Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book #35: How To Be a Bad Christian and a Better Human Being

I discovered Dave Tomlinson, an English vicar, when I listened to him speak at St. Paul's in London. (To clarify, I listened here, not here.)

What he said was intriguing, so I decided to read one of his books. (I confess I picked this one because of the provocative title.)

"Bad Christians," he writes, "may struggle with much of the religious paraphernalia that surrounds the Christian faith, but their vision of life, the way they wish to follow, is based on the person of Jesus."

It is deeply ironic that for some people--a growing number of people, in fact--organized religion can be a barrier to finding a connection to the divine. But it can be. I know. First hand.

Tomlinson, who himself has struggled with a counterproductive relationship between organized religion and spirituality (also deeply ironic considering his chosen profession as a man of the cloth), lays out a beautifully unorthodox approach to finding God by way of Jesus.

If you are not a Christian and read the book, you may be surprised at the various ways Christians view their faith.

If you consider yourself a "bad" or hopeful Christian, you may be inspired.

If you are a traditional orthodox believer, you may be shocked.

He's a bit of a heretic.

Funny. Jesus was too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book #34: Letters to a Young Poet

This week's selection is brought to you by a series of synchronous events. In fact, four separate events just this week led me to this book, including it catching my eye as I browsed a shelf at a bookstore, seeing it on a recommended reading list, reading a quote from it that someone posted online ("be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves"), and re-discovering it was already on my "to be read" list that I keep at the back of my journal for this project.

I'm not sure what that all actually means, except that as I read Rilke's letters, I was reminded about another series of synchronous events that have also occurred during the past week, prodding me to listen to my own instincts--not the voices of others--as I sort through some issues that have challenged me as long as I can remember, but especially recently.

As Rilke mentors the young poet, he keeps revisiting this idea of going inside, of solitude, of finding answers there. Just a few examples:

. . . all I wanted to do in the end was advise you to go through your development quietly and seriously; you cannot disrupt it more than by looking outwards and expecting answers from without to questions that only your innermost instinct in your quietest moments will perhaps be able to answer.

. . . trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgment, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights.

What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours--that is what one must arrive at.

It may all be pure coincidence. Or it may not.

After all, according to Rilke's own words, I shouldn't be listening to him.

But then, he also says, "Irony: don't let yourself be ruled by it."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book #33: A House in Corfu

We carried this in our bookstore, and the last copy came home with me when we closed up shop (along with, oh, a few other books).

I planned to read it one day when (A) I wanted to hang onto summer a bit longer or (B) I needed to brighten up a bleak winter. Because Greek island.

This week I've been in that liminal space between my annual escape to a family cottage on a lake in Wisconsin and a new semester starting at the university where I teach. So I went with A.

As I read about the family in the book going to great lengths to build a home on crumbling hillside terraces overlooking the sea, I thought of my great grandmother and her vision for our once swampy place on the lake.

I think she'd be pleased that nearly 100 years later, so many family members still make pilgrimages there, to connect with the landscape and, more importantly, with one another. I know I've driven thousands of miles every summer to recharge my body and spirit and to pass the legacy on to my son.

The shore of a lake in Wisconsin is a very different place than the coast of the Ionian Sea, but is it really so much when it's about a family and a house?

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Book #32: Americanah

I've been wanting to read something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ever since I discovered her 2009 TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. Worth it, for sure.

In that talk, she explores the way we risk serious misunderstanding if we know one story about a person or a culture and think as a result that we know that person or culture.

We are all more complex than the labels we put on ourselves and one another. We are all more complex than the assumptions we make based on the few things we know.

We are all more than a single story.

And so is this book.

Why do people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing, Adichie writes part way through.

Indeed.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Book #31: The Vacationers

Roger sent me off with this book to our family's cottage on a lake where Jack and I spent the last week with friends--playing hard, eating tasty food, staying up too late and laughing a lot.

This was a perfect, light read for the week!

The story was fine - a family at a bit of a crossroads sorting through their issues. But the most important part of the book, in my opinion, was that it was set on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain.

The author provided all sorts of delicious details about the island, the house the family rented, and their day-to-day activities, including trips to the local grocery, lingering meals, long walks, refreshing swims, and satisfying naps.

I felt like I'd gone on a lovely vacation to Majorca myself.

Since before Roger and I were married (25 years this past week, by the way!), I've dreamed of spending some sort of significant time on the Balearic Islands.

And after I married Roger, I decided they'd actually be the perfect place for us, because Roger likes a good desert clime and I want to live by the sea.

He knows me so well.

Maybe one day we'll be able to escape to Majorca for real. In the meantime, it was nice going there in my head.




Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book #30: The Magician's Assistant

This book was a gift from my sister, who had it signed by the author at a bookstore in Pennsylvania.  

The Ann Patchett actually held my copy in her hands!

The basic story is that a woman finds out, just after her husband dies, that he has had told her lies about his past and she travels to his hometown to piece together the truth.

I'm not inclined, at least in the same way as the woman's husband, to leave my past completely behind and reinvent an entirely new life for myself, but sometimes I do wonder who I would be if all the things that seem to define me, like home and family, were no longer a part of my life.

Would I still be me?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book #29: The Speechwriter

A friend of mine drew my attention to this book shortly before it came on out Tuesday, and I knew in my soul, wonk that I am, I had to get my hands on it.

See, I find the intersection between language and politics fascinating. I also find memoirs fascinating because the way people choose to tell their stories can reveal more about them than they may realize. (True of blogs, too. Gulp.)

Barton Swaim was a writer for Mark Sanford when he was the governor of South Carolina, both when his name was floated nationally as a presidential hopeful and when he limped through the balance of his last term in the aftermath of, as Sanford himself began to refer to it, "that which has caused the stir that it has."

The book was thankfully short on juicy gossip, which was not what I was after, and it was satisfyingly long on discussion about rhetoric, which was what I was after. He covered the gamut, from choosing single words ("After I wrote the phrase 'hiking taxes' it occurred to me that 'hiking' would have to be changed to 'raising.'") to getting inside someone else's head and articulating their scarcely conceivable grand ideas ("I always find myself trying to communicate something larger," said Sanford. "And I don't know what I mean by it exactly. It's just--I feel there's something--larger--you know, just bigger--bigger than what I'm able to communicate in words. That's what I'm after.")

The book was also full of exploration about ego, both the ego of writers and the ego of politicians. Lots and lots of ego to go around. And it was full of exploration about creating illusion and about disillusionment, about connecting with virtual strangers, like constituents, and about disconnecting from loved ones, like wives. Lots and lots of illusion and disillusionment, connection and disconnection to go around.

Through it all everyone carries on, spinning their lives with the stories they tell like so many of us do.