piles and piles of books…
books around here are slip-sliding into puddles. books are piled on bedside tables, and teetering at the edge of my old pine writing desk. books shove me out of chairs. and books sometimes line the stairs. books come into this old house all on their own. and sometimes, because i shlep them. my little book-lined writing room is becoming my book-stacked obstacle course. can you hop the pile? can you slither through the gulch, the one between two (or three or four) gravity-defying stacks?
i came home from the smoky mountains with but one genre of souvenir: books, and more books. books that all week have called me to the wicker chairs out back. books whose stories hold me from one reading interlude to the next. and then, of course, there are the books for work. lots and lots of books for work. some, i discard right away (voodoo dolls and crystal balls on covers). some i wade a few chapters in before gently laying aside. but every month, on assignment, i find three who shimmy to the top. they’re the ones i round up and claim satisfying soulful reads.
before we get to the latest round of tribune-anointed books, here are a few that might be among the best i’ve read in years:
donald hall’s a carnival of losses: notes nearing ninety.
hall, once the poet laureate of this fine nation, died a few weeks back, but not before his last — perhaps best — collection of essays was published. every single one of these is a gem, a specimen worth study. as the impeccable ann patchett puts it: “donald hall writes about love and loss and art and home in a manner so essential and direct it’s as if he’s put the full force of his life on the page. there are very few perfect books, and a carnival of losses is one of them.”
once upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the distance.
eveningland: stories, by michael knight.
michael knight, a southern writer whose native and literary landscape is mobile, alabama, and who has been likened to o. henry and called “the anton chekhov of mobile bay,” is a writer i’d not known before i took a seat in the old hall at sewanee. from the first sentence, i was glued. reading an untitled story about a father and his son (one i had reason to think might be autobiographical) he couldn’t make it through without pausing to brush away and apologize for tears. that’s enough to make me love a writer. and when we bumped into him the next afternoon (along a leafy shaded path en route to the bookstore), he apologized again, though we insisted it made his reading all the more beautiful. his eveningland traces a few characters who weave in and out of stories, across the arc of life. each one is achingly wrought. and unforgettable.
and, here, because i forgot to post it a few weeks ago when it ran, is the latest roundup of books for the soul, as published in the chicago tribune.
“Faith” by Jimmy Carter, Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25.99
As the early pages of Jimmy Carter’s “Faith: A Journey for All” unspool, it doesn’t take long to get lulled into the front-porch-rocking-chair rhythms and cadences of small-town Southern gentility that is Plains, Ga., circa 1930. It’s easy to forget that you’re not just reading the reflections of a gentleman farmer with his mules and peanut crops, but in fact the remembrances of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president of the United States.
Carter begins this bedrock retracing of a life of faith by recounting, in down-to-earth vernacular, a boyhood steeped in Sunday school and church suppers, in farm work and field play with the African-American farm kids next door. Yet in the next sentence, the 39th American president is reaching for his mainstay philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, then quoting activist, preacher and friend William Sloane Coffin, just as seamlessly as he draws from the writings of theologian and Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
But it’s in quoting Carter’s own works — a 1978 speech to his fellow Southern Baptists, for instance — that the former president inspires most unforgettably (and his words, against the backdrop of the summer of 2018, rise up piercingly):
“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”
Carter’s book is necessary tonic — and prescriptive — for these fraught times.
“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” by Yossi Klein Halevi, Harper, 224 pages, $24.99
The inside flap of the book jacket states that “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” is “lyrical and evocative,” claiming it’s “one Israeli’s powerful attempt to reach beyond the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians.” It is that, all that; and for that, there is little argument.
The argument of critics, though, is that the series of 10 letters addressed to an imagined Palestinian, all written by Yossi Klein Halevi — a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he co-directs the Muslim Leadership Initiative — boils down to a one-sided correspondence.
That’s the pushback from left-leaning rabbis and thinkers who argue that writing to an unknown, unnamed neighbor, with no give and take, no wrestling of ideas and perspectives, is to leave out the essential other voice in a much-needed debate. (Halevi offers the book in Arabic translation for free download and openly invites Palestinian response; he calls this book the sequel to his earlier “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a search for holiness — and understanding — among Palestinian Muslims and Christians.)
Halevi, an American-born emigre to Israel, writes with a profound and palpable empathy. “We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home,” he laments. His keen observations — deeply human in scale — ache with a longing to reach across “the wall between us,” to make peace, to find a two-state solution.
This epistolary approach evokes a measure of intimacy and illuminates the undeniable complexities of the Israeli history, across the millennia. With one half of the conversation laid out for all to read, the lingering hope is that there comes from Palestine the voice not heard in these pages.
“On the Brink of Everything” by Parker J. Palmer, Berrett-Koehler, 240 pages, $19.95
Parker J. Palmer — writer, speaker, activist, community organizer, and one who claims “Quakerish tendencies” — has long earned the title of trusted spiritual guide. Now 79, he takes on the mantle of cherished elder.
His newest book, “On the Brink of Everything,” might be called a meditation on aging, but it’s more than that. In his first sentence, Palmer writes, “We grow old and die in the same way we’ve lived.” This is in fact a meditation on living, as we move toward “the brink of everything,” the precipice at the far end of our lives, “a window into heaven,” as he puts it.
Through two dozen essays, a dozen poems and three songs (sung by Parker’s great friend, the soulful folk singer Carrie Newcomer and available for free download at NewcomerPalmer.com), Palmer reminds us not only that aging shouldn’t be feared, but rather that it stands to clarify our vision and deepens our capacity for knowing. Quoting one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters in “Player Piano,” he reminds, “out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
Palmer, then, places us squarely on that edge and points us toward all those truths we’d be wise to see — and to make our own.
Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in April.
what are you reading this summer?
Michael Knight tearing up while reading = perfectly beautiful. A choir director taught me a life lesson about that when I was in my late 20s … while reading Psalm 8 during worship, I choked up and had to pause. I apologized to Gordon afterwards, because it was choir Sunday and I felt I’d messed up. His response: “Never apologize for honest emotion.” I’ve carried that in my heart all these years. As for what I’m reading: The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and The Forgotten Desert Mothers by Laura Swan. Can’t wait to read A Carnival of Losses. xoxo
i know. is there anything more beautiful than tears to punctuate the page? and since you and i wear our tears close to the duct, well, it’s nearly inevitable. i have heard of forgotten desert mothers. and must add to my list.
a housekeeping note: if i ever post a blurb about a book from a roundup, and you’d love to have just send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org/) and if i’ve not already given it away, i will gladly send to you. i’m not stingy. xoxoxo
because folks who pull up the chairs are so ubiquitous in their reading, i just got this marvelous morsel from an old dear scrumptious friend who read the post above, and connected the dots to something she’d just read. the japanese have a word, bless their hearts, for this, um, knack for stockpiling.
here’s this ( thank you, MHW):
“In English, stockpiling books without ever reading them might be called being a literary pack rat. People in Japan have a much nicer term for the habit: tsundoku.
“According to the BBC, the term tsundoku derives from the words tsumu (“to pile up”) and doku (“to read”), and it has been around for more than a century. One of its earliest known print appearances dates back to 1879, when a Japanese satirical text playfully referred to a professor with a large collection of unread books as tsundoku sensei.”
Tsundoku! At last, validation for a bibliovore whose eyes are bigger than her bookshelves! I always learn something new and applicable from the good hearts and minds who gather at your table, bam.
Lately I’ve been taking my book-buying cues from the magnificent Krista Tippett, who lately hosted award-winning British naturalist and writer Michael McCarthy and Robin Wall Kimmerer, a deep-seeing botanist and bryologist (moss expert), on her On Being program on NPR. (Check out the episodes at onbeing.org!)
oh, yes, oh, yes, oh yes! i LOVE robin wall kimmerer, whose book, Braiding Sweetgrass, i included in a summer reads roundup, which i might also have forgotten to post here. my editor asked for a trio of nature books for summer, and said they needn’t be brand-new, but could come from backlists. thus i picked three modern classics, and robin wall kimmerer was one. let me see if i can find at least the link. and here we go: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-books-summer-nature-20180412-story.html
Oh, yes! The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was a gift from a friend, in part because a lovely little snail was one of my pets from Henry Brockman’s produce, but also as a resonating read during a lengthy at-home recovery from a thoroughly broken wrist. I must complete the trio with The Song of Trees. Thank you for the reprised review, bam. Superb selections.
“song of trees” is from sewanee professor, david george haskell, who i thought of looking up when i was down there. he wrote the kindest note, which is rare. i think you will LOVE it. i hope so. xoxox
You mean you were in TN and didn’t darken the door sill of impeccable, indeed, Ann Patchett’s wonderful book emporium..(Wife of my beloved
physician)?? Next time, Bam dear. I have a little book tucked into my tote
this Summer, beyond the many past Seasons I have carried it for wisdom and reflection…The Gentle Weapon – Prayers for Everyday and Not-So-Everyday Moments by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. An iconic gem of insight and humanity. Too simple on the surface…too complex to put aside for any
appreciable amount of time.
since it was sunday morning before noon, Parnassus was closed when we drove past, though we did pause and and pay homage!
still don’t know how close brentwood is. need to find it on a map. and your book by the rebbe sounds lovely. need to check that out, too. i know of rebbe nachman…..
Love Jimmy Carter’s resonant words… Love Parker Palmer and intend to read On the Brink of Everything. Definitely want to read A Carnival of Losses. Michael Knight touches me; bless him for the tears that punctuated his reading… Love the term tsundoku! Madly in love with Robin Wall Kimmerer. xxx
i somehow knew that you too had fallen under the spell of RWK. and i think the spell of donald hall will capture you too….there is nothing so fine as the itch of wanting to get back to pages that beckon you……as donald’s and michael’s are doing right now……
Time was the theme of most of my summer reading. It wasn’t intentional, but it happened. I started off with IN PRAISE OF WASTING TIME by Alan Lightman which I’m pretty sure I learned about from one of your spiritual book round ups. I wholeheartedly loved it. I followed that up with his EINSTEIN’S DREAMS which lamcal had recommended to me. It’s his imagining of what Einstein was imagining when he was working on his theory of relativity which I learned introduced the idea of the space time continuum. I didn’t understand most of it, but it was an interesting read. Then came Anne Tyler’s CLOCK DANCE which I loved and the quirky and enchanting HARRY’S TREES by Jon Cohen. Both deal with time too. Right now, I’m reading Robert Levine’s A GEOGRAPHY OF TIME which Lightman referenced in WASTING TIME. It is fascinating! Now I’ve got to add Parker Palmer and Michael Knight, et al to my tsundoku and try to read a few more from that pile before summer vacation ends and school starts and the amount of time I have to waste shrinks.
i love this eclectic-yet-themed list! you are SUCH a ubiquitous reader! oh my! i should give you a standing offer to roll by any time and pluck any books from my leftovers pile. i think you’d find quite a few. i love how you zig and zag from fiction to non-. i have to read so much non-fiction for work, i don’t get to luxuriate in the folds of fiction ever enough. i love anne tyler……