good reads in the new year

Post-holiday life, although pleasantly tickled with a snow days, cold days, and mandatory mental-health days, has been full. The undergraduate students for whom I’ve been preparing internships and interviews over the last 5 months finally arrived to Chiberia just a couple of weeks ago. They are eager to soak up Chicago in its frozen state and ready to jump into 13 weeks of full-time work, 10 arts events, 9 hours of class each week, and life with new roommates (strangers) in tiny studio apartments in a new city.

I adore this group, their enthusiasm, their go-get-em attitudes, and their focus under pressure. Orientation, albeit a long and challenging and time-sucking week, went smoothly. Students are placed and have positive dispositions toward even their second and third choices, if their first preference turned them down. I am told I broke a new record this year – getting all students placed before the long MLK Day weekend. I am so grateful for this small victory, even though I had no idea what to expect from these students; and to a certain extent, I am unsure if when something will go wrong. Will someone show up in flip-flops and sweatpants, be sent home from their site, asked not to return? Will a site not have enough work? Will a supervisor – or worse, a student – go AWOL?

So I am forcing myself to bask in the satisfaction of a good week’s work: enjoying Mark’s homemade cinnamon rolls, cooking elaborate meals, losing miserably to Mark in Scrabble, sipping amaretto and my favorite ginger pear tea. Mark graduated in December (huzzah! so proud of that guy. check out his new editorials section on his website), so post-holiday life has also been unemployed life for him so far. He has been working hard to perfect his portfolio, connect with professors and colleagues who promise assisting work, and get his work known in a variety of photojournalistic circles. In the meantime, it has been a blessing to have him home so much again after having barely seen him in the months of October, November, and December, while he worked so hard in the studio on Columbia’s magazine and for his classes. We have enjoyed the time to reconnect, although I know he’s itching to find good work.

A day at home in Chiberia.
A day at home in Chiberia.

Shifting gears here. During my commute to-fro work and on my time off, I’ve continued working on fulfilling one of my 26 goals for this year: reading 26 books. I already gave you brief reviews of Wonder and Stitches in December, so here’s an update on my good reads for this month. (I LOVE the Chicago Public Library’s hold list. LOVE it.)

Strangers at My Door was at the top of my hold list for a while, since I had stayed at Rutba House for a few days during a spontaneous spring break trip in grad school. Rutba House is a hospitality house in Durham, NC where the formerly homeless are welcomed into a community that eats, prays, and shares life together. In the book, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove discusses the motivation for the home, the challenges, blessings, and lessons learned. My favorite part of this narrative is that Jonathan doesn’t boast about lives changed or cleaned up after a few months or years in the House. Rather, he recalls his own story of how Rutba has changed him. The story of addictions he didn’t realize he had – to things, to power, to safety and security. The story of prejudices being broken down and of grace filling in the gaps. The story of broken people healing other broken people. The narrative’s radical (even though Jonathan wouldn’t call it that) model of community challenges me and my understanding of the Gospel to the core.

It was not an easy read, especially during train rides where on one side of me, I’d see a Wicker Park neighbor reeking of lavender, Starbucks, and expensive leather, and on the other side, I’d watch a neighbor without a home trying to sleep, awaking himself with his snores, and sending wafts of body odor and cold sweat my way. Me, in the middle, proud of my new bag and boots made from up-cycled materials, grateful for a new warm winter coat. I wasn’t sure what to do or think. More often than not, I was ashamed with this book in my hands as I already knew I would rush off the train and head to my cozy attic home for a good meal, hungry for rest and time away from a noisy and bustling city. I am still wrestling with it. I know I am supposed to be uncomfortable with that tension and with the unjust distribution of wealth – I knew that was a reality I signed up for when I decided to live in the city, but it was jarring to be reminded of how little I do to lean into that reality, working towards a new reality. I am reminded of this every time I teach students public transit, and they watch me to see how I’ll react to a person without a home asking for money on the street. I always smile, say hi, have a good day, but still feel unsure if that’s enough. Especially as eyes are watching me. It is always a good conversation to have with students, ask them what they think – they often offer a fresh perspective that is so good and convicting. If you’re reading this, ask me more questions about this when you see me. Keep me engaged in this thought process.

On a lighter note, Allegiant and Gone Girl were my two easier reads this month. Mystery thrillers that had me missing my train stop… more than once. Allegiant is the third in the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I was drawn to this series because of its setting: a dystopian Chicago. Mark teased me about how similar it was to The Hunger Games series, constantly asking “how are Katniss and Peeta doing?” as I read. And if I’m honest, it is fairly similar, but what I favor in this series are the themes of trust vs. mistrust, justice vs. grace, power vs. service. Allegiant was a powerful ending to the series, which captured my attention with its action and gave me hope for our real-life Chicago!

Gone Girl, on the other hand, does not have many redeeming qualities. This story of a failing marriage is the kind of psychological thriller that leaves you questioning your own motives and wondering if your expectations of your friends and family are ‘normal’ or just plain psychotic. Despite feeling sick for the characters as I read it, I couldn’t put it down. Ironically, Gillian Flynn’s characters mock readers (and me) for this flaw, for our inability to turn our faces away from others’ brokenness. We are addicted to watching others fail. After having read this novel, I’m ready for something a little more hopeful!

So, next on the list (many inspired by this BuzzFeed list):

  1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (I took the strong hint that I needed to read it when I received not one, but two copies for Christmas!)
  2. Room by Emma Donoghue (another Christmas gift)
  3. Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
  4. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (a thrift store find, incidentally coming to theaters this year!)
  5. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
  6. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Have I mentioned how much I love the Chicago Public Library? I love that I can see the Harold Washington from my office window!