Category Archives: Books

Read This Now: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker


What would happen if a golem and a jinni (genie) found their way to turn-of-the-20th-century New York City? That’s the question at the heart of Helen Wecker’s lovely novel, The Golem and the Jinni.

I came across this book thanks to Glen Weldon of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast–a personal favorite. Like him, I like that Wecker doesn’t make an allegory out of these mythical characters, nor does she lapse into the haziness of magical realism (not that I object to that genre). The golem and the jinni just exist in this world, without a lot of dreary explanations as to how.

The book is lush and slow. I don’t mean that it’s boring. I mean that it’s quiet–it’s not one I want to take in large gulps. I want to skim it quickly because I’m curious what happens to these two creatures, but the world Wecker describes is so rich, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m in my first renewal cycle at the library and hope to finish it before I’m forced to turn it in.

Golems are beings formed from clay, created to be slaves, but the master of the golem in this story dies early on, so she finds herself trying to find her way on her own, aware that if her identity is discovered, she will be in great danger. Meanwhile, she hears the desires of everyone around her, and in the absence of a master, these yearnings claw at her constantly.

As for the jinni, he is sprung from a lamp early in the story, but has no recollection of how he got there or who bested him and imprisoned him in the first place.

It’s not a heavy handed book, but I did appreciate the wisdom in this exchange. Here the jinni is talking to the golem about the tinsmith who took him in and gave him a job:

The jinni sighed. “I’m less grateful to him than I should be. He’s a good and generous man, but I’m not accustomed to relying on someone else. It makes me feel weak.

“How is relying on others a weakness?”

“How can it be anything else? If for some reason Arbeely died tomorrow, I’d be forced to find another occupation. The event would be outside my control, yet I’d be at its mercy. Is that not weakness?”

“I suppose. But then, going by your standard, everyone is weak. So why call it a weakness, instead of just the way things are?”

We are not in control. And we are bound to one another, no?

What are you reading right now?


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Read This Now: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.11.38 PMBrené Brown certainly doesn’t need me to hawk her books–she is dizzyingly popular right now. But her latest book has been my favorite by far. It is Rising Strong and deals with how people come back from failure in a creative and healthy way.

In some ways, the book covers similar territory as her previous ones, especially Daring Greatly. There are a few basic themes that come up again and again in her research and writing:

  • Wholehearted people are able to face their dark places in their lives, because they know deep down that they are worthy of love and belonging.
  • Our power comes from living authentically, not from hiding our faults and flaws and hoping nobody notices.
  • We can’t numb the negative emotions without also numbing the positive ones.

Chapter Six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws, is funny and profound and is worth the price of the book in itself. In it Brown talks about her own tendency to judge others and stew in her own self-righteousness. She describes an encounter with a boorish roommate at a conference–a conference she didn’t even want to speak at in the first place, but felt guilted into saying yes to. (This is an important detail; more later.)

I’ve said many times that Brené Brown is the older sister I never had. I suspect a lot of us feel that way. Given how much this roommate raised MY hackles, and how cringingly funny Brené’s subsequent reactions were, it was clear this chapter could have been written for me. How dare she trash the couch in the hotel! And smoke in the non-smoking section! She might as well have titled the chapter “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws: Listen Up, MaryAnn.”

The roommate experience lands her in her therapist’s office, who asks her to consider a simple question: Are people basically doing the best they can? And her therapist admits that for her, the answer is yes: while we can always grow and improve as people, and we should, it’s possible that the boorish roommate is using the tools and resources she has to try and make her way in the world.

Brown is disgusted with the thought: how can wiping Cinnabon icing on a hotel couch be one’s best? (Preach it, sis!) And then she starts asking around, hoping to bolster her own view: Do you think everyone is doing the best they can? She begins to notice that everyone who thinks people aren’t doing their best are hard, unequivocal and judgy in their responses. By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:

They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.

Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.

In short, Brown realized that the people who were willing to extend grace (my language) to their fellow human beings–and to themselves–seemed happier, better adjusted and wholehearted. It almost didn’t matter whether people really were doing their best–treating them as if they were, deciding to view life that way, led to better outcomes. By contrast:

Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I’m not good enough. 

Now, Brown is clear that just because people may be doing their best doesn’t mean you must let them walk all over you. You need a combination of boundaries, integrity and generosity (what she calls living BIG) in order to deal with people whose “best” is in some way harmful to you. Remember when I said she was feeling resentful about having been guilted into doing this conference in the first place? She set herself up for the self-righteous loop she got stuck in by not practicing self-care, by not setting good boundaries.

This chapter spoke to me because like Brené Brown I’m a recovering perfectionist, and perfectionists are all about the Not Good Enough that then gets projected onto everyone else. But I’ve also been struck by how much this dynamic is reflected in how we treat one another these days, particularly online. Since reading this chapter, I’ve realized that virtually every snarky, vicious, graceless comment can be traced to this same self-righteousness.  I refuse to give the negativity a signal boost, but look for yourself.

It makes me wonder, are these Judgy Judgersons as pinched and self-righteous in real life, with their spouses and children and coworkers and aging parents, or have they found a convenient outlet for their negativity? After all, if all you have is a name and a thumbnail, you can project all kinds of evil intent on them.

The good news is, if self-righteousness can get you into a death spiral of “I’m not good enough, nobody’s good enough,” then whole-heartedness can get you into a “life spiral.” (I just made that term up.) But making a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt helps us treat ourselves more graciously, which then extends back to others, and on and on in a positive way.

I’m trying!

What do you think? Have you read the book?


Image is from Rising Strong.

Now Read This: Swim Ride Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath

Swim Ride Run BreatheI’ve been excited for a while about Jennifer Garrison Brownell’s book Swim Bike Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath. Jennifer is a member of that strange tribe many of us have: people we’ve known for years, but only online. As pastor/bloggers, we were both charter members of RevGalBlogPals, and she also was kind enough to visit some friends of mine who found themselves in the hospital out in Portland. I can always count on her for wit and wisdom wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase, and she provided abundantly in her book.

Triathlons have interested and scared me for years. As a recreational runner I have 33% of the puzzle, but the other two hurdles always seemed insurmountable. I get seasick in the pool–the POOL–without the right food in my stomach. And cycling? I have a heavy hybrid bike and a mental block about the intricacies of shifting. (Growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, gears were for recreational purposes only.) I admired my tri friends but never seriously considered joining their ranks.

Then I got injured, and biking and swimming became my only options. I am learning to make friends with my gear shift. And I can swim more than a mile without dizziness if I scarf down some good protein beforehand.

Meanwhile, Jennifer kindly sent me her book when it came out. I’d intended to contact her and beg for an advanced review copy and never got around to it. But of course, it came at the right time, when I’d just begun to think “Maybe I could do a triathlon.” But you don’t need to be interested in that event, or even any of the three sub-sports, to be drawn to this book. Because the book is about love and family; it’s about our beautiful finite bodies in all their strength and limitation; it’s about where we feel alive and where we feel fear, and the intersections between them.

Jennifer’s book has three interconnected threads:

  • a memoir of growing up, marrying a “seriously disabled man” (her words–Jeff has a form of muscular dystrophy), caring for him, and raising a son with him
  • a reflection on training for her first sprint triathlon–moving from someone who was never an athlete to taking on the training and mental conditioning required to prepare for a race
  • the experience of the triathlon itself.

Part of what’s neat about a triathlon is how different the three sports are. Jennifer exploits these differences by dividing her book into Swim, Ride and Run, weaving in pieces of her story that are connected to the skills required for each. Swim touches on the grace required to move with fluidity and let the water carry you. Ride explores the effort involved in keeping the up and down motion going no matter what–and what it means to coast sometimes. And Run is a practice of pure endurance–but also joy, because the finish line is in sight!

I dog-eared a lot of this book, which is a high compliment. I will often underline and star passages in books, but sometimes when a book feels especially precious to me, I can’t bring myself to sully it with a pen. This is one of those books.

Thank you for your words, Jennifer! And thanks in part to your story, I’m doing this on Mother’s Day.

Lessons on Life and Improv from The Martian


I just finished the audiobook of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’d been looking for a book I could listen to while doing home stuff in preparation for the move, and this fit the bill perfectly. It’s an exciting and fascinating story of an astronaut who accidentally gets stranded on Mars after a tragic accident. His crew evacuates the planet after presuming him dead. We see Mark Watney’s struggle to survive, but also the incredible effort put forth by NASA scientists and his fellow crew members to save him—once they realize he’s alive, which takes a while. In addition to being very suspenseful, it’s quite poignant.

It’s also full of lessons about the power of improvisation as an orientation, and a set of tools for surviving when The Plan gets shot to hell. Watney’s situation is an extreme one, to be sure. But sooner or later, every last one of us is going to get hit with the confusion and desolation that comes when the life we thought we’d live, the existence we’d planned for, goes up in smoke. What then?

We often think about improv as being about performance or entertainment, but improv is applicable to a number of disciplines, including engineering. I explored some of this after watching a NOVA episode about the Hubble Space Telescope. You can read my thoughts in the post, Solving the “Trouble with Hubble”.

The improvisational elements in The Martian center around the practicalities of survival—how to grow food on a desolate planet, how to communicate with Earth. But they also deal with the psychological work of moving forward without losing hope. Here are a few thoughts that came to me while listening to the book. [Very light on the spoilers here.]

Improvising isn’t the same as winging it. Watney’s tale of survival is a feat of ingenuity and imagination—rationing, repurposing, and recalculating. We think sometimes that improv is this free-form practice that emerges out of nothing. But Watney had trained. He had prepared for scenarios 1 through 1000, so when scenario 2,253 happened, he had some tools at his disposal.

When I was preparing to have a baby, my childbirth educator encouraged us to “worry” about the various scary scenarios. Instead of trying to pacify us with “it’ll be OK” platitudes, she said, “OK, what if you do need an emergency C-section? What happens then? What if your child has to go to the NICU? How will you handle that? What resources do you need, what questions do you have?” And then she got us the information we needed.

There was no way to think through every worst-case scenario in my head—yes, I’m pretty creative, but life is even stranger than the catastrophes I can dream up. But by thinking through lots of possible outcomes, I had the confidence to be able to handle whatever might happen.

The truth is, we are not in control of our lives. Things happen. Plans fall through. People get sick. Marriages end. Loved ones die. Our call is to use the resources we have to put together a life in the wake of these things—maybe not the life we had hoped for, but a good life, a life with dignity, fashioned out of whatever’s on hand.

Let yourself freak out. Then move on. There are numerous instances in the book of Watney confronting some bleak new situation and falling into despair. He makes a mistake that could be potentially fatal to him. He makes two steps forward one day and three steps back the next. In each instance, he lets himself feel those things. Then he takes a deep breath, gets up, and does what’s in his power to do.

Many of us get stuck in the freakout and never move to action. Others of us move straight to action without letting the full weight of what’s going on hit us. Watney models a good balance. As Admiral James Stockdale has said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Focus on the next thing. Watney comes to consciousness after the accident and realizes he’s completely alone and 140 million miles from home. He has no clue how to contact Earth or his crew, how to even think about rescue. But none of that matters at that moment, because task #1 is figuring out what he’s going to eat. So he focuses on growing food. This struck me as very wise. The novelist EL Doctorow died recently, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Whether you’re building a novel or an improv scene or a life, you don’t need to know how it’s all going to turn out. Which is good, because you can’t know. But by taking the next step, you will get there.

Use it all up. [minor spoilers here] Watney spends much of his time in a temporary habitat, the HAB, and at the end, he must leave it to make a long journey in a rover. He’s jury-rigged the rover in all kinds of crazy ways using stuff from the HAB, and when he turns around to take one last look at it, he sees it as the decimated shell that it is. He’s picked it clean, left nothing behind that could be potentially useful. Which means there’s no turning back.

This is a perfect embodiment of Annie Dillard’s wisdom about writing and life: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place… give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.”

In my limited experience with improv, I’ve found it to be a very now-focused practice. If you have an idea, use it, don’t save it. If you have an impulse to act, do it. I guess there are some of you out there who come by this naturally and maybe need to learn to restrain yourselves more. But I bet many readers of this blog are like me, wanting to keep a little bit of life in reserve because it makes us feel safe. That hoarding comes at a cost.

Life is relentless. I mean this in multiple senses of the word. Watney’s situation was unrelenting, requiring constant activity—planning, executing, testing, retrying. He had to be a botanist, a mechanic, a scientist a carpenter. He had to be vigilant against an alien planet that seemed determined to kill him. He could not stop.

But I also mean that the impulse toward life is very strong. The basic rule of improv is yes-and—to accept what the world offers and build on it. Even when he has no idea how he could possibly be rescued, Watney is determined to LIVE for as long as he can.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Watney talks about taking samples of Mars rocks and soil, labeling them, and storing them where he hopes they’ll be found someday.

Here’s a man who knows his chances of personal survival are slim. But he’s part of something beyond him. And he trusts and hopes that someday, people will return to Mars. It’s his duty and his honor to be a a part of that relentless lurch into the future, to the extent that he can.

Did you read The Martian? What lessons did you learn from it?


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Blue Room Bookshelf: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming


I’m three books into this 2015 reading challenge. Feel free to follow along at the GoodReads shelf I’ve created.

My latest is Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. I love her picture book Show Way (and have used it in retreats), so I’ve been excited about this one for a while. Woodson writes this one in verse, simple yet lovely.

Here’s a favorite piece—I actually used it in my sermon in South Carolina on Sunday about the baptism of Jesus and what it means to be called “beloved.”

Some Fridays, we walk to downtown Greenville where
there are some clothing stores, some restaurants,
a motel and the five-and-dime store but
my grandmother won’t take us
into any of those places anymore.
Even the five-and-dime, which isn’t segregated now
but where a woman is paid, my grandmother says,
to follow colored people around in case they try to
steal something. We don’t go into the restaurants
because they always seat us near the kitchen.
When we go downtown,
we go to the fabric store, where the white woman
knows my grandmother
from back in Anderson, asks,
How’s Gunnar doing and your girls in New York?
She rolls fabric out for my grandmother
to rub between her fingers.
They discuss drape and nap and where to cinch
the waist on a skirt for a child. 
At the fabric store, we are not Colored 
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful 
or something to be hidden away. 
At the fabric store, we’re just people.

What are you reading these days?