Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book #30: The Magician's Assistant

This book was a gift from my sister, who had it signed by the author at a bookstore in Pennsylvania.  

The Ann Patchett actually held my copy in her hands!

The basic story is that a woman finds out, just after her husband dies, that he has had told her lies about his past and she travels to his hometown to piece together the truth.

I'm not inclined, at least in the same way as the woman's husband, to leave my past completely behind and reinvent an entirely new life for myself, but sometimes I do wonder who I would be if all the things that seem to define me, like home and family, were no longer a part of my life.

Would I still be me?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book #29: The Speechwriter

A friend of mine drew my attention to this book shortly before it came on out Tuesday, and I knew in my soul, wonk that I am, I had to get my hands on it.

See, I find the intersection between language and politics fascinating. I also find memoirs fascinating because the way people choose to tell their stories can reveal more about them than they may realize. (True of blogs, too. Gulp.)

Barton Swaim was a writer for Mark Sanford when he was the governor of South Carolina, both when his name was floated nationally as a presidential hopeful and when he limped through the balance of his last term in the aftermath of, as Sanford himself began to refer to it, "that which has caused the stir that it has."

The book was thankfully short on juicy gossip, which was not what I was after, and it was satisfyingly long on discussion about rhetoric, which was what I was after. He covered the gamut, from choosing single words ("After I wrote the phrase 'hiking taxes' it occurred to me that 'hiking' would have to be changed to 'raising.'") to getting inside someone else's head and articulating their scarcely conceivable grand ideas ("I always find myself trying to communicate something larger," said Sanford. "And I don't know what I mean by it exactly. It's just--I feel there's something--larger--you know, just bigger--bigger than what I'm able to communicate in words. That's what I'm after.")

The book was also full of exploration about ego, both the ego of writers and the ego of politicians. Lots and lots of ego to go around. And it was full of exploration about creating illusion and about disillusionment, about connecting with virtual strangers, like constituents, and about disconnecting from loved ones, like wives. Lots and lots of illusion and disillusionment, connection and disconnection to go around.

Through it all everyone carries on, spinning their lives with the stories they tell like so many of us do.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book #28: Becoming Human

"We are all frightened of the ugly, the dirty. We all want to turn away from anything that reveals the failure, pain, sickness, and death beneath the brightly painted surface of our ordered lives . . . How easy it is to fall into the illusion of a beautiful world when we have lost trust in our capacity to make of our broken world a place that can become more beautiful."

Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.

He is also a provocative spiritual thinker. One of my favorite kinds, actually.

In his writing, he explores what disconnects us from who we are and how we can find true freedom, both personally and in society, through meaningful connection with people we tend to marginalize or are marginalized from.

Yesterday, I met with an inmate at the jail who was particularly uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help. "I've always been able to pull it together on my own," he said apologetically. "But now I'm not sure what I'm going to do. That's why I messaged you."

As we talked, he mentioned that he was hoping maybe he could live with his 90-something grandmother, that it could be a mutually beneficial arrangement because he could see to her needs and keep her company and he'd have a home that would meet the requirements of his probation.

I silently hoped that if he did end up there, it truly would be mutually beneficial. It's the kind of thing that could go horribly wrong in any number of ways.

Then suddenly it occurred to me to tell him about this book. I happened to have it with me and decided to risk it. When I showed it to him and described what it was about, he was immediately enthused and asked me to write down the name of the author and the title so he could get hold of it after he was released.

"I know I should have more important priorities than reading," he confessed.

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure!" I laughed, pleased to discover I was hanging out with another reader. Honestly, Jean Vanier's ideas have the capacity to fundamentally transform the way he engages with life as he moves forward, and he genuinely seemed to sense that as we talked.

The system I work within at the jail can pretty much be summed up with two words: order and expedience. It's a system that can easily disconnect people, both inmates and employees, from our humanity. Talking about a book I happened to be reading at the time isn't exactly in my official job description.

But I am willing to bet the short moment we spent doing that was worth far more than the more part of the time we spent talking about "practical" things. Even if he never reads the book.

Because in that moment we connected as fellow humans, neither at the margins, both at the center.

"Everything that is human needs nourishment: the body, the mind, the memory, the imagination, and, particularly, the heart. They must be nourished by encounters with other hearts that can lead us into other gardens of life, into a new and deeper vulnerability, and into a new understanding of the universe, of God, of history, and of the beauty and depth of each and every human being."

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Book #27: Delicious!

Once again Roger, who has a gift for selecting books I'd love, brought me home a treat.

And once again, I dug into the new book instead of the others in my stack. Or, more precisely, stacks.

Mostly what I want to stay about well known food writer Ruth Reichl's first novel is that I just wanted to climb inside the pages and live there.

I will also add this.

The mystery she unfolds through the course of the book could have easily been solved early on with a little bit of Googling instead of old-fashioned, heads-together, pavement-pounding sleuthing.

But that would have been like inhaling fast food.

If there is anything Ruth Reichl knows how to do, it is to weave the slow magic of good food--the scents and sights, the textures and tastes--through and around city streets, satisfying work, family and friends, and drinking it all in deeply. Of course she would take the long way around to solve the mystery.

Since I can't climb into a story someone else created, I've got to pay more attention to my own.

Less fast food. Less Internet surfing. Less of everything that is skimmed over and barely remembered by the end of the day.

More real food. More real people. More real conversation. More real life.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book #26: The Invention of Wings

When I was a kid, I may have swallowed a bit too much water spending summers swimming in Walden Pond. It may be why I savor a bit of thirst quenching civil disobedience.

Oh, say, like Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse this week and pulling off the Confederate flag. She knew she'd be arrested. She knew the flag would go back up. But she sure made a statement people could hear far and wide. Gutsy and brilliant.

The Invention of Wings is set in Charleston and is based on the lives of real life abolitionist and suffragette sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and Handful, a slave who was gifted to Sarah on Sarah's 11th birthday.

The book is written through the eyes of Sarah and Handful, who both had aspirations that were not suitable for their time. But they were determined to pursue them--even when they were terrified, even when the path was complicated and unclear, even when people pushed back on them hard and relentlessly, and even when they got in their own or each others' way.

"I felt alone in the world with my alien ideas," Sarah said, early on in the story. I knew exactly what she meant because I have, often in stunned wonder, felt that, too.

Am I really that alone?

Not all of us overcome fear. Not all of us find our voice. Not all of us teach our slave how to read in defiance of the law, in defiance of our parents, in defiance of our preachers. Not all of us follow our ambitions. Not all of us break free from our constraints.

Not all of us climb the flagpole.

But more than just one of us think about it.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book #25: The Long Loneliness

Last weekend, I overheard (and then nosed my way into) a conversation about a book club that focuses on reading memoirs and biographies of interesting women. Hello! These were my people!

I love reading about women who break out of societal norms, and, if they do choose to conform, how they manage to do it on their own terms. I love reading about what shapes their ideas and their lives. I love reading about the impact they've had on the world around them.

Coincidentally, I had just started reading The Long Loneliness, an autobiography written by Dorothy Day, "a nonviolent social radical of luminous personality . . . founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and leader for more than fifty years in numerous battles of social justice."

That conversation with strangers was serendipitous, but then as the week wore on, I realized just how prescient my choice to read this particular book had been.

On Wednesday night at an historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man attended Bible study and an hour in, after singing and praying and talking with them, he shot and killed nine people. Because they were black.

With that context, reading about Dorothy Day's life took on a new urgency for me.

Early on, she was put off by organized religion because she had so often seen religion used to justify inhumanity and indifference to inhumanity. Exploitation, violence, oppression, extreme economic inequality, racial injustice.

And yet, increasingly, she was drawn toward God until eventually she converted to Catholicism. That is the story she wanted to tell in this book. How her spiritual journey informed her life's work.

By the end she says this: " . . . the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima [The Brothers Karamazov], a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried by fire. We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. . . We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on."

It all happened while we sat there talking.

It all happened while we sat there talking.

It all happened while we sat there talking.

This morning a friend posted, with deep emotion and a lifetime of experience as a black man in America, that he is "absolutely convinced that the subject of race can and will never be discussed honestly."

We need, all of us, for the sake of our humanity, to bear the trial by fire and work on proving my friend wrong.

The shooter in Charleston later said that he almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so kind.

It all happened while we sat there talking. 

To love we must know each other.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book #24: The Clockwork Three

I've been meaning to check out Matthew Kirby's writing for a while because he's a good friend of good friends of ours.

When I heard he was going to have a launch party for his most recent book, The Arctic Code, at The King's English Bookshop at the end of April, I shifted into high gear and got a copy of his first book to start reading with Jack before taking him to hear Matt speak.

The most memorable moment in his presentation for me? When he told us how he responds to a question he can't quite believe he gets so often (isn't it 2015?!): Why does he write so many books with lead characters who are girls?

"Why not?" he says.

Over the years, Jack has read and loved many books with interesting and strong female main characters. Many of them we have read together. Maybe by the time he starts reading books with his own children, this will have ceased to be something unusual.

So it may have taken a while (hey, it's nearly 400 pages and teenagers do have lives of their own), but Jack and I wrapped up our reading of The Clockwork Three today. What an intricate story, woven together in a way that kept us intrigued from start to finish!

And Matt, if you happen to be reading this, I need to tell you that I got a little choked up as I read the last few paragraphs. You ended the book on just the right note.

Wish we still had our bookstore so we could sell the heck out of your work.