Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual Disobedience

Of the spiritual memoirs I've read most recently (see my posts for Post Traumatic Church Syndrome and A Year of Living Prayerfully ) Rowe's work was, without a doubt, the most raw. The author tells the story of how her doubts of being saved, despite the fact that she had been baptized, and had, on countless occasions, publicly professed Jesus Christ as her lord and savoir eventually consumed her. As a young college woman in the 1990s this lifetime of confusion catches up with her. The overwhelming feeling that she was not doing enough to demonstrate her Christianity (a condition she discovers has a name - scrupulosity) lead her to check in at Grace Point, a psychiatric hospital "where the Bible comes first". The book details her time at Grace Point and incorporates flashbacks of her life prior to the panic attack that ultimately motivated her to seek help there.

Rowe made good use of her college library. She not only used the viewing room to watch BBC productions of Shakespeare plays for class with her boyfriend she also attacked her "theological demons" there by reading what "theologians and the early church fathers had written about salvation and hell". She specifically mentions drawing a "trench line in a remote corner of the Cornell library, between Dewey decimals 220 and 230". While I don't doubt she did the research, I do question that Cornell University Library used the Dewey Decimal System to classify its books. The Library of Congress system is most commonly used in research libraries and so it appears that Cornell does, at least currently, follow this custom. Perhaps things were different in the 1990s, but that is unlikely. I expect Rowe took a bit of artistic license here.

Rowe worried a lot about the eternal fates of the many good people she knew who were not Christians, including the "Asian librarian with the Buddhist yin-yang symbol around her neck who didn't charge [her] a late fee for [her] overdue books". She needn't have concerned herself, though - all librarians go to heaven! The destiny of those who return library books late, however, is another matter.

Rowe's work is funny, honest, and surprising.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome - by Reba Riley

In my quest to find a religiously-themed, yet light-hearted story for a possible One Book One Community Read I came across Riley's book. Like Jared Brock's A Year of Living Prayerfully Riley makes a "year of" project out of exploring a variety of religions. The purpose of her search, however, is quite different than Brock's, and she also is more willing to examine faiths beyond those with a Judeo-Christian history including Muslims, Wiccans, and Native American spiritualities.

An interesting connection between her book and Brock's however is that both are living with a chronic, undiagnosed illness. The Sickness, as Riley calls it, sometimes prevents her from researching as much as she might before attending a service. For instance she was surprised to learn that visiting a synagogue on Yom Kippur without a ticket just wasn't a thing.

She does mention doing research on several occasions, including twice using a library, even checking out a book on one occasion!

Riley's year goes from her 29th birthday to her 30th attainment day. I cringed when she referred to this as her 29th year. It was her 30th. The day a person is born they begin their first year, which ends the day before their first birthday. Their second year begins, then, on their first birthday, and so on. Her mistake though is common. Let's agree to stop this madness here and now.

Despite my issues with her counting of years, I enjoyed the book. It is funny, and the author kept the focus on herself. It is definitely a contender for One Book One Community.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children (Books 2 & 3) - by Ransom Riggs

I finally got around to reading the rest of the series from Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. When I discovered that the third book was called Library of Souls I really couldn't put it off any longer. Books two and three continue the tale of Jacob and his Peculiar friends using the same vintage photograph device as was used in book one.

Book 2 (Hollow City) is not so library-centric, with the Peculiars encountering only one library as they run through a bombed-out London during World War II seeking shelter, not only from the bombs, but from the hollows chasing them.
Still I could feel them coming. There were out in the open now, out of the cathedral, lurching after us, invisible to all but me. I wondered if even I would be able to see them here, in the dark: shadow creatures in a shadow city. 
We ran until my lungs burned. Until Olive couldn't keep up anymore and Bronwyn had to scoop her into her arms. Down long blocks of blacked-out windows staring like lidless eyes. Past a bombed library snowing ash and burning papers. Through a bombed cemetery, long-forgotten Londoners unearthed and flung into tress grinning in rotted formal wear.... 
Book three finds our heroes in an especially creepy place called Devil's Acre where murder is "tolerated with reservations" and piracy is "discouraged". "Is anything illegal here?" Addison (the talking dog) asks. "Library fines are stiff" is the reply. "Ten lashes a day, and that's just for paperbacks". Astonished that the place even has a library Addison is even more surprised to learn that there are actually two "though one won't lend because all the books are bound in human skin and quite valuable." Neither of these libraries were, however, the Library of Souls, a place where the souls of peculiars are deposited for reuse. As explained in Tales of the Peculiar, the only book in "peculiardom" ever to be banned
It was thought that peculiar souls were a precious thing in limited supply, and it would be a waste to take them with us to the grave. Instead at the end of [their] lives [they] made a pilgrimage to the library where...souls would be deposited for future use by others. Even in spiritual matters...peculiars have always been frugal-minded.
Of course special librarians "who could read peculiar souls like they were books"  are needed in order to access the souls in the mythical library, and finding one of them was near impossible as "a librarian hasn't been born for a thousand years".

Librarians really do matter.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Year of Living Prayerfully - by Jared Brock

Our One Book One Community (OBOC) steering committee is looking for a light-hearted book with a spiritual theme to read next spring. We had a suggestion of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't by Stephen Prothero which I started to read, and do like, but I am not sure it is a good choice for a community read. Our community likes to read stories, and Prothero's book is not only not a "story" it is also rather didactic (as the title would suggest). These are two things that make the book a less-than-ideal choice for OBOC. With this in mind I started to look for other books - specifically something with a plot. Then I remembered that during my "Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" I read two religiously-themed humorous books that were about spiritual quests: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs; and My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen. I correctly surmised that more such books must have been written the last few years and selected Brock's book as one that had potential for OBOC. Brock's story features a genuine inquiry into what prayer means. He travels across the globe, often with this wife, to talk to religious leaders about their own spiritual journeys and ultimately finds more questions than answers.

As a Unitarian Universalist I respect and support each person's search for truth and meaning (see our fourth principle). I was intrigued with Brock's quest, and especially appreciated his final comments regarding having more to learn
After an intense year of learning about prayer from some of the best sources on earth, I don't feel like I'm further along. If anything, I feel like a first-year university student-I now know all the things I don't know-all the things I haven't yet learned, understood, or experienced. I am not, in any way, a prayer expert. I'm a failing student who's playing catch up, at best. Rather than coming to the end of a journey, I've only just begun.
As he continues his inquiry I hope he branches out beyond Judeo-Christian traditions. His interactions with Muslims were limited and I don't recall him meeting with any imams. Nor did he talk to any Buddhists (he did meet with one who had converted to Christianity) or Hindus. Likewise, his dealings with women religious leaders were rather narrow. I think the woman with whom he had the longest conversation was Rachel Phelps-Hockenbarger, daughter of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. I have to give him credit for his perseverance in getting the interview, though.

Brock's travels took him to, Israel, several parts of Europe, his native Canada, the United States, and also to North and South Korea. I was impressed with his courage in voyaging to North Korea, and his refusal to bow down to the body of Kim Il-Sung. There were no visits to any African or Latin American countries, however, and I suspect that if he had spoken to someone in Central or South America about liberation theology, or talked to anyone in Africa about colonialism, or attended a religious ceremony on an Indian reservation in the United States, he might not have simply and naively accepted the comments he found in Christianity Today that
Missionaries brought about reforms, fought colonialism, taught people to read, and rallied support for struggling peoples around the world. The conclusion the article makes is striking: "Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple-if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary."
I was, of course, glad to see that he began his globe-trotting voyages at his local library. On page one Brock tells us
Michelle and I decided to live prayerfully for an entire year. It was a nice, shiny idea. But where should we start? 
With For Dummies, obviously. I borrowed a copy of Christian Prayer for Dummies from the library.
After reading a bit of the work though, he found himself unimpressed and
called it quits, returning the book to the library, where [he] assumed it would remain until next year's Friends of the library book sale. 
He also visited the library at the Monastery of Vatopedi (and even borrowed a book there) and while on Mount Athos talked to Father Philotheos who, when asked to define prayer, responded
Prayer isn't one thing...You can read a whole university library full of books that have been written just on the Jesus Prayer.
Brock made at least one other attempt to visit a library while on his journeys. Sadly, however he found the library (and the museum) at Monte Cassino closed (this after he paid his entrance fee). The gift shop, however, was open.

Ultimately, I think I will keep up my own search for a One Book One Community read and look for something that explores religion beyond what one will find in the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

J. Edgar - the movie

I learned from reading The Card Catalog that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover not only once worked in the Library of Congress, but that he applied what he learned there (from helping to organize the card catalog) in his work at the Bureau. I was even more interested though that he attempted to use his insider knowledge of this Great Library in order to impress at least one woman. In one early scene of the film "Edgar" (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a date to the Library and demonstrates how speedily he can find a book using the wonderful cataloging system he helped to arrange. While he doesn't manage to win the lady's hand , he does convince her to become his private secretary. Together they created a special system of filing at his Bureau office that kept his private file, well, private. To this day no one knows what was in them. I was intrigued that he used a system originally intended to help people find things in order to create a system that did just the opposite.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Road to Little Dribbling - by Bill Bryson

My husband and I couldn't resist picking up Bill Bryson's latest work after so very much enjoying Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods. We weren't disappointed as we once again enjoyed some laugh-out-loud reading time together.

Following what he designates as "the Bryson Line" the author transected the United Kingdom from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, stopping at a variety of bergs in between, visiting tourist traps, and little known spots alike, he makes keen observations on the people and places along the way.
The Bryson Line

It is unclear whether or not he visited any libraries on this particular journey, however, he did write about things he had learned in libraries
  • Such as the fact that Dwight D. Eisenhower had a home called Telegraph Cottage on the edge of Wimbledon Common during World War II and
  • How the system of road numbering works in Britain in fact he was "surprised to learn that there is a system to British road is not like systems elsewhere."
He also discussed libraries as part of an important part of a community
  • Even if the community never existed. Motopia "was a proposed model community based on the uniquely unexpected idea of banishing cars." Motopia, however, was to include "housing, shopping, offices, libraries, schools, and recreational space" with its inhabitants "getting from place to place on moving sidewalks or in taxi boats along lakes and a small network of canals".
  • He also points out that even when Britain was referred to "the Sick Man of Europe...there were flowerbeds in roundabouts, libraries, and post offices in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it" and wonders why "the richer Britain gets, the poorer it thinks itself"  
  • He notes that Canford Cliffs, while lacking many of the shops he remembered from his previous visit thirty years prior, still maintained "a lovely little library and a proper village center."
  • In a completely deserved dissing of Birmingham, which had announced "massive spending cuts" that would make two-thirds of city employees "redundant" Bryson points out that this move included halving the staffing levels at the new £189 million central library, as well as cutting its hours by 46%, among so many other things. Bryson' sarcasm about all of this is right on target
All of this is being done to save £338 million over four years. That sounds like an enormous sum, but in fact it is a saving of about £1.40 per week per citizen. I wonder what all those lucky people of Birmingham will do with that extra £1.40 flowing into their pockets every week.
American citizens would do well to pay attention. Tax cuts rarely mean that middle and working class people will benefit.

Bryson also uses libraries as metaphors, or simply uses them to make a point
  • He doesn't like it, for instance, "when a hotel puts some books in a bar and calls it The Library."
  • He remembered "the Natural History Museum as being almost empty of other visitors and very quiet, like a library" although, that aspect had changed for his recent visit. He does point out, however, that the whole country of England is quiet in comparison to the United States "like a big library".
  • He suggests that one way to "receive formal adulation" in the United States is by "paying for a hospital wing or a university library or something along those lines." The other way is to "single-handedly take out a German machine-gun nest while carrying a wounded buddy on your back at a place called Porkchop Hill or Cemetery Ridge..."  
This is an entertaining book, and would be a good choice for a vacation read.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos - by/por Lucia González

¡Feliz Día de los niños / Día de los libros! Children's Day/Book Day (or more simply Día) is celebrated every year on April 30 to celebrate multicultural books for children and to encourage literacy. The celebration was started in 1996 by children's author Pat Mora whose work I have written about before (see my previous posts about Pat Mora and Día here and here). 

This year in honor of Día I read a bilingual book about a bilingual librarian, Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian in New York City. The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos tells the story of how those who migrated to Manhattan's Barrio from Puerto Rico during the Great Depression found a welcoming library when they discovered that a Spanish-speaking librarian had been hired. Belpré made clear the message that libraries were for everyone by not only ensuring that reading materials in English and Spanish were available to the new arrivals, she also planned story hours, and celebrations that honored their language and traditions.The beautiful illustrations enhance this story about the joy and warmth of family and community. 

Belpré's memory is honored each year with the awarding of the Pura Belpré Award to a Latinx author and illustrator "whose book best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."