Road Reading, Part X

With this post, my “year” (more or less) of reading 100 books comes to a close!

Finishing these last ten books was hard won, for a reason other than simply finding the time to read. I’ve been in Buenos Aires for the past two months to improve my Spanish, and though many things are different about life here, there is one worth mentioning for this post in particular: the street thieves here will take your belongings right out of your hands. Even if you’re sitting inside a bus. My Kindle was stolen from me, as I was reading it, and the kid who took it hopped off the bus and took off down the street. A split second of life without my Kindle flashed before my eyes and I decided that yes, it was worth fighting for. So I jumped off the bus, into the busy streets of a neighborhood I didn’t know, screaming after him – in English – hoping to make a scene enough so that someone would stop the conspicuous man running at full speed through the sidewalks cramped with street vendors. And someone did! As I turned the corner, I thought I’d lost the thief, but there an angel named Pedro was standing before me, handing me back my Kindle. It was, of course, well worth the effort and a good reminder that sometimes we can surprise ourselves with what we’re capable of.

I’m excited to share with you the final books from my year of travel:

Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution by Brené Brown
My friends make fun of me for referring to Brené Brown by first name only, but dear goodness… this woman has some deep wisdom (based on endlessly intriguing data) and shares it with us in incredible ways. Her TED Talk on vulnerability and The Gifts of Imperfection have been great resources for me. This, her most recent book, is about staring failures – big life failures and small, momentary ones – in the face and asking hard questions in order to bounce back a better version of yourself. It’s full of lessons from her own life and, as always, based on her qualitative social science research. Incredible.

The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller
I love Donald Miller’s writing. Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years were such formative books for me and this one is no different. I read it right after completing Brené Brown’s Rising Strong and the two have a lot of themes in common. But whereas Brown’s is based in her social science research, Miller’s is all raw, personal story. He shares himself vulnerably for the benefit of us readers; that we might own up to our own shortcomings and find a more enlightened path in terms of healthy relationships and healing past hurts as he has.

We don’t think of our flaws as the glue that binds us to the people we love, but they are. Grace only sticks to our imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either.

It’s a beautiful moment when somebody wakes up to this reality, when they realize God created them so other people could enjoy them, not just endure them.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Another book I consider to be required reading for Americans, Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is a stunning and uncomfortable account of how our current state of criminal “justice” came to be. Armed with strong statistics, she makes the case that people of color have been disproportionately targeted as criminals and that discrimination has been written into our policies and laws. Her arguments are often inescapable and the implications of her perspectives and hypotheses are, at times, horrifying. But as we all continue to educate ourselves about the prison system, and not simply ignore what is happening, we can begin to see some change in our communities (and bring some of the 1.5 million missing black men home). Read this book.

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away by Bill Bryson
Bryson shares his collection of articles written for a British newspaper about his experience relocating to New Hampshire after decades living abroad. It was cheeky and light, a perfect read for the New Zealand portion of our trip as we prepared to come back to American life. Nowhere near as interesting as his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, but it was a cute, fun read. 

So here I am, my affections torn between a postal service that never feeds me but can tackle a challenge and one that gives me free tape and prompt service but won’t help me out when I can’t remember a street name. The lesson to draw from this, of course, is that when you move from one country to another you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things worse, and there is nothing you can do about it. That may not be the profoundest of insights to take away from a morning’s outing, but I did get a free doughnut as well, so on balance I guess I’m happy.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A long read but absolutely worth the journey, The Poisonwood Bible chronicles the arrival and unraveling of a missionary family from the Unites States as they set up a new life in the Congo. It follows the sisters, children when they arrived in Africa, through to their varied adult existences, and the heartbreak of their mother as they all recover from their time there. It is dark and real and surprising and wholesome. Kingsolver gathered materials and resources for over a decade to craft this work and the care and depth that she pours into this novel show through in each chapter. When reading, it’s as if you feel honored to travel with her characters through their decades of turmoil and healing.

“But what if it’s a huge river,” I asked him once – “like the Congo, which is much broader than the reach of any vine?” “This is simple,” he said, “Such a river should not be crossed.” If only a river could go uncrossed, and whatever lay on the other side could live as it pleased, unwitnessed and unchanged. But it didn’t happen that way. The Portuguese peered through the trees and saw that the well-dressed, articulate Kongo did not buy or sell or transport their crops, but merely lived in place and ate what they had, like the beasts of the forest. In spite of poetry and beautiful clothes, such people were surely not fully human – were primitive; that’s a word the Portuguese must have used, to salve their conscience for what was to come. Soon the priests were holding mass baptisms on shore and marching their converts onto ships bound for sugar plantations in Brazil, slaves to the higher god of commodity agriculture. There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water through their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace. 

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins
A management classic, Collins and his team looked at the top 11 Forbes 500 companies from 1965-1995, defined by tracking or underperforming in the stock market, followed by a transition of earning 3 times the stock market average for at least 15 years. These are the companies that went from “good to great” and his team identified several key attributes that all the companies had in common. The results are surprising, and I think, applicable far beyond for-profit companies; NGOs, community organizations, and even families and individuals can benefit from the lessons his team unveiled.

Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.

Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food by Megan Kimble
A young graduate student, Megan Kimble, decides to eat only unprocessed foods for one year and writes about her journey. I appreciate her wholistic approach; she has chapters on wheat and sugar, but also on meat, wine, and even one dedicated to hunger, exploring the predicament of our nation’s 45 million people on federal assistance like SNAP, trying to eat on $20/week. There was certainly information I’d been exposed to before, but new concepts, too. I’m a little heartbroken to learn that the affordable Trader Joe’s wines I love have countless synthetic flavors and added sugars, but I’m now more motivated to buy sea salt, which does not have to be mined from the earth and therefore has a less negative environmental impact. I was reminded of how much grain and water it takes to raise livestock – and how much environmental damage their waste has – and why, though I adore steak, I chose to eat so little of it, even if it is raised and processed locally. This is an excellent overview of our food system, easily read and easily digested.

I am young, urban, and broke, and so it seems like I have little bargaining power. But I have my dollars. I decided to do something specific, something precise, and something very small; to protest the only way I knew how, against the problem I’d always believed I’d have to inherit. I stopped eating processed food. I was a beginning a start in redirecting my precious dollars away from the center, away from fossil fuel food, stripped land, and unaccountable industries. Because in a world of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there has to be something we can do – right?

Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed
Yes, that same Cheryl Strayed that wrote that book Wild that was then that movie with Reese Witherspoon. This book is a short collection of her most poignant quotes. She’s all about being brave and honest and she doesn’t shy away from swearing where appropriate. I love her. So how do I pick one quote to represent a book of quotes? Especially one that is so thick with wisdom and encouragement? Well, here’s one that sings to me each and every time I read it:

Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Therapists and friends can help you along the way, but the healing—the genuine healing, the actual real-deal, down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change—is entirely and absolutely up to you.

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s story is one I felt honored to read. He came to the United States legally with his family as a toddler, but as his mother’s visa lapsed and Dan-el continued his childhood and education in New York City, life became much more complicated as an undocumented immigrant. With the support of a young college volunteer and an altruistic parish priest, Dan-el gets into a college-prep program and eventually ends up at the top of his class at Princeton. His life is peppered with multiple cultures and myriad influences, often at odds.

“It makes you feel like this shit we have, this education we’re getting, is so fucking fragile. You try to make something of yourself, to go to these schools, everyone pats you on the back and tells you to keep grinding. And then some nigga shoots you over stupidness and that’s it?” “Yeah.” Eventually I told myself that I had to get over what had happened to Tim, that I couldn’t let it fuck me up or detract from my focus. It wasn’t long before Derrick and I were back to trivial gossiping and storytelling, pretending like real shit hadn’t even happened. But sometimes my thoughts would stray, I’d think of Tim, and for the most fleeting moment I’d fear that no matter how hard I worked and no matter what I achieved, I’d always be one angry motherfucker away from getting popped. 

If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski
Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of the nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. Ten years ago when it began to take root in the emo scene, I proudly wore my TWLOHA t-shirt, which came to be known as an everyday icon of the movement. This book is a collection of Jamie’s writing and stories, the lose of friends, and his battle with depression – all beautiful and challenging and full of hope. This is the book I was reading on the bus when a guy jumped on, snatched it out of my hands and took off running. I’ll never know what really made me actually jump off and chase him down, but I bet reading about fierceness and hope and choosing a better story for your life had something to do with it.

Be loved. Be known. Love people and know people. Be so brave as to raise a hand for help when you need it. Make friends and make sure they know they matter. Be loyal to them and fight for them. Remind them what’s true and invite them to do the same when you forget. If you do some losing or you walk with someone else in their defeat, live with dignity and grace. It is a middle finger to the darkness.

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