Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye

By the time I post next week, it will be 2014, and if you’re a resolution making kind of person, you’ll have already decided what you’re resolved to, and if you’re not, you’ll be so sick of even the idea of change that this will just slide off of you. Right now though, on the day after Christmas – on what should be a peaceful post-holiday coda, but instead is often a frenzied time of travel or gift-returning – you might have a moment to absorb the idea behind Nye’s poem.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

I first found this poem about a year ago, and I reread it all the time. Every time I do, something new catches me; today, it’s the line about sorrow, and the size of the cloth. This Christmas, the best gift I gave myself was going out and buying two bags of coats for children who were coming to a crafting and cookie event; apparently, last year, a number of kids came without coats or even warm sweatshirts, and they told the organizers of the event that they were fine, even though it was close to freezing.

When I heard that story from one of the women who had baked for this gathering last year, it reminded me of two things. The first was that when I was little, I had a lot of friends who were poor. Does that sound stupid? That I would need to be reminded of the children I went to elementary school with who got free lunch, who wore thin jean jackets all winter long, who cut their own hair, who were terrified when they got invited to a birthday party because they had no gift to bring? I went to their houses, and I saw that their poverty had many causes, many faces. I knew they were  frightened that other kids would find out just how little they had and that their dignity would be another casualty of their situation.

Those kids were my friends, and if they resented the fact that I had a warm house and new clothes, food on the table at every meal, music lessons and books with unbroken spines  to read, they never mentioned it. They never complained at all, not to me, at least. Even as an adult, I can barely comprehend that. All I can really know is that spending money on new coats for children who might not have them otherwise felt better than anything in a long time. I surely haven’t “caught the thread of all sorrows,” but it felt powerful to take action, even in a small way, to alleviate need for somebody else.

The second thing this section reminded me of was when we were growing up in Massachusetts, we always lived in the parsonage next door to my mother’s church. It was common for men and women to ring the doorbell asking for money. We never gave money from our front door for a number of practical reasons, but we always had something – a bagged lunch, a pack of diapers, donated clothes. This seemed quite ordinary to me. I had never known anything different, and I found it shocking when some of my friends condemned us for even opening the door.

In my head, I’ve always that person – a ten-year old who wasn’t afraid to make sandwiches for homeless people even when her parents were out – but when I was buying those jackets, I realized that at some point in my life, I had become much more likely to pretend I wasn’t home than to open the door to someone in need. Somewhere along the way, I had grown out of the intuitive kindness of my childhood.

And not just the kindness that comes in the form of donations, but the “we’re all fighting a hard battle” kindness. I’ve lost far more of the threads of sorrow than I’ve picked up, it seems, and now, as I stare down the passage of another year, I know that I want to change that. I don’t imagine it will be easy; there are parts of me, even as I write this, that rebel at the very idea of being less self-centered, or sarcastic, or jaded. How is it that Nye understands that I have to lose things – lose parts of who I am (parts I like!) – to even come close to understanding kindness? How does she know one action isn’t enough, but that many actions might eventually pave a path that with constant vigilance could lead to being a genuinely kind person?

It doesn’t seem like it will be an easy resolution. It doesn’t sound like something I’ll be able to accomplish by the end of January (or more likely, the second week of January, which is when I typically abandon my resolutions), but there is something impossible about ignoring that sliver of light a little kindness can let in…

So Happy New Year, all. Here’s to the explosion of a change the right book or poem or story can ignite in us, and to the comfort we often find in verses we barely understand.

A holiday gift guide for my favorite book lovers!

This may seem odd, but one of my favorite posts of the last year was actually on Christmas Eve 2012. I had some free time while my family finished their shopping, and I decided to write up a little gift guide for other last-minute shoppers. My husband and father are especially proud of being Christmas Eve day shoppers, while my brother and both sisters-in-law also fall into this category, but feel a little more irritation and/or shame about it. I, on the other hand, prefer to do all my shopping the last week of November, so the whole Christmas season doesn’t have to be spent wanting to run people down in the mall parking lot.

That being said, I’m always struggling to think of the perfect book to give, and since a lot of my favorites are not new releases, there’s a chance someone on your list might benefit from some fresh ideas. In the spirit of spreading the literary joy, here are a few of my happy place books.

If you have a great book to recommend for Christmas, feel free to mention in the comments!

For your ittybitties:

Flotsam, David Wiesner – This is a picture book that even grownups will swoon over. Wiesner’s illustrations are frame-worthy, and the story that seemed straightforward at first glance is actually one that has been retold to me in completely different ways by each of the children I’ve shared it with. Wiesner deals in wonder; he sees the world in an exceptional way, and if this book fails to enchant your loved ones, steal it back for your own collection – it’s that good.

Elena’s Serenade, Campbell Geeslin, illustrations by Ana Juan – My mother sent me this book maybe two years ago, and I have read it many times since. The illustrations are otherworldly, and the story is an absolute delight. I haven’t gotten tired of it yet, and since I have a bit of experience with how many times children will want to be read the same story, I know how critical it is to gift books that are bearable to reread ad nauseam! This one is charming without the saccharine edge that can get grating on the hundredth read through.

For your underage explorers:

Holes, Louis Sachar – I have loved this book for years, and I admit, I’m a fan of the movie as well, so if you’re looking for a double play, package both up and consider yourself set. The concept is a breath of a fresh air, even after all these years, and Sachar is just the person to make magic out of this dark material. A solid adventure like this is a great gateway for children who struggle to enjoy reading, and Holes is a novel parents won’t even mind reading together as a family.

My Most Excellent Year, Steve Kluger – In case you need convincing about this book, may I point out a most excellent fact on the author’s Wikipedia page? “Kluger’s writing is noted for its baseball, gay, and historical themes.” If that isn’t enough of an enticement, I’m not sure I can help you. I mean, what are the odds a kid in your life isn’t interested by at least of those things?! This book embraces diversity with compassion and a brilliant sense of humor that never gets bogged down by over-sentimentality. It’s a love story without being limited in scope to a single romantic relationship. Basically, it is the cupcake of novels without the sugar rush regret.

For your weekend warriors:

There’s no way I do better by these books  than I did when I posted about them earlier this year, but if you don’t have time to look back, let me just say they are both superbly written memoirs and two of my favorite books – not just of the year, but of the decade.

Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox






Wild, Cheryl Strayed

For your cinematic obsessives:

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak – I didn’t see the movie version of this because the book was so exceptional that I couldn’t bring myself to risk destroying what was in my head with whatever Hollywood decided was important. That being said, some film buffs prefer to read novels that they can ruthlessly compare to the onscreen adaptation, so if you want a superb story for them, this is it. A friend recommended it to me a couple of years ago, and it broke my heart with its beauty. While most hardcore books nerds have probably read it already, chances are good a few people on your list only heard about it the weekend it opened at the multiplex. Take advantage of its timeliness and give the gift of “See! The book is better than the…!”

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick – Now, I did see the movie of this, and I thought it was very sweet. The book however, is better. And I’m not just saying that because my husband bought it for me the day we got engaged. No. This is an exceptional story, and one you shouldn’t buy as an e-book. The illustrations in the hardcopy are part of the magic. Bonus – it’s appropriate for readers aged 8 to shuffling off the mortal coil!

For your trade paperback faithfuls:

Villains by Necessity, Eve Forward – This is an older book, and there’s a good chance you won’t be buying it unless you have an excellent used bookstore nearby. Amazon is selling it for anywhere between $49 and $156 (used!), and as much as I love this novel (and judging by the fact that my copy no longer has its cover, it’s a fair bet to say I do), it’s not worth breaking the bank. It is wonderful fun though, so if you happen to find a copy on the cheap, it makes the perfect gift for an “I’ve read everything” fantasy lover.

The Lily Bard Mysteries, Charlaine Harris – I would actually recommend any of Harris’ series, but this one gets very little attention, so there’s a chance your supernatural loving friend or family member hasn’t had a chance to read it yet. I don’t think Harris is overrated at all (and if you watch True Blood, you are not getting the true Sookie Stackhouse experience, for the record); in fact, she has been one of the authors I’ve come back to again and again when I need a little fun in my literary life. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, so if you need a gift for someone who doesn’t shop for books solely from the New York Times Book Review, this might be just the ticket!

For your sophisticates:

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (translated by John Rutherford) – Is there someone on your list jonesing for a 2000 page read? George RR Martin’s next book probably won’t be out for a decade, so how about a classic? Skeptical? I was too, until my husband started reading it aloud in the evenings. We’re not even halfway through, but I’m convinced that in this case, he was right and I was wrong. Those excerpts you may have read on the SATs did not do this book justice. After extensive research, my better half (whose taste in books rarely aligns with my own), discovered a translation that is laugh out loud funny. Really – I’m not making this up. Also, one of our best friends has actually read the whole thing, and he said the ending is absolutely exceptional. Buy it now, and maybe you’ll get around to properly reviewing it before I do!

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, Ivan Turgenev – That’s right, when all else fails, go Russian. These are exquisite short stories, and chances are good that your one impossible to shop for reader doesn’t have the collection! Or if they do, imagine the joy they’ll get out of telling you how they discovered Turgenev at fifteen and it shaped their entire life! Win win! (For them, obviously. For you, well, I apologize in advance, but that’s the price of having a sophisticate reader in your life.)

* * *

Nothing here catch your fancy? I have archives! Excellently tagged archives, even! With two years of reviews! If you still can’t find the perfect book for your beloved readers, well, might I recommend befriending a librarian?

For those of you celebrating Christmas next week, have a wonderful holiday! For those of you just benefitting from the days off from work, go enjoy all the movies that come out on the 25th. I promise there will be zero children kicking the back of your seat for exactly one day…

Allegiant, Veronica Roth

What’s that? You read Allegiant last month when it came out instead of making your daily word count for NaNoWriMo or doing any of the work publishers are actually you paying for? No? That was just me? Okay, I see how it is! My justification for slacking off went like this. 1. I’ll only read this while at the gym, and going to the gym is important, so reading this book is important. 2. It’s the end of the trilogy! I can’t be expected to hold off indefinitely. And 3. Ooh preview for Divergent before Catching Fire? Yes, please!

When Veronica Roth’s first novel, Divergent, came out in 2011, I gave it to everyone for Christmas. Seriously – I bought a copy for three friends, both of my sisters-in-law, and as a Secret Santa gift. That resulted in four of those people then going out to buy the book for their friends, so really, I’m pretty sure Roth can thank me for about at least a chunk of her royalties that first year.

Her books are dystopian. They’re YA. They have a badass female protagonist. It’s the trifecta of sweet spots. Yes, I’m a Hunger Games fan (I’m also a Jennifer Lawrence fan, so thanks to whatever god brought those two together), which is how I originally discovered Roth. I fell in love with the genre back when I first read The Giver in the third grade, and since then, I’ve had plenty of quality novels to keep me satisfied. I mean, have you read The House of the Scorpion? Or Unwind? Little Brother? I even loved The Maze Runner, although I haven’t read the sequels because that first book was scary as hell and I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered. If I bothered to even glance at my bookshelves, this post would devolve into me shouting a list of my favorites. Instead, I’ll try to restrain myself to saying that as far as you can trust my opinion, you can trust it here.

Many YA dystopian novels come in threes, and in my experience, the third one is always the biggest stretch for me. Allegiant was no exception. The difficulty for me is that while I have no problem believing in teenagers as warriors and strategists, I have much harder time being sold on them as diplomats or  heads of a revolution, which is inevitably where a series like this has to go. Roth did a better job than most at capturing the imperfection of a system that expects such a thing. Her characters are deeply flawed, and she doesn’t shy away from the consequences of their behavior in this book. In fact, she’s brutally honest with them, and with us, about what it means to make the hard choices, not just as an individual, but for a larger society. Those decisions comes with a high price, and sacrifice is the only constant in a world on the brink of tearing itself apart.

She captures this idea beautifully. The only place she stumbles is in her pacing of the story. This book could have easily been two complete novels, and she would have done more justice to the complex relationships she had been nurturing. I’m sure there were forces at work that kept her to a three book story arc, but it’s a shame because her characters have so much going on that I wanted to spend more time exploring the choices they’re forced to make. To her credit, she doesn’t let the story lag; the  problem is that the reader is given too little time to breathe. In some circumstances, that can work for a book, but ultimately, I preferred her approach to Divergent and Insurgent. Those books were both a more cathartic experience for me because I had time to sit with the sadness that inevitably follows the adrenaline rush of youthful revolution.

That being said, it’s unusual for me to wait so long to review a book after I’ve read it, and time has given me some perspective on this one. While Allegiant wasn’t my favorite (of the trilogy or the genre), it has grown on me in its absence. I find myself thinking about it a month later, still considering some of the implications that didn’t have time to sink in when I was reading. I’d prefer, of course, having that space within the book itself, but I’m impressed that Roth managed to create a an ending that craves space long after I’ve put the story away.


For more about Veronica Roth, head over here.

Kali and the Geekettes, Ellie Greene

I rarely read books intended for a younger MG audience, but Greene is my yoga instructor and also studying to get her PhD in…I want to say Biology…so when she asked me to check out a couple of her books, I said sure. Actually, I think I said something along the lines of, “Really? Can’t you leave something for the rest of us to be good at?” That sass earned the whole class quite a long “break” in Dragon, although I’m sure if I asked her, she would claim complete innocence on the matter. She’s sneaky that way.

In all honesty, she’s an incredibly sweet, overachieving woman, and although I suspect this book might be a bit on the young side for most of my readers, it’s definitely one I would want to put on the shelves in classrooms. Green’s protagonist is, like her, a scientist, and I found it incredibly refreshing to read about a young girl interested in science written from an inside perspective. Many of my friends are scientists and engineers, but they don’t write fiction, so characters with their interests are not always written as well as they could be. Greene uses her own knowledge of the field to make the character come alive for me.

Whenever Kali went on about the constellations or discussed an experiment in her honor’s chemistry class, I thought, this must be what it’s like to be great in this subject! It’s Greene’s passion, and as a result, Kali lights up whenever she gets to discuss her favorite subject. In fact, Kali seemed like the kind of kid I would want to hang out with when I was that age – smart, funny, and yes, curious about boys.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for books about smart girls who are also interested in dating. I enjoy a character who can excel in astronomy or physics but also struggles with what to say to a cute boy in class. It speaks to a truth I can relate to, and it’s one of the things I liked to read about when I was that age. Sometimes it’s wonderful to read about a girl saving the world; other times, I just want to read about a girl who learns how to save herself. One is not necessarily better than another, especially for a young reader.

Kali makes a few extremely poor choices when it comes to boys and to her friends, but then, most teenagers do. (Noticeably, none of these impact her academic efforts, which are clearly of utmost importance to her.) The smart ones learn from those mistakes and strive to change something in themselves as a result. They take risks, even knowing that the inherent definition of risk implies occasional failure. Adolescence is all about the growth that comes from that cycle of risk-taking, failure, and success. It was lovely to read a book that approached this idea and made choosing do to the right thing, and occasionally the risky one, look so appealing.