, being grateful, being generous, and nurturing the compassion that we are all born feeling for others.

None of this is rocket science and if you’ve studied mindfulness it may not be new, but the joy of these two men, as they joke and share and answer questions, makes this book unique. You don’t have to be religious to find it interesting; the Dalai Lama in fact says that after 3000 years of trying to teach people to be compassionate through religion maybe it’s time to try something else (he proposes education). And their teachings are especially poignant now, as we are experiencing a spring COVID surge and both the number of deaths from COVID and from guns in our country — all entirely preventable — is overwhelming.

This book isn’t about turning away from sorrow and suffering, or tuning them out to focus on joy. Abrams explains as they are getting ready to leave, “. . . the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more — incredibly — we are able to bear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This was their true secret to joy.”

A hopeful read, and there are detailed guides to practicing each of the pillars I mentioned. In the past twenty four hours I found the teaching about tonglen — giving compassion and taking suffering — useful although I need a lot of practice.

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I heard about Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Dr. Suzanne Simard in April when folks from different parts of my life recommended it within a short time. I always take that as a sign I should read something, when I get multiple recommendations! I’d heard that Richard Powers based his tree scientist character in The Overstory on Simard and her work, and that intrigued me as well. Simard is a forest ecology professor at University of British Columbia, and she is a world renowned researcher, as described on her website:

“Suzanne is known for her work on how trees interact and communicate using below-ground fungal networks, which has led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or Mother Trees, which are large, highly connected trees that play an important role in the flow of information and resources in a forest. Her current research investigates how these complex relationships contribute to forest resiliency, adaptability and recovery and has far-reaching implications for how to manage and heal forests from human impacts, including climate change.”

What I enjoyed about Finding the Mother Tree is that Simard doesn’t dumb down the science — there are what seem to me to be fairly detailed explanations of the discoveries she made and the experimental designs she devised to carry out that work. At the same time, she also tells stories, about her family’s history as small scale loggers, about growing up loving the forests and mountains of Western Canada and exploring them with her siblings, parents, and grandparents, about working in the forest service and realizing that what was happening — clear cuts and then monoculture plantings — was not beneficial either to the forest or to the timber industry, and about the coworkers and mentors who encouraged her to follow her instincts, learn to be a scientist, and conduct her research.

Many of the stories are about the disrespect and misogyny Simard experienced, as Powers depicts in his novel. Simard described these parts of her life without bitterness; if anything she’s a bit hard on herself for not speaking up more firmly. Considering the imbalance of power, it’s understandable, and her work speaks for itself. Despite people reviewing her already peer-reviewed work and sniping at her rather ungraciously because what she proposed was mind boggling and also a threat to the establishment, her research has not only held up but become more and more widely accepted. And she also writes about the many people, in the timber industry as well as in forest ecology and just the general public, who have thanked her and appreciated her work as well.

Simard really captures the excitement, as well as the hard work, of doing science. She also captures the challenges of trying to lead the life of a researcher and professor and still be the mother she wants to be to her daughters. She writes with great vulnerability about the pain of strained relationships and the struggle to manage the many aspects of her life, to be whole. And about what it was like to undergo treatment for cancer at the height of her career as well as at a formative time in her daughters’ lives.

Like many of the other books about ecology I’ve enjoyed (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Braiding Sweetgrass, The Hidden Life of Trees, to name a few), it’s SImard’s philosophy that really drew me in and that makes this book, in my view, a crucial addition to the popular science literature of our time. She writes:

“It is a philosophy of treating the world’s creatures, its gifts, as of equal importance to us. This begins by recognizing that trees and plants have agency . . . . By noting how trees, animals, and even fungi — any and all nonhuman species — have this agency, we can acknowledge that they deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves.”

Simard doesn’t say we shouldn’t farm, fish, or use wood products; she is calling for us to shift our mindset from one of seeing the world’s resources “as objects for exploitation” to seeing those resources in terms of “taking only what gifts we need, and giving back.” This more sustainable way of seeing nature, “Of showing humility toward and tolerance for all we are connected to” is similar to what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in Braiding Sweetgrass, and to what Ellen Davies suggests in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is at the root of both Hebrew scripture’s teachings about land stewardship and agrarian literature. Gratitude, humility, a willingness to share, and a sense of wonder and responsibility towards all of creation, are found in many cultures and traditions, and are key to caring for humankind as well. That Simard brings these sensibilities to forest science is a real gift to the world.

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Just a little light reading about climate change and racism, right? Actually, here’s the thing: you can become better informed and learn about being a better human without feeling badly. In fact, feeling guilty or ashamed, according to social science research, can actually prevent people from making progress. So yes, you can read and even enjoy reading books that explain where humans have gone wrong on things like treating our planet and each other well, and help readers learn what to do to be part of the solution.

Next week, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action is discussing Saving Us: a Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing by the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Katharine Hayhoe. When I was working on open educational resources advocacy in my previous job, I often joked that I could talk about OER with anyone, anytime. That is Hayhoe’s approach to climate change conversations, and this book is her manual for anyone who wants to get better at this. You might be thinking, why does it matter if we talk about it? Isn’t it too late? Or as the former teen the younger said to me the other day “people have been getting ready to talk about climate change my whole life.”

Again, turning to social science research, it turns out that what we tend to do when there is a huge, seemingly intractable problem is feel powerless, which causes us to withdraw from the issue. Talking with others helps us feel less overwhelmed and better able to contribute to solutions (the fancy term: we increase our sense of efficacy). I wrote about this for my science communication master’s dissertation as I was researching how to best to support the rollout of a household carbon footprint tracker. Quick aside: while households alone can’t cut enough carbon to stop climate change, we can, if enough of us pay attention to reducing our use of fossil fuels, make a significant dent in the U.S. output — five household activities (electricity use, home heating, transportation, food, and waste (yes, trash)) in the U.S. actually make up around 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions for our country. But even better, research shows that learning about your own carbon footprint and working to reduce it can make you more likely to advocate for the systemic, societal changes we need to really mitigate the impacts of climate change and have a more sustainable future for the planet.

What does all this have to do with talking about climate change? EcoAmerica has found that 45% of Americans are “very concerned” about climate change . . . and that jumps to 75% if you include people who identify as at least somewhat concerned. But only 14% of us think other people are “very concerned.” So we currently have a perception gap that keeps us from reaching out to others, sharing solutions, or talking about how important it is to us. If we can bridge that gap, it’s more likely we’ll come together in our communities, and beyond, to work towards sustainable actions.

Hayhoe provides some great examples. First, a man in England showed her a list that has grown to twelve thousand people at the time she wrote the book, all folks who joined conversations about climate change that he started having after he saw Hayhoe’s TED talk about the importance of talking about this. That’s twelve thousand people who starting thinking about what they could do to help. And, the borough where he lives declared a climate emergency and committed to funding a sustainability effort, as a result. All because he listed to her advice to talk with people.

Another example is “solar contagion” — research that confirms what you may have noticed, that once a homeowner installs solar panels, neighbors often do, too. Not because people like to be like others (although we do) but because it becomes easier, once you can stop and ask, “Who did you hire? How’s that going? What do you recommend?” Hayhoe noticed people were intrigued by her plug in electric car when she got it. Seeing someone in your immediate sphere do something you couldn’t imagine doing makes it imaginable.

Saving Us is full of examples like this, plus all the details about climate science, social science research, expert advice, and data to help equip a budding climate communicator. But even better, it’s full of Hayhoe’s practical, open-hearted, very relatable anecdotes about her own conversations. She shares the actions she’s taken in her own life, modeling the idea that by sharing, she can help readers take actions too. And it works. I hadn’t gotten around to figuring out a worthwhile way to offset the impact of flying; I took Hayhoe’s suggestion and gave to Climate Stewards to offset a recent flight to see my dad.

Finally, the book ends with a nice summary of how to apply what you’ve learned from reading Saving Us, summarized in Hayhoe’s “secret formula” for climate communication:

“I have good news. There is a way to talk about climate change that works. You don’t need a PhD in climate science. You don’t need a bulletproof vest. And you don’t need antidepressants, either. In fact, chances are you’ll know more afterward than you did before; you’ll have a better understanding of the person or people you’re talking to than you did earlier; and you’ll be encouraged rather than discouraged by your conversation. So what is this secret formula? It’s this:

bond, connect, inspire.”

She suggests ways to open a conversation, and how to ask questions to learn more about what folks care about or are interested in, notice where you can find common ground and shared values, and talk about what you’re doing and learning and are excited about. Throughout the book, right up to the end, Hayhoe doesn’t sugarcoat our situation or gloss over how serious climate change is, but she makes it clear that ordinary people are not alone but instead are working alongside millions of other folks around the world who also want to make sure we have a more sustainable future. It’s a helpful read, and I really can’t recommend it enough, for everyone!

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed was on a lot of best books of 2021 lists. My Me and White Supremacy alumni group decided to read it before our June meeting so we can understand the holiday better. Gordon-Reed is a historian, and her book reminded me that reading history doesn’t have to be dry and dull. On Juneteenth weaves together historical and cultural information about Texas and its people, especially people of color, and Gordon-Reed’s family history and her own experiences growing up in East Texas. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, history, and social commentary that is illuminating and thoughtful.

If you think you know about the Alamo, about Texas history or about America’s war with Mexico, even about western movies and Giant in particular, this book will likely open your eyes to how these topics are skimmed in school textbooks and have been told mainly from the point of view of white people. Gordon-Reed is very generous in her critique of this, but sets the record straight. As she explains:

“About the difficulties of Texas: Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affections. In truth, it often requires the opposite. We can’t be of real service to the hopes we have for places — and people, ourselves included — without a clear-eyed assessment of their (and our) strengths and weaknesses. That often demands a willingness to be critical, sometimes deeply so. How that is done matters, of course. Striking the right balance can be exceedingly hard.”

Gordon-Reed does it very well. This book is so much more than a cogent explanation of the significance of Juneteenth. It is a snapshot of what it is to think deeply about history and one’s place in it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and also highly recommend it.

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This is another book I downloaded from the library for my trip — Sanctuary: The True Story of an Irish Village, a Man Who Lost His Way, and the Rescue Donkeys That Led Him Home by Patrick Barrett (the man in the title) and Susan Flory (the writer who helped him tell his story). It’s not my usual fare, but I thought it would be a sweet travel book. As it turns out, I started it after I got back and as Holy Week began, with Palm Sunday commemorating Jesus riding into Jerusalem . . . on a donkey. So it was timely. Also, Barrett credits faith with saving his life (along with love and donkeys), so it turned out to be a pretty good choice for this week.

The book is a memoir, but Barrett also shares a good deal of information about donkeys. His parents founded The Donkey Sanctuary of Ireland, and Barrett grew up with donkeys. I had no idea that donkeys are as expressive as cartoons make them out to be: “When donkeys feel comfortable and safe with you, they’ll show you a thousand different facial expressions, but you have to watch closely because they come and go incredibly fast.” That’s just one of the fascinating facts I learned from this book. I kind of want to visit with some donkeys . . . .

As a child, Barrett also experienced difficulty learning (due to likely dyslexia and a condition that caused him to feel extreme empathy, taking on others’ feelings) and traumatic beatings in school. He started drinking at a young age and in his late teens joined the army and was deployed to Lebanon and to Kosovo with UN peacekeeping missions, where he experienced more trauma. And the “losing his way” in the subtitle really was the result of PTSD.

But, despite these difficult sections of the book, Barrett’s story is one of resilience, family and faith. The love of his parents and sisters, friends, children, and eventually, his “anam cara” or soulmate, Eileen, help him to survive and thrive. And even at his lowest points, Barrett still prays. He credits a nun who ran a “personal development course” for people interested in becoming counselors with really setting him on a new path with “new eyes” for himself and for the world. When he was about to quit, she brought his group together around him, and spoke “words of truth and goodness and love.” When it was over, Barrett could only say, “Marie, I’m cracked.” She told him “Those cracks can let the light in.”

Ok, maybe Leonard Cohen said it first, but it’s a powerful moment in Barrett’s life, and what makes this memoir interesting in addition to the donkeys is that he really shares moments of vulnerability quite vividly. Flory brings his story to life, but you get the feeling that it’s Barrett’s voice coming through, because he seems to be sharing his truth pretty openly. That might not be to everyone’s taste but right about now, I think we need more honesty, vulnerability, and faith. Whether your faith is in God, four legged creatures, or humanity (or a combination of these), you’ll find something to love in this book. I really enjoyed it, and appreciate Barrett sharing his experiences in hopes of benefiting others who are suffering.

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A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist who lives in Kampala, Uganda, is the first selection of the Episcopal Church Climate Justice book club. If you have read this book or just want to join the discussion about it, you can register here — the discussion is this Tuesday 3/22/22 at 7:30 eastern time, online. The book is part memoir, part activism handbook, part guide to the climate emergency from the perspective of someone who will be most impacted because she is young and lives in the Global South. It’s well written, informative, and even uplifting. Despite the dire state of the climate emergency, the challenges of interrelated injustices around gender, race, and culture, and the lack of good governance worldwide that Nakate reveals, I feel confident that young people will do better than older generations have when it comes to helping usher in a more just, equitable, sustainable society.

Nakate is in her early twenties and has already founded an activist network called Rise Up and an initiative to bring solar power and clean cookstoves to schools in Uganda called Vash Green Schools. You may have heard of her as the woman who was cropped out of a photo of young climate activists (including Greta Thunberg) who had come to Davos, Switzerland to bring attention to the climate emergency outside of the World Economic Forum meeting. The AP claimed it was an aesthetic decision because she was in front of a building but she was the only Black person in the photo and also, the only one from Africa. Nakate spoke out immediately about having her entire continent removed from the conversation about climate activism by being cropped out.

She writes about the backlash she faced, not only from people around the world who thought she was making a big deal out of it, but also from fellow Africans who shared views such as as she shouldn’t draw so much attention to herself or that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nakate is generous in explaining what her critics had to say, and thoughtful in her response. She makes the case for the intersectionality of the climate emergency’s impacts as well as solutions — painstakingly and clearly laying out the ways that injustices compound as well as how steps that can secure resiliency in the face of our changing climate can also secure a more just and equitable future.

In fact, Nakate’s book is so bracingly honest about what’s happening, how much the world has to overcome and how much wealthier countries have to face up to in terms of the impact of our actions on those who are least responsible for climate change but suffering the most from the consequences that it could have been a depressing read. Instead, I found it hopeful,because Nakate highlights how young activists are not waiting for self-serving corporate and political leaders but are taking action and supporting each other in their communities and globally. I learned a great deal about Africa and some of the climate related challenges different areas of the continent face. And I appreciated how the book ends with concrete suggestions for how to step up and get involved.

Nakate is an inspiring, smart, hard working, and gracious leader and I look forward to seeing her work continue to grow in the coming decades. As someone working to raise awareness, reduce my own consumption, and advocate for a better future, I found much to admire and to aspire to in her book. As a geek I appreciated her statistics, use of research, and helpful appendices. As a reader I enjoyed her well told stories and the warmth she expresses towards her family and friends who have supported her work.

I’m looking forward to the discussion tomorrow night.

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Edited by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, Resilience and the Black Experience is an anthology of black writers’ first person accounts of their experiences with the topics in the subtitle, which Brené Brown researches and writes about. You can read the introduction, a conversation between the editors about how this project came about, for free online. I haven’t read any of Brené Brown’s books, although I’ve read shorter pieces and am familiar with her work. Tarana Burke is known as the founder of the #MeToo movement, but she’s been working for racial and gender justice for much longer. Evidence of how internet algorithms further segregate us: there were a number of contributors I hadn’t heard of, even though I regularly read books and articles and take links about racial and gender justice.

My Me and White Supremacy alumni group read the introduction to You Are Your Best Thing for our last meeting, and some of us decided to read the whole book, so that we could learn more together. I really appreciated the gender and age diversity among contributors. There also seemed to be many different regions of America represented among them. I found myself wanting to read more, and will add many of these writers to my long term “to read” list.

Jason Reynolds is one of those. Here is a taste of his essay from the book, “Between Us: a Reckoning With My Mother,” in which he describes visiting his family’s southern farm in the summer:

“We’d gotten to know our cousins, trained our ears to decipher their drawls, and most important, were introduced to a part of our grandfather we’d never known. We’d only known a city man. But down South, we’d gotten to know a farmer. A giant who walked the rows, who sprinkled seeds on the ground and steered a tractor. A man who smashed melon on the ground and clawed the heart of it with his bare hands and passed it around to my brother and me like Communion host. There was a tenderness to him. A different kind of tenderness but a tenderness all the same. He wasn’t one for hugs and kisses but was always sure to thank his children and grandchildren for coming to see him.”

Each essay in You Are Your Best Thing has its own style of course, but they are all first person essays about the lived experiences of the writers, shared so that others can learn about vulnerability, shame and resilience. It’s a really important book to read if you don’t understand why movements for justice are still needed in this country. So many people supported Black Lives Matter two summers ago, or like me, have joined some kind of antiracism efforts but don’t really know many people of different races in our communities because so many places across America are pretty segregated. This book is definitely a way to learn more about Black lives. And to remember that Black Americans can’t take a break from racial equity concerns, so neither should white Americans.

You Are Your Best Thing is also about universal experiences of vulnerability, shame, and resilience. While my own life is privileged in terms of race and financial stability, I could identify with some of the contributors’ stories about with gender issues, family dynamics, and emotional experiences. You Are Your Best Thing is a lovely, heartfelt collection that reminds us all of the dignity of every person and the resilience of the human spirit. It’s good encouragement for anyone working towards a more just world where every person is valued, because these writers are each tremendous human beings who remind readers of what’s possible.

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Yep, those are two very different books. This is bookconscious, I’ll manage to find some connection – stay with me.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde. I read Sister Outsider for my class on Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition. The book is a collection of Audre Lorde’s essays, conference papers, and talks, first published in 1984. Lorde considered herself a poet, as the introduction by her editor, Nancy Boreano notes, but she is also a powerful prose writer. Lorde writes about the many facets of her own identity as a Black lesbian feminist and about the failings of movements that advocate narrowly for the liberation of just one segment of society. She was critical of feminism for not also fighting racism and classism, and of womanism for not lending support to gay and lesbian people. Like so much else that I’ve read lately, the parts of Sister, Outsider that spoke most to me were those addressing the institutional root cause of our divisions: capitalism.

As Lorde explains in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinding Difference:”

“In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. . . . Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” Ironically, this wastes human capital, as Lorde notes, because the the outsiders are the ones who have to explain themselves to the dominant class: “There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Like Pauli Murray, Lorde was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality, critiquing the reproduction of oppression in marginalized groups that inhibits liberation for everyone, critiquing the lack of racial cultural and socioeconomic diversity in women’s studies and academia, and recognizing the power of creativity in helping people work towards a freer society. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes, “It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

The essays on Lorde’s visits to the Soviet Union and Grenada are also very interesting and educational (the invasion of Grenada always baffled me, and I see it now in the context of US imperialism in Latin America), and bookend the collection. An interesting, thought provoking read. I wonder what Lorde would have to say about the rifts in human rights movements today? Her critiques unfortunately are still needed today, and it seems to me she would call on people to stop reproducing hierarchies of oppression within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities as well as other progressive movements. I feel like she would appreciate The Sum of Us. Plus, she was a librarian! I look forward to really thoroughly processing her teaching in class.

Now how on earth am I going to connect Audre Lorde with Ben Winters? Well. The characters in his book, The Quiet Boy, are in one way or another victims of the same profit-over-people economy that Lorde cautions us to resist. That’s as far as I’ll go to push the connection right now.

Still, when I’m reading a book that requires studying — careful attention and thought, followed by processing what I’ve read and considering where it fits into the other reading I’m doing or have done, how it relates to the course, what learning it offers, what work I still need to do — it’s nice to have a mystery to read before sleeping. Like working a puzzle, reading something that swiftly moves your brain from clue to clue can be a great release. But this is no pat mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with reading those). Ben Winters is an author I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, and his books are always intriguing and thoughtful. This one was interesting for me to read as I now work in a hospital, and the plot revolves around a lawyer trying to win a malpractice trial after a boy named Wesley hits his head, is operated on, and is a shell of himself, walking endlessly in his room without speaking or interacting in any discernibly human way with those around him.

The lawyer, Jay Shenk, is hired again by Wesley’s family over a decade later when his father is accused of murdering the scientist who served as an expert witness in the malpractice trial. Throughout the book, Jay’s relationship with his son Ruben, and the impact of the two cases on Ruben’s life, are the focus. A mysterious man and his small band of followers are convinced that because of his condition, Wesley is the key to bringing about a “good and golden world” and this little existentially motivated cult play a key part in both cases. This twist is provocative in the best way, as are the themes Winters treats so well: the nuances of ethical behavior, family relationships, the impact of those who’ve died (or become walking shells of themselves) on the living, what it is that can transform humanity into a better version of itself.

One of the things I love about his books is that people I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, like a policeman (in his Last Policeman trilogy) or an “ambulance chaser” lawyer like Jay Shenk shine as not only fully human but also deeply empathetic characters. Winters gently challenges readers to look beyond the exterior of the “usual suspects” that appear in his books, and he manages to make the familiar pattern of a mystery (which is comforting for many readers; we like mysteries because they fit into our deeply grooved mental binaries of good and bad) and expands it to something much more complex and thought provoking and even instructive.

You can learn a thing or two about being a better human from Winters’ books. There you go. Another way reading Audre Lorde connects with reading Ben Winters.

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I started the new year off with some heavy duty nonfiction. My dad sent me a copy of The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren, and our elder offspring gave me Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner for Christmas. Both were tough in their way, but good reads.

Let’s begin with what everything in America (and most of the world) begins and ends with: capitalism. Tanner’s book examines the idea of the “protestant work ethic” and also looks at capitalism’s morphing into an entirely finance driven enterprise that causes both private and public sectors to cut costs (working fewer employees harder, outsourcing, etc.) in order to please investors by producing greater profit or yielding higher interest rates on bonds. If you’ve wondered why your taxes go up but your city isn’t really providing any more services — and in some cases is cutting them — this little book explains it pretty handily.

She gets into detailed explanations of the crazy financial investment products that led to the Great Recession (if you liked The Big Short, you’ll enjoy her lucid overview) and explains why workers, especially those with few resources, get caught in cycles of debt and employment insecurity. Basically, why most of us are the chaff in the financial elite’s fat harvest. I especially enjoyed the places in the book where she noted that this system actually undermines the long term sustainability of companies that are “succeeding” according to financial capitalism’s rules, because there is only so long they can squeeze out lower costs and higher profits before companies or governments reach unsustainably low staffing levels or simply can’t force suppliers or vendors to price materials and services any lower. And there reaches a point when monitoring and measuring employees limits rather than enhances their productivity.

I was with Tanner as she explained all this, and I understood, to a point, the ways that our relationship to time — our perceptions of past, present and future — are impacted by capitalism’s relentless push for financial gain at all cost. And I followed her lines of thought as she described why Christianity is not aligned with these theories of profit over people, and why God’s creation, including humans, is not enhanced by these systems.

As Tanner writes, “The materials upon which we work have value prior to our activity insofar as they form non-purposive ‘products’ of God’s creative activity. God created them for no purpose or end other than to be reflections of God’s glory. We are similarly not responsible for creating the value of what we are and will be through productive activities, whether on ourselves or other things. . . . With an anthropology of production in which human work is the source of value fundamentally undermined, the heightened work ethic of finance-dominated capitalism collapses. One can no longer expect personal fulfillment through work in any ordinary sense of that.”

Which is more or less the view I came to (without the analysis of finance-dominated capitalism Tanner engages in) last spring, when I had a kind of ah-ha realization that my satisfaction in life comes from my relationship with God and with my fellow members of creation (human and non) and that my satisfaction in life decidedly did not and would never come from work. Which a few months later was a factor in my decision to leave my job (more on that over at Nocturnal Librarian), albeit for another one.

But as I read Tanner’s book I was hoping for a clearer explanation of the ways Christianity can not only discredit the theory of work upheld by finance-dominated capitalism, but also help people unshackle themselves. Barring that — which after all is impractical when every good and service we need to live a healthy life is produced by the system we’re shackled to — I was hoping at least for more practical advice for how ordinary Christians can take heart in the face of a system so tirelessly devoted to grinding up workers and spitting out profit.

In fairness, Tanner was not out to write a how-to or self-help book. She’s an academic, and she wrote Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism to respond to the work of previous academics and to develop her own theories in a way that allows her to reach not only the students in her classroom but those beyond, including this ex-library director now hourly hospital worker. It is a challenging read, not to be undertaken at bedtime or after your evening glass or two of wine. And definitely one that required re-reading in places. But I appreciated wrestling with the information Tanner presented and I felt validated. I’d had a sense that my “ah ha” was a sign of spiritual/ethical growth and not just being fed up at work, and Tanner helped me understand that better.

Now on to the easier to read but no less challenging to think about book about climate change.

The Story of More takes a systematic approach to examining all of the changes in the world that led to climate change since author Hope Jahren was a child. She’s about my age so I found her data interesting since she’s talking about my lifetime, too. The data is staggering, and she uses a lot of imagery to bring it to life. One example I read aloud to the Computer Scientist that he actually asked me to send him the next morning because he couldn’t stop pondering it (to set the scene is, Jahren is flying from Newark to Minneapolis):

“If instead of flying, all two hundred of us escaped from the plane into two hundred separate cars and drove, individually, from New Jersey to Minnesota, we would have collectively burned 40 percent less fuel than we ended up using for that one plane by flying together. If instead of using separate cars we had boarded a single passenger train, the total journey would have required only half as much fuel as was required for the gas-guzzling airplane that saved each one of us fourteen hours of travel time.”

Vivid, right? The whole books is studded with these kinds of examples. Jahren is a scientist, so she is methodical and thorough. She covers all the things humans use and consume, like food and energy, as well as the impacts we’re having on what’s around us, including, air, water, weather, and our fellow inhabitants of earth (human, plant, and animal). The Story of More is very much connected to the story of capitalism, so reading them both at the same time was a lot.

My dad told me he liked the book because it’s hopeful. Jahren is hopeful, and is clear that the future is in all of our hands. She explains why individual actions to reduce our consumption — to get from more to less — are important, because they add up, especially if those who consume the most cut back. And she lays out a step by step plan for prioritizing, reviewing, taking steps, journaling, etc. so that readers can act on what they’ve learned.

The reasons I find it hard to wrap my head around this as a solution are:

  1. if people can’t be persuaded that their personal actions can help end a pandemic, say by wearing masks, or getting vaccinated, why on earth should we expect that people will voluntarily choose to consume less? And,
  2. see above. Finance-dominated capitalism is pervasive, overwhelms everything in its sight, and is the driving force behind the “more” in The Story of More.

Still, as The Sum of Us so beautifully explains (I still find hope in that book, months after reading it), there’s power in solidarity. Consuming less, like overcoming the most dehumanizing aspects of finance-dominated capitalism, requires working together. Jahren knows this too, and suggests starting a dialogue with others. I agree that talking about this is a place to start. And The Story of More may be a catalyst for those kinds of conversations that can lead to action. It’s definitely a good choice for book clubs, which is why my dad read it.

So what to do with all of this? I’m still processing, but here’s how I spent my day today. I have Wednesdays off at my new job. I chose work that only takes up 36 hours a week, where I can still get health insurance for my family but have a whole extra day for the things that DO bring me satisfaction. I caught up with an old friend on the phone. Got some COVID rapid tests so I can continue to test at the end of each workweek ahead of visiting with our older offspring and his rescue pup. Had a couple of Zoom meetings with new friends in an organization I’ve become involved with, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action. Attended a noonday prayer service with friends I’ve met from all over the country over the past two years who are my Companions in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, where we caught up (I’ve missed seeing them for a couple of weeks because I was covering Wednesdays for a sick coworker), brought our gratitude and concerns to God, and laughed together. Took a walk with our younger offspring. Was amused by our two cats. Used up some leftovers to make a delicious dinner. Researched funds where I could invest my rollover of retirement funds from my previous job without supporting the prison industrial complex or fossil fuel extraction. And wrote.

Will any of this break the chains of capitalism or end climate change? No, not these small actions by themselves. But I spent my time on the relationships that do bring me satisfaction, and my small steps will add up with every other person’s small steps. So I guess Dad’s right, that’s hopeful.

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I finished reading Song In a Weary Throat by Pauli Murray today. In December I was also reading a daily selection of Evelyn Underhill’s writings, a book about women mystics, and a book about looking back over a life’s convictions. Underhill is a genius, the other two books were ok. Song In a Weary Throat is excellent.

Murray’s book is the memoir she was finishing right up until her death. If you haven’t heard of her, she was a civil rights and women’s rights advocate, poet, lawyer, scholar, educator, and Episcopal priest (one of the first women to be ordained in that church). Her argument in a law school paper that segregation was psychologically harmful inspired the arguments made in Brown v. Board of Education. She also pioneered nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow laws, including refusing to move back on a bus, and engaging with other Howard University students in restaurant sit ins and pickets. She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s and a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Song In a Weary Throat is warm, razor sharp, and deeply thoughtful. I learned a lot about our nation’s history and about the early civil rights and women’s rights movements. And I appreciated Murray’s candid and heartfelt descriptions of how it felt for her to live through pivotal times and events. Her writing is also beautiful and her sense of how best to work towards equity sounds wise and theologically sound to me: “Almost from birth I had been conditioned by religious training to believe that love was more powerful than hate — not a passive, submissive love but a vigorous love which resisted injustice without stooping to the level of hating the oppressor. Applying this belief to the racial problem in the United States, I held to the conviction that once discriminatory laws and systemic practices were removed, the ultimate resolution of racism would come through one-to-one interracial relationships creating a climate of acceptance.”

Some folks would consider that overly optimistic, but to me, it gets to the heart of the kind of hope found in Christian theology. Christ’s love wasn’t the hearts and flowers kind, it was both righteous (think of his driving out the money changers in the temple, arguing with hypocritical leaders, and being exasperated with his followers were not understanding that he’d come to completely upend human ideas about who was first and who was last in society) and “vigorous” as Murray writes, able to withstand absolutely everything, including death. Murray did not stand for half-measures, and regularly engaged in “confrontation by typewriter” with the press and with influential people, pressing for more authentic engagement with racism and sexism and for social and political remedies. But she also believed deeply in the dignity of every person, and saw opportunity for understanding even in the newly post Jim Crow south where she spent time living and working as a college administrator.

This was a terrific read and I’m glad to have ended 2021 with such a good book.

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Priestdaddy won the Thurber prize, was on many best books lists, and earned Patricia Lockwood all kinds of acclaim. So you’ve probably heard about it. I did when it was winning all those accolades, but I hadn’t read it. When I finished Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This, I decided to check it out. Like the novel, Priestdaddy is recognizably a memoir but uniquely its own thing, too. Parts of it read like poetry. It’s about Lockwood’s growing up, but the frame is a period of time when she and her husband moved back in with her parents in a rectory in the midwest, where her father is a Catholic priest. If you’re wondering how that works, he became a priest after being ordained as a Lutheran, and later converted. Under those rare circumstances, married priests are allowed to serve in the Catholic church.

Lockwoods’ parents are very conservative, and her father is very patriarchal, they denied her and her sister the opportunity to go to college, she describes several unpleasant moments in the family’s history, and yet she portrays her parents fairly affectionately (especially her mother). She writes almost as an observer of her own life, seemingly without bitterness even about the most difficult circumstances, including growing up near toxic waste that may possibly have caused a number of serious health issues in her friends family.

Those sections are written in a more serious tone, but there are funny parts of the book, too, funny in the same zany, slightly off kilter way that No One Is Talking About This is funny, where you feel as if the narrator is bringing you in on a private joke. And then there are thoughtful sections, where Lockwood is assessing how she came to be a writer and what has made her the person she is. For example, when she is talking with some teenagers exploring some coral off a beach on Key West, she observes,

“The girl stands very straight at the top of the pile and surveys everything around her with the fresh completeness of a discoverer, who has just felt the right key slide into her lock, the last piece pressed into her jigsaw. She stands and speaks with the sunlight fearlessly. Her ear, tilted up to it, is transparent. She bends toward the water, to get a closer look at some flashing silver school, and I watch her all the while in silence. Part of what you have to figure out in this life is, Who would I be if I hadn’t been frightened? What hurt me and what would I be if if hadn’t?”

One of the major themes of the book is how belief and unbelief have formed her. Towards the end of the book a monstrance her father ordered has arrived at the rectory. Her husband doesn’t know that that is and thinks he hears her father say it’s a “monster.” Lockwood writes:

“‘No, no,’ I tell him, ‘a monstrance is a sort of twenty-four karat gold sunburst that holds the body of the Lord.’ There’s a window at the center and a thousand rays reach out of it in every direction, so it stands on the altar like a permanent dawn. The word ‘monstrance’ means ‘to show,’ and when I read it, up rises that round image of the bread through the glass — bread that my own father has consecrated, at the climax of a metaphor that is more than a metaphor, at the moment where real time intersects with eternity. How to explain this moment to someone who never believed it, could never believe it? That bells ring, that the universe kneels, that what happened enters into the house of what is always happening, and sits with it together and eats at its table.”

That’s a pretty amazing description, isn’t it?

it’s hard to understand how someone could write so joyously about things that are still painful or troubling. But that’s the point, Lockwood explains:

“I know all women are supposed to be strong enough now to strangle presidents and patriarchies between their powerful thighs, but it doesn’t work that way. Many of us were actually affected, by male systems and male anger, in ways we cannot articulate or overcome. Sometimes, when the ceiling seems especially low and the past especially close, I think to myself, I did not make it out. I am still there in that place of diminishment, where that voice an octave deeper than mine is telling me what I am. . . . I did not make it out, but this does. Art goes outside, even if we don’t; it fills the whole air, though we cannot raise our voices.”

In her writing, she says, “I am no longer whispering through the small skirted shape of a keyhole: the door is knocked down and the roof is blown off and I am aimed once more at the entire wide night.”

An interesting, thoughtful, funny, tender, challenging, beautiful book.

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