Monthly Archives: June 2018

Jen Pollock Michel: Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home

Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of HomeKeeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home by Jen Pollock Michel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sometimes think that Goodreads ought to give me two ways to rate a book: what the book wants to be on its own terms, and whether I think the book is really something someone should spend time reading. On its own terms, and trying to apply John Updike’s dictum that we shouldn’t blame a book for not achieving what it didn’t set out to achieve, I think Michel’s book is OK; probably even good. Thinking of it as a series of meditations on the nature of home, the book embodies a vision of the dignity and even sacrality of home life, home work, and house keeping–understood as making a place for ourselves and those we love, perhaps even those we don’t, in the world. In it, home becomes a metaphor for the work of the Church. And more than a metaphor. For Michel, “Christian men and women, praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, work to make it possible for all human beings to flourish–now and into eternity, Housekeeping, as an important dimension of the home story, insists that an in-between life must never be an idle one. To be blessed is to be sent.” At its furthest reach, home is the be all and end all of our existence as Christian people; indeed as human beings:

As James K. A. Smith describes, we are “‘narrative animals’: we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in” Home is that story.
And we are its witnesses.

This last statement reveals the deeper subterranean ambitions of this book, what it really wants to be despite it’s fairly modest statement that it is merely a series of “reflections.” It is a statement that the “home” is what the Christian life is about, that “HOME” write large is the Christian story.

This is a large, I would say grandiose, claim, and the book suffers for it. On the one hand, in terms of the book’s composition, it is an overextended metaphor leading the author to make claims about the centrality of home in biblical narrative and ecclesiastical life that are finally strained beyond the breaking point of belief. Moreover there is all too little critical force attached to these reflections to make the kind of theological claim that she really wants to make plausible. There is all too little mention of all the ways that the biblical narrative disrupts and unsettles the idea of home and home making. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head, as he admonishes his followers to remember. If we take the words of Jesus seriously that all those gathered around him, at times by the hundreds or thousands, are his mother, brothers, and sisters, this makes the boundaries of home so permeable as to be dispersed into the solution of humanity in a way that the metaphor of home strains to accommodate. The people of Israel most often stumbled when they preferred the comforts of home to the arduousness of obedience. In the end the book is the apotheosis of home, but I find myself suspicious of every human metaphor made into a divine thing.

I read this book in the midst of a cranky mood about the world we’re living in, and were it only for that fact I would do well to heed Updike’s advice and not review the book at all; give the book it’s two stars and move on. Nevertheless, as I write thousands of immigrants have left their homes and travelled on foot or hopping trains through unimaginable danger and deprivation to seek some degree of safety in a place called the United States–a place we call, perhaps ironically, the home of the brave. These mothers, fathers, and children come only to be imprisoned and separated at the hands of an agency we officially call Homeland Security. This disharmonious irony ought to call to mind the fact of how many evils in our world are done in the name of home and family, even of family values, whether their protection or their preservation. From the evils of Jim Crow segregation to the imperialism of Manifest Destiny, the primacy and protection of the (white) home and the (white) homeland–present or utopian–played a large, even a predominant part. Moreover, we have just lived through the wretched vision of the Baptist church struggling with whether and how to discipline a male leader who told women to stay in abusive homes for the greater glory of God. He is hardly the only one. The poet Warsan Shire reminds us home is not only the place that we long for, but the place we flee from, for our own lives and the lives of those we love:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

I do not mean to imply by this statement or my mood, that the author or her more sympathetic readers are somehow in sympathy with the evils that have been wrought by white supremacy or by misogyny. Indeed, one of the best things about the book is the ways that it dignifies what is often, almost always, taken to be “women’s work” in the making of home. I appreciated Michel’s note that this was a fairly recent phenomenon in many ways, the responsibility of men for life at home being a theme to be found in earlier eras of human culture. (Even if, I would hasten to add, those cultures were usually no better at exhibiting the mutuality that Michel seems to long for, but never fully articulates). The book is earnest; there are scores of anecdotes and tidbits of practical advice that will help those that struggle with the difficulties of home life, and it will remind those who can hear it that all acts, great and small, are or can be acts of holiness that sanctify the world. Perhaps more importantly they are acts that aid us in the pursuit of holiness ourselves.

Nevertheless, I wonder what kind of faith it would take for us to stand on the Southern border and stretching out our arms, say, “These are my mother, brothers, and sisters.” I am quite sure I do not yet have that faith, though I am shamed to say it. I do not think a theology that divinizes our middle class American notion of home, and seeks at all costs to protect and glorify it, is going to get us there.

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Christine Perrin’s Bright Mirror

Bright MirrorBright Mirror by Christine Perrin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed reading my colleague Christine Perrin’s book, Bright Mirror over the past several days, and was only sorry that I had not made time for it before now. Like many folks, I am less confident of my reviewing of poetry than I am of prose, but as I read the sense of this being an observant poetry kept coming to my mind. A lot of poetry, of course, is observation, seeing us and the world in new ways, and thus helping us to see the world and ourselves in new ways as well, an act that both gives us a truer picture of the world and also an act that paradoxically changes that world through the act of vision. Christine’s poems have that quality in abundance, whether in seeing her children, her church, her nature, or herself in new ways.

But I think by “observant” I also mean that it is a poetry of the act of being observant, in multiple ways, a poetry of ritual but also a poetry of attending, of tending to the world that she sees. Some parts are about ritual as she meditates on various rites of the church. So I think I might speak of this being an “observant” poetry in the ways that one is an observant Catholic, or an observant Jew, or, in Christine’s case, the observant Orthodox–those who attend the ritual of the church or synagogue, and thereby tend to the work of the church, which is ultimately about enacting God’s work on earth. But I felt this quality in many of the lyric poems about nature, and even more so in the poems about her family, her children and about motherhood, my personal favorites of the collection. Motherhood seems less in these poems about “raising” children than about tending them, and attending to them, much as one might tend a garden in others of the poems in this collection. Tending is less an action designed to force the crop, than one that seeks to make what is already hidden there come to light, to fruition, to flourishing.

These are not tragic poems, but running through them is a sense that this flourishing is etched with the fact of impermanence, the presence of failure, the inevitability of death. Indeed, I was vaguely reminded of Wallace Steven’s sense that Death is the mother of beauty, that our experience of beauty is somehow only made possible through the fact of its, and our, impermanence. For Christine, this beauty, somewhat like the Inklings that she references throughout the collection, is a foretaste of resurrection, something that points toward an enduring love even though the flower wilts, the friend or father dies, the children grow older and in their own ways are bruised or broken agains the rocks of their own lives. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Christine is speaking with a friend in Italy whose wife has died in childbirth:

But Luca, her husband, wants to travel
to Jerusalem, to the foot of the cross.

He wants to touch its ruined wood,
get splinters in his fingers, his lips.
That must be the way it feels

to lose a young wife. Holy Sepulchre
some call it and others,
Church of the Resurrection

I suppose it depends on the day.
When I told the guide it was hard to believe
that Golgotha and the empty tomb could be held

under one roof, he tipped his head back
and laughed at me, saying my name–
Christine–as if that was my answer

Holding Golgotha and the empty tomb together under one roof, is, of course, the work of the church, the liturgy or work of the people as we observe the rites of death and resurrection each Sunday, each day, in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is after all, the celebration of both a death and a life. This, too, is the work of poetry, and I am thankful that Christine has undertaken it.

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Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My friend and colleague, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, warned me that he broke down weeping on a Chicago subway as he finished the book, to the consternation of his fellow passengers. I found it easier to weep discretely in a Barnes and Nobles cafe. As one might guess with a book that opens with the discovery of a young and hopeful and brilliant doctor at the beginning of his career that he has what by all accounts is an incurable cancer, death awaits. And awaits relentlessly. But the knowledge that the book ends in our common human destiny does little to steel the reader for the way the heart breaks against the stony shores of that certainty. We are not given the witness of his death; no autobiography could do that. But we are given the witness of his dying and are included in that process, one that is by turns, noble and wretched and then, in some sense, ennobling of the author, of those around him, and perhaps even of us as readers.

While focused on death, the book is not morbid. If it ends in tears, it is not even really depressing in any meaningful sense of that word. What we are given is the striving after understanding, and the effort to make meaning out of experience with the only tools we have been given to do it, through our language. The book is fascinating for its testimony to the difficulties of the life of the mind and the body, to the agonies of both surgery and uncertainty. Kalanithi began as a devotee of language and discusses his turn away from the study of literature and what might loosely be described as “the mind” and towards the study of the brain and the body in the attempt to understand more completely the physical mechanism by which, after all, we come to speak and conceive of ourselves as having something called a soul or a mind. Kalanithi does not go deeply enough into this transition away from literature and language for my personal taste, though he offers the throwaway line that he thought the study of literature had become too embroiled in the study of politics and was not leading him into the study of meaning. However, he also seems to think that the study of literature is too divorced from the world of action, of doing something in the world that makes a difference, a difference he thought he could make in the healing professions. Kalanithi’s book is not about a theory of literature, but if it were I would want to argue with him more forcefully here. There is, after all, nothing more thoroughly politicized in our day and age than the practice of medicine, though his book does not seem to take up the question of who gets to be there to have a chance at healing at a first rate medical center and why that might be. I might want to argue as well, as I have at other times, that the embrace of literature in particular, and of the humanities more broadly–indeed, education per se–is actually one part of the world’s healing, though we fail too often to recognize it as such. As Milton suggested, the purpose of education is to repair the ruin of our first parents (and perhaps the ruin of our own parents, and of ourselves, I might add).

But these are not the main points of Kalanithi’s book. He manages to make the beauty and power of the study of science, and especially the study of medicine real and persuasive. More broadly he shows convincingly that a life of intense study is a life worth living, that the life of the mind matters, even if that point is made more poignant by the fact that that life is cut off by a disease of the body that cannot be studied away and that as of yet remains beyond the realm of human comprehension and control. It is interesting to me that, in the end, Kalanithi returns to literature to make meaning of the death that he cannot, that none of us can, avoid. He makes mention of the fact, of his return to stories about living and dying, stories that tried to make sense of the fact of death. Some of his final memories are of sitting with his infant daughter on his lap, reading to her the words of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, a fact that might be comical were it not for the fact that it rings true for a father given over to the power of language to give meaning where meaning seems tenuous at best, were it not for the fact that I and other fathers I know in the English major set do or have done precisely the same thing.

Of course, he made his own story in the end. A story, to be sure, that could not have been written without his unimaginably deep engagement with science and medicine. But finally his story lives for us, tells us something about what it means to be human, because it lives for us in words.

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David Livermore: Leading with Cultural Intelligence

Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to SuccessLeading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success by David Livermore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to tell students that whether they “liked” a book or were “interested” in a topic was utterly beside the point. The point of an education is to learn how to invest yourself, to find your way in, to practice the imaginative leaps that would be necessary to take interest and even to come to like or love something that you were unable to like at the beginning. Generally speaking, I think education is training in how to be a soul more open to possibilities, to increase both the range and depth of your pleasures and thereby to increase your motivation to understanding of things that were previously indifferent or mysterious.

Well, I’ll be up front and say Livermore’s book, Leading With Cultural Intelligence, isn’t pitched to the meaty part of my imaginative or intellectual strike zone. I have enjoyed books on leadership in higher education where I pick up tips here and there on how to do a better job. I do find, however, that books on leadership are often long on examples that state the obvious, too repetitive of the insights others have already well-established, short on deeper reflection on human meaning and purpose, and almost totally absent of graceful writing. Too many feel like the insights of a good Harvard Business Review essay stretched over and extra hundred and fifty pages to make the best seller list.

That having been said, I came to Livermore’s book with a little trepidation, but also determined to demand of myself what I demanded of my students–to make a leap of the imagination that would help me find my way in to it. It came recommended from Todd Allen, a trusted colleague who leads our institutional efforts in inclusive excellence, and I have some long personal and intellectual investment in understanding how to make some difference in the world relative to issues of cultural and racial division and animosity. Finally, I firmly believe that if institutions of higher education are going to fully grapple with the questions of inclusive excellence, leadership has to come from the middle from people like department chairs who help make and implement decision about curriculum, hiring, faculty development and other academic programming. So I am considering the book as a source text for a chair retreat next fall.

By and large this motivation paid dividends. Cultural Intelligence has the faults I list above. It won’t be remembered for its contributions to American prose, and the second half of the book starts sounding repetitive even though Livermore is supposedly introducing new concepts. Nevertheless, I ended up glad I read the book. I ended with some new insights into my own way of being in the world and it helped me think about how that way of being might be contributing positively or negatively to efforts in inclusive excellence in my own domain.

The notion of cultural intelligence has been around for a little while, and is somewhat akin to the notions like emotional intelligence. Livermore makes this analogy explicit, in fact. Roughly speaking the book is about the dimension of cultural intelligence, the skills you need to effectively exercise cultural intelligence, and the means by which you can enhance your cultural intelligence. Livermore breaks cultural intelligence down in to four domains: knowledge, motivation, strategy, and action. What kinds of knowledge do you need to be culturally intelligent? What kind of motivation do you have to practice cultural intelligence? What strategies do you use to engage in situations of cultural difference? What kinds of actions do you pursue to reach specific ends in ways that respect the cultures with which you are engaging?

None of this is rocket science exactly, but because Livermore is making most of his references to leading in multinational corporations, I was constantly having to think by analogy to how things might apply to the world of higher education. Among other things, as a Dean of the Humanities, it struck me that we probably think of cultural intelligence almost entirely in the realm of knowledge–what do you know about other cultures and inter cultural situations being the driving question. This is unsurprising given the cognitive bias of most of us who choose to go in to higher ed. But in Livermore’s conception this is only one small part of what it would mean to function in a culturally intelligent way. It’s not enough to know about other cultures, it’s also important to know how your own culture leads you to privilege certain things and value certain kinds of behavior. Moreover, knowledge alone may not lead to strategy and action. Livermore makes the case that introverts tend to be very strong on cultural knowledge and strategizing, but weaker on action and motivation. This rang true, though of course it isn’t universally true. But intellectuals like to reflect, like to strategize, and sometimes we don’t really like to act. Thinking is what we do best, and a strategy is a means of perfecting castles in the air as yet unmarred by the difficulty of implementation. This is not to denigrate reflection of strategizing since Livermore makes clear that all are important; it’s just to point out that Livermore provides a framework for thinking where your own strengths and weaknesses may lie and how you can work on other areas.

Finally, even though Livermore’s book is primarily about intercultural intelligence in global companies, it also struck me that it is very applicable to academic cultures on most college campuses. Academic institutions, even very small ones, are usually made up of multiple cultures that don’t understand each other’s values, don’t understand the way one another talk, and often have a miserable time trying to work together. The faculty does not understand the culture of the administration or operations, and vice versa. The culture of the administration can fall into the trap of denigrating the culture of the faculty, or at least being mystified by it (and vice versa). Neither faculty or administration easily understand the rapidly changing cultures of the student body. And within and across all these cultures are the larger cultural matrices of the society as a whole–international students and faculty from multiple areas of the world, students and faculty from multiple domestic ethnic backgrounds, different age groups, urban and rural often thrust together, hip and jowl. This cultural cacophony is one reason cultural politics on campus is so fraught and difficult to manage. But it is also our glory. Where else in American life do we ask such a range of people to come together for common purpose, for the common good? If we can do it well, we can be a model for others. I don’t imagine Livermore’s book will get us there, but it has some helpful ideas for steps along the way.

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Edwidge Danticat: The Dew Breaker

The Dew BreakerThe Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s an essay to be written on book-shaming, the practice of establishing your own superiority by reacting in disbelief when someone doesn’t like a book you think is a classic, or even worse when someone has read a book that you think is a classic and you have read. Moreover, for those of who read books professionally or semi-professionally, book-shame is a perpetual state of being. Aware that we haven’t read what we ought to have read, aren’t keeping up with the infinitude of books that everyone else seems to find the time to read, and, worst of all, that we can’t find it in ourselves to be enthralled with books others so securely tell us really are enthralling.

Throughout the first three-quarters of The Dew Breaker I was underwhelmed and filled with an appropriate sense of book-shame. Clearly there must be something more to this book as it was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist after all, or else there must be something wrong with me. But I couldn’t find myself caring for characters and their incidents and accidents. There were better books about the immigrant experience, about life under dictatorships, better books by Edwidge Danticat. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I was too full of expectation since everyone told me how much I’d love this book, a masterpiece.

I felt this readerly torpor more or less until the final eponymous long story that closes out the novel and brings it full circle. There the language seemed to elevate, the crisis of character because vivid, the human stakes dramatic, and the conflicted, unpredictable, and even unwelcome nature of human love seemed achingly real. It makes the novel as a whole about both guilt and redemption as a former torturer finds his escape in an impossible love. At the same time it makes the novel about the impossible abyss and burden of the past, a force that both drives us toward others with arms flung open seeking forgiveness and makes us shrink from others, impossibly separate in the recognition that we can neither be known or even stand to be known as we truly are.

To be sure, I don’t think I could have gotten all of these reactions without reading the other stories in the cycle of the novel, but only the story, for me, rose to the occasion, or made me rise to the occasion as the case may be. But that fact made me feel I should read the book again. When I am less tired, less full of expectation. So I can get it next time. That is a lot of weight for a single chapter to bear, but it bears it well.

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Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School

The Sobbing SchoolThe Sobbing School by Joshua Bennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sobbing School is filled with meditation on how a black man might respond to the trauma of America in ways that neither give way to despair or default to tired stereotypes and expectations. The evocation of Zora Neale Hurston’s famous critique of Richard Wright points toward a poetry that does not refuse the violence of the world, but refuses to submit to it: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it…No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” The image of the blade, Hurston’s “oyster knife,” animates a number of these poems, a recurrent nod to Hurston’s admonition to accept the terms that “life”–or in this case an encompassing racial and racist reality — has set in motion and to respond, with force if necessary. It is, of course, impossible to avoid the analogy of poetry as a kind of blade in Hurston’s quote, and so in Bennett’s homage.

Any collection of poetry usually has only a handful that grip any reader, those we go back to at the end of the reading, and can imagine ourselves coming back to again and again. And perhaps different poems for different readers. I loved the opening historical poem to the memory of Henry Box Brown, who achieved his freedom from slavery by arranging to have himself mailed in a crate to the abolitionists in the North, and later performed this act on stage for abolitionist audiences. Bennett’s poem reflects on the performativity of freedom, reflecting on the ways that black despair plays to white appreciation: “I too/ have signed over the rights to all my/ best wounds. I know the stage/ is a leviathan with no proper name/ to curtail its breath. I know/ the respectable man enjoys a dark/ body best when it comes with a good/ cry thrown in.”

Bennett is particularly effective in evoking the emotion (if that is not too tepid a word) of the black man and community in the face of police killings and other violence against African Americans in the United States, and especially the pressure of white constructions of those events. In “Anthropophobia” he reads/hears white rhetoric justifying the killing of black men against the grain of its intention: “The steel blue ghost standing/ at the podium says VonDerrit Myers/ was no angel & all I can hear is// the boy was a human boy. The boy/ had a best friend & 206 bones. The boy/ had a name that God didn’t give him/….but/let me be clear: we are simply running out// of ways to shame the dead.

Such lines, such poems, remind us suddenly, and we are surprised that we ever could have forgotten, that no man or woman has to justify their right to be among the living. This book makes that remembrance possible. I’ll look forward to reading more.

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