Wise men and women offer good books for Christmas

By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Thursday, December 7, 2017

The newest thousand pages from Walter Isaacson, Diana Gabaldon or Stephen King is always a welcome Christmas gift, but when it comes to spiritual reading, give me the briefer book, with short chapters and simple, thoughtful ideas. 
If you know someone with similar inclinations, here are a few books you might consider: 

“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, Avery Publishing, 366 pp.

In 2015, Nobel Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu met in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. They were joined by author Douglas Abrams, who they asked to chronicle their week of private conversations. 

In the abstract, few would seem to know more about hardship than these two men. The Dalai Lama has been exiled from Tibet for almost 60 years, and has watched from afar as China has ground Tibet down and attempted to co-opt Buddhism. Archbishop Tutu spent decades opposing apartheid, dealing with bigotry and death threats. 

Yet what each of them is most known for is the open, happy spirit that animates them. 

In “The Book of Joy,” the two reflect on the path to joy, as well as its paradoxical origins in suffering.

“We are fragile creatures,” says Archbishop Tutu, “and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of joy.” Suffering, each suggests, is the heat that cracks open our shells and renders us more open to life. “The question is not: How do I escape?” says the Dalai Lama. “It is: How can I use this as something positive?”

This is the kind of book you find yourself slowing down to savor.  

“The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party-Crashing” by Gavin Edwards, Random House, 384 pp.

The older Bill Murray has gotten, the more he’s tended to be cast as men who have let their hearts atrophy and need to learn how to love again.  

Yet as Murray himself has gotten older he seems to be living life in the best possible way. Over the last decade, the tales of Murray randomly showing up not just on talk shows or in team dugouts but at dorm parties, wedding receptions and kickball games and turning ordinary moments into magic have grown endless.

Author Gavin Edwards has come to this conclusion: “I feel like Bill Murray is secretly trying to teach us how to live.”

In “The Tao of Bill Murray,” Edwards combines people’s encounters with Murray with interviews with the man himself to suggest some lessons we might learn from Murray: “Wrong numbers can be an adventure”; “Drop coin on the world” (aka don’t be stingy); “If you walk into someone’s house, do all the dishes and leave, you[‘ll] feel like you’ve made a contribution.”

And most important: “It’s possible to remake yourself into a better person.”

“The motto of the city of Chicago is ‘I will,’” said Murray in 2008, before throwing himself out of a plane with the U.S. Army’s parachute team onto the shores of Lake Michigan. In fact that’s not the motto of Chicago, but it is akin to the way of life to which Murray invites people. “I will, you can, come on, it’ll be great.” 

“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body”  by Roxane Gay, Harper Collins, 320 pp. 

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph,” Roxane Gay writes at the start of her short but powerful book about a life spent struggling with serious weight issues. “This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover.” 

“This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided. People see bodies like mine and make their assumptions. They think they know the why of my body. They do not.”

Gay’s journey from happy child to assault victim who gains hundreds of pounds “because I thought if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away” is undeniable in its pain, but also its wisdom.  

In her experiences Gay has seen truths others miss — the strange brutality of the medical community’s terminology for those who are overweight; the way we tend to relate to those who are overweight in terms of their body rather than their person — “[My father] has so much hope for what I could be if only I could overcome my body,” she writes. “His hope breaks my heart.”

Within herself, too, Gay finds paradox — like how rejecting society’s unrealistic standards for women doesn’t prevent her from still being ashamed she doesn’t fit those standards. 

Presented mostly in short two and three page meditations, “Hunger” is a spiritual memoir, one that moves and challenges.   



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