The Accidental Terrorist, Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, William Shunn

Over the month I took to read this book, I recommended it to twelve people. My husband was the first, and he’d finished it before I got through the third chapter. Two of the people I told were former Mormons themselves, and they not only wanted a copy but also told me they were going to pick it up for a few of their family members and friends back in Utah. The fact that I spread the word far and wide makes an odd kind of sense given this was the memoir of a questioning young man striking out on his mission in the great white north.

accidental-750pxI grew up with several Mormon friends (the Church of Latter Day Saints shared a parking lot with my high school, so we had maybe more than the average number of Mormon students for a small town in New Hampshire). Every single one of them could be described as the nicest person I ever met. Unfailingly friendly, kind, and considerate, I was never prosthelytized to or even subject to any conversation about God while with them.

Looking back, I don’t know whether it’s just that teenagers – even those growing up in a religion that expects generous time to be spent on the topic of conversion – just want to blend, to survive those four years without being labeled or judged, or if it’s that the specific people who would be friends with me were a little less devout. All I knew about them then was that we had fun goofing around in class and at play practices, and that they belonged to a church that required a lot more time than mine did.

It wasn’t until I started reading this book that I had any real concept of the history of the Mormon church. Shunn’s perspective is fascinating because he grew up loving and fearing his religion in equal measure. He had a great respect for those in authority and accepted the lessons he was taught until adulthood. I suspect that some of the information he shares in the book is considered sacred to Mormons, and his writing about it prompted a two-fold reaction in me.

On the one hand, I was incredibly curious about the secret rituals of the church. Ever since I first went to a service with one of my best friends, who’s Greek Orthodox, and was told women were never permitted to go behind a certain screen in the sanctuary, I’ve known I have an obsession for peeking behind the curtain. What could possibly be so sacred? A part of me burns to know, I’m sure in part because my own church is the complete opposite – everything on the table, free to access for anyone regardless of where they might be on their journey with God.

On the other hand, I have a deep respect for all religions, and although I don’t agree with every element of every faith, I do believe people have a right to practice with a sense of safety. People should be able to relax into their faith, to feel secure enough that they can explore a relationship with God, if they so choose. To make naked another faith against the will of its members makes me uncomfortable.

Shunn does an admirable job of balancing this, at least for me. That being said, I’m not a Mormon and have no concept of the history or tenets taught to members, so I recognize that I’m speaking about this as a wholly unaffected outsider. In that position, I found both his personal journey and the extensive history of the church and its founders to be fascinating. He pokes a little fun at the forefathers of the church but is respectful of his contemporaries. Both his story and Joseph Smith’s were absolutely captivating, and I intentionally only allowed myself to read a bit at a time so I could process what I was learning.

I realize it would be in poor taste to make a joke about bringing this book from door to door, but it’s truly been impossible not to want to share it with as many people as I can. If you’re looking for a book to rev up for fall after an indulgent summer, this is it.

You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein

There are plenty books I recommend across the board. It’s rare that I talk about a book that I know won’t appeal to a family friendly audience, but this one – by a comedienne and writer on the sketch show Inside Amy Schumer – is neither family friendly nor intended for all audiences. It’s hilarious and excellently written, but it’s not for everyone.

186c98c0323fd6c5cf1008b23d0e36edIf you’re not familiar with the television show Inside Amy Schumer, you may well be on the list of readers who will want to skip this book. My husband and I stumbled across it right after our son was born, and in a sleepless haze, we burned through most of the episodes over the course of two months, occasionally succumbing to fits of silent laughter, tears streaming down our faces while the baby slept in our arms.

Recently, we watched an episode with a sketch about a lamaze class, and at this point, we’ve probably played that five minute clip about twenty times. We quote it at the park when we run into intolerable or ridiculous parenting, and we quote it at home when our own kid is running around like a tiny naked savage before bathtime.

My husband was also the one who sent me the recommendation for this book. He hadn’t gotten around to finishing it yet, but what he’d read, he knew I’d like. He was right. I ate it up. My favorite chapter was called “Poodle vs wolf.”

One late night when I was working at SNL, I wandered out of my office for a break and saw that some random TV in the hallway was tuned to an interview with Angelina Jolie (I think it was with Charlie Rose, who was shamelessly hitting on her, as is his wont when he interviews a pretty lady). I wandered over to watch, as did Emily, one of the senior writers there at the time and an all-around hilarious and fabulous lady. We both stared at Angelina in awe.

“Isn’t it amazing,” Emily asked, “that we’re the same species she is? It doesn’t even feel like we are the same species.”

“I know,” I said. I continued the riff: It’s like with dogs. A poodle and a wolf are both technically dogs, but based on appearances, it doesn’t make any conceivable sense that they share a common ancestor. We decided that some women are poodles and some women are wolves. And no matter what a wolf does (puts on makeup, or a thong), it will still be a wolf, and no matter what a poodle does (puts on sweatpants), it will always be a poodle.

[….]

BUT BEING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT WHAT MAKES YOU A POODLE OR A WOLF. There are millions of beautiful wolf women out there. It’s how much of the beauty feels like work, like maintenance. It’s a very French concept, which is probably why we think every actual poodle was born in France and we always imagine them in berets. (loc 581)

I’ve always struggled with the marriage of femininity and being a woman. Being a mother is something that feels very natural to me, as does caring for others – both of which are considered “feminine” characteristics. Putting on makeup or any outfit that doesn’t include questionably clean jeans and a tee shirt? Makes me feel like a horse in heels. And although I consider myself to be a sensible and reasonably intelligent person, there was genuinely a part of me, when I got married, that expected to wake up the next day ready to wear dresses and enjoy cooking (or at the very least become a competent enough meal planner that every day didn’t look like my first in the kitchen…).

I kept waiting for the moment when I would “grow up” – in this case, “grown up” meaning that I looked and acted the way mothers of my childhood looked and acted. Sure, they all worked outside the home, but they also were primary caregivers, doing the housework, the shopping, the laundry, the child care. (For the record, the fathers I knew and know did share some of that load, and most of them now do much more of it – my own father is the ultimate dish/laundry/vacuum king, and has been for years.)

And even though I’ve never specifically thought of myself as someone struggling with gender identity, reading Klein’s lighthearted take on the issue made me realize that my entire life, I’ve had expectations based on observation that have zero to do with reality, or at least my reality. Those expectations have pressed down on me, led me to spend money on products I don’t need or want simply to try to buy my way into becoming a poodle, when really, being a wolf makes me happy. (Honestly, just the thought of those two animals:  wolves are rugged and have a pack. Poodles are intelligent but have always seemed reserved to me – mild mannered even in their athleticism.)

Like Klein, I have a great admiration for “poodle” women. They seem to sit in their skin so easily, as if being a graceful, elegant, well-mannered woman was no chore at all. (In comparison, I’m currently eating handfuls of Cheerios straight from the box while trying to remember the last time I saw my comb…) Reading her book was much like reading Tina Fey’s, in that it felt like a whisper of truth. It’s a truth I didn’t even know I was looking for, and I’m certain that if I had been, I wouldn’t have expected to find it in this book.

Nevertheless, there it was. A hallelujah moment hidden in plain sight, amongst the jokes and the self-deprecation. I love to laugh, so it shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does when I find wisdom in my favorite escape, when women like me – strong but also questioning – hold some of the answers that I’ve been searching for.

 

Introductions, Susan Glassmeyer

I’m visiting family this week, but I’m posting this in celebration of two friends of mine I met in a yoga class at my gym a few years ago. We’re decades apart in age, have wildly different careers and personal lives, and under most circumstances, never would have done anything but nod politely to each other. Fate had other plans for us though, and  even though we don’t all make it to class anymore, every few months, we get together for lunch and have the best conversations about art and books and traveling the world. It’s just glorious.

Introductions

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

Ash and Bramble, Sarah Prineas

 

Do you ever sit down to write and get sucked into creating the perfect playlist for said writing instead? I don’t typically have time for that kind of procrastination these days, but there was something about today…Maybe it’s because the internet and all its accompanying distractions went out an hour ago, or because it’s one of those epic sunny days with a light breeze that would have meant a day at the lake when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because my coffee isn’t strong enough to counteract how little sleep I’ve gotten recently, or because somehow the morning slipped away, along with the energy from that egg burrito I ate at 7. I’m not sure what happened, but I know I sat down to write this long enough ago that I need to stretch now. Pro tip: a stretch break after the first paragraph is written is not a great place to be, productivity-wise.

20652088It’s funny too, because fairy tale retellings are my kryptonite, and I didn’t expect to have any trouble writing about this book. I have the hardest time passing these stories up even if I’m meant to be reading something else, and this particular book kept me sane through a lot of long nights recently.

It’s the perfect blend of YA, fairy tale, dystopia, and SFP (strong female protagonist). Prineas and I probably are about the same age, and I could practically feel the bookish desires of my thirteen year old self oozing out of the pages – which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me now, but there was something so warmly familiar about it. It felt like a story I’d always wanted to read but never had, come to life on my kindle. And although it’s not a story I would ever tell myself, it felt like I could have imagined it after a summer spent riding my bike to the cool sanctuary of our old library, tearing through the shelves every week, frantic for new material. I could have fallen asleep and dreamed of Pin and Shoe.

Playlist for procrastination*

Dancing in Gold The Von Trapps
Dead Sea The Lumineers
Sunday New York Times Matt Nathanson
The Wrong Direction Passenger
Road to Ride On Joshua Radin
Headphones Matt Nathanson
Four Five Seconds Rihanna
Brand New Ben Rector

*Eventually I started procrastinating on the playlist, which is why it’s only eight songs long.

Night Shift, Charlaine Harris

Who could have guessed I’d finally manage to finish a book while traveling halfway across the country to a wedding in Memphis? Granted, Harris is ultimate summer reading material. This series, in particular, is so light that it’s not so much a popcorn read as it is…well, maybe it’s one of those lightly buttered microwavable single serving bags – definitely not greasy, grab a handful of napkins movie theatre popcorn though. What I’m trying to get at here is that A) Popcorn with extra butter sounds amazing right now, and B) I finished a book, and even though it was breezy, I feel like a champion.

51fbpkbfa9l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was stuck in a hotel room during nap time every day for nearly a week with nothing to do but read (not the worst thing in the world, although it did start to feel a little claustrophobic by the end). Also, I didn’t bother to bring my work computer with me because traveling with a toddler (and in this case, a groomsman husband) means I’m lucky I had room for clothes and a toothbrush. (All I can say is thank goodness for the invention of smartphones and their beautiful reading apps…) So, no work. No sightseeing or catching up on phone calls. Just plenty of air conditioned free time to go through my Kindle library.

I can’t say this is my favorite series by Harris, although I know my mother has really enjoyed it (only worth mentioning because she and I often are in line with a given book or series’ relative strengths and weaknesses). The plots aren’t quite as tight as some of her earlier work, but the characters are so likable that I had no problem finishing what I think is going to remain a trilogy about the fictional Midnight, Texas.

My biggest complaint about this particular series is I feel she gives up too much information too quickly. She may lack experience writing a three book arc compared to a six or more novel series where it’s necessary to draw out character histories and questions over considerably more pages, but I find it surprising since I’ve never noticed this problem in her writing before. It feels like she’s had these characters in her head for so long, and has so much she wants to do with them yet hasn’t allowed herself enough time to do it as naturally as they deserve.

That being said, Harris is still a compelling enough storyteller that I tore through this and wished I had another book by her to read when it was finished. I love her sense of humor and her light but accessible romances. She’s also one of a few mainstream authors in this genre who includes a spectrum of relationships in a respectful and loving way that I find refreshing (perfect for a wedding weekend, as it turns out).

While this series may not fall under my list of top recommendations, it was great for beating the heat mid July (I would have taken it poolside, but, you know, toddler). Also, did I mention I finished a book? In parenthood terms, there truly is no higher recommendation. Truly. You should see the stack of books I’ve read the first twenty pages of this year. It’s…substantial.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater

I hate when my busiest working season falls in the summer. It’s always interrupted by travel and bbqs and outings, and I end up half distracted while at my computer, and half worried while I’m out trying to enjoy myself. This year has been especially challenging with two major projects in high gear since the beginning of June, all of our family commitments long flights away, and a seemingly endless parade of distractions that keep me from focusing.

I suspect I could make good use of blinders right about now, but since single-mindedness eludes me, I’m doing  my best to multitask through the madness. That means, yes, I’m reading, but it’s slow. I get maybe a chapter a day if I’m lucky, and that doesn’t jive well with my reviewing schedule.

On the plus side, it does mean I get to share some of my favorite poems. This one has become almost a mantra for me in the last month. I read it once or twice a day and then spend maybe thirty seconds admiring the leaves rustling out the window. It doesn’t sound like much, but it serves to ground me, and to remind me of the fullness of life, even during one of its stressful seasons.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater
I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.