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)

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)


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)

Maggie & Me : Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland by Damian Barr

Revisit the Thatcher years as seen from the eyes of a working class teenager from a smallMaggie & Me town near Glasgow.

In 1984, eight year old Damian views Margaret Thatcher’s televised iconic survival from a bombing on the first night he is living in a stranger’s apartment after his parents split up.

The stranger is his mother’s new boyfriend, who turns out to be highly abusive to Damian and his sister.  It doesn’t help that his mother soon has another child with her boyfriend, and shortly after is hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage.  When his mom comes back home, they eventually leave the abusive boyfriend, but the next living arrangement is far from ideal.

His father still has his children every other weekend, and Damian is remains close to his dad, even though the dad’s girlfriend is a piece of work and tends to dominate things when the kids visit.

Growing up with his peers is not easy.  Damien is always the tallest and geekiest in his class.  He also knows early on that he is gay, and gets a lot of flack from the other kids for it.  He also meets some lasting friends and understanding teachers, finds that he’s good at most academics (math excepted), and has a life amidst the squalor that makes up home.

Damien comes to terms with Margaret Thatcher in his own fashion, alternatively seeing her as enemy or motivator.  That’s one of the things I liked about the book.  He has his issues with Thatcher, being from a working class environment, but doesn’t completely vilify her.  As a slight nod to the Iron Lady, each chapter begins with a Thatcher quote to set the tone.

While Margaret Thatcher’s era is the framework for Maggie & Me, the story is all Damian’s, and he renders his teenage years vividly.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Northland : A 4,000-Mile Journey along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

northlandOur border with Canada is lengthy, and largely not thought of.  As news items go, the border with our southern neighbor gets all the press.  So it’s a shame that our longest frontier is little known.

In Northland, the author mixes history lessons and a grand tour by a variety of methods to enlighten the reader on the amazing variety of peoples and geography of the north.  He begins his journey in Maine, which he dubs “The Dawnland,” where he largely explores the region by boat.  He starts at the farthest eastern point of Maine, and then canoes the interior lakes between the United States and Canada.

In the Sweet -Water Seas section, Fox abandons his beloved canoe to traverse the Great Lakes area by cargo freighter.  This was for me the most interesting part of the book.  During his time on the freighter, the author gets to know the salty types who make a living hauling cargo.  They have rough jobs, made harder from tedium and days on end of trekking the Great Lakes.

In Boundary Waters, Fox explores the vast network of lakes in northern Minnesota, usually by canoe and often guided by locals.  In this part, he marvels at the sheer remoteness of the region, but yet how quickly the modern world intrudes.  A cell phone signal, the sound of a car door, the ordering of a pizza after days of canoe travel and camping – all of these are welcome but jarring after the solitude of the north country.

In the Seven Fires section, history and current events take center stage, specifically the recent Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Fox meets some key figures of the protests there and provides an overview of the Native American tribes that have called the Great Plains home for hundreds of years.

In the final section “The Medicine Line,” Fox ends his journey in the Pacific Northwest.  Even though most of this stretch of boundary is straight along the forty-ninth parallel, mapping and maintaining this part has been difficult, considering the terrain, which is largely mountainous.

Northland is a far-reaching observation of a boundary between two countries that takes into account a fascinating history, environmental issues, and the immense task of maintaining a border that has been contentious in the past and still an ordeal to patrol today.

(William Hicks, Information Services)