Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

Hurricane Story, Jennifer Shaw

On Sunday night, we got home from a three-week trip halfway across the country and back. In twenty days, we visited twelve states and drove over 6,000 miles. We visited roughly twenty-four friends (ten families), stayed in five hotels, one airbnb apartment, and in some of the most pillow-filled guest rooms imaginable (especially amusing since we packed our own beloved pillows and slept on them happily every night). We woke up at 4am in Albuquerque to see the first exquisitely peaceful dawn patrol of the city’s famous hot air balloon fiesta. We stayed out way too late in smoky jazz clubs in New Orleans. We played board games with my husband’s best friends from college, and watched his team win their homecoming game in the rain. I have a tiny clay “puppy” given to me the very first night of the trip by a new young friend, carefully protected from the ravages of the road with toilet paper wrappings, and I have beautiful autumnal pictures of Temple Square in Salt Lake City (mere blocks from where we had afternoon beers with friends who used to live down the street from us). We stargazed in Arches National Park and had catfish and green chiles and grits until all we wanted was something green. It was a wonderful trip. Exhausting and ridiculous in its scope, but still precious.

And because we were driving, I was able to justify buying a few books to add to my collection, although admittedly I forgot about most of them as they were lost under the detritus of car travel. This one though, this little volume of photographs, I’ve been carrying with me since New Orleans. My husband found Hurricane Story when we went to an after hours event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We’d spent two hours wandering around the museum, mostly exploring the Gasperi Collection (self-taught, outsider and visionary art) while half-listening to the band that had been booked in the lobby (extremely loud punk-jazz…is that a thing? It’s what they sounded like). It was our last night in the city, and we’d spent the past few days digging into the history of the region (an absolutely fascinating part of the country I had known virtually nothing about).

I suspect that’s why I was so taken by Shaw’s story. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I remember the overwhelming imagery of a ravaged city, but I had neither been there, nor knew anyone living in the area, and it felt very removed from my life. I had no frame of reference for what was being lost, or even (despite the hours of news I watched) how it could be happening. Levies and wards were words that meant almost nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was walking the city, listening to people who had lived there for years, and exploring it for myself that I truly appreciated both the devastation and the resiliency of the community.

New Orleans is a fascinating mix of uninhibited exuberance and solemn tradition. The beads and the drinks and the food are shiny paper on a city that deserves to be unwrapped and appreciated more deeply for its political and cultural history. It wasn’t my favorite stop of the trip, but it is where I learned the most, and thought most deeply about many troubling aspects of our nation’s past and present. Shaw’s book added another dimension to my perspective of the city. I finally got to read about the hurricane nine years ago through the eyes of an artist, rather than a reporter.


For more about Jennifer Shaw, go here.

Running in Literature, Roger Robinson

“Runners know tiredness in all its many shades and effects. Among life’s significant memories, we carry those runs or races when tiredness was our stepping-stone to high achievement, and those when its deadweight sank us; days when it crept into our legs like a wasting disease, or suddenly leapt upon us like a cougar from a rock; times when we grappled with it, and overcame, and times when we were overcome.” (loc 68)

I’ve been flipping through this book since I got it at Christmas, and I have to say, it’s not my favorite on the subject. It’s not that it isn’t excellent at what it sets out to do – creating context and exploring the history of running in literature from ancient texts to poetry to modern juvenile fiction to resource books and beyond – it just doesn’t sit well with me during this off period of my own running.

I’d like to blame these bad months on giving up meat for Lent, but I only started that a few weeks ago, and this funk has been with me since the beginning of the summer. It would be so easy to call it a dietary imbalance and write it off, but I know it goes much deeper than that, and reading Robinson’s books was like salt in the wound. So much of what he captures in the excerpts he picks and in the stories he has pieced together reflect on running from what I would call “the expert’s perspective.”

I have solid runs, and I have miles that have felt amazing, but I will never have an under thirty minute 10k time, as the author has; my body simply isn’t built for that. Robinson comes from a place of knowledge about the sport that I cannot hope to imagine, and his writing draws from that innate, superior, bodily understanding. Even when he’s discussing literature that so epically captures the hardships of running, he doesn’t manage to capture my hardships so much as the struggles of those whose worst days are far better than my very best.

It’s not his fault. I came to running much later in life than I would like, and I suspect I will always relate more closely to writers like John Bingham or Peter Sagal than I will men like Robinson, who, in tone and nature, may be more inclined toward seriousness in sport than I am. For the history buff though, this book is a lovely exploration of running throughout the ages, and for runners who are not in a pout, as I am, his writing certainly captures the elegance of the sport with ease.

For those like me, however, who have been plodding along trying to reignite that light-hearted, joyful spark on the trails, this may serve as a reminder that there exist paintings on ceramic vases portraying more life-like, fleet-footed running than I manage to do most days…

For more on Roger Robinson, head over here.

The Good Braider, Terry Farish

One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.   Geoffrey Canada, Waiting for Superman

I don’t love documentaries across the board. Maybe I should (I know my father, husband, and more sophisticated friends think so) but I don’t. I’m generally drawn to those about children and teenagers; this is true when it comes to books and films alike. I’m sure that after Monday’s post on Bringing Up Bébé, this doesn’t come as a much of a revelation. I watched Mad Hot Ballroom back to back with Waiting for Superman last year for the fun of it (as it turns out, the fun of it involved a lot of crying).

At Christmas two years back, my father gave me a PBS documentary called Children Will Listen about a production of my favorite musical Into the Woods, put on at the Kennedy Center in New York by group of underprivileged students and a dedicated group of teachers and arts professionals. It reignited the dream I had when I went to college as a Theatre Education major; I wanted to open an after-school arts program for children whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to expensive classes. I have no idea how I would have funded such a program or who I would have found with the business savvy to balance out my flightiness when it comes to spreadsheets, but it was born out of an unwavering belief that all children deserve more than the bare minimum.

A month ago, we happened upon a new documentary called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. I watched it even though I hate muppets (and had always hated Elmo in particular). Kevin Clash, Elmo’s creator and a master puppeteer, started making puppets when he was in elementary school. He was sewing and building his own puppets and putting on shows in his neighborhood by his early teens. The film followed his whole career, but the part that drew me in was the old film taken by his family during his childhood – he was so focused, so passionate – he believed he had the ability to create magic.

When I find stories like these about children rising to meet the high expectations of themselves or of dedicated adults in their lives, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. How fortunate that people exist who care so much about improving the lives of children and families – it makes me happier just knowing such people are out there.

With a book like The Good Braider, that same feeling explodes out of my chest and just covers the rest of my life. Terry Farish has written a novel in verse that combines the stories she has heard for years directing the literacy program at the New Hampshire Humanities Council (serving immigrant and refugee populations) into a stunning novel about a young woman struggling to survive, first in war-torn South Sudan, then later in culture-exploding Portland, Maine.

Whenever I read a book, I fold pages down, I underline favorite passages, I make notes to myself to share with others later. This book is full – I want to share so many sections of it just to help you understand what a deft hand Farish has, how aptly she renders both the atrocities of war and the simple joys that defy it. When I looked back through all the pages, however, the piece I finally decided on was the very first poem of the book.

I run breathless into my house.
What will I tell her?
I will tell her, Andrew has my book.
The teacher assigned us to work together.
But my mother does not turn to me.
She wears her after-work clothes,
her African dress that hangs
loose from her shoulders.
Maybe she has not seen me with Andrew –
my friend – seen me leap from his truck.
I watch the bend of her shoulders.
She holds herself rigid and does not
look at me. I’ll leave here again when the families
from Juba come to eat and watch news of the war.
I turn and look toward the door.
As if she can read my mind, she commands,
“You will stay in this house!”
She knows.
She knows I have been away from our people.
I have slipped out of Africa for a breath of time.
Do my hair and skin smell different?
I pause at the kitchen doorway.
She turns, and her eyes are ferocious.
I watch the water bubble up.
In Juba, the pot would need huge flames
to build the water to this boil.
I step toward my mother and the boiling water.
I mean to take the spoon and stir while the aseeda
thickens in the boiling water, this dense white food
that to our Sudanese people is life.
Instead I say, “Sometimes I do not want to know
how many people have died in the war.”
I say this
as the aseeda bubbles loudly
over the red electric coils.
Maybe it is those words
that cause what happens next.
She grabs my arm. She holds it hard
by my wrist and my elbow.
She twists my hand over the steam.

Yumis! Mother! You are hurting me!”

Now the war comes back to me.

Again, there is only the war. (pg 10)

This is the first book I’ve been sent to review before publication (it came out May 1st, but I’ve been hanging onto it for a while). Terry Farish is a friend and colleague of my mother, and she asked me, after reading J’adore, if I would be willing to look at a copy of the uncorrected proof. We’ve never met, and I probably never would have seen this book if she hadn’t sent it to me. That’s the cruel way of the world – so many life-changing books exist just outside our daily experiences. I think it might be the universe’s way of apologizing for all the terrible things we have to witness and endure when the right book does manage to find its way into our hands.

This is that right book. It’s the right book if you’re socially conscious, if you’re family centric, if you feel displaced, if you love to teach, if you want to learn, if you read about children and weep for the injustices they encounter, if you read about adults and feel shame for things you cannot change, if you read about mothers and marvel at their strength, if you read about fathers and wonder at their absence, if you read about war while hating the bombs that fall on your doorstep, if you read about peace and appreciate what little you have – this is the book for you. This story might not have the power to save us like Superman, but it inspires that breast-beating hope that ordinary people can make changes with their own two hands.

Terry Farish has her own site here, and she also has a fascinating site about The Good Braider here.

The Shadow of the Wind (a follow up), Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I couldn’t decide on Monday whether or not I would have more to say about this book when I finished it. Part of me felt certain I would just toss it aside, ready to check another book off of my ever-growing “To Read” list, but essentially unmoved by the strangeness  of the story.

I was wrong. Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I often joke with my husband that I was lucky to have met him because he is always graciously right while I’m often enthusiastically mistaken, and together, we quite happily wind our way to the truth of things over time. I find I am most happy to be proven wrong when it comes to books, and with this book, I was definitely most joyfully mistaken.

This was a novel I took on out of a sense of obligation to the unread collection on my shelf (I know I’m not the only one to have a shelf like this, heavy with the best of intentions, but mostly abandoned for more familiar, comfortable pages), and in the beginning, although I found it fascinating, and the writer unbelievably talented, I wasn’t moved by it as I sometimes can be.

I crave those books that shift something in my soul though, that lay limply in my lap for long minutes after I’ve finished them. They’re usually not the books that make me laugh, or even those that I reread a dozen times; they may not even be my favorites, but they have this power to change a part of me forever. Most often the books that have the most profound effect on me are the most melancholy. They lay bare the parts of life that I don’t like to dwell on. Those stories produce characters that chill me while impressing upon me the importance of the choices I make every day. They remind me of the very worst parts of myself, and of the experiences I’ve had, but they also, crucially, remind me of the two things required to survive such circumstances – grit and compassion.

The grit, I believe, is what comes easiest for most people. The desire to survive is so strongly embedded in us that we can endure a great deal before we collapse or surrender. We are able to withstand devastation far beyond what we might think we’re capable of; in fact, we often find that our strength has been hiding in the darkness all along, and what we needed was for something beyond our control to allow us to venture out and find it. Once found, that strength is, not undefeatable, of course, but always within our reach. Having found the source, it becomes easier over time to draw from the well and fight the battles we must.

It’s much harder to maintain a sense of compassion when faced with those same tests. We might find ourselves able to survive, but parts of ourselves start to get broken off, destroyed by the choices we make in the process. One of the things I find so wonderful about this book is that even in the depths of tragedy (and by the end, they surely have plumbed those depths thoroughly) most of the characters, broken though they may be by the circumstances they find themselves in, have salvaged much of the kindness Fate has tried to rob from them.

I admit, I don’t like hard stories where the only survivors live in worlds constructed of their own guilt or malice or loneliness. Reality is eager enough to push those awful words into me every day on the news or in history books, and I’m just too much of a sponge to take it; if I spend a lot of time immersed in sadness or horror, it seeps through me and I start to feel helpless against the tide of all the things I can’t change. I don’t like feeling that way. I would rather believe that even small good things I do might influence the wider community. I like imagine other people doing the same, carrying on the fight against the darkness one kind word or gesture at a time.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón gets it. His book is filled with ordinary people trying to stem the tide of degradation and hatred through small, compassionate acts. Yes, the overarching story is a sad one, but it’s buoyed by a lightness that just cannot be denied.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I think spring has finally sprung here. I’ve taken my whole operation out to the balcony to enjoy the sunny weather. This is a desperate attempt on my part to get some work done because, and you’ll have to forgive me for this, my brain is not on books today. It’s on the epic marathon taking place in my hometown 3000 miles away. It’s on the run I had today, a run where I went two miles further than usual because running felt like the absolute best thing to be doing. It’s on the tree outside our bedroom that has decided it’s time to bloom the bright green shield that provides us our summer privacy from the neighbors across the way. It’s on the fact that somehow, even though it’s Monday and Mondays can be the worst (the worst of the worst), today is different. It makes me happy.

It’s funny too, because this book, The Shadow of the Wind, is sort of like that. It’s completely different from any book I can remember reading, and it’s strange, like having a good Monday is strange, but it makes me happy.

I don’t really know what I expected when I bought this book. It has a quote on the front by Stephen King. I’ve never read any Stephen King in my life. It’s described on the back  as a gothic read and a thrilling, erotic  tragedy. Maybe those words make you rush right out to the nearest book store, but I usually like my literature as far from the erotically tragic as possible.

The cover of the book reminds me a little of some of the scenes in The NeverEnding Story (or at least my twisted childhood perception of the movie), and consequently, I expected it would be an adventure story, something along the lines of Inkheart, maybe, but with more…erotic tragedy. I expected alternate realities, at the very least. Of course, it’s a New York Times Bestseller, so chances were good that science fiction would be kept to a minimum.

This book  reminds me of the Winchester Mystery House. My favorite line from all of their promotional material is “What was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?” That just about sums up the novel for me thus far (no, I haven’t finished. Did you know this was the last weekend to do your taxes?!).  The plot winds through the life of a young man in Barcelona; he’s a bibliophile desperate to save the works of his favorite author, a man shrouded in miserable mystery and heartbreak, from a terrifying stranger who wants to burn every last copy. (Okay, it’s actually really difficult to describe this book without sounding like fainting women and villains twirling marvelous mustaches appear on every page, but I promise, it’s much better than that…although as far as I can tell, most of the erotic tragedy encountered seems to be of the variety experienced by the vast majority of sixteen year old boys.)

“So what is it you’re going to show me?”
  “A number of things. In fact, what I’m going to show you is part of a story. Didn’t you tell me the other day that what you like to do is read?”
  Bea nodded, arching her eyebrows.
  “Well, this is a story about books.”
  “About books?”
  “About accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of all the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”
  “You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel, Daniel.”
  “That’s probably because I work in a bookshop and I’ve seen too many. But this is a true story. As real as the fact that this bread they served us is three days old. And like all true stories, it begins and ends in a cemetery, although not the sort of cemetery  you imagine.”
  She smiled the way children smile when they’ve been promised a riddle or a conjuror’s trick. “I’m all ears.” (pg 178)

I admit I also initially put off reading this book because of the style in which its written – it’s an unusual blend of modern and old-fashioned sensibilities that takes some getting to used to – but now that I’ve gotten into it, the choice is integral to the magic of the story. It lends an air of richness – of falling into Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War – as he pulls the story together one strand at a time. I keep thinking I must be coming to the big reveal, then the author braids in another piece, and I can see how I still have 200 pages to go.

  “I told Bea how, until that moment, I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.” (p 183)


For more information on Carlos Ruiz Zafón, check out his site (although be forewarned: The Shadow of the Wind is apparently the first in a trilogy and there appear to be some spoilers on his homepage).

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall

After finishing The Night Circus last week, I realized I was pretty well screwed. You can’t just read a book like that and expect to jump right into something else without a harsh comparison ruining the second one for you…or at least that’s what I’ve found; usually the book I try to read after an incredible story leaves me feeling bored and antsy.

On top of that, I came down with a nasty cold Thursday night that lasted well into Sunday. So there I was on Friday night, missing a poker party, missing the Circus, missing my husband (who was at the poker party), missing the ability to breathe through my nose – basically a grumpy, sore-throated mess – and a cover from my pile of “I swear I have the best intentions of getting to you” books caught my eye, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The magic of The Night Circus, flowing in and out of a world of dreams as it does, was the perfect segue into this book, a story of a gentle, hidden tribe of people living in a place on earth very nearly as dream-like as fiction.

Two years ago on a drive across the country, David and I had heard McDougall interviewed about his book on NPR, and as a newbie runner, just weeks into the Couch to 5k, I was fascinated. He was talking about barefoot running, ultra-marathons, and a tribe in Mexico called the  Tarahumara, as well as concepts in running I couldn’t imagine performing myself but which I desperately strived for.

You see, I love to run. I’ve always wanted to be a runner, but I come from a family that loves, well, books. I was a terribly uncoordinated kid, and I didn’t like competitive sports. I always felt awkward and embarrassed in gym class. I was chubby, slow, and completely clueless about what true athleticism was. I would watch the Boston Marathon in college, calling in sick to work and skipping class to see how both the men and women’s races unfold. I was obsessed, always looking in at a world I wanted to belong to but never could.

In 2009 though, I quit my job teaching preschool to write full-time and decided to try a whole new life on for size. I started doing yoga (I am hilariously inflexible, but even I have found that practice makes…well, not perfect, but improvement) and I took on the C to 5K challenge. All the runners I knew were strong, lean, and long-legged. They never seemed to sweat. They looked effortless as they flew past me down the trails. I, on the other hand, sweat just thinking about running; my entire head gets flushed bright red after about five minutes, and I’m slow. The only thing I’ve got going for me is a natural mid-foot stride, a product, I assume, of the fact that I almost never wear shoes and consequently have strong, flexible feet. That, and, well, I absolutely stupid love it.

I don’t run because my doctor tells me to, or because I’m good at it. In fact, after a year and a half, I still average a 12 minute mile on my good days – a pace that has been referred to as “glacial,” “laughable,” and “pointless” on varying occasions. The thing is, I can run four and half miles at that glacial pace without my heart rate going over 160bpm and without stopping, and that makes me a runner, no matter what anyone else says. So when I picked up Born to Run, a book that’s been on my shelf since Christmas and on my mind for two years before that, I didn’t appreciate that I would be seeing on the page what has long been printed on my soul – that we are a running people and that we are ALL born to run.

When I was very young, I read Anne of Green Gables and was first introduced to the idea of a “kindred spirit,” of a person who could think and feel as I do. I’ve met several such people in my life, but I’d never found one who felt about running the way I do – that it’s not a job, not a way to lose weight or to compete, but rather that it’s about this explosive bodily joy that can’t be contained.

The men and women in this book are superb, world-renowned athletes. Even McDougall managed to train in the ways of the Tarahumara tribe and transform himself from an aging middle-of-the-packer with bad knees into the kind of runner who could complete a 50 mile death trail race in one of the most remote locations in the world. It’s all a little mysterious. There’s definitely a liberal sprinkling of magic in his story. But last night, while the rest of the country was watching the Superbowl, I couldn’t tear myself away from this story. I couldn’t stop myself from believing that with enough effort, I could become this kind of runner too – light, effortless, compassionate, and joyful…

Christopher McDougall can be found here: http://www.chrismcdougall.com/blog/

Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye

Every once in a great while, I find a book that is a balm for the soul. Simple and elegant, it shows me the wider world without forced drama. It is subtle. Powerful, but in the way a good soak in a hot bathtub is – soothing, strong, and rejuvenating. I hardly ever find stories like it, that just leave me at peace.

Habibi completely took me by surprise. My mother recommended it after she visited Israel in the fall, when I was asking how her impressions of the Middle East aligned with her preconceived notions, but I had forgotten about it. Now my in-laws are getting ready for their own trip to Israel next month, and the very strangeness that they would all be traveling there within a few months of each other, when none had ever been before, made me curious again.

Full disclosure: I love to travel, and have been fortunate enough to visit many countries, as well as to have had the opportunity to briefly lived abroad. When my mother asked me if I would like to come with her on this trip though, I said no. It’s hard to believe, now that she’s back safe and sound, that I didn’t jump at the opportunity, but my entire life has been saturated with the day-to-day tragedies of that region, and I just wasn’t brave enough to visit myself. One of my best friends is Jewish, and is hoping to have the opportunity to visit herself, and she told me, “Israel is not somewhere to go unless your heart really wants it.”

Having read Habibi, I could see how the heart might really want it. I loved Nye’s descriptions of the villages and cities, of the Dead Sea and the Bedouins, of the culture of precarious balance.

“With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” Liyana said. (loc 763)

This novel has a real gentleness to it that isn’t often used when approaching the topic of conflict in Israel. Liyana and her family move from St Louis to her father’s hometown between Jerusalem and Ramallah just as she’s about to begin high school. The frustration in this culture shift is not over-played, and yet Liyana’s loneliness is tangible. The pace of the story – of a girl adjusting to a more conservative culture, to a new language, to a world far from  the neighborhood where she was born, where even the corner grocer knew her by name – is lilting; it almost reads like a diary in verse.

“Liyana, you must be patient. Cultural differences aren’t learned or understood immediately. Most importantly, you must abide by the guidelines where you are living. This is common sense. It will protect you. You know that phrase you always hated—When in Rome, do as the Romans do? You must remember, you are not in the United States.” As if he had to remind her. When she went to bed that night, she pressed her face into the puffy cotton pillow. It smelled very different from the pillows in their St. Louis house, which smelled more like fresh air, like a good loose breeze. This pillow smelled like long lonely years full of bleach. (loc 658)

As she begins to find her place in this new life, I couldn’t help but be sucked into her big, talkative, cheek-kissing family, the tentative friendships she builds with people outside of her Palestinian heritage, the new foods that she lovingly describes.

When you liked somebody, you wanted to trade the best things you knew about. You liked them not only for themselves, but for the parts of you that they brought out. (loc 2680)

I know I’ll still be nervous when our family travels there in a few weeks, but a part of me will also be longing to walk those same streets and see that part of world in a new, richer light.

Naomi Shihab Nye doesn’t appear to have a personal webpage, but plenty of interviews, quotes, letters and poems can be found on the internet.

The Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

One of the things I’ve discovered about this project, even just these few weeks in, is that I so desperately need two manageable books a week, everything is fair game – that book my husband picked up on a whim at the used book store, the novel my friend’s cousin recommended, a list given to me by a friend who just became a middle school librarian…now that I’ve started asking, it seems like everyone has a book they love that I have to read, and that alone makes this worthwhile. So many well-loved stories crawling out of the woodwork! It’s literary Christmas!

The Ninth Ward is another recommendation from my mother; she was reviewing it for Audiophile magazine and told me the reader was so wonderful that she wasn’t sure if whether that had influenced her opinion on the story itself. Nevertheless, this book did win the Coretta Scott King award, and it’s about Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that significantly affected the first decade of the new millennium, so I decided to give it a try.

Having never been to New Orleans, I don’t believe I can fully appreciate the treasure that was lost when the levees broke, but as a citizen of the world, I can’t help but be drawn to the destruction that has and can be wreaked by nature. I’m fascinated by stories that illustrate how fragile we are as human beings. This unassuming novel does just that.

I think quiet before the storm means it isn’t really quiet. Maybe it means only now you can hear birds flying, forming a V overhead. Or that the air has sound. That it whistles, low and deep, as a storm approaches. Quiet before a storm maybe means folks are done hammering wood across their windows and placing sand sacks beside their front doors. Or maybe it means there’s loneliness. A weird loneliness that is, yet isn’t, real. (loc 1058-1061)

I felt I was walking the streets of Lanesha’s neighborhood with her, slowly being introduced into a world of subsistence living that rises above desperation and instead champions, at its darkest moment, a tenacious twelve-year-old girl.

I wasn’t sure you were going to be all right. The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. Your testing should’ve come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength. (loc 1381-1383)

This story was so well-paced, so captivating, it allowed me to get past the fact that I didn’t love the protagonist’s voice. I doubt it would have worked in a longer novel, or with less compelling material, but I was able to gloss over certain stylistic choices that were made with the dialogue. I don’t argue that it may be realistic, even an appropriate choice, but I suspect The Ninth Ward works better as an audio book in that respect – it’s wonderful to listen to a well-rendered dialect – but reading to myself, it feels…stiff. Unnatural.

My feelings partially come from the recent realization that television, movies, and the internet have largely done away with the subtler dialects in this country. The friends I have from Tennessee or Georgia or Boston or Texas may occasionally slip into local slang, but the cadence of language has largely become homogeneous. Consequently, I can believe the older characters, such as Lanesha’s adopted grandmother, might sound this way, I have a harder time believing children do.

That being said, Rhodes does a wonderful job taking a recent historic event and turning it into a carefully plotted and not at all unbelievable adventure. It’s sweet and sad and frightening, a story the reader can easily imagine playing out a hundred different ways. I particularly loved the development of one of the supporting characters – an odd, isolated neighbor boy who, under just the right circumstances, is able to bring to life that singular essence of friendships in childhood.

He lifts his head and wipes his eyes. He looks far-off. For a minute, I think he’s going to be his quiet old self, and pretend to disappear. Then, he says softly, “Fortitude.” “Strength to endure.”

“That’s right. We’re going to show fortitude.”

TaShon and I scoot closer, our arms and legs touching. I put my arms around him; he puts his arms around me. Neither of us moves. I know we are both thinking, murmuring in our minds, over and over again, “Fortitude. Fortitude. Fortitude.” (loc 1819-1823)

To find out more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, check out http://jewellparkerrhodes.com/

The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman

Historical fiction is about as likely to find a place onto my bookshelf as a biography about a celebrity or politician, a treatise on war, anything written by Cesar Milan or a fashion magazine (which is to say, not likely At All – I have firm rules about the dryness and maturity of my reading selection). These sorts of books are, to me, the literary version of eating my vegetables – they’re good for me, and on occasion, the right chef can tempt my palate – but I would much rather be bathing in a caramel-coated candy wonderland of witty women and sheepishly well-meaning men. And maybe magic, depending on my mood.

That being said, I am a slave to John Scalzi’s taste, and I put The Freedom Maze on my kindle with the firm belief that I would always have something more entertaining to read. I mean, it’s history, and worse (for a born and bred Northerner, like myself), it’s about the South. How could I possibly find anything redeeming about it?

(In case you don’t know, in New England, we’re brought up with an embarrassingly ignorant sense of our own superiority over people living in The South or That Awful Los Angeles. I really didn’t question it until I moved to That Awful Los Angeles myself and found that it had much to redeem itself. Also, my grandfather’s from Tennessee, not to mention my father-in-law’s family, so it’s hard to completely toe the party line there either…)

Anyway, it really didn’t matter in the least, because I was never going to get around to reading it when I had so many other books to consider….but then I got a new kindle for Christmas, and I wanted to download just about everything I hadn’t read yet, and there was The Freedom Maze, a children’s book I should at least try to read before Black History Month, or at least Martin Luther King Jr Day…

Also, I remembered this excerpt from Sherman’s interview on Scalzi’s “The Big Idea:”

I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly.  I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world.  Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.

And I thought, nobody wants to admit to being that girl – we all want to be the version of ourselves we imagine as we’re falling asleep at night – but in reality, many of us are timid, sheltered, and clueless about what to do if we ended up, without warning, on a plantation in 1860, mistaken for a slave.

Sophie began her third week in the past in a fog of misery. Everything that had been difficult when she’d thought she’d be going home soon got ten times harder as she lost hope. (loc 2546 kindle ed)

This book was a slow starter for me, what with my resistance to learning any more about US history than I absolutely had to cranked to eleven. It wasn’t until I was half-way through that the story finally began to get under my skin. I started to imagine what it might have been like to have read this book when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, learning, as Sherman eloquently put it to Scalzi, “….about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women.”

We still live, however much we may deny or ignore it, in a time when skin can denote certain privilege. The whole world has a complicated relationship with race, and with its history and struggles for equality, not just under the law, but in the hearts of all people.  I still remember the uncomfortable itch, while waiting at a train station in rural Japan, of how different I felt, of how people glanced at me out of the corner of their eye, or, in the case of some young children, blatantly examined me – tall, light-haired, blue eyed. It wasn’t  offensive, more an act of curiosity, but it gave me a previously unrealized accounting of how much I took for granted what I had always believed to be the ordinariness of the color of my skin.

Sherman’s book could be, for another child, the same life changing experience as Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was for me when my teacher first introduced it in the seventh grade. (If you don’t know about this experiment, I recommend Googling Elliott’s work, although I think the reality won’t fully sink unless you’ve experienced it, with all its gut-wrenching, humiliating, humbling realizations.) It’s difficult to teach degradation if you haven’t experienced it, and it’s even harder to imagine that you might be the kind of person who could have owned slaves, or turned Jews over to the Nazis, or subjugated another civilization…unless you start to recognize that the tiniest power over another human being could be intoxicating, might keep you safe, may even go virtually unnoticed by you, the keeper of said power. It’s a slippery slope, but thanks to writers like Sherman, there are places to start regaining and teaching necessary perspective.

For more about Delia Sherman, check her out at: http://www.sff.net/people/kushnerSherman/Sherman/

For more book recommendations/interviews from John Scalzi, go to: http://whatever.scalzi.com/ and search for “The Big Idea”