Samantha Irby, Meaty, (New York: Vintage Books), 2018.
I read a review of Samantha Irby's personal essays and decided that they would be worth a read because I write plenty of personal essays and I'm always interested in what successful authors have done with their essays. Like other good writers, Irby really puts herself into her essays. They contain way more personal information than I would be comfortable. She is frank, honest, and really puts herself out there. The book left me thinking that I have way too much information about Irby.
Still, she made me laugh with many of the stories she tells. She has a sense of humor that transmits a sense of hope to the reader. If one can go through all of the problems and trials that Irby has experienced and still have a sense of humor, there is probably hope for those of us whose lives haven't been quite so challenging. Irby became the primary caregiver for her very ill mother at a young age and learned to make her own way in the world at a time when most of us were being supported by our parents. She suffers from a chronic autoimmune disorder that certainly makes her everyday life a huge challenge. All that and she leaves us laughing.
Reading these essays is a bit like being invited into a very private space. Irby has made that space very public.
Johnathan Goldstein, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! (New York: Riverhead Books), 2009.
There is a long-standing tradition of telling stories using Biblical characters and adding details that are not included in the Biblical narrative. After all, many of the stories in the Bible are told for specific meanings and not for narrative content. There are a lot of things about Biblical characters that are unknown. We don't know the details of dialogue between specific characters. We don't know what kind of relationships they had with their parents. Goldstein tells very familiar Bible stories with lots of details added and lots of humor. This book is a very light read, but an entertaining way to think about some of the characters in the Bible.
In a way the strongest stories are at the beginning of the book. He tells only one story from the New Testament and that is his version of the birth narrative, which uses a very traditional interpretation of Luke's story. My hunch is that Goldstein isn't really a Greek Scholar and doesn't know much about the New Testament, but added the Jesus birth story to the book to increase its appeal to Christian readers. This might even have been a suggestion from an editor.
At any rate the book is fun and light and just enough to keep readers engaged.
David Sedaris, Calypso (Center City, MN: Hazelden), 2010.
David Sedaris makes me laugh. His cleverly written essays tell the story of his life, which seems a bit disordered and chaotic. When he describes his addiction to a device that counts his steps, I realize that the only way that one could devote that many hours to walking is if one also is able to write engaging essays about the experience. It sometimes seems as if his writing must be effortless and quick because of the number of hours he spends traveling, working out family relationships and pursuing his interests. The truth, I suspect, is otherwise. His personal essays are spot on and carefully crafted.
Calypso focuses on a home in North Carolina that David purchased to be a gathering place for his family. Remembering family summers on the outer banks from his childhood, he purchased the home as a way of reconnecting with his family. Sedaris somehow succeeds in making his essays on vacations at the home into reflections on middle age and mortality and so much more. Still he makes me laugh and I read him for his deep sense of humor. Perhaps I even connect with him in such a way that I am laughing not only at his writing, but at my own foibles as I grow older.
Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden), 2010.
I'm not a fan of self-help books in general. I believe, as the title of Brown's book suggests that human happiness and self-worth are achieved by discovering and embracing one's own identity, not by following another person's path to success. However, I belong to a group that decided to read and discuss this book and the book has produced some very good discussion indeed. We did not use the book as a formula or pattern, but rather as a stepping off point in looking at ourselves.
Brown is a researcher whose general field is shame, authenticity and belonging. After a couple of introductory chapters, the book focuses on ten guideposts to developing courage, compassion and connection. These three words are really the core of the book and open ways to think about pursuing a more meaningful life.
The book is a good read, and even better when discussed in a trusted and caring community.
H. Jon Benjamin, Failure Is An Option: An Attempted Memoir (New York: Penguin Random House), 2018.
I frequently comment that I don't watch television. It is mostly true. However, I do watch videos on my computer and sometimes watch complete television shows. However, there are some popular shows that I simply have not seen. As I read this book, however, I sort of wished that I had watched at least one episode of Bob's Burgers or Archer. Both are animated sitcoms in which a major character is voiced by H. Jon Benjamin. This book seems to almost ask for one's imagination about how his voice sounds. From the book, I have gathered that he has a slightly nasal and somewhat whiny voice with perhaps a bit of a Yiddish accent, though I don't know about any of that.
In a very humorous way, Benjamin makes the case that failure is not the end of the world. In many situations failure can be a strong way to shape character. It also contributes to humility and grace in dealing with others who make mistakes and, yes, who on occasion fail. Benjamin adds to this the simple joy of telling a story in his own self-deprecating style. There are a few somewhat risqué situations, but nothing too extreme and on the whole the book is a delight and a very easy read.
I picked it up as I was making a transition from a very busy phase of my life to a more leisurely season and it was just right to get me into the mood of recreation and rest. It isn't the kind of memoir that one will read over and over again, but it is the kind of book that you won't mind passing on to a friend.
Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2018.
Walter Brueggemann has been a beloved and revered teacher of the Hebrew Scriptures for decades. He has been prolific throughout his career, and perhaps even more prolific as a writer during his retirement. His books on the prophets are classics and his books of prayers are deeply meaningful. They have become staples in my library to which I return again and again. So one might not expect to see a book specifically focused on New Testament themes from Brueggemann, but the reality is that he is a deeply faithful Christian scholar whose entire body of work is predicated on his Christian beliefs. So a book of Christology from Brueggemann should not be a surprise.
Quite the contrary, it is a delight.
The book is a series of excerpts form elsewhere in his writings and so each paragraph is a gem that is a thought that stands on its own. I commented to one of my colleagues that it is a bit like reading poetry. I find myself reading out loud and then pausing after a paragraph to ponder the depth of meaning contained therein. Our book group has been going through the book by having each member share a particularly meaningful passage which we then discuss. We have no trouble filling up our time with meaningful conversation.
It shouldn't surprise us that Brueggemann has written words that act like poetry. His respect for the Old Testament poets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah has been inspirational to many of us. He knows that in troubled times, no one can speak truth to power quite the way it is expressed by the poets.
Read the book slowly and carefully. Set it in a convenient location and refer to it from time to time. You won't be disappointed.