Sainted sight

Edits
A recent arrangement, partly from the yard.

This, then: the vast and strange beauty of the world and all the living things in it.

Trees have families and can recognize their children by their roots. One in twelve men are color blind. The production of almonds consumes 10% of the state of California’s water supply each year. Emily Dickinson was buried in a white coffin with a Lady’s Slipper orchid. Japanese macaques bathe together in naturally occurring hot springs and throw snowballs at each other for fun.

O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men — to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us — with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb

We went to North Carolina this past weekend, taking a fast-paced tour of siblings, parents, and grandparents, and it was a pleasure to feel that rush of nostalgia for the state. In Chapel Hill, we walked through the arboretum and saw the tree where we got engaged and the church where we met and were married. As we drove, we remarked on the landscape and architecture and felt that it was a little foreign to us, now that we have lived for seven years in Virginia. But it’s not really that different. We just like to think that it is.

Problems I enjoy: Too many books to read. Too many plants to plant. Too many German shepherds in the kitchen.

Best nonfiction I read in 2016

The best nonfiction I read in the past year.

1. Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson

Brilliant. What, I wonder, must it be like to have Anne Carson’s mind? What does she think about while eating breakfast or tying her shoelaces? Perhaps eros and every shade of its meaning from Sappho to the present. This perfect little book of criticism seems to be just skimming the surface of Carson’s genius. It is a sublimely measured and controlled product of literary theory, exploring why and how eros has been a motivating force for poets and writers, and an important book for all writers and readers.

2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman

A gorgeously written and riveting portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and the Western doctors who are trying to save their child. Fadiman’s skill lies in her ability to create a tremendous sense of sympathy for both sides: the anxious and independent Lee family trying to help their daughter amid a culture they don’t understand (or trust) with a language they do not speak versus the smart, hard-working American doctors who are continually frustrated by the cultural barriers to delivering effective care. It ought to be required reading for health professionals (and probably often is), but it’s also a heart-opening look into the Hmong people in the United States, the myths we hold dear about Western medicine and indigenous medicine, and the challenge of trying to understand someone whose worldview is entirely separate from your own.

3. The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon

An utter delight. Lady Shonagon is the Heian era (circa 1000 AD!) predecessor to Lydia Davis. I devoured this beautiful book of poetry, court gossip, fragments, and little stories. It is moving and strange and eerily modern.

4. The Journals of John Cheever

What a perfect writer; what a tormented human. His journals read beautifully and show themselves to be intended for publication (which they were, and which fact lessens that stinging feeling of voyeurism you get from reading dead people’s diaries). The journals present a stirring and often heartbreaking window into his life and his demons: alcoholism, a lifelong and covert wrestling with homosexual desire, and his tireless ambition to be great, to be remembered. The entries are undated, except for the year, which creates an odd but pleasant sense of seamlessness. He is always harder on himself than he is on other people (even with his frequently desired/despised wife, Mary), and there is a touching humility and brokenness that marks these pages.

The Argonauts

5. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers so much ground (love, pregnancy, childbirth, queer family identity, death, feminism, conformity, space) in so few pages. I felt hooked by her prose, and I am looking forward to reading more from her. She has a poet’s enviable precision.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

6. The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon

I am not a cook and may never be very interested in making food, but if anything could bring me close to that aim, it is this book. How delightfully bizarre and dramatic and wonderful. I really love the funny, florid styling of American men writing in the 1960s; for all their inherent sexism, there is something about their (à la James Salter, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, by turns) elaborate delight in the world and the expansive adornment of sentences that charms me. Capon is eminently charming and a great joy to read — even if you have no interest in making lamb stew or in its sacramental analogs.

7. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer

An impressively incisive and concise history of America’s involvement in Iraq under the George W. Bush administration. With his characteristic mix of deep research and excellent interviews, George Packer presents all the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. I feel grateful for it as a history lesson, as I was relatively too young to understand all of the intricacies of the war while it was happening (and yet some could argue it is still happening). Particularly, I came away with a better understanding of how murky this war was to begin with and how it did not cleanly divide people along party lines. George Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.

The Souls of Black Folk

8. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

Powerful and chastening, considering how many challenges still lie ahead of Americans with regard to racial equality. The battle is not over. Du Bois’s style is moving and affecting, occasionally flowery, but his mix of history/policy recounting and personal anecdotes is very effective.

What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy

9. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Robin DiAngelo

Particularly after this devastating election season, this thoughtful and wise book should be required reading for all white-identifying Americans. What tremendous progress could be made if we could authentically and humbly reckon with all of the ways that we support the system of white supremacy in our country — and then work to dismantle it, following the lead of people of color.

Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family

10. Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter provides the much-needed, hard-hitting response to Lean In — one that is, notably, grounded in reality. Sheryl Sandberg’s call to women to be ambitious in the office was respectable, but 99% of American women aren’t going to become Silicon Valley billionaires, and “leaning in” doesn’t actually do anything to change the miserably biased, inflexible conditions that the vast majority of working mothers find themselves in. Slaughter is calling for a social overhaul, not a capitulation to the patriarchal corporate order. Unfinished Business is grim — and it further makes me doubt my ability or desire to have children, recognizing again and again how deeply penalized working mothers are — but it is necessary. This is also a book that I’ll call required required reading for all American mothers and all CEOs.

 

Honorable Mentions

  1. Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick
  2. Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner
  3. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos
  4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  5. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  6. Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey
  7. Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante
  8. Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  9. Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck
  10. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
  11. The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
  12. The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney
  13. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
  14. Basin and Range, John McPhee
  15. The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, James Wood
  16. The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich
  17. On Writing, Eudora Welty
  18. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag
  19. The Fire This Time, ed. Jesmyn Ward

Favorite books from June

The best books I read in June:

H is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. Stop everything and go read this book. It entranced me completely. Macdonald is a masterful writer, and she held me in her spell for the entirety of this gorgeously written book — part grief memoir, part goshawk guide, part meditation on the beauty and mortality of the natural world.

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian Proust! It is everything everyone says it is (magnificent, breathtaking, compelling, mystifying). I read it on the plane to and from Iceland, and it made that sum total of 12 hours in air feel like a beautiful passing minute.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon. To a skeptical, literature-loving, doubt-filled Christian like myself, the pleasures of reading Capon are vast. This book brightened my own weak conception of my faith and what matters about it in the end.

Mislaid

Mislaid, Nell Zink. Bizarre and impeccably told. The New Yorker  profile on Nell Zink made me intensely curious about her, and I devoured this novel, her most recent, with great fervor. The frequent references to the University of Virginia and the Virginia countryside, in which I reside, were also delightful.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. I’ve always found American history interesting, and this is a particularly interesting history textbook. Steven Mintz covers the movements within American childhood (and parenting) from the Puritans to Columbine High School. It’s extremely fascinating. We’ve come a long way, regarding children, and we’ve changed our collective minds about them over and over again.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the third time I’ve read AK, and it never fails to please and delight. Read for my church book club. I love the way that this novel, after centuries, still has the power to enchant and enrage readers (our book club was divided strongly into pro- and anti-Anna camps). I think it’s an immortal work of art.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum. I’ll probably still have kids, Mom, but it was intensely interesting to read a variety of perspectives on why people choose not to have them. I read this book in a sitting, with great focus, on my deck. It was only after I’d finished that I looked up and thought, The only reason I was able to read this book in one breathless sitting is precisely because I do not have children.  So there’s that. The women’s perspectives, naturally, were more resonant with me on a theoretical level, but the three men’s essays were the funniest and most lighthearted on the topic (probably because men, biologically and culturally, can be more laissez-faire about childrearing).

Austerlitz

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. I’m not sure if I really get  German literature, but this was beautiful and unusual, even if the prose was murky and dark at times. The photographs were so fascinating to me.

What did you read in June? Any recommendations?