Book Chatter: Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

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Two weeks ago, a friend and I took a trip to a monastery. It was something we’d been meaning to do for a while, and at the end of the quarter, getting outside the city and into four inches of manure was a much-needed break.

As a general rule, I don’t take many pictures. When I’m enjoying an event or a landscape, I’d rather focus on soaking it in than on trying to capture its aura with my abysmal photography skills.

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Oh yeah. Bring on the Pulitzer.

You will, however, be pleased to know that during my weekend at the monastery, I took eleven pictures. Nine were of a window; two were accidentally of my leg.

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I call this one Fenestra: The Undead Arise.

Anyhow. When staying at a monastery, it’s practically required that you bring along something meaningful to read. For me, that meant Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

You might remember Lamott as the author of one of the best writing books of all time, Bird by Bird. In Plan B, she’s no less of a gently challenging maestro who will make you simultaneously laugh, sigh, and wince. Written during some of Lamott’s more spiritually fraught times (which, not coincidentally, were also during the second Bush Administration), Plan B is a collection of short stories about parenting, church, dogs, forgiveness, politics, weddings, racism, cruise ships, terminal illness, skiing, and more — in short, topics where you’re either bracing yourself for controversy or pursing your lips in preemptive boredom. But despite this broad range of topics — or perhaps because of it — Lamott succeeds in turning out a richly detailed patchwork quilt of a narrative that works very well, as one reviewer put it, as “a spiritual antidote to anxiety and despair in our increasingly fraught times.”

So if the world has been getting you down lately, and you’re exhausted from trying to nudge it towards a better state of being, try sitting down with Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. It might not fix the world, but it might lower your cortisol levels a bit — and really, sometimes that’s all we can expect from a day.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this excellent calming song and this warming post from Amanda Palmer:

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What’s your favorite hope-filled book?

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books.

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Book Chatter: Mama Makes Up Her Mind

In last week’s post about comfort reading, I forgot one of my all-time favourites: Bailey White’s Mama Makes Up Her Mind: And Other Dangers of Southern Living.

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I’m not a southerner myself — the closest I’ve gotten is three days spent in Tennessee in January, and a week in Alabama in December — but after reading this book, the region almost feels like home, from the dank tangle of the swamps to the sociable oak snakes on the mantelpiece. Drawn from pieces of Bailey’s real life, Mama Makes Up Her Mind gambols through tales of stubborn ornithologists, unexpected bicyclists, selectively destructive tornadoes, and daughters with good intentions. Most of the stories are funny, some are more nostalgic, and a few are downright creepy, but all are told with a warmth and richness that reveal Bailey’s deep affection for her family and surroundings.

The format of Mama Makes Up Her Mind makes it a great pick for bedtime reading, waiting-room entertainment, or other venues with a short time frame or frequent interruptions. If you’re not sure about this short story business and need something with a good strong plot, start with “Something Like a Husband” for the tale of two women trying to get their new telephone connected, “Memorizing Trollope” for the story of a girl finding an unusual path to pushing back against her overbearing father, or “Maine” for a first-grade teacher’s unfortunate conflation of romanticism and the U.S. Postal Service. If you’re comfortable with short stories and want to see another writer’s hand at description, turn to the stunning portrait of “Buzzard” or the lyricism of “Distillates”. And if you’re just in the mood for some fantastic humour, try Bailey’s mother’s new mission in “Teaching Luther to Cook”, her medical history in “Instant Care”, or her cooking whimsies in “Dead on the Road”. Really, no matter what story you read first, you can’t go wrong with Bailey White.

What writer do you feel has captured your city or region particularly well?

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Photo credit: Book cover from Better World Books.

Book Chatter: Notes from a Small Island

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Summer being what it is (to wit, comparatively warmer and drier), no doubt you’re planning on taking a vacation in the next couple of months. Maybe you’re heading to the beach. Maybe you’re going abroad. Maybe you’re attending a family reunion on a nuclear submarine and staging a singalong version of The Sound of Music at 900 feet.

"Dad! That's your cue!"

“Oh, Dad, I’m so glad we found you! You’re playing the Reverend Mother, remember? Climb Every Mountain is up next — hurry and get your wimple.”

For many people, vacations are a chance to explore a culture or an area they’ve always loved. And for many of those people, actually arriving in that area and experiencing that culture firsthand can be a bit of a shock.

For example, I grew up in a popular tourist town on the beach. Every summer, we locals would have a great time laughing at the tourists who showed up on the beach with their bikinis and sunscreen, not realizing that our beach is not the kind of beach where one basks in the sun, drinking appletinis and exchanging flirtatious glances with lifeguards. Our beach is more of a place where one tests out the wind-buffering capacity of new ski gear. My dad sometimes says that the town’s most lucrative industry is selling sweatshirts to optimistic tourists.

But no matter how rude an awakening those tourists get when they see our fog and drizzle, many of them keep coming back again and again. It’s like they’ve learned that their ideal beach town is fictional, but they’ve found something even better in its place.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is like that discovery. As he narrates in the book, Bryson, an American, stopped in England on his way home from a European jaunt and ended up getting a job in a mental hospital there, where he met his future wife.  Nearly two decades later, he and his family decided to move back to the U.S. — but not before Bryson toured the width and breadth of England one last time, saying farewell everything he loved (and hated) about the country.

If you’d like to visit England, Notes from a Small Island is a good crash course in the quiet nooks and crannies of the nation. If you’ve already spent some time there, Notes will remind you of the endearing (and maddening) details you’ve forgotten. And for all readers, Bryson will inspire and delight as he broaches the questions of belonging and adapting with a level of humor many travel writers lack.

What are your travel plans for this summer? Is it a new destination for you, or an old favourite?

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Just a short reminder — the game’s still on for our Harry Potter appreciation week! Post links to your HP-inspired essays, artwork, music, recipes, and crochet patterns, and they’ll be eligible for featuring on this blog!

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Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; submarine interior from tpsdave at Pixabay.