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The Ninth Hour

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 5:48pm

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, radiates a feeling of quietude, stillness, though, in the first pages of this novel, an immense action is unfolding. McDermott fans will find here the usual fluidity of writing as she spans across decades with grace. The Ninth Hour is written with precision, full of small particulars that grapple with big questions. The words unfold calmly, belying the action that they hold. The plot is not full of twists and turns but does have it’s fair share of scandal, especially to the Catholic Church, within whose rules and rituals this novel is framed. There is infidelity here, suicide.

The story begins with a young man taking his own life and in doing so, leaving behind a pregnant widow. When their daughter, Sally, is born, both mother and daughter come to rely heavily on the sisterhood of nuns who helped with mourning, grieving, and pregnancy. The Ninth Hour is mostly Sally’s story, as told by her children, but also, the story of the sisters who raised her. Through details revealed as to who these nuns were before they took their vows, we catch a glimpse of the women beneath the wimples. Despite personality differences and backgrounds, the nuns, as a whole, have a great capacity for dispensing care. McDermott’s quiet strength lies in these intensely observed characters.

As Sally passes through adolescence, she thinks she too will become a nun. Her first test comes on a journey to a convent in Chicago. A train ride reveals to her the most basic of human needs and desires, “a sampling of the ‘others’ she was giving her life to: vulgar, unkempt, ungrateful.”
As she strives to be good, Sally wonders if one person’s penance can guarantee salvation for someone else. This is a question at the root of McDermott’s exploration of family, sin, religion, and the influence of the past. Put aptly by Lily King, in her review in The Washington Post, “There are so many ways to read this beautiful novel: as a Greek tragedy with its narrative chorus and the sins of the fathers; as a Faulknerian tale out to prove once more that the 'past is not even past'; as a gothic tale wrestling with faith, punishment and redemption à la Flannery O’Connor; or as an Irish novel in the tradition of Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín, whose sentences, like hers, burn on the page.”

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St. Andrew's Episcopal Church Celebrates 190th Anniversary

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 7:39pm

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[|St. Andrew's Episcopal Church] marks 190 years in Ann Arbor in 2017. Old News has digitized hundreds of photos and articles beginning with the [|appointment] of Rev. Gillispie to the rectorship in 1861 to a 2009 story of [|Svea Gray], mainstay of St. Andrew's Breakfast program. Grace Shackman's [|Then & Now] article provides a great overview of the history of the church. The recommendation of Rev. Tatlock in 1895 to provide [|free pews] so that all were welcome at the church foretold the mission of St. Andrew's to be [|inclusive], [|supportive] and most importantly, a [|force] in the community at large. The 39-year rectorship of [|Henry Lewis], from 1922 to 1961, embodied this [|spirit] and became a model for all St. Andrew's [|rectors] to [|follow].

St. Andrew's was a social center for Ann Arborites as well. Their Easter Ball was the [|"society highlight"] of the year, followed closely by their [|Guild Ball in December]. The annual [|Christmas] and [|Easter] fairs raised money for the Church and for their charitable programs. Music remains one of the most noted aspects of St. Andrew's Church. Their [|choirs], [|organists], [|concerts] and plays by the [|St. Andrew's Players] remain not-to-be-missed events. The Canterbury House was a place for [|performance] and [|poetry] and [|protest].

And of course, the [|building]. From any [|view], [|inside] and [|outside], whether [|chapel] or [|vestry], [|details] that have a [|history] of their [|own]. Be sure to include St. Andrew's, 306 N. Division St., on your next walking tour of Ann Arbor. You can also read about the history of [|St. Andrew's] in books at AADL.

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Blog Post

Eccentric Author Writes Brilliant, Odd Short Stories

Sat, 10/29/2016 - 3:15pm


Fair warning: [a:Williams, Joy, 1944-|Joy Williams] is a quirky personality. Known for eccentricities such as wearing sunglasses at all hours of the day, both inside and out, for not using e-mail, and for driving across a huge chunk of the US just to pick up some giveaway pews and hull them back across the states in her creaky truck--it's no wonder her stories are deliciously odd too.

Her recently released collection: [b:1496521|Ninety-Nine Stories of God] is full of snippet-length accounts that hit you in the gut with their understated significance and piercing satire. You'll do a double take and then a triple, hanging on every word. Williams' previous works have been nominated for both the Pulitzer and the National Book award and have been appropriately called Kafkaesque. Those who like a good puzzle will meet their match, as well as those who like to be hit with the weight of a story without needing to understand why. The title proposes that the common theme of this collection is God, but it will be up to you to find him in many of these stories. [a:Williams, Joy, 1944-|Williams] takes every opportunity to poke at what we think we know with her sense of the comedic element in this finite world.

I will leave you with this short story appropriate for the spooky end of October:

"A woman who adored her mother, and had mourned her death every day for years now, came across some postcards in a store that sold antiques and various other bric-a-brac. The postcards were of unexceptional scenes, but she was drawn to them and purchased several of wild beaches and forest roads. When she got home, she experienced an overwhelming need to send a card to her mother.
What she wrote was not important. It was the need that was important.
She put the card in an envelope and sent it to her mother's last earthly address, a modest farmhouse that had long since been sold and probably sold again.
Within a week she received a letter, the writing on the envelope unmistakably her mother's. Even the green ink her mother had favored was the same.
The woman never opened the letter, nor did she send any other postcards to that address.
The letter, in time, though only rumored to be, caused her children, though grown, much worry."

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Lectures & Panel Discussions

Advent Reflections from Michigan's Northern Woods with Author Gayle Boss

Saturday November 12, 2016: 4:00pm to 5:00pm
Pittsfield Branch: Program Room

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A Fresh Look at the Spiritual Disciplines

Fri, 08/12/2016 - 6:49pm


If you have ever been curious about what the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith are, or how to begin them, [b:1492980|Out of the House of Bread] by Preston Yancey provides a fresh and accessible approach to these time-honored practices. As the title suggests, each chapter discusses both a spiritual discipline and an aspect of baking bread, drawing analogy between the two.

This book is especially helpful as an introduction because it is extremely practical. Yancey reflects on the meaning and theory behind each practice, but then gives step by step instructions on how to implement one for that week. Similarly with baking, Yancey uses the theory of bread-making to illustrate the meaning of a discipline, but then assigns you to literally bake a loaf each week, with instructions that build upon one another in making each loaf better.

For those practiced in the spiritual disciplines already, Yancey's discussion leads away from the rote application of them by habit, and instead presses in to deepening the "why" and understanding the beauty of them. Yancey draws from the [b:1135555|Benedictine model], with several chapters addressing disciplines that might first come to mind: confession, scripture reading, intercessory prayer, and fasting. Yet the other chapters may surprise you, contemplating feasting, wonder, remembrance, and rootedness. These all tie together under the perspective of seeing the world as a sacred place where God draws near. The spiritual disciplines seek to attune us to recognizing this sacredness.

These practices unite theological strains from [b:1487921|Quakers] to [b:1420430|Catholics and monks], from [b:1492980|Anglicans] to the [b:1220956|Emerging Church]. [:user/lists/67809|Click here for a list of books related to the spiritual disciplines from all of these perspectives].

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Blog Post

Re-defining Significance

Thu, 03/31/2016 - 4:19pm


Who doesn't need to be reminded to recognize the beauty of small moments? Two new books reflect upon ordinary living, re-defining significance.

Christie Purifoy gave up her career and a steady paycheck to buy an old brick farmhouse with a plot of ground, and pursue her dream of re-building it into a home. Structured as reflections divided into the four seasons, [b:1491425|Roots and Sky] traces Christie's journey toward homecoming: the tired days, the depressed months, the fists-at-the-sky tantrums, and the oh-so-thankful glimpses of what is “adding up to something astonishing.” Christie’s story is crafted by memoir, so it unfurls through her own dreams, and lessons learned, but she touches longings that we all share. She hears God's voice in chipped paint, snowflakes, and scratched bannisters, and listening in reminds us to open our ears too. Her life includes many things mine does not: children, a house, or a green thumb. But everything in her pages declare that the world is full of good gifts, and the weight of significance rests in peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

J Ellsworth Kalas, Former Professor and President of Asbury Theological Seminary, passed away last November. A prolific writer, Kalas left us with the fruit of a life he sought to live fully in one last book released in February, [b:1490333|The Pleasure of God]. This slim volume is divided into twenty-two chapters, each pondering one of the many ordinary tasks no person can avoid, tasks which, by necessity, make up the majority of our time. We cook a meal, shower, walk to the car and shop for groceries. And then we sleep. Would we be closer to God if we could avoid so many earth-bound pursuits and concentrate on weightier matters? Kalas argues “no." He shows how these ordinary activities can be the very space where God draws near.

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Blog Post

A new collection of essays from Marilynne Robinson: The Givenness Of Things

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 1:52pm


Marilynne Robinson is known for her award-winning series of Iowa-set novels [:catalog/record/1230086|Gilead], [:catalog/record/1315898|Home] and [:catalog/record/1457858|Lila], which are underpinned by questions of religion and faith. In her latest collection of essays, which follows her 2012 collection [:catalog/record/1404138|When I Was a Child I Read Books], Robinson dives fully into intellectual and moral queries.

Titled [:catalog/record/1480362|The Givenness of Things], the themes of this philosophical collection are diverse. Robinson discusses neuroscience and metaphysics, and analyzes the affect of the Reformation on how humans learn. She also makes clear her disillusionment with contemporary society, yet cautions readers and humans in general not to give in to “joyless urgency.” Her deep love and reverence for humanity, and for what we as humans can produce and create, permeates her writing. The essays in this collection total seventeen in number, many of which investigate and reference the work of philosophers of old: Calvin, Locke, and Shakespeare to name a few. Robinson manages to weave political opinion into these pieces too, denouncing “unashamed racism,” “incarceration for profit,” and gun violence, along with “cynicism and vulgarism.” Despite the vast array of subjects touched on in this collection, it flows naturally and well from one essay to the next, and Robinson’s strong voice is clear, composed and slightly witty for all three hundred pages. Booklist gives The Givenness of Things a starred review, commenting “These… profoundly caring essays lead us into the richest dimensions of consciousness and conscience, theology and mystery, responsibility and reverence.”

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Blog Post

The Gorgeous American Qur'an

Mon, 01/11/2016 - 12:21pm


Artist Sandow Birk’s beautiful new book [b:1483879|American Qur'an] is truly a revelation. Birk worked on this project for almost ten years. His [|website] states his motivation:

“At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind.”

This project took him all over the world and introduced him to the many complexities of Islam. He ultimately hand transcribed the Qur’an using traditional methods and then placed the text over top illustrations of everyday American life. [b:1483879|American Qur'an] should not be misconstrued as an illustrated Qur’an, but rather a Qur’an whose sacred text enriches the images it shares the pages with.

If you are interested in reading the Qur’an in full for the first time, I would not start with this hefty book; AADL does have more standard translations of the Qur’an and it’s easily found online. However, if you want to see a beautiful interpretation of the Qur’an that is uniquely American, you should check this book out!

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Blog Post

Lila: Raw and Beautiful

Tue, 12/08/2015 - 2:50pm


After repeated suggestions to read [t:Gilead], Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer prize winning novel, I gave in and picked up the book's prequel, [t:Lila], a 2014 National Book Award Finalist itself, as a starting point. I picked it up and, in a sense, I don’t think I will ever put it down. It did what an excellent book should do: it twisted my heart and in so doing challenged my way of thinking, and my compassion.

"Lila" follows the inward and outward journey of a wandering street girl to whom hardship is just a way of life. She has endured childhood abuse, the shame of a whore house, and the hunger pains and hardness of a life on the run. This background has become more than an experience but an identity. Though Lila's particular tragedies are hers alone, her questions and struggles strike a universal cord and make her achingly relatable. Which of us has not felt alone in a room of friends, or tried to earn the gifts of love and acceptance even when freely given? Which of us do not doubt our place in the world, or try to self-purge shame and fear? When Lila unexpectedly finds herself in the kind, small town of Gilead with the new comforts of a house, family, and community, she now wrestles with receiving this grace of the present. It seems unfitting to the tainted Lila she sees herself to be.

Lila slowly transforms as she works through an unlikely romance with an aging pastor who does not view her colored by her past, and offers her Hosea-like love. Far from stereotypical, rather than sermonizing the reader and wrapping up answers to age-old questions with a bow, this pastor is raw and human with his own pains and his own searchings. Together with us this pair considers troublesome questions that remain unsatisfied with trite answers. Questions such as what do we make of a world of suffering? What would it look like to be made new? How do we love flawed people who can display towards us both good and evil? And how do we live in light of loss? Together they learn to receive grace for themselves, and allow grace to transform their scars into compassion for others.

[a:Marilynne Robinson] has given us a book that is raw, humble, honest, and beautiful. Through her I am learning compassion for those I relate to least. Her wisdom challenges me to resist simplifying knotted questions, and in the not knowings to live in light of the gifts of grace.

If you have already enjoyed "Lila" as I have, you may also enjoy these finds:

[a:Alice McDermott|Someone (2013)] by Alice McDermott

[b:1457894|The Thing About December] by Donal Ryan

[b:1423449|Benediction] by Kent Haruf

[t:I Curse the River of Time] by Per Petterson

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Blog Post

The Girl's Guide: the handiest new book!

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 4:14pm


It has always seemed to me like there are a lot of “life guidebooks” out there, especially geared towards women. Some have good info, but are often focused on a single subject: housekeeping, fashion, love and romance, health or careers, but rarely all of the above. Life can be confusing and I’ve often wished for a book that has tips and suggestions about all of that stuff that I can just keep around the house. And now, we’ve got one! [:catalog/record/1471714|The Girl’s Guide], by Melissa Kirsch, covers all these subjects—and more—in a single, simply designed new book and I love it!

Chapters include Health and Body Image, Money and Finance, Careers and Work, Dating, Sex and Romance, Spirituality, Home Ec for Modern Times, and sections on fashion sense, friendship, and getting along with and navigating familial and other close relationships. The format of the book is incredibly handy. There are longer sections, but everything is summarized in short, bolded phrases, too, for those just scanning quickly for info. Particularly relevant or important information (for example, the difference between a credit report and a credit score, or what to do if you feel like you’re going to cry at work) is detailed in cute turquoise boxes throughout the book. There are even a few checklists in The Girl’s Guide, including one for outfitting your kitchen and another for things to make sure you check on before purchasing a home. This book is incredibly useful, comprehensive, and realistic, and is a must-read—and maybe even a must-own!—for women everywhere.