Saffron Cross : The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk by J. Dana Trent

In her late twenties, Duke Divinity student and ordained Baptist minister Dana Trent saffron crosswent the e-Harmony route for dating and found an unlikely match – unlikely, until she actually met Fred, an American practitioner of the Hindu faith.

After disillusionment with the Christianity of his youth, Fred found his spiritual path through Hinduism.  He practiced as a Hindu monk for several years before deciding that the rigors of monasticism were not his calling.  He remained a devout Hindu, even as he and Dana met, dated, and eventually married each other.

What followed was a rediscovering of faith.  Dana experienced doubt and confusion as she and Fred continued to practice their chosen religions.  There was marital strife, for sure, and the author is big-hearted enough to admit that much of it was her own stubbornness.  Accepting the traditions of another faith took several big leaps of change.  However, as Dana learned the practices of her husband’s faith, she found, after time, a strengthening of her own, and they both grew to respect each other’s spiritual paths.

There is definitely some culture shock here, particularly in the first chapter, when Dana and Fred embark on an ascetic honeymoon to an ashram in India, and when they spend two weeks at the Audarya monastery in northern California.

Readers of books about interfaith relationships will find much to enjoy in Saffron Cross.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running By Haruki Murakami

what i talk aboutI never completely understood Haruki Marukami’s short stories.  I found them rather cold and flat, and they made me wonder if he believed in love and everything beautiful and wonderful about it.  However, when I came upon his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on my solo trip to Japan, I had to read it.  I was compelled to, because it was a memoir about running.  I spent three years running in the cross-country and track teams in my high school years.

I was not the best runner in the least, and I have never run a marathon, although I think about it every now and then.  Marukami has even run ultra-marathons, where one runs day and night for hundreds of miles.  I am nowhere nearly as invested in the sport, but I did learn a few things while running.  First, you are racing against yourself, your best former self, but not really anyone else.  Along with that, running is a sport that I believe is 99% mental and 1% physical.  Lastly, running teaches you endurance and the will to go on.

I believe Murakami would agree with me about what I learned about running.  He also tells his story as a writer in the pages between descriptions of running races.  I do not remember much about those parts but I believe his process of running and process of writing are intertwined in some way.  For me writing can be an endurance sport also, of finishing your story.

My favorite quote from his book goes like this:

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

I feel that this quote may have originated from somewhere else, but I like the notion that it is a choice to suffer or not.  It is totally up to each of us to dwell in misery and self-defeat.  We can choose otherwise.  It goes along with the idea of choosing joy over sadness, and it took me a very long time to understand it and practice it.

I haven’t found Murakami to be a particularly positive writer in his novels and short stories, but I found lessons I could relate to and learn from in this book.  I hope that readers can experience his little gem of a memoir and see how it speaks to them.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Sylvie and her mother accompany her father on an unusual vacation with a collegeghost wall professor and a small group of his students, with whom they relive the lives of Iron Age inhabitants in a rural area of northern England.  This means lots of foraging, cooking food over a fire, and wearing a rough tunic.

Sylvie’s father is a devotee of the study of past cultures and has a broad knowledge of living in the wild, which he has passed on to his daughter.  Her dad is also brutish – he’s physically and emotionally abusive to Sylvie and her mom.  As she is used to his moods, Sylvie humors him for the most part, because she doesn’t know anything better.  But, as she gets to know the other students, and one in particular expresses concern, Sylvie envisions another paths to her future that don’t involve a bullying parent.

Sylvie’s dad has a strong interest in the bog people – folks who died hundreds of years ago whose preserved bodies were found in the peat bogs scattered in northern Europe.  His fascination borders on the obsessive, especially after the group builds a ghost wall – a talisman of a battlement complete with skulls.  Sylvie is oddly drawn to the chant and ritual that accompany the construction, so much that she allows her father to coerce her into another ritual the following evening, one that proves to be much more sinister.

Ghost Wall is a short novel, juxtaposing 1990s Britain with the reenactment of a two thousand-year old Briton culture.  The book takes on gender issues, the natural world, regional differences within England itself, and the worldly versus the immediate.  Ghost Wall is a fast read, although it will help to have some knowledge and interest of things British.  My biggest issue with reading it is the lack of quotations during conversations.  I got used to it, and it does contribute to the dreamlike quality of the book, but this might be problematic to some.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


City of Light : The Making of Modern Paris by Rupert Christiansen

city of lightAt the beginning of France’s Second Empire period (1852-1870), the grid of Paris was a labyrinth of narrow crooked streets; filth and squalor choked the city.  Louis Napoleon, newly appointed emperor, began a campaign to clean up and redesign the capital.

Enter Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a disciplined man whom Louis Napoleon appointed as prefect of the Seine.  Haussmann was a career civil servant, a man with an impeccable record for efficiency.  He was not known for chumminess, and his visions for Paris were occasionally at odds with the emperor.  But Haussmann got things done, sometimes to the detriment of the working poor.

Renovations were extreme and expensive.  Haussmann gutted large swaths of crowded Paris and replaced them with orderly boulevards.  He transformed park lands, and created whole blocks of neat apartment buildings that conformed proportionately to the roads.  Haussmann also reworked the Parisian water infrastructure from a system infamous for breeding disease to a sewer network that became known as a tourist attraction.

His above-ground result was a gracious, and sometimes monotonous style which defined the Haussmann look.  The city was certainly more open, and aesthetically, Haussmann’s grand boulevards were a far cry from the previous slums.  But during his tenure as prefect, Haussmann weathered his share of criticism, and he was eventually dismissed.

While Haussmann and his city planning are the book’s main focus, City of Light is also a quick-reading history of a rapidly changing Paris, from the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which left Louis Napoleon in defeat and ushered in the French Third Republic.  The book is a reminder that the violent tendencies that one usually associates with the French Revolution were far from over, well into the following century.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner

Aaron has known the art of doing without from an early age.  It’s Great Depression eraamazing St. Louis, and his father is barely making it as a watch salesman.  Most of their income goes toward Aaron’s mother’s stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium; Aaron and his father are constantly on the move from one shabby room to another.

A stroke of bad luck lands his father in jail after he is caught at the scene of a shooting in a jewelry store, and Aaron is homeless after the police lock up their room.

On the move and desperate to keep his father’s Ford away from creditors, Aaron is fired up to find out the truth and get his dad out of the clink.  At first, it seems like he is completely alone in the world, and then…help happens, sometimes haphazardly.

Friends, whether established or new, appear.  Vernon, the super of the hotel where Aaron and his father were living, gives Aaron an occasional meal, fighting lessons for dealing with school bullies, and help from his cousin to hide the Ford.  Augie Beckmeier, newsboy extraordinaire, takes Aaron under his wing and tails potential suspects.  A mother and daughter, residents in a Hooverville that Aaron adopts as home, give him food and moral support; Ella, the daughter, even helps Aaron pull off a fake interview with a saleslady of the jewelry store, a glamorous type who knows more than a shop clerk should.

Through break-ins, sheer gall, and occasional brushes with heavies, Aaron gets ever closer to proving his father’s innocence.

Yes, there is a courtroom denouement, and it comes with plenty of drama, and a fine defense by a prominent lawyer who takes an interest in Aaron’s father’s case.

The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom is an old-fashioned romp of a tale, kind of pulpy in tone, which plays well for catching the feel of the 1930s.   Aaron is likeable, a spirited kid who weathers the hard knocks with style.  The plot is a little contrived and things tend to get tied up too nicely toward the end, but the book is still fun, a nice diversion for those who prefer a light-hearted read.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Rediscovering Travel : A Guide for the Globally Curious by Seth Kugel

rediscovering travelI liked Seth Kugel’s columns as the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times a few years ago.  He has a great penchant for rooting out unexplored and unreviewed places.  Although he no longer does the Frugal Traveler series, Kugel still writes travel columns for the Times – and now he has a book.

Rediscovering Travel is a wonderful start for anyone wanting to reexamine their approach to travel, particularly those who are willing to step out of preconceived comfort zones.  This includes the use of technology, i.e. smartphones, GPS devices, etc.  While Kugel is far from a Luddite and has embraced certain modern-day niceties, he gently encourages the reader to not base their entire experiences on iPhone selfies and Google Maps.  He also points out the pros and cons of online review services, and is glad to share his tips for affordable trekking.

If travel for you means all-inclusive resorts, carefully curated eco tours, or cruises that are planned down to every detail, than this book isn’t for you.  Or is it?  Kugel’s easy-going conversational style might convince you otherwise, and encourage you to expand your vision of what makes up a vacation.

I have to admit that Mr. Kugel approaches some aspects of travel with more chutzpah than the average traveler might have.  After all, not all of us have the nerve to talk our way into a brandy distillery in Hungary.  But his willingness to put himself out there (with some thought-out caution) makes Kugel’s approach to the globe worthwhile.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams

I grabbed the audiobook of The Book of Joy the first chance I got, as it was recommendedbook of joy to me.  Although my journey does not exactly coincide with either the Tibetan or Anglican faith, I was eager and open to hear the contents of this book.  I personally believe joy is everlasting happiness independent of circumstances, and hoped to discover more from the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

There were many great lessons from The Book of Joy, but the greatest one for me was this.  I recall a quote from the Dalai Lama which goes:

Especially today; there is not much focus on inner values in education.  Then, instead of inner values, we become self-centered, always thinking:   I, I, I.  A self-centered attitude brings a sense of insecurity and fear.  Distrust.  Too much fear brings frustration.  Too much frustration brings anger.  So that’s the psychology, the system of mind, of emotion, which creates a chain reaction.

I believe that self-centered people are more likely to be depressed as they fall deep into themselves and their problems.  As you shift your focus away from your self and onto others and on God (or perhaps a higher power of your faith), you lift out of depression.  Life is not only about you and your needs and your wants.  There is a whole life of loving others.

The following from quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu adds to the previous quote in the conversation:

What the Dalai Lama and I are offering is a way of handling your worries:  thinking about others.  You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even worse a situation, but who have survived, even thrived.  It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.

This goes beyond being wrapped up in yourself, and being part of the greater world.  Having compassion on those who suffered and being inspired by those who triumphed over suffering produces joy.

Further on, I found myself both shocked and strangely intrigued by the Dalai Lama participating in an Anglican service by Archbishop Tutu and vice versa.  I can believe that they are friends and deeply love and respect each other.  Although this book is about joy, it can just as well be about loving someone who is “other.”  The Book of Joy teaches that one can be friends with a person who’s thoughts, beliefs, and entire world is absolutely different than yours, and it does not have to compromise your thoughts, beliefs, and entire world.  We just have to be willing to listen and respond with kindness and in truth.

The Book of Joy is a worthwhile read or listen, and I encourage everyone to simply experience it and also apply what they learn to their lives.

(Stella Oh, Benjamin Branch Library)