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Four Years at the Mount

Our Best Book Picks

With spring nearly here and summer on the way we thought we at the Four Years at the Mount could help with your book list. Our writers this month were asked to reflect on a book that they consider to be personally influential and write a review.

April 2018

Learning to see beauty everywhere

Kaitlyn Marks
MSMU Class of 2021

Sometimes when I read a book, I find that it has the power to make me into a better person, a person who can see openly and embrace the world and those in it. While every book, word and sentence can shape our perspectives, it is rare to find a book that so wholeheartedly can open our eyes to all the possibilities and beauty found in the people, places and words surrounding us.

A Different Beautiful: Discovering and Celebrating Beauty in Places You Never Expected, by Courtney Westlake, tells the story of how her family came to terms with her daughterís rare skin condition. Moreover, the book tells the story of trials, overcoming obstacles, shifting expectations and embracing all the beauty that every human being has the capacity to offer. I am known in my family for working through stacks of books in a day, so I read this book quick.

However, I still took my time, working through the words sprawling through the pages of this novel, and grappling with the ideas and the grief while celebrating the joys, victories and breakthrough moments. I found the book to be one that I couldnít put down and was captivated by the simplistic breakdowns of complex moral ideas. The foundation of the story? We need to be kind, full of understanding to embrace the unique, different forms of beautiful that blossom across faces, places and words.

Westlake tells the harrowing story of her daughter Brennaís birth and the realization that she might not survive to be more than a few days old. Brennaís unexpected, life-threatening skin condition changes everything about the expectations that her family has for her life, and ultimately changes their lives entirely. After fighting for her life, things begin to stabilize for Brenna, and readers get a first-hand glimpse as the characters forge a stronger bond with God after a tumultuous experience, rather than shying away from faith. While reading the book, I found myself pondering the ways that I rely on God, and whether I find His strength or question the path I am on during difficult or even heart-shattering moments. As Westlake detailed the struggle to survive and to cope with the knowledge that her child would endure pain, I found myself enthralled with her own relationship with her faith. By the end of the book, I came away having a clearer vision of how my faith shapes my own life.

However, the book is about much more than faith and family. As Brenna grows and becomes more aware of the physical differences between her and those around her, Westlake and her husband encourage her (and readers) to understand the notion that beauty is much more than skin-deep. The author articulately describes the stares, questions, uneasy whispers and uncomfortable glances in grocery store lines, restaurants and more. Westlake encourages people to ask questions, but to be kind, thoughtful, open-minded and understanding, rather than judgmental or quick to demean or look away nervously.

Those who know me or have read a few of my prior articles in this newspaper, know that my life and view of the world changed when I did an internship with special needs students in my local school system. I spent my senior year of high school doing occupational therapy with these students and creating group activities, but more importantly, I spent my time giggling, reflecting and experiencing the uninhibited, pure love that these students were able to both give and receive to everyone they met. In a world that is full of darkness and stinging words, taking the time to understand that every single person is full of their own beauty is an underrated way of lighting up the darkness. I witnessed joy, inclusion and the ability to do more than anyone ever anticipated. I found beauty in the small, shy smile from the girl in the Life Skills classroom who didnít want to be noticed. I found beauty in the simple act of fastening a button, a laboriously earned skill that I worked on with a student every chance I got. I found beauty in the mess the kids made at lunchtime, spilling on themselves as they snorted with laughter at a joke I or one of their friends told. After reading this book, I grew to see this beauty not just within the classrooms and students hugging me and holding my hand in my internship; I started to see and understand the nature of beauty everywhere.

Westlake also details beautifully the small struggles, big challenges and happy celebrations of Brennaís daily life. While she examines the unexpected difficulties of her daughterís skin condition, like the Aquaphor stains and layers they find while doing laundry, or the process of giving Brenna a bath and taking care of her skin each night, what shines through the pages is the capacity of Brenna to do anything and everything, to experience joy like any other human being, and to grow, be independent, and feel beautiful all on her own. I was captivated. I found myself smiling at the moments of joy the family could find within their altered routines and shifted expectations.

I learned, like Westlake herself, that expectations only serve to limit what we imagine. While the life she had imagined for Brenna didnít write itself out in perfect print, complete with the images dancing in her head while she was pregnant, Brennaís life is beautiful. Brenna herself is beautiful, and the life that her family experiences with her joy and spirit added to their life is, as described by Westlake, more special and open than it would have ever been otherwise. The lessons of learning to embrace the beauty found in unexpected places, celebrating the diversity of human nature, and accepting that life might play out in a beautifully unanticipated way completely contrary to our expectations shine through the book and I cannot recommend the story enough. Everyone has potential and unlimited capacity to shine, and the novel, A Different Beautiful, highlights the struggles and celebrations of humanity while capturing the nature of faith, family and unconditional love.

Read other articles by Kaitlyn Marks


Discovery and adventure

Morgan Rooney
MSMU Class of 2020

When thinking of all the books Iíve ever read, which there have been a lot of over the years, the ones that Iíve enjoyed and fallen into the deepest parts of my heart are the ones that truly make me think. I like stories that make me think deeper on a personal level about my own life and the decisions I make every day. A book that stands out to me when thinking back is a memoir, Wild, written by Cheryl Strayed.

Firstly, the whole story of this book was quite intriguing, even before I picked it up to read. To summarize briefly, this is the true story of a woman, who in 1995 when going through a variety of hardships in her life, decides to drop everything to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT. The PCT is a long-distance trail that stretches 2,659 miles from Southern California all the way to British Columbia. She does this to be independent, to find herself and to deal with those personal issues she had been combatting.

As someone who finds great joy in outdoor activities such as hiking and camping, just a documentation of someoneís long hiking trip would have been intriguing to me, however, the deeper reasoning behind the hike made me think about my own life choices. I read this book while still a junior in high school. This was the year when I was just being told for the first time that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. Itís definitely scary being told that when you are only sixteen. I didnít even know what I would be doing that weekend, yet I had to begin choosing where I wanted to further my education and what area of study I would want to pursue once I got there. Of course, it wasnít quite as dire of a decision as I made it seem in my head, but it felt as if I was trying to map out my entire life without knowing where my destination was.

Even though Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, made a drastic decision, her story helped me to realize that nothing is set in stone and we can always alter our lives where we see fit when things arenít working out the way we want them too. Not long before her hike, Cheryl had gone through a divorce, her mother had passed away, and she was suffering from some poor decisions she had made in response. She saw that change was needed for her own wellbeing, so she underwent that change. I find stories where people change their own lives so inspiring because sometimes thatís everything we need to hear. Change is possible and itís something we can all do to improve our lives.

Minimalism is another topic that this memoir made me think about. She left on this hike, which would last months in a variety of different weather conditions and climates, with only what she could fit in her backpack. No, living out of a backpack is not the most comfortable life for anyone. To be limited to only a number of shirts and socks sounds like it wouldnít be the most pleasant experience, but it made me think about all that I have, and how much importance all those things actually have to me. Of course, I enjoy all of the little luxuries I have, but I donít actually need most of them for my survival or wellbeing. Even if you donít want to give up anything, or reduce yourself to minimalism, it is important not to forget about whatís important and whatís not in the big picture.

Who doesnít enjoy a story involving an adventure? Non-fiction accounts of things that actually happened are especially intriguing to me. Hearing of the journeys of others only inspires you to create one of your own. I think I can speak for the majority of the population when I say that by the end of my life, I would like to have some good stories to tell. Iíd love to spend the last moments of my life just reflecting on the moments that made my life worth living. I want to be able to look back and think, "Wow! I did some cool things back in the day." We all want to make the most out of life and encounter many little (or bigger) adventures of our own to make our lives worthwhile and make us feel like weíve accomplished something. This story was a true push for me to actually make one of those big decisions that would alter my life to begin making it my own. It was just what I needed to read when I was sixteen, just to make me reflect on whatís important and what I want from life, so I can do my best to make it happen.

The amazing thing about this book is that I felt as if I grew with the author and the protagonist as I progressed through the chapters. At the beginning of the story, she was struggling, as most of us do at some point in our lives. She did not know what she wanted or where her life would go as she had experienced a variety of tragedies she wasnít ready to take on. Life, she found, doesnít always wait for us to be ready before it throws us a new challengeósometimes these challenges change our lives completely, or even threaten to break us. She didnít break, though; instead, she took a step back and decided to restart. Through her journey of self-discovery on the Pacific Crest Trail, she came to know herself and was able to start her life fresh, free from the difficulties of her past. Her journey made her stronger, both physically and mentally, as we all hope our own journeys will do to ourselves.

Read other articles by Morgan Rooney


Even so, she rose

Shea Rowell
MSMU Class of 2019

As an English literature major and a total book nerd, choosing which book to review has caused immense personal turmoil. How could I choose between the dozens of stories that have each influenced my life and outlook in some way? It didnít take me too long, though, to come up with a book that combines all my favorite elements of literature into one work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

Whether or not youíve read the book, the title probably rings a bell. This is the first of a seven-part memoir series by Angelou, tracing the first 17 years of the now-famous poet, writer and activistís life. Maya Angelou was born under the name Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 and died in 2014. The life of a black woman living in the early twentieth century was marked by unimaginable challenges rooted in racism, sexism and poverty, which are all major themes in her memoir.

The first half of the story recounts Angelouís experience as a young girl, raised by her grandmother in the rural town of Stamps, Arkansas. "No" was simply a part of her life; no black girls allowed in the white school, no time to play, no medical care for black people in townóno. She questioned the world around her. Why was it that white school board officials only recognized black students for their achievements in sports? Why was she not considered beautiful in American culture? She grew up accustomed to these realities, and wary of white people who only came to town when there was trouble. Even as a young child, she was keenly aware of "her place" in a world which rejected her entire race.

In the second half, however, she and her brother Bailey leave Stamps to live with their mother in California. Maya remembers admiring her motherís glamour, worldliness and skill at getting her way in the world. They face the shock of moving from rural, conservative Arkansas to urban, progressive California. She faces sexual abuse by her motherís boyfriend, abandonment by her drunken father and even homelessness. It is these struggles, however, which shape her identity.

This story is provocative; it grapples with issues that society still hasnít resolved today, like racism, sexual assault and even teenage motherhood. It is not, however, aggressive or militaristic. Angelou weaves these themes into her story implicitly, never forcing the readerís interpretation. She tells her story and invites the reader to listen, recreating the scenes of a small family general store, a black Baptist church in Arkansas, a party across the border to Mexico and even a junkyard gang in California.

Her writing, with brutal honesty and sometimes a touch of humor, describes the irreversible effects of childhood curiosity, and how easy it is for children to accidentally stumble upon the corruption of the adult world. It is a coming-of-age story, but the story never reaches actual adulthoodóit ends when Maya is 17 years old. Her youth, brought her the maturity of responsibility, self-confidence and genuine struggle.

I recommend this book because it took me to a new world: not an imaginary world but a world that existed not too long ago, and not too far away from where I live now. Despite these similarities, my own life bears little to no resemblance to Angelouís. I have never had to face the poverty, the racism and the abuse she faced, and many people in my generation never willóat least, not to the same degree. On the other hand, I will never experience the small, simple community lifestyle Angelou cherished in her childhood. This story treated these elements not as ideals to analyze and study from a distance, but as factors that impacted a real life. Iíve studied racism in history textbooks and learned about the rural American South in documentaries, but in all that study, it is hard to imagine the effects they had on real people. Angelouís story brings the reader into one such life, but also reminds the reader that these challenges, while their impact was immense, did not define the people who faced them. Angelou was a person, not a demographic; a woman, not a statistic.

I love this book because it is honest, but also poetic. It gives the reader a vivid look at Maya Angelou and the people who knew, loved or hurt her. The famous powerhouse author, civil rights activist and poet, was once a child who didnít know what the future would hold. Even through this uncertainty, this child who had all the odds stacked against her emerged from her struggles nonetheless.

One of her most famous poems is called "Still I Rise" (I found it on poetryfoundation.org). Part of the poem reads:

"You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, Iíll rise."

If there is any suitable (and brief) way to summarize I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it is these lines. It deals with the serious hostilities of the world, the violence and hatred that have always been a plague upon humanity. Yet, it is light. This is not a tragedy. The story ends, not in horrific loss or in heroic victory, but in serene hope in a better future. That future would come for Angelou. She would one day stand, an accomplished writer and scholar, before millions of Americans to read a poem at the inauguration of former President Bill Clinton. The world will never forget her name, and, thanks to Caged Bird and her other autobiographies, we will never forget her story. She will forever be a beacon of hope for those who struggle, and a reminder that extraordinary minds can come from ordinary places.

Read it if you havenít already; I promise you wonít regret it.

Read other articles by Shea Rowell


Scheherazade

Sarah Muir
MSMU Class of 2018

I began writing this article by looking in dismay upon my bookshelf. A lifetime of reading and rereading and collecting books left me a great many to choose from and little inclination to bestow upon one as being my "favorite". However, on the very top of my shelf, stacked so I had to stand on tip toe to reach it was a book whose story has, no doubt, claimed a soft spot in my heart. Its pages were probably gilded at one point, but the gold has been rubbed away, leaving a navy-indigo stain in its wake. On the cover, hovering in the air like a mirage over a band of thieves opening a magic cave, are the glittering words The Arabian Nights.

When I was a little girl, it was a book my mother would read to me, but we never could seem to finish it. I usually fell asleep before a chapter was complete anyway (and I was also on a Magic Tree House kick at the time). I grew up with a vague understanding that the book had something to do with Disneyís "Aladdin" and a recollection that the names were difficult for me to say. It wasnít until years later in college, I picked it up again, read it to the end and fell in love with it. This isnít much of a surprise seeing how I have been drawn to fairytales my whole life and since the book is, in fact, a collection of stories involving genies and witches, magicians and thieves, cursed fish and marble palaces. I suppose one could say that choosing this book is a little bit of a cheat. It is more of a collection of short stories. A book filled with fairytales occupied by fast thinking merchants and heroes with true, strong hearts. However, what I love most about the book is the frame in which all the stories take place. Every word written effects the life of the main hero, Scheherazade.

Her story begins with a pair of brothers who encapsulate all the virtue a fairytale can bestow. The eldest inherits the throne and vast kingdomóas elder princes are wont to do. Soon after becoming Sultan, he grants a portion of his kingdom to his younger brother who he loves dearly. Years pass, and they are both wonderfully happy, that is until they discover that their respective wives were planning on betraying them to their enemies. After this the Sultan and King of Tartary are, of course, distraught both the treason and the subsequent execution of their wives. However, the Sultan, Shahriar, takes it to another level. He decides that women who marry for power are obviously inherently destined to betray their husbands, so he vows that every day he will take a new bride and every morning have her killed.

This is where Scheherazade, seeing the destruction of the Sultanís actions, intervenes and prevents it from spreading further. Sheís blessed with a wonderful memory and arming herself with a plethora of cliffhangers, she sets herself on the path to save, not only her life, but the lives of countless others. After convincing her father and instructing her younger sister on what to do the morning she is to be executed, she marries the Sultan. On the morning after her wedding, before he hands her off to be killed, Scheherazadeís sister conveniently shows up and begs that she hear one more of her older sisterís wonderful stories. With the Sultanís permission Scheherazade begins. She tells a story and ends it on such a cliffhanger, that the Sultan keeps her alive one more day. For a thousand and one nights she crafts her stories and the Sultan letís her live out of fear he will never know the ending. Eventually, the Sultan realizes that he has fallen in love with her and begs her forgiveness for his unjust actions, which she grants, and they live happily ever after.

Albert Einstein is attributed to have said, "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." However, the genre of childrenís literature is often dismissed as something good for the time being, but overall not worth much thought after you move on to the "real, true" literature.

In past articles I have written, at length on the power or literature. This collection of tales accentuates the reason why storytelling is important; why literature, whether for children or adults, is valuable. Simply put, it saves lives. Through the stories that Scheherazade tells, she slowly brings back her husband from a place in which he had wallowed for so long in his hatred and bitterness. For one-thousand-and-one nights she lived in fear of the following dawn, of running out of words to save the them both. I consider her to be one of the bravest heroes in literature. She represents a force of good that is not cowed by the range of human evil, because she has knowledge in her own power to alter it. Whether it be a woman stalling for time against the executionerís axe or a book that lifted us up when things grow dark, stories and tales, both long and short, save us from what happens in the world.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

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