Once Upon a Last Week

“She devours books,” I was told. This about one of my incoming students a few years back, and all I could think was, “That’s. Awesome. I want to be described as someone who devours books!” So new–or, rather, additional–life goal: devour books.

Reading is why I look forward to summer. The weather is great and all (except when it’s not, which, coincidentally, makes for fantastic reading weather), and I appreciate the time to reset before tackling another school year, but what I really like about summer is that I can read. And read and read and read.

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2018: SAME.

I am taking a break from reading* to talk about reading, but much more about storytelling. Because I love stories. In fact, nearly every night I ask Ben to tell me a story. Unfortunately, nearly every night he says, “I don’t have any,” which is why our marriage is only near-perfect instead of perfect (that, and the fact that he insists on talking to me before I have coffee in the morning). So I roll over, pick up one of the books off my nightstand, and resume reading while he drifts off to sleep.

The book I finished last week is a story-lover’s dream. Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (get it here!) is a tale with heart and humor, heartbreak and healing. It’s got real characters–flawed people who desperately try to do their best despite it all. It’s got mystery and some magic (the latter not necessarily being my cup of tea, but I dig it here), and it has a healthy dose of innocence thanks to our main character, Elsa, an intelligent and curious almost eight-year-old. Oh, and, of course, there’s Elsa’s granny, a sassy spitfire of a woman who reminds me a heck of a lot of my late granny. I loved every moment of reading and, although I haven’t sat down to crunch the numbers, I think I can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books.

Here are a few passages I especially appreciate, along with a little commentary:

“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing,” (89).

Preach, Granny. Preach.

“Don’t fight with monsters, for you can become one,” (a paraphrase of Nietzsche, 243).

Yeah, This book incorporates some thoughts from the 19th-century German philosopher. Who knew? This book is full of surprises.

“It’s human not to be sure,” (291).

Right? Or…? (See what I did there?) 😉

“Granny then said the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much on the not-a-shit side as one can,” (331).

And there you have it. This book contains the secret–or at lease the “real trick”–of life.

But I said I was going to talk about storytelling, didn’t I? And this is why Ben thinks our marriage is only near-perfect rather than perfect (this and how I can be a bit of a…umm, crab in the morning). It drives him nuts that I start on one topic or story and meander my way through. “Okay, wait. Get back to…” he says, sometimes lovingly. Then he adds a little, “Pew, pew, pew!” while pointing his index fingers in various directions. This to convey my style of storytelling and to try and lighten things as he slowly grows more irritated with my tangents. What he doesn’t understand is that it’s all important. I can’t not tell you about the philosophy incorporated in the book; I can’t not share some of Granny’s best lines. But, yes, it’s about storytelling, too.

Take these passages, for instance:

“For no stories can live without children listening to them,” (231).

“People have to tell their stories, Elsa. Or they suffocate,” (314).

“At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. The soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact,” (quoting Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas, 335).

Yes, yes, and yes! But it’s not just about children listening to them; it’s about all of us listening to them. And it’s about us telling them, sharing our experiences and perspectives with one another. Then it’s about honoring those experiences and perspectives by listening, really listening to one another not to judge, but in ways that allow us to understand and connect.

This is why I read, why I encourage others to, and why I insist my students do. I could travel the world and talk with as many people as possible (and I would love to do that), but I’ll never be able to meet all the people or encounter all the experiences I am able to as I turn the pages of each book I read.

Stories matter. And when they’re beautifully told with heart and humor, all the better.

*I am currently reading Calypso by David Sedaris, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephan Chbosky, and 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Also on my summer “to read” list:

  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Rebublic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi
  • They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
  • All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (my semi-annual reread)

And, off course, I’m accepting recommendations. Happy reading!

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