How Not to Be Afraid (of Everything): Gareth Higgins and Jane Wong
I’ve done a couple of other dual review posts this year (and I have another planned for Friday) where the books’ titles are so similar that I couldn’t resist discussing them together, even if the books themselves were extremely different. First I featured two books called Ex Libris; later I reviewed The Still Point with The Still Point of the Turning World. This time I have two 2021 releases: How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins’s self-help/theology book about resisting despair and living in faith; and Chinese American poet Jane Wong’s collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which draws on her family history. Together the titles seemed like a perfect antidote to R.I.P. (more coming up for that on Halloween!).
How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins
I saw Higgins at the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in April, after which I promptly ordered all the speakers’ books; I’m still reading the other three. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the waning days of the Troubles and has been involved in peacemaking projects as well as in artistic expressions of progressive Christianity such as Wild Goose Festival, which he co-founded, and The Porch, an online magazine he edits. Fear was ingrained in him from his upbringing and reinforced by the bullying he experienced over his sexuality. He writes that it took him decades to learn that fear is a story, one often based on false assumptions about our powerlessness, and that we can change the story.
There’s a psychological/self-help bent to the book as Higgins invites readers, through the exercises at the end of each chapter, to ponder what myths about the true self and its possibilities are limiting their lives. The “seven” of the subtitle actually refers to seven main types of fear, each addressed in turn, such as “fear of having done something that can’t be fixed,” “fear of not having enough,” and “fear of a meaningless life.” There’s a good mix of memoir, theory, anecdotes and therapy speak (though it’s never jargon-y), and while the perspective is Christian, the content is not so religious as to turn off anyone – unless they’re dead set against faith. Many passages hit me right in the solar plexus and made me long to work out how my life can be bigger and part of telling a better story. Particularly recommended to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr. (New purchase)
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong
Wong is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. The centerpiece of her second collection is “When You Died,” a 20-page epic about her grandparents’ experience during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a 1950s–60s Maoist campaign of agricultural reform that led to severe famine. Her grandfather survived it and her mother was born at the tail end of it. Wong was born to immigrant parents in New Jersey and the atmosphere and imagery she uses to describe her living situation there reminded me of Qian Julie Wang’s in her memoir Beautiful Country.
Foodstuffs provide the figurative palette, with decay never far behind. I most enjoyed the multi-part poem “The Frontier” (“The frontier arranges itself / around me like a moat. / The frontier drops fruit / upon my head. I break open, / hot cantaloupe in winter. / I wobble around, spilling fruit / everywhere. All day, fruit flies / pay their respects.”) and “The Cactus,” about her spiky self-preservation instincts. This is the theme of the title poem as well:
How to not punch everyone in the face.
How to not protect everyone’s eyes from
my own punch. I have been practicing
my punch for years, loosening my limbs.
My jaw unhinged creates a felony I refuse
to go to court for.
There are many unusual metaphors and word choices, and a lot of the alliteration I love. Opening poem “Mad” is playfully set up like a Mad Libs game with all the key words as blanks. But at the same time, there are loads of prose poems – never my favourite thing to come across in a collection – and some long ones that I kept getting lost in.
Released by Alice James Books on the 12th. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the free e-copy for review.
My Best Backlist Reads of 2020
Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago. These 29 selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 4.5- and 5-star ratings of the year. Five rereads made it onto my list.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working, and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was utterly rewarding.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: In 1665, with the Derbyshire village of Eyam in the grip of the Plague, the drastic decision is made to quarantine it. Frustration with the pastor’s ineffectuality attracts people to religious extremism. Anna’s intimate first-person narration and the historical recreation are faultless, and there are so many passages that feel apt.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin. Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? This is a book full of nostalgia and small-town atmosphere. All the characters wonder whether they’ve made the right decisions or gotten stuck. A lot of bittersweet moments, but also comic ones.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: A perfect time-travel novel for readers who quail at science fiction. Dana, an African American writer in Los Angeles, is dropped into early-nineteenth-century Maryland. This was such an absorbing read, with first-person narration that makes you feel you’re right there alongside Dana on her perilous travels.
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Ana Canción is just 15 when she arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic on the first day of 1965 to start her new life as the wife of Juan Ruiz. An arranged marriage and arriving in a country not knowing a word of the language: this is a valuable immigration story that stands out for its plucky and confiding narrator.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: A book of letters in multiple sense. Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition = a rare combination that made this an enduring favorite. On my reread I was more struck by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Interlocking stories that span half a century in the lives of a couple of Chippewa families that sprawl out from a North Dakota reservation. Looking for love, looking for work. Getting lucky, getting even. Their problems are the stuff of human nature and contemporary life. I adored the descriptions of characters and of nature.
Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale: Nonlinear chapters give snapshots of the life of a bipolar artist and her interactions with her husband and children. Their Quakerism sets up a calm and compassionate atmosphere, but also allows family secrets to proliferate. The novel questions patterns of inheritance and the possibility of happiness.
Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach: When Ella’s parents, East German art historians who came under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect, their children were taken away from them. Decades later, Ella is determined to find her missing brother and learn what really happened to her mother. Eye-opening and emotionally involving.
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend July at his school friend’s home, Brandham Hall. You know from the famous first line on that this juxtaposes past and present. It’s masterfully done: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They’re both lonely and prone to fretting about what they could have done better. Would he like to come over to her house at night to talk and sleep? Matter-of-fact prose, delivered without speech marks, belies a deep undercurrent of emotion. Understated, bittersweet, realistic. Perfect.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud: A 9/11 novel. The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up; now it’s time to get out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassess what is admirable and who is expendable. This was thoroughly engrossing. Great American Novel territory, for sure.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki: A Japanese-American filmmaker is tasked with finding all-American families and capturing their daily lives – and best meat recipes. There is a clear message here about cheapness and commodification, but Ozeki filters it through the wrenching stories of two women with fertility problems. Bold if at times discomforting.
Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields: An impeccable novella, it brings its many elements to a satisfying conclusion and previews the author’s enduring themes. Something of a sly academic comedy à la David Lodge, it’s laced with Shields’s quiet wisdom on marriage, parenting, the writer’s vocation, and the difficulty of ever fully understanding another life.
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields: The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story; Larry is really all of us.
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout: Tyler Caskey is a widowed pastor whose five-year-old daughter has gone mute and started acting up. As usual, Strout’s characters are painfully real, flawed people, often struggling with damaging obsessions. She tenderly probes the dark places of the community and its minister’s doubts, but finds the light shining through.
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer: On the way to Finland, where her genius writer husband will accept the prestigious Helsinki Prize, Joan finally decides to leave him. Alternating between the trip and earlier in their marriage, this is deceptively thoughtful with a juicy twist. Joan’s narration is witty and the point about the greater value attributed to men’s work is still valid.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster: Approaching age 64, the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories: scars, accidents and near-misses, what his hands felt and his eyes observed. The use of the second person draws readers in. I particularly enjoyed the tour through the 21 places he’s lived. One of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read.
Heat by Bill Buford: Buford was an unpaid intern at Mario Batali’s famous New York City restaurant, Babbo. In between behind-the-scenes looks at frantic sessions of food prep, Buford traces Batali’s culinary pedigree through Italy and London. Exactly what I want from food writing: interesting trivia, quick pace, humor, and mouthwatering descriptions.
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins: Collins moved to Hay-on-Wye with his wife and toddler son, hoping to make a life there. As he edited the manuscript of his first book, he started working for Richard Booth, the eccentric bookseller who crowned himself King of Hay. Warm, funny, and nostalgic. An enduring favorite of mine.
A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee: From a life spent watching birds, Dee weaves a mesh of memories and recent experiences, meditations and allusions. He moves from one June to the next and from Shetland to Zambia. The most powerful chapter is about watching peregrines at Bristol’s famous bridge – where he also, as a teen, saw a man commit suicide.
The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange: While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delves into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group – from the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall. An intricate interdisciplinary approach.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott: There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. A college dropout and addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until her early thirties. Each essay is perfectly constructed, countering everyday angst with a fumbling faith.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This has my deepest admiration for how it prioritizes voice, theme and scene, gleefully does away with chronology and (not directly relevant) backstory, and engages with history, critical theory and the tropes of folk tales to interrogate her experience of same-sex domestic violence. (Second-person narration again!)
Period Piece by Gwen Raverat: Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This is a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place (Cambridge from the 1880s to about 1909). Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, it is a funny and impressively thorough memoir that serves as a model for how to capture childhood.
The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr: I’d read two of the Franciscan priest’s previous books but was really blown away by the wisdom in this one. The argument in a nutshell is that Western individualism has perverted the good news of Jesus, which is renewal for everything and everyone. A real gamechanger. My copy is littered with Post-it flags.
First Time Ever: A Memoir by Peggy Seeger: The octogenarian folk singer and activist has packed in enough adventure and experience for multiple lifetimes, and in some respects has literally lived two: one in America and one in England; one with Ewan MacColl and one with a female partner. Her writing is punchy and impressionistic. She’s my new hero.
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas: A memoir in essays about her husband’s TBI and what kept her going. Unassuming and heart on sleeve, Thomas wrote one of the most beautiful books out there about loss and memory. It is one of the first memoirs I remember reading; it made a big impression the first time, but I loved it even more on a reread.
On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe: Explores the fragmentary history of the manmade Neolithic mound and various attempts to excavate it, but ultimately concludes we will never understand how and why it was made. A flawless integration of personal and wider history, as well as a profound engagement with questions of human striving and hubris.
(Books not pictured were read digitally, or have already gone back to the library.)
And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Winter Journal by Paul Auster.
What were your best backlist reads this year?
Book Serendipity, April‒Early July
I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually around 20), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. The following are in rough chronological order. (January to March appeared in this post.)
- Characters named Sonny in Pew by Catherine Lacey, My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis, and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain.
- A double dose via Greenery via Tim Dee – while reading it I was also reading Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuinness, whom he visits in Belgium; and A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop, referenced in a footnote.
- A red thread is worn as a bracelet for its emotional or spiritual significance in The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd and Plan B by Anne Lamott.
- The Library of Alexandria features in Footprints by David Farrier and The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd.
- The Artist’s Way is mentioned in At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison and Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.
- Characters sleep in a church in Pew by Catherine Lacey and Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout. (And both novels have characters named Hilda.)
- Coins being flung away among some trees in In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill and The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (literally the biblical 30 pieces of silver in the Kidd, which is then used as a metaphor in the Hill).
- Rabbit-breeding projects in When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
- Mentions of the Great Barrier Reef in When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray and Footprints by David Farrier.
- The same very specific fact – that Seamus Heaney’s last words, in a text to his wife, were “Noli timere” – was mentioned in Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell and Greenery by Tim Dee.
- Klondike ice cream bars appeared in both Small Victories by Anne Lamott and The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg.
- The metaphor of a rising flood only the parent or the child will survive is used in both Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and What We Carry by Maya Lang.
- The necessity of turning right to save oneself in a concentration camp setting is mentioned in both Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
- An English child is raised in North Africa in Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.
- The Bristol Stool Chart appeared in both Gulp by Mary Roach and The Bad Doctor by Ian Williams.
- A Greek island setting in both Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (plus, earlier, in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson).
- Both Writers & Lovers by Lily King and Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle mention Talking Heads within the first 20 pages.
- A trip to North Berwick in the early pages of Mother: A Memoir by Nicholas Royle, and hunting for cowrie shells on the beach – so familiar from Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, read the previous month. (Later, more collecting of cowrie shells in Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively.)
- Children’s authors are main characters in The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.
- A character is killed by a lightning strike in The Crow Road by Iain Banks and Writers & Lovers by Lily King.
- Characters named Ash in The Crow Road by Iain Banks and The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg.
- A brother steals the main character’s object of affection in The Crow Road by Iain Banks and Sacred Country by Rose Tremain.
- A minor character in Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler is called Richard Rohr … meanwhile, I was reading a book by Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ.
- A maternity ward setting in The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue and The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting.
- A love triangle is a central element in Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting.
- Reading a book by a Galloway (The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway) and a book about Galloway (Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie) simultaneously.
- Attending college in L.A. in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.
- Two books that reference the same Darwin quote: Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian, and “The Entangled Bank” is the title of the final poem in Red Gloves by Rebecca Watts.
- Characters with the surname Savage in The Box Garden by Carol Shields and Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain.
- A character is taught how to eat oysters in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.
- A Louisiana setting in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Property by Valerie Martin.
- Characters named Stella in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and The Group by Lara Feigel.
- The last line of the book has a character saying “Come in” in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen.
- Currently reading four books with mixed-race narrators: (Black/white) The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey; and (Japanese/white) My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.
- Currently reading two novels in which a pair of orphaned sisters are taken in by relatives (Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau and Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen). Plus two more novels with orphan characters: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and My Year of Meats.
- In two of these four (not telling which, though you can safely assume it’s not the Victorian novel!), they are orphans because both parents were killed in a car accident. I feel like this is a fictional setup that I encounter all the time (cf. All the Beautiful Girls, The Monsters of Templeton, Saint Maybe) that can’t be that common in real life?
- Vassar as an alma mater in Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and The Group by Mary McCarthy.
- Punahou School (Honolulu, Hawaii) is the author’s alma mater in The Noonday Demon by Kathleen Norris and Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
Nonfiction Review Books Roundup: Hay, Hope et al., Lee, Long, McLaren, Zuckerman
I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Books that (Should Have) Literally Changed My Life
(Following on from my posts Landmark Books from My Early Life and Landmark Books in My Life, Part II.)
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)
Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.
After I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.
McLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.
Any number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.
Reading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).
James Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.
Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.
The fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)
There’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.
I frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.”