Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Summary: A collection of essays centered around the culture of sweetgrass, combining indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an environmental biologist teaching in the SUNY system. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She has dedicated her career to the integration of scientific understanding of the environment with indigenous wisdom. The book is organized around the different aspects of sweetgrass culture: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning sweetgrass. The braiding of sweetgrass is a metaphor for the weaving of science and indigenous wisdom in understanding the gifts of the earth and how we give back–how humans and all living things sustain each other.

Listening to other living things, indeed all the elements of the earth and reciprocity are two themes that run through the quietly eloquent essays organized around these five aspects of sweetgrass culture. In “The Gift of Strawberries,” wild strawberries come as a gift, an early harvest, but gratitude and reciprocity involve clearing land for runners to establish new plants, resulting in an even greater gift of strawberries. Likewise with sweetgrass, which comes as a gift. One receives only what is needed, leaving half, which we learns results in sweetgrass flourishing more than if left alone. Usually some gift is left, perhaps a sprinkling of tobacco leaves. And these gifts in turn are braided, given to friends, and burned in ceremony. She reflects on the Thanksgiving address and the giving of thanks to all the living things from the Earth and the waters to the trees. In an essay titled “The Honorable Harvest” she brings together so much of this wisdom in a kind of credo:

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Share.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
--Kimmerer, p. 183.

She writes of becoming indigenous to a place, one with its wisdom. This reminds me of the writings of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson who pay attention to what the land is saying and farm in harmony with what they learn.

One of the most enjoyable essays was her narrative of taking students for what she calls “shopping” in a cattail marsh–“Wal-marsh.” Materials for clothes and sleeping mats, rhizomes with carbs, stalks of pith for vegetables–even toilet paper! They learn both about the biology of a cattail marsh, and lessons about the tremendous gifts bestowed upon us. We say “thanks,” we care, and yet the earth gives us so much greater abundance.

There is so much that is attractive in what one finds her, and I think much we might all learn from this indigenous wisdom. Where I respectfully part as a Christian is with her “language of animacy,” really a form of animism that assumes a spirit or soul not only in all living things but even rock, water, cloud, and fire. What I respect is the attentive care and mindful use of all things–what I think implied in the “tending and keeping of the garden” in the early chapters of Genesis, or the knowledge of place we see in Berry and Jackson.

I am also impressed with the ways this professor integrates indigenous wisdom and science in her research and work with students. I wonder how many from other faith traditions make the effort to braid the wisdom of their faith with their research. Whether we accept everything about indigenous religion or not, I believe there is much that can be learned, and crucial wisdom in the American context for the care and renewal of the land we often have pillaged. Kimmerer has shared a gift from her own people. Will we receive it and listen and say “thank you” and share what we can in response? What could be braided together?

Review: Almost Everything

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead, 2018.

Summary: A series of “notes” or essays on hope, especially amid disturbing times.

“I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Anne Lamott

That’s how this collection of essays in which Lamott sums up why she lives with hope in apocalyptic times. She wrote this before COVID, George Floyd, the 2020 elections and their aftermath, and the invasion of Ukraine and a world staring at the possibility of World War Three, which is almost unthinkable. How did she know.

In “Prelude” Lamott describes this book as being written for her grandson and niece as almost everything she knows that might help. Then in typical Lamott style, she diverts and says that there are really only two things she knows–that she is mightily tempted to jump off of rooftops and out of speeding cars and that she has seen miracles.

She writes of the paradox of truth and how it affords hope when you hit bottom because there is something else, that bottom is only one side of the paradox. We really can’t change others or save them–it is an inside job. She writes, “Nor did I know about grace, that it meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow and then tips you out somewhere else in ever so slightly better shape.” There really is no fix in life, only forgiveness. We especially can’t change families–only live with them and forgive. Most things will work if we unplug them–even us. We need to surrender the impulse to return hate with hate. Empathy awakens us to how like we are to what we are tempted to hate. She derides diets that end with us gaining weight, suggesting kindness toward ourselves might be better.

There is probably little better writing advice than she gives a bunch of first graders, which was really writing one bad page after another until they became a book. She thinks that bitter chocolate is only good to balance wobbly chair legs and that we do better to carry Kisses in our backpacks to give away and make friends. She writes about death and accompanying the dying, comparing our lives to hen and chicks, with the belly button center that grows outward in glossy green leaves that eventually thin, fade, fall off and feed the soil. Contemplating death makes life richer.

One of the most moving chapter narrates the life of Kelly, an atheist friend who was in AA with her, and then out because she didn’t like the God part, her downward decline after a divorce and the death of her dog, their shared love of Survivor and the last, alcohol-ridden years where Anne hoped God would break through because nothing else could, and the final rest she found when she and a friend who was her last joy killed themselves together. She narrates the tragic fortress of alcoholism that led to her friend’s death when God came in the form of welcome and a cup of tea at an AA meeting.

She concludes with coming back to hope. No sweetness and sentimentality. We confront the terribleness of things, and yet glimpse the wonders of the world, the hush of a forest, and still have the sense that in the end, it will be well.

Lamott has this uncanny ability to puncture our pretensions and our certainties without leaving us bereft. In this context, of finding hope in the face of apocalypse, it comes down to the idea that there is always something beyond bad, that the story doesn’t end that way. Whatever we ground that in–God or intuition–it’s probably the best we have to hang onto in these days.

Review: Breaking Ground

Breaking Ground, Anne Snyder and Susannah Black. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing 2021.

Summary: A collection of essays written through four seasons beginning in the summer of 2020 on what it might take to restore common ground for the common good in a society deeply divided by the pandemic, race, economic, and political divisions.

The summer of 2020 came in the depths of the pandemic, punctuated by the police-involved death of George Floyd, painfully caught live on camera, resulting in massive demonstrations and disorder in many cities. Two magazine editors, Anne Snyder of Comment, a Canadian-based magazine, and Susannah Black, at the Bruderhof sponsored publication, Plough Quarterly came together to invite a number of Christian thinkers engaged in public square discourse to write articles that attempted to analyze what was happening in our society, draw upon the past, and think imaginatively about the future, renewal, and the role followers of Christ might play in fostering a hopeful future drawing together a fragmented body of Christ and wider society.

The collection brings together an impressive list of thinkers whose essays were written over the four seasons beginning in the summer of 2020 through the spring of 2021. Some of the better known contributors include Mark Noll, N.T. Wright, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Wear, Jeffrey Bilbro, Doug Sikkema, Amy Julia Becker, Oliver O’Donovan, Peter Wehner, and Jonathan Haidt. All told, there are nearly fifty essays in this collection.

The discussion ranges from Mark Noll’s analysis of epidemics past to essays exploring the breakdown of public trust to an interview between Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum and Marilynne Robinson ranging from Calvin to the common good. Michael Wear, an adviser in the Obama White House surveys our political landscape and profiles Joseph Lowery, one of the last survivors of the Civil Rights movement, who walked with King under the shadow of death, and our call to walk with Jesus even as we engage all the perils of the political in this time. Oliver O’Donovan explores politics and political service.

The essays talk about the importance of place, the local, and the spiritual practices that sustain us. Amy Julia Becker talks about how congregations like hers may fight racism at the local level. Anthony M Barr contributed some of the clearest thinking on the nature of policing and police reform that could be a starting point for many local conversations. Irena Dragas Jansen offers one of the more interesting essays describing what our country looks like through the eyes of a new citizen. Katherine Boyle, an entrepreneur describes the death of Silicon Valley–the eco-disasters, the hopelessness that claims more lives than COVID, the failure of the tech world to save us, and yet the way of being it has promoted as Silicon Valley becomes everywhere.

Aryana Petrosky Roberts describes coming home to the political conflicts in her own family, the inability to hear one another and the breakthrough of praying together, inviting Jesus into the political mess. Stuart McAlpine takes us deeper into prayer, into the prayers of repentance and lament we desperately need to engage and are so hard for us. Michael Lamb explores the implications of Joe Biden’s call for an Augustinian Concord in his inaugural address.

The book includes interview transcripts, some of the best from interviews with Cherie Harder of The Trinity Forum, one of the organizations that joined the Breaking Ground project. One of the very best of these was with Jonathan Haidt and Peter Wehner on “Arguments of the Sake of Heaven.” They explore our contemporary epistemic crisis and polarization, recall the passion of the Inklings for truth that led to vociferous argument, and what is required to foster good arguments in our public squares. Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson combine to contribute an essay on the call of the American church to own its own responsibility for our nation’s racial history–our love of gain and our failure to make recompense for slavery’s injuries. Charles C. Camosy explores the horror of our nursing homes which the pandemic revealed and the challenge of an ethic of life that includes dignified elder care.

Amid the serious and important conversations, Tara Isabella Burton’s “On Good Parties” comes as a ray of light. Tara loves parties and sees good ones as “a practice for living.” They teach us how to love well and see ourselves as part of a community, they celebrate events in our real lives and the appreciation of one another. She made me look forward to good parties once again.

Even with all that I’ve written here, I’ve but skimmed the surface of all the good and imaginative thinking in this collection. I’m impressed with the wide array of people from police officers to theologians who contribute to this collection. But isn’t this what is needed in our communities across the land–for a coming together of a wide array of people who care about the rents in our social fabric who talk and listen and pray and think and imagine what could be?

I would not only commend this book but at least three of the organizations mentioned here whose publications and initiatives are worth attending to and supporting as we seek to pursue Christ for the glory of God and the common good:

Comment Magazine

Plough Quarterly

The Trinity Forum

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Having and Being Had

Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.

Summary: A collection of essays on the occasion of the author and her husband buying their first house, considering the nature of capitalism, consumption, work, and class.

It was 1990. We had just moved to a new city, moving from an older, inner ring, blue collar suburb in one city to a three year old housing development on the very edge of our new city, with twice the square footage of house and lot. Shortly after moving, my wife and I were walking in the neighborhood, and she asked me, “did we sell out?”

It is questions like these that Eula Biss explores in this new collection of essays under similar circumstances. If you are familiar with her earlier writings, she lived something of a hand-to-mouth existence at one time. Now she and her husband hold a teaching positions, she at a major university where she earns $20,000 more than her husband at another school, for doing the same work. She has won various literary words and the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship–a grant affording her the support to write instead of teach. And they have moved out of their apartment and purchased their first house.

In the course of buying furniture, repairing a chimney, purchasing a gravy boat for their first Thanksgiving, and watching her son buy a valuable Pokemon card only to give it away to a lonely child, she asks questions about capitalism, consumption, work, class, and more. She wrestles with discussions she has with her institution’s investment counsellor who pushes her to invest in stocks that will create her a nice nest egg in years to come.

Many of the essays recur to one of these themes. For example, she asks a number of different economists and others about the meaning of capitalism. As you might expect, the answers are all over the map. She explores the questions of the place of art in a culture, even as she describes purchasing a membership at the Art Institute of Chicago. She wrestles with the fact that she now pays people to care for her children and to clean her house. She goes on literary excurses through the lives of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and Karl Marx and the people around them who enabled their writing lives.

One of the recurring themes is work. What constitutes good work? What distinguishes work, labor, and toil? How ought she feel about the grant coming from capitalist successes that make it possible for her not to work to pursue the writing she loves, that she admits at one point is her play. She explores the phenomenon of people who reach a certain level of success who feel the need to keep up the appearance of working when they really don’t want to.

The challenge I had reading this work was whether this was commendable self-reflection on the ways we are implicated in the capitalist system, or was rather the condemnable self-indulgence of one privileged enough to have the time and means to ask these questions. Other reviewers of this book have reached both of these conclusions.

At first I was inclined to the latter conclusion, until I remembered the questions we asked back in 1990. It seems to me that the greater danger to our souls would have been not to ask the questions, to simply conclude that we had worked hard and deserved what we (and the bank) owned. But it was hardly that simple. The home represented the help of family in a variety of ways and the support of friends. It was a combination of both unearned privileges and our own efforts. The greater danger, it seems to me would have been unreflective self-satisfaction. To know oneself blessed carries with it the responsibility of using that well for the common good.

I think of the work that brought me to this city, work that, with some differences, I am still engaged in. I think it would have been interesting for Biss to explore the nature of vocation or calling. Under the rubric of work, what she describes is a calling as a writer. She touches on this when she describes the greater satisfaction of janitorial staff in a hospital when they see themselves as caring for patients. Callings go beyond what we earn money doing. How fortunate when we are compensated at whatever amount for pursuing them! Biss, herself, knows both sides–of having to work to pursue an unremunerative calling, and to have achieved success in that pursuit. I sense the struggle with this as a guilty pleasure. I wonder if gratitude is a better response, and avoiding any presumptions that it will last.

And now it is 32 years later in the same house. It’s funny how things change. For many, our neighborhood is “starter” homes as the suburbs have extended further out from the city. I wonder what some of the young couples pushing strollers are thinking? Eula Biss makes me reflect anew on what I ought think. Her honesty about money (she names amounts) invites me to a similar kind of honesty about an area we often don’t like to talk about and how all of us are implicated in the economic system of our country.

Review: A Little Devil in America

A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib. New York: Random House, 2021.

Summary: A celebration of Black performance and its significance for Blacks in America.

Just over a year ago, I read a couple of Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays in an anthology of Columbus writers. Little did I realize how much I would encounter this Columbus writer’s name in the next year, culminating in his recent award of a MacArthur Fellowship (a five year, $625,000 grant) and this week’s award of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction by the American Library Association for A Little Devil in America. He was born and grew up in the same city we moved to thirty-one years ago. If nothing else, it’s exciting to see an Ohio author from Columbus do so well!

This is an extraordinary book. It’s major subject is a survey of black performance in many genres from dance to magic to music. The title is drawn from a statement by Josephine Baker, who by 1963 had danced across the stages of the world. Speaking at the March on Washington, she proclaimed, “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too. The statement speaks of the passionate, celebratory, and resistant character of Black performance.

Abdurraqib takes us through this history with chapters reflected well-researched descriptions of performers from the dance marathons of the ’20’s and the 30’s through to Don Cornelius’s Soul Train and how in Black neighborhoods across the land, young men and women danced, desired and sometimes found and sometimes lost love. In later chapters, he projects that forward to the clubs and masses of bodies moving together to the music.

Then there is Aretha. He looks back from her funeral to the film Amazing Grace and the short distance “between soul music and music of the soul.” One of the most riveting stories is that of Merry Clayton, who recorded the background vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, even while very pregnant. The intensity in which she sings the words “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away” is something I never heard before reading Abdurraqib. I had to go back and listen to music I knew from my teens. I had never paid attention to what an extraordinary singer she was. Abdurraqib chronicles her efforts to move from the background to a solo career that never took off. But he also draws us into that moment, the third time she repeats the word “murder” in a “voice cracking howl”–no longer just fear, but anger, and even glee.

He takes us through the rivalry between Joe Tex and James Brown, the inability of Whitney Houston to dance and how Beyonce, a supporting act to Coldplay steals the show and owns the Super Bowl and makes a powerful Black power statement remembering the Black Panthers. Then there is the incomparable Michael Jackson, and Abdurraqib’s own miserable attempt to “moonwalk.”

He moves between the famous and the marginalized. We learn of Ellen Armstrong, a black female magician, and William Henry Lane, who out-danced the white performer John Diamond. Lane, under the stage name, Master Juba, wore blackface, perhaps a subtle or not so subtle criticism. He reflects on the actor Don Shirley, and the movie he wishes could be made where no Black suffers, where they simply live. He remembers fellow Columbus native Buster Douglas’s stunning defeat of Mike Tyson twenty-eight days after his mother’s death–and how he could see the change in the eyes of a man who no longer feared.

Abdurraqib dedicates the book to Josephine Baker and the book’s central chapter focuses on her extraordinary dancing career–the vaudeville performer who flees to France, first entertaining Black servicemen in World War I and then making it her performing home, and using her talent and celebrity to act as a spy in World War II. Abdurraqib reflects on his own departure and return to Columbus as he traces Baker’s return to the U. S. Each section begins with “On Times I Have Forced Myself to Dance,” most of which reflect Abdurraqib’s poetry slam experience, having the feel of spoken word performance.

He moves seamlessly between profiles of performers and his varied life experiences. He reveals the kind of Black performance that goes on every day, whether in a game of spades or “beef” and the thin line that often runs between love and hate, closeness and violence, and the possibility that it could all end, as it had with so many friends. The book captures the range of emotion from exuberant joy to rage, from soulful hope to the gritty resistance that runs through both Black performance and Black life in America. There is the apprehension of the sweetness of life and love, made all the more so because it can be snuffed out in a moment and that “no job can stop a bullet.”

Review: Notes from No Man’s Land

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.

Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.

In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.

She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.

Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.

The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”

Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”

Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.

Review: Absence of Mind

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Summary: The text of Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, challenging “parascientific” explanations reducing the mind to nothing more than the physical brain.

The idea of the mind has been under assault from those who would contend our “minds” are nothing more than the physical processes making up the extensive neural network of our brains. In this collection of four essays, the text of Marilynne Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, she challenges this notion. She does not oppose the work of neuroscientists, but rather those like Daniel Dennett, who in the garb of science, make metaphysical conclusions about the existence of the mind, or rather the absence of such apart from the physical substrate of the brain. She calls this “parascience,” an intellectual argument operating alongside and apart from real scientific research.

Her first essay “On Human Nature” notes the modern assumption of a threshold, before which explanations of human nature were benighted, compared to the enlightened explanations of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett, who “explain away” the mind and traditional religion.

“The Strange History of Altruism” challenges the assumption that evolutionary forces protecting gene pools explain altruistic behavior and the disregard of counterfactual evidence.

The third essay, “The Freudian Self,” takes on the suspicion of the mind in Freud, that the mind is not to be trusted due to subconscious processes. She looks at the intellectual milieu surrounding Freud and how this shaped his ideas.

The final essay, “Thinking Again,” celebrates our sense of self-awareness, that mechanistic explanations dismiss. She writes in introducing her discussion:

“Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as an argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently” (p. 110).

Each of these essays are densely argued, invoking the various shapers of the modern mind, challenging the “authorities” who reduce mind to materialistic explanations.

Essentially, Robinson is saying, “not so fast.” At the same time, her argument also has a bit of a feel of a “mind of the gaps,” the mind not yet explained by physical processes. I would not want to see another version of the evolution-creation battle of the last 150 years in the field of neuroscience. Might there be an approach of humility, of genuine listening that refuses to dismiss both the powerful experience of our self-awareness, our consciousness, and the powerful advances of neuroscience in understanding the physical substrates of many of our “mental experiences”? Physical explanations of other phenomena have only increased for believing persons their joy in the Creator. Could not more holistic physical explanations of the mind also increase our wonder, even as we understand how that wonder is wired into us?

Robinson challenges the reductionistic materialism of parascience. I would also want her to speak against the denials of real advances in scientific understanding. I hope we can develop both a robust materiality and a robust spirituality, neither of which are at war with the other. Perhaps what we need is a sequel to these lectures titled “Presence of Mind,” for it seems that this is what we require in the present time.

Review: In the Shadow of King Saul

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities.

Jerome Charyn may be one of America’s most prolific writers, with over fifty books in fifty years. Michael Chabon has called him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” I only recently became acquainted with him when I reviewed Sergeant Salinger, a novel based on the World War 2 experiences of J. D. Salinger.

This collection of essays, second in Bellevue Literary Press’s “The Art of the Essay” series is a collection of ten essays by Charyn from 1978 to 2005, plus an introductory essay, “Silence and Song” that both traces his life as a writers and explains the selection of essays under his rubric of silence and song. We learn about his childhood in a poor and rough neighborhood in the Bronx, his discovery of his love of words, studies at Columbia, and the beginnings of his writing career.

“The Sadness of Saul” is in some ways the archetype for other essays in this collection. Saul reflects the contrast of silence to David’s songs. Charyn finds Saul of greater interest, a tragic figure who did not want to be king, who lacked a voice. Charyn believes writing begins in the silences.

He offers a fascinating account of the history of Ellis Island, the power brokers in the Bronx neighborhoods of his youth in “Haunch Paunch and Jowl” and the meaning of the “Faces on the Wall” in the rise of modern cinema. Most significant are the authors about which he writes–Saul Bellow, Anzia Yezierska, and a lengthy mini-biography of Isaac Babel. The last two essays are more personal, focused around his mother, “the dark lady from Belorusse,” the inattention of her husband and the letters from her brother in Mogilev that sustained her, and her angst when war interrupted them.

It strikes me that this is a book for New Yorkers and followers of Charyn. Some essays had the feeling of “inside baseball” that those familiar with his context, or the writers of whom he writes, would find fascinating. For me, they suggested that some of these places and people might be worth knowing more of. A few of the essays, on Saul, on Josh Gibson, the Negro league star who sank into insanity, and the forgotten life of Louise Brooks, all of them “silent figures,” were of greater interest.

This is part of a series on the art of the essay. The artfulness of Charyn is to awaken our interest in times and places and people outside our awareness. He is able to connect experiences we have in common, or even the essence of what it means for us to be human, our aspirations and longings, our hopes and despairs, our silences and our songs with the stories on these pages.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Fall 2021 Book Preview — Fiction and Non-fiction

I don’t only read academic theology. I enjoy history, essays, discussions of current affairs, and of course, good fiction. All of that has arrived at my door in the last months. Many are new books published this year, but mixed in are also some older titles, mainly from authors I’ve discovered I liked.

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Recently, I reviewed Swimming to the Top of the Tide. The publisher included a bonus book in their mailing, this collection of essays by the author of Sergeant Salinger, which I had reviewed this spring. I’m intrigued with what he will say in his essay on Saul, a biblical character I happen to have been studying of late.

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University of Press, 2011. I love Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and essays, and this was a collection I had not read, found while browsing Thriftbooks. Turned out I was able to use a free book credit! What fun. She writes about the relation of science and religion and the new atheism in this collection.

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009. I recently read this author’s Immunity and decided to pick up some of her other essays including this collection on race in America, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020. This is a more recent collection, examining middle class ethics.

After the Apocalypse, Andrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021. Argues for a different approach to U.S. foreign policy based on moral pragmatism and mutual coexistence with war as a last resort.

Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. I’ve discovered Erik Larson’s books and I’m looking forward to this one on the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial murderer!

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021. Just received this with LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The book is a tech thriller with a human element of love and friendship written by a former Silicon Valley management consultant.

Abundance Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021. This is a collection of essays on conservationist efforts in the face of biodiversity loss.

The Power of Us, Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer. New York: Little, Brown, Spark, 2021. Builds on the idea that the groups we are part of shape identity and can enhance performance, cooperation and social harmony.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Menand is an intellectual historian whose Metaphysical Club was one of my great reads several summers ago. This one is on the art and thought trends that arose during the Cold War.

Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020. The Vikings enter into the history of peoples from the Asian Steppes to North America. This birthday gift gives me a chance to read a history of these people who keep barging into so many others stories!

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. I thought All The Light We Cannot See was one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade. The writing voice I so appreciated in that work is here, but in a story occurring in three distinct times–as you can tell, I’m already into this book.

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021. Towles is another novelist I’ve discovered in the past year, enjoying both of his deep dives into Jazz Age New York and a Russian hotel. This one is a cross-country flight to New York of several young fugitives on the title highway.

Along the way, I will be mixing in mysteries from Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh and others. And what’s with the essays? Best I can figure is that blog posts are a version of essay, and I enjoy seeing how those who do it so well practice their craft–as well as the ideas they explore. Maybe this list will suggest some Christmas gift ideas–or not! At least you will know what not to buy me for Christmas if you are family! Whatever the case, you can look forward to hearing more about these books in the months ahead!

Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.