Book Report: June Round-Up

June 30, 2022

Big Books.

Books Read Again.

A Book about Books and Bookstores

Books with Spies and Intrigue

New Books, Old Books

That about summarizes my reading this month, but perhaps you want details.

Big Books

I read three books over 500 pages and don’t regret one minute immersed in all those pages.

  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fannonne Jeffers. The main character Ailey spends summers in a small Georgia town where her mother’s family lived in bondage as slaves. The book explores the complicated history of that family and leads us through the generations, going back and forth in time. As readers we see the results of the trauma, oppression, and cruelty, as well as the resiliency and passion for life. In the middle of the book I wearied of the male dominant-female abused sex scenes, but was glad I didn’t give up reading the book, for there is much to love in these characters and their lives.
  • The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. A terrific summer read, which I wrote about in an earlier post this month. https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/06/09/book-report-great-circle-by-maggie-shipstead/
  • The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Another terrific summer read, a re-read in my case. I wonder if I read this in the summer the first time around. The title refers to a painting, and each chapter focuses on a specific character, although the main character Penelope, who is the daughter of the painter and a figure in the painting, is never far away. You will love some characters and others, not so much!

Books Read Again

Along with The Shell Seekers, I re-read The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which is well-worth reading again or for the first time, if you have not yet read it. The book is divided into sections: Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, Death. A full and complete life. Daisy Goodwin Flett’s mother, Mercy Stone was raised in an orphanage, the Stonewall Orphan Home, and her father was a stone cutter. Thus the title. The book is Daisy’s witness to herself –there is a reference to her “decoding” her life. Gorgeous writing that is at once lush and understated.

A Book About Books and Bookstores

In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch. At times obscure and too esoteric for summer reading. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being reminded of the gift of browsing good bookstores. The author says there are many types of browsers, including the idler who just wants to while away the hours, the flaneur who meanders through the stacks, observing, loitering, shuffling; the general who sees the stacks as a thing to be conquered; and the pilgrim, who seeks wisdom. Deutsch worked at the famous Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, which unfortunately no longer exists, but I am grateful I visited it a couple times and left its underground warren of rooms with piles of books for my personal library of spirituality and theology books.

Books With Spies and Intrigue

The Expats and The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone. This author has written LOTS of books, including a brand new one, Two Nights in Lisbon. The Paris Diversion is a sequel to The Expats. At times I didn’t quite follow the plot and at times I didn’t care for the main characters, a husband and wife, both full of secrets. However, I loved the twists and turns–and being in Luxembourg and Paris.

New Books, Old Books.

I’ve already mentioned three of the new books I read this month (The Great Circle–2021; The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois–2021, and In Praise of Good Bookstores–2022). The fourth new book is nonfiction, Bitter Sweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain. Cain’s earlier book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) is on my personal Great Books List; a book that made a difference in how I view myself and my relationship to the world. This book isn’t on that same level, but I identified with much of what she wrote. On her Bittersweet quiz, I scored 8. Above 5.7 means I am a “true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet.” The book includes excellent chapters on grief and inherited pain.

The Shell Seekers was published in 1987 and The Stone Diaries in 1994. I also read Solar Storms, a novel, by Linda Hogan published in 1995 and Without a Map, a memoir, by Meredith Hall published in 2007. Reading Solar Storms, I felt totally immersed in Native American spirituality. Angel has been separated from her mother, who hurt her physically and emotionally, but she sets out to reconnect. The book is rich in transformation and reconciliation and also the urgency of saving the traditional native way of life. I read a used copy, and I loved seeing what the previous owner had marked as meaningful.

Meredith Hall wrote the luminous novel Beneficence, which I wrote about in a May post. https://livingonlifeslabyrinth.com/2022/05/19/book-report-beneficence-by-meredith-hall-2020/ Without a Map is her stunning memoir of a life that could easily have ended in tragedy or at the very least bitterness, but instead the author is a woman of great compassion and forgiveness. When she was pregnant at age 16 in the 1960’s, she was expelled from school, totally rejected by her parents, and the baby was adopted without her seeing him. Somehow she survived, but life remained challenging for many years. This book helps me understand the insight and compassion she has for her characters in Beneficence.

So that does it for this month: 10 books for summer days.

An Invitation

What did you read this month? I would love to know.

Book Report: Browsing My Bookshelves

One book leads to another. And another.

One of my favorite projects each week is preparing for the writing group I facilitate at my church. Along with creating a writing prompt, I offer short quotations to support the subject of the prompt. Finding appropriate quotes becomes a rabbit hole of pleasure and memory. Sometimes, I confess, browsing my bookshelves becomes a diversion, a distraction from the task in front of me. Oh well.

An example: My morning meditation these days includes reading the prayers for Lent in Jan Richardson’s Circle of Grace, A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. (2015). One of those blessings led me to this week’s writing prompt –a prompt about telling our own stories. Great–I had both the content for the prompt and one illustrative quote.

Let the browsing begin.

I remembered a workshop on storytelling as a spiritual practice that I took from Diane Millis a couple years ago, so found her book, Re-Creating a Life, Learning How to Tell Our Most Life-Giving Story (2019) on one of my shelves. As I paged through the book, I remembered an exercise Millis led at the workshop and wrote a note to myself to consider adapting that for a future writing group. I also noticed a reference to one of my favorite books, Composing A Life (1990) by Mary Catherine Bateson.

Here’s where the rabbit hole gets deeper. I pulled that book, autographed by Bateson, off my shelf, and as I noted what I had underlined and where I had written comments, I remember the evening I heard Bateson speak at a private girls’ school in Cleveland. Her book, Peripheral Visions, Learning Along the Way (1994), had recently been published, and, of course, I bought that book, too, and had her sign it.

We had moved to Cleveland from Minnesota just months before, and I still felt quite lost and unsure of what my next steps in composing my own life would be. I remember having a lovely conversation with Bateson and being surprised by the time she took to share her wisdom and perspective with me. I don’t remember her words, but am sure I wrote about it in my journal. I resist digging out that journal, for I might never climb out of that rabbit hole! An aside: Many years later I learned that a woman who became a friend had also attended that lecture.

Also on my shelf is Composing A Further Life, The Age of Active Wisdom (2010), and I am so tempted to begin re-reading this book right this very minute. The chapter titles, “Thinking About Longevity,” “A Time for Wholeness,” and “Knowledge Old and New” beckon me and I suspect are even more relevant for me now, but I set it aside. For the moment. And then I remember another of her books that I found at a Little Free Library, Willing to Learn, Passages of Personal Discovery (2004), but have yet to read. It awaits on a different shelf, where I keep TBR nonfiction books.

I slap my hands, reshelve the Bateson books, and turn to the shelves with my writing books. There are lots of temptations on those shelves. I start with two books: The Story of Your Life, Writing a Spiritual Autobiography (1990) by Dan Wakefield and Your Life as Story, Writing the New Autobiography (1997) by Tristine Tainer. The Wakefield book introduced me to the term and the idea of “spiritual autobiography,” which is now more commonly thought of as “spiritual memoir,” and the Rainer book reminds me of her earlier book The New Diary, How to Use A Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity (1978), which I used as a text when I taught a series of journal writing classes way back when! All three books are full of notes to myself.

I have found what I need for the writing group and force myself to re-shelve the pile of books on my desk, but that leads to another round of browsing.

The Diane Millis book is right next to a collection of Thomas Merton books and close by are Thomas Moore books. The Bateson books are near books by a current favorite, Diana Butler Bass, including her latest Freeing Jesus, Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence (2021). I notice I have starred the last two chapters, “Way” and “Presence,” and I am tempted to re-read those chapter right now. Plus, I notice a Dan Wakefield book I have not yet read, Releasing the Creative Spirit, Unleash the Creativity in Your Life (2001), and I am certain just what I need could be found on those pages.

Behave yourself, Nancy, and focus. Finish the task at hand.

An Invitation:

What books are waiting for you on your bookshelves? I would love to know.

Book Report: January Round-Up

January has been a cold month here in Minnesota, but I have been content to stay inside and read.

Such good books. My intention was to select one or two favorite fiction titles and one or two nonfiction titles, but I could not decide which books not to mention.

Fiction

  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. I love books set in a bookstore, and any book written by Erdrich calls to me, so this was a winning combination. Erdrich’s actual bookstore in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books, is one of my favorites and the fictional representation of the store is just as appealing. The basic plot is that one of the employees is haunted by a customer who has died, but that is far too simplistic a description. The book is set during the pandemic and also refers to the murder of George Floyd and the days following that. I am so grateful for Erdrich’s ongoing elucidation of indigenous history, culture, and current realities.
  • Celine by Peter Heller. I read his more recent book The River and liked it, but didn’t love it. However, a favorite bookseller recommended this book to me, and the main character, a 68 year-old woman who is a private investigator, is intriguing. At first I was confused by lots of names and places and wasn’t sure where the focus was going to be, but Celine, who comes from an “old” family, wears Armani scarves when she tracks her prey, uses guns comfortably, and is married to Peter, a “Mainer” who doesn’t drive, kept me turning the pages. I hope Heller writes another book about these two. The story itself–searching for a young woman’s father who supposedly was killed by a bear in Yellowstone–is well done, too.
  • Songbirds by Christy Lefteri. Set in current times in Cyprus, where a maid, originally from Sri Lanka disappears. She has fallen in love with a man who poaches song birds and sells them to restaurants as forbidden and exotic treats. That’s disturbing enough, as it is, but even more so is the indentured servant conditions of the maids and that the main character, Nisha, is not the only one.
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I loved this book. William and Lucy Barton were once married and had two daughters, now grown. Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s current wife leaves him. William asks Lucy to help him confront a missing piece of his life story. Lucy, by the way, is a successful writer, but feels invisible and inadequate. Ah, the mysteries of marriage and relationships and as Strout (Lucy) says, “how we lived our lives on top of this.” After reading this book, I re-read the earlier one My Name is Lucy Barton and discovered I liked it much more the second time around.
  • The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. Think The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Not as chilling, perhaps, at least not on the surface, but…. Frida, a divorced mom with a young child, has a “bad day” and makes a mistake for which she is sentenced to a training school for mothers. There is a right way and a wrong way. One way. In the school she is assigned to a robotic doll to practice the right way. Ripe for a movie, I am guessing.
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Set in a retirement community in the UK, a “gang” of residents meet to solve unsolved murders and, of course, get involved in a real murder (or more than one). Interesting characters with interesting backgrounds (Elizabeth was former secret service), and I am eager to read the next book in the series. I assume there will be more after #2.
  • The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina. This is my “wild card” of the month–a book I just happened upon. I knew nothing about it, but the summary sounded intriguing, and it was one of those books that just felt right. The plot is based on the true story of a tsunami in Japan in 2011. People who have lost loved ones come to talk to them in a disconnected phone booth at the site of the tsunami. Two of those are Yui, whose daughter and mother died, and Takeshi whose wife died. Such a beautiful story of the rhythms of grief and re-entry into life and love.
  • Mrs March by Virginian Feito. This is the least favorite novel I read this month, but I finished it. (I discarded a few others along the way.) Mrs March is married to a successful novelist, and she has many emotional problems. I got tired of the grinding perspective of her paranoia, but still there was some nice writing.

Nonfiction

  • The Inner Work of Age, Shifting from Role to Soul by Connie Zweig. I read this book slowly during my morning meditation time. Zweig’s main message is to become an Elder, which means doing the necessary inner soul work, becoming who we were created to be and embracing the hidden spiritual gifts of age. She doesn’t ignore the challenges; for example, life-changing illness, but instead urges each of us to become aware of our own shadow–the obstacle(s) that prevent our own authenticity. So much here. I added many quotes in my journal and used many of the reflection questions at the end of each chapter. This is a book to move us beyond being elderly and instead, to live our elderhood with awareness.
  • Wife/Daughter/Self, A Memoir in Essays by Beth Kephart. I have loved Kephart’s books on writing and this book gave me insight into who she is as writer and teacher, but much more beyond that. Each section was divided into snatches, short pieces, but the book didn’t feel disconnected. I did think, however, that the section on “wife” was the strongest. The book made me think about how roles change or even end, but the self remains.
  • In the Country of Women by Susan Straight. Straight is a white woman who was married to a black man from the neighborhood where she grew up. They had three daughters and even after they divorced they remained connected in healthy ways. Plus, she was very connected to his large and complicated family. I couldn’t always keep every one straight and how they were related to one another, but the weaving of the stories, the texture of the connections, like the braiding of hair, which she mentioned often, were memorable. This was an unexpected gift.
  • 16 Ways to Create Devotional Writing to Renew the Spirit and Refresh the Soul by David J. Sluka. A book to keep on my shelf for the day, if that comes, when I decide to write devotions for women elders.

It is already February 3, and I have read….sorry, you have to wait till my February Round-Up.

An Invitation: What were your favorite January reads? I would love to know.