Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Yep, Gilead as in Balm in Gilead and as in all kinds of biblical references. So, why am I reading a book that oozes Christian scriptures from its pores? Because one of my dear friends who is revitalizing her Jewish roots recommended it to me – during our phone call when we were chuckling about my Chanukah wishes to her (in April when all of her other friends were wishing her good Passover!). So, after we talked about what I was doing for Christmas – (after all what is the point of friends if not to 1) accept you as you are; 2) join in with your absurdity and celebrate it as if it were the best thing since hot butter on popcorn!) So … anyway, after all that she said she was reading Gilead, and thought it was great.  And, I totally agree with her.

Gilead is fiction that read like autobiography, sort of. The book is written as a series of letters by Reverend John Ames to his very young son. The Reverend has just been diagnosed with angina, and does not expect to live much longer. His son is about seven and the Reverend is afraid he will have no memories of his father. So, the letters are the Reverends effort to share his life and to create a reservoir of memories for his son. 

The first half of the book complies the Reverend’s recollections of his own early life – adventures with his father and grandfather; slavery and abolition; war and pacificism; and his first love – their marriage, the birth of his first child, the death of his first wife and child. Then the letters shift to memories of meeting his Lila, the Reverend’s current wife and the mother of his son. There are wonderful sweet observations of the son by the father. The tenderness and love are a joy to read. And, there is the Reverend’s struggle with forgiveness as the son of his best friend returns to town after years of absence.

And, there are quotable lines. The book is rich with quotes you will want to remember and paraphrase … I am confident that I will find a great blessing [lesson] in this. … The full soul loathes a honey comb, but the starving soul relishes even the bitter things. … Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. The book is rich with phrases and sentences like this.

The author, Marilynne Summers Robinson (1943) is an American novelist and essayist.

So, give Gilead a read. I did find it a balm as I move ever closer to retirement and find myself thinking about my own mortality. I would love to hear about your favorite quotes from the book if you give it a look?

Marilynne Robinson. 2004. Gilead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York


Another Mother Tongue by Judy Grahn

I must have read Another Mother Tongue shortly after it was published in 1984. If I am writing about it now in 2012, some 28 years later, you KNOW it is an important and powerful book in my life. 

Another Mother Tongue is categorized as history and gay & lesbian studies. It is that, but it reads like a poetic novel. It certainly relates the history of lesbians and gay men across history, as much as that history – so doggedly and diligently erased and denied – can be pieced together from shards, fragments, fables and myths. The book is also Grahn’s coming out story, her life, her loves, her struggles and triumphs. For a young lesbian in the 80’s – before Ellen Degeneres, before K.D. Lang, before the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, before the L Word, roll models were few and far between.  There were Gertrude stein and Billy Jean King (well, maybe there was Billy Jean) and Martina Navratalova. This was the era when asking someone if they liked Holly Near music was code for asking if that person was a lesbian – but you had to know someone to tell you the password! Judy did that for us in this book. That and so much more! Grahn found our history and our culture and she celebrated it with joy and angst and passion and flair. She invites us to sashay down the lavender trail as we come out of the closet. She celebrates fairies, fags, butches, dykes and amazons. This may not be a book for everyone, but if you are feeling sad and alone, pick it up, give it a read. You will be neither as sad nor as lonely by the time you put it down.

 The author, Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940, in Chicago, Illinois. She is a pioneering lesbian feminist poet, writer, and social theorist. Her bio ( notes that she currently serves as Associate Core Faculty for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, in their Women’s Spirituality Master’s Program.  She is former director of Women’s Spirituality MA and Creative Inquiry MFA programs at New College of California, from which she resigned in July of 2007. She holds an earned Ph.D. in Integral Studies with an Emphasis in Women’s Spirituality from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

So, give Grahn a read, check out Another Mother Tongue for sure, and check out her poetry as well. “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” in Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, will break your heart even as you laugh till you cry – it is an evocative rejection of the detritus of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ even demands respect for the dignity of the most basic human right to love.

I think it was June Jordan who once said that Judy Grahn’s poetry and writing saved lives. I surely agree! What about you?

Judy Grahn 1984  Another Mother Tongue. Beacon Press: Boston, MA

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key solidly qualifies as one of those books that will haunt you. I finished reading it a day or so ago, and I find that I keep wondering, keep thinking about Sarah, her choices, her decisions, her acts, what was done to her, what she survived, and what she did not survive.

At the beginning of the book Sarah Starzynski is 10 years old. Her parents migrated from Poland to France before Sarah was born. She and her brother Michel were born in Paris. The Starzynski family is Jewish in 1942, all of this is a very dangerous combination.

In July 1942 all of the Jewish people in Paris and in much of France were arrested by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv rounded up. The Jewish families in Paris knew that something was coming, but didn’t know what. They believed that the men were going to be taken to work camps, so the many of the men were in hiding. When the police came to the Starzynski’s door, that night Sara believed that it was just some trouble that would soon be over. The police told them to pack a bag and prepare to go, her brother who was 4 years old and still deeply asleep, refused to go.  The police had not yet seen him – he was still in bed. Sarah hid him in their secret hiding place – a hidden closet in their bedroom – and locked him in. She and her mother were then taken away by the police. In the court yard, at the sound of the mother’s screams, the father came out from hiding and joined his wife and daughter. Sarah quietly told her father about Michel’s hiding place, but they could not get back to the apartment. And Sarah and her parents are taken away first to holding areas and then to the camps, even while Michel remained locked in his hiding place.

In 2002 as the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up approaches Julia Jarmond, an American expat journalist living in Paris with her French husband and their daughter, is assigned the writing of a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv, an assignment that draws her into the life of Sarah and the discovery that her husband’s family moved into Sarah’s family’s apartment just after the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. Julia eventually uncovers the great secret of her in-law’s family. Young Sarah did escape from the one of the holding camps and with the help of a farm family who hid and adopted her, made her way back to Paris and the apartment. By that time the Tezacs family has already moved into the apartment. Young Eduard, Julia’s father-in-law to be, opened the door to Sarah after her escape from the camp as she tried to return to Michel. He witnessed her efforts to open the hiding place and the aftermath. The story follows Julia as she searches to discover and understand the truths of Sarah’s life.

None of this convey’s the richness, the engaging telling of the stories of the lives of Sarah and Julia. It is an engaging book. It will make you think. It will make you feel. You should read it!

If you have read it, what parts of the book stayed with you the most?

If you have not yet read it, what seems the most intriguing to you?

Tatiana de Rosnay 2007 Sarah’s Key. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

The language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers is an engaging, haunting book. Be forewarned, once you pick it up, you will NOT want to put it down. The book is about Victoria Jones, who is just 18 when we meet her. She is aging out of the foster care system, a system that has not cared well for her. (The book carries a powerful, evocative message for social workers, and all who would do good, about the unintended consequences of well meaning but misplaced help.)

Victoria is clearly a wounded and angry child/young woman.  If the right to love is a basic human right, Victoria’s right has been egregiously violated, her dignity as a human being has been ignored. Or has it?  The story follows Victoria as an 18 year old struggling to make a life, struggling to deal with a powerfully painful secret, even as Victoria remembers her days as a young child. The child Victoria hid in silence, and communicated with the world through the Victorian era language of flowers.  The young adult Victoria struggles to find her voice, even as she hides in the back of a florist shop arranging flowers.

Within  the book we meet Renata who owns a florist shop and hires the 18 year old Victoria to help in arranging flowers. Renata sees the pain and the potential in Victoria. It is in Renata’s shop that Victoria’s gift in using flowers to help others realize their dreams comes to full bloom.  We also meet Elizabeth and Grant, each of whom plays a significant role in Victoria’s past and future – but I will not write spoilers here.  Each of these characters plays a transformative role in Victoria’s life.

This is a book about the search for forgiveness, about the yearning for happiness and love.  It is sad and lovely and quite wonderful as it hints at the possibilities and the limitations of hope.

The author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, was born in 1978. She was a writing teacher, and with her husband was, and is a foster parent.  I have read that she was inspired to write “The language of Flowers” as she witnessed the struggles of youth who are transitioning out of foster care.  She is the founder of the Camellia Network, whose mission is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. The Camellia network emphasizes a belief in the interconnectedness of humanity (not unlike the African principle of ubutu, which can be translated as ‘I am because you are’). The Camellia network reminds us that our destiny is in the hands of our youngest citizens.  You can read more about the network at

Do you know anyone who reminds you of Victoria? or who Victoria reminds you of?

Do you have any ideas on how the child welfare system could be more respectful of the dignity of the children it was created to protect? (there’s a small question!)

Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  2011. The Language of Flowers. Ballantine books: New York.

Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I just finished listening to the audio book of Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. What a great book!  It is set in Seattle, and told in the voice of Henry, a Chinese American man. The book moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986.

In 1942 Henry was 12 years old, and his father, a very conservative and traditional immigrant from China, had just sent Henry to an all white prep school. Life is not sweet for Henry when we first meet him in the book. He is taunted by the other Chinese kids for being too white, and bullied by the white kids for being Chinese. And then another Asian student is enrolled in the prep school. Keiko is Japanese American. She and Henry are both ‘scholarshiping’ at the prep school, and so they meet in the cafeteria where they work serving lunches and doing clean up. They bond as they clean erasers and put classrooms back in order after school. And then in another part of the world there is the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry.  We witness the effects of the relocation through Henry’s eyes as he loses his best friend who he comes to realize is so much more than his best friend.

In 1986 Henry is in his 50’s and his wife, Ethel, has just died. Henry is grieving, and trying to find balance and the path for his life as a widower. He is trying to deepen his relationship with his son who is about to graduate from college. And, he keeps remembering and thinking about Keiko. Early in the book, the Panama Hotel, a hotel in the Japanese area of Seattle, has been purchased after being boarded up since the war years. In the process of renovation, boxes that had been stored in the basement of the Hotel by Japanese American who were being relocated are discovered, evoking even stronger memories for Henry. The opening of the hotel opens Henry’s heart, opens his relationship with his son, and …. well, I’m not going to give the rest away.

This is a GREAT read. Not a perfect read, but who cares. Nothing is perfect. It is a book that will keep you engaged. It will teach you a bit about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. And it will warm the cockles of your heart. That’s quite a lot for a book!

When did you first learn about the Japanese internment? What did you know about it?

How close do you think we have come at other moments to similar actions against other groups within the United State?

Jamie Ford. 2009. Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ballantine  Books: New York.

Ishmael An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

So, I have to confess I owned the book Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit for a while. It sat on my shelf. I looked at it, thought it was a book that I ‘should’ read. Picked it up a few times, put it down. And it sat there. Then one day I picked it up, sat down and started to read it — I was looking for something a bit different. And different it is! It took me a few pages, but, once I got hooked, hooked I was, and I think you will be too.

The author, Daniel Quinn was born in Nebraska in 1935. He spent some time as postulant in the Trappist monastery in Bardstown, KY where Thomas Merton was his spiritual director. Together, Quinn and Merton decided that the cloistered religious life was not for Quinn, and so Quinn left the postulancy for publishing. Eventually Quinn became a freelance writer. In 1977 he began work on Ishmael, which was eventually published as a novel in 1992.

Ishmael is a gorilla. Ishmael is also a teacher. His subject is captivity. The book follows the lectures shared by Ishmael with the narrator as he holds forth on the ‘takers’ and the ‘leavers’, the costs of agriculture, about human supremacy.  Ishmael relates an intriguing reworking of the story of Adam, Eve and Cain and Able to the narrator suggesting that the forbidden fruit was the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die – and the hubris to make such decisions – this rather than the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, Ishmael highlights the need for humanity to cherish and cultivate wisdom.

The book speaks to the importance of sustainability.

Yes, it is essentially a monologue by Ishmael the gorilla. But it is also so much more than that!

On page 4 of the book is the add Ishmael managed to place in a newspaper: “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

The world is still in need of those willing to respond to Ishmael’s call.  If you have an earnest desire to save the world, find a copy of this book and read it. I promise you will be engaged within a few pages.

Sustainabiltiy is a very large issue! Quinn frames it as a conflict between an orientation that seeks to master and control the earth; and a more interdependent collaborative orientation.  What are your thoughts about the ‘proper’ relationship between people and planet? between humans and other living beings?

Daniel Quinn. 1992. Ishmael An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam Books: New York.

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance by Dorothee Soelle

First impressions matter. And so I thought for more than a minute about which should be the first book that I would write about here. I asked myself, the classic: if I were going to be stranded on an island and could have only one book, which would it be? Hmm … too hard. If I could have only a very few books, which would be first in the pile? Still hard, but I’m pretty sure, it would be Dorothee Soelle’s “The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance”

This is not an easy reading book. But, I would say it is definitely worth the effort of learning a few new words, and it is absolutely worth the time to pause and ponder some new/different ideas. When I was in college I had a dear friend – Joe Gosse – who told me that the books that were the most important in his life, he would read only a few lines (at the most a page) a day. He said that gave him the time and space to really think about and to digest what the book has to say to him. Maybe “The Silent Cry” is that kind of book.

Dorothee Soelle (1929 – 2003) was a German liberation theologian.  In a biography of Soelle, Renate Wind describes her as a religious provocateur. I like that descriptor – a religious provocateur! In reading her books, I experience her as a feminist and maybe as a spiritual guide. She certainly was quite brilliant, and her words, thoughts and ideas in “Silent Cry” light a path to a more socially just world.

The opening epigram is a poem fragment, a question, from Rumi: Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?

Ah, yes. Why indeed. In this book, Soelle does her best to wake us up to the love, to the mysticism that can – and should – found religion and that can inspire work for social justice.  Mystics, she tells us, proclaim a message about compassion and justice – a message about the meaning, purpose and place of love in creation and in relationship.

The Greek word for reading means to have renewed cognition, to re-cognize!

As I read this book, I found myself inspired to write

Listen in the thundering silence

Hear the silent cry

The wind sweeps across my being

Echoing in the aching vacuum

You once filled with your grace

The grace of your light.

It’s just that kind of book!

Soelle asserts that we are all mystics. She talks about ecstasy and invites us all along on the journey as she explores the places of mystical experience: nature, eroticism, suffering, community, and joy! She carefully and evocatively explores mysticism as resistance considering aspects of life as if we lived in a liberated world; ego and ego-lessness; possession and possessionlessness; violence and nonviolence; concluding with reflections on a mysticism of liberation.

A few of my favorite words & ideas from the book: revolutionary patience; attentiveness; the conduct of life as a sacrament; compassion; panerotic power; stages of the journey: be amazed, let go, resist; to live sunder warumbe – without a why or a wherefore. Sunder warumbe! That is a phrase that has resonated with me since I first read the book. It reminds me of the zen ‘wu wei – doing without doing, natural action. So many of the ideas within this book are evocative, they evoke other thoughts and ideas as you read. This book is a luxurious invitation to love and liberation. Ah – this is a book I am going to re-read! Today.

Mysticism, activism and social justice? what’s your experience? how much of the same cloth do you find them to be?

Dorothee Soelle. 2001. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Augsburg Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN