(an installment in my occasional series of book recommendations; this post contains affiliate links)
These are violent days. What good are books? Of what use is poetry?
In his elegy for W. B. Yeats, the poet W. H. Auden famously wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Yet the poem itself complicates this view.
Poetry may or may not change a thing, but if we feel compelled to sing, why not sing, as Mary once sang, of justice?
If we feel compelled to read, why not shed the burden of our own particular skin and view the world through another’s eyes? For a little while?
Here is a poem for that.
Here is one more.
A favorite book on our family shelves is Brown Girl Dreaming, a recent Newbery Honor Book by Jacqueline Woodson. My twelve-year-old daughter and I both loved it. The poetry is accessible but incredibly rich.
In a similar vein, I recommend Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. Written in verse, this story communicates difficult truths and complicated historical experiences with grace and lyricism. It is one of the sweetest, saddest, loveliest books I have read.
When I was a new graduate student living on the south side of Chicago, I first read the classic 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was years ago, and I don’t remember the book very well. What I do remember is the shock I felt reading a novel told from the perspective of a nameless black man. For the first time in my life I recognized how the skin we walk around in can remake the world around us. I had never even imagined a world like the one inhabited by this invisible man, but there it was, and while I read the book, I lived in it.
Like most summers, this one is too loud, too crowded, too hot. But, as I write in Roots and Sky, this cuts two ways. There are also too many lilies in the garden and too many squash on the vine. My way of dealing with the too-muchness of it all is what I call “comfort-reading.” This means I am finding most of my reading material on the shelf at my local Goodwill thrift store: fifty cent Agatha Christie paperbacks, an old Martha Stewart gardening book without its carefully photographed jacket, an Englishman’s memoir of life in Provence that must have been on everyone’s beach-read list the summer of ’89.
I revisited the Goodwill bookshelves only yesterday and found two treasures. The first was a copy of The Taize Picture Bible: Stories From the Scriptures in almost perfect, vintage condition. I have heard such good things about this illustrated Bible for children over the years, but it has long been out of print. I paid $1.97 and couldn’t believe my luck.
The second was a pristine paperback copy of Elizabeth Enright’s Thimble Summer, the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal. I didn’t buy it only because I recently found a vintage hardback of the same title at my local used bookstore. It has been our evening family read-aloud for a week now.
My ongoing quest to discover read-aloud books all four of my kids will submit to listening to (actually enjoying the book is a higher standard; I am satisfied if two of four children say they “like” the book) has recently met with failure upon failure. The last success I remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book that has a lot in common with Thimble Summer.
On the recommendation of a friend, I recently began reading The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island. After my friend explained it was a book about an old house written by a landscape historian, she said, “I think you’ll like it.” I said, “I think you’re right.”
More factual and straightforward than a historical novel, yet much more readable and compelling than a history textbook, The Manor tells the story of one of the first great European houses in North America, and the family who lived in it and preserved its history for centuries. One house might not seem so important, but the door of this house opens up a story of northern slavery that has since been either forgotten or willfully ignored.
The first Sylvesters were Quakers, and the story of their lives is revising a story I have always taken pride in. My own farmhouse was built by Quakers, and I have long given credit for the beauty of this part of Pennsylvania to the generations of residents who have sown peace and justice into the very soil of this place. That story is still true, but The Manor tells an older, darker tale. According to this story, the blood of enslaved Africans touches every aspect of our earliest history and every one of my seemingly peaceful, green hills.
Seeds of brutality and injustice were sown into our country’s soil from its earliest days. It is a small thing to know that the atrocities of slavery on sugar plantations in Barbados could not have been sustained without the animals and crops raised on New England farms, yet somehow that knowledge has brought the shame of slavery home to my own heart.
Those Barbadian plantation owners lived in homes built like fortresses. They exploited, in fact, they brutalized their workers and so they feared them.
Slavery is long gone, but we still reap that terrible harvest. We worship safety. We are afraid of black men, but it is the black men, and their communities, who pay the price for our fear.
When I hear that one more police officer has killed one more black man, I cannot throw a stone at that officer. I remember how, years ago, fear would rise up in me if I followed the sidewalk beneath a graffiti-splattered viaduct and saw a young black man in baggy pants approaching from the other direction. It took years of living in that south-side Chicago neighborhood to learn that I was always so much safer than any of those young black men. In ten years, I was never the victim of a crime, but neighbor after neighbor, innocent after innocent, male and female but always black-skinned, died of gun violence while I lived, untouched, in their midst.
Separation breeds fear, and fear breeds violence.
But if violence is a failure of the imagination, as the poet William Stafford said, then perhaps poetry can make something happen?
Comfort-reading has its place, but I must also read to bring dark things into the light. Especially, those dark things in my own self.
What if we tuned our imaginations to the songs of others not like ourselves?
If poetry makes beauty and creates hope, can it also help us to act justly and love mercy?
Can it help us walk humbly with our God?
With these questions in mind, do you have any book recommendations for me?
If you are looking for a quick Saturday read, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “What Hospitality Looks Like In A Castle.”
Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.
Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert
A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).
This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.
This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.
How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton
Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.
We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.
Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.
What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.
God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children
I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.
The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.
It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..
This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.
This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.
It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.
To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman
Reading is a solitary activity.
Or, is it?
When we give books (whether tangibly or through a recommendation) a solitary pleasure is transformed into a shared joy.
This is what I thought as I put together these recommendations for you. I remembered the special friend who knew I would love this book of poetry. I remembered how she flew all the way from Chicago to Pennsylvania to stay with me, and I remembered when she put this book in my hand. She was right. I do love it, and it’s the fact of being so well known, as much as the book itself, that I am grateful for.
I also remembered the blogger who posted her love for this novel on facebook. I remembered the Chicago preschool teacher who kept copies of this writer’s books in her classroom. I know that the right books have a way of finding us at just the right time, and I hope I will always be a conduit for that magic.
I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book. – J.K. Rowling
At the risk of sounding foolishly repetitious, I want you to know that this is a magical book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel by Rachel Joyce. It’s a quiet book. Even simplistic at times. It flirts with sentimentality. And I loved it so much. This is a book that goes on working its magic in your mind and heart long after you’ve turned the last page.
This is a novel about an accidental pilgrimage. Harold Fry steps out of his front door believing he will go only as far as the mailbox at the end of his street. Whether personal demons come out to chase him or some invisible force pulls him along, the result is that Harold puts one foot in front of the other until he has walked from his southern coastal English village 600 miles to the Scottish seaside.
Though I guessed the plot twist from the beginning, I still found this to be a beautiful, quietly devastating novel. It looks squarely at failure (Harold’s failures, his wife’s failures, our many, human failings) without losing hope. Harold’s story is sweet, clever, enjoyable, and profound.
‘If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.’ He smiled. ‘Why else would we have feet?’ – Rachel Joyce
I was introduced to the picture books of Elsa Beskow eight years ago in my daughter’s Waldorf classroom. Waldorf education places a high value on fairy tale and the natural world, and I don’t think you can find that combination more clearly, or more beautifully, expressed anywhere but Beskow’s books.
Beskow was Swedish, and she wrote and illustrated dozens of titles between the 1890s and 1950s. One of my favorites, Peter in Blueberry Land, first appeared in 1901.
This is a story about a little boy searching for wild blueberries and cranberries for his mother’s birthday. Unable to find any berries, he sits forlorn on a stump in the forest until the tiny King of Blueberry Land takes pity on him. By the King’s magic, Peter shrinks in size and enjoys a day of pint-sized adventure with the many sons of the blueberry king and the red-capped daughters of Mrs. Cranberry.
We read this story over and over this summer because, well, blueberries! It’s one of those books that quickly becomes a kind of imaginative shorthand for the whole family. Wouldn’t that fern over there be a giant tree for the blueberry boys? we say. Or, Do you think Mrs. Cranberry shelters under a giant mushroom like that one?
The large format books are beautifully bound, but they can be hard to find. I discovered my copy of Peter sitting next to a display of butterfly-patterned china in a London department store. Last week, I spotted a large format copy of Children of the Forest in the gift shop of our local botanical gardens. The smaller, gift book editions are readily available on Amazon. We own a mini gift edition of The Sun Egg, and we return to it frequently even though it’s small. The baby seems especially enamored of its size, but I won’t let her play with these.
His mother was very pleased and said it was one of the nicest presents she had ever had. ‘Where did you find all those berries?’ she asked. But Peter smiled and shook his head. It was a secret between him and the King of Blueberry Land.
Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite was a gift from a friend last spring. I’ve spent the summer reading and rereading these “seventy sonnets for the Christian year.”
Guite is a poet, priest, and musician from Cambridge, England. His sonnet sequence strongly reminds me of the seventeenth-century devotional poetry of George Herbert (a poet I’ve recommended here before), but it is also modern, cutting right to the heart of our contemporary preoccupations.
These poems stand alone as poems, but they are also beautiful accompaniments to the church calendar and to daily worship. By rights, I shouldn’t even include this title when claiming to give you “a peek at my farmhouse bookshelves,” because this book hasn’t seen a shelf since it arrived. It lives on my coffee table, on my bedside table, and stacked with my Bible on my desk. I carry it around with me, and I read it, at least a little bit, every day.
Some of you may have seen the sonnet I shared yesterday. Here’s one more:
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream …
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling:
‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’
Today, he turns four. My beautiful boy.
These are the books we read together. These are the books that will one day bring me to tears when I pack them up in boxes.
This Saturday’s book recommendations are all Beau-approved. And he is one discerning little guy.
I can no longer remember if I bought this book with Beau in mind. I think I did. All children love balloons, but Beau’s adoration is of long standing and un-paralleled intensity. Emily’s Balloon by Komako Sakai is beautiful. A book for little people and their grownups.
The story is simple but profound. The illustrations will melt your heart.
Best of all, this sweet little story of a girl and her balloon was one of the few books Beau was willing to sit through at age two that he still enjoys today.
This one’s a keeper.
Helen Oxenbury is one of my favorite children’s book illustrators. King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bently, and illustrated by Oxenbury, was definitely purchased with Beau in mind.
Here is another one for littles and their parents. We appreciate the story of a child’s imaginative play (complete with giants who turn out to be mom and dad coming to bring Jack in for bed), and they get inspired to build their own backyard, dragon-proof, tent fortresses.
This is an old-fashioned book that doesn’t feel even the slightest bit old.
Alphabet books are funny things. They tend to feel baby-ish, and we often acquire them when our children are too little for alphabet lessons. The inscription in my copy of Gyo Fujikawa’s A to Z Picture Book reminds me that I bought this one for Beau’s first Christmas (he was eight months old).
Most books purchased too early begin to fade into the wallpaper of our lives. Understandably, we forget to pull them out when they might be age-appropriate. Thankfully, I remembered this one in time.
Beau (unlike his older brother at this age) has a strong fascination with the alphabet. I’m not sure if it’s an interest unique to him or if he’s been inspired by his two older book-reading siblings, but this book is exactly what he needs right now. It’s the kind of book he can actually “read,” and that means a great deal to this always-trailing-two-steps-behind third born boy.
Alphabet books are a dime a dozen, aren’t they? This one, however, is a work of art. Fujikawa’s illustrations are equal parts adorable and intricate. There is a gorgeous mix of black-and-white ink drawings and softer pastel full-color spreads.
This is a book to linger over, searching each drawing, slowly turning pages.
This is a book for sharing, side-by-side, underneath a quilt on a rainy day.
And only the best books are snuggling books.
Happy birthday, Beau. I love you.
p.s. I know you better than I did last year. You are one year closer to the Beau I glimpsed in that river of prayer.