soul pickings…

book pickings

pray tell, you might ask, what is she doing now? perhaps, given the tower of pages above, i’m devising a rube-goldbergian contraption for felling the wintertime ants that dare to cross my kitchen table. or, perhaps, it’s the latest in literary aerobics: hoist this pile off the tabletop and see how many jumping jacks i can count — before dropping the load on my poor baby toes, or tumbling under the weight of the heart-pumping challenge.

or, perhaps this: in the plummest assignment a girl could dream up, my old newspaper, the chicago tribune, has asked me to basically peruse the literary all-you-can-eat and fill my tray with the juiciest morsels — month after month after month. now, you’ll not find me weighing the caloric wonders nor the narrative arc of sultry page turners. and i won’t be digesting the latest in graphic novels, or avant-garde fiction. my little assignment, which runs on the pages of the tribune’s literary supplement, printers row journal (special subscription only), is called “round up: books for the soul.” and i’ll be lassoing soul-stirrers every four to six weeks.

and, in case you hadn’t already guessed, my definition of soul is a broad one, a deep one, so watch out bookshelves, i’m coming right at you. i’ve been asked to mine the lists of just-published pages to pluck out the ones that stir me — and maybe you — the most deeply. in my book, that means children’s picture books are near the top of the pile. and so too is the 8.4-pound, 4,448-page, two-volume whopper, the norton anthology of world religions, a collection i could — and i will — spend the rest of my days inhaling. it means poetry and essay, and even a book of black-and-white images with very few words, if that finds a way to the depth of the place that stirs us, inspires us, sets us wanting to right the world’s wrongs (or at least to course-correct the fumblings that hold us back from all whom we were meant to be).

at the moment, i’m whittling my latest short list down to the final three, and i’ll be defending my picks in short pithy blurbs — all to be handed over to my editor by monday morn. while i can’t let on here what’s next on the docket, i can pass along the trinity of titles that were picked for the perch of the new year, the first installation in what promises to be a perpetual devotion.

a marvelous and hilarious side note on the list just below. when dear, marvelous, and often quite wacky anne lamott spied the review online (i had no idea it had even been edited, yet alone posted) she went bonkers with joy, and declared it “the single best review anyone has ever gotten in the history of publishing,” which made me chuckle on an otherwise gloomy new-year’s-eve day, and slam-dunked my certainty that hyperbole is a jocular, life-giving art. when last i checked, a mere 24,362 of annie’s beloved friends had “liked” the review on facebook, and i for one was simply tickled that ms. lamott felt the love, as it were. (may we all know the joy of being loved out loud, over and over and over again….)

here, with no further ado, is my first round of round ups: books for the soul. i cannot emphasize emphatically enough how wonderful each title is. nor how very much i love this assignment that has me back in the news pages i love. (i’ll post the link, but i don’t think it will work if you don’t already have a tribune subscription. just in case, though, click here.)

Round Up: Books for the Soul 
By Barbara Mahany

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $22.95

Anne Lamott is practically a household word in the peeling-back-the-soul department. She’s utterly disarming. She’s hysterically funny. One minute, you’re falling off your chair laughing, and the next, you’re gasping for air, because Lamott has just unfurled a sentence that cuts straight to the heart of what you really needed to know. She’s been doing that for so many books now (this is her ninth nonfiction title), I keep thinking she’ll run out of ways to take my breath away.

Which is why I didn’t expect to see her latest collection of essays tumble into my short list of soulful treasures. I was wrong, so wrong. Lamott is one in a million. Who else would make this leap, writing of a moment that’s so serene and holy, “I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama.” Or: “I thought such awful thoughts I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Hers is an inimitable mix of irreverence and deep-down holy wisdom. Her wit is so sharp, her synapses fire so quickly, she deftly connects the dots and vaults across the spiritual landscape like nobody else. Never suspecting we’re about to come around some light-drenched bend, we practically sputter when she steers us head-on into one of her wild-eyed illuminations.

Lamott grounds the holy in the messy, hilarious, madcap adventure that is her life. And she sees the truth so piercingly perceptibly, we’re left slack-jawed and wiser in her wake.

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden
By Karen Maezen Miller, New World Library, 192 pages, $15.95

This little slip of a book, like the best of all soulful books, slips deep in your soul practically unnoticed. Suddenly, you’re sitting bolt upright, because you’ve been reading quietly along and you realize you’ve just inhaled a sentence that packs a spiritual wallop.

As in: “We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and — if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh,” writes Miller, a Zen priest and teacher, in an essay about crossing the threshold of fear. “All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.”

Miller’s plainspoken wisdom, the essence of her Zen Buddhist practice, is couched in the story of discovering and tending a long-neglected 100-year-old Japanese garden, the paradise in her own Southern California backyard. Amid a landscape of rocks and ponds and pines and orange trees heavy with fruit, Miller doles out Zen lessons on fearlessness, forgiveness, presence, acceptance and contentment.

“This book isn’t really about Zen, and it isn’t really about gardening,” writes Miller in the prologue. “It might seem like I’m talking to myself, but I’m talking to you. Now, about this paradise. You’re standing in it.”

Indeed, you needn’t be a gardener, nor inclined to long hours of meditation, nor a disciple of Zen. And you certainly needn’t travel to the nearest Japanese garden to unearth the truths Miller so generously lays at your mud-sodden soles.

The Lion and The Bird
By Marianne Dubuc, Enchanted Lion Books, 64 pages, $17.95

A so-called children’s book, a picture book, among the most soul-lifting books of the year? Why, yes. Emphatically yes.

Tripping upon this marvel of a book, by French Canadian designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc, is to tumble into a tale of unforgettable tenderness — the story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight, a winter’s convalescence of warmth and friendship that banishes loneliness, for lion and bird. It’s one that tears at and stitches together again the heart.

Words here are spare, as are the pencil-shaded drawings, and thus the tempo is slow, the mood quiet. It’s the intimate details that draw in the reader, and thus the reader’s heart — the wounded bird pecking seed off a dinner plate, little bird dozing the night away curled inside lion’s bedside slipper, bird peeking out of lion’s winter cap as the two lumber off for a romp in the snow.

By spring, when bird is healed and its flock returns, a nod to the sky is all lion needs to know that it’s time for bird to leave, to put flight to his wings. And so, the summer is passed — lion alone. Come autumn, lion can’t help but wonder, can’t help but study the canvas of sky. And then, after two achingly empty pages, a musical note exalts on a page. There’s bird, perched on the limb of a tree. Lion’s heart leaps — and so does the reader’s.

It’s a lesson in unspoken, ineffable love. And it unspools in gentlest wisps. Sometimes, that’s all the soul needs.

Barbara Mahany is the author of Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, Oct. 2014). Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

and what books would you add to a list of those fine for the soul? even though i’m limited to just-published titles, you can add all-time favorites, classics, can’t-live-withouts to this ever-lengthening list…..(and i promise to keep posting once the round ups take their twirl in the tribune…)