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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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I was looking at the shortlisted Booker prize nominees the week the winner was announced and came across this video of Rowan Williams talking about No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I adore listening to him explain what a social influencer is. And to the way he explains that in this funny but serious novel, the narrator’s “social media prattle is somehow enlarged, extended, deepened to try to cope with an experience it’s really not designed for.” Which kind of sums up the book: in part one, the narrator is busily commenting on the world from within “the portal” — Lockwood herself is very active on Twitter, and that seems to me to be what the portal is based on — sharing thoughts and images that veer from profane to profound and back again. In part two, her mother sends her a couple of texts asking her to come back home, because her sister has learned that her unborn child has Proteus syndrome.

The narrator still describes the world the way she did when her whole life was the portal, but her whole life now is her family, especially her sister and niece. Which is what Rowan Williams is talking about — the “prattle” exits the portal and enters the experience of this family trying to live with what’s happening. Someone who became famous for posting “can a dog be twins?” and laments that the world is so messed up, “that people had stopped paying attention to celebrity dogs” now describes her baby niece: “Her face was luminous, as if someone had put flesh on the bones of the moon, and her beautiful blue eyes were larger than ever, as if coming to the end of what there was to see.”

The narrator comments, “That every person on earth might be watched in that way, given a party whenever she waved and raised her little arms arms, breathed just like the rest of us.” She notices her own response, too, in much the same way she noticed her own presence in the portal before, “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life. She was a gleaming sterilized instrument, flashing out at the precise moment of emergency . . . . She wanted to stop people on the street and say, ‘Do you know about this? You should know about this. No one is talking about this!”

Lockwood is a poet, and this novel’s style is a cross between poetry and “social media prattle” (I am really pretty obsessed with that characterization). The narrator observes society, comments on the human condition, and wonders at our capacity for dealing with love and loss. She is also someone who “loved to yell, loved to be inconsistent, loved to make no sense in the little awestruck hours of the night, which stared up at her as a perfect audience with their equal little heads.” She can be both absurd and brilliant.

No One Is Talking About This is definitely one of those books that is its own thing, not like anything that’s come before it. I found it funny in places and tender in others. And I was so intrigued by the time I got to the end that I checked out Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. It’s a book that leaves you wanting to know more about the author.

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I was happy to see a Europa Editions book selected for the Booker prize: The Promise by Damon Galgut. If you follow book news, you know this wasn’t the first time Galgut was nominated. It’s the first of his novels that I have read. The Booker judges call The Promise “a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world?” If that’s the driving question of this novel I guess the answer is not clear cut. It’s not a book that ties up all the loose threads by the end. Characters who act in ways that are just and those who don’t both suffer in this book. But the two characters who seem to care for others and each other more than themselves are not ruined by suffering and loss in the way that the self-centered, immoral, uncaring characters are, which could be described as a kind of justice, perhaps?

The story begins in 1986, on the day Amor Swart’s mother dies. Her unkind aunt and uncle pick her up from boarding school and take her home to the family farm outside of Pretoria, South Africa. Her newly widowed father promised her mother, in Amor’s hearing, that he would give the family’s maid, a black woman named Salome, the house she lives in. Amor is still enough of a child at thirteen to believe that adults’ promises will be kept. But her father, deeply influenced by the local evangelical preacher and by the apartheid system he has benefitted from all his life, has no intention of keeping the promise. Which would have been a gift in name only in 1986 anyway, as Salome wouldn’t have legally owned the house even if it was given to her.

Amor’s eldest sibling, her brother Anton, is serving in the army to protect white South Africa from the unrest of apartheid’s last years. He comes home for their mother’s funeral, the first of four Swart family funerals in the book. He’s both a perpetrator and, to a much lesser extent, a victim of violence. But as the book unfolds it becomes clear that Anton actually begins to lose his life from the moment he takes another’s. Despite (or maybe because of) his confused thoughts about his recent violent incidents, Anton goads his father about the promise Amor overheard. The third sibling, Astrid, is only on the periphery of the conflict at the time of their mother’s funeral, but we learn enough to see she is self-absorbed and hungry for a more glamorous life.

From this beginning, the novel threads its way through the siblings’ adult lives. In fact I’m realizing Amor gets her first period at her mother’s funeral at the beginning of the book and is experiencing menopause at the end. Key moments in South African history — Mandela’s presidency, the 1995 rugby World Cup, the AIDS epidemic, the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies, the recent infrastructure issues and water shortages — are the backdrop to the Swart family’s dramatic unraveling. The novel’s structure includes patterns and chronology (the historical timeline, the family funerals) but the narration is unusual and a little less clear. The narrator is sometimes inside characters’ minds and sometimes observing. Likewise, the narrator sometimes seems to be reliably describing events and is sometimes clearly imagining them. For example, towards the end of the book, when Amor is living in Cape Town, we read: “She has a cat curled up on her lap. No, she doesn’t, there is no cat. But allow her a couple of plants at least, growing greenly in their tins on the windowsill.” Which makes it hard to know: what has been real and what has been imagined? You might think you know, but do you?

The story is tragic but the majority of the characters are pretty hard to feel badly for. The ones that do evoke some empathy appear less frequently, away from the main action, and Galgut doesn’t reveal much about them. All in all a unique read, one I’m still thinking through today after finishing the book last night.

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For some reason I’ve read a few books featuring nuns during the pandemic. In summer of 2020, I read The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s black comedy set in the 1100s through the1300s at a convent. Back in January I read World Without End by Ken Follett (also set in the 1300s) one of the Pillars of the Earth series, in which a nun nurse introduces masks as a way to protect against the plague. Then recently, I read Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix, set in the 1100s. After I finished Matrix, I decided to pull out a novel I’d picked up on either a library book sale shelf or free cart at some point, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Unlike those other three books, this one is set in relatively contemporary times, opening in 1954. Like the others, it is set in England.

Like Groff, Godden sets her book entirely inside a community of nuns, in this case Benedictines in England. The central character, Philippa, comes to the monastery (which is what Brede Abbey is — a Benedictine monastery, which can be a community of either nuns or monks) later in life, after a successful career in some kind of government service. At the beginning of the book she has arrived as a postulant, and by the end of the book she’s been at Brede fourteen years and is a fully professed nun. The nuns at Brede are an enclosed order, meaning they separate themselves from the world; in the church and in the parlors where they may speak with visitors, they have a grille in place that mark this separation.

All of the little details of their communal life are fascinating, the descriptions of the “clothing” ceremony when a postulant becomes a novice nun and wears a habit, the different vows taken, the division of labor, the singing of the services, the hours of prayer, the pattern of life and of the seasons, both natural and liturgical, at Brede. Although much of the novel follows Philippa’s progress, there are many other nuns that feature, including Abbess Hester, who dies without confessing a secret she’s sworn the cellerar, Dame Veronica to, and Abbess Catherine, who has to manage when she uncovers the secret and its cost. In that regard, as with Matrix, readers get a glimpse into the way a monastery is run and all that is involved. Godden, like Groff, also relates the ways that an enclosed community, like any community, has to work out differences of opinion, personality conflicts, jealousies and hurt feelings, etc.

In This House of Brede is different in that Matrix was also concerned with the way Marie, the abbess, bends the community to her will, which she discerns in part through her visions and in part through her extensive political network who keep her informed of what’s happening outside the abbey, especially at the royal courts of France and England. But In This House of Brede‘s central concern is the development of the different characters’ vocations within the monastery, and of their spiritual lives. It’s a fascinating look at how a life centered in prayer and community subtly molds the characters. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they are, how they relate to one another and how they live. You would think such a topic would not lend itself to much of a plot, but there are several interesting twists here and there, and those keep the story moving.

Godden’s writing is lovely. The only other book of hers I’d read is Impunity Jane, a children’s story about a pocket doll that was a favorite around here. This passage nicely conveys how Godden conveys Philippa’s inner thoughts as she waits to hear whether she’s been accepted for Simple Profession, the first set of vows a Benedictine nun takes:

“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains: a quiet, a steadiness. Philippa had thought of a mosque she had seen in Bengal, a mosque of seven domes, eleventh century, and as with all unspoiled Moslem mosques, empty, not a lamp or a vase or a chair; only walls glimmering with their pale marble. She remembered how, her shoes off, she had stood there, not looking but feeling. No one is there; God is there. And here, in Brede Abbey, the quiet was stronger — and close. The light flickering by the tabernacle was warm, alive, and as if they were still there, she heard what the nuns had sung last night at Benediction: ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat,’ with its three soft repeated cadences. ‘Christus vincit,’ and ‘Thank you,’ Philippa had whispered, ‘thank you for bringing me where I am,’ and, ‘Even if you send me away, I shall be here forever.'”

A fascinating and beautiful read.

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I’ve heard about Walter Isaacson‘s biographies, but had never read one. My dad had read The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race over the summer and sent me a copy because he thought I’d enjoy it, and he was impressed by the stories of the developments in gene science and the potential to protect humans from viruses. If you’ve thought of genetic engineering at all, it’s probably been with some trepidation and uncertainty — it seems like “playing God” in a way, and much of the coverage in the media about it has been relatively alarmist or confusing. This books clears up many of the misconceptions and makes the science a little clearer.

Isaacson introduces Jennifer Doudna’s career in science by describing how as a young girl she read James Watson’s book, The Double Helix and saw, even in the fairly dismissive remarks he made about Rosalind Franklin, the potential for a woman to be a scientific researcher. Doudna went on to a brilliant career, beginning with the discovery of the structure of RNA. In 2020, Doudna, along with her French collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “development of a method for genomic editing.” Isaacson covers much of her career in The Code Breaker, focusing on the circle of scientists she collaborated or competed with over the decades between her initial work on RNA and the present. At the center of both the book and her career is the way she brought a multidisciplinary and international team together to prove that the protein Cas9, guided by mRNA (messenger RNA, which you may sound familiar from COVID-19 vaccines), can edit a gene by snipping it and fitting programmed DNA into the spot where the snip is. When thought of in terms of snipping and stitching instead of rewriting, this gene editing seems more human and less like messing with evolution and creation, doesn’t it?

From the excitement of discovery Isaacson leads us through the competition between rival labs to publish and to patent the technologies needed to perform this gene editing. And the subsequent efforts to improve upon and expand the discovery, and apply it to real world problems, like curing diseases. He also ventures into the ethical debates and frameworks for setting reasonable limits on gene editing in humans. The idea is to leave the door open to medical breakthroughs without allowing a gene editing free-for-all that may lead to customizable babies. If you like drama, that part of the book may interest you; I found it slow.

Towards the end of the book, the COVID-19 pandemic begins and Doudna pulls together scientists from all over the Bay area to work together in Berkeley to quickly respond. They developed ways to test for COVID and are still working on potential treatments. I found this last part very interesting, and somewhat hopeful. Isaacson, and many of the scientists he got to know as he wrote The Code Breaker, believe the future will be safer for everyone because of the developments of the last few decades and the new spirit of openness and collaboration in science as the world was shaken up by the pandemic.

As Isaacson says, “By honoring CRISPR, a virus-fighting system found in nature, in the midst of a virus pandemic, the Nobel committee reminded us how curiosity-driven basic research can end up having very practical applications. CRISPR and COVID are speeding our entry into a lifescience era. Molecules are becoming the new microchips.” He talks to scientists and “biohackers” who believe that just as the computer era led people to study coding, advances in molecular science will lead more people to study biology, chemistry, and genetics and will lead to personal tools that revolutionize our responses to biological threats to human health the way computers have revolutionized the ways we communicate and share information.

It’s interesting to consider this possibility. It’s also easy to see capitalism reasserting itself over scientific research and universities returning to legal protection of their intellectual property, including work done by their star scientists in well-funded labs. Isaacson did not get into the many pronged misinformation machine that has convinced millions of a whole series of untruths (which I won’t repeat here) about mRNA vaccines. Coupled with an overall decline in science literacy (60% of Americans in 2019 had medium to low science knowledge according to the Pew Research Center), our infodemic, along with decades of gerrymandering, the erosion of voting rights, and the prioritization of profits and power over people doesn’t give me hope that public funding of science will increase. Nor that people will suddenly abandon conspiracy theories and disinformation.

Remember, the previous administration closed a federal science program designed to give us early warning of global pandemics, just before the current pandemic began. And dozens of politicians and celebrities joined together in an anti-vax movement, contributing to the deluge of disinformation and tsunami of pseudoscience that led to the worst outbreaks of measles in the United States in almost 30 years back in 2019. While Doudna’s accomplishments are tremendous, and Isaacson rightly celebrates the people in her orbit who have and continue to make important discoveries that can change the future, they require funding and trust in science.

Maybe science will prevail. But considering the way any national effort to make progress slowing climate change was just scuttled mostly by an egotistical senator in the pay of fossil fuel companies, but also by dozens of senators whose ideology prevents them from supporting such legislation, and considering that a handful of rich nations tried pressuring the UN to “downplay the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels,” ahead of the latest conference on climate change, I am not as hopeful as Isaacson.

Still, it’s an interesting read. I will probably check out his biography Einstein at some point, which has been a long-term “to read” on my shelf for some time.

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Lots of reviews of Lauren Groff‘s new novel, Matrix, reference her previous work, Fates and Furies, but as I read it, I kept thinking of the first book of Groff’s that I read, Arcadia. Arcadia was about a man who grew up in a utopian compound, and Matrix revisits the idea of an ideal community, this time in a 12th century abbey in England. It’s not ideal when the book opens and Marie de France arrives, sent by Eleanor of Aquitaine at the age of seventeen to be prioress. The abbey is poor and run down and the nuns are ill, old, and poorly organized. Marie, a large, homely woman who has already proven herself capable and strong in her short life, quickly takes things in hand. Matrix follows her life’s story as she makes the abbey prosperous, comes to love the community of nuns she cares for, and develops a distinctly matriarchal faith.

Marie is interesting, and not just because Groff creates a backstory that includes warrior aunts, a fairy ancestor, and women lovers including Queen Eleanor herself. I also enjoyed that Marie is both a smart and worldly leader and a mystic who has visions and writes poetry (the only bit of the real Marie de France’s story that is known). When still young Marie becomes Abbess, she realizes that the church leader with jurisdiction over the abbey “seems to believe this abbey of virgins to be a source of personal wealth.” Her response? “She must draw up herself a dummy account ledger to show the abbey’s great debt, which is false, for, she considers, to counter corruption, a similar corruption is only logical and right.”

Her visions give her spiritual and theological guidance — including an image of Eve and Mary in which Marie comes to see that rather than being the source of mankind’s fall and sinful nature, Eve is the first step towards mankind’s salvation, because she is Mary’s ancestress. But the visions also give her building projects — a labyrinth the cleverly hides the abbey from the well traveled roads which make it vulnerable, a building to house not only the Abbess’s quarters but also well appointed apartments for the wealthy widows who retire to the abbey (with their money) and schoolrooms for the young girls sent to learn how to be fine ladies (who will someday support the abbey they remember fondly), and a lock to harness a nearby marsh’s water supply, to divert it to the Abbey year round.

Marie’s own ambitions get her into trouble from time to time, but she maintains her rule, runs a network of spies in the great world beyond the abbey who keep her one (or more) steps ahead of both the crown and Rome, and manages to value her own abilities and achievements and those of her nuns while also maintaining her belief. She’s an astute manager, trusting her own judgement but also understanding when she needs diplomacy, prayer, or even forgiveness. And when Groff writes of Marie’s visions and views of the world, her prose sings, which is another way this book reminds me of Arcadia.

For Marie, Groff writes, “Good and evil live together; dark and light. Contradictions can be true at once. The world holds a great and pulsing terror at its center. The world is ecstatic in its very deeps.”

That is both beautiful and as true today as it was in the 12th century. This world is both beautiful and scary, and we live with contradictions that are true (and many that, as Marie herself would also affirm, are not). If you’re looking to escape all this into a beautiful, strange, and in its way, uplifting book, Matrix is a great choice. My only quibble is that I’m still considering the ending; I think I understand what Groff intended but it was strangely deflating for me. Still, I very much enjoyed Matrix.

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It seems like it was just yesterday I was writing about Howard Mansfield’s last book, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down. Believe it or not, that was in 2018. (Quick aside, I realized today I’ve been writing this blog since 2007 — where does the time go?) Mansfield’s new book, Chasing Eden: a Book of Seekers is as thoughtful and interesting as his previous work. I always know that when I pick up one of his books, I will learn new things, even about topics I thought I previously knew, that I will understand differently with him as my guide. He has a way of deeply considering a topic, finding new stories to tell, and making connections that is both enjoyable and edifying.

At first it seems as if the seekers Mansfield introduces in Chasing Eden can’t possibly have much in common. First, he talks about a strange (and fairly disgusting) sect of fanatical pilgrims, the Mummyjums, in the book’s introduction, and then he goes on to explore the lives of a man who befriended the last Shakers in Canterbury, New Hampshire; the strange desire to hurry from scenic vista to scenic vista in the White Mountains (and the landscape painters awed by nature in the 19th century who led us to this rushing); the lives of a Black doctor and his family who passed for white in New Hampshire in the 1930s and 40s; the terribly misleading notion of “forty acres and a mule” and what really happened during Reconstruction with regard to land for the newly freed; the residents of postwar housing developments on Long Island; and the Pocumtucks, Native American people who saved a Pilgrim community from starving in 1636 even though many of their fellow indigenous people had been massacred in New England.

How are these disparate stories connected? What meaning does Mansfield draw from a great deal of suffering and injustice in the stories he delves into, from ideals abandoned, exploitation repeated over and over throughout history, and people judging each other decade in and decade out? He finds hope in the acts of generosity, kindness, perseverance, and dignity in each story (even when he himself has to be a seeker to find them) and in the ways that in every time and place, “longing gives form and force to our lives.” And he transmits this hope, through the stories he unearths and explores, always with gentle erudition.

Mansfield never lectures, but he never fails to teach, and to provide food for thought. At the end of Chasing Eden, after sharing the truth about Thanksgiving and the story of the Pocumtucks’ “gift in a starving time,” he writes, “Three hundred and eighty years later, the question that I wish was at the table on Thanksgiving is: What will we do now in return?”

A question that deserves our full attention, and a book that can help anyone seeking an answer to it.

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It’s been some time since I read a Europa Edition novel, but if you go back through the years of posts here on bookconscious you’ll find that I have read many titles from this wonderful publisher. Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin, translated by Hildegarde Serle, reminded me why. Europa consistently brings interesting voices to print, and good reads.

Fresh Water for Flowers is the story of Violette, a woman who grew up in foster homes and marries at 18, has a daughter, and soon realizes that she is going to have to support her family while her husband chases other women. They work (well, she works, Phillipe fools around) at a “level crossing” — she goes out multiple times, day and night, to lower the barrier so cars won’t cross train tracks when the train goes by. Her little daughter waves to all the people on the trains.

A series of events leads Violette to move with Phillipe to another part of France, to become cemetery caretakers. Again, Violette does all the work. She takes the job after the previous caretaker, Sasha, has taught her everything he knows about gardening, and entrusts her with tending his extensive garden and caring for the people who work in and visit the cemetery. One day, a detective named Julien comes and tells her he needs to know about a man buried in the cemetery, a prominent lawyer named Gabriel, because Julien’s mother Irène has left instructions that her ashes are to be interred with Gabriel’s.

Julien reads about the man’s funeral in Violette’s records, and later returns with Irène’s journal. It becomes clear that Julien not only wants to lay his mother to rest, but also to help Violette solve some mysteries that can help her move on in life — with him. I’m trying not to give away any of the intriguing plot. It’s a lovely book, full of sensual details like the kinds of scent and clothing the different characters wear, the types of flowers, vegetables and herbs Violette grows, wonderful descriptions of food, and many musical references. There are also many details about the places the characters inhabit. It’s vivid and evocative.

It’s also very emotional — there are some relationships that are sad and harsh and hurtful, and there are beautiful friendships and deep kindnesses. At the cemetery, Violette’s circle of coworkers become a family of sorts for her. I loved the descriptions of meals in her kitchen or garden, conversation flowing, and the many cats and a dog the gravediggers and Violette have taken in swishing around the humans. I could see many scenes in my mind and read somewhere that there is already a deal in the works to adapt the book to television.

One of the intriguing things about Fresh Water for Flowers are the chapter epigraphs — every one a little poem of sorts, like this one: “November is eternal, life is almost beautiful, memories are dead ends that we just keep turning over.” Perrin uses a mixture of dialogue, narrative, and journal entries to unspool her story. In the end, I felt I didn’t want the book to end, as Violette says: “I close Irène’s journal with a heavy heart. The way one closes a novel one has fallen in love with. A novel that’s a friend from whom it’s hard to part, because one wants it close by, in arm’s reach.”

A terrific escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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