"Every well-written book is a light for me. When you write, you use other writers and their books as guides in the wilderness."
Recommending a book was a favorite part of my job as a librarian. Handing a book to a child and asking "Have you read this?" was a sacred rite. It always brought untold joy to my librarian heart when a child decided to give a new book a chance. So it is here that I want to once again share books that I have read, books that were a light for me, books that enlightened, thrilled, troubled, or simply offered a new perspective. Maybe they will be a light for you as well. I hope so. It would make my librarian heart so happy. ~c.h.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is the story Liesel Meminger, a young German girl who is adopted by a foster family just as Hitler’s reign of terror begins. “Death” is the narrator of her story. At first I found this a bit oft putting if not uncomfortable. However as I followed Liesel’s story, I realized that “Death” has a unique perspective. He sees both our evil and violent nature yet marvels at our compassion. At the end, he wonders how humanity can be “so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant” His removed but passionate interest in the dichotomy of humanity gave me some needed distance from the violence and horror of the time.
Death also sees time less linearly than humans do. As a result, he often gets ahead of the story giving the reader hints of what is to come without fleshing out the details. As a reader this only peaked my interest. I was curious and wanted to know how things would unfold. This wider view of time, also allows Death to fill in the details of German life without judgement. We meet the people in Liesel’s life through Death’s dispassionate observations: her beloved, accordion playing “Papa;” her sardonic, foul mouthed “Mama;” her thrill seeking best friend, Rudy; the mysteriously reclusive, mayor’s wife; and sensitive Max the Jewish son of a friend from Papa’s past. Through the lives of these characters, we are shown what life was like for the German people under Hitler’s brutal regime.
Like the readers of this story, we know how our own stories will end. While the details are not clear yet, each of us knows we will die. We can dread it or try to ignore it, but there is no escaping our inevitable demise. I wonder now if this isn’t the real message of Liesel’s story. Perhaps, Death is reminding us not of our end but of our living. Like a reader, we must turn our own pages to find out what comes next in our story. Our lives, like Liesel’s are filled with rich characters, adventures, stories, unexpected turns, and inevitable pain or struggles to overcome. Liesel, The Book Thief, reminds us to be curious and open to the wonder of what will happen in our next chapter. She urges us to be curious and brave. So why not turn the page? ~c.h.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
“An American Marriage” is the story of Roy and Celestial’s marriage, but it is also in many ways the story of every marriage. Roy & Celestial were married for only 18 months when Roy is falsely accused of a crime during a visit to his small hometown in Louisiana. Celestial a budding artist must return to their home in Atlanta alone. Suddenly, this young couple must subsist on letters and supervised visits while Celestial’s uncle works to free Roy from a twelve year prison sentence. Jones deftly tells the story through their letters and separated lives.
In a recent interview with the author, Tayari Jones, Jeffrey Brown asked about the title. “That’s a big title, right?” When Jones’ editor suggested the title, she balked, saying it sounded like it was “about white people living in Connecticut.” However, her editor challenged her.
“If you feel that this title doesn’t represent your work, I will support you in changing it. But if you’re afraid of stepping into the world of big ideas, if you’re afraid that your novel cannot support the weight of the claim of an American story,” he says, “I really implore you to rethink it.”
Happily, she listened to him, because Celestial & Roy’s story is indeed an American story. Sadly, it is an America where black Americans are disproportionally incarcerated and falsely accused. Yet, I am glad her editor wisely prevailed, because the book also asks the big questions that inevitably come up in any relationship. How do we stand together and yet stand alone in our own right? How do I share my life without losing myself? Are my struggles intrinsically my spouse’s struggles? Must I bear their burdens as well as my own? When Roy writes from prison, “I am innocent.” Celestial writes back, “I am innocent too.” So many hard truths are conveyed in those few spare lines.
Marriage is often a tender, tentative dance of coming together and dancing apart. Tayari Jones creatively weaves these universal struggles into Celestial & Roy’s unique story and in doing so reminds us of the “big ideas” that connect us all. ~c.h. 4/5/18
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body: by Roxane Gay
This was a tough "read" or I suppose I should write "listen," because I listened to the audio version read by the author. It was tough because of the horrible incident Ms. Gay endured as a young girl. While I understood why she ate and became overweight, I wearied of her self loathing and wanted a tidy, happy ending like the close of a weight watcher's commercial. Alas, real life doesn't often offer tidy or happy-ever-after endings. What Gay's story does offer is an unflinching look at her trauma and struggle to recover. In other words, it offers an opportunity to understand & empathize. I hope I will never again look at an overweight person with judgement, pity, or worse disdain. Each person carries their own pain and struggles. It was good to be reminded to look beyond appearances and continue cultivating an understanding heart for friend and stranger alike. ~c.h. 3/22/18
Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle
I am a firm believer in the serendipity of books. In other words, a book often crosses my path exactly when I need it. “Barking to the Choir” was no different. I needed this book not because I am a member of the “choir.” I needed the “barking” of Fr. Boyle. Boyle’s humor, honesty, and deep faith delivered the perfect message for me this Lenten season.
Father Greg Boyle , a Jesuit priest, is the founder of Homeboy Industries the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. “Barking to the Choir” is his second book and like his first book, “Tattoos on the Heart,” Boyle shares his wisdom from the streets and the young people he encounters in his work. The book is filled with little vignettes that illustrate Boyle’s larger themes of compassion, forgiveness, and the sustaining power of love to transform lives. Each young person comes alive in Boyle’s unique storytelling style. I laughed, gasped, and often wept as each story found its way into my heart. I cringed at the huge burdens so many children and young people are asked to carry, but I also marveled at their courage, faith, and the power of love to change lives so deeply damaged.
Shortly after finishing the book, I had an encounter which tested my ability to counteract my own prejudice with love. I was leaving a parking garage and entered a vestibule where the elevators would take me to a doctor’s appointment. I glanced behind me and saw a young man tattooed and dressed in rumpled baggy clothing. As a woman, I often stiffen when alone with a man bigger and stronger than me. Yet, somehow looking at this young man I saw in him all the tender stories I had heard from Fr. Boyle. I consciously thought he, too, is loved. I smiled at him as we entered the elevator, and he tentatively smiled back. A few more passengers came in and the doors closed. I made a joke about wishing I had a stool and a fancy uniform as I pushed the buttons for everyone’s floor. I saw that quiet smile again. When the doors opened for the young man’s floor, he walked out, lifted his hand without looking back, and quietly offered, “Have a nice day.” In that moment, I felt the presence of God and what Fr. Boyle calls the “power of radical kinship.”
“Barking to the Choir” is not only a book of hope, but a book of faith. Faith in a God who delights in us all. The “choir” is simply asked to find that same delight in each other. Fr. Boyle encourages us in his words and actions to “stand in the margins” with the poor not because we have more or something to offer, but because the poor have much to teach us. And honestly, the“choir,” especially this member, still has much to learn. ~c.h. 3/17/18
Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo
If you read only one book this year, please consider this one. Kuo offers powerful insights into our history; issues of race and class; pedagogy; the value of teaching through literature & writing; and our educational and “justice” systems. Yet, she delicately threads these heavy topics through the tender story of her student Patrick and their unlikely friendship. At the very least, it should be required reading for all teachers if not all Americans.~c.h. 8/10/17
Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
Just about a year ago, my well read sister gave me Upstream, a collection of Mary Oliver’s essays. She knew how much I loved Oliver’s poems so it was a thoughtful gamble that I would enjoy her essays as well. She was spot on, and Upstream is now a treasured book.
While the book is only 175 pages, I sipped Oliver’s essays slowly taking almost a year to read through them all. Like her poems, each essay is a little jewel unto itself filled with wonder, noticing, and wisdom. As often happens with books I love, this one too was marked up with hearts and brackets where I lingered over the words. In my slow stroll, I discovered that Oliver’s writing is informed by the works of the “great ones:” Poe, Whitman, Shelley, Wordsworth, Emerson, and others. As she writes, these authors taught her “to enjoy, to question-never to assume or trample.”
Yet, It is Oliver herself who is indelibly imprinted in each essay. “Ropes” the story of the runaway dog, Sammy, was notably one of my favorites. Her delight in this Houdini hound was evident. However, it was the gifts that Sammy brought with all his leave taking that stayed with me. “Building a House” offered insights into Oliver and why she writes. As she says of the hodgepodge house she built with a wood scraps and found treasures, “I built it to build it.” Likewise, she walks attentively through her world and builds poems and essays with what she finds.
Finally, it is Oliver’s connection with nature that threads through these essays. The natural world is her touchstone, and she reminds us again, and again to pay attention to our own connections to this world. “I would say there are a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and chances are one.” I suppose it is the wonder and delight she finds in the world that keep Oliver writing and moving upstream. It seems we not only need the “great ones,” but also Mary Oliver’s work to show us the joy, the wonder, and the magical connective tissue that binds us all. ~c.h. 3/13/18