Friday, September 02, 2016

Book Log: August 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

38) 8/8: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Confession: I had requested several books through interlibrary loan since my library didn't own copies. Just my luck, three came in all at once, while I was also trying to finish a couple other books with nearing due dates and long wait lists. While I had every intention of reading them in the order that they were due (three consecutive dates), I began to realize I would have to triage. Alas, Sarah Bessey's books got the boot and this took precedence (I still hope to return to Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts down the road, though).

As you learned in my June book log, Nadia struck a chord with me. Her writing style flows easily (although her language can be a bit salty, so if that will be a huge distraction for you, perhaps it's better to pass). This book is a powerful memoir of how this woman found herself a tattooed pastor of a Lutheran church. She also highlights different members of her congregation, being frank with her misgivings and judgmental attitudes and how she has been transformed by being sensitive and willing to admit her failures; through this, we see growth in the midst of her vulnerability.

I love stories like this. Here we see Nadia having emerged from addition, finding meaning and purpose, and turning around to reach out to other misfits. In her church, she creates an environment where those who are struggling to find a place where they are welcome and not judged are entering and finding community.

39) 8/20: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
This was chosen as the selection for my neighborhood book club to fulfill the classics category.

I've read Age of Innocence a couple times, so I was interested in seeing how this one would compare. Wharton likes taking on high society and examining the behavior of those members.

This book centers on Lily Bart. She is a sympathetic character to a point, insofar as we learn she is an orphan whose mother has only trained her to capitalize on her beauty - Lily has no skills or use outside of being desirable. However, while she needs to marry well in order to maintain her preferred manner of living, subconsciously she appears to be self-sabotaging relationships just when success seems imminent. We get to witness Lily's motivations and see what she's made of. This book is an interesting character study, and it led to good conversations when we met to discuss it.

40) 8/29: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This book was so tough to read, in the sense that it reveals the gritty underside of cities and I'm trying to figure out what to do now - how to process all this information and have it lead to action, in whatever small way. It's enlightening and I highly recommend it. I'll try to flesh it out more, but I'm still processing, so forgive me if it seems jumbled.

The author uses Milwaukee as an Every City, of sorts. With that city as his lens to the greater issues across the country, Desmond reveals how evictions play a huge role in the lives of lower income individuals and families.

That might make it sound dry and clinical, and while the author is a researcher with over 50 pages of notes, you get invested in individual stories. We follow several different individuals/families facing evictions as well as two different landlords interacting with and evicting various tenants. We learn what has led to the evictions, the sorts of places they're being forced to rent - properties that can have serious issues but which are essentially equivalent in rent to better kept places in other parts of town - the percentage of their income dedicated to rent, how drastically the likelihood of eviction goes up if there are children or if someone reports domestic assault, how your race and sex increase the chances of eviction as well:
"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out."
It's not surprising to see how evictions can lead other areas of your life to spiral out of control. If you're consumed with juggling an eviction, you might be more distracted on the job as you contest it or worry about what the future holds, or you might miss more work trying to find another place. Relocating farther away can lead to additional problems, especially if your transportation is unreliable. Then you lose your job, which means you lose your next home -- it's a downward spiral. While you're homeless or transitioning between places, you may also be paying high rates for your possessions in storage, only to have to weigh keeping ownership over your few belongings or making a rent or utility payment.

The book is written in third person, and as I was reading, I kept wondering how he gained access. He does answer this in the follow-up information, but I will allow you to remain in the dark until you read it for yourself.

You may recall how struck I was by Just Mercy (review in my May book log). One difference this book has is that, while Just Mercy reveals injustice, there is also hope in the accounts of some people who were released after being shown to have been wrongly convicted or finding justice when it's discovered they received harsh sentences that didn't line up with their crime; we see changes in the courts that should lessen future disparity. This book isn't as uplifting at the end, although Desmond does offer some possible solutions. And that's what this is - a rallying cry. Desmond is bringing attention to how serious evictions are, how important home security is to so many areas of our lives. He makes a strong, convicting case for universal housing vouchers, as well as other possible solutions. It's worth a read -- I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A List: Podcast Recommendations

I first discovered podcasts in the summer of 2005; the term showed up as a category in iTunes after an update, so I looked into it, intrigued by the option of downloading some favorite programs onto my iPod for free. I loaded some up before I tagged along with Eric for his three-week seminar in Boulder, Colorado, and I listened on the airplane and as I explored Boulder on foot while Eric was in class.

Since then, my podcast list has evolved, but I continue to listen while driving (now that I can plug into my car's speakers via USB or Bluetooth), exercising, gardening, cleaning, or while enjoying a quiet night of knitting or sewing.

I find myself with a mental list of favorites that I share when the topic comes up, and a friend asked if I would do a post on them. As it will be handy to link to this when someone next asks for a referral, I was happy to comply.

A disclaimer: I opt for things that will entertain more than edify me (I am trying to keep interest up while undergoing mundane tasks; I'm more likely to seek edification when reading, as heady podcasts can be hard to digest when I'm partly distracted with the task at hand).

With that note, there are two general themes that these podcasts can fall into: 1) literary, and 2) personal narratives. This is no surprise for those of you who know me. I was an English major (and briefly an English teacher), and as can be seen by my book log, I still enjoy losing myself in books. Also, it's not unusual for people to open up to me, disclosing secrets and struggles; I believe facing those things can help us to learn about ourselves and grow, and hearing personal insights on podcasts helps me to appreciate the universal struggles we face. If these themes don't interest you, my podcast recommendations will fall flat for you.

I've linked to the specific websites below, but the easiest way I have found to listen is to subscribe to the audio feeds via iTunes (if you have an Apple device) or Podcast Republic (for Android).

LITERARY PODCASTS in alphabetical order
CraftLit A former Enough teacher talks about what crafts she's working on, then helps listeners through a book - she chooses open domain texts so she can talk shop, then she plays the audio, either from Librovox or by enlisting some talented listeners to read; at one time she had a feed called Just the Books for those who liked literary and not crafty talk, but she couldn't keep up with both feeds; if you don't want the crafty talk but are still interested in the books, there's apparently a time stamp somewhere on the CraftLit feed so you can skip straight to the book. I appreciate this podcast because, although I was an English teacher, I didn't feel the most adept at helping students reflect on the important points. Heather Ordover switches between short stories and longer works, including Pride and Prejudice, North and South, The Count of Monte Cristo, Age of Innocence, A Tale of Two Cities, and much more.

New Yorker: Fiction In this monthly podcast, the fiction editor invites a contributor to read one of their favorite fiction pieces from the magazine's archives (not their own work), and they discuss its significance together. This can be more uneven, both in reading performance and selection, but I like more than I dislike, so I mention it here as a nice second-tier pick.

Selected Shorts If you appreciate short stories, check this one out. The creators understand authors are not always the best at reading their own work, so they get actors to perform them at public performances. Each episode centers on a specific theme.

Modern Love This is a newer podcast where actors read essays from The New York Times column of the same name. Then they interview the author of the piece to learn more. The submissions focus on some aspect of love, whether that of amorous love, parental love, or somewhere in between. This is a second-tier podcast of mine; something I'll listen to if I'm caught up with my favorites, but not an immediate download for me.

    The Moth This has become my favorite podcast. The podcasts fall into two categories: the Moth Radio Hour, where individuals have worked with coaches to polish a personal story in their lives that they will deliver without notes, and Story Slam favorites, where attendees throw their name in a hat if they want a chance to come on stage and share a five-minute story that meets that night's theme. They run the gamut of emotions, and I've been brought to tears when listening to stories. And it just reinforces my belief that everyone is so fascinating -- one of the first stories I heard was a doctor in the USA getting a call out of the blue to treat Mother Teresa (as you do).

    Radio Diaries Here's another new one for me,
    so it's relatively untested. Individuals are given tape recorders and editors put together a segment; the one I listened to was a segment from a Saudi girl who had recorded for two years, and This American Life has used episode segments in a couple of their shows.

    Reply All Here's a second-tier one for me. I believe Ira Glass (from This American Life) brought it to my attention, or used one of these segments in one of their shows. It's a similar vein to This American Life, where a story is explored in more depth, but it's more hit or miss as far as my interest is concerned and not as long.

     Serial  This podcast went viral last year when it debuted. Sarah Koenig, from This American Life -- sense a theme here? -- left the show to explore stories in more depth. In Serial, an entire season is spent on one story. The first season was about Adnan Syed, convicted of murder, although there were many questions throughout the investigation and trial. It's fascinating. There is a second season as well, but I can't speak to that one yet; I'm a couple episodes in and I'm undecided - it's nowhere near as gripping as the first season.
      StoryCorps I'm woefully behind on these, which is silly given they're relatively short, but I do enjoy them all the same. They take place in a recording booth where individuals are invited to come and share a story, and selections from some of those stories are aired -- you might have a couple family members or close friends interview each other, or you might have two near strangers come together to reflect on a pivotal moment when their lives crossed (for instance, one story had a bank robber, who served time for the robbery, interviewing someone who had been in the bank at the time). These can also bring me to tears, as people tend to dwell on monumental moments in their lives (one that stuck with me was from a doctor sharing about a family whose child died while waiting for an organ donor; the family then chose to donate their child's healthy organs so as to spare another family the grief of losing a child, and there are many moving accounts).

      This American Life In the world of podcasts/radio programs, this is one of the best in my estimation, and from my list above, it's clear they've inspired or spun-off several other programs. Each episode focuses on a single theme, with stories that fit the theme 
      (sometimes one story is consuming enough to fill an entire show, like one fascinating episode about a woman learning she had been switched at birth). They are so good at tying everything together and keeping interest, no matter the topic. It's one of my favorites (vying for first with The Moth). 

        So there you go, my current list (minus some recent recommendations that I haven't had opportunity to listen to yet). What are you listening to? Any recommendations that I should check out, even if they don't fall into the above categories?

        Saturday, July 30, 2016

        Book Log: July 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        34) 7/3: The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
        This concluded the Penderwicks series. All four titles are lovely, and this provides some closure. Seven years have passed since the third book ended.

        This title spends time dwelling with Batty, who is nearly eleven and is adjusting to life without her beloved dog Hound. She discovers a gift for singing, and in hopes of nurturing that talent while not stressing her growing family's stretched finances, she devises a plan to earn money.

        Each title has a more serious topic alongside lighthearted antics, and this is no different. However, the issue in this book floors Batty - she overhears a conversation that makes her question everything, and her family struggles with their transformed Batty as she doesn't reveal the secret, believing it to be true and herself at fault. I admit I ached for Batty and I could too easily picture this being real. I can readily recall the spectrum of emotions I faced as a preteen, and the author accurately conveys those in Batty. But all is not lost - as one can expect given the books leading up to this one, there will be a tidy, welcome resolution.

        35) 7/25: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
        Eric mentioned this book to me when it was published, since he thought it would be of interest to me. I liked the Kindle sample, but I have this issue with paying $13 for an e-book, which is my preferred reading medium, and my library didn't have an electronic copy. I eventually got my hands on a paperback and read it that way. (Sidenote: I certainly do purchase books, but when I read just enough to make purchasing every book cost prohibitive, I try to use my library unless the author is a favorite of mine or I have reasonable expectations of revisiting it.)

        I really should jump on Eric's recommendations sooner - another book I put off for the longest time was The Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. It sat on my bedside table undisturbed for months until I grabbed it for airplane reading on our NYC anniversary trip. Again, my only hesitation was that it wasn't an e-book, and I wasn't interested in starting a book right before bed when I was already going to bed too late. But I devoured it on that trip, even having to restrain myself from weeping while I sat next to a stranger on a plane when reading a poignant passage detailing the significance of Jesus' healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. I can still get emotional when I discuss that part in particular with friends; the entire book greatly impacted me and made the rounds of friends as I regularly pushed it on them. Naturally, I bought the Kindle version, in case I wanted to revisit it while our copy was loaned out.

        So back to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. This book is thoughtfully written. Dreher is a journalist who writes this beautiful account of his sister's life. She is diagnosed with cancer, and through watching her face it, and her consequent death, Dreher is wrestling with the value of family and place. He left his small town at a young age and never intended to return, whereas Ruthie never left and the community came together spectacularly to support the family. Dreher wonders what he has sacrificed by leaving behind people who know him and where he came from in order to pursue his career.

        Here in Wisconsin, we love much about finding ourselves here. Eric enjoys his students and colleagues, we found a home perfect for us that allows us to be welcoming, and we have found a community of good friends. However, we do regret our distance from family (we live around 5 and 7 hours away from family, respectively), especially with our young daughters not getting to interact with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents on a more regular basis. We even admit we feel a loss when we compare ourselves to those friends fortunate enough to have family in the area, and we've had this conversation with others in a similar boat. However, this is where we find ourselves, as we have deemed the sacrifice meaningful. So we work to establish ties here.

        I can understand Dreher's point, though. When Jon committed suicide, although I had gotten involved with the church in my college town, there was no doubt that I would seek comfort in my home church ten miles away. Indeed, when walking up to the church, I was met at the door with loving arms and shared tears. These people loved and knew us and loved and knew Jon. My college church would have been sympathetic, had they known, but my home church was shaken and grieved alongside us.

        We lived in Indiana, over 7 hours from family, when we lost our daughter Katherine. And yet, even with the distance, and even though we had only been in Indiana two years at that point, we felt completely surrounded and cared for. In fact, I remember some faculty members from my department confessing to me, as they looked around at all the people that had filled our church for the memorial service, they had no idea if they had that kind of support structure should they face tragedy, and they had been around much longer.

        Dreher shares an account from his mother that resonated with me:

        "We were surrounded by so much love," Mam recalls. "[When Ruthie was diagnosed with a malignant tumor] It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn't done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there."
        This struck me as similar to what we experienced after Katherine's death, especially. We were volunteering with the high school ministry, and they coordinated all the details of the memorial service when we were in shock, knowing we wanted to mark her short life but having no concept of where to begin. One student left directly from the service to mow our lawn. My knitting friends remembered my original due date and took us to dinner then. And on the anniversary of Katherine's death, they pooled together money to treat us to a nice meal, knowing we would be fragile and would want to be alone. It was a brutiful time, but we were surrounded with people who were supporting us, as I expounded on in even more detail here.

        Having community is so important, and Dreher felt that he and his wife lacked that, given that they never stayed in one place long enough to establish such connections. For us, when we lost Katherine, while I'd never considered cremation before then, it was no question what we were going to proceed with for our daughter - we couldn't handle burying her in a place where we wouldn't be long term.

        This might be reading as a censure of those of us who are away from home and family. Dreher does say this, though:
        There has to be balance. Not everyone is meant to stay -- or to stay away -- forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given -- and to give each other grace.
        He did have some tension with family, particularly with his father and sister, issues that they all ignored and tiptoed around when he made trips home. However, Ruthie's diagnosis made him realize they needed to try to regain peace and he worked to reestablish wholeness with his family and anyone he could think of where there was brokenness.

        While I could continue to expound on the book and share more quotations, I'll leave it at that. This book struck me, and I did find myself brought to tears at times. Some of that might be me being overly sensitive, as I finished the book on the eve of the anniversary of my brother's death, and it brought up so many memories of loss and generosity that I will forever hold close. But I don't believe I'd be alone in appreciating this story of his beloved sister's impact on those around her and lessons we can learn.

        36) 7/27: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
        Paul Kalanithi was led into medicine and literature as he contemplated what makes life meaningful. He was a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

        This book is an account of choices he made leading to his vocation and how he faced the reality of death derailing his plans and suddenly re-prioritizing his goals and his relationships.

        I had begun this book alongside Dreher's, but it was set aside until I finished The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It is a solid book, and I wonder if my impression would have been more passionate if I had finished it before Dreher's; this is the problem with reading well-written books on similar topics too close together, much as I experienced with reading Code Name Verity on the coattails of The Nightingale.

        37) 7/30: Eggs by Jerry Spinelli
        Jerry Spinelli is a young adult author I've enjoyed for years; my favorite of his is Stargirl.

        This is a decent story (that sounds like such an underwhelming response; I think compared to other YA lit, it's strong, but I don't feel that it's Spinelli's strongest work).

        In Eggs, we read of the unlikely friendship of 9-year-old David and 13-year-old Primrose. They are both faced with loss and longing and they develop what is essentially a sibling relationship that vacillates from friendly to antagonistic as they struggle to come to terms with what life has handed them. Refrigerator John fills a parental role when the children are unwilling to open up to the family they do have in their lives.

        Friday, July 15, 2016

        Book Log: June 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        31) 6/7: Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy
        After countless recommendations, I finally read this book. I'm not sure why I hadn't gotten around to it before now; while it does cover his time as a football coach, it's more about what makes Dungy tick. As people had shared, you need not like/follow football to appreciate this book. I do actually enjoy football in moderation, and we lived in Indiana while Dungy was coaching the Colts, so there wasn't any reason for me to have it on the back burner; I just kept finding other books at the top of my reading list.

        I'd long respected what I knew of him, so reading more about his life and what has shaped his decisions and his responses was interesting. I had known one detail about his private life that I thought occurred after this book's publication (to remain relatively vague, a close family member dies by suicide); in fact, the death happened before Dungy published this book, so I had added interest in reading how he processed that loss.

        32) 6/17: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
        I am partway through another Bryson work after having heard an NPR interview with him after its publication (At Home: A Short History of Private Life), but I haven't yet finished it; the man has an encyclopedic mind so I find myself reading a section, then setting it aside to digest, and I don't see that routine changing. A Walk in the Woods was read for a neighborhood book group I joined.

        I can't decide what to make of Bryson, whether he would be the perfect dinner companion, filled with witty anecdotes and fascinating details on everything, or whether he's egotistical, the type to dominate because he could talk on any topic. However, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

        This was an entertaining, well-written read (our book group was split as to how uproariously funny it was - I landed on the at-times-amusing-but-never-laugh-out-loud side, whereas others were more of the hysterical-giggles-while-reading camp). Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, so this book covers the history of the Trail, his preparations for it and his experiences on it, details on the Park Service, and how flora and fauna have changed.

        I couldn't shake the feeling as to how unprepared he seemed physically when he began (logistically, he had done his research and was prepared with gear and maps). And let's not get started on his hiking companion Katz. But I learned a lot about the Trail and find myself regularly checking the blog of a local woman currently hiking the entirety of the AT (I met her husband at the neighborhood block party, and her plans to hike the Trail influenced our book group to read this account).

        33) 6/29: Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber
        This was a timely read. I knew of Nadia initially through a book review on Rachel Held Evans' blog, and then by chance I listened to Nadia share an incident on The Moth podcast that happens to be a chapter in this book. Side note: if you don't already listen, go subscribe to that podcast now - it's at the top of my listening list (yes, even ahead of This American Life most weeks).

        Nadia is a progressive Christian and a Lutheran pastor. She previously published Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, but my library doesn't carry that title, so as is the norm, I didn't have any issues jumping to a later work.

        In this work, she is vulnerable in sharing her faults. That was the aspect I appreciated most. It's easy to talk ourselves up to try to appear impressive, it is so difficult to willingly share our negative thoughts or our mistakes, and yet acknowledging them can transform us and others. She is also gifted at "finding God in all the wrong people," as the subtitle states. If we believe that we are all made in the image of God, it behooves us to recognize that essence in everyone, even if their actions are off-putting or even repulsive to us.

        In addition to Nadia's transparency and frankness, I resonated with her mentions of the liturgy. We recently started attending a small local church that practices liturgy and have found it refreshing. Finding a tradition mindful of the church calendar and intentional in the words spoken in chorus has been a welcome fit.

        I clearly enjoyed this book, and I only regret that I was finishing it under deadline (I try to avoid library fines and angering those next on the hold list...), as there were some passages I would have highlighted or earmarked had the copy been my own. I have every expectation this book will be added to my library.

        Wednesday, June 01, 2016

        Book Log: May 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        This month we hosted a near-constant stream of friends and family, so my reading was infrequent and limited. Towards the end of the month, as we entertained less and I was able to indulge in more reading time, it picked up.

        26) 5/16: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
        I have to admit this was an uneven book for me. I nearly abandoned it, but my lack of reading time for the month was starting to get to me, and as I was so close to finishing this one, it seemed a shame not to know how it resolved.

        Major Pettigrew is the protagonist, and we see how his focus changes (from valuing things to people) as the book progresses. We see him process his brother's death, gain a new friend, and wrestle with family tensions.

        Given the title, I was expecting the "last stand" to come sooner, or for the book to feel more intentional, with a specific aim, but instead there was a gradual, meandering tone. When the book shifted, it didn't seem natural. There are important themes addressed, including racial acceptance, but I could have easily dropped it midway and not missed out. It is well written, though, and I'm clearly in the minority with my impressions of the book, if you take a look at Amazon reviews.

        27) 5/22: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
        This was recommended to me by a friend and was a pleasant read. The concept was interesting: imagine a reclusive author who published one novel that took the world by storm (a la Harper Lee), and then decades later found herself nearly penniless after falling victim to a Ponzi scheme. She must publish again to survive.

        Enter Alice, who works for Mimi's publisher. She is sent to the author's home, by request, to help out so the author can focus solely on writing. These duties revolve around taking care of Frank, Mimi's young son. He's a charming character, and although it isn't spelled out, he seems to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum (obsessive with fashion and movies, regularly acts out when touched, and so on).

        I won't reveal anything that will give away plot, but it was engaging and was quickly finished (and that's saying something, given that it was a hardcover book and not on my Kindle; anymore, e-books are more quickly read since it's easier to tote around my Kindle in my purse than actual books crowding out everything else).

        28) 5/22: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
        I'm not sure when I began seeing mention of this, but it has only crossed my radar in the last few years. Three years ago, my husband and I were in NYC celebrating our ten-year anniversary. We were trying to find out what to bring home for our daughter, who was then not quite three. I remember picking up a copy of this book to consider - it was an elaborate pop-up book - but I rejected it since I was trying to find a NYC-themed gift, if possible, and I hadn't even read it yet to know if it was something I wanted to own.

        It's a lovely book with simple illustrations, and at one point Brennan climbed on my lap and asked me to read a few pages to her. It's not long, but it is poetic and I see myself returning to it again. I rushed reading it; there are some good nuggets in here that I'd like to savor next time.

        29) 5/24: The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
        Last month I read the first couple books in this series. I'm continuing on, as it's a pleasant break from other heavier works I might find myself tackling.

        This book had the sisters in two locations while their father and stepmother take their honeymoon - Rosalind, the oldest, was invited to vacation with her best friend's family. Other than at the bookends of the story, she doesn't appear for any significant length. The story centers on the three younger sisters' adventures in Maine for a couple weeks with their aunt. Skye is thrust into the OAP role (oldest acting Penderwick), and we watch her struggle with the role, as she's convinced she will be a huge failure, but as we all suspect, she rises to the occasion.

        Their good friend from the first book, Jeffrey, joins them for the time, and there's a big plot point that involves him, quite a convenient revelation, nothing of the sort that tends to happen in real life. That doesn't detract from the story, but as an adult reading a book aimed for a younger audience, I found myself not completely buying into how smoothly it unrolled. All the same, I plan on reading the fourth book to conclude the series.

        30) 5/29: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
        Friends, this book is one of the most important books I've read in a long while. But it was excruciatingly hard to read at times.

        Bryan Stevenson shares how he ended up getting involved in representing individuals on death row, and he's also made huge inroads with the treatment of juveniles. (For those of you with a pulse on other recent publications, you might find this reminiscent of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - I am patiently waiting my turn at the library to read it.)

        My heart ached and I would get so upset at some of the accounts in here (for instance, the account of the psychiatrist who faked his credentials and practiced for eight years, and yet gave testimonies about the competence of defendants that carried great weight; the case we learn about is when this "psychiatrist" failed to properly diagnose a defendant's recent brain damage after a severe car accident that led to the events that put him on trial).

        Stevenson shares from many cases, but the one he spends the most time on is that of Walter McMillan, a man who was sentenced to death row even though there are so many issues with his case, not the least of which is the fact that he had numerous alibis during the time of the crime.

        As these cases could feel so overwhelming and hopeless, I began to wonder how Stevenson could continue doing this, year after year. At one point, he shares how he nearly gave up and what he realized was the point of it all. It was poignant, and I found myself highlighting large passages; here's one excerpt from a large section I found powerful:
        Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
        Several times I had to pause, maybe vent to my husband about how these things could be happening. But I would calm down and return to the book. The work done by the Equal Justice Initiative is meaningful, important, challenging work. And this book is a meaningful, important, challenging piece.

        Sunday, May 01, 2016

        Book Log: April 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        19) 4/3: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
        Here's a book I kept seeing mentioned. I could understand why people were enjoying it. It's a fun read (although the middle third was slower to get through, and the cultural references felt tedious at times).

        First off, I need to give the disclaimer that I am not a video game aficionado; we didn't own a console growing up, so my only experience was when I was at friends' houses. I don't play online games, either, but I certainly knew a little about World of Warcraft. However, this lack of information didn't lesson my enjoyment. Also, the summary I give below is introduced quite early to set up the premise of the book - don't feel that these are spoilers, as you'd learn these details in the prologue.

        Imagine the world in 2044. Many people are very into playing the massively multi-player online game OASIS. It's quite realistic and allows people to escape the drudgery of their daily lives, all the more important as recession is rampant; the real world's infrastructure is crumbling, so people avoid reality and retreat to OASIS. Interest is increased when the creator dies and, since he has no family, he reveals that he has hidden an Easter egg somewhere in OASIS. The one who discovers it wins his fortune. First, they must discover three keys that lead through three gates, at the end of which is the Easter egg. The creator was a huge 80's fan, so interest is revived in music, culture, and games from that decade, as many suspect they will help discover useful hints.

        Five years pass, and no progress is made for the hunt. Then the protagonist, a senior in a virtual high school, discovers the first key. Interest is again revived, and this story covers the hunt for the fortune.

        I was pretty good at suspending my disbelief, although periodically I felt like Wade had magical epiphanies to aid in his success that likely would have been found out sooner by the lackeys at IOI, the token evil corporation, with their limitless resources. All the same, the author does a decent job sharing the history of the hunt as well as realistically explaining how the world has changed. Certainly there are questions that arise regarding what is real and could hint at our own tech addictions.

        It's not a must read, nor an important read, but it's an entertaining one if you need something light.

        20) 4/4: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
        I'd read this book when I was young, but I can't recall if I'd ever revisited it as an adult. My interest was revived when I realized how limited my memories of it were when I was reading When You Reach Me last month.

        It was pleasant to reread. You get good versus evil, freedom versus conformity. You also see bravery in Meg, the flawed but faithful protagonist, as she travels to rescue her father with her human and otherworldly companions.

        I enjoyed it, but I think I was expecting more, perhaps because I've read a lot of good literature influenced by L'Engle's transformative work - it's hard to hold up under such a legacy. Perhaps I expected it to be longer? It's certainly not a bad thing to be able to tell a story succinctly, though.

        21) 4/11: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

        As a teenager, I once attended a presentation where the speaker shared about different levels of communication: the most general is casual, superficial talk, and at the pinnacle is deeply personal information. He shared how infrequently people spend time at the deepest level; even within marriage, it's easy to get stuck with figuring out practical details, especially when children are present -- transportation logistics, schedules, house upkeep, work and school commitments, extracurricular activities. It's often a luxury to have deeply meaningful conversations.

        In Tara Road, we see how the various characters get stuck in their routines and become blind to the reality around them. Binchy examines relationships and the lies we tell ourselves and others.  The focus is on friendships, both platonic and within marriage. If you're not taking the time to reflect or have honest conversations, you settle into believing everything is as you see it. This can lead to misunderstandings that grow into something that can no longer be ignored.

        Like the first book of hers I read (in January), this one was a pleasant read; she crafts a good story. I don't often need or want a lot of excitement in my books. This one is a longer read (648 pages), but that allows much to be done with the characters. We get to see what drives them and what their faults are, and then when their world is unsettled, how they respond, either uncovering unknown strength and abilities or losing themselves as they realize they were never truly in control.

        22) 4/18: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
        A friend's daughter was devouring this audiobook series, so I looked into it. Reviews were strong, and it was a National Book Award winner, so I added it to my list. Such a charming read! It is a sweet and innocent story of four sisters and a widowed father. The father is loving but very much a peripheral character in this book. This book covers their time at a summer home for three weeks and their adventures there; each girl gets some attention from the author (their ages range from 4 to 12, and their personalities are distinct enough to tell them apart). I feel like it won't be much longer before I start reading this aloud to Brennan.

        The children aren't perfect (which would make for a boring read), but while they can get into trouble, their hearts are in the right place and there is eventually resolution. Their relationships with each other is sweet as well; the sisters hold family meetings, either emergency or planned, to discuss events and make plans, and they swear each other to secrecy, citing Penderwick Family Honor (unless it seems harm could come to someone, then they are released from their bond).

        23) 4/24: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
        This was the second in the Penderwicks series. The family lives on Gardam Street, and this book picks up soon after their summer adventures conclude. School is in session and their Aunt Claire delivers a letter to their father that had been written by his wife shortly before her death four years earlier. The contents - that her husband should begin dating again - frame the storyline; the sisters decide to orchestrate horrible partners for him to date so that he will give up on the venture. There are also other plot lines taking place - Jane's deception surrounding a school play is a primary one, but the other sisters have their own issues they wrestle with.

        This was published in 2008, but it has a timeless feel to it; I could easily see it becoming a classic. It doesn't quite seem contemporary given the freedom the girls have to wander on their own, but it embodies the innocence of childhood and I can just see my daughter getting caught up in the story and discussing all the details at length.

        24) 4/25: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

        I taught for two years in Minnesota in a suburb of the Twin Cities, beginning in the fall of 2004. This book, published in 2002, was already part of the curriculum in the ninth-grade class I taught. That was my initial introduction to the book; first I read it that summer to get a feel for it, then I re-read it when the unit came up.

        I'm not sure that I had read it since then, but it is a powerful, thoughtful book, and I have found myself revisiting some old favorites again.

        One reason I don't go into much plot detail for these accounts is that I worry I won't do the books justice - a list of some of the highlights might take away the power of the actual book, or it may make you avoid reading it if my description isn't your typical reading style. Plus, I'd rather go into a book or movie with little understanding of what to expect. This is one I went into blind, and after more than a decade had passed, the details had dimmed considerably. It was a pleasure to read this one again.

        The narrator is Reuben, and the story takes place when he is eleven. It is clear he is reflecting on this account as an adult, but the foreshadowing hints at tragedy to come and uncertainty as to who else reaches adulthood with him. It is well done - Reuben doesn't sugarcoat events, even when the truth paints him in a poor light. My freshmen loved this book, as did I. Seriously a great read with great themes to reflect on.

        25) 4/28: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
        I first read this as a young student (possibly sixth grade?). It's another Newbery Award winner.

        I noticed I've been reading a lot of children's literature this month - I like to read YA lit, but this has been more than normal. It's due to the fact that we've been reading chapter books to our oldest for a while now; as she is growing as a reader and as we work our way through other books, I'm keeping an eye out for what might be on the horizon.

        The protagonist is a young boy who writes fan letters to his favorite author. It takes a while for the author to initially respond, but Mr Henshaw, through his responses, pushes Leigh, an aspiring author himself, to develop the skills that would help him to reach that end.

        I found myself invested in Leigh. Here's a young boy coming to terms with his parents' divorce and the new home and school that results from it. Through writing (both to Mr Henshaw and the journal he begins to keep), he matures as a writer and as a person. All of the accounts are epistolary, and I'm a sucker for a well-done book in letters (for two great books in that style, see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Where'd You Go, Bernadette).

        Friday, April 01, 2016

        Book Log: March 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        11) 3/3: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
        I enjoy young adult literature - this interest began in a YA lit class in college, as I was introduced to a lot of the good literature that exists for students, but teaching reinforced my interest, and now as a mother with constantly evolving demands for my time, it is refreshing to complete a book in short order. I will sometimes peruse lists of award-winning books to guide my selections, and while I got this recommendation from an English teacher friend, it also happened to be the recipient of the 2010 Newbery Medal.

        I originally read this book in 2012 and recalled really enjoying it, so I revisited it. It held up well. Take a child obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time, add in chapter titles that double as categories for The $20,000 Pyramid (which factors into the storyline of this book set in the late '70s), and a little science-fiction/fantasy dynamic with mysterious notes, and see everything culminate.

        This was a favorite passage of mine:

        Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.
        But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there's a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to.

        12) 3/4: The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks
        I enjoy short stories. I was reflecting on this, trying to pinpoint a time when my interest in them began. We certainly read them in school growing up, and there were some great ones we read as examples in my fiction writing class. But my love of them grew even more after I started having children. My reading habits changed, as my opportunities to read decreased. There was an uptick in my YA lit and short story consumption, as those genres could be completed in shorter amounts of time.

        This collection had some intriguing selections. I think there was only one or two that I had absolutely no interest in and it was a trial to complete, although there were others that were interesting to read but ended up falling flat.

        13) 3/7: Rising Strong by Brene Brown
        This book came out in 2015, around the time I started seeing Brene's name come up frequently and her TED talks regularly shared on social media.

        She champions vulnerability, and in this book, she examines why we need to own our stories instead of living in the shame, real or imagined. She frames her Rising Strong process in the stages of The Reckoning, The Rumble, and The Revolution. I particularly enjoyed the stories from her own life and those she has encountered through her workshops.

        One useful phrase I appreciated was, "The story I'm telling myself is..." It's not a new concept (I'm familiar with the benefit of saying something akin to "What I'm feeling is..." to try to deflate a situation), but I think it's an effective tool. She also recommends people writing SFDs (the PG version is Stormy First Drafts) to get out what you're feeling. This resonated with me - I process my feelings by writing; if I'm out of sorts, it's best that I find a time to write down the situation, and often when I'm done I've learned something about myself and what is really the issue.

        14) 3/8: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
        This was a fast, enjoyable read. It centers on a dour bookstore owner. When the story opens, he is a grieving widower. The book shows his transformation as he responds to loss in his personal life and an unusual bequest found in his store. We also see his impact on those around him, often through the lens of related stories and books.

        Each chapter includes a story story review from the protagonist's point of view - I found myself making note of the ones that I hadn't read, and when I finished this book, I found several of the short stories online to read. It's clear the author is a bibliophile, so a bookstore protagonist was a natural fit for her.

        15) 3/16: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
        This is one I listened to via audiobook; it was yet another recommendation from a friend (clearly my MO is already established - if a friend is excited enough about a book to recommend it, I'll give it at least a glance). I was curious about the book after looking at a sample, and the audiobook version was the only one the Overdrive library had.

        Baseball is at the forefront of the book, with several of the primary characters playing on a college team; one is a hotshot shortstop who revives the mediocre team, but his success and his quest for perfection come to a head. There's this sense of everyone trying to find themselves, even if what is fulfilling to them runs contrary to what others would expect/want for them.

        This one was back and forth for me - at one point I considered just setting it aside instead of finishing it, but there was just enough curiosity about what would happen to the various characters that I found the time to finish.

        16) 3/23: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
        I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I encountered it in school. When I learned of this sequel/prequel, I had mixed feelings. Certainly the rumors that the rights to publish it were perhaps secured when Harper Lee wasn't in her right mind are enough to cast a big shadow. Even without that big stumbling block, you have this remarkable debut novel - how can you follow that up?

        I held myself a bit aloof from it; I knew it would portray one particularly beloved character in a poor light, and I wasn't sure I was ready for that image to be tarnished.

         Here we find grown-up Jean Louise returning home for a visit, viewing all the changes that have transpired since she last was there. Her childhood home is now an ice-cream shop. The racial mood in town is very tense (her visit to Calpurnia was devastating). She struggles to fit in, feeling that her single life in NYC has made her unsuitable for returning home and making small chat with other women about their young children, husbands, and the like.

        How do you respond when you learn people you revere end up being human with human failings? Can you hold yourself above the fray, or do you recognize your own shortcomings as well? What is your responsibility to those you see as wrong?

        The flashbacks were often choppy to me. They were interesting, and they helped round out the characters she was crossing paths with, but they lacked some finesse as far as entering and leaving these memories.

        17) 3/25: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
        This was a young adult novel (but as the setting includes a woman being held by the Gestapo, with the torture that one can expect in such a scenario, it would probably be best to wait until high school -- maybe late middle school -- to introduce this to a student, unless you have strong reason to suspect they would be mature enough earlier).

        The book covers the relationship of two good friends, one a female pilot and the other a female spy. It's well researched, but I admit that after reading The Nightingale last month, which also covers covert activities in Nazi-occupied France, it pales in comparison. It could be an appropriate introduction to a younger audience, though.

        18) 3/28: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
        I listened to the audiobook of this one; I had a long trip with the girls to and from Iowa this month, so this was my listening when they were sleeping or engaged enough not to need me.

        It was an okay listen. I felt like it could have been shortened (the print version comes in at 538 pages). I was most interested to see (hear?) how the author carried out the characters' storylines, since time is linear for Claire and Henry's experience is more fluid. We encounter several scenarios on two occasions, once from each perspective. You often gain some new understanding, but apparently not enough to erase my aforementioned feeling of tediousness.

        I'll forever remember this book as being what introduced 5-year-old Brennan to her first swear word (and I was assuming schoolkids would offer that introduction...).  During our car trip, I was listening to the beginning of the story while she was coloring. In the story, six-year-old Claire calls her brother an a**hole with no warning, he calls her one back, and even though I was quickly trying to pause the story, Brennan pipes up, "What does a**hole mean?" The short of it was, I told her she can always ask us the meaning of words without getting into trouble, but using those words against others would result in serious consequences.

        Wednesday, March 02, 2016

        Book Log: February 2016

        My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

        The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

        6) 2/4: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
        My husband read this book a few years ago and recommended it, and now that we activated our Family Sharing Library, it was easy to get access to his Kindle copy and read it.

        Wow. This is a detailed account of what led to the financial crisis and the recession that followed. I'm not sure I could accurately explain, without this book in hand, all the nuances (credit default swaps, subprime loans, toxic assets, the credit rating agencies, etc), but trust me that it's a fascinating read and Michael Lewis is thorough. There were a small number of individuals who foresaw the way the markets were going and made out like bandits. Lewis tells the stories of how they figured out what thousands of others missed (in one case, Asperger's helped).

        I know hindsight and all that, but it's staggering to read this and learn how the wool was pulled over everyone's eyes; no one even considered the housing industry would lose value nationally at the same time, even though people were buying homes they couldn't afford without being asked to provide income documentation (there's an account of a migrant worker with an annual income of $14,000 given a loan for a house over $700,000).

        7) 2/5: Crazy Love by Francis Chan (as well as the accompanying workbook, Living Crazy Love by Francis Chan)
        These books were for a book study I did with a handful of friends.

        First, a tangential story. In college, a mentor was sharing how he read a book that transformed his life. He bought numerous copies and gave them away to friends and family. A few months later, when he followed up, he was typically faced with two responses: either they hadn't gotten very far into it because it was a bit too academic, or they acknowledged it was a decent read, but not as earth-shattering as it had been for him. That's when he realized he just happened to be in a place where that book could reach him, but for others, it might have no lasting impression, and yet another book might speak to them.

        So back to this book. It provided a lot of discussion in our group, which I especially valued, but I feel like I wasn't bowled over by anything I'd read in it - I've encountered similar ideas in other works over the years. I really enjoyed the accompanying videos, though - Chan's intensity and passion come through and they're engaging.

        8) 2/6: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale
        I don't have much to say about this one - it was a brief read before bedtime after some headier stuff. I read the first one, and this embraces more of the Gothic novel, with a murder mystery.

        9) 2/15: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
        This book runs about 450 pages. Read on the heels of last month's The Goldfinch (which was nearly 800 pages), as well as some other longer books I am juggling, it appears this year may be the year of lengthy reads. It has over 19,000 reviews on Amazon, and it's at an impressive 4.8 stars. I didn't know those staggering stats when I picked it up (at a friend's recommendation), but I'll add my praise.

        It is centered in France during WWII. We focus primarily on two sisters and how they survive the war years. I've read other war literature, but this one struck me with the specific details; the author doesn't try to rush past what daily life would feel like; it might not be new information, but you dwell on it more, so it makes more of an impact. With rationing in effect but goods in short supply, hunger was prevalent. Nazis forced citizens to house them, punishing defiance (whether confirmed or suspected), confiscating radios, crops, furniture, artwork.

        It led me to pause and think how quickly everyone's lives changed. How devastating to be raising a child during that time while you are living in fear and compromising so as not to bring attention or harm onto yourself or your family, or working in secret for justice (how to explain to a child why the Jews were the ones singled out in the beginning, friends they lived and played alongside suddenly being taken away?). It's a worthy read.

        10) 2/24: A Mystical Heart: 52 Weeks in the Presence of God by Edwina Gateley
        This fall, I heard Edwina speak. I didn't know of her or her work before, but it was a moving time. She is passionate and shared how she, as a layperson, was convicted to live her life serving God. Her life story, full of social justice, is powerful. I selected this book for purchase that night (and others in the coming days).

        This one is a selection of 52 reflections/poems with a challenge for each week and sometimes an accompanying sketch, but I devoured them much more quickly than that. I set it aside at one point after realizing how quickly it was going (I think unconsciously I didn't want the book to end).

        Here is one from Week 10:

        Often we anxiously seek the will of God,
        as if God had gleefully hidden dreams for us
        deep in unfathomable places.
        As if it were God's intention
        that our whole lives be spent
        in endless searching for signs and directions
        buried in obscurity.
        The will of God is that which brings us
        peace and fullness of life.
        The will of God is the seed of our dreams
        ever gestating with possibility
        and longing to leap forward
        scattering new and surprising blessings
        in our gray reality.

        Here is one of the free-form passages, from Week 41, made especially poignant as I read it when the Syrian refugees (and the warring opinions on them) were center stage in the media:

        We build walls around our hearts, around our land, around our borders to keep out the strangers, the different, the other; to protect ourselves from getting hurt or from having to share our space with others. We guard our hearts, our land, and our country with great vigilance until the very guarding obsesses us and we become so outwardly focused and defensive that we lose touch with ourselves and our humanity. In our efforts to protect and defend we become disconnected and fragmented.

        God, who will have nothing of walls and barriers, is like the Great Illegal Immigrant -- ever looking for cracks in our walls and defenses, seeking vulnerability so that She might slip through our barriers to convert and to transform us. God, in great longing for wholeness, constantly invites us to dismantle all that is exclusive. We cannot be whole until we come to embrace all that God has made and to share all that God has given. In matters and issues of exclusion we may be sure that God is always on the outside with those very people whom we do not accept. We diminish ourselves and we diminish God until we break down our walls. All of them.