As Hanukkah and Christmas approach, I deviate from essays focused on our Criminal Justice System to suggest several books (in addition to Gideon’s Children, of course) that are entertaining, educational, and inspirational, and whose receipt would provide pleasure, knowledge, and spiritual growth to the recipients and their families and friends with whom they are sure to share.
Below, you will find full reviews of each of the books I am suggesting, which originally appeared on Goodreads. These works are true treasures, and my holiday wish for everyone my words reach is that you will gift yourself, as well as your loved ones with a present that will last a lifetime.
Thank you for listening. And all good wishes for a joyous Holiday Season and a brighter 2016 for our world!
#1: Beauty by John O’Donohue
As an author who fancies that he has some facility for using language, reading Beauty was truly a humbling experience. In fact, other than Thomas Wolfe of You Can’t Go Home Again fame, in my sixty-nine-year reading odyssey I have never encountered a writer with such a gift of language as John O’Donohue, and I highly recommend reading Beauty to experience of the author’s incredible ability to depict the various aspects of beauty and describe thoughts and feelings about it alone. Add to this gift, the author’s immense powers of observation and wise insights, and my opinion is that Beauty is one of the ten most important books that one could read.
Language…ah, yes, language. I will not attempt to use adjectives and adverbs to further describe O’Donohue’s gift, but instead supply a few of his phrases which were my favorites. “Time had come to rest in the silence and stillness of Loch Corrib;” “the tired machinations of the ego are abandoned;” “the interior geometry of things;” the automatic traffic of functioning;” “addicts of the familiar;” “imagination has retained the grace of innocence;” and “the silent majesty of the ordinary.” And speaking of majesty, Tom Verducci, a columnist for Sports Illustrated recently opined that “Defining majesty drives man to his literary boundaries.” I realized how true this was when I was faced with trying to adequately communicate how gifted John O’Donohue is, and I would opine that John’s boundaries were wide indeed!
Content…ah, yes, content. After treating the reader to an Introduction, defining beauty and its vital importance to our lives and our world, O’Donohue then separates his exploration of the subject into ten chapters. Looking back on Beauty, I think of it as a wheel with ten spokes: The Call Of Beauty; Where Does Beauty Dwell; The Music Of Beauty; The Color Of Beauty; The Joy Of Shapes That Dance; Imagination: Beauty’s Entrance; Attraction: The Eros Of Beauty; The Beauty Of The Flaw; The White Shadow: Beauty And Death; and God Is Beauty. And in only 249 magnificent pages, the author presents the reader with a wealth of knowledge and insights in the various aspects that compose the circle of beauty. Each chapter is so full of thoughts and feelings, that one reads and rereads constantly in an effort to drink it all in and hold it. Then, as I did, the reader most like will say to his or herself, “I’m going to read and reread these chapters one at a time over the rest of my lifetime.”
I conclude by again quoting Tom Verducci, who observed of another writing that “The knowledge and wisdom was so great as to invite our most ambitious attempts at commemoration.” My most ambitious attempt to commemorate O’Donahue’s Beauty is indeed feeble next to the genius of his work. I can only urge my fellow readers to enter its pages and experience for yourselves. It will change your life for the better! I received this absolute wonderment as a gift for my 75th birthday from my dear friend, Julienne Givot, for which I give heartfelt thanks!
#2: Consolations by David Whyte
I am very excited to recommend to you, Consolations, The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, by David Whyte. My excitement stems from the fact that I have rarely read such a valuable book, and by that I mean that this 245-page collection of two-to-four page essays rewards the reader with a treasure trove of insights into what it means to be a human being. Whyte, a poet of considerable renown, with seven volumes of poetry to his credit, (as well as four books of prose), takes words like Alone, Beauty, Friendship, Joy, Pain, and Work, to name just a few, and presents a short essay on each that is filled with discoveries that stir both an intellectual and emotional reaction.
Whyte utilizes a beautiful lyrical style to explore the depths of meaning for each word, and one will find his or her head nodding in agreement with one paragraph, and smiling and shaking one’s head in amazement at discovering something entirely new in the next. And because the author manages to capture so many angles of insight in a short space, one can easily return to a chapter for rereading and the further reward this offers.
The genius of David Whyte was introduced to me by a good friend, Julienne Givot , and the best way I know to thank her is to introduce it to others.
#3: Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith is the author of three books of poetry. Her first, Duende, won the James Laughlin Award, her second, The Body’s Question, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and her third, Life On Mars, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. Even though I am a lover of poetry, I was unfamiliar with Tracy’s work, and when my daughter Amy gifted me with her Memoir, Ordinary Light, I ordered Life On Mars to read alongside it, which latter volume I’ll review in my next post.
To begin, I’d like to share with you my feeling that in my seventy-five years I’ve never read a memoir that brought me greater satisfaction. Tracy’s use of language alone makes her memoir worth reading, her lyrical style, born from her poetic foundation, singing and dancing with metaphors and similes as sentences flow effortlessly into one another, while the warmth of her personality combines with her naked search for truth to create an intimacy with her reader.
Ordinary Light shares with its reader Tracy’s development from childhood through graduation from college as the youngest of five children in a remarkable African-American family. Born in 1972, as Tracy grows year by year in Fairfield, California, one learns the background of her beloved mother and father, including their roots in Alabama courtesy of Tracy’s grandparents who the reader also meets. Watched over carefully by her mother, her best friend, Tracy’s remarkable memory traces her thoughts and feelings about her mom beginning at age five, then expands her scope to include her dad and two brothers and two sisters. Artfully, she interweaves the influence on her young and developing life of each member of her family, then adds friends, school, and church to paint a picture so full and so real that the reader feels as if he or she, too, is included in the various relationships, and is traveling right alongside Tracy as she develops from a gifted kindergartner to a mature young woman learning from her mistakes as well as her successes.
Having been raised steeped in the Christian faith, but also to believe equally strongly in the power of education, as Tracy matures she, and her siblings, face questions that bring both building blocks into conflict. And what makes Tracy’s memoir so valuable is the depth of her thoughts and feelings she shares as she probes honestly and fearfully to find the truth and her own pathway into the world, a journey most of us can relate to in varying degree. In the end, Tracy learns and teaches that personally there is more than one truth, that her’s can differ from her mother’s and father’s without rejecting theirs, but instead taking a part of theirs and adding to it her own.
Ordinary Light is an extraordinary work by an author whose exceptional mind and memory are matched by the size of her heart. Exquisitely honest and sensitive, and wise, it is one of the very most memorable books it has been my privilege to know in my seventy-five years, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to my fellow readers.
#4: The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
This work is a true treasure, like the paintings of impressionist painters who are its subject. And like the artists she chronicles, Sue Roe begins with a large blank canvas, then with a novelistic style masterfully fills it in with her subjects and their individual stories until the reader is presented with a full and satisfying group portrait.
First up is Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who from 1860 to 1886 supported and nourished the impressionists economically and with steadfast encouragement. Arriving in New York City in 1886 with 300 of their paintings, he introduces impressionism to America, and subsequently fosters prosperity for himself and his artists.
Then, retreating to the beginning of the movement in 1860, as time ticks forward Roe introduces her cast of nine artists one by one. And as the reader meets Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, Manet, Degas, and Morisot, and they meet and connect with each other, the reader is treated to short but amazingly full mini bios that make each individual come alive as a real person. And with individual backgrounds and separate personalities established, Roe then treats the reader to the group’s twenty-six-year journey forward, during which these nine future hall-of-fame artists share struggle, failure, and success. And as they form a collective friendship, as well as separate friendships within the group, their private lives are illuminated. Affairs, marriage, children, illnesses, friends, exhibitions of their work, and the landscapes and people who inhabit their painting all spill forth to add to the reader’s knowledge of each artist’s separate life and the amazing interaction between their life as a group.
To further paint a complete picture for the reader, Roe weaves in the historical events surrounding the artists, from the development of Paris from a medieval city to the City of Light that Baron Haussman made possible, to Louis Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War.
Roe’s writing is so rich with insights into the humanity of each of the artists she features, that after only 270 pages, the reader comes away feeling that he or she has far more than a survey-course understanding of each, and of what together they gifted to the world with their art.
#5: Julius Rosenwald by Peter M. Ascoli
Last October, in a newspaper article about philanthropists, there was a reference to a man who built schools for blacks in the rural south in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. His name was Julius Rosenwald. And intrigued, I consulted Wikipedia, which informed that Mr. Rosenwald was a major founder of Sears, Roebuck & Company and after becoming enormously wealthy, devoted himself to philanthropy on a massive scale, with particular interest in assisting the downtrodden. I also learned that there was a biography, which amazingly Amazon could not provide, but which Book Depository in England could.
Bearing the sub-title The Man Who Built Sears and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South, Julius Rosenwald was written by Peter M. Ascoli, a grandson who never met him because Julius died ten years before Peter was born. Thoroughly researched, and written in a style that makes the reader feel as if Peter is telling one a very interesting story, the author begins with by introducing Julius’ father Samuel and his immigration to the United States and subsequent success in business and marriage to Julius’ mother to whom he was devoted his entire life. Subsequent chapters inform the reader as to Julius’ early years, his dropping out of high-school after two years, and his steady rise thereafter to become one of the most successful businessmen in American history.
Having stated in the Introduction that his primary focus was on the philanthropy of Julius, who the author personalizes by referring to him as JR, Peter then devotes the last three-quarters of the book to JR’s charitable endeavors, interweaving from time to time subsequent business successes of JR at Sears, and providing mini biographies of individuals who played important roles in both areas of JR’s life, from Rabbi Emil Hirsch, who greatly influenced JR’s charitable work, to luminaries such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and those who personally assisted him in his charitable endeavors such as Richard Graves and Edwin Embree, all the while filling in with fascinating episodes about JR’s interaction with Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, as well as his beloved wife, Gussie, and their children.
What makes this book so readable is the author’s ability to make the reader feel as if he or she is meeting each of the cast of characters and knowing them. Through JR, a truly exceptional individual, the reader is both entertained and educated by his enormous success in business and philanthropy. In the latter arena, amazement also creeps in. For during the early decades of the Twentieth Century, a time when most of white America did not hold African Americans in high regard, JR established a program that over the next twenty plus years resulted in the building of 5,337 elementary schools for blacks in 15 southern states. And the fruitful way in which he did it is also amazing. JR worked with local black leaders, and local city-county governments to construct the schools. He would provide $5,000 ($150,000+ in today’s dollars) if private donations by blacks, and the local governments matched it. JR’s philosophy was that the best way to help poor blacks was to allow them to contribute so that they had a stake in the endeavor, and to draw government involvement so that as the years passed they would make the necessary investment to keep the schools running. As a result, millions of rural African Americans received a basic education, as well as vocational training.
JR also contributed to African-American higher education, becoming a Board Member of the Tuskegee Institute, and contributing to Fisk, Howard, and Dillard Universities. The list of his other charitable endeavors is well covered by the author, with The University Of Chicago, The Chicago Museum of Industry & Science, Hull House, and numerous Jewish Charities featured.
In conclusion, I heartily recommend this book, not only for its fascinating treatment of a special man and his times, but because it is highly relevant to the issue of social justice today, and has interesting suggestions about how American society can work toward achieving it.