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I’ve been reading All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis for a book discussion with a climate advocacy group I’m involved with. It’s taken me a long time; I think I started reading it in May. First of all it’s not bedtime reading. Too serious, and in some cases too alarming. Also it’s a collection of dozens of essays and poems, each of which merits digesting on its own, so it’s not a page turner. I think there are 41 different essayists and 17 poets represented if I counted correctly. That’s a lot of different writing styles and perspectives.

The writers in this collection are from many backgrounds, cultures, ages, and life experiences. They are all women. And they share a common hope for solutions that can mitigate the impacts of climate change and help bring about a more just and sustainable world. These are folks working in all kinds of places on all kinds of projects, from activists to organizers to academics, policymakers, nonprofit founders — writers, thinkers, and doers. Some, like Sarah Stillman, shine a light on aspects of climate change that are hard or heartbreaking, like climate refugees and the inequity that follows climate disasters like hurricanes. Others are working to scale up individual dreams into collective action, like Emily Stengel who is helping people farm at sea via the nonprofit Greenwave.

It’s a helpful book for contextualizing how much progress is being made all over the country (the writers reference international efforts here and there, but are mostly working themselves in the U.S.), community by community, activist by activist. There are some common themes, such as:

— while individual action matters, especially actions that can lead to large scale change (voting for example, is a key individual action), collective, systemic action is needed at this point, as soon as possible

— that doesn’t mean you should keep living as if there is no climate crisis or throw up your hands and say what you do doesn’t matter. We can all contribute to a fossil-fuel free future.

— there are people who are already figuring out what can be done, so you aren’t alone and you don’t have to come up with a plan. Just connect with those who are already in the struggle.

— listening to those most impacted by climate change already is a good place to start.

— understanding how climate change intersects with other justice issues, like racism, gender inequality, poverty, etc. is important.

There is so much to learn from in this collection. Even if you don’t read it straight through, check it out.

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I bought this novel for myself last fall, intending it as a a between-jobs treat, and then put it in the to-read pile next to my favorite chair where it stayed until recently. The only other book I’ve read by Francis Spufford is Unapologetic, a nonfiction book about his experience of Christian belief, a vacation read many summers ago. I loved that book. Spufford made his name as a writer of nonfiction, and Light Perpetual is his second novel. To have your second novel longlisted for the Booker, after winning a Costa prize for your first (which I’m eyeing for this year’s vacation reading) must be very affirming.

Light Perpetual is about five kids killed by a V-2 rocket that hits a Woolworths on a Saturday in 1944 in the fictional south London neighborhood of Bexford. They die in the opening pages of the book: sisters Jo and Valerie, and their classmates and neighbors Alec, Ben, and Vernon. Spufford describes in exquisitely observed detail the moment of the bombing with prose like this: “The moving thread of combustion, all combustion done, becomes a blast wave pushing on and out in the same directions, driven by the pressure of the livid gas behind. And what it touches, it breaks. A spasm of deformation, of dislocation, passes through every solid thing, shattering it to fragments that then accelerate outward themselves at the forefront of the wave.” That’s only a snippet of the carefully described moments that set off the story. You can see why Spufford’s nonfiction has won such praise.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Spufford imagines “all the futures they won’t get” and asks, “How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be?” The book goes on to image these might, could, and would be’s for each of the five children, through the decades. If this sounds sentimental, it’s far from it.

Each of their stories through the decades includes moments of happiness and grief. The only one who seems like he causes irreparable harm without much desire to atone is Vern. But each of the others to one extent or another also experiences or even causes some grief or another, mostly inadvertently. Ben may be my favorite. As a young man he’s haunted by fears he can’t explain, and (mis)treated for mental illness, but he ends up the most contented of any of them. And in the end, he has a vision of sorts:

“But if the different bits and pieces of his life, rising, lofted as if by a bubble of force from below, are arranged in a messy spiral of hours and years, then mightn’t there be a place, mightn’t there be an angle, from which you could see the whole accidental mass composing, just from that angle, into some momentary order you never could have noticed at the time? Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align? Into a clockface of transparencies. This whole mess a rose, a window.”

The book begins and ends with particles of life, shattering at the start from the bomb, coalescing in the end in the musings of an old man. It’s a lovely structure within which to hold these lives, and a gentle pulling together of the two ideas that drive the book: that the zillions of moments that together make up our millions of lives come together into a composite whole that looks different from different viewpoints, and that we only have so much time in this world to be what we are to each other. While he gives these children more time in the novel, Spufford reminds us in the end that they had none of it.

A lovely book that affords some empathy to even its darkest characters, Light Perpetual is a good read.

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I’ve been reading, just haven’t had time to blog. We’ve been spending time with our son and granddog who are moving to the midwest next week. While the granddog was staying with us, I read Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral a couple of weeks ago. It is about a German town and its cathedral in the 1200s. I actually wish it there had been more about the cathedral and less about murder and misogyny. The most interesting thing about this book was how tumultuous the times were, and how different characters and their families rode out their changing fortunes. But mostly it was about how greed for power and wealth permeated church and state as well as commerce. it’s a miracle the church survived as a religious institution given how corrupt and political it was. Maybe all the political maneuvering and prioritizing of profits and senseless violence in this book was just a little too much right now.

Then I read the second S J Bennett Queen Elizabeth mystery, All the Queen’s Men, which has a much better British title: A Three Dog Problem. I enjoyed the first of these, The Windsor Knot, and it seemed like the latest would be a good read for the UK’s Jubilee week, and I was in the mood for something lighter after Cathedral. But, I found the sequel harder to follow — the mystery just didn’t seem as plausible to me — and I’m less comfortable with a white author writing about a Black woman’s perspective (the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi) after spending a year in a social justice class. I enjoyed the parts that imagined what the Queen was thinking, but I didn’t find it as funny as the first one. That said, the scenes with the dogs are fun, and I enjoy Bennett’s portrayal of the affection between the Queen and Prince Philip.

One read I very much enjoyed was The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Bookconscious readers know I read another of Shafak’s novels, Honour, early in the pandemic. I liked it a lot, and was happy to find another book by Shafak in the library’s eBook app. The Island of Missing Trees, like Honour, deals with the lives of immigrants in London. The central characters are Kostas, a Greek Cypriot man, Defne, his recently deceased Turkish Cypriot wife, their daughter Ada, and the fig tree that grows in their garden in London. Yes, the fig tree is a main character.

Kostas is a prominent environmental scientist, Ada his teenage daughter. When the novel opens they’ve been struggling to communicate in the aftermath of Defne’s death. It’s almost the winter break at school when Ada has an embarrassing incident in class, precipitated by thinking about an assignment requiring her to speak to an older relative, something she doesn’t have. At home, she finds her father outside as a storm approaches, burying the fig tree to keep it safe from the harsh winter weather.

With the storm comes an unexpected visitor, her mother’s sister, Meryem. With her superstitions, her suitcase full of colorful clothes she’s never worn, and her penchant for cooking many dishes at once, Meryem rubs Ada the wrong way. The teen tells this aunt she’s never met that she’ll never forgive her for not attending her mother’s funeral. Ada avoids Meryem as best she can, but curiosity — after all this is someone who knew her mother and father when they were young — overcomes antipathy. I found this very realistic.

Kostas and Defne’s story comes out in bits; the fig tree tells us that in real life stories are like that. It took a little getting used to the fact that the fig tree has a voice in this novel, as do other creatures. I wasn’t sure what to make of that at first, but having read books about plant sentience, it didn’t seem far fetched to me that the fig would be a reliable source of information. While Ada learns a little bit more about her parents from Meryem, the fig shares the story of Cyprus in 1974, history that was vague to me before, through the stories of young Kostas and Defne.

Island of Missing Trees is about the impossibility of shielding children from their parents’ pain, the damage to humanity and the natural world when colonialism and tribalism erupt into war, the struggle to heal from loss and the way culture can travel and adapt. Defne makes Kostas promise that their child will be British, which is to say, she will not be burdened by their past in Cyprus, but it’s not a promise that can be kept — the not telling is itself a kind of wound. Ada feels the loss of having no relatives, no opinion about the best kind of baklava, no idea that her parents were childhood sweethearts.

As the tree says towards the end of the book, “The voices of our motherlands never stop echoing in our minds. We carry them everywhere we go.” The fig is the connection to Cyprus for Kostas, and for Ada, who has never been, but tells her aunt she will travel there now that the door has been opened. Meryem asks which side she’ll visit, and Ada says “I’ll come to the island . . . . I just want to meet islanders, like myself.”

Shafak is careful not to make the ending unrealistically optimistic — yes, Defne was involved in the effort to heal the past by finding and identifying remains, helping families put their dead to rest, and helping Cypriots of different backgrounds share their stories. Yes, Ada’s generation doesn’t necessarily carry their parents’ prejudices forward. But there are many references to climate change — Shafak notes through those parts of the story that people are still finding ways to destroy communities, human and nonhuman.

Still, The Island of Missing Trees is a lovely and mostly hopeful book, a book about a father and daughter making peace with their grief together. Even though Defne fell victim to, as Kostas describes, “the past, the memories, the roots,” there is a sense that Ada will be able to move into the future stronger for having finally learned a little more about those things. I really enjoyed this novel.

Finally, I just this morning finished Thirst, by Amélie Nothomb. It’s a short novel told from the point of view of Jesus just before, during and after the crucifixion. This is not a religious book — one review called it “potentially heretical” and Nothomb has Jesus correct a few things in the Gospels that he says were misreported or misrepresented — but rather a literary take on what Jesus might have felt and thought. From chiding the beloved disciple: “John, I love you very much. But that does not mean you can go around spouting nonsense.” To riffing on ordinary human pleasures: “I’ve always loved the feeling of being sheltered the moment it starts raining harder and harder, it’s a wonderful sensation.” And appreciating his human parents: “Joseph was good by nature . . . . My mother, too, is a far better person than I am,” as well as the truly kind people he encounters, like Simon of Cyrene “If he’d just shown up on the street by chance and seen me staggering under the cross, I think he would have reacted exactly the same way: not pausing to think for even a second, he would have run up to help.”

It’s also an examination of what humanity is; Jesus speculates that “The entire human condition can be summed up like that: it could be worse.” And thirst is a central preoccupation of his, as the title implies, and he returns to the subject throughout the book, musing at one point, “A dry throat imagines water as ecstasy, and the oasis is proof against waiting. He who drinks after crossing the desert never says, ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.'” And from the cross, “From deep within a desire wells up, the desire that most resembles me, my pet craving, my secret weapon, my true identity, the thing that has made me love life and makes me love it still:

‘I thirst.'”

This was an interesting read, if you’re open to a fictional retelling of Jesus’s life.

It’s lovely to have had so many interesting things to read lately.

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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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I adore Ali Smith‘s writing; if you’ve been reading bookconscious for a while you’ll know I read her seasons quartet and loved each book, and I’ve read a couple of her other books as well. I was very excited to see that Smith had a new book out in May, Companion Piece. Like many of her other works, this novel features women artists. One, Sandy/Sand, living in contemporary England during the pandemic, gets a phone call from a college acquaintance, Martina, who aggravated her then and still seems to now. Martina tells her a strange story about being detained by British customs with a rare lock she’s bringing to the museum where she works, and asks for Sand’s help understanding what happened. Sand is contending with the social mores of her time during the COVID pandemic, worrying about her hospitalized father, caring for his dog. The second woman is an unnamed young blacksmith who is exceptionally good at her craft, but has no family and loses her home and job when the smith and his wife in her village die. She is contending with the social mores of her time, during the plague pandemic centuries earlier. This woman appears in the modern portion of the story as someone who comes into Sands’ house unexpectedly, with a curlew who also accompanies her in her own time.

Is there meant to be an actual visitation of someone from the past, a touch of magical realism in this novel? Or is this simply a story Sand tells Martina to satisfy, in a way, her strange out-of-the-blue request, as Sand later tells Martina’s daughters? Smith writes, “I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end to the girl, except that she went the way of all girls. Same with the bird, other than it went the way of all birds. If any of this ever happened, if either of them ever existed.”

Why include her in the story? This young blacksmith’s sense of self reliance flies in the face of a patriarchal society that teems with mistrust and dissent in a time when people contended with outbreaks of plague and also with enclosure — the practice of taking common land away from the people and placing it under the sole control of the local aristocracy, which consolidated power and wealth and was also, according to some historians, the end of a cultural connection to the land and the source of the first “satanic panics” in Europe. Not only does she survive, but in Smith’s telling, the girl has many supporters in her community who respect her abilities and subtly help her. Smith reminds us that the official narrative of repression, punishment, and labeling (she’s literally branded with a V for vagabond, a mark for others to know where she fits in society) isn’t the end of the story.

Meanwhile in Sands’ time, Martina’s twin daughters show up at her house accusing her of ruining their family. Sand lets them in, welcomes them in a way. They don’t leave. They don’t wear masks and she can’t get COVID and risk sickening her father, they meddle with her life, her house, her stuff, but rather than call any authorities or make a fuss she does her best to engage with them, and when they won’t go, she goes over to her father’s house. This would be impossible to fathom, she remembers conversation when she was much younger with her father as they were listening to a song about people showing up at your door. Her father says you should “Invite them in. Put the kettle on. What else are you going to do?” When she rolls her eyes he goes on, “And by putting the kettle on I mean polite. Welcoming whatever’s happening, whatever’s going on. That’s resistance too.”

It’s a weird thing, though, that she lets this maddeningly rude family temporarily displace her and use her. They’re really awful, they threaten her. She remains calm and simply explains she told their mother a story, and why. They accuse her of being a liar, and she says “People who tell lies are only interested in the enslavement of their listeners to some cause of their own.” Which really describes politics and commerce in our time, and also the shifting narratives of why we have to open things up during COVID to protect our economy, or why we were told to go shopping after 9/11 to defeat terrorism. Sand also doesn’t need to be right. She muses at one point, “I knew nothing really, about anything or anybody. I was making it up as I went along, like we all are.”

To me, Sand represents the potential we all have to resist — she resists being estranged from her dad who is grumpy with her and has been dismissive of her work as an artist. She resists feeling angry towards her mother, who left when she was a small child. She resists being dismissive herself, of Martina or her rude family. She’s resisted living the way “everyone else” lives — doesn’t have an online presence, not even a website. She resists being disheartened by the people who act like COVID’s over. She finds stories in what’s happening in the world, rather than bitterness. She uses words to enlighten, to enlarge. For me, Sand and the blacksmith are both examples of people living freely in a world that tries to constrain our freedom, through economic and political controls that are meant to divide people in ways that consolidate power. And symbols of a kind of humane resistance, a put-the-kettle-on resistance, that we’re told regularly doesn’t exist. Just think of how often you hear that we’re living in a polarized world.

Companion Piece is beautiful and thought provoking, and also like all of Ali Smith’s work, just a glorious master class is the use of words. Smith not only plays with meanings but with the sound and variation of language — even the title, is it about companionship, is it about being a companion book to her quartet? It’s a lovely read, and I found it a hopeful one. We should all live more like Sand.

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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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Siobhan Phillips‘ debut novel novel, Benefit, reminds me of a skit Eddie Izzard does about British films where he says the action consists of a character saying something like “I guess we better had,” and a pause until another character says “Yes, we rather shall.” It’s more of an indie film character driven kind of story rather than a plot driven story (that is not a critique — I happen to very much like that kind of film). The benefit of the title is for a foundation established by the widow of a sugar magnate that provides paid fellowships for students wishing to study at Oxford or the Sorbonne. The main character of Benefit, Laura, was the recipient of one of those scholarships. When the book begins, it’s ten years later, and she has been laid off from her adjunct faculty job and is moving back in with her mother. Her friend Heather, who has had a successful career working for a consultancy, asks her to write an essay for the foundation’s benefit. It’s unclear why a foundation whose original funds came from a sugar fortune needs to have a benefit dinner, but the event draws Laura back into the circle of people she knew at Oxford.

Other than Heather, she hasn’t kept in touch with many of the other fellows. She is the lone literature scholar among them, and her dissertation is on minor characters in Henry James. She loves research but feels that this work is somewhat pointless compared to the accomplishments of her friends. This is perhaps my favorite part of the book — that Phillips shows, through the story, what capitalism does to undermine the value of intellectual or creative work. Laura feels badly about herself because she likes working hard at reading, writing, and thinking, at piecing together research. And she has the least stable work of anyone from her group of fellows because of her preference for this kind of work. Phillips does provide glimpses of what else gives Laura this sense of inferiority, including her family status, and body image,but her occupation is the key to her suffering, both psychological and financial.

For much of the book she enjoys researching the foundation, it’s mysterious widow benefactress, and the exploitative and corrupt sugar industry which yielded the inheritance she gave to fund it. For example, history books talk a lot about cotton, but slavery on a sugarcane plantation was in some ways even worse; similarly the sugar industry pretty much wrote the book on corporate subsidies and buying politicians. Phillips provides sources for Laura’s work at the end of the book. And yet, even this new research path, which Laura follows thoroughly and with relish, leaves her feeling inadequate, and questioning whether her work has any worth.

Or worse, whether any of us can do anything that’s any good. At one point Laura muses, “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you. Or all three.” I think this admirably captures the sense of helplessness that recent history has awakened. Major historical events that happen during Benefit — the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars, the 2008 economic crisis, the occupy movement and its failure to bring about lasting change, have created a sense for many people that Laura is right, there is no way not to be at least tangentially involved in the things of this world that cause other people, and potentially yourself, harm. If you’re among the people who’ve wondered why young people seem so angry — that’s one of the big reasons. They’ve seen that our institutions, systems, and ways of operating are founded on cruelty or will crash or have no use for them, or all three. That’s really spot on.

And it’s what makes this an interesting book. Some of the minor scenes — like a class for people working in “student success” and an interview with one of the sugar widow’s last surviving relatives that turns into an avante garde portrait sitting — are slyly humorous. Most of the characters are not particularly likeable, but I did root for Laura, and hoped she would find some peace and a way to support herself; there is a sense that she has a mentor who can help her regain her sense of herself, but we don’t learn that until close to the end of the book. And yet, despite a glimmer of support, this is a fairly bleak book, where the characters and society generally don’t seem to be heading for redemption. They’re satisfied, but they’re mostly, other than Laura and her mother, pretty self absorbed. And there was a lot about one of Laura’s friends, Mark, in the beginning that led me to think he’d be pivotal later on. He wasn’t, which I guess is true to life as well — how many of us, existing on the periphery of the brightest lights in our social circles, really never connect with them in any meaningful way?

Anyway, an interesting read, and it’s always good to see what Bellevue Literary Press is up to!

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As lockdowns dragged on in late spring 2020, Yiyun Li and A Public Space led a worldwide read-along of War & Peace, which they called “Tolstoy Together;” I wrote about it here. SInce then they’ve led other worldwide reads, now called #APStgeother, which culminate in a virtual conversation about the book. It’s been very interesting and enjoyable to participate in some of these (see my posts about Persuasion and Hue and Cry). This spring, two years’ into the pandemic, Yiyun Li was back, inviting the world to read Moby-Dick, a book she explained that she first delved into at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson and has read annually ever since. One helpful aspect of #APStogether is the plan: each author suggests a reading schedule for their selected work, which makes approaching a sprawling classic like Melville’s tale of the white whale much less intimidating. Moby-Dick took a month, and I found that the daily selections were easily read during my lunch breaks or in the evenings.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you might still know something about it, such as the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” that has spawned a million riffs. What you may not know is that this novel, now considered one of the greatest in American literature, was more or less a flop during Melville‘s lifetime. In his lovely celebration of the book, Why Read Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains that it sold only 3715 copies between its publication, when Melville was in his 30s, and his death at 72 (it had already gone out of print by that time). He credits the brilliance of the book as the secret to its longevity:

“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”

Just as Starbuck, the mate on the whaleship Pequod, is unable to stop mad Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of revenge on the white whale, even though Starbuck knows it will bring danger to the ship and its crew, so America was unable to prevent the madness of slavery and racism from rending it. Philbrick notes, “As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears and hatreds in us all.” Which makes this book, written in the 1850s, relevant in every age, including today.

Both Philbrick’s book and Li’s zoom discussion also touch on Melville’s writing. Philbrick notes, “In its willful refusal to follow the usual conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, Moby-Dick possessed the experimental swagger so many authors were attempting to capture in the years after World War I.” Li referred to the novel as “messy” (as does Philbrick) with no emphasis on a narrative arc, a book that contains what she called “a whole universe” that requires readers to “float along with Ishmael” as he digresses from the loose tale of Captain Ahab and the journey of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick onto a wide range of topics that are both factual and philosophical. Li noted that the book is “craftless” — and that this is an important lesson to writers, that a novel “doesn’t have to be finely crafted to be good.”

As he examines everything from the specific details of whaling to the mysteries of the human mind and spirit, Melville is often poetic, as in this line describing Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” And philosophical, as in “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” He not only muses about death and the afterlife, but also revels in the minutiae of Ishmael’s here and now.

So, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, give it a try. Read it slowly, a little at a time, and with a guide such as Yiyun Li or Nathaniel Philbrick to steer you through its turbulent seas. Find someone to read it with you, to talk it over. And enjoy!

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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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