Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Review of Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Gratitude

by Oliver Sacks

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015. 45 pages.
Starred Review

This tiny book is short, but lovely. It contains four essays Oliver Sacks wrote in the last two years of his life.

When he wrote the first one, “Mercury,” about turning eighty, he didn’t know that cancer was soon to come back into his life and limit that life. But it fits beautifully with the others, about what’s important in life, and aging, and facing the end of life with gratitude.

In the second essay, “My Own Life,” written after receiving the diagnosis, he wrote:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity, and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

Here’s where the title of the book comes from:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

The final essay, “Sabbath,” was written at the end of his life. He concludes:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

This book won’t take much of your time, but it will lift your spirits and perhaps get you thinking about what it means to live life well.

oliversacks.com
billhayes.com
www.aaknopf.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of The Book of Joy, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams

Saturday, December 8th, 2018

The Book of Joy

Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
with Douglas Abrams

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2016. 354 pages.
Starred Review

The authors speak at the front of the book to explain what this project is about:

To celebrate one of our special birthdays, we met for a week in Dharamsala to enjoy our friendship and to create something that we hope will be a birthday gift for others. There is perhaps nothing more joyous than birth, and yet so much of life is spent in sadness, stress, and suffering. We hope this small book will be an invitation to more joy and more happiness….

Our cowriter, Douglas Abrams, has kindly agreed to assist us in this project and interviewed us over the course of a week in Dharamsala. We have asked him to weave our voices together and offer his own as our narrator so that we can share not only our views and our experience but also what scientists and others have found to be the wellsprings of joy.

You don’t need to believe us. Indeed, nothing we say should be taken as an article of faith. We are sharing what two friends, from very different worlds, have witnessed and learned in our long lives. We hope you will discover whether what is included here is true by applying it in your own life.

The rest of the book is told from Douglas Abrams’ perspective, telling about the joyful meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, and their discussions about Joy.

The book is beautiful, reflecting the Joy and Love and Compassion between these two men, but also reflecting thoughts on Joy both the Christian and Buddhist perspectives. It’s lovely how complementary those perspectives are.

The two men met over five days, and the book follows their discussions through those five days. They covered “The Nature of True Joy,” “The Obstacles to Joy” (Fear, Stress, and Anxiety; Frustration and Anger; Sadness and Grief; Despair; Loneliness; Envy; Suffering and Adversity; and Illness and Fear of Death), and “The Eight Pillars of Joy” (Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion, and Generosity).

There’s much wisdom in these pages, as well as a bit of a story of these two men from very different backgrounds and their friendship. I like the way, by using words from leaders of two religions, it has something for people of many different faiths.

Be sure to check some quotations I pulled from this book.

bookofjoy.org
penguin.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of When Strangers Meet, by Kio Stark

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

When Strangers Meet

How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You

by Kio Stark

TED Books, Simon & Schuster, 2016. 107 pages.

This is a short little book, based on this TED Talk, “Why You Should Talk to Strangers.”

She didn’t actually convince me. I’m an introvert; I’m not going to do her exercises.

However, she said things that were fun to think about. Connection is good for us. I was happy I read this before I went to ALA Midwinter Meeting and planned to ask strangers to vote for me to be on the 2019 Newbery committee. Those encounters were all very positive. I do think it helped to think about the dynamics of talking to strangers first.

For that matter, my job at the library involves talking with strangers — and helping them — every single day. So to think a little more deeply about what’s going on when that happens was good.

From the Introduction:

In these pages we’ll explore why talking to strangers is good for you. We’ll investigate how it’s possible for people to open themselves to even the briefest conversations with strangers and the fascinating dynamics of how they do it. What does it take to say a simple hello to a stranger you pass on the street? How might that interaction continue? What are the places in which you are more likely to interact with people you don’t know? How do you get out of a conversation? These sound like easy questions. As you’ll see, they are not….

This is a book about talking, and it’s also a book about seeing, listening, and being alert to the world. I want to show you how lyrical and profound our most momentary connections can be, to broaden your understanding and deepen your perception of people who are strangers to you. I want you to see the invisible mechanics and meanings of street interactions. I want to give you a new way to be in love with the world.

This book is fun reading, and a great option for those who prefer books to video (like me).

TED.com
SimonandSchuster.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of On Living, by Kerry Egan

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

On Living

by Kerry Egan

Riverhead Books, 2016. 208 pages.
Starred Review

On Living is such a lovely little book! Kerry Egan was a hospice chaplain who listened to dying people tell about their lives and their stories.

This book tells many of the stories of the people she met. But along the way, it weaves in plenty of wisdom about living.

In the beginning of the book, she explains what chaplains do:

Hospice chaplains are sort of the opposite of storytellers. We’re story holders.

We listen to the stories that people believe have shaped their lives. We listen to the stories people choose to tell, and the meaning they make of those stories.

While religion plays a central role in spiritual care for many patients, it doesn’t for many others. Spiritual care, faith, and religion are not the same thing. Some chaplains might also be priests and pastors, but in their roles as chaplains, they don’t preach or teach.

Instead, they create a space – a sacred time and place – in which people can look at the lives they’ve led and try to figure out what it all means to them.

When you talk to hundreds of people who are dying and looking back over their lives, you come to realize something startling: Every single person out there has a crazy story. Every single person has some bizarre, life-shattering, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you story in their past, or will experience one in the future. Every shopper in the grocery store, every telemarketer on the phone, every mother at school pickup, every banker striding down the sidewalk. Money, faith, popularity, beauty, power – nothing prevents it.

Every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull meaning out from under us. Everyone who does not die young will go through some sort of spiritual crisis, where we have lost our sense of what is right and wrong, possible and impossible, real and not real. Never underestimate how frightening, angering, confusing, devastating it is to be in that place. Making meaning of what is meaningless is hard work. Soul-searching is painful. This process of making or finding meaning at the end of life is what the chaplain facilitates. The chaplain doesn’t do the work. The patient does. The chaplain isn’t wrestling with the events of a life that don’t match up with everything you were taught was true, but she won’t turn away in fear, either. She won’t try to give you pat answers to get you to stop talking about pain, or shut you down with platitudes that make her feel better but do nothing to resolve the confusion and yearning you feel. A chaplain is not the one laboring to make meaning, but she’s been with other people who have. She knows what tends to be helpful, and what doesn’t. She might ask questions you would never have considered, or that help you remember other times you survived something hard and other ways you made sense of what seemed senseless. She can reframe the story, and can offer a different interpretation to consider, accept, or reject. She can remind you of the larger story of your life, or the wisdom of your faith tradition. She can hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when you don’t have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing. She will not leave you. And maybe most important: She knows the work can be done. She knows you can do it and not crumble into dust.

She wrote this book when a patient named Gloria revealed that she’d been praying for someone to write her story. When she found out that Kerry was a writer, Gloria made her promise.

While a few patients before Gloria had told me that they wished other people could learn from their life stories – had even given me permission to share their stories with others – it was Gloria and the promise I made to her that led to this little book. I had been holding on to patients’ stories for many years by then, the stories that patients had poured out and puzzled over, the stories they turned over in their minds like the rosary beads and worn Bibles they turned over in their hands. I hoarded them, locked them away in my heart.

Often, but not always, my patients found some measure of peace as we talked. Often, but not always, their faith in something good and greater than themselves was affirmed. Often, but not always, they found strength they didn’t know they had to make amends with the people in their lives, and courage to move forward without fear toward their deaths. Always, they taught me something.

She goes on to say:

I don’t know if listening to other people’s life stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.

Just as was true for every one of my patients, something had happened to me, too. What I thought of as the story that had shaped my life up to that point was one I was ashamed of. I thought I was broken and cracked and could not be put back together again, that I was destroyed at the very deepest part of me, and that this was something that could never be made better. When I started working in hospice, I didn’t yet understand that everyone – everyone – is broken and cracked.

I’m not sure if reading a book full of stories told by the dying can make you wise. But I am sure that there is lots of wisdom in this book. Reading it provoked my thinking and uplifted my spirit.

penguin.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Knitting Pearls, edited by Ann Hood

Friday, November 9th, 2018

Knitting Pearls

Writers Writing About Knitting

edited by Ann Hood

W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. 260 pages.

This is a book of essays about knitting, and the essays are written by twenty-seven distinguished writers. Not all of the writers are knitters, but all of the writers do have something interesting to say about knitting. Maybe they had a relative who knitted for them. Maybe there’s a particular knitted object that starts their musings.

I took a long time to read this book. But that’s the beauty of essays – you can read one at a time and come away smiling. Or just musing about life.

Here’s a paragraph from the introduction, with the editor telling us what to expect. (There are several more paragraphs, so this is just a taste.)

And speaking of swooning, here’s what you have to look forward to when you read Knitting Pearls. Like me, some of the contributors knit their way through adversity. Caroline Leavitt’s first husband asked her to make him a sweater with brontosauruses on it, but as she knit the marriage began to crumble. Lily King’s daughter knit a hat during their year living in Italy, which eased her homesickness. Cynthia Chinelly knits to help her escape the worry she has for her son. Melissa Coleman hoped that knitting a sweater for everyone in her family would remove the curse of divorce. An on-again, off-again knitter, Robin Romm returned to it when her mother was dying, and now knits as she waits for a baby. Back at Ithaca College in the 1970s, Bill Roorbach joined the knitting club to get over his broken heart – and to meet girls.

If you love knitting, you’re going to enjoy this book.

wwnorton.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Steal Like an Artist

10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

by Austin Kleon

Workman Publishing Company, 2012. 152 pages.

This is a little book of excellent suggestions for young adults who want to pursue creative work. I say young adults, because as an adult who’s more set in my ways, I’ve already developed my own versions of some of these suggestions, like “Get yourself a calendar,” “Keep a log book,” and “Keep your day job.” (And those are all under the Ninth Thing: “Be Boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.”)

I do love the title Thing: “Steal like an artist.” Here are some good lines from the section explaining it:

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

As much as I love collecting quotations and writing book reviews, it’s not a surprise I love this idea.

Of course, this was my favorite bit:

Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.

Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Nothing is more important than an unread library.

Partly why I say this is for young adults is Thing Two: “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” It’s still good advice at age 53, but I have more of an idea than I did in my twenties.

The format of the book is such that it’s a great book to pull out and read a bit each morning to start your day with some inspiration. I tend to get such books read much more quickly than books that need a significant stretch of time in order to absorb them.

There are lots more good ideas for being creative for people of any age and place in their journey. I will probably give this book to my young adult children, who each have a creative side. And I’m storing away some of the advice to appropriate into my own life.

austinkleon.com
workman.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Monday, October 29th, 2018

Dear Ijeawele,

or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 63 pages.
Starred Review

This book is short – which makes it perfect for reading a little bit at a time, one suggestion per day. This would make a lovely gift for mothers of young girls.

Here’s the background of this little book, from the Introduction:

When a couple of years ago a friend of mine from childhood, who’d grown into a brilliant, strong, kind woman, asked me to tell her how to raise her baby girl a feminist, my first thought was that I did not know.

It felt like too huge a task.

But I had spoken publicly about feminism and perhaps that made her feel I was an expert on the subject. I had over the years also helped care for many babies of loved ones; I had worked as a babysitter and helped raise my nephews and nieces. I had done a lot of watching and listening, and I had done even more thinking.

In response to my friend’s request, I decided to write her a letter, which I hoped would be honest and practical, while also serving as a map of sorts for my own feminist thinking. This book is a version of that letter, with some details changed.

Now that I, too, am the mother of a delightful baby girl, I realize how easy it is to dispense advice about raising a child when you are not facing the enormously complex reality of it yourself.

Still, I think it is morally urgent to have honest conversations about raising children differently, about trying to create a fairer world for women and men.

My friend sent me a reply saying she would “try” to follow my suggestions.

And in rereading these as a mother, I, too, am determined to try.

And the fifteen suggestions she gives are good ones. Her style is personal and friendly, since the letter was written to a friend. Above all, it’s inspiring – and makes me think about my own interactions with people.

I’ll give some examples. The first suggestion:

Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood.

There is much elaboration on each suggestion, thoughtful, illuminating and inspiring. Here’s another one I loved:

Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable…. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer, all benefit from the skills that reading brings.

This one was interesting, because I hadn’t thought of it this way before:

Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy, but it is not an achievement.

We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women preoccupied with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not preoccupied with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other.

The Eighth Suggestion:

Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people…. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable….

Show her that she does not need to be liked by everyone. Tell her that if someone does not like her, there will be someone else who will. Teach her that she is not merely an object to be liked or disliked, she is also a subject who can like or dislike. In her teenage years, if she comes home crying about some boys who don’t like her, let her know she can choose not to like those boys – yes, it’s hard, I know, just remembering my crush on Nnamdi in secondary school.

But still I wish somebody had told me this.

I like this paragraph in a suggestion about romance (“Romance will happen, so be on board.”):

Teach her that to love is not only to give but also to take. This is important because we give girls subtle cues about their lives – we teach girls that a large component of their ability to love is their ability to sacrifice their selves. We do not teach this to boys. Teach her that to love she must give of herself emotionally but she must also expect to be given.

And the final suggestion:

Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice, but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.

She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world, and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that she must respect. Teach her that we do not know – we cannot know – everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.

Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.

Come to think of it – this book is great reading even if you aren’t the mother of a young girl. It’s inspiring, encouraging, and thought-provoking.

aaknopf.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/dear_ijeawele.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Hallelujah Anyway, by Anne Lamott

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

Hallelujah Anyway

Rediscovering Mercy

by Anne Lamott

Riverhead Books, 2017. 176 pages.
Starred Review

I do love Anne Lamott. She’s down-to-earth and real. She admits to all kinds of uncharitable thoughts – and then shows us that they can be overcome with mercy. She does away with pretense and helps me stop trying to do the same.

In this book, she focuses on Mercy. Here’s a paragraph from the beginning. I opened the book at random and found something wonderfully quotable:

Just to hear the words “mercy” or “merciful” can transform the whole day, because as the old saying goes, the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. Something lights up in me. We know mercy is always our salvation – as we age, as our grandchildren go down the same dark streets that called to their parents, as the ice caps melt. But I wish it was something else. I wish it was being able to figure things out, at which I am very good, or to assign blame, at which I am better, or to convince people of the rightness of my ideas. I wish it was a political savior who believes the same things I believe, who possesses the force of great moral strength that (of course) agrees with my own deepest values. But no, hope of renewal and restoration is found in the merciful fibrillating heart of the world.

Anne Lamott will make you smile and make you think and make you look at the world with a little more mercy.

penguin.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Gift of Anger, by Arun Gandhi

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

The Gift of Anger

And Other Lessons from My Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi

by Arun Gandhi

Gallery Books (Jeter Publishing), 2017. 292 pages.
Starred Review

This book is filled with stories of things that Arun Gandhi learned as a child when he lived for two years on the ashram with his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi. I read a chapter a day, which gave me some nice, inspirational food for thought. I learned much I didn’t know about Mahatma Gandhi, but what I love most about this book is how it radiates peace and nonviolence. Reading this book makes it much easier to see how counterproductive it is to hold onto anger.

The chapters themselves are listed as “lessons.” So “Lesson One” is “Use Anger for Good.” Lesson Four is “Know Your Own Worth.” Lesson Five is “Lies Are Clutter.” Lesson Six is “Waste Is Violence.” And Lesson Eight is “Humility Is Strength.” The book includes eleven lessons, all illustrated by stories and insiights. Lesson Nine gives us “The Five Pillars of Nonviolence,” and throughout the book, a picture develops of the power of a nonviolent life.

I wasn’t surprised by the title story and the lesson “Use Anger for Good,” because I’d read about that incident in Arun Gandhi’s picture book, Grandfather Gandhi. When Arun came to the ashram as a boy, he had a lot of anger. His grandfather talked with him, including this insight:

Bapuji looked over at me from behind his spinning wheel. “I am glad to see you can be moved to anger. Anger is good. I get angry all the time,” he confessed as his fingers turned the wheel.

I could not believe what I was hearing. “I have never seen you angry,” I replied.

“Because I have learned to use my anger for good,” he explained. “Anger to people is like gas to the automobile – it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge. It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.”

Grandfather explained that when he was a boy in South Africa, he too had suffered from violent prejudice, and it made him angry. But eventually he learned that it didn’t help to seek vengeance, and he began to fight against prejudice and discrimination with compassion, responding to anger and hate with goodness. He believed in the power of truth and love. Seeking revenge made no sense to him. An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.

And that’s only the first lesson! The lessons progress, and are usually accompanied by stories from Arun’s life with his grandfather, though there are usually other illustrations as well. The lessons include Mahatma Gandhi’s time of political activism, using nonviolent protest to free India from British rule, and they continue all the way up to his death, and Arun’s struggles with wanting revenge. Ultimately, honoring his grandfather’s legacy won out.

“Forgiveness is more manly than punishment,” Bapuji had said.

When we are tested, we don’t prove our strength with violence or anger but by directing our actions for good. India had given Bapuji the great gift of a brief peace after his death. I had to give him the similar gift of forgiveness in the face of great evil. Bapuji had once explained that it is easy to love those who love you, but the real power of nonviolence comes when you can love those who hate you.

There’s lots of wisdom in this little book.

SimonandSchuster.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/gift_of_anger.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Hour of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

The Hour of Land

A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks

by Terry Tempest Williams

Sarah Crichton Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2016. 389 pages.
Starred Review

I got to hear Terry Tempest Williams speak about this book at an ALA conference before it was published and got a chapbook of the first chapter, so I was watching eagerly for it to come out. However, it still took me a long time to get it read. I tend to read nonfiction slowly, a chapter at a time, and this one continued to be on hold at the library, so I couldn’t just renew it and keep going. I finally buckled down to finish and was even more impressed than I expected to be.

I expected a lot of meditations on the beauty of our National Parks, but what I found is a lot more than that. There is much information about their history, and yes, about the wildlife and landscape, but there’s also a great deal about current concerns, such as oil companies taking over the land all around a national park and creating environmental devastation inside the park. Or the devastation wrought by an oil spill on a national park on the coast. Since this was written before the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, it was hard to read about the challenges and be pretty certain that things aren’t getting better.

Here are some things Terry Tempest Williams has to say in the introductory chapter.

In my wanderings among these dozen national parks, my intention was to create portraits of unexpected beauty and complexity. I thought it would be a straightforward and exuberant project, focusing on the protection of public lands, as I have done through most of my life. But, in truth, it has been among the most rigorous assignments I have ever given myself because I was writing out of my limitations. I am not a historian or a scientist or an employee of a federal land agency privy to public land policy and law. My authority is simply that of a storyteller who lives in the American West in love with this country called home.

I have been inspired by the photographs and people included in this book. I have learned that there is no such thing as one portrait or one story, only the knowledge of our own experience shared. I no longer see America’s parks as “our best idea,” but our evolving idea; I see our national parks as our ongoing struggle as a diverse people to create circles of reverence in a time of collective cynicism where we are wary of being moved by anything but our own clever perspective.

“The purpose of life is to see,” the writer Jack Turner said to me on a late summer walk at the base of the Tetons. I understand this to be a matter of paying attention. The nature of our national parks is bound to the nature of our own humility, our capacity to stay open and curious in a world that instead beckons closure through fear. For me, humility begins as a deep recognition of all I do not know. This understanding doesn’t stop me, it inspires me to ask questions, to look more closely, feel more fully the character of the place where I am. And so with this particular book, I have sought to listen to both the inner and the outer landscapes that spoke to me, to not hide behind metaphor or lyricism as I have in the past, but to simply share the stories that emerged in each park encountered.

At a time when it feels like we are a nation divided, I am interested in how a sense of place can evolve toward an ethic of place, especially within our national parks….

This is the Hour of Land, when our mistakes and shortcomings must be placed in the perspective of time. The Hour of Land is where we remember what we have forgotten: We are not the only species who lives and dreams on the planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

The national parks she explores in this book are Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Acadia National Park in Maine, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, Glacier National Park in Montana, and César E. Chavez National Monument in California.

What she discovered in these parks is fascinating and surprising and thought-provoking. This book is a treasure and a challenge.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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