Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

What does spiritual but not religious mean?

According to Pew, there is a growing number of young Americans that are not affiliated with any particular religion, a.k.a. "nones." This book, a sort of spiritual memoir by Roger Housden, is one example of a "none" trying to keep his faith. Or rather redefine it.

A very short book, almost an extended poem, his faith amounts to this: beauty, nature, kindness and love. Read poetry; look at art; walk in the woods; love people. The book is more like a memoir, a Whitman nature poem, a reflection on faith as solitary, personal, open-ended - a life-journey.

Now, I sympathize with his faith and applaud his ideals, but we must admit that this kind of faith is drastically different from the faith of many other people. That's okay. (disclaimer: I didn't read the entire book so I have no room to comment, but yet here I am commenting). Is Housden merely describing his own happy, privileged, care-free life and calling it faith? Going to Starbucks, writing best sellers, enjoying art and peotry, watching the waves through his window. Sounds great to me! But what happens when you reduce faith into a few ideals? Is anything lost? Perhaps not. Where's the pot-lucks? Mr Housden has redefined faith into a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty (nothing wrong with that, he comes from a long tradition), but let’s be honest - he is getting rid of something here. Or, another way to put it: he probably got rid of his faith, kept a few things from it (truth, beauty, love, awe), and started something new and different.

If you are spiritual-but-not-religious, and you like poetry, you will like this book.


Keeping the faith without a religion

World Book Night 2014

Last week the application to be a Book Giver on World Book Night became available! What is World Book Night? It's an "annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person." Book Givers give out 20 copies of a book they love to adults and teens who may not have access to reading materials.

The folks behind World Book Night also revealed the titles that will be given out by tens of thousands of people in their communities on April 23, 2014. The list of titles includes some of my favorites, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

The deadline to apply to be a Book Giver is January 5, 2014. Apply here. Kalamazoo Public Library will again serve as a pick up site for Book Givers.


Kitchen Confidential

The Poetry of John Berryman

John Berryman is the kind of poet that has always interested me. He was an emotionally tormented soul for most of his life and whose complicated verse radiated both a deep intelligence and humane tenderness, sometimes within a single line. His most famous work, the epic Dream Songs series, is considered by many critics to be among the best written, if not some of the most highly influential poetry of the post-war period. Berryman’s work is difficult to describe but he’s often lumped in with the Confessional Poets (see: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton). One moment, Berryman’s voice is raw and revealing, the next, lyrically abstract but heartbreakingly profound. For those looking into his work, I recommend the Dream Songs, a masterful work that like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Pound's Cantos or Olson's Maximus Poems, possesses both variety and thematic continuity.


John Berryman: Collected Poems



Water Sings Blue

What caught my eye was the cover . . . it looks like summer. Mielo So’s watercolor painting of a beach scene promises lovely things inside. Here are the first and last couplets of the poem called “What the Waves Say”:

“Shimmer and run, catch the sun.
Ripple thin, catch the wind.

Roll green, rise and lean—
wake and roar and strike the shore.”

Kate Coombs’ poems are a mix of playfulness and mystery; Water Sings Blue is a lovely collection that is just right for reading aloud with kids.


Water Sings Blue

House Held Up By Trees

Even though the cover of House Held Up By Trees has a melancholy look, the soft and gentle words tell a story that feels like a magical secret . . . an abandoned house that is lifted off its sterile foundation by the trees growing up around it. Poet Ted Kooser and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a quiet and thoughtful picture book that deserves to be seen beyond the walls of the Children’s Room.


House Held Up By Trees

Mary Oliver

As others on the library blog have written, April is National Poetry Month. While I was in college, one of my dearest friends introduced me to Mary Oliver, who became one of my favorite poets. Maxine Kumin, another of America’s great poets, described Oliver as an “indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Oliver is known to acquire much of her inspiration from walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and writes almost exclusively about nature. KPL has a nice collection of her work.

This video features Oliver reading a few of her poems, including one of my favorites, “Wild Geese”.

Other poets I recommend include Anna Akhmatova, Fleur Adcock, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Dorothy Parker.


Why I Wake Early

My Name is Sally Little Song

Sally May Harrison is a slave. Pa learns that Master is planning to sell her and her brother, Abraham, so Pa plans for the whole family to run away from the plantation. They encounter many terrors and tragedy en route. Ultimately, Sally’s family finds and lives with a tribe of Seminole people.

I was moved by the poetry at the beginning of each chapter of My Name is Sally Little Song, by Brenda Woods. Sally makes up songs, like her Mama taught her to do. With very few words, her songs capture the essence of what she and her family experience.

Pa tells the family they are leaving “day after t’morrow afore sunrise,” and to keep it a secret…”send no one a farewell look with your eyes.” The following chapter starts with:

“Gotta look down
Into the dirt all day
Or my brown eyes
Is sure to give us away”

Sally’s family travels at night, in hopes of escaping notice. When they get to swampland, her poem both describes the feeling in the swamp and foreshadows danger:

Grass wet
Beneath my feet
Owls say
Night bugs fly
Snakes wriggle
Gators chomp

Woods is the author of a 2003 Coretta Scott King Honor book, The Red Rose Box.


My Name is Sally Little Song

Love Part 20: Milton

Milton (Paradise Lost), in true Enlightenment fashion, says that love is based on reason, not on passion:

“In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
Wherein true Love consists not; love refines
The thoughts, and heart enlarges, hath his seat
In Reason, and is judicious”

Love isn't willy nilly, spur-of-the-moment stuff. It obeys rules. It carves out its' actions with obedience to higher laws, principles, and ideals:

“Be strong, live happy, and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command”

This sounds like Hobbes focus on obedience, and Jesus's "he who loves me will obey my teaching."

Sometimes love can be nasty, right? Dalia, after betraying Sampson in one poem, is trying to justify her actions. She asks: “And what if Love...Caus’d what I did?” To which he answers “Love seeks to have Love” and “But had thy love…Bin, as it ought, sincere, it would have taught thee Far other reasonings, brought forth other deeds.”

Love doesn't breed hate; it doesn't "reason" that way. Forgivness, of course, is a close relative of love. We've all heard the phrase "I will forgive, but never forget" (discussed in my MLK blog). Well, Sampson does exactly that:

“Let me approach at least, to touch they hand,” says Dalia, to which Sampson answers “Not for thy life…my sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint. At distance I forgive thee, go with that.”

Clearly this is not what Martin Luther King had in mind when he described forgiveness—this is the opposite! This also agrees with what Spinoza said about hating someone that you once loved; that it will make you hate them more, treat them worse than if, say, a stranger betrayed you.

Adam learns some things after the Fall, and after an angel talks to him. Adam says that he should love and fear God, be humble, merciful, meek, etc, and keep working for the good. To which the angel replies:

“thou hast attained the sum
Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the Stars
Thou knewest by name, and all the ethereal Powers,
…And all the riches of this World enjoydst,
And all the rule, one Empire; onely add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add Vertue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come call’d Charitie, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradse, but shall possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.”

In other words, add deeds to your wisdom, and especially love. This is a variation on Paul's "the greatest of these is love"; and when Augustine said that the end of all wisdom, scripture reading, etc. is nothing more than learning how to love, how to embrace charity. Finally, Milton interprets the Holy Spirit as the bringer of the "Law of Faith / Working through Love," which "Upon their hearts shall write..."

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter
Love Part 13: Chaucer 
Love Part 14: Hobbes
Love Part 15: Machiavelli 
Love Part 16: Montaigne
Love Part 17: Bacon
Love Part 18: Spinoza
Love Part 19: Your Body


Paradise Lost

Up North: a path to freedom

Some men took their families; some left them behind hoping to send for them later. They left for uncertain futures afraid of what they might find. They left the cotton fields, tobacco, corn and beans behind. They left because they heard that there were jobs, nice homes, food for the family and no Klan.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North is a book of poems and short stories that tell about strength, hope and determination that causes people to survive. Eloise Greenfield showed that you can say very little to still say a lot.


The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Love Part 13: Chaucer

Nobody can escape love, says Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde; nature forces it onto people as she sees fit. The universe calls us to love: "God loves, and grants that love shall be eternal / All creatures in the world through love exists." Love "saves mankind from wickedness and shame" and "converted thee from all wickedness." And if we don't love, Nature tries to change our mind, it will stike back, come to you, well up:

And loveless hearts, let them by Love be bent
To learn to love, and thus in pity grow,
But faithful hearts may Love keep ever so!

But much of Chaucer's poem, about a knight falling in love with the beautful Criseyde, is not about how great and beautiful love is, but how horrible and stressful it is. Like Cupid, God shoots an arrow of love-at-first-sight disease at the independent knight, "though he thought that nothing had the might / To curb the heart of such a one as he / Yet with a look, no longer was he free, / And he who stood but now in pride above / All men, at once was subject most to Love.” But, Chaucer replies, “scorn not Love…For still the common fate on you must fall / That love, at nature’s very heart indwelling, / Shall bind all things by nature’s might compelling / …men of greatest worth have deepest loved / …For wisest men have most with love been pleased.”

For for the woman especially, love is bondage. At one point she has a "cloudy thought," “Alas, since I am free, / Should I now love and risk my happy state / And maybe put in bonds my liberty?...who loveth not, no cause hath to complain.” She does not fall in love with him on appearances: "No, moral virtue, firmly set and true, / That was the reason why I first loved you." And another knight bases his choice (a "burden") on her "goodness." So we have a mix of the Plato-Aristotle love for virtue's sake theme, and the medieval love-at-first-sight as well.

The Clerk's Tale is a ghastly story about a rich knight marrying a poor woman, testing her loyalty in a Job-like way by taking away her new born children, only to find out at the very end that the story is not about sexist attitude towards women. It's not about that, says the author directly: “This story’s told here, not that all wives should / Follow Griselda in humility, / For this would be unbearable / But just that everyone, in his degree, / Should be as constant in adversity." And then he gives women a battle cry: “Strong-minded women, stand at your defense, / …suffer no man to do to you offense." And to the controlling men:

For one thing, sirs, I safely dare to say,
That friends each one the other must obey
If they’d be friends and long keep company.
Love will not be constrained by mastery;
When mastery comes, the god of love anon
…Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women by nature love their liberty
And not to be constrained like any thrall,
And so do men, if say the truth I shall.

Free Bird!

Yes, just like the song, women who are treated badly will leave. They will choose "worms" over a "golden cage":

Take any bird and put it in a cage
And do your best affection to engage
…although its cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet would this bird, by twenty thousand-fold,
Rather, within a forest dark and cold,
Go to eat worms and all such wretchedness.
…above all things his freedom he desires.

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter


Geoffrey Chaucer
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