Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book #13: The Bromeliad Trilogy

I've appreciated Terry Pratchett for a long time. I have a lot of friends and family members who love Terry Pratchett. And in fact, I've sold a lot of Terry Pratchett books. But until now I've never actually read a Terry Pratchett book. I know. It seems inconceivable. Sorry.

When he passed away recently, I asked Roger if we had any of Pratchett's books. This is the one he produced from our bookshelves, primarily because he knew that growing up I had loved stories about tiny people living in a human world (The Borrowers, The Littles).

This trilogy was written for a young adult audience. As with the best of that genre, it's full of sophisticated philosophical themes I understand he explores in many (all?) of his books.

So it wasn't just about resourceful tiny people living in a human world, but in this case it was also very much about the journey of figuring out what the "world" actually is.

"Are you trying to tell me you came from Outside?" he said.
"That's right."
"But that's impossible!"
"Is it?" Masklin looked worried.
"There's nothing Outside!"
"There isn't? Sorry," said Masklin. "But we seem to have come in from it anyway. Is this a problem?"

The trilogy reminded me of a quote I recently came across from Robert Persig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and shared immediately with my college writing students (I'm always pushing them to stretch the boundaries of their thinking): "We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."

Can we always be certain of what we think we are certain of? For me, I will keep grabbing more handfuls of sand.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Book #12: Orange Is the New Black

The bottom line is that there wasn't a chance I was going to finish the book I meant to write about this week in time.

(In my defense, it is technically a trilogy. That's the only clue I'm going to give. You'll have to wait until next Sunday to find out what it is.)

So I pulled this week's selection from the "I read most of the book when I first got it, but somehow I got distracted and didn't finish it" stack (which is, in fact, embarrassingly high).

In the case of Orange Is the New Black, I read most of it when I was on vacation in Wisconsin after my sister gave it to me for my birthday last summer, but then I spent three days in the car driving home, and, well, yeah.

Also I must confess that I have never seen the Netflix series based on the book. I don't have a Netflix account. I'd like to watch it, though. I think Piper Kerman has written an insightful and complex account of her time in the federal prison system. And she did it with a great sense of humor, which I always appreciate.

Anyway, I picked up where I left off. Kerman was getting close to the end of her sentence and was sent to re-entry classes, which felt, all humor aside, like a joke. No real respect for what many of the inmates were up against upon release.

Because teaching re-entry classes for jail inmates is actually exactly what I do, I read her critique carefully.

Hopefully she exaggerated how clueless the instructors were about transitioning to the outs for the sake of writing an entertaining narrative. But I doubt she exaggerated much. While I constantly tweak the way I teach my classes to be as relevant and helpful as possible, I also know that what I do is hardly enough.

We are missing key pieces in the system, both structural and cultural.

I'm encouraged by a criminal justice reform bill recently passed by our state legislature that focuses in part on developing better structural re-entry support as a means of reducing recidivism. As with anything politicians do, the risk of it all just being lip service is high, but I will do my best to leverage it into something concrete and effective, at least in my little corner of the world.

And near the end of the book, Kerman absolutely nails the cultural shift we need: "Lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime--certainly my own," she writes. "Yet empathy is the key to bringing a former prisoner back into the fold of society."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book #11: Moments of Clarity

I bought this book while listening to Christopher Kennedy Lawford's keynote address at a conference on addiction at Utah Valley University a few weeks ago. (Seriously, wifi access is not helpful when one has a compulsion to buy books.)

I decided to read it this week after seeing a comment a friend of a friend made on a Facebook thread. He was tired of any of his hard-earned money going to help addicts.

"Let them die," he wrote.

I don't know this guy's story. Maybe he's experienced some real trauma due to someone's addiction, maybe even his own.

Or maybe he's just an ass.

Whatever the context, I find it impossible to reconcile those three words with the conversations I've had over the past few years with literally thousands of people who struggle with substance abuse or other addictions.

Real human people.

I get to talk with most of them when they are clear headed, and while it's true that many of them will go more rounds in the justice system, I see so much intelligence, humor, talent, spiritual sensitivity, and compassion.

Real human people.

Lawford said during his keynote address that part of his mission with his writing, speaking, and advocacy is to change perceptions about addiction, and particularly about people in recovery. Yes.

Moments of Clarity contains, in their own words, more than 40 stories about the turning points some of his friends and acquaintances experienced that led to their sobriety. All of them were unique, but they had similar underlying arcs: (1) painful hopelessness became tentative hope became true and even joyful surrender to hope and (2) self centeredness, often rooted in anger or fear, became self awareness became self respect.

In his story, actor Malachy McCourt said, "out of all this, the greatest achievement was finding self worth. That's the greatest thing, finding out that I really deserve to live."

Let them die, Mr. Friend of a Friend? Not in my book.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. 
-- Ernest Hemingway.


Sunday, March 08, 2015

Book #10: The Bishop's Wife

This book has been sitting in my top priority stack of books (read: on my nightstand) since the day it was released at the end of December. I had to buy a copy after reading the positive review in the New York Times because (a) I've known author Mette Ivie Harrison since our bookstore days and I like her and (b) the story, a mystery, is set in a Mormon ward in a town north of us and I'm always curious to see how writers present the culture I am steeped in.

There are many directions I could go in this post, but in honor of the fact that today happens to be International Women's Day, I am going to take my inspiration from one of the key themes Harrison explores in the book: the role of women in the LDS faith, which is patriarchal and life-encompassing.

Like many things, and Harrison illustrates this, it is far more complex than the two competing narratives we generally hear: women (and motherhood) are honored and revered or women (mothers) are silenced and second class. Not only are there other stories as well, these two competing narratives are hardly mutually exclusive.

This passage from The Bishop's Wife reveals what could be an apt metaphor about well defined gender roles:

Whenever friends from other parts of the country come to Utah, the first thing they mention is the feeling they get from the mountains. Some people feel oppressed by them, others feel safe, like they are wrapped in a cocoon. But I am so used to them, I take them for granted. If I go elsewhere, somewhere without mountains, that's when I realize how much I miss them. I don't know how anyone can tell what direction they're headed without mountains around to help.

I grew up in a very different geography, both literally and, or so I thought for many years, figuratively. I am my own person! But the older I get, the more I realize how much I have subconsciously absorbed about gender from the world around me, and without being aware, I let it reign me in.

Coincidentally, it was Mette who posted an article that I read earlier this week about writing female characters in fiction. I thought many of the points it made could apply to the real world we are experiencing and trying to understand and working to create. One idea particularly struck me: "Some readers may not notice the shallowness or cliché because it is a portrayal they expect to see and have seen a thousand times before. Its very familiarity comforts and feels right [emphasis added].

What we see and hear over and over becomes our truth whether or not it is true.

One area this happens, especially on a subconscious level, is with the language we use. Tomorrow in my freshman writing class, I happen to be covering strategies to avoid using gendered nouns and pronouns when they are meant to include more than just men.

My whole life I was reassured, though--at school and work, but particularly at church and with scriptures--that the language is not important. All we need to do is shift our assumptions. Whenever it says man or men or mankind, we should just read it to mean that it applies to women as well.

Except, of course, for when we mysteriously shouldn't.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book #9: Night

I've read several books about people's experiences in concentration camps during World War II, but hadn't yet read Elie Wiesel's account. His has been an important voice, and I would not be at all surprised if the phrase "never forget" came from a specific passage in his account, which was originally published in the 1950s.

Early in the book Wiesel tells the story of a man from his village who had been shot and left for dead by the Gestapo while he was traveling through Poland. Moishe returned to the village and tried to warn people.

He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things.

And then Wiesel makes his own record of events in the hope that people would listen and keep them from happening again. At least now many of us are trying to listen. We want to keep them from happening again.

But it is not as easy as it sounds.

I believe this is one reason why: We hear stories we don't believe but should, like Moishe's, and we hear stories we shouldn't believe but do, like the stories the Nazis told themselves about Jews (and Roma, and homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and so on).

Sometimes we underestimate a real enemy. Sometimes we create enemies out of people who are not our enemies.

At the end of the edition of Night that I read is the text of the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Wiesel gave in 1986. "Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political view," he said, "that place must--at the moment--become the center of our universe."

May we always strive to be there and on the side of the persecuted, and watch carefully that we do not become the persecutors ourselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book #8: The Curve of Time

For years, Roger has recommended this book every time I am casting about trying to decide what to read.

This week I finally took him up on it.

The Curve of Time is a beautifully written memoir of the summers a mom, her five children, and sometimes a dog, spent in the 1920s and 30s exploring the waterways between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia by boat.

Because I come from sailing stock on both sides of my family--maybe even Vikings going back in my maternal grandfather's line--it was not hard for me to be drawn into their happy adventures and narrow escapes.

I started reading the book Monday morning as we set out on an expedition of our own in our Jeep. My dad is visiting from out of town, and the rest of us all had a holiday from work and school.

The foreword began with a detailed description of the cramped sleeping quarters on the boat. I could immediately relate. Roger and Dad were riding in front; Jack and I were cozy together in the back, nestled between the cooler on one side of us and a backpack on the other, our feet penned in by the handle of a shovel (carried in case we ever have to dig ourselves out of something).

I didn't marry a sailor. I married a boy who lives between mountains and loves the desert. I married a boy who loves to drive off the beaten path.

So, I realized, as we bounced over rocks instead of waves, our Jeep is our boat. Our desert is our ocean. Our canyons are our inlets. Our sagebrush is our seaweed. Our dust we kick up is our wake. We breathe deep and we live. Our wind is our wind and our sky is our sky.

All week as I read, I dreamed of heading up to Seattle over spring break to explore the San Juan Islands by ferry. Maybe we'd even have time to go all the way to British Columbia.

This may have been a risky book for Roger to recommend to me. Because he married a girl who comes from sailing stock on both sides and loves the sea.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book #7: Black Like Me

In 1959, the same year my parents got married, writer John Howard Griffin changed the pigment of his skin, shaved his head and spent nearly two months traveling through the southern United States as a black man.

I knew this memoir was a classic, but I still went into it with some trepidation. Would it be superficial? Would it be exploitative? What were Griffin's intentions?

What I found was a deeply insightful book that brought out the multi-faceted complexities of racial identity, injustice, cultural barriers, humanity and inhumanity.

While we are far beyond that Jim Crow era, Griffin's observations are still meaningful today. We are clearly not done untangling the threads that have been a knotted mess through many, many generations.

Yesterday, my friend Loki, who is dedicated to untangling those threads, wondered about a couple of white kids he saw walking down the sidewalk carrying .22 rifles with total impunity. Where are the police? "Oh yeah," he wrote, "they didn't fit the profile." A couple of people pushed back on him, not engaging him on the specific point he was trying to make, but criticizing his negativity. They wanted him to look on the positive side (the kids were just out having fun!), and to be his usual inspirational self.

Shortly after I read that exchange, I read a passage in Griffin's book about a friend of his who ran a local paper. "For the first year," he wrote, his friend "managed to please everyone and offend no one. The paper had prospered . . . [He] had fence-straddled all major issues, if he mentioned them at all." Eventually he "entered into a battle with his conscience, his sense of decency. It became clear to him that though he wrote in his paper what his readers wanted to see, this was not always the truth. . . . As the situation in the South degenerated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation [Brown v. Board of Education], he was faced with a choice--either he must continue more and more to alter truth to make it conform to people's comfort, or he must write the truth in the dim hope that people would alter their comfort to conform to it."

As uncomfortable as it makes us, we need to face the truth that Loki was trying to get at: in our society, white people are far more likely to be able to walk down the street carrying .22 rifles with impunity than people of color.

I can already hear the arguments defending that reality. They are the same arguments Griffin dispelled in Black Like Me more than 50 years ago.

We still have work to do.