Saturday, December 4, 2010

The City of Big Readers

I didn't know what to expect when I accepted an invitation to participate in a holiday gathering of the Mayor Daley High School Book Club. Karen Burke, the club coordinator, explained that the book club had been meeting with the mayor for thirteen years, and that this would be the last gathering. I've long been grateful to Mayor Daley for his extraordinary support of reading and public libraries, and I'd been told that he was a big reader, but I was unprepared for his warmth, candor, and caring in conversation with students from Orr Academy High School on Chicago's West Side. The students were also a revelation. So smart, so funny, so sweet in the best sense of the word. Gorgeous, it must be said, and giving. So, too, their radiant and, clearly, loved teacher and school librarian. It was a room full of passion for learning, for sharing, for stories, and for books (students named as their favorites Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut). And for pizza.

Mayor Daley spoke frankly about how tough life is, how vulnerable we all are, how crucial education is, how essential books are to navigating the world. He sat forward and talked intently about how he struggled in school, how mortifying it was to fail the bar exam twice, with his father as mayor and his heart set on a state's attorney job. Mayor Daley told us about how his grandfather was killed by a drunk driver, a neighbor, just days before Christmas, and how difficult the holiday was forever after for his mother. He spoke with love and sorrow about his son who died before he turned three, and of how much life the young boy possessed. He spoke with pride and relief of his son who has just returned from serving in Afghanistan, and of how we need to bring all the troops home now.

The mayor showed us his office, or rather, his three offices, rooms in descending levels of formality. Rooms filled with the auras of conversations, arguments, thoughts, and emotions, as well as gifts, art, memorabilia, and, most of all, family photographs. And photographs of policemen killed in the line of duty, of teens shot down on the street for no good reason. Every day Mayor Daley studies photographs of these fallen Chicagoans with profound sorrow and concern, renewing his vow to do his best to do right by everyone who calls Chicago home.

But this was a day for celebration. The mayor, smiling and joking, yet always commanding, gamely posed for photographs with each of the Orr students, young women and young men full of desire for meaning and accomplishment, full of creativity and hope. This is what it is to be a mayor of a big complicated city. To feel grief and responsibility, and to mentor the young and promising, and feel joy in their beaming presence.

I cannot thank Karen, the mayor, his staff, and all the Orr Academy students and their teacher and librarian enough for an inspiring and uplifting meeting of the mind and spirit. To talk about books and how books enrich and guide us, to talk about what it means to live life fully and positively, to express gratitude and laugh together, I couldn't have received a greater gift.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A wild and beautiful book

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. By David Abram. Pantheon.

How is it that our curious, inventive species has gone from worshipping nature to destroying it? Why did human beings lose appreciation for the great mesh of earthly existence and our place within that intricate and spectacular dance of life-sustaining relationships? A creative and visionary ecologist and philosopher, David Abram offered provocative answers to these complex and urgent questions in his first book, the highly influential Spell of the Sensuous (1996). In his second recalibrating mix of stories, reflections, and discoveries, he offers original and profound insights into the causes of our disparagement of “sensuous reality,” of “bodied existence,” and the horrific consequences of our increasing detachment from the living world, a separation accelerated by the seductiveness of the cyber realm.

Abrams reawakens appreciation for our knowing bodies and minds––our animals selves which evolved to thrive on Earth, in one ravishing passage after another. From encounters with other animals (Abram’s tales of the wild are extraordinary) to an astonishing response to shadows to the many forms of sentience on the planet to an arresting discussion of the significance of oral culture. Not only does Abram write with poetic precision and ethical intent, he also draws on his unusual experiences as a sleight-of-hand magician and his apprenticeship to indigenous shamans as he writes about perception, awareness, and the endless complexity and surprises of the living world with breathtaking insight.

Wonder is an emotion we need more of, Abram believes, and this is a book in which close observation and sustained contemplation of natural wonders inspires an “earthly cosmology” meant to redirect our attention and compassion away from the human-made realm and back to the “enfolding earth.” We can’t “restore” nature, Abram writes, without “restorying” our breathing, spinning, sentient planet, and this enrapturing book is a start, as Becoming Animal reminds us that the sacred is in our every cell and everywhere around us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eight Forty-Eight - Laurence Gonzales Explores Human-Ape Hybrid in New Novel

I don't read many thrillers, but I couldn't resist this smart interspecies tale and its irresistible hero.

Click here to listen to my interview with the author of LUCY:
Eight Forty-Eight - Laurence Gonzales Explores Human-Ape Hybrid in New Novel

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cold Snap on a hot day

A review:

BOOKLIST, June 2010

Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories.By Cynthia Morrison Phoel.2010. 240p. Southern Methodist, $22.50 (9780870745614).

Phoel’s first collection of stories and a novella incisively dramatizes the interlocked lives of the beleaguered denizens of a Bulgarian town. Phoel spent time in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer, but one gets no sense of an outsider looking in. Instead, she fully inhabits the minds of her jittery characters as they grapple with various forms of family pressure, poverty, and the maddening cold. Young Dobrin’s brow is becoming permanently furrowed as he worries about his overworked mother and cavalier father, as a giant satellite dish funnels a nonstop stream of soccer and porn into their humble and frigid apartment. Galia has been utterly passive, but now that she’s pregnant, mutinous thoughts are brewing. Mathematician Plamen is plagued by self-loathing. In charge of central heating, Nasko is besieged. With the fierce cold serving as a metaphor for the deep social freeze of this long tyrannized land, Phoel is as confident as the great Russian writer Gogol in her acid humor and insightful portrayals of people who “could endure anything,” making for an unusually commanding and affecting debut. —Donna Seaman

A Chicago Public Radio interview:

Eight Forty-Eight - Author Cynthia Morrison Phoel's 'Cold Snap'

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010