stuff I read

Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944–1945 by Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke, edited by Helmuth Caspar, Johannes, and Dorothea von Moltke, translated by Shelley Frisch

43437749._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
An NYRB Classics Original

Tegel prison, Berlin, in the fall of 1944. Helmuth James von Moltke is awaiting trial for his leading role in the Kreisau Circle, one of the most important German resistance groups against the Nazis. By a near miracle, the prison chaplain at Tegel is Harald Poelchau, a friend and co-conspirator of Helmuth and his wife, Freya. From Helmuth’s arrival at Tegel in late September 1944 until the day of his execution by the Nazis on January 23, 1945, Poelchau would carry Helmuth’s and Freya’s letters in and out of prison daily, risking his own life. Freya would safeguard these letters for the rest of her long life, much of it spent in Norwich, VT, from 1960 until her death in 2010.

Last Letters is a profoundly personal record of the couple’s love, faith, and courage in the face of fascism. Written during the final months of World War II, the correspondence is at once a collection of love letters written in extremis and a historical document of the first order. Published to great acclaim in Germany, this volume now makes this deeply moving correspondence available for the first time in English.

I read the description of Last Letters in the NYRB Classics catalog and knew immediately that I had to read it. Freya von Moltke had allowed other volumes of letters from her correspondence with her husband Helmuth James to be published during her lifetime but these letters, the very intimate letters exchanged while Helmuth was imprisoned by the Nazis, she only allowed to be published after her death in 2010. They are incredible.

This is not an easy book to read in one go – it’s a collection of letters between a couple that expected almost daily that he would be executed by the Nazis and contain minute details of Helmuth’s defense and Freya’s visits to various officials to try and get Helmuth released, so they do get a repetitive when read all at once, one after the other. But their discussions of faith and love, reminiscences about their children and family, regrets, and heart-felt farewells in each letter are truly moving. Each of these letters was smuggled into and out of Tegel prison by the prison chaplain, a close friend, at risk to his own life (also included here are a few of the “official” letters that Helmuth and Freya exchanged via the usual prison mail route to avoid raising suspicion).

Reading this collection makes one wonder if one could place themselves at risk, knowing the stakes, if in the same situation the von Moltkes and their friends were in during WWII. Would I place my family in danger to deliver these letters? Or even to be a member of a group like the Kreisau Circle? These letters give so much insight into how Helmuth leaned on his faith and prayer, and supported Freya as she struggled with her own faith, during his imprisonment, right up until his execution. His execution date was kept secret so there is no real “end” to the letters, merely a note that Freya’s final letter was not received before Helmuth’s death. This is an incredibly intimate collection of letters. We are so lucky they were preserved.

Last Letters is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz

41707938Summary from Goodreads:
In the wake of the 2016 election, Lyz Lenz watched as her country and her marriage were torn apart by the competing forces of faith and politics. A mother of two, a Christian, and a lifelong resident of middle America, Lenz was bewildered by the pain and loss around her–the empty churches and the broken hearts. What was happening to faith in the heartland?

From drugstores in Sydney, Iowa, to skeet shooting in rural Illinois, to the mega churches of Minneapolis, Lenz set out to discover the changing forces of faith and tradition in God’s country. Part journalism, part memoir, God Land is a journey into the heart of a deeply divided America. Lenz visits places of worship across the heartland and speaks to the everyday people who often struggle to keep their churches afloat and to cope in a land of instability. Through a thoughtful interrogation of the effects of faith and religion on our lives, our relationships, and our country, God Land investigates whether our divides can ever be bridged and if America can ever come together.

I picked up God Land because I was interested in Lenz’s reporting/research on religion and faith in the Midwest (I am 100% a city kid from Cedar Rapids, IA, where she now lives). And she does a great job in tying to get inside that mythos of “midwesterners are the salt of the earth and the ‘real’ backbone of the US” and the cognitive dissonance of faith and politics. She also ties much of it to her search for a faith community that did not make her feel small or unwelcome. I think she also did a fantastic job of presenting all her subjects fairly and with depth and avoided othering or making any of them the boogeyman which is hard when being “politically neutral” is impossible. (I had a chuckle in the chapter where she attends the ELCA pastor conference and I was like “those are my people! *High five*” I am a very lapsed Lutheran 😂)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy because I was definitely not fancy enough to get a review copy.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani

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Summary from Goodreads:
Muslim: A Novel is a genre-bending, poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim from one of France’s leading writers. In this novel, the second in a trilogy, Rahmani’s narrator contemplates the loss of her native language and her imprisonment and exile for being Muslim, woven together in an exploration of the political and personal relationship of language within the fraught history of Islam. Drawing inspiration from the oral histories of her native Berber language, the Koran, and French children’s tales, Rahmani combines fiction and lyric essay in to tell an important story, both powerful and visionary, of identity, persecution, and violence.

“Muslim” is a book that I ran across by accident while curating a selection of Muslim writers for a display at the bookstore. Which, in the most ironic way, plays into the central tenet of Rahmani’s novel: that “Muslim” is used as a monolith, a label that erases all nuance. The narrator of “Muslim” weaves back and forth between exploring her childhood as an immigrant from Algeria in France, losing and then finding her childhood Berber language, ruminating on the development of Islam, and contemplating the bleakness of an unnamed camp, in an unnamed location of the world, where the narrator has been taken captive because she is a “Muslim” and is therefore suspect of all manner of unnamable things.

The original French edition was published in 2005, so several later references in the book are very directly pointing to the US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq at that time. I wonder how the book would be similar or different had Rahmani written the book in 2015.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Called the work of “a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose” (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, “anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love,” by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take “us on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most profound, moving books I have ever read. I read it twice through cover-to-cover. Kimmerer seamlessly twines together the scientific rigor of botany and ecology and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Potawatomi to make the case that humanity should work in concert with the natural world to be good caretakers of the earth and work to reverse some of the scars we’ve left behind us. Some essays are more fluidly narrative, telling of creation stories or of memories from when her daughters were small (the maple syrup story is a favorite). Others take a more businesslike tone, with Kimmerer as teacher.

If you’ve read Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, or even Rachel Carson though Kimmerer doesn’t go in for the shock value, then Braiding Sweetgrass is a step along the same path, but with a different way of walking.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

When I downloaded the galley for The Incendiaries I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for an intense literary novel about religious faith and cults. (I mean, look around at the garbage fire of the news.) But I was intrigued after reading a bit of Kwon’s interviews where she talked about growing up with an intense religious faith, then losing that faith, so I decided to go for it.

The Incendiaries is a hallucinatory, violent debut that grapples with the line between faith and fanaticism. I have never been a particularly religious person, especially as an adult (although I was raised Lutheran and I am the child of a church organist, which is just one-off from being the pastor’s kid), and the way Kwon constructed the circuitous religious logic displayed by Phoebe and John Leal was particularly fascinating. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the structure of the novel as the narrative jumped between Will, Phoebe (reconstructed by Will), and John Leal but I couldn’t put it down. I do wonder what the Phoebe sections would have looked like had they actually been in her voice, but Kwon’s choice does give a very illusory, unsettled feel to the character.

TW: rape. It does occur on the page later in the book. The scene does not feel gratuitous, but it could definitely be triggering.

The Incendiaries is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

35412371Summary from Goodreads:
Married twenty years to Thomas and living in Nashville with their two children, Maggie is drawn ineluctably into a passionate affair while still fiercely committed to her husband and family. What begins as a platonic intellectual and spiritual exchange between writer Maggie and poet James, gradually transforms into an emotional and erotically charged bond that challenges Maggie’s sense of loyalty and morality, drawing her deeper into the darkness of desire.

If you like your protagonists deeply flawed with conflicting motivations, get yourself a copy of Fire Sermon. Maggie is a woman struggling to reconcile her faith with her desires. To be a good wife and mother, a poet, a teacher. She loves her husband, yet he is not intellectually stimulating and her sexual desire for him grinds to a halt (their sex scenes together are the most affecting, and possibly disturbing, of the book and so deftly crafted). When she writes an appreciative email to a fellow poet, the relationship becomes a lifeline for her, challenging her as a writer, a thinker, a human. Quatro has given us a deep meditation on temptation, marriage, and partnership told in a non-linear fashion through emails, therapy sessions, letters, diary entries, and scenes from an omniscient narrator to mark the passage of time. One of those books that is very quiet but manages to bowl you over with its sentences.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson

9735306Summary from Goodreads:
The extraordinary story of an all-American girl’s conversion to Islam and her ensuing romance with a young Egyptian man, The Butterfly Mosque is a stunning articulation of a Westerner embracing the Muslim world.

When G. Willow Wilson—, already an accomplished writer on modern religion and the Middle East at just twenty-seven—, leaves her atheist parents in Denver to study at Boston University, she enrolls in an Islamic Studies course that leads to her shocking conversion to Islam and sends her on a fated journey across continents and into an uncertain future.
She settles in Cairo where she teaches English and submerges herself in a culture based on her adopted religion. And then she meets Omar, a passionate young man with a mild resentment of the Western influences in his homeland. They fall in love, entering into a daring relationship that calls into question the very nature of family, belief, and tradition. Torn between the secular West and Muslim East, Willow records her intensely personal struggle to forge a ““third culture” that might accommodate her own values without compromising the friends and family on both sides of the divide.

img_8728The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights “One Community, One Book” chooses a book each year and programs readings, lectures, and community discussions.  Now that the Iowa City Book Festival happens in the fall, they coordinate occasionally to bring the author for a lecture-discussion.  This year the book selected was The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson. *cue squealing* And I got to be Willow’s chauffer from the airport  *#DED* I think I set a zillion ghost emojis to my friend Kat. She did a signing at Daydreams and then one after her lecture and I got allll my things signs plus she’s lovely and nope, I’m not a creepy fan. Nope nope nope.

This is a lovely memoir about finding one’s faith and adopting a culture you love even while fighting the media stereotypes about that culture and faith. When Willow was in town, I talked to her a little bit about this book which was largely written 10 years ago with the enthusiasm of a person in her mid-20s. She mused that maybe she could have written some things differently, or had done more research on a topic, from the distance of another 10 years of living in the “third culture” she and Omar have tried to build for themselves.

Even if she wishes things had been written differently, I feel like she approached this book with sensitivity and a great deal of love and gave a lot of nuance to very “big picture” issues. Her descriptions of Omar’s family are so wonderful (I’d love to meet his mom, Sohair). There is a later chapter where Willow had the opportunity to meet a sheikha, a female imam, and how Westernization has possibly eliminated the need for sheikhas, to the detriment of many. It’s an interesting line of thought.

Dear FTC: OF COURSE I BOUGHT MY OWN DAMN COPY.