The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

bright hour

Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

option b

So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!

Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker

life's work

This is a modest but monumental work by one of my newest heroes, Dr. Willie Parker.  Dr. Parker was born and raised in the South, by his single, very poor black mother who instilled in him a strong value system, prioritizing family, love and God above all else.  He managed to find additional role models and mentors who encouraged him to climb to heights even he never imagined he’d achieve, cultivating his thirst for understanding science, even in the face of his religious fervor.  He found his calling in the field of medicine and further in the speciality of OB/GYN and practiced in many areas of the country, ultimately ending up in a beautiful area of Hawaii.  While he did find himself advocating for women in some areas, his religious convictions still held him back from performing abortions.  He was not against referring his patients to others to perform them, but he himself felt he could not do them.

Then he suddenly found the way to reconciling this within himself.  He suddenly recognized that, just as the Good Samaritan in the Bible helped the injured traveler out of concern about what would happen to the traveler (ignoring what would happen to himself), that he, Dr. Parker, should also be concerned with what would happen to his patients if he did not do abortions and not what would happen to him (or how he would be judged).  Taking this further, Dr. Parker saw in this a moral, – no a religious! – imperative to carry out his patients’ wishes, whether they be to carry a pregnancy to term or to terminate that pregnancy.  Furthermore, denying patients the choice of what to do with their bodies, denying them access to safe, healthy choices, denying them the right to choose to continue their educations or their jobs or whatever they needed to do without interruption to have a baby – he realized, went against everything his religion and God stood for.  Really, the “anti’s” as he calls them, had it backwards.

He is extremely articulate about a lot of the arguments that the anti’s give about why abortion might be perceived as being wrong – and they’re all mostly devious.  They are mostly about controlling women, and usually about controlling women of color and/or who are poor.  Women, and particularly women in the south and the midwest, now have such minimal access to safe, healthy abortions,  and it is being chipped away –  mostly by white men – day after day after day.  It is merely a power play.

Dr. Parker is one of those rare brave souls who do perform abortions in the south, making safe, healthy procedures available to those who need them.  Thank God for Dr. Parker.

In sum, here is a gorgeously articulated argument for all of you who feel that just because you are religious, you cannot support abortion.  On the contrary, if you are religious – in this light, you are morally obligated to honor the choice and the freedom of the already living, as Dr. Parker does.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

hillbilly elegy

This memoir from JD Vance is an eye-opening, articulate depiction of the “hillbilly” culture of the Appalachian region.  As Vance shares with the reader about his upbringing – bouncing between Kentucky and Ohio – he opens our hearts to the plight of the poor, often uneducated, white population in this region.  As we learn about his experience with his traumatized and drug-addicted mom and his angry, foul-mouthed, sometimes violent, but unendingly loving and devoted grandparents, we see how entrenched the culture is and how difficult it is to dream in this world.  Fortunately, for him, he was able to find love and support enough to find his way to success – but his journey was complicated and chaotic and he never forgot from where he came.

The honesty and self-reflection with which this story is told brings the reader right into the author’s life.  We are right there with him when his mother takes him on a death-defying car ride.  We are right there when his older sister cares for him as a devoted mother would.  The love and appreciation that he feels for his grandparents who were his constants in a very tumultuous childhood is palpable.  And we can understand when he reflects on how to improve the lot of his fellow hillbilly peers and come up short.  The poverty, the distrust, and the violence that pervades this culture are so entrenched that it feels impossible to overcome.

I think this is an important book for people who are not from the South to read.  It really provides an understanding of a whole sub-culture of people that comprise  part of the fabric of our United States.

A very, very worthwhile read!

 

An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David

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This is a difficult book to write about, probably because I am still trying to digest it all for myself, let alone try to share it with anyone else.  The friendship that is chronicled in this book is that which existed for many years between Ruth Dayan, wife of Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.  Although they were each related to men who were enemies, they themselves were able to strike a bond of friendship and respect because of their common goals and common ideals.  They each believed in the inherent good in all people and that peace could be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis if they were just brought together and allowed to live side by side.  Each worked relentlessly to try to bring this dream into a reality, Ruth by working directly with Palestinian women (helping them to earn money through their weaving) and Raymonda through the media.

What became difficult about this book is the details, which were, as the history of Israel is, quite bloody and controversial.  While I have always been aware of Israel’s displacement of Arabs from their homes during the formative years of the state, this book provides the gory details and describes it in real, human terms.  It is, to say the least disturbing.  It did truly open my eyes to some of Israel’s darkest moments.  On the other hand, I cannot help feeling as though there are some details that are not included, such as the fact that after the U.N. declaration of a 2-state situation in 1948, the Israelis were willing to abide by this but the Arabs were not.  And terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the root of it, and the only true way to solve a problem is to negotiate it through.  The story, as it is written, portrays Palestinians as the underdogs and I think the bias in the writing is a fault in the book.  It is so clearly slanted to the left that in the writing of the story of these 2 very brave women, the author actually alienates readers – and probably the very readers he wants to sway.

The book does highlight how the female perspective on the situation is often different from the male one.  Ruth and Raymonda were able to disagree about many things, but they always found common ground and started back from this.  Their priority was always to fall back onto humanism and love.  I firmly believe that if women were in charge, we’d be able to reconcile a solution to the Middle East and find a way to make peace.  I think leaving out testosterone and “honor” would do the world a service.

I definitely learned a lot about the history of Israel, the complexity of the political quagmire that remains there, but also how one can spin events in many ways to work to one’s purpose.  I think too much of the latter was done in this book and this may have caused what I understood to be the “mission” of this book to backfire.

 

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

all who go

In the tiny, ultra-Hassidic (Skverer) community of New Square, author Shulem Deen dared to question his religious practices and belief in God. Born in Brooklyn to a different sect of Hassidism, he chose this community because of his impression that it was welcoming and that it espoused the spiritual essence he was searching for.  He studied in the yeshivah there and in time was married off to a girl he’d met only once before his wedding.  He tried to make a life for himself, studying, working (or trying to, in spite of the minimal secular education he was provided), and even fathering children.  But his doubts began to niggle at him as did his curiosity about the outside world (of which he knew almost nothing).

This is not the best-written or the most gripping story, but it is very human and very heartfelt.  More importantly, it also gives the reader an insider’s view into this terribly insular ghetto.  More than almost any other sect of Judaism, this group of people consider any exposure to the outside/modern world (television, newspapers, etc.) a doorway to sin.  There is no such thing as discussion or debate, unless it is related to the study of Torah.  Anyone who questions the Rebbe — the ultimate leader believed, in a sense, to hold a direct line to God — is one who must be punished and abolished from their midst.  And this is the ultimate fate of Shulem.

Sadly, this is another example of how religious extremism promotes hatred, intolerance, and cruelty toward anyone who is perceived as different.  Poor Shulem was just another victim of this.

 

 

 

Me Talk Pretty One Day (migrated from Bookblogger)

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Fun book!  When my family asked me what this book was about, I had to answer, “Nothing, really.”  It is sort of the Seinfeld of books…  David Sedaris, in his sardonic, laugh-out-loud style, describes vignettes from his childhood, his experiences living in Paris, and his various work experiences.  While he is sometimes outrageous in his tone, he describes some scenarios that any reader can relate to and in that he draws the reader in and thoroughly entertains.

In short, it’s hard not to have a great time reading this book!