Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Chuck's February Reading

Despite the distractions from Vancouver, I got through several books in February.

Here's what I learned:

Making Toast - that grieving is about caring for the living
IOU - that what we don't know about financial instruments can drive us into bankruptcy
An Altar in the World - that you can meditate without a consistent prayer life
Where the Gods of Love Hang Out - that love is messy
The Bread of Angels - that the darkest hour is just before dawn

Making Toast (HarperCollins $25.99) is a memoir by the author and playwright Roger Rosenblatt about coping with their daughter's death. Roger and his wife Ginny move in with their son-in-law and three young grandchildren following the sudden death of their daughter, a surgeon in her thirties. Roger is responsible for rising early and making toast for the family, a six-year-old girl and two boys, four- and one-years old. Their father, Harris, is also a surgeon. All of them are broken-hearted and struggling to carry on: making meals, driving to lessons and play dates, doing laundry, packing lunches, getting through the day. Roger is not an emotional or sentimental guy. He approaches his daily tasks with humility and takes pleasure in sharing time and stories with his grandkids. He continues to teach one day a week at a college some five hours away. I was touched when he mentioned driving through a stop sign as a clue to his grief-muddled mind. (I'd done the same thing recently.)

I.O.U. (why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, M&S, $32.99) is by the novelist John Lanchester. He was dismayed to the point of anger by the economic meltdown starting in fall 2008 and sets out to uncover how it happened. His lack of an economist's background is to the reader's benefit. If he can't make sense of the financial derivatives that added trillions to the instant shuffling of worldwide investments, then, just maybe, those derivatives were way too risky. This is why governments and their central banks were also sucked in. Bubbles are ever with us.
Barbara Brown Taylor was an Episcopalian priest who stepped down from the ministry (as described in Leaving Church). An Altar in the World (HarperOne $16.99) continues her spiritual journey, beginning with her pulling down the barriers between organized religion and spirituality. Each chapter is an answer to the question she was asked by an Alabaman priest whose church she was asked to preach to: "Come tell us what is saving your life now?" The practice of being present in the natural world and with other humans is part of her answer, but also learning to say no, to feel pain, to set aside a Sabbath each week, and finally the practice of giving blessings, all figure in this map of faith.
Amy Bloom is the only fiction I tackled last month. I'm a fan of Away, the story of a Jewish immigrant to New York in the 1890s whose odyssey takes her across America and up to Alaska in an attempt to return to Russia and the daughter she left behind. Where the God of Love Hangs Out (Random House $29.95) is set in modern day and consists of two groups of short stories each focused on a different couple. Clare is married to Charles but is drawn to their longtime friend William, even though she and his wife Isabel are also friends. Their affair will end in two divorces but middle-aged love involves aging bodies: William suffers from gout, and Clare breaks her ankle. The second group of stories focuses on the parents of a girl who barely survives a bout of flesh-eating disease, her social worker and doctors. Bloom has a breath-taking ability to convey feelings between her characters with a stark minimum of description.

I discovered Stephanie Saldana's The Bread of Angels (Doubleday $29.95) via this book trailer. This woman in her late twenties spends the year 2004 in Damascus on a Fulbright fellowship. She has come to study Arabic and the role of Jesus in Islam. It's a rough year, not just her culture shock and the anti-Americanism due to the Iraq War, but also her own broken heart and spiritual confusion. She spends a month in a monastery undergoing the grueling spiritual exercises of Ignatius. She emerges with a conviction to become a nun but this certainty evaporates when she returns home to her Texan family for Christmas. Back in Damascus she is sick but resumes her studies, working with a sheikha (female cleric) to discover the enchanting Arabic poetry of the Quran, and returns to the monastery, where she falls in love. This is from a passage where she contrasts the Muslim and Christian version of the Virgin Mary story:
Every time I discover two different versions of a story, in the end I ask myself, What is the story that I want to contain? For the early monks believed that there is no such a thing as story - we each meet the text, and who we are and the text together in a unique event. We change for it and it changes for us, the act of reading becoming an essential way of transforming ourselves. We can only bring to the text what is inside of ourselves - even if the story is a story of death, if we contain life, we will find life.
Conclusion: life, not to mention love and grief, is messy. Bless this mess.

[a shorter version of this review appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on Sat., March 6, 2010] You can follow Chuck on Facebook and Twitter.

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