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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

Do you recall my saying I need to read something more uplifting? This isn’t it, especially. I love Edwidge Danticat‘s work. If you’ve been with me here at bookconscious for a long time you know I’ve reviewed Claire of the Sea Light (beautiful, a “delicate” book about human frailty) and The Dew Breaker (which is about a torturer — and yet Danticat portrays him with “psychological depth”). So when I saw Danticat had a new collection, Everything Inside, I ordered it for our library.

Her writing is still all the things I’ve said before — masterful, delicate, musical, rich — and her characters are multidimensional. The stories in this collection are not brutal, per se, but they peel back the curtain on the brutality of the world at large. This book explores the immigrant experience from several angles. Many of the stories are about love, and what we’ll do in the name of love, but they are also about other ordinary experiences — coming to terms with a parent’s dementia, dealing with post-partum depression, learning a family secret, trying to understand a friend or loved on who acts in a way we don’t expect, trying to be an adult, dealing with loss.

You definitely shouldn’t miss it. And maybe, reading it now is a reminder that for many people around the world and right here in the U.S., the experience of insecurity, illness, family strife, isolation, and fear is actually normal life.

 

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I wanted to love On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Maybe in a less fraught time I would have. I recognize it as beautiful, imaginative, and important for representing immigrant experience and gay coming- of-age experience. Maybe I’m just weary of pain and suffering — in literature, in the news, in the world.

This is the story of Little Dog, a young Vietnamese American boy who falls in love with a white boy, Trevor, a little bit older and just as scarred. Both have single parents. Little Dog lives with his mother and intermittently, also his aunt and Grandmother, all of whom have trauma from wartime and postwar experiences and also live with mental illness. They are poor; the book also touches on some of what the a series in the New York Times exposed about immigrant nail salon workers.  Trevor lives in a trailer with his Dad. They are also poor, and traumatized by loss and violence and pain. As in so many families with trauma, they all hurt each other.

The story ranges from the 90s (with a few older flashbacks reflecting Little Dog’s family’s experiences in Vietnam) into the 2000s and touches on a few of the more recent cultural traumas, like 9/11 (very briefly) and the opioid crisis (which plays a major part in the story). So. Tough to read.

It’s meant to be a letter from Little Dog to his mother, but not one she’ll read (she can’t read). But it isn’t a letter that follows a narrative arc or tells a straightforward story. There are many asides, including, woven throughout, some digressions about Monarch butterflies.

Lovely? Even a little bit warmly humorous? Yes. Try this:

“My reflection warped over the storefront glass as we rode. The stoplights blinked yellow and the only sound was the clicking spokes beneath us. We rode back and forth like that, and for a stupid moment it felt like that strip of concrete called Main Street was all we ever possessed, all that held us. Mist came down, difracted the streetlights into huge, van Gogh orbs. Trevor, ahead of me, stood up on his bike, arms out on both sides, and shouted, ‘I’m flying! Hey, I’m flying!”

Yes, like the scene from Titanic, which Vuong references in the next sentence for those who might not make the connection. Perhaps he is a prize-winning poet, his editors wanted to ensure that readers of the future will get the reference, when Titanic may not be as familiar.

As I said, I get the literary merit. And beneath the sorrow, it’s a love story, about young love, and about Little Dog’s family. I didn’t enjoy it. I think that’s ok. It would hard to be human and enjoy this much pain.

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A few years ago I wrote here about Kerry Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My MaI described it as “squirm inducing”  and said “The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it.”

The same could be said for Douglas Stuart’s debut, Shuggie Bain. It’s the devastating story of Hugh, nicknamed Shuggie, who is growing up wit an alcoholic mother in public housing in Glasgow in the 1980s. There are a few glimmers of hope. But, having just read Peggy Orenstein’s Atlantic article, “The Miseducation of the American Boy: Why boys crack up at rape jokes, think having a girlfriend is “gay,” and still can’t cry—and why we need to give them new and better models of masculinity,” I found the toxic masculinity in Shuggie Bain hard to face. It was a reminder that as bad as we think things are now, they’ve been worse.

Even the teachers and coaches are mean to Shuggie. None of the other mothers look after him. No one does. I cringed through the depictions of sexual abuse, misogyny, homophobia, dysfunction, violence, and neglect. In fact at one point I thought “Why am I reading this?”

But, as with Hudson’s book, I read it to understand. To walk in someone else’s shoes, as I said when I read Tony Hogan. And to feel, in the end, happy that each of the three Bain kids gets out. In their way, the siblings love each other. And Shuggie is not entirely alone; Leanne, his lone friend, is a character I would love to see more of.

While Shuggie Bain is, as several reviewers note, a book about love, resilience, and strength, you only get to that after reading through a great deal of pain and suffering. Not for the faint hearted. But Shuggie is a character well worth knowing.

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I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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I went to visit the former teen the elder to hear his divinity school senior sermon last week. It was terrific to spend time with him and his classmates — such a smart and spirit-filled bunch of people. I was pleased to see his bookshelves so full, and he knew I’d enjoy popping into the div school bookstore (which is independent!) while I was there. It was hard but I limited myself to two books, and one of them was All About Love by bell hooks.

I’d only read essays by bell hooks, and those have been written for educators, or at least people interested in pedagogy. This book is definitely for everyone. Hooks notes in her introduction that she chose to write a book about love because she realized ours is “no longer a world open to love.” The rest of the book is an eloquent argument for the vital need we all have not only to feel loved, but also to give love.

Hooks lays out what the world could be like if we placed love at the center of our lives, and then gently instructs readers in the skills and mindsets that could accomplish that. For example, she calls on us all to be more open in our communications about love as well as to have a “love ethic” in public policy and civic life. She also approaches romantic and sexual love from the same practical viewpoint, examining common problems with these kinds of love and gently pointing to solutions.

I enjoyed this book for two reasons: first, hooks is not a scold. I’m sure you’ve all read intellectual work that takes a position and then beats readers over the head with it. Hooks instead makes her case in the way a good friend or kind and wise older relative might. Firmly, but with compassion. Second, she quotes a number of other authors and provides a list of their books in the back of All About Love. I always appreciate having ideas for further reading.

Certainly some of what hooks writes is not new — most people are aware there is a lack of love in our common life these days, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t learned some of the lessons hooks explores about interpersonal love. And many people, even if not religious, are familiar with the spiritual idea of lovingkindness found in several of the world’s major religions. But hooks manages to write about these familiar ideas in fresh ways.

For example, she notes “Young people are cynical about love. Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart. . . .  Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. Yet young listeners remain reluctant to embrace love as a transformative force. Their attitude is mirrored in the grown-ups they turn to for explanations.”

She goes on to say that when talking to people of her own generation about the ideas in this book, she was sometimes told she “should consider seeing a therapist.” Her conclusion that today’s generations of young people are cynical in part because preceding generations have taught them that love is not to be trusted is both incredibly obvious and not something I’d thought of before. I tended to blame the culture at large — but who makes that culture? All of us.

I’m not really doing this book justice — hooks touches on so many more big ideas, like trust, honesty, justice, divinity, gender, patriarchy, mutuality and commitment — and I think it needs to be read more than once to fully grasp its power. Hooks is an incredible voice for about the most key element of human interaction. It’s a book that makes me want to sit and talk about the ideas with someone . . . someone I love!

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Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl is a book that caught my eye when it came out. I skimmed a review (librarians do, you know — we have a lot of reviews to get through) and read that it was about monarch butterflies and birds and insects. That sounded good, and the subtitle, I thought, referred to species in decline, and someone who loved nature. Sounded great.

I missed the fact that it’s the story of Renkl’s family as well, mainly her family of origin but also somewhat about her life as a mother and spouse. When I started reading I was mildly annoyed by the structure, which weaves back and forth between natural history and family stories. But eventually, this grew on me, as the book seemed to weave themes together, like the spiders or birds whose webs and nests Renkl admires.

It’s a beautiful book, which is the other reason it grew on me. Renkle admires ” . . . he red-tailed hawk fluffs her feathers over her cold yellow feet and surveys the earth with such stillness I could swear it wasn’t turning at all.” And describes finding herself outside in college, when she “headed out” after weeks in which she “followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria.” As she walks away from the crowds and into “red dirt lanes” that remind her of her childhood, she says, “I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense of the glory that was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once — feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, where dark and light exist simultaneously.”

That is not precisely the way I picture eternity, but that’s a minor quibble. Renkl’s writing is lovely. I could see the places and creatures and relatives she described, and could empathize with the emotions she described. And she doesn’t glorify things; her descriptions of early motherhood, caregiving for frail and ill elders, and grieving are not prettied up, even if the words she uses are a delight. The experiences she relates are things most of us go through, but don’t necessarily reflect on the way she has.

A good read, thoughtful and serious, but also humorous in places, moving, and evocative.

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A new colleague at work recommended The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater to the One Book, One Manchester committee.  I read it over a few nights before bed and the only problem I have with it is I got less sleep — rather than drifting off after a few paragraphs or even a few pages, I kept reading, wanting to know what happened.

Otherwise, I loved this book. It’s the story of Sasha and Richard, two teens in Oakland California. Richard, an African American young man, is a student at Oakland High. Sasha is a white agender senior at Maybeck, a small private school. As Slater notes, “Each afternoon the two teenagers’ journeys overlap for a mere eight minutes. If it hadn’t been for the 57 bus, their paths might never have crossed at all.”

In a moment that changes both of their lives forever on November 4, 2013, while Sasha is sleeping on the bus, Richard, who has been goofing around with some friends, lights the edge of Sasha’s skirt on fire. This book tells their stories before that moment, and after. It’s an incredible story both because Sasha and Richard are not unique — there are teens like each of them all over this country. And because Sasha and Richard — and teens like them all over this country — are unique.

Slater explodes the idea that there is equal justice under the law, which frankly is an idea that had already imploded on its own. But she also portrays people in the criminal justice system fairly, neither demonizing or lionizing them. And she also manages to make both Sasha’s middle class, educated, liberal parents and Richard’s working class single mom fully human rather than stereotyped representations of their types. The opportunities denied Richard and provided to Sasha are spooled out naturally, as part of their stories. Slater does not club readers over the head with the truth.

But she does make clear that despite Sasha’s suffering, they were ultimately ok. And that despite Richard’s imprisonment, he was also ok. And she celebrates the generosity, compassion, and kindness that Richard’s mother and Sasha’s parents exhibited towards each other and towards their children. You’ll learn about what Sasha and their friends think about being nonbinary, what Richard thinks about being a young black man in Oakland, how they each tried to get what they needed at their schools. And you’ll learn about the media’s influence on a crime’s narrative, and how that impacts what the offender, victim, and their friends and families experience. And about restorative justice, an alternative to criminal proceedings that is about addressing the harm done and how to repair it.

I think this is a beautiful book. It’s honest, thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful. Slater did a great deal of research and spoke at length with all the people she writes about. I thought it was a terrific read, and would make for good discussions.  In an interesting twist, Slater’s charge to readers comes at the end of the very first brief chapter, rather than at the end, and it has stayed with me: “Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.”

Of course she doesn’t mean me, or you. She means us. There must be something we can do.

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