Mid-week Wisdom

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Book report: The power of the book

51WSWSDYnKLThe People of the Book

Australian archivist Hannah Heath has come to Sarajevo to investigate and conserve a priceless text, an illustrated haggadah. The small book relates the story of the exodus from Egypt and is a common part of the ritual at a Passover Seder.

“…The hagaddah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

This particular hagaddah is special because of its detailed illustrations. It has been sought by warring factions and preserved at great risk by individuals over centuries of conflict. But who made this unique book and why? How far has it traveled and by what means? What stories can be told through the analysis of inks, parchment, and butterfly wings? Through stains of blood, wine and salt? The reader is transported to every place and time that the book has traveled. The surprising stories of each person connected to the book–its creation and its rescue over centuries—make for a compelling read.

“A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

Geraldine Brooks’ research of this hagaddah also resulted in a 2007 article in The New Yorker. So yes, this is fiction, but VERY historical fiction. In fact the story of the Jewish girl protected by a Muslim family is true as are other characters Brooks employs to tell this story. There were and are good and heroic people of all faiths, just as there were and are monsters and murderers.

Because the audio-book was available through my library and the book-book was not, I listened to this book. While Brook’s writing alone is rich and evocative, the vivid voices and accents provided by narrator Edwina Wren worked well to place the me in the scenes. Brava!

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.”

Trust me, this is a good, profound book illustrating man’s historic cruelty to and mistrust of anyone perceived as “other.” However, the very survival of the Sarajevo Hagaddah also demonstrates that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lived and worked together without fear and hate. Indeed, our shared humanity can and must outweigh the ideologies that divide us. Recommend.

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Author Geraldine Brooks

Book review: A matter of life and death

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If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?

Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.

Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child?  Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.

Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”

“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs.  I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.

 

Finding forgiveness in our damaged little hearts

I come from a long line of optimists. My great-grandfather was a card-carrying utopian-socialist. (I have his card.) His daughter, my grandmother, was a Christian Scientist. My other grandmother believed in Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.” You see, the art and habit of re-framing obstacles and looking on the bright side are in my DNA. Couple that with a rather Ozzie and Harriet childhood in the fifties and sixties, and you get relentlesAnne Lamottsly (doggedly, stubbornly) optimistic me.

Author Anne Lamott’s life and lineage were different (read: dysfunctional, self-destructive, a little crazy) and everything about her reflects that. Even so, she attempts to find grace no matter what life throws at her. Like most of us, she fails sometimes. This collection of essays demonstrates her struggle armed with her faith and intelligence as well as her sometimes dark and self-effacing humor. She is also that rarest of creatures (if we are to believe the media) a flaming liberal and a churchgoing, Jesus-loving Christian. Oh, and she swears a bit, too.

Small Victories starts with a critique of the Bible, saying what’s missing is a “Book of Welcome.” Come in, come in! It should say. God loves you! In her opinion, there’s way too much judgment and not enough hugs. Not nearly enough unconditional love, acceptance, and yes, forgiveness.

This collection also deals with grief. A lot. It seems someone is always dying. Family, friends, a beloved old dog. Life’s like that. To cope, Lamott takes long walks in the woods, prays, and attends church. She marches in peace rallies. She remains sober, binges on M&Ms, and tries online dating. She does all this while attempting to make her injured, angry little human heart forgive the people who have hurt or disappointed her. A few relatives and ex-Presidents are on her list. She reminds herself that if she–as imperfect as she is–is precious to God, then others–as imperfect as they obviously are–must be precious as well. Good stuff.

A few quotes:

“Forgiveness is the hardest work we do.”

“They say we are punished not for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive.” 

“I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Several members of my precious extended family–who run the gamut of religious and political persuasions, bless their hearts–agreed to read this as the first book in an online cousins’ book club. I think it was a good choice.

What should we read next?