The White Mosque
Sofia Samatar has crafted an unusual memoir based on the true story of Swiss-German Mennonites of the late nineteenth century who traveled to central Asia (contemporary Uzbekistan), there to await the Second Coming. Although disappointed when Christ did not appear on schedule, they remained and built a whitewashed church the locals called the white mosque.
Samatar joined a group of Mennonites on a tour to learn about this history and subsequent visitors, including Langston Hughes. I’m just beginning this read, but it’s fascinating.
The Lending Library
If your small town’s library closed for renovation, would you spend your own money to open a lending library in your sunroom for the book-hungry? That’s the premise of this novel by Aliza Fogelson.
Dodie, who is an art teacher as well as an avid reader, decides she can do this both for her students and for the adults of the town. The other threads of the novel include her love life, her desire to be a mother and thoughts of adopting as a single parent, and her issues with her father, who abandoned his wife and three young daughters. She also struggles with her feelings of failure after an art show of her work was panned. It’s a promising first novel and a nice light read.
Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O'Connell's Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People
To be honest, I wouldn’t have picked this book up, except for two things: I’m reading in April, which in my system is the month for reading 300s, and Tracy Kidder, who wrote the book. I’ve read some of Mr. Kidders’ other work, which is journalism at its finest.
In this book he traces the work of a Boston doctor who has spent decades helping the homeless, who are known as rough sleepers. Kidder spent five years following Dr. Jim and his colleagues as they do what they can for those who are unhoused.
It’s given me some insight into the issues around homelessness and some compassion (I hope) for the people I see with cardboard signs proclaiming their need for help. I commend this book to you.
Roderick Alleyn Mysteries
Most public libraries stock and circulate more mysteries than books of any other genre. (Romance is second, if you were wondering.) I think this is in part because, as the Lunch Lady says, Justice is served. In a world where it sometimes seems injustice triumphs, there is refuge in a good mystery.
I’m partial to cozies and also to series. In addition, I like the mysteries of the classical twentieth century women writers. Right now I’m rereading all the Ngaio Marsh series with Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Several of them are set in the theatre, Marsh’s other world. If you need an escape, Marsh is a good choice. With 34 books, you can live in her created world for awhile!
A new book by Pico Iyer is a great cause for joy. Known as a travel journalist, Iyer is one of my favorite authors; he and Malcolm Gladwell have similar minds, I think, but Iyer goes deep into memoir. This book recounts his travels in search of Paradise—the idea if not the place.
He travels to places most of us will never see: Iran, North Korea, Japan, the Himalayas, India. Iyer has companioned and learned from the Dalai Lama in Japan, where the writer lives. Iyer also spends time annually at a Benedictine monastery in California; he’s written about that elsewhere. He was born into a Hindu family in Great Britain, where he was educated. Iyer is a world traveler—and his writing is gorgeous.
Vanessa Zoltan is Jewish and a chaplain, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and an atheist who wants to pray. Her atheism is the result of both sets of grandparents having lived through the Holocaust; they survived, but their faith didn’t.
While at Harvard for her MDiv, Zoltan began reading Jane Eyre, one of her favorite novels, as a text to pray with, as some of us might pray with Psalms.
She begins with an author’s note, an introduction, and a spiritual autobiography before beginning eleven chapters on Jane Eyre. Those three prefatory sections are well worth reading. She concludes with a chapter each for Little Women, Harry Potter, and The Great Gatsby.
Caveat: If you love Jane Eyre, you will be challenged in your interpretations. This book is filled with close reading, way beyond pleasure reading or classroom analysis. I felt as though I went “out on the end of a very whippy branch” as one of my professors described a colleague's work during seminary. It is not a difficult, academic read, but it could well change how you read.
J.B. West was Chief Usher at the White House, where he was employed for nearly 30 years. This memoir, published in 1973, covers the Roosevelts through the early days of the Nixon administration.
It is not gossipy or salacious, but it does drop names and give great stories and insights about the First Ladies.
Each woman put her own stamp on the furnishings and artwork, as well as the entertaining, of the “President’s House.”
This was a thoroughly enjoyable book, despite rather poor quality black-and-white photographs. I wish only that West had stayed longer and written about successive First Ladies.
Author Kate Bowler, who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer at 35, has lived with the disease for several years. Married, with a young son, a faculty member at Duke Divinity School, she tells her story. Along the way she thinks theologically about pain and suffering, and skewers the way we sometimes talk to people who are sick or grieving.
The irony of it all: a Quaker, she was studying and writing about the “prosperity gospel” when she became ill.
If you think you don’t have the time or bravery to read it all, at least look at Appendix I: Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times, a Short List. (Just eight cringe-worthy items we’ve said or heard.) The book was a Goodreads Choice and a New York Times bestseller, if that matters to you.
My Life, My Love, My Legacy
Coretta Scott King wrote this biography with the help of a friend, Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who had begun taking notes on their conversations long before the two became serious about the work. This was a review for me, as well as a source of insights.
Much of Dr. King’s work occurred before or during my self-absorbed adolescence, when current events were not a high priority for me. I had no idea Mrs. King had been so involved in the work and carried it forward; the King Center was her vision. She gives her side of the story, which in many cases she’d kept quiet about, striving for unity and Beloved Community. In many cases, however, the male leaders of the movement dismissed her efforts and/or were envious of what she could accomplish. I came away with a new appreciation for the sacrifices the entire King family offered.
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let me recommend Jennifer Crusie, who, as I’ve probably mentioned, is my go-to for contemporary romance writing. I have trouble choosing a favorite novel, but Bet Me, The Cinderella Deal, and Faking It are in the top three.
Part of the fun for me is that Crusie grew up in Wapakoneta, attended Wright State and Ohio State, and taught in Beavercreek. She alludes to places I know—Yellow Springs and German Village and Victorian Village in Columbus. For snappy dialogues and great one-liners, Jenny is superb. For example, “[H]e couldn’t see Mark as the brains of a drug ring. Actually, he couldn’t see Mark as the brains of a Jello ring.” From Charlie All Night.
If you need something light-hearted, with a definite happy ending (and usually a dog in the plot somewhere), pick up a Crusie novel. Oh, and she's collaborated with Bob Mayer on several books if you want more action and murderous plots. (Bob brings his experience as a Green Beret to his writing.)
What I’m Reading
I began working in libraries as a seventh grader, courtesy of scoliosis. My orthopedic surgeon wrote me a pass to miss gym class, so I began working in the school library to feed my love of reading.
Even after my surgery to correct the curvature, I kept getting out of gym to work in my high school library and then in my college library (for pay, at last!).
So began my eventual career as a college reference librarian—after a detour into teaching high school English. Later I worked for an educational publisher before going back to libraries.
I have a reading and writing life now. I devour both fiction and nonfiction, and will tell you about some of my favorite reads, both old friends and new discoveries.
Here's some library-themed music to get you in the mood.