For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘memoir

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, New York: Bantam Books, 1964, 209 pp.

Moveable FeastWe’re going to Paris! For the first time! So, I wanted to read a book about Paris. A classic. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is just that. Besides, we already had a old copy (same as the one pictured) in our home library, probably acquired for 50¢ at some used book sale over the years.

A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s memoir about the community of artists and writers, especially American writers, who lived in the Left Bank in the 1920s, named by Gertrude Stein as the Lost Generation. Hemingway tells tales of kindness, scandal, self-doubt, support, enmity and friendship among Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other notable writers, most of whom were just beginning their careers and struggling at the time. The revelations would have been scandalous when they were published, but they are not especially so today.

The stories take place in the cafes and clubs around Paris, and feature Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop as the central point of connection for all the young artists. Beach tended to the writers like a protective mother, served as their post office and lender of books, food and emergency cash.

This book is about a Paris that no longer exists, a Paris of the past in which suffering and struggle have been romanticized by memory. Even by the time Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast in the 1950s, the war had forever destroyed the Paris he knew. It was published after his death, with yet another layer of remembrance. Reading it now, Paris is in yet another incarnation.  These layers of wistful memory seem to be part of Parisian identity itself. It is a city most often viewed through the lens of memory, as most people visit or even live there only for a short season of their lives. Only a few are permanent residents, and they likely see the city differently than all who freeze it with a particular age and stage of their own life.

Hemingway captures this sensibility in the title line:

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

One of my favorite aspects of A Moveable Feast were Hemingway’s regular reflections on writing and his own creative process. He wrote in a hotel room office most days, separate from his home, and discusses the feeling of pride he had in leaving a day’s work knowing he had produced something good. He also made it his practice to always end the day knowing where he was going the next day, rather than somewhere stuck. However, when he did find himself at a loss,

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. (12)

When he would get stuck, he would often move to writing in a cafe. I share this affinity for writing in cafes. However, there is always the danger that someone will try to visit with you, not respecting the fact that, even if you appear to be staring into space, you are actually in the process of writing. He captured this “true sentence” of my experience.

Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. (92)

From now on, I will think of these surprise visitors as an infestation. (Even though sometimes God works in these interruptions, I’ll admit.)

In the final chapter, he writes a brutal critique about the arrival of “the rich” ruining a small Alpine town that he and his wife have frequented. They also ruin him and his writing. Not by their criticism, but by the appeal of their lives of ease and their ready praise.

That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvelous discovery. I even read aloud the part of the novel that I had rewritten, which is about as low as a writer can get. … When they said, “It’s great, Ernest. Truly it’s great. You cannot know the thing it has,” I wagged my tail in pleasure and plunged into the fiesta concept of life to see if I could not bring some fine attractive stick back, instead of thinking, “If these bastards like it, what is wrong with it?” That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional although, if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them. (207)

This captured sometime especially true for me about ministry and preaching. Sometimes, we can be lulled into a “fiesta concept of life,” where we take it easy and enjoy ourselves, relishing praise and accolades for our words. But this rarely produces our best work as preachers, and usually obscures our faults from our own view. In fact, at our professional best, we question those sermons that are the most popular, wondering if we have indeed done justice to the challenge of the Gospel.

A Moveable Feast definitely made me even more eager to see Paris. As a lover of literature, I enjoyed reading Hemingway’s tales of the personalities and backstories of literary lights before they were so known. I was delighted to find gems about writing (and preaching) to carry forward with me.

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Here are the rest of the books I read in 2016-2017. There is more non-fiction, plus fiction and an explanation.

JUSTICE ISSUES

20180114_165642Racing Across Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendship by Deborah L. Plummer, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 127 pp.

This is another UCC General Synod bargain that sat on my shelf for years, until it was just the right thing at the right time. The congregation I currently serve is interracial and international, bringing together people of many languages, countries and colors. I think our greatest opportunity is to build friendships across these lines. Plummer’s book explores both the promise and challenge of cross-racial socializing, boldly naming the ways that we feel most at home around those of our own race, the discomfort we feel when we are in a minority, and the ways that socializing with those of other races can help us realize our own narrow views. This is not a book about ending racism via friendship, although Plummer certainly addresses racial prejudice and white privilege in context. It is a book about friendship, and about how difficult—but worthwhile—it is to intentionally pursue friendships across racial lines.

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen, Oxford University Press, 2014, 346 pp.

My congregation has a partnership with International Justice Mission, founded by Gary Haugen and engaged in justice work around the world. This book helped me understand the organization’s difficult work, the problems it addresses and the strategies it deploys. Haugen argues that criminal violence and the lack of effective law enforcement are the single biggest issues impacting impoverished people around the world. This does not mean that poor people are criminals—quite the opposite. Poverty means that you will, almost inevitably, be the victim of a crime, and the perpetrator will go unpunished. All of the aid programs for food, education, shelter and water will remain ineffective if people are not safe from violence. Haugen addresses not just oppression and state injustice, but the everyday criminal violence, police corruption and lawlessness that afflicts poor communities. IJM is doing the slow, painstaking work of building systems of justice and local law enforcement around the world, and this book describes it. What most impacted me in reading this book, however, was the realization that these same forces of corruption and the unavailability of justice to those who cannot afford to pay for it hold sway in the streets and neighborhoods of the United States, as we have especially seen in the murder of black men and women by police, with impunity.

THEOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY

20180114_165723The Spirituals and the Blues by James H. Cone, Seabury Press, 1972, 152 pp.

Another classic I finally took time to read, prompted by plans to develop a Good Friday service called “The Passion in Spirituals,” weaving together the story of the crucifixion in conversation with African-American poets and spirituals. Cone’s work gave me the appropriate theological context for understanding the spirituals, and helped me to curate the service and write the notes to accompany it. The book argues that, since many African Americans were denied access to publishing and writing, their theology and faith expression was instead passed on through the singing of spirituals. Cone then mines the spirituals and the blues for the theological insight of the black community, with special attention to the ways the lyrics claim liberation from oppression. He writes, “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence. … Religion is wrought out of the experience of the people who encounter the divine in the midst of historical realities.” (29) Cone’s theology, then, emerges from evidence of that religious resistance from the spirituals and the blues.

The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 383 pp.

I am still questing for just the right book, one that introduces people to the Bible with an affection and a critical eye. I bought this one on that quest more than 10 years ago, and recently thought one of the chapters might adeptly address a church member’s concern. I started reading for that reason, and quickly discovered in The Good Book a 20-year-old time capsule of theological hot topics. The mid-1990s were key to my seminary and formation, and I saw all the old debates here. I was able to marvel at how far we have come, how stuck we still are, and how much farther we have moved away from Christendom and toward both cynicism and hope. Gomes’ wisdom remains solid on the topics he addresses. The chapters on “The Bible and …” (race, women, anti-semitism, homosexuality) remain of their time. It’s not that we aren’t still arguing about those topics, but the way we are talking about them has changed in the last 20 years. The remaining chapters, on more timeless topics like the good life, suffering, joy, mystery and evil, remain solid. I especially appreciated his chapter on wealth, though the income inequality and flagrant worship of opulence in our time sometimes made it seem quaint.

What’s So Amazing about Grace? and Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey, Zondervan, 1997 and 1977, respectively, published in one volume 2008, 584 pp.

Writing all these reviews in a row is proving to me how many books I have read after they have rested in waiting for many years—this two-in-one combo is another one in that category. I picked this up in surgery recovery. I think I needed some theological reflection on these questions in my own life after the tumult of the year, but I wasn’t able to handle anything too challenging. Unlike most theologians I prefer, Yancey was actually trying to answer those questions in a way that offered comfort to earnest seekers. I think I sought that solace. While Yancey’s answers did not always convince, they did offer reassurance and hope. His conversation about finding God in suffering gave practical, everyday examples of the co-existence of joy and struggle, reminding us that they often come together. More importantly, he flips the question back on Christians: “where is the church when it hurts?” (249) The book about grace, though written 20 years ago, parallels some of the conversations happening in recent books on the purpose of the church (including Glorify, Weird Church, and Standing Naked Before God, which I read this year and review in this same post). Yancey argues that grace is the thing that the church has to offer that nothing else in the world can provide. He focuses not the overwhelming nature of human sin, but on our existential need to forgive and be forgiven. He contrasts God’s desire with a world and a spirit of “ungrace,” and chastises those who act without grace toward those it deems sinners or unchristian. Both of these books were better than I expected. While there was an occasional evangelical twist I couldn’t abide, mostly they offered simple expressions of comfort to me in a difficult season. Proof that it may take me awhile, but eventually I do read these books I buy. When the moment is right, they are just what my soul needs.

ANTHROPOLOGY

20180114_165513Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox, Hodder, 2004, 583 pp.

This was the single most helpful (and embarrassing) resource as I was getting acclimated to life in London. I am grateful to the church member who gave me her copy when I arrived. Kate Fox is an Englishwoman and an anthropologist who turned her sights on her home country, observing the behaviors, traits, cultural understandings and quirks of English people. She studies food rules, dress codes, speech patterns, rites of passage, money, taboos and every other area of culture. I read this book like a missionary studying up on a foreign culture, and realized in every single chapter something that I was doing wrong or completely misunderstanding. It was my own personal way of discovering my cultural faux pas. Fox’s writing is full of humor and self-deprecation for her home country, which is important, because she identifies self-deprecating humor as one of the most important traits of Englishness, alongside things like social awkwardness, class consciousness, and “eeyorishness.” I’m not sure I would have truly understood this book until I lived here. I’m also sure it would have taken me a lot longer to understand living here if I hadn’t had this book for help.

SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

20180114_165811Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath by Jennifer Garrison Brownell, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 146 pp.

This author is a friend whose book I was delighted to read, but again it sat awhile, because it was all about timing. I read this in the thick of chemotherapy, the hardest season for me. Something about the title captured my attention—the pacing and physicality of the verbs felt like my life in the moment: “just keep going.” I didn’t have capacity to reflect, but the author did, in beautiful and powerful ways that touched my soul. The short, poignant chapters were often all I could handle. I needed to know God in the simple act of keeping moving and breathing, and this book showed the holy to me. I don’t do well with physicality, with pushing my body’s limits. This book invited me to think about the power of incarnation, and seeing the strength and courage of a fellow Jennifer encouraged me to face the hard things I was going through at the time. This is a beautiful reflection, inspirational and truth-telling, and I loved it.

Sea Changed: Coming Home, Healing and Being at Peace with God by Kate Nicholas, Authentic Media, 2016, 294 pp.

A member of my congregation introduced Kate Nicholas and I, saying “you two share cancer, preaching and a joyous spirit. I think you should connect.” That connection has been a great blessing so far, not the least of which was the introduction to this marvelous story. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, the author started to write the story of her life to share with her two young daughters. She had had a lifetime of adventures, but the story that emerged was one of God’s presence throughout, chasing her and changing her, shaping her and transforming her life—eventually even healing her from cancer. Kate’s life story is fascinating, but especially so because she tells it with rich detail and makes the people come alive. More, though, she makes God come to life, revealing all the ways the Spirit has been quietly at work around her, calling her to faith. It is a powerful testimony and a joy to read.

Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2015, 211 pp.

This book might fit more aptly in the “church leadership” category, because the first half is a rationale and strategy for integrating public confession into the weekly worship of a congregation. As always, Molly Phinney Baskette’s writing is compelling and revealing, speaking deeply about how God is present and at work in the church’s life. But for me, again reading in the thick of treatment, it was the second half, a collection of personal confessions and testimonies, that spoke to me most deeply. They are examples of the kind of practiced, prepared confession described in the first half of the book, but they are also glimpses of individual walks with God, struggles and successes and colossal failures, all of which the Spirit redeems and transforms into messages of grace for all who listen. Each was a tiny gift of hope to me.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel by John Donne (with The Life of Dr. John Donne by Izaak Walton), Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1999, 234 pp.

This book spoke to me and for me in the early months of 2017. I was recovering from chemo and surgery, and turned to John Donne in similar circumstances. The “emergent occasions” which he references are the days of his deathly illness and long recovery. He prays earnestly, with faith but without consolation, for God to preserve his life through his illness, and vacillates between hope and despair as he endures treatment. When he writes about his relationship with his bed, seeing fear in the eyes of his physicians, and the pull of ministry even as he recovers, I felt such a resonance and understanding about the reality of facing a deathly illness. It was the poetry my soul needed, like the Psalmist who gives voice to our sighs. My reading was interrupted by the death of my father, and I returned to complete Death’s Duel, his final sermon as (many years after the other illness) he was preparing for his own death. Again, it offered me words and reflections that unlocked and explained my own feelings. This was an agonizing read, for the beauty and poignance were piercing for me this year.

Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher, Vintage Books, 2003, 216 pp.

Practicing ResurrectionI don’t remember where I first heard about Nora Gallagher, but I immediately resonated with what I heard and wanted to read more. I bought this book thinking it would be an inspiration for an Easter sermon on a similar theme, but I didn’t get around to starting it until nearly Pentecost. When I did, I discovered it was not only just the right book at the right time, it is a book on one of my favorite topics: vocation, discernment and call. I read everything I find on that topic, and I found this one without even knowing that was the subject.

Practicing Resurrection is a memoir about Nora Gallagher’s journey of discernment about her call to ministry. She is an active leader in an Episcopal church, and feels a tug to something more. The story begins with the death of her brother, walks through meetings of a discernment committee, processes her experiences as a student minister, and concludes with a clear call to ministry–though whether that involves ordination into the priesthood remains a mystery.

Gallagher’s prose is gorgeous, and it spoke straight to my soul. Her way of framing the stories of her journey in the language of Spirit and discernment alternatively gave voice and substance to my own thoughts and took me to new places. My copy of the book is full of highlights and passages to which I hope to returned (or have returned and quoted already).

Here is just a sampling of the many passages I want to go over again and again:

The life of faith was amorphous, ephemeral, a glimpse, a moment. Trusting it was like my early swimming lessons in learning how to float. (3)

“Often we are afraid to ask for what we want or desire,” said Carr Holland, “But the way of discernment is to lay out our desire and then come back to it with openness, seeking the wisdom of examination. Is this a need? Is there a deeper need? Is your reign foreshadowed here?” (4)

On discerning call, quoting her priest Mark: “It’s not usually something that is immediately known, as if you would have a vision or something and that would be the end of it. We are all becoming what we are called to be. … One thing: a priest must love herself.” (16)

The priest in liturgy should help point the community in the direction of God, and keep the liturgy alive rather than make it a museum piece. What gives it legitimacy is the trust relationship that is built with the community and what the community invests in it. Then, in some objective way, God, who is always present, becomes more and more transparent.” (20)

Part of this process, I assure you, will be the dismantling of that carefully constructed person. … The Holy Spirit, I began to see, was relentless, but she was not mean. … Discernment, I came to see, was about looking everywhere for traces of God. (96-97)

Gallagher has a gift for telling a good story, one that is unique and personal and specific, and then asking the question or naming the issue in such a way you realize that the story is in fact universal. I will be seeking out more of her writing, and I look forward to reading this one over again in the future.

 

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris, Little, Brown and Company, 2013, e-book, 297 pp.

Diabetes with owlsThere is no one who does narrative memoir humor like David Sedaris. It’s been an intense January for me, with lots of distractions. When I needed something easy to read and requiring little concentration for a long plane ride, Sedaris was my guy.

As always, Sedaris has a way of narrating his life that makes us howl with laughter. While this wasn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as some of his other books, it was entertaining throughout. Some of the stories come from his adult life in London with his partner Hugh, and include everything from reflections on Obama’s election and visits to the dentist. Others hearken back to childhood experiences like taking home a baby loggerhead turtle, and falling in love with the “kookaburra” song, much to the torment of his father. I especially appreciated the section where he writes about his notebooks–the way he writes down every little thing he notices in the day. Those notebooks eventually inspire the crazy tales we all love. Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls strays a bit from the other books I’ve read by this author because he occasionally writes pure fiction. He writes first person satire as if he is a high school student, a woman, and an opponent of same-sex marriage, with much humor.

None of the stories stuck in my mind with the clarity and hilarity of some of his other essays, but it was enjoyable and helped me pass a nervous time with a smile.

 

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma, Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 288  pp.

Reading PromiseI heard about this book after an interview with the author on NPR. I am parent and a certified book nerd (c’mon, not only do I read like crazy, collect books like personal friends, but I blog about what I read here), so I found it impossible to resist a book about sharing a love of books across generations.

Alice Ozma and her father began what became known as “The Streak” when she was in the fourth grade. They made a commitment to read together every night for 100 consecutive nights. To true readers, 100 nights is far too short–as it was for Alice and her father. The Streak continued for the next eight years, until Ozma left for college. The Reading Promise is not just the story of the books they read, but of their relationship over those years. Alice’s father was a single parent and eccentric elementary school librarian. He and Alice had a particular and sometimes peculiar life together, full of imagination and affection, but not without hardship. It is a touching memoir, full of humorous and touching stories of Alice and her father over the years of The Streak, including the sometimes extraordinary measures they would take to continue it.

I had expected the book to be like an extended book report, a catalog of how art imitates and informs life. I had hoped for advice about how to inculcate a love of reading in my child. I coveted a list of all the books they read, and how they managed to sustain a practice of reading aloud for so long. Those things were there, but they were implicit rather than explicit. She didn’t write about how the books impacted her life, but about how the books became the foundation of her relationship with her father, even through the difficult years of adolescence. And yes, there was also a list of all the books they could remember reading together–which was my favorite part of the book.

I recommend The Reading Promise to anyone wondering why and how reading with your child makes a difference, or looking for inspiration for the work of reading together every night for a sustained time. Alice Ozma is only in her early 20’s, which is young to have produced a memoir. I wonder if there will be more forthcoming books from her.

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2009, 386 pp.

I heard about the book on an NPR interview with the author, and picked it up on a whim when I saw it on the clearance rack at the bookstore for $2.50. It was not an easy read, because Lit tells the story of Karr’s descent into alcoholism and her long, slow journey to recovery. Karr is a poet, and her prose carries the density and rich vocabulary of her other literary craft.

The book tracks a downward spiral into a life controlled by the need to drink, beginning when Karr is 17 years old and living as a runaway in San Francisco and continuing through her college years, graduate school, marriage and motherhood. Thinking back, (I completed reading a few weeks ago), the first half of the book is hard to recall. It is blurry, muddled and full of memory-impressions that are vivid but do not unfold in a clear narrative. This parallels Karr’s descent into drink.

The memoir turns when she begins the road to sobriety, even though the journey is rife with setbacks. Her journey out of alcoholism reminds me of a maze. You know you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Dead-ends are everywhere that make you double back and start again. You feel lost and alone. There are haunting images of her attempts to care for her son, and finding herself out of control again.

I was surprised to discover that this book was a journey into prayer and Christianity for Karr. Her struggle to find faith was the most compelling part of the book for me. Her sponsors and advisors in her recovery tell her again and again that she needs to find her higher power and learn to pray, but she resists because she can’t believe in God. A doctor who is also in recovery tells her:

Faith is not a feeling. It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it. (217)

Karr is worried about money, so the doctor instructs her to pray for money:

Then pray for it. Just pray every day for ninety days and see if your life gets better. Call it a scientific experiment. You might not get the money, but you might find relief from anxiety about money. What do you have to lose? (219)

I found this so familiar to my own experience of prayer. Unlike Karr, I have had the feelings before, and still do from time to time. But prayer is far more about discipline, openness and relationship than it is about feeling something.

One more section of conversation about prayer:

Deb says, Mary’s reluctant to get down on her knees because she doesn’t believe in God.

I add, What kind of God wants me to get on my knees and supplicate myself like a coolie?

Janice busts out with a cackling laugh, You don’t do it for God! You do it for yourself. All this is for you… the prayer, the meditation, even the service work. I do it for myself, too. I’m not that benevolent.

How does getting on your knees do anything for you? I say.

Janice says, It makes you the right size.

Lit is powerful as an inside perspective on what it’s like to build a self around alcohol, only to discover you’re lost—then to recreate a new self in sobriety. Beautifully crafted, this is an interesting read for anyone who’s been down this road of addiction and recovery, or loved someone who is somewhere on it.

Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Broadway Books, New York, 1998, 282 pp.

When I saw the description on the back of the book about a memoir based on a life of food—complete with recipes—I imagined beautiful stories of mothers and grandmothers cooking up a host of delicious dishes and passing on family wisdom along with secret ingredients. Imagine my surprise when the opening chapter was all about how Reichl grew up rescuing her mother’s party guests from food poisoning by altering her dangerous recipes, removing moldy ingredients and making things disappear from the table. This was not the memoir I expected, and it was a delightful surprise.

After the chapter about her mother and mold, Reichl opens the second chapter with “I had three grandmothers and none of them could cook.” (20) Nevertheless, she falls in love with food, and learns how to cook and prepare and appreciate it from odd sources—maids, classmates’ parents, a co-op in Berkeley and more. She cooks up all kinds of recipes to entertain her teenage friends, encounters the world through recipes in college, travels North Africa, works in restaurants and eventually evolves into a professional gourmet travelling across Europe drinking wine and sampling cuisine.

From a family food culture that was bizarre at best, Reichl grew into Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet magazine. The story of how that happens is fascinating and unique, and beautifully written in Tender at the Bone. I devoured it in just a few days, and you will too.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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