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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vacation Reading and Northern Berries

The pictures of U.P. berries are to provide visual breaks in what would otherwise be nothing but words, words, words. Are any of these late-season fruits unfamiliar to you? Books, my recurrent theme, are always new, even the old ones as we discover or rediscover what we hadn't read or known before, and we do read on our vacations. It isn’t all we do, but it’s always a feature. So here’s some of what we read Way Up North this year.

Beyond Tolerance (see Recommended at right), by Gustav Niebuhr, was the most important reading I did while away from the bookstore. His subtltle does not indicate this, but what Niebuhr is offering for our consideration with the quiet, diffuse movement he chronicles is an alternative response to terrorism, an affirmative rather than negating alternative to a “war on terror." Given American history, tolerance—at least at the political level--is a given, but by itself it does nothing to build bridges or strengthen communities. To go beyond is to engage in dialogue, to offer hospitality, to turn strangers into friends, without trying to convert anyone away from one religion to another. Niebuhr gives many examples of such projects across the United States, some between two specific religious communities, others as broadly multifaith as possible, and one general response to participation in such dialogues seems to be a strengthening of commitment to one’s own faith, alongside appreciation for the faiths of others. I’m sure the Northport community will have many questions for author Gustav Niebuhr and perhaps some reflections on our community as a neighborhood of different churches and faiths. He will be at Dog Ears Books on Saturday, from 1-3 p.m. to meet the public and sign copies of his book for those wishing to purchase it, and his address in this year’s Belko Peace Lecture Series at Trinity Congregational Church will be open to the public on Saturday evening, 7 p.m., and again Sunday morning at 11 a.m., so be sure to catch him one way or the other.

During our three-hour wait to cross the Mackinac Bridge on our way north last week, I read aloud to David from Suzette Haden Elgin’s The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Her first book on this topic, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, won me over years ago with its very specific advice on how to recognize and deal with verbal bullying without stooping to bully’s tactics in return (there was an intermediate book that I did not find quite as exciting, though I don’t remember why), and this “last” book on the subject has the same magic. Her advice is specific, though the applications are general—and sometimes she is quite funny, too, which always makes learning more memorable. I like, too, her acknowledgement that verbal bullies aren’t always intentional bullies but may simply, for whatever reason, have developed bad habits. Either way, her book can help each of us step around victimhood and step back from bullying or inviting bullying. Very good stuff here.

One book I read while lounging bayside in Munising was QBQ! The Question Behind the Question, etc. (for longer title, see list), which I picked up because I’ve been noticing for a few years that people often ask questions to lead up to what they really want to know rather than ask directly. This book’s direction isn’t that, but I like the direction it does take. The author says we very often ask “incorrect” questions, ones that seek to assign blame rather than solve problems, and he gives examples of those questions, then examples of the ones we should be asking instead, with personal accountability as his central theme. Don’t ask when x will be taken care of or who should take care of it or why the problem came up in the first place but “What can I do?” and “How can I improve this situation?” It’s a simple little book with simple ideas and can be read quickly, but like so many simple ideas it goes against a lot of ingrained habit, which is why we need the book.

To communicate, to listen authentically to others, to avoid bullying and being bullied, to assume personal accountability--these three books together, although I did not plan a course of reading with that in mind, dovetail nicely.

I also read further in Le rouge et le noir (a long-term project, that one, but I’m not giving up), and David and I read to each other from the little Arcadia history book on Grand Marais, full of pictures of how things used to look during the brief lumber boom. David’s main vacation book was Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of Outside: A Manifesto for Escape, a book that sounds as if it would be about outdoor adventure, camping and the like, but is actually (to quote the back cover) a “cultural-literary-social critique [that] examines the paradoxes of repression and artistic freedom in both totalitarian and democratic societies.” I dipped into this book, also, and David read a few passages aloud to me. The writing is brilliant, the tone much more serious than what one might expect from the author’s often-humorous NPR spots.

What next? Bruce recommended Barbara Hall’s The Music Teacher, and it is time for me to give contemporary American fiction a turn on the bedside table.

Then there’s the business of getting all the tomatoes picked, mowing grass, catching up on laundry and preparing for big weekend art and book events. It's the quiet season between school-vacation summer and color tour, but life is still busy Up North.


Gerry said...

Sometimes I feel that I'm drifting downstream on a boat, watching the landscape flow by, as books -- and perhaps berries as well -- bob past. So many wonders, so little time.

Anonymous said...

The first book you mentioned seems to offering some intersecting viewpoints offered in a book I am currently reading, ACTS OF FAITH by Eboo Patel. The book is part of the "One book, one campus" initiative where all of us affiliated with the university are supposed to read the book and then attend a public lecture by the author. I would go into specific intersections here, but I want to finish it (I have about 30 pages to go) Enjoy your vacation, I will get up there to see you and David and perhaps Ian as well when I have the chance,


P. J. Grath said...

Drifting downstream sounds so leisurely, Gerry. I often feel I'm slashing my way through the underbrush in hopes of reaching that quiet river. Once in a while I get there and enjoy it for a while, and that's a blessing.

Matt, I wish you could be here this weekend to hear and meet Gustav Niebuhr. So interesting and such a coincidence that you are reading Patel's book, as Niebuhr interviewed him and quotes him at length, as well as discussing his projects and how he came to them. If you want to write a review of ACTS OF FAITH for me to post, be my guest--literally. No pressure, however. I know you must be very busy with your last semester of undergraduate classes.