Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

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The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about books that inspired Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to working for peace and social justice. Always her focus was on ordinary people: working people held back by low wages and bad working conditions and those most vulnerable in our society such as people living in poverty. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with the intention of actually living according to the precepts that the Catholic church and indeed all Christian sects preach.

While I am not a Catholic myself, I turned to this short biography because Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Unlike the other Teresa, St. Teresa of Avila who was an activist and reformer as well as a mystic, Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24.

Upon entering an enclosed Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, she spent her time in prayer and performing the hard work necessary to the community of 20 nuns, such as the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand outdoors in winter. Near the end of her life, she was asked by the prioress to write an account of her life, an autobiography that has comforted and inspired many people

What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality. What she called her “little way” consists of practicing the presence of God and offering each moment to Him by making it an act of love. If another nun teased her by splashing her with dirty water, she responded with affection instead of anger. If she was assigned some hard task, she performed it without complaint, even when she was in great pain from her illness. Day says that Thérèse described these “irritations encountered in her life with twenty others under obedience . . . to show of what little things the practice of virtue is made up.”

Not all of us are broken on a wheel or shot full of arrows. The stories of most saints are dramatic and heroic. Thérèse’s everyday offering, though, is something we can all do. We can all strive to be a little bit better in everything we do.

In his Introduction, Robert Ellsberg says:

From Thérèse, Day learned that each sacrifice endured in love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. She extended this principle to the social sphere. Each protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world . . .

Thérèse’s little way, in fact, offers an essential key to interpreting the message of Day. In a time when so many feel overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world, she bore witness to another power, one disguised in what is apparently small and weak. Certainly, life at the Catholic Worker offered daily, hourly, opportunities for self-mortification—the little decisions to sacrifice one’s time, privacy, comforts, and cravings for the sake of others. It was the practice of these small, daily choices . . . that equipped Day for the extraordinary and heroic actions she performed on a wider stage.

These days I often feel “overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world” and take comfort in the idea of small actions: a call, a postcard, a rally. I struggle to find the right balance between resisting being bullied and responding with love. This account of Thérèse’s life helps me look at these issues a different way. Complete and unquestioning obedience like hers is not right for me, but I could be more compassionate.

In a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, I read of an elderly woman in rural England during the Blitz. Unable to help those being bombed in London in any practical way due to poor health and fortune, she did the only thing she could: she prayed. My practical nature resists the idea that prayer and good intentions actually help others, but they can’t hurt, and I certainly know that some small action can have huge consequences later. We don’t know how another person may be influenced by what to us is a casual aside.

It is Thérèse’s parents whom I’ll remember from this book. Both wanted the religious life but were rejected by the holy communities they sought to enter. Day says of Thérèse’s father that “he made up his mind to live a holy life in the world.” This, to me, is the essential problem: how to live according to your ideals in this flawed world where temptations abound and compromises are the norm.

For Louis and Zélie Martin, their way was to work hard—he as a watch and clockmaker; she as a maker of fine Alençon lace—and raise their five daughters according to their beliefs. Day says of Louis “It was through marriage and the bringing up of a family that he was to play his great and saintly role in the world.” The same is true of Zélie. To the joy of both parents, all of their daughters became nuns. All are remembered for their goodness.

We can each of us play a “great and saintly role in the world” even when our lives are quite ordinary. Whatever we call our practice—compassion, mindfulness, or the presence of God—we can pursue it as our gift to the world.

What book has inspired you?

The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos

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Like Bread and Wine, this book was one that Dorothy Day reread frequently. It is a fictional diary of a young, unnamed priest assigned to his first parish: an isolated, rural village in 1930s France. As it opens, he stops on his rounds and looks out at the “miserable little houses huddled together under the desolate, ugly November sky” and is overwhelmed by his own inadequacy.

We can all of us manage to peel potatoes and feed pigs, provided we are given the orders to do so. But it is less easy to edify a whole parish with acts of obedience, than a mere community of monks. More especially since the parish would always be unaware of them, and the parish would never understand. [author’s emphasis]

This is, in fact, what happens to him. Mocked by the children, the target of gossip by the adults, he struggles with self-doubt and despair. He suffers from stomach pains that make it impossible to eat anything but bread dipped in wine, leading the village to think that he is a drunk. They take advantage of his unworldliness to cheat him and play pranks on him. From a peasant background, he feels awkward dealing with the inhabitants of the Château. He does find a few friends to confide in, particularly an older priest, the Curé de Torcy, but continues to feel like a failure. Even at the end of the book he calls himself “a very commonplace, very ordinary man.”

There are pros and cons to writing a novel in the form of a diary. Its main advantage is the reader’s intense immersion into the protagonist’s thoughts. However, this can become a liability if the protagonist does not hold our interest. I struggled with this novel for the first half of the book, bored by his endless complaints, his timidity, and the monotonous routine of his life.

What redeems the book is the second half, where we—or I at least—begin to understand that this is the story of a spiritual journey. He himself believes that he is becoming more and more incompetent; he cannot even pray anymore. Yet we see that he is actually beginning to have an effect on those around him.

Another problem with diaries is that we only told about events from the protagonist’s point of view and only what he chooses to share with his diary. Bernanos avoids this problem by having his priest copy down long speeches from other characters. While this could open the novel up to the dreaded “nothing is happening” accusation, in fact these voices are so individual and so forceful that I looked forward to these passages.

They are mainly extended conversations on the nature of God and other spiritual questions. While such questions are of little interest to me at this point in my life, I can see how they would be treasured by Dorothy Day, who converted to Catholicism in 1927. Also, in her Houses of Hospitality, I’m sure she sometimes had to deal with people as difficult as those in our priest’s parish. I expect she found strength in his humility and patience, and comfort in his experience of grace.

Have you read a book that has given you strength or comfort?

Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

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I’ve been reading books by my great hero, Dorothy Day. Throughout her life she worked for peace and social justice. She truly lived by her ideals. With Peter Maurin, she started the Catholic Worker movement which, among other great works, has resulted in the founding of Houses of Hospitality across the U.S., which provide free housing for those in need. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Alfonso Cortés, “the humble, the poor, and especially the disinherited are the ones who before all else deserve our attention and our compassion.”

I’m also reading books that influenced her, such as this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled. Ignazio Silone is a pseudonym adopted by Secundo Tranquilli because of threats by Mussolini’s government against his family.

The main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. At the beginning of the story, Spina sneaks into Italy after thirteen years of exile. Although he is in ill health, he is determined to organise the peasants to rise against the fascists.

In Rome, he finds his former comrades in disarray. Two friends smuggle him into the countryside dressed as a priest. This disguise causes him much inner turmoil, since he faults the church for supporting the fascists and for not doing more to help the poor. It also causes him outer turmoil because the small village where he’s been sent has not had a priest for some time and the residents want him to hear confessions, confer blessings, and perform other holy duties.

The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation. He muses on his childhood “infatuation with the absolute, the . . . rejection of the compromises and pretenses of ordinary life, even the . . . readiness for self-sacrifice.” Later, still in disguise, a chemist in the village expresses compassion for Spina saying that “‘His revolt is illusory . . .’”

And Spina is becoming disillusioned. The same chemist knew Spina’s father when they were students and remembers him saying later, when life had changed him, “ ‘The poetry has finished and the prose has begun.’” For Spina, it is his failure to interest the peasants in politics. The conversations fascinated me with their insight into what it does to a person to toil endlessly on the land and still not make enough to feed your children. Spina tries to make them think “of the use to be made of our lives.”

How is one to live? That is the question I see threaded through all of these books I’ve been reading: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Georges Bernanos, Silone. I’m interested in alternatives to resignation when our youthful ideals meet the inevitable limitations of our society, our fellows, and ourselves.

How do we resist facism? Do we continue to give of ourselves? How much? It is said of one character that she “‘did not follow rules, but her heart.’” This idea gives me hope.

What book have you read that has influenced how you live your life?

The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories, by Ian Rankin

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Two weeks I was thrilled to hear Ian Rankin speak at my local indie bookstore. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since the early 1990s when I picked up one of his books at a store in Toronto. I’d seen high praise for his work on DorothyL, a listserv for mystery enthusiasts, but his books were not available where I lived and online bookstores were only just getting started.

Rankin’s books feature John Rebus, following him from his early days as a detective sergeant in Edinburgh as he moves up through the ranks. In the last few years, Rankin has started another series with Inspector Malcolm Fox, but this volume of short stories is all about Rebus.

It’s surprising to me that short story collections are not more popular, especially now when there are so many entertainment options and our attention spans are said to be shrinking. One reason that I sometimes resist short stories is that I find the beginning of a story requires the most concentration. With a novel, the payoff for that investment is much larger than with a short story. However, here the familiar characters and setting make the stories easy to move into.

Putting a story collection together can be tricky. When you put stories written independently next to each other, sometimes unwanted resonances or repetitions might emerge. Not here. The stories are chronological—one of the joys of the Rebus series is that Rankin has the character age in real time—and vary in interesting ways. For example, while all of the stories are in third person, some of them are from the point of view of characters other than Rebus.

We first meet him in his fifties, living alone since his wife left taking their daughter with her. Rebus doesn’t have much of a life outside of the job: just a few friends from work, a broad knowledge of the pubs in Edinburgh, and a love of music. He’s known for going his own way—a trait not valued in a bureaucratic organisation like the police—but also for solving the thorniest crimes. He carries emotional scars from his past, wounds that are chinks in his armor. And, like the best detectives, he has a strong moral code that is constantly being tested.

What I love most in Rankin’s novels are the complex puzzles. The name Rebus itself means a puzzle. In every story, there are multiple strands, later understood to be thematically related, that come together at the end. To my surprise, the stories here are also quite complex despite the smaller playing field.

I also love the huge role played by Edinburgh in Rankin’s work. I feel like I know the city even though I’ve never been there. We endure its weather, spend time in Rebus’s favorite pub, the Oxford Bar, and visit the tourist spots like the Royal Mile and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We find ourselves in less savoury parts of town and even explore secret places, like the city below the city. As we follow Rebus in his chase for clues, we start to understand the differences between Edinburgh and other places, such as Glasgow or Fife.

There was standing room only at my local indie bookstore when Ian Rankin spoke. I’m delighted that so many readers have discovered this fabulous author and that he is continuing to give us stories that challenge our minds, enlarge our world, and ask us to look again at our own moral code.

What mystery writers have made your list of favorite authors?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

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You’ve probably heard about Yanagihara’s novel. It’s won prestigious awards, been the finalist for others, and garnered mostly rave reviews. You’ve probably heard that it’s about four men, close friends, just out of college and ready to take on the world, starting with New York City in the 1990s.

It’s not. It starts out that way, but quickly focuses on one of the men, the mysterious Jude. While Jude works as a lawyer, Willem, his roommate in both college and their new ratty apartment, wants to make it as an actor. Jean-Batiste, known as JB, is an artist, while Malcolm has started on his architect career.

Only Malcolm comes from a wealthy family, but all quickly become successful, in the sense of being fabulously wealthy and/or famous. That, combined with their not having children, or in some cases spouses, put them for me in the realm of television soap opera. Yes, of course, such lives exist, but that all four should have such over-the-top success strained my credulity.

Of course, there’s plenty of unhappiness to go around. Let no one tell you this is an easy book to read. I often had to put it down and go off and read something else. Despite the glitter and the sustaining friendships, I found the misery so profound that I had to get away.

While three of the friends have their troubles with lovers or drugs, it is Jude whose suffering dominates the book. We learn early on that there is some trauma in his past that has left him with a serious limp and so much pain that he cuts himself regularly. It is the mystery of Jude’s past that keeps us reading. Yanagihara drops bits of information like breadcrumbs leading us ever deeper into the story.

The scenes of Jude cutting his own flesh are almost intolerable. While most of the book is written in an immersive point of view (POV), in those scenes Yanagihara draws back a little, pulling out of the deep dive into Jude’s emotions and instead simply shows his actions leading up to the moment. Then she allows Jude to describe what he is doing with almost clinical detachment.

Immersive POV has become popular in today’s fiction. Whether using first person (“I”) or third person (“he, she”), the author can modulate how deeply to go into the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. In a blog post, Donald Maass describes the importance of using immersion a tool in service of the story, as well as the danger of overusing it. He cautions: “Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination. Readers need space. Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.”

By modulating this distance, Yanagihara keeps the reader from being completely overwhelmed. For example, compare these three passages, all from Jude’s POV:

A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of the shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties.

There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of day, e would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.

He felt a pull of regret after talking to both of them, but he was determined. He was no good for them, anyway; he was only an extravagant collection of problems, nothing more. Unless he stopped himself, he would consume them with his needs. He would take and take and take from them until he had chewed away their every bit of flesh . . .

You can see how these passages progressively go deeper into Jude’s emotions. It’s up to the author to find the right balance for the story.

Another tool Yanagihara uses is changing the verb tense. At certain points in the story while we are in Jude’s POV (with one exception when we are in Willem’s), she shifts into using the present tense, providing a sense of immediacy and upping the tension. Then she falls back into past tense, either with a flashback or by starting a new section. She also moves occasionally into first person POV, always using the same character as narrator, one whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. This, too, changes the emotional intensity.

While I can appreciate how Yanagihara carefully modulates the verb tense changes, POV, and the degree of immersion, I still felt overwhelmed emotionally, if not intellectually. As a writer, I learned from reading this book that a good reason to pull back from immersion is if your story is so disturbing that the reader needs a bit more distance.

I found it a challenging book to read, partly because of the emotional overload and partly because of its length (814 pages in my paperback). Still, I learned a lot about using immersive POV, first versus third person POV, and verb tense changes effectively.

Have you read a novel where you felt immersed in the protagonist’s thoughts, experiences, and emotions? Did you feel there was too little immersion, too much, or just the right amount?

The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing

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My friend Jill recommended this collection of four short novels. This book was new to me, though I’ve read a number of Lessing’s books, including a reread of The Golden Notebook and Lessing’s autobiography. In these stories, as in much of her work, Lessing examines unusual relationships with a piercing honesty and deep understanding of human nature.

You won’t find a typical boy-meets-girl story here. It’s one of the things I love about her work. I’ve always objected to the idea—less prevalent these days but not gone entirely—that a woman’s only story is about love and marriage. How many movie versions of books have you seen that have been Hollywood-ized by the addition of a love interest? Even nonfiction gets distorted this way. I’m thinking of Under the Tuscan Sun, though I heard recently that there were attempts to add a love affair to the recent film about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

By going at relationships from an odd angle, Lessing brings a freshness to weary tropes and produces startling insights.

At first I thought Jill was recommending the book because of the title story, since we’d just been talking about grandparenting. Lessing’s grandmothers are two longtime close friends who live across the road from each other in a small, southern, seaside town far from England. The story follows Roz and Lily as their marriages founder, their sons Tom and Ian, and eventually the women their sons marry and their daughters. I don’t want to give away too much, but their is a quirk in this seemingly normal setup that will make you think about family interactions and what we mean to each other in ways you never have before.

The second novel, “Victoria and the Staveneys”, looks at a mother and daughter and the child’s father. It’s about dreams and talismans and the pressures of society. Each character, even the secondary characters, is so fully realized that you will find yourself inhabiting lives you never imagined.

The final novel shows us quiet Jimmy Reid from his youth, as he introduced by his outgoing friend Donald to a socialist summer school where Jimmy is “dazzled by this largesse of new ideas, faces, friends.” It follows him through World War II and beyond, but this is not a story about battles and bloodshed. It is about one person with a goal, a fantasy perhaps, and how he pursues it. I have rarely read a story so emotionally vibrant. The places and people, the events and motivations, if not what I expected, still ring so true.

As it turns out, Jill encouraged me to read the book because of the third novel, “The Reason for It”, an extraordinarily prescient look at the last days of an imagined culture. It is narrated by the last of the Twelve, appointed as Guardians of the people by Destra, a ruler already old when our narrator was born. Following the reign of her husband, a cruel tyrant, Destra initiated an age of peace and prosperity, an age of stories and songs. Destra selected twelve children to be educated in her house along with her adopted son DeRod, with the understanding that at some point they would elect among themselves a ruler and the remaining twelve would become a council.

Although it was not required, when they were fifteen, they elected DeRod as the ruler. Since then their culture has gradually dissolved.

I would like to have the time to write down the wealth of tales and stories that seem to have been lost. How could they have been lost? I have lived now for nearly a hundred years. For at least half that time the tales and songs were on everybody’s lips. And yet now only old people—my son can be described as old—remember them.

Without memories of the past, what is left is entertainment, insolence and casual violence. Festivals of songs and stories have been replaced by military festivals of army exercises and fighting. DeRod has become obsessed with a new building project, excavating an ancient city.

As in the other stories, Lessing brings these people and their culture to life. With none of his companions to turn to, the narrator sets out to understand what has happened and what, if anything, he can do about it. The first step must be to delve into DeRod’s behavior and choices and see this man clearly for the first time.

To me, the great joy and gift of reading is to inhabit other lives and experience other worlds. Lessing’s stories challenged me and changed me in subtle ways.

What fiction have you read that seems to shed light on our own time?

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

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Macdonald’s memoir has won prizes and gotten rave reviews; it deserves them all. She lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise with moments of grace that left me breathless. In a rare consensus, my book club all thought it a remarkable, if harrowing, story.

There are three strands to this book. The most obvious is her story of raising and training a hawk—and not just any hawk, but a goshawk, fiercest and most stubborn of them all, whom she names Mabel. Then there is the motivation behind her decision to adopt the hawk: her grief over her father’s death, which is wound tightly through the story of training Mabel. The third strand tells of T. H. White’s life and his attempts to train a goshawk.

The images in the first few pages tell us that we are going to be in for a rough ride. She is headed to an area called the Brecklands: the broken lands. In Neolithic times, it was the center of the flint industry. She gives us half-eaten pigeons and a fragment of a songbird’s leg, bomb craters and crumbled buildings on a base where nuclear bombs were stored. She walks through clearcut forest patches with torn roots, where even the light is broken. Amid all this harshness and death, she gives us a pair of goshawks in a startlingly apt description:

. . . they were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he’d drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she’d dip a wing, and then they’d soar up again.

Who cares about mixed metaphors when the montage works so well? She describes her difficulty remembering the days immediately following her father’s death: “The memories are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don’t make a story.”

Even individual words shiver and resonate, such as when she speaks of the falconers with “vowels that bespoke Eton and Oxford”, conjuring images of made-to-order suits.

It’s hard for a writer to balance three strands of story. At points, the strands are explicitly intertwined and other time left to echo against each other. Some of us in the book club gloried in the knowledgeable details of training Mabel, while others found that part repetitive. Several people thought there was too much about White’s tragic life and unintentionally cruel attempts to train his hawk.

What moved all of us though, was Macdonald’s growing identification with her hawk, the way they played together, understood each other, partnered in the hunt. While not explicitly stated, it seemed obvious that she saw in Mable not just companionship, not just a challenging task, but an escape from her misery, even a way to control death itself.

Some of us felt qualms about taming a wild creature. Macdonald makes it clear at the very beginning that it is the breeders and trainers who have brought these hawks back from the edge of extinction. Still, when I watch the hawks circling and diving into the woods behind my house, I cannot imagine any justification for taming them to my commands. Our relationship to animals is a complicated business, and it is to Macdonald’s credit that she provides us space and experience to give shape to our discussion.

Macdonald’s long experience with hawks, her wide reading and close attention to her surroundings enrich almost every passage in this book. There are gorgeous descriptions of chalk fields and brambles and forests. There are references to other books, such as to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I read several years ago. Sharing some of her research into White’s life, she comes up with surprising insights into some of the sources for incidents in his beloved book The Once and Future King.

There is a lot of loss in this book, and Macdonald doesn’t flinch from showing you gory death close up. There is also much that is sweet and even triumphant, such as Mabel playing catch with her or the memory of her father’s quirky quest to photograph all the bridges across the Thames. And like the best memoirs, it gives us a chance to live someone else’s life for a bit, experience the world as they do.

Have you read a memoir that has changed your view of the world?

The Constitution of the United States of America

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One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

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This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in settings from inner city Richmond to several Maryland public high schools and colleges.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.