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.

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.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)

 

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.

 

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, Alison Bechdel

I’ve gotten away with reading some lighthearted books this month, and honestly, when I picked up Fun Home (a Christmas gift from my husband), my brain only processed the comedy half of “tragicomedy.” I was having trouble sleeping, and this seemed like the perfect remedy. It’s a graphic novel (although the style is composed in such a way that even my brain can process it), it’s been on my reading list for a while, and I tend to think of Bechdel as a comedic online presence, although that’s not strictly an accurate description of her body of work.

Bechdel is a deeply intellectual woman who, for almost thirty years, has been writing about the frustrations, limitations, and ridiculous incongruities of womanhood and sexuality, and while she does approach these topics (and others, like her family, the focus of this memoir), with a healthy sense of humor, her observations are razor-sharp and often devastating. Her writing and illustrations don’t skirt the inconvenient or uncomfortable truths she has encountered. Instead, she leans into the moments of drama, drawn from her own life experience, without attempting to spare herself or save face.

Reading Fun Home, I often found myself trying to skim over the hardest sections on her behalf. I thought about what it must be like for her family to have their lives shared in such a raw way; while she is far from the first artist to mine her own history for this kind of material, as a reader, I struggle with the sacrifices that come with such a choice. I wanted to spare her the uncertainty, the missed opportunities for family acceptance, the terrible secrets that were kept from her until adulthood. As ridiculous as it is to crave such a thing – to believe that averting my eyes from her confessions would ease some of the pain she’s had to endure – her presence as a writer draws out the most empathetic parts of me. Her vulnerability is truly a remarkable strength.

Her openness too though is a source of power. Society leans toward secrecy, toward hiding the less desirable parts of ourselves, but there is an incredible freedom in accepting the flaws and challenges that come from being human. Shaming those parts, or even politely declining to acknowledge them, is a misplaced attempt at perfection and uniformity. It brings no joy to deny the unique journey every person is on; in fact, it eats at the heart of the kind of power that brings a book like this to life. Really, it destroys the power that brings any number of books to life.

As readers, we crave authenticity, whether it be in memoir or in fiction, in three lines of poetry or in a thousand page fantasy. The human experience as viewed through a million imperfect lens is what fills library shelves and brings us closer to each other while feeding our enthusiasm and understanding of the wider world. A book like Fun Home, which blends the visually light style of a graphic novel with the emotionally challenging landscape of Bechdel’s youth is just one more lens we can peer through, accepting, hopefully, both the hard truth and her compassion on the other side.

 

For more about Alison Bechdel, go here.

Letters from the Way: A Walking Journey Arles, France to La Reina, Spain, Barbara V Anderson

It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book that perfectly filled a spot in my soul that I didn’t even know I needed filled until I read it. I was at a Christmas faire at the beginning of November selling books with my friend Steve. He had just received his copy of Letters (he had contributed a piece to the conclusion), and I was marveling at the beautiful job Anderson’s publisher had done with the book’s endpapers (I might have been drooling over them, in fact). The whole book is peppered with Anderson’s incredible photography of France and Spain, but those endpapers…I was smitten. I absolutely had to read the book. It was too lovely to pass up.

Sometimes beautiful books disappoint. So much work goes into the design, but the content doesn’t live up to the reader’s overly high expectations. Not the case here. No. I planned to savor Anderson’s book, a collection of letters she wrote home to friends during her unconventional pilgrimage. It seemed like too dense a topic to burn through, but once I began, I couldn’t stop. I found myself desperate to be transported to the wet cold forests of France, to the hot rocky roads of Spain, to the lush mountain sides, and even to the awkward, perfect, exhausting dinners with strangers (dinners I couldn’t even eat, I should mention, given that I’m lactose intolerant and cannot have red meat or pork!). Her “long walks,” as she thinks of them, are far from perfect. Bad weather, obnoxious walking buddies (for miles and miles and miles), excruciating injuries – she’s plagued with all of them – yet my desire to join her adventure never faltered.

She was searching, in part, for some proof that God exists. Most pilgrims believe in a higher power before they set out; Anderson does not. My impression was of a sensibility both artistic and scientific in nature – something along the lines of Da Vinci or Tim Jenison (if you haven’t watched Tim’s Vermeer, you’re missing out) – a desire to seek and believe in extraordinary things from a mind firmly rooted in tangible reality. At the same time, her appeal is largely in how relatable she is in these letters written from the road She is an ordinary woman pursuing something exceptional.

The result is a book I cherished. I took it with me all day, reading it in the car in the parking lot of a friend’s apartment, then while waiting to pick up my dry-cleaning. I reread some of the letters later in the week and only grudgingly returned Steve’s copy to him after I’d kept it three weeks longer than promised. Reading about Anderson’s journey was a perfect escape from Christmas shopping, from the return of an ant infestation, from the daunting list of things that must be done before we leave for an early and extended trip for the holidays. Hers was Europe the way I imagined it when I was small – the slow-paced day, the café au lait at dawn and the wine at night, and the people both strange and civilized. Her world, for those weeks, was one I had imagined well before and was delighted to see, for a moment, come to life.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

The biggest problem with going on a three-week vacation in October is that when November rolls around, and I’m once again buried in pre-holiday deadlines and extra NaNoWriMo word count, I don’t feel like I can phone it in. If you look in the archives, November is traditionally my laziest month of reviews because it’s hard to hack a thousand words about someone else’s book when my own projects are keeping me up late every night! And then waking me early! When it’s still dark! It’s almost like the writer in me doesn’t realize that hibernation has officially started…

But here’s the thing – there’s a solution to what I’ve started calling the “November is hell” problem. And that solution is audiobooks. Yes. Audiobooks. Usually the bane of my existence (I have almost zero ability to concentrate auditorily), this month, the audiobook is my saving grace. I can listen while cooking dinner (or cleaning up the kitchen from a week’s worth of dinners). I can have it on while I’m in the shower or running errands or waiting to pick my husband up after work. As an added bonus, I can listen to NPH at double speed and get through his jokes in almost half the time! Seven hour book listened to in four? Win!

I suspect it wouldn’t be easy for me to pull this off with a novel, which is why I almost never listen to them, instead choosing memoirs or biographies that don’t require following a complex plot. Nothing slows down a speed read listen like having to constantly rewind to catch up on what transpired while I was multitasking. I’ve found this is especially effective when listening to books written and read by comedians, like Harris (or Fey or Kaling). I’m so used to the rhythm of his speech from years of watching How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser, MD that it’s more like a one-sided conversation with an old friend than a book.

It was surprising too, when I told friends I was reading it, that when they inevitably asked whether it was hilarious, I had to stop and say…well, yes. Sort of. But also, no. Which they then took to mean he didn’t successfully execute his jokes, but which actually meant that his story is set up less for laughs than it could have been. Instead, he’s sincere, and sweet, and somehow both self-deprecating and vain. Harris is witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable.

It’s possible it’s just a side effect of listening to a person’s life story told in their own voice, but it’s hard not to root for Harris, to celebrate the birth of his children with him, and to recoil in anger at the discrimination he’s experienced. The format has an empathetic effect on its listener. The fourth wall comes down, and for a few busy hours, it’s possible to be a part of his world.

 

For more about Neil Patrick Harris, head here.