Nonfiction November: Be the Expert

This week in Nonfiction November is one of my favorites. Lu at Regular Rumination explains in her post:
This week’s topic is Be/Become/Ask the Expert. Share a list of titles that you have read on a particular topic, create a wish list of titles that you’d like to read about a particular topic, or ask your fellow Nonfiction November participants for suggestions on a particular topic.
Though to presume expertise in this topic is ridiculous, I suppose my post falls under the Be the Expert category. I have a small selection of titles for those interested in looking deeper into the Christian faith and its interactions with and in the world. There are a lot of books out there for Christian believers - those who want an easy read to reinforce or inspire their faith; however, the great thinkers and writers of the faith often wrote books and essays that were difficult, that demanded intellectualism hand in hand with one's faith. They wrote with a pondering spirit, a questing mind, an insistence that one need not empty one's head to have Christ fill one's heart. The books in this list are all smart. They are challenging. And, for this does matter some times, they are all short (under 200 pages). They are also all by white men, so take that with the appropriate reservation but do not dismiss them and their wisdom on that basis alone.

Five Books for the Faithful Thinker

C.S. Lewis, best-known for his earth-shaking Chronicles of Narnia, was a prolific writer and a superior mind. I believe his words are some of the most important in literature. Is that an overstatement? Maybe. But for all the greatness of Narnia, and even acknowledging the power of Mere Christianity, many readers do not know how excellent his essays are. My favorite collection, The Weight of Glory, is full of thoughtful questions and exhortations and rebukes. Flipping through my copy, I find countless passages to share with you and choose just this one from the close of the title essay:
This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (46)
 WE. MUST. PLAY. I couldn't agree more.

Next up is one of the great figures of the faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Unlike with Lewis, the work I'm recommending is perhaps his most "heard-of," but I think fewer people have actually read it than are familiar with it. Life Together is a brief guide for how it could (and perhaps should) look to live in Christian community. Bonhoeffer experienced some actual communal living, and he draws on that experience here, but it is applicable even in today's society of detached living. Again, I admit that it is more full of thought-provoking and intelligent passages than I have room for here, but I will provide one:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. (99)
The everyday acts of meeting one another's needs (even terribly minor needs) are so very important - to each of us individually and to our communities.

I would be remiss if I didn't include Wendell Berry in this list. Though he is not so obviously wrestling with religious matters, his faith infuses and informs his writing in so many ways. I include here two titles, one I've read years ago, and I one I am currently reading. The first is a collection of essays Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. I first read (and blogged about) it in 2010, so I don't remember as much of it as I should, but I do recall the intelligence and seriousness with which he approached the subject and that despite that seriousness (or, perhaps, because of it - see Lewis quote above), there is humor and spunk. I believe we don't get enough spunk in our daily lives. The second title I recommend is Berry's This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. I've only just started this beautiful collection, but I see it as something I will likely ponder and savor for years to come. Written over 35 years, often as he walked his property on a Sunday morning, these poems capture the "set-apartness" of the Sabbath and cause you to yearn for a similar stillness in your life. I include one poem from 1981:

Here where the world is being made,
No human hand required,
A man may come, somewhat afraid
Always, and somewhat tired,

For he comes ignorant and alone
From work and worry of
A human place, in soul and bone
The ache of human love.

He may come and be still, not go
Toward any chosen aim
Or stay for what he thinks is so.
Setting aside his claim

On all things fallen in his plight,
His mind may move with leaves,
Wind-shaken, in and out of light,
And live as the light lives,

And live as the Creation sings
In covert, two clear notes,
And waits; then two clear answerings
Come from more distant throats -

May live a while with light, shaking
In high leaves, or delayed
In halts of song, submit to making,
The shape of what is made.

Finally, I am in the midst of reading and can't recommend highly enough Frederick Buechner's The Hungering Dark. Buechner has long been one of my favorite writers (see my thoughts on his Godric here), but even knowing this, I've been surprised by how powerful and convicting and stunning this book is. It is a small collection of relatively short essays, each preceded by a passage from scripture, each concluded with a beautiful prayer. Often, I really hate those prayers that people write in devotional books. Actually, often isn't strong enough. I never like those prayers. They seem so forced and artless. These, however, are beautiful and touching and inspiring and all the things I would ever hope my prayers could be and none of the things my stumbling mind and mouth usually lift up. Thus far, there are two pieces that are focused on Christmas, so if you are looking for an alternative set of readings for Advent, I believe these would be a really good fit. Even though many of the essays depart from the actual events of Christmas, they all have Christ at their center, and they are all so full of good.

Do read these, friends. Let me know what you think, even if you disagree wildly! I welcome your feedback.


French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano

For all my compulsions toward order and organization, there are some things that just don't make a dent in my care meter. Being on time is one of those. I know, I fully know, how rude it is to be late - really late - when someone is waiting on you. I never disregard the human element in my timeliness, and it usually means I am close to on-time. But, honestly, close-to-on-time is much more my norm than my exception. My husband considers being on-time equal to being late, so he likes to get somewhere early, but for me, sliding in a few minutes after the designated start time is fine. Thus, my late entry into the fun of Nonfiction November (#nonficnov) - hosted by Lu at Regular Rumination, Katie at Doing Dewey, Becca at I'm Lost in Books, and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness. Thanks, ladies, for the fun idea.

I am currently reading Mireille Guilano's French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, and though it officially counts as nonfiction, I am beginning to question that status as my annoyance with the author grows. As the title indicates, Guilano - a native Frenchwoman - provides a model for healthy living based on how French women approach food. In many ways, I like this approach because it does reflect a greater appreciation for food than many Americans take. The problem is that she doesn't acknowledge that some Americans face extreme obstacles to "eating for pleasure" as the French do. She makes the astute observation that "America, the paragon of egalitarian values, somehow suffers from a gastronomic class system unknown in France. The right and the opportunity to enjoy the earth's seasonal best seems to be monopolized by an elite" (76). Her use of "somehow" and "seems to" points to an incredulity regarding this class system, when it is quite obvious: some people simply do not have access to or cannot afford the kinds of food choices she advocates for. Just a few sentences later, she expounds on this idea, but to her detriment:
But what seems like a luxury to Americans is a necessity to the French. Of course, not all luxury is within reach of everyone (the beluga appetizer is not a universal right), but the French do live by one principle that Americans sometimes forget, despite having coined it most eloquently: Garbage in, garbage out. The key to cooking, and therefore living well, is the best of ingredients.
Part of living like a French woman, then, will mean searching out and paying a bit more for quality, whether at the open-air market or at least a good grocery shop with market suppliers. This is now within the means of a great many more American women. French women live on budgets, too, but they also understand the value of quality over quantity.
Another issue, of course, is availability. And though the market in America has yet to become what it is in France, only a few are beyond the reach of quality on account of where people live. ...One must take the trouble to find them. And thanks to the Internet, many quality foods not in driving (or better, walking) distance are but a mouse click away. (77)
It is a ridiculously long passage to quote, so apologies, but friends, there is so much wrong in these paragraphs, and if I can't call it outright fiction, I at least want to question the nonfiction status of these words. Yes, some Americans (as well as probably some French people) choose junk despite plenty of education, income, and access to better options. Most people who eat junk regularly, however, have multi-layered reasons for doing so that have to do with what they lack: money, time, confidence, education, and access to these better choices. If you don't have a car, or a credit card, or a computer, these suggestions quickly become absurd.

As I write this, I realize this author is writing to a specific audience. She is demonstrating rhetorical awareness by understanding that the people who buy and read her book are likely to be upper middle class women who just want to think about being French for a few hundred pages. Perhaps they will actually take some good ideas from her suggestions and recipes - I haven't gotten to most of them yet. I am aware her target audience might respond well to this encouragement, so I shouldn't be so harsh.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of this book turns out and maybe picking up something new before the month is out.


The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

A few weeks ago, when I finished the first book in a wonderful series for young readers (The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers), I took a look at my reading log (a new thing I'm doing with my students) and realized I had a decided lack of color and femaleness in my selections. I don't always pay attention to such things, but because I'm requiring my students to see some diversity in their reading year, I chose N. K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon for my next read.

This one landed in my house as part of my first Book Riot Quarterly box in May, and I hadn't gotten around to it. In fact, this is the first Book Riot Quarterly book I've read yet. Alas. I'm glad I picked it up because it is a good one. Go now to Jemisin's website, and you can read the first few chapters yourself.

An excellent example of fantasy layered on historical fiction, The Killing Moon is set in Gujaareh, where peace is maintained by the Hatawa. This peace is built on the work that Gatherers and Sharers do - the Gatherers collect a tithe offered by the sick and the dying and the Sharers heal by using this tithe. This tithe is housed in the power of dreams, the dreamblood that is part of every soul as it is tethered to this earth and that is released when that tether is severed and the tithebearer goes peacefully to Ina-Karekh for eternity. It is an interesting concept, and the built world unfolds just right in this book - not too quickly, leaving the reader some good bits to chew over before new information is added.

The plot centers around Ehiru, a master Gatherer, and his apprentice Nijiri. Together with an ambassador/spy from a neighboring country, they uncover corruption within the leadership of their Hatawa and the Princedom, and though the plot is not complicated, it is still suspenseful and enjoyable. Jemisin's writing is even and thought-provoking, and though I didn't underline or pause long on any other of her fine sentences, this one is well-worth holding on to:
True peace required the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict. (335)
That line speaks truths a-plenty.

The Killing Moon is the first of two books in The Dreamblood series. I probably won't read the next one, but this one was fun and makes for a good recommendation to my fantasy-loving high school students.