Reading Round-Up: May 2018

Usually I wait until after the end of the month to post these, just in case I can squeeze one last book in under the line. There’s no way that’s happening this time; I’ve been making my way through Helen Hooven Santmyer‘s massive … And Ladies of the Club in the latter half of May (and yes, the ellipses are part of the title; I wasn’t just trying to build anticipation there) and I am nowhere close to finishing. And I do mean massive: I’m just over 900 pages in — but that still means another ~500 to go. Clocking in at 600,000 words, this beast of a novel is longer than The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, besides the big slowdown for … And Ladies of the Club, this was a bit of a bumper month for me. We went away for a week and so I got some beach reading in (ok, well, beach house reading, anyway), and I haven’t been crocheting much lately which has freed up my eyes and hands for other things. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Client (John Grisham)
  2. Sestets: Poems (Charles Wright)
  3. So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  5. Revival (Stephen King)
  6. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  7. The Partner (John Grisham)
  8. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Bruce Handy)
  9. Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey)
  10. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
  11. Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
  12. Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church (Lynn K. Wilder)
  13. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For the most part, this was an enjoyable month. There were two big disappointments: Sestets: Poems by Charles Wright, and Stephen King’s Revival. As far as the Wright is concerned, I found the poems very dull on the whole, and often obscure in that way that feels like obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I don’t mind reading obscure poetry — I don’t always know what Seamus Heaney is talking about, but I love Seamus Heaney — but it has to have some other attractive quality. This didn’t. The other big disappointment was Revival. I tend to enjoy Stephen King, and Revival sucked me right in — I couldn’t figure out where it was going. And then I got the end and found out: it was going somewhere dumb. The ride along the way was great, but the ending was completely preposterous. I ended up leaving that one at the beach house since I’ll never bother reading it again.

The big highlight for me this month was Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, which I picked up on impulse while looking for something else in the 800 section. What an informative, amusing, and deeply appreciative book! I love children’s literature, and Wild Things was a joy and a pleasure to read. Best of all, it spurred me to read a couple of kids’ books that had been languishing on my shelves: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, by Trenton Lee Stewart (an excellent sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society); Henry Huggins, the story of a boy, his friends, and his dog, by the inimitable Beverly Cleary; and the classic A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

On the adult fiction side of things, The Client and The Partner were two solid offerings by John Grisham; I’ve read a few clunkers of his (The Litigators comes to mind — I couldn’t even finish that one), but the ones that are good are really good and these two were no exception. For me, Grisham is perfect summer reading.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields was an impulse read; I realised that I hadn’t brought quite enough books to the beach house with me, and so chose it from one of the shelves there. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Shields before, in a CanLit class in university, but hadn’t encountered this particular novel. It follows the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth on the Canadian prairie to her death as an old woman in Florida. I found it very moving and it made me want to do a lot better at keeping up with my own journaling.

Little Bee was the other novel I read in May. I won’t say much about it — indeed, its cover copy enjoins me not to ruin the surprise. But it was an engrossing, beautifully crafted, gutting read — you’ll just have to find out why for yourselves. (Seriously. This is one to pick up.) I’ll be reading more Chris Cleave books in the future.

Finally, two books of memoir/theology, the first of which was Sarah Bessey‘s Jesus Feminist. I actually had picked up Jesus Feminist back in March or April — I forget which — but ended up putting it down so that I could finish Winston Graham’s Poldark series (sorry, Sarah). I think it must have been April. So my reading of Jesus Feminist was a little scattered and I had some trouble picking up the threads when I determined to get it out of my to-read pile this month. But I liked it; I don’t agree with all of her theological positions (or resonate with a lot of her experiences) but it was a thoughtful and well-written book that I can see being pretty helpful to people, especially women who have been wounded by the church (in ways that I personally haven’t been, but others certainly have). Don’t let the F word in the title throw you off too much.

Finally we come to Lynn K. Wilder‘s Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church. I’ve recently started to get to know a Mormon mom in my neighbourhood — we meet up at the playground from time to time — and I wanted to learn more about the LDS Church. This was a great resource and a compelling read. I’ve also picked up her slimmer Seven Reasons We Left Mormonism which is more theological and less memoir-y — that one will have to wait until June, though.

So You Want to Talk About Race was already treated in its own post.

And that’s it for May! Tune in next month to see if I manage to finish … And Ladies of the Club in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time!

Learning to talk about race and privilege

This book was approximately 0% enjoyable, but I am still glad that I read it.

Over the past year or two I’ve been engaged in an informal, personal reading project on the theme of “try to understand America” — you know, since I live here and all. So I have been reading books about America, on and off, and more and more of my reading has come to centre around that great big issue of race. I don’t keep any sort of reading plan for this project, but I do keep an eye out for books that look like they would help me further my understanding, particularly in regards to the American racial divide. A few months ago So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo came up as a promoted book on my county library’s website, and so I added my name to its long hold list and waited for it to show up.

Its cover copy calls it “An actionable exploration of today’s racial landscape, offering straightforward clarity that readers of all races need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.” I would say that’s accurate. It’s also a hard and uncomfortable read, as should probably be expected. I had to take a lot of breaks to think about things. But though there are a lot of areas where Oluo and I disagree (for example, I will never support Planned Parenthood, for anything, ever), I appreciate her perspective and the explanations she offers. So much of the commentary around racial issues — on either side of the divide — is so very reactionary that it can be hard to figure out what is a real position and what is a strawman and what is something in between. Oluo answers questions about things like what people actually mean when they talk about “systemic” racism, and what being told to “check your privilege” is actually asking you to do, and the question (that I think a lot of us struggle with) of “what if I talk about race wrong?”. It is a gift to be able to encounter these questions and their answers outside of the heated environment of immediate debate, allowing for time to digest and consider on the way. Her examples were very clear and helped me to understand some new things.

Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help is when it’s in our workplace, our government, or homes, and ourselves. (7)

What I found most personally helpful was Oluo’s discussion of privilege. She defines it, quite simply, as “an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not” (59). These areas of privilege often rest on things outside our control, like our skin colour or the nation we’re born in or the relative affluence that our parents enjoy(ed). And being privileged in one area doesn’t mean being privileged in all areas — consider, for example, someone who grew up wealthy (privileged) but also has a physical disability (unprivileged). Most of us will have some areas where we are privileged and some where we are not — that’s perfectly normal. So then what’s the point of examining our privilege? Is it so that we can feel guilty? Should we be apologizing for areas of privilege — which, again, are mostly outside of our control anyway? Not so; nor should asking someone to “check their privilege” be used as a method of shutting down a conversation.

Rather, it’s asking us to be aware of how the advantages we may have had can leave us blind to others’ struggles. It’s asking us to be aware that where we’ve ended up in life is not only due to our own hard work and merit, and that others might work just as hard and be just as meritorious but still end up in a worse position because they started several steps behind. And it’s also an opportunity, to identify “those areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. […] When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change” (65).

This is a lot like what Andy Crouch talks about towards the end of Culture Making: spending our cultural power alongside of / on behalf of those who have none. So checking our privilege — or examining our cultural power, to use Crouch’s term — is a chance to ask ourselves not only where we may have gotten a head start in life, but how we can use that to advocate for others. Examples:

  • I was born and raised in a stable, wealthy, democratic country. What can I do on behalf of refugees? What can I do on behalf of those who are still living in war-torn or impoverished countries?
  • I grew up in a stable home and my parents have been married to each other for all of my life. How do I care for the widow and the orphan? How can I support single mothers? How can I advocate for children in foster care?
  • I grew up in a home that valued learning. I received a good public education and went on to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. How can I work against barriers to education?  How should I vote when it comes to things like public school funding? How can I support teachers and students? How can I help ensure access to the scholarships and bursaries that paid for so much of my own education?
  • I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never been homeless. What can I do on behalf of the poor? How can I address food insecurity in my neighbourhood or county? If the city wants to build a homeless shelter or halfway house in my neighbourhood, will I publicly voice my support?
  • My skin is white, which means that I have been able to largely ignore a lot of racial “stuff” over the years. When people of colour tell me how their experiences are different than mine, do I listen? When I hear a racist joke or prejudicial remark, am I willing to say something? Am I willing to confront my own racial biases?

As Oluo writes, “Every day you are given opportunities to make the world better, by making yourself a little uncomfortable and asking, ‘who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?'” (69). None of us are going to be working towards all of these things at the same time. But if we are willing to examine our advantages, and to create the habit of looking out for those who are less advantaged, we can be working towards more of those things, more of the time. And that’s probably a really good thing. I don’t think we need to feel guilty for the various privileges that we’ve enjoyed — but we shouldn’t feel complacent, either. As a Christian I believe that we are called to use our blessings to bless others. And though Ijeoma Oluo is an atheist, I think we can certainly agree on that.