Firelight and Starglow
Some fragmented thoughts on things I've read this year, the Christmas season, and the composer John Rutter's cheesy yet beautiful music
Wednesday, December 28
Grand Rapids, Mich.
For my last letter to you of this calendar year, dear reader, I thought I’d share a reading list.
A couple of brief introductory notes:
These aren’t the “best” things I’ve read this year; they’re my favorite. There is so much writing out there nowadays—so much that’s good but also so much that reminds me that one gift we writers can sometimes offer the world is a more robust discipline of journaling. Of course, “good” is subjective. What touches my heart might leave yours cold. What excites me might bore you. What sends me fleeing might captivate you. I’m repulsed by cliché, and I’m irritated by jargon. When I read, I tend to look for writerly hospitality. By that, I appreciate an author who sets a generous table at which those who know little will still feel welcome and those who disagree might feel challenged or chastened but not dehumanized or shamed. I especially hope to be persuaded not just to think differently but especially to be moved somewhere I did not expect to go—to be stirred into feeling something I did not expect to feel.
I’m sharing articles—long-form reporting as well as essays. I am in awe of all of you who have posted voluminous lists of the books you read in 2022. My scattered brain still struggles through a few thousand words, as the oppressive, ever-growing stack of New Yorkers on our coffee table testifies. Maybe next year!
Here, in no particular order...
“Solomun, the D.J. Who Keeps Ibiza Dancing,” by Ed Caesar, in The New Yorker
When I do read The New Yorker, I try to start every single feature story, even if the topic doesn’t immediately grab me. Which is how I ended up transfixed by the British journalist Ed Caesar’s profile of the German D.J. Solomun. I will probably never go to Ibiza. In my twenties and into my early thirties, though, I reliably went clubbing once a year. For one night, I’d surrender myself and my omnipresent inhibitions to the thrum of EDM and the visual staccato of the strobe lights; in the hands of a great D.J., that night could be, as Caesar testifies, “both therapeutic and regenerative.” Caesar’s piece is, yes, about clubbing and dance music. But as with the best pieces of creative nonfiction, the stated subject also serves as a vehicle to other, less expected destinations. Here, Caesar delves into interconnected themes of culture, creativity, and celebrity. And with Solomun, he asks provocatively big questions about faith and beauty, belonging and home.
“Does My Son Know You?” by Jonathan Tjarks in The Ringer
I’m struggling to find words to describe this piece by Jonathan Tjarks, who made his name as a basketball writer. All I can say is maybe have a box of tissues handy. This essay has nothing to do with sports or games; it’s about being a father and being a son, confronting one’s own mortality and wrestling with the meaning of religion. Tjarks’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when Tjarks was a young boy, then did not recover after open-heart surgery some years later: “He was there but he was no longer there.” Tjarks was 12. “That’s the age when your parents go from authority figures to actual people. That never happened for me and my dad. We never got to know each other. What did he like doing? What were his experienceces growing up? What were his goals in life? And there’s the simpler stuff too. How do you tie a tie? Or grill a burger? Or fix a car? I had to figure it out all on my own,” he writes. The spark that ignites these reflections: Tjarks’s own diagnoses with a rare, late-stage cancer when his son, Jackson, is just two years old. “Now it looks like my son might have to do the same. It was the one thing that I never wanted for him.”
“The Butterfly Effect,” by Maggie Koerth in FiveThirtyEight
If you’d asked me before I read this story what a Poweshiek Skipperling was, I might have said that it was maybe a strange dish that I’ve never tasted before or perhaps a math proof that I’ll never understand. Both wrong! It is a rare, endangered butterfly whose native range includes my adopted home state of Michigan. Maggie Koerth examines the plight of the Poweshiek Skipperling as a way of understanding the massive changes that are happening to ecosystems all over this planet as well as the extraordinary efforts that scientists are investing not only in the survival of a species but also in their own sense of hope.
“Shaking the Tree,” by Paula Mejía in The Oxford American
One of my favorite subgenres: the essay that returns you to something familiar, even beloved, and makes it new again. Paula Mejía, who grew up in Houston and now serves as the arts editor of the Los Angeles Times, does this wondrously in a piece about Houston’s live-oak trees. I’ve developed a real fondness for Houston over the years. It’s my husband’s hometown. Most Christmases, we go to Houston to see his family and to eat our weight in barbecue and Tex-Mex. Every single trip, I’ve marveled at the live oaks. Though they aren’t quite cold-hardy enough to endure the Michigan winter, I wish they were; I’d love to plant one in our yard and watch it unfurl over the years, branches spreading out wide in a characteristically welcoming embrace. Mejía examines live oaks’ “complications, the weight of their presence—and absence,” in a free-ranging exploration that touches on urban planning, inequality, climate change, and personal history. “A tree, after all,” she writes, “is never just a tree.”
“Drawn to War: A Ukraine Journal,” by George Butler in The Virginia Quarterly Review
By now, most of us are sadly familiar with war photography. George Butler’s work is more unusual. He accompanies his reporting from conflict zones with drawings done in pen, ink, and watercolor. Earlier this year, he spent about a month in Ukraine. To be honest, I’m still not sure what to make of his images. But I do find them strangely beautiful. Instructive, too; in the ample white space that he almost always leaves in these works, there’s a chastening reminder that, from afar, there is only so much that we can know or understand.
“White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One,” by Nicole Carr in ProPublica
For the past fifteen years, the nonprofit ProPublica has invested in scrupulously fair, tremendously important investigative journalism. This profile of a middle-school principal named Cecelia Lewis puts a human face on the controversy around critical race theory and urges us to understand what exactly is happening in American public education. I found it at once enraging and illuminating, and while I don’t really know how we are going to get out of this mess, I do think that reporting like Carr’s will help us understand the depth of the trouble we’re in as a society.
“Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album,” by Sasha Archibald in The Public Domain Review
“Seaweed chastened his ego, and abasement made space for love.” What an oddball sentence, and what an oddball piece. Yes, I am actually recommending a visit with Victorian-era kelp obsessives. For one thing, given all the downbeat news of our times, you can’t blame me for seeking some respite in the weird escapism of centuries past. And maybe I was subconsciously lured in by seaweed collecting’s elite reputation, which I knew nothing about until I started reading this story. “Flowers were the Victorian middle-class obsession,” Archibald writes, “but those of greater discernment favored seaweed.” The historical images, most from the 19th century, are as unexpectedly stunning as the story itself.
“Lost in Translation: Hong Kong’s Weird and Wonderful Street Names,” by Diana Pang in Hong Kong Free Press
One more from the department of arcana and shameless geekery. I love learning about how cities came to be. This story, from one of the last free and uncensored journalism outfits in my beloved Hong Kong, looks at how the territory’s streets were named in Chinese and English. One of my favorite bits of trivia has to do with Rednaxela Terrace, a short, pedestrian road on Hong Kong Island that the Filipino revolutionary Jose Rizal once called home. It was actually supposed to be called Alexander Terrace, but a Chinese clerk, assuming that English, like traditional Chinese, was read right to left, copied the letters in reverse.
“The Beautiful, Haunted Landscape,” by Sarah Bessey in “Field Notes”
This one is personal. In August, my dear friend Sarah returned to Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center in North Carolina where the first Evolving Faith conference was held, for the first time since our beloved Rachel Held Evans died. For All Souls Day, Sarah posted this moving reflection on grief. “For a time, it was easier to tuck things into compartments or safe boxes in what I blithely refer to as my mind palace, in order to keep avoiding them and pretending to be mostly fine or at least to keep going, going, going,” she writes. “Compartmentalization is not a healthy long-term strategy at all, but I’ve found it really helpful when you’re just trying to get through the day, the week, the funeral, the months of drinking probably a bit too much wine again and staying way too busy and reading books just to keep from thinking your own thoughts. Whatever we need to do to keep going is just what we did to keep going. And that’s okay. It’s okay right up until it isn’t anymore and then it’s time to befriend our ghosts.” I’m going to be thinking about that last turn of phrase—befriend our ghosts—for a long time.
“‘I’m Still Alive but Sh*t Is Getting Wild’: Inside the Siege of the Amarula,” by Alex Perry in Outside
I’d be surprised if this story hasn’t already been optioned for the big screen. This devastating, dramatic reconstruction of a 2021 attack by extremist Islamic insurgents on a natural-gas installation in northern Mozambique is also an indictment of corporate moral corruption and our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.
“We Belong to One Another,” by Wallace Ludel in Bomb
Yes, yes, so much of what I’ve chosen for my “favorites” list has a bass line of sadness. So let me leave you with one last recommendation that’s not (I think?) so depressing—a lovely conversation between the poet Wallace Ludel and the polymathic writer Ross Gay, whom I’ve written about before. Amid the wreckage of the world, Gay sounds a note of resilient joy and unlikely hope, compelling us to seek out beauty and to cultivate love. “Noticing how much there is to notice sort of takes the ground from under us, and it might also alert us to the common groundlessness,” he says. “There's more to notice than we could ever notice, so it follows that there is more to love than we could ever imagine.”
What have you read this year that has stayed with you? I’d love to know.
Also, here is your annual reminder that Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s an entire season—you know, that whole “twelve days of Christmas” thing. You must know by now that twelve days of celebration seems daunting and exhausting to me, especially if they involve lots of people. But I’m not saying that my way is good or healthy!
I am thinking about this short section of W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being”:
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
I have enough apprehension as it is, and I wish for the good news of the Christmas Feast to remain with us just a little while longer. So I am going to try to listen to the wise counsel of my friend Kate Bowler, who writes, “At Christmastide, we shed the pressure of ‘the holidays’ and how we always do things, and take on a new, relaxed rhythm of celebration. Kinder. Quirkier. Gentler.” I hope you’ll join me in imagining how that might look in your life. (Kate’s words come from the Christmastide section at the end of her free Advent devotional, which you can download here.)
For me, it will probably mean listening to a couple of pieces by the English composer John Rutter on repeat. People have criticized Rutter’s works as “too saccharine” and “cheesy fluff”—one critic called him “the Thomas Kinkade of classical music,” which is just vicious—but I don’t care. I like them. Two favorites:
Candlelight Carol (sung by the Cambridge Singers)
Angels’ Carol (sung by the WDR Radio Choir from Cologne, Germany)
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
That’s all for this week. As always, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.
With much gratitude and in semi-foolish hope,
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