Welcome to my blog. I am Miriam Downey, the Cyberlibrarian. I am a retired librarian and a lifelong reader. I read and review books in four major genres: fiction, non-fiction, memoir and spiritual. My goal is to relate what I read to my life experience. I read books culled from reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Bookmarks, and The New Yorker. I also accept books from authors and publicists. I am having a great time.
Hope you will join me on the journey.
by Parker J. Palmer
San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2004
208 pages Spiritual
Although I have heard the name of Parker Palmer, I have never read one of his books. A Hidden Wholeness appeared in a pile of church library books, and I was affirmed and transformed as I read it.
First, if you don’t already know, I am a facilitator for Companions in Christ, which is a small group spiritual growth experience that we have at our church and the United Methodist Church. As I read A Hidden Wholeness, I realized that Companions in Christ has utilized the ideas of Parker Palmer, who is a Quaker, in their curriculum planning, for many of his techniques have been integrated in the coursework.
He discusses four themes: the shape of an integral life, the meaning of community, teaching and learning for transformation, and nonviolent social change. The major section concerns teaching and learning for transformation, which is the portion that helped me understand why we teach Companions in Christ as we do. I will not speak to that portion in this posting. I would like to dwell a bit on his first section—the shape of an integral life.
Palmer suggests that as adults we lose the integrity of our childhood; we compromise it as we try to deal with the world, to make a living, to be in relationship, and to find a community. Palmer says: “We arrive in this world undivided, integral, whole. But sooner or later, we erect a wall between our inner and outer lives, trying to protect what is within us or to deceive the people around us. Only when the pain of our dividedness becomes more than we can bear do most of us embark on an inner journey toward living “divided no more.”
I was intrigued to read about Bernie Madoff’s soul journey now that he is in prison for bilking his clients out of more than a billion dollars. He told interviewers that now that he is in prison he doesn’t need to be afraid any more, and he can be his more authentic self. Will he ever get over his guilt? Probably not, but he can now find some peace. Palmer would suggest that in aging we can “strip away whatever is not truly us.” He would also suggest that regaining our souls is our life’s task.He indicates that we are born with our selfhood and our uniqueness (our spiritual DNA, so to speak) and our life’s work is to be true to that uniqueness, but if we lose it, our task is to find it again.
Palmer feels that it is in a soul community that individuals can find themselves again. He offers guidelines for how such a community should structure itself and how individuals who are seeking to find a path toward wholeness can find peace in such a group. He is quick to say that this is not therapy or group counseling. My experience has been exactly this: in a group of like-minded souls, where everyone is searching, sharing comes easily after a time, and individuals can find a peaceful place where each can grow. Age is not a determinant; growth can come to the woman in her early 20s and the man facing death in his 80s.
Palmer closes A Hidden Wholeness with these thoughts: “The soul is generous: it takes in the needs of the world. The soul is wise: it suffers without shutting down. The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds a path between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes.”
From my own experience, I know that on the days I am the most frazzled, I am the least in touch with my soul. Frankly, that’s most of the time lately. This book reminded me once again that I am only whole when I remain in contact with my center—God in my life.
Parker Palmer’s most famous books are The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. His foundation is called the Center for Courage and Renewal.
Joel Salatin is a farmer and an advocate for the way things used to be—when people lived off the land, ate whatever they grew and things were “normal.” He says that the story of his life and his farm is a story of a “lifetime of swimming the wrong way” through the morass of the American culture and its so-called progress. The book is dedicated to “identifying and honoring historical normalcy.”
Salatin discusses time-honored living, eating, farming, and building practices that have been lost in the American way of life. Each chapter concerns an aspect of that life with examples of how we have lost that way of living and with suggestions of how to reclaim those practices.
As a disclaimer, I received this book as an ARC and did not read the entire book; hence, its placement on my short list. However, I did find much to relate to. I particularly liked the action lists that he put at the end of every chapter. I wanted to check off one thing that I was doing from every list. Here is one list that I was able to check off all four.
1.Quit buying processed food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.
2.Buy organic, local, farmer’s market, Community Supported Agriculture.
3.Get in your kitchen.
4.Meditate for five minutes about what you think your intestinal community would like today. Feed it.
Some of the ideas in Folks, This Ain't Normal are quaint and untenable—for instance his recommendation that women return to the home. I am happy that the wives in his family are a part of the family farm business and able to be home, but frankly Joel, “this ain’t normal.” I do think that mindfulness is one of the keys to living a healthful life, and I thought that he presented those ideas forcefully and clearly.
And then there is the question of the title of the book, Folks, This Ain't Normal. If Salatin wanted his book to be taken seriously, I think the title shouldn’t be so folksy. The people who might take his ideas seriously might also be put off by the back-woodsy title.
I practice some, but not all, of what he preaches. Today I bought apples at the farmer’s market to make applesauce for my baby granddaughters. This is the first time I have canned in years. As a young wife, we lived on a small farm, had a huge garden and chickens, raised a steer on the inlaw’s farm, and tried to live a simple life. Some of those things I have missed, and so I have had a small garden for the past two years. Today, I am returning to applesauce, an old skill.
Let me mention two books on this topic that I especially appreciated and will tie in with Folks, This Ain’t Normal. I reviewed Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food last year. Like Salatin, Pollan suggests that we not eat anything that is incapable of rotting or anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. The other book I enjoyed and would be a good accompaniment to Folks, This Ain’t Normal is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver and her family lived a year off what they grew on their Virginia farm and bought from their neighbors.
Last year, we had a big family adventure at a sustainable farm in Hart Michigan called Liberty Family Farm. Here is their website: http://www.realtimefarms.com/farm/1863025/liberty-family-farm
By Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2009
229 pages Fiction
The moment I began reading 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton I knew what was going to happen. Yet, I couldn’t stop reading. It is unusual to find that kind of tension in a book that is basically a character study, and I was as caught up as I would have been if I were reading a murder mystery or a thriller.
Jonas is a young man in search of validation, passion, and a reason for living. He has chosen to become a terrorist, strap a bomb in place, and blow up the subway in New York City. Ostensibly a student, he has chosen a path that he has kept secret from his parents and his closest friend, Vicki, who has just recently become his lover. Islam is new to him, but it has given his life purpose where before he had only found a void. He thinks: “Maybe he’d just been born with some gene--either one extra or one missing--that left him deformed for American life.”
Although his mother Carol has no name for the dread she is feeling, she knows something is terribly wrong, and she sets out with new purpose to find her son and bring him back. The other characters we learn about are also on journeys of discovery, each one heading in the same direction; they are living lives that will be altered permanently by Jonas’ actions. Among these are Sonny, a subway beggar, Vicki, the girlfriend and Mara her sister, Mara’s friend Aaron, who is an expert in the New York subway system, Masoud, the terrorist trainer, and Jake, Jonas’ father.
The beggar, Sonny, seems to express the theme of the book: “…forever is a nasty lie, a red line across a neatly written page, a giggling kid with a needle in his arm. Forever was an opiate that blurred your vision and sidetracked you from doing what needed to be done.”
The dread--there is no other word for it--is palpable. I kept praying, “Please someone find Jonas before it is too late.” But Masoud and the other terrorists have done too good a job at preparing Jonas for his ultimate fate. They are experts at preying upon vulnerability, and Jonas is very vulnerable. The reviewer in the Washington Post says that Jonas is an “ordinary, fragile child of ordinary, fragile people.” Jonas reminded me a bit of Franny in Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Both are fragile, both turn to religion and prayer to find purpose in their lives, and both are obsessive in their beliefs. Neither live in a world of reality.
I have had the privilege to driving my 15-year-old grandson to school these past two days. As we go to his arts magnet high school in south side Chicago, we pass through Hyde Park, Kenwood (where President Obama has a home) and then into a neighborhood where there is a great deal of public housing. Since they have lived in Chicago, Maxwell has always been in the minority. Today as we passed a large Black evangelical church, he commented, “Good old Black churches, preaching hope.” I thought to myself, “Maxwell would never be a Jonas. He is too much of a realist.” So when does reality take the place of idealism? Is naivety a hindrance or an asset? For Jonas, his naivety and idealism overtook any semblance of reality.
The friend who gave me 31 Hours commented that she had really pondered about suicide as she read the book. She said, “I can imagine committing suicide because of depression, but I could never imagine committing suicide over religious zeal.” I think that I have to agree with her, but I remember endless debates in college and theological school over “dying for one’s faith,” imbued as we were with the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for participating in a plot to kill Hitler.
Next week I am reading A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres, the story of the Jonestown massacre. It should lend more light to the issue of unquestioning faith. The Washington Post reviewer has the final word on the quandary of Jonas and his faith: “You don't exactly want to look at the story of what happens to Jonas, but Hamilton has made it very hard to tear your gaze away.”
You can almost see Bill Cosby recounting the stories in his new book, I Didn’t Ask to be Born, and hear the laughter from the audience. Those of us who have seen Bill Cosby live or watched one of his shows on HBO or DVD can even visualize the faces he makes and we can add pauses to the appropriate places in the text. The stories in the book seem to be part of his new routine which he premiered during his 2011 tour.
The title of the book comes from a story about trying to get his daughter to clean her room. She says in a fit of pique: “I didn’t ask to be born,” to which his wife replied, “We didn’t ask for you either!” The centerpiece story is a long rambling essay about Genesis called “The Missing Pages.” Cosby asserts that the reason why Genesis is confusing is because there are pages missing. For instance, there have to be some missing pages between the part where Adam and Eve eat from the tree of forbidden fruit and where they cover themselves, because the “writers don’t say anything about where Eve got the needle and thread to sew the leaves together” to make their coverings. Cosby imagines conversations between God and Adam and conversations between Adam and Eve. And the reason why we don’t know for sure what these conversations were about is because of the missing pages.
I Didn’t Ask to be Born includes stories from Cosby’s childhood, stories from the childhoods of his children, and stories about his grandchildren. From what I could tell, these are all new stories. A reviewer of one of his tour stops commended him for all this new material. He commented that most entertainers are content to do a “greatest hits” tour when they are Cosby’s age, but that in his current tour, everything is new.
My daughter-in-law took my grandson Maxwell to a performance in Chicago. Maxwell didn’t particularly want to go because he didn’t know who Bill Cosby was; it probably wasn’t going to be fun. Well, he had the time of his life and talked about it for days and days. There is just something about Bill Cosby. My children were raised on Bill Cosby on cassette tapes and television. We all loved the “Dad is great! Gave us the chocolate cake” routine. It was fun to know that Maxwell loved him as well.
I Didn’t Ask to be Born will be a delightful Christmas gift for someone on your list. Publishers Weekly comments that the stories are “all written with the amiable and accessible lightweight lilt Cosby's eager readers expect.” The book comes out on Nov. 1 in time for holiday shopping. It’s lots of fun. I recommend it.
Bill Cosby’s website with his list of performances until the end of the year: www.billcosby.com
The New York Times calls In the Garden of Beasts “novelistic history,” others call it “narrative non-fiction,” but whatever it is called, In the Garden of Beasts is appalling, scary, fascinating, but at the same time, a rousingly exciting story of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich through the eyes of one American family.
William E. Dodd was a historian and professor of history at the University of Chicago when he was called upon to become the ambassador to Berlin in 1933. He wasn’t the first choice; as a matter of fact, he was about the twentieth choice, but for various reasons, including a call to duty, he agreed to take the post. He took along with him, his wife and their two children, both in their twenties. Bill was a graduate student and Martha, a book editor who was in the process of getting a divorce. One can only imagine the conversation around the dinner table as they discussed the opportunity…”we should all go. It’ll be a great experience!”
The Dodd family upon arrival in Germany, 1933
Both Dodd and Martha were diary keepers and letter writers, so much of what Larson discovered that transpired in their lives during those seminal years, came from those letters and diaries as well as materials from historians, other diplomatic personages, and newspapers. Larson has meticulously researched the family, Berlin in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and the other leaders of the Reich, as well as people on the periphery of the Dodd’s lives, including Martha’s lovers, both in German and in the United States. The Times reviewer says that Larson has created an “edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller: innocents abroad, the gathering storm.”
At first, the family is intrigued with what is happening in Germany; the city of Berlin is as alive and vital as it always has been but with the added dimension of Nazi-ism. Martha, particularly, is buoyed by the vibrant spirit, the young, strapping Aryans marching around everywhere, the fervor, the salons, the clubs. As I was reading of her enthusiasm, I was reminded of the early scenes in the musical, Cabaret. Indeed, Larson took many of his details about the Berlin of 1933 from Christopher Isherwood’s books, which were also the writings used to create the script for Cabaret.
Within the year, however, the entire family is on edge; violence is on the increase; people they know are being arrested or disappear. Dodd tries on numerous occasions to warn the White House that things in Germany are not what they seem, but the State Department turns a deaf ear to what they consider to be his histrionics. America, at that time, was both isolationist and anti-semitic, and everyone was inclined to feel that Hitler should have his own way in Germany. Of course, shortly after Dodd was recalled, and his family left Germany, his predictions were realized by the State Department, but by that time it was too late.
Reading about Martha is like reading about a finely drawn fictional character, but in this case, she is a real. In the states, she had taken several authors as lovers, including Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolfe, and in Berlin her liaisons read like a who’s who of Nazi Berlin, including the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. One could easily imagine her spending her evenings at places like the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret, eating and drinking with Berlin’s society. She had a long affair with a Russian and following the war, became a Communist and an erstwhile spy.
Those who have read Devil in the White City, Larson’s book about the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who was operating there at the same time as the fair, know how compelling his writing is. Larson is the master of this style of writing, which.hardly feels like non-fiction because it is so finely tuned. In the Garden of Beasts is all the more gripping because we know how the adventure for this Midwestern family is going to turn out.
I received a book about a serial killer in Paris during World War II, and the publicity packet from the publisher says, “Erik Larson’s tour de force of narrative nonfiction hasn’t been matched—until now…” I haven’t begun Death in the City of Light yet, so I have yet to see if David King’s writing is a match for Erik Larson.
My husband and I read this book aloud, a chapter at a time, at the breakfast table. We talked often about the duplicity of the German people, and I commented more than once about how easy it is to be led down the wrong path as a nation. One fellow blogger summed the book up tightly: “History teaches that people at high levels of government, despite their pretenses, don’t know much more about how things will turn out than we do. They aren’t bad people; they aren’t stupid, they just can’t see any further into the future than we can. And sometimes, not as far.”
Linda Evans says that her two favorite things in life are “people and food.” Her memoir/cookbook is indeed called, Recipes for Life: My Memories. She acknowledges at the onset of the book that she has been blessed with a body that craves good food without consequence. (Ah, that we all should be that lucky!)
Her memoir is a clever combination of personal history, Hollywood name dropping, photographs, and tasty recipes. Evans comes across as a thoroughly nice person, albeit a bit of a sucker for handsome ladies’ men. (I didn’t know what to think when she told about husband #2 buying her the car of her dreams in one chapter, and then in the next chapter announced that the marriage was over.) Blessed with many good friends and co-workers, she tells vignettes about events and people in her life and then includes a recipe that either came from a friend or reminds her of a friend. For instance, she discusses meeting John Wayne and then includes a recipe for his crab dip. Apparently, she is not just a home cook. In 2009 she appeared on the British cooking show, Hell’s Kitchen, which she ended up winning. Included is the recipe for her salmon dish, “Hell’s Salmon,” with which she won the competition.
Publisher’s Weekly says the Recipes for Life is “deceptively simple.” Probably “deceptively simple” is a good description for Linda Evans, as well. I had never watched anything, movie or television, that Linda Evans was in. Last night, in honor of the book, we watched the movie Tom Horn starring Steve McQueen and Linda Evans. Although the movie suffered greatly from bad editing, McQueen was awesome as an old cowboy in a new West. Evans was the only woman in the cast, and although her part was small, she glowed with beauty and self-assurance.
I was interested in knowing that Linda Evans is only slightly older than me. Would that I looked like her! Her last chapter is aptly called, "My Just Desserts," and in it she acknowledges the gift of wisdom that comes with age.”I’m not the woman I used to be. I’m rich in experience and looking for new and wonderful adventures to add to this magical gift called life.” And with this book, she has accomplished another one of her goals.
Here is a recipe for Artichoke Dip from the book. I made it for family last night, not for a glamorous party with famous guests. It was lovely and garnered high praise. I will probably serve it for my next “glamorous” party.
Linda's Famed Artichoke Dip
By Linda Evans,
Author of Recipes For Life: My Memories
I've been making my artichoke dip for years. Practically everyone who has ever tasted it has asked me for the recipe. It's perfect for large parties or for smaller, intimate gatherings. Or when your husband's ex-wife comes to dinner! The secret here is to use the artichoke bottoms, not the hearts. Artichoke hearts may be easier to find, they don't produce the same results. The recipe easily doubles or triples for large gatherings. You can also replace the artichokes with 7 ounces of lump crab meat for a delicious variation.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Tabasco (or more, to taste)
1½ tablespoons thinly sliced scallions (white part only)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (I prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano)
1 (13¾ ounce) can artichoke bottoms (not hearts), drained and finely diced
Preheat oven to 350°F.
With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese with the mayonnaise. One by one, blend in the Tabasco sauce, scallions, and Parmesan.
Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, fold in the artichokes (don't use the mixer for this).
Spoon the mixture into a 3-cup baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm with crackers.
Recipe for Life will be released on October 11, 2011. I received an advanced reader copy from the publicist. It would make a lovely Christmas gift for a cook or for a fan of the television show, Dynasty, which Evans starred in for nine years.
I finished reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave totally breathless—my heart caught up in my throat. I don’t know when I have read a book where I cared so completely about the characters, what had happened to them, and what was going to happen to them.
Little Bee, a young Nigerian teenager, and her sister meet Sarah and Andrew, a young British couple, on a beach in Nigeria; Sarah and Andrew are on an ill-timed vacation, trying to salvage their marriage, and Little Bee and Nkiruka are running for their lives. Although we don’t find out until half way through the book what happened on that beach, every twist of the plot is dependent upon that fated meeting.
Most of the story takes place in London and environs two years after the meeting on the beach. Little Bee has made her way to England, been in detention for two years, and unceremoniously dumped out in the countryside. She finds Sarah on the day of Andrew’s funeral—Andrew committed suicide, never having come to grips with what happened on that beach. The two women form an unlikely alliance to protect each other and take care of Charlie, Sarah's four-year-old son.
These are remarkable women, each in her own way. They are survivors. Charlie is a survivor, too; he has taken on the persona of Batman and has in his four-year-old way separated the world into “baddies” and “goodies.” For Sarah and Little Bee, there can be no such clear-cut demarcation.
Sarah says that “she has lost the habit of happiness.” As she interacts with Little Bee, whose outlook on life, even at her young age, is immeasurably more upbeat than Sarah’s, she bemoans her moral turpitude and compromise. She says, “Compromise, eh? Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little bit older, maybe Little Bee’s age, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a little bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all.”
Little Bee is much more pragmatic about the greyness of the world in which she lives. She has seen the “baddies,” and chillingly, she is always trying to figure out how she will commit suicide if they come to get her. She admires people with scars because she knows that they have survived. Yet when the men actually do come to get her she says, “…something has survived in me, something that does not need to run anymore, because it is worth more than all the money in the world and its currency, its true home, is the living…the secret irresistible heart of the living.”
Little Bee is brilliantly conceived and written. Everything rings true without one false note. The reviewer in the Washington Post calls Cleave’s writing “restrained, diamond-hard prose.” His view is sympathetic but clear-eyed, emotional but not cloying. Although the book is political, the politics are so tightly wound into the humanity of the characters that the reader is not aware that there is any political agenda at all. The New York Times’ reviewer concludes: “Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice.”
When I was rather breathlessly telling my husband about Little Bee, he suggested that it sounded like a companion to Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, and indeed it could be a fictional counterpoint to the story of an American immigrant from Burundi.
As you can tell, I loved Little Bee. My book club is going to discuss it next week, and I am so grateful that one of our members suggested it. It is one of the best books I have read in a very long time—probably at the top of my list for 2011.
Greg Surratt subtitles his book, Ir-rev-rend, Christianity without the pretense. Faith without the façade. He is the pastor of Seacoast Church, a mega-church in Charleston SC, and for sure Ir-rev-rend is a book without pretense or façade. Granted I was reading an uncorrected proof (the book came out on Sept. 28), and obviously the style of the physical book surely was spiffed up for publication, but I constantly had the question in my mind: Who did Surratt write this book for?
Each short chapter has a dictionary-style title, with a definition, and a couple of quotes that utilize the term—such as doubt, calling, money, and worship. Then, Surratt writes a rather far-ranging blog-posting type article about that topic. He includes scripture, personal experience, and opinion about the topic under discussion. He says about his book: “The stories deal with faith, hope, doubt, love, sex, money, politics and a bunch of other real life issues that we all wrestle with.”
Surratt writes with self-deprecating humor, which in some cases is downright funny. You have to believe in his authenticity and credibility. I think if I were listening to him give these chapters as sermons, I would be entranced by his generous personality and charisma. He must be an absolutely delightful person to be around.
It was not until I got to the chapter on worship (by far the strongest chapter) that I began to appreciate his religious understanding and his sensitivity. Over a short span of time, Surratt experienced religious awakening in several diverse ways, including a service at an Episcopal church (heaven forbid), and a visit to the Iona Community in Scotland. I know several people who have been to the Iona Community, so I was not the least bit surprised that he was extremely moved by the experience there. He also had an experience of an anointing as well as an intercessory prayer candle lighting. The very best part of these experiences was that Surratt realized that his congregation was missing some of these intense spiritual moments. He was humble enough to realize that the services at Seacoast Church may have been lacking in quiet, prayerful, and peaceful surrender. And, wonder of wonders, he incorporated some of those spiritual aspects into his Sunday morning worship experiences. I wanted to put my arms around him and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I wish that Surratt had probed the Christian faith a little deeper. Although I never doubted his sincerity and authenticity, I was not convinced that he was a man of deep spirituality until the very end of the book. If it had not been for that chapter, I would have passed the book off as something nice but innocuous. I was reminded how astonished I was about the religious depth of Jay Bakker’s book, Fall to Grace. I had no such expectations when I began the book. Perhaps my expectations for Ir-rev-rend were too high.
I had to come back to my original question—who did Surratt write this book for? Well, for one thing, he pastors a church of 10,000 people. Each church member will want a copy of the book, and it will be a great introduction to their pastor. Additionally, fellow pastors will enjoy the book and identify with it—another audience. He says that he hopes the book will make “readers laugh, cry and push them toward Jesus.”I hope it accomplishes that for him.
You may also want to read my reflections on the book In theLand of Believers by Gina Welch, a non-believer who attended Jerry Falwell’s church in Virginia for several years in order to understand evangelical Christianity.