Great stories so often remind us that success is boring. It is the wretched tale of miserable failure which captivates and holds our attention. Here is one story I recently found to be worthy of both watching and reading.
The Homesman book jacketThe Homesman by Glendon Swarthout is a spare and ruthless picture of sodbusting subsistance in the Nebraska Territory. The writing draws stark and vivid lines of life for five women on the frontier. After various brutalities drive four of the women into debilitating mental illnesses, Mary Bee Cuddy reluctantly volunteers to drive them back over the plains and across the Missouri River to a charitable churchwoman when none of the menfolk are up to the task. Knowing she will need help on the six-week journey, she rescues a claim jumper from hanging and presses him into service. George Briggs is a cipher and the trip is harrowing: they face hostile weather and deprivation and grueling monotony along with their own inner demons.
Mary Bee is an educated and relatively successful single teacher-turned-farmer who is increasingly desperate to marry. Her success is also her failure in that she proves to be stronger in body and spirit than most of the men who surround her. George Briggs, an army deserter, materializes as something of the equal that has thus far eluded her. 
A window demonstrating the fragility of their mission opens when a group of unknown and possibly hostile Indians appear on the horizon. They are a "ragtag bunch" possessed of coats and caps and rifles indicating they have, at some point, killed some U.S. Cavalry. There is a tense stand-off:
The Homesman dvd
     "They won't turn us loose," said Briggs. "I count four rifles. If they think we're worth it and come on down here, we're dead."
     Again the bugle blatted. Mary Bee got gooseflesh. Indians were what she had most feared.
     Briggs decided. "All right, I'll try to buy 'em off." He jumped down, fished inside his cowcoat, and handed her his heavy Colt's repeater. "If they come, don't fool with the rifle. Get inside the wagon as fast as you can and shoot the women. In the head. Then shoot yourself."
The feature film based on the novel stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank. Don't miss this movie. It is a reminder of the riches that lie buried, abandoned and forgotten, at the side of the road to success. 
The winners may ride into the sunset, but the losers hold the stories we remember.
I am secure enough in my nerdiness to admit that I once owned a copy of that famous poster Fox Mulder had on the wall of his basement cubicle in the X-Files. The one with the spaceship and the words "I Want To Believe." (I also had Mulder and Scully action figures and a pet cockatiel who whistled the first measures of the show's theme song in an endless loop, but we don't need to go there.)
If you've never seen the show, all you need to know is that Mulder believes in aliens and Scully is Catholic. I gravitate to characters grappling with religion in any form because the complexity of human belief brings out the most compelling stories. (And if those stories involve government conspiracies and alien-human hybrids, all the better.) 
Religion can show us the very best and worst in human nature. It's sort of like a church basement potluck--the good and the terrible gathered together on one table, saints and serial killers ready to mingle like so much green jello salad and funeral potatoes.
A Song for Issy Bradley book jacketA Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray is the story of what is lost and found in the wake of the unexpected death of a child. When Claire loses her youngest child to a sudden illness, faith is also lost. The Bradley family revolves around their Mormon church membership but Issy's death cancels gravity. The orderly planetary orbits of each family member spin out of control in their own unique ways. Religion acts as both anchor and buoy as the family struggles with Claire's behavior in the midst of their own turbulent journeys. Can they catch her before the tide of her bottomless ocean of grief washes her permanently to sea?
What if you lived in seventh century Britain, caught between two belief systems? The power of the old gods is on the wane as the title character in Nicola Griffith's Hild manages to make her way as the seer of her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, in a politicallHomeland dvd covery fractious time; Christianity is rising and war between small kingdoms is always on the horizon. The brutal and fascinating Anglo-Saxon world comes to life in this illuminating and painstakingly researched novel about the woman who eventually becomes St. Hilda of Whitby.
If you've not yet watched the television series Homeland, I will warn you now that it is addictive. It is a political thriller but what I found most fascinating in the first three seasons of the show is how the fate of one character and those around him is so directly tied to his religion--a faith missed by government surveillance and undetected by family and friends. It is faith that both saves and condemns, and faith that raises more questions than it answers.
The truth is out there.

So many disasters to choose from! Earthquakes! Ice storms! Ebola! Zombies!

I don't know about you, but I have a hard enough time preparing for the mundane events I know for certain will happen. Like school lunch. I know exactly when it happens and I know what I need for it, and yet somehow a kid gets sent to school with peanut butter and marmalade on a stale tortilla and a rapidly browning banana. If I can't even get it together for lunch, how do I begin to approach the subject of disaster preparedness?
Prepper's Pocket Guide book jacketOh, I think about it plenty. But I'm curiously inert when it comes to the actual "doing something about it" part. Many of the books I've seen threaten to turn me into a version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. I want to be reasonably prepared without being told I must build a bunker and buy a year's supply of freeze-dried food. The Prepper's Pocket Guide : 101 easy things you can do to ready your home for a disaster by Bernie Carr is an easy way to wade into a kiddie pool of preparedness waters without jumping off the high dive and into the deep end.
But what about that biggest disaster of all? The one we all think about even if we don't want to think about it? That inevitable thing that will happen to each of us no matter how much seismic retrofitting we do or how many flashlight batteries we hoard? The event that mostly no one wants to talk about in American society (with the exception of my children right before bedtime.) The Big D. 
Death is a difficult topic under the best of circumstances. Glimpsing Heaven: The stories and science of life after death by Judy Bachrach is one of the most Glimpsing Heaven book jacketinteresting and hopeful books I have read this year. As someone terrified of death, the author began her long journey to the book as a hospice volunteer in order to overcome her own paralyzing fear of death's unknowns. She discovered that, thanks to modern medicine, CPR and technology, more people than ever before are returning from up to an hour of clinical death to report on what lies beyond. 
Those reports are generally life-changing for the "death travelers", as she terms them, and completely fascinating for the rest of us. The experiences and scientific investigations detailed in the book are the tip of an enormous submerged iceberg. Published by National Geographic, these may be some of the most unique travel experiences in print. Death is an uncharted distant planet we have successfully landed on and awaits the courage and funding for more exploration. What we really want to know: Is death the end? 
After reading this book even the most skeptical person might answer: Probably not.
What is home? Where is it? Who gets to decide? Would I feel at home without the constant chatter, sticky surfaces and bruises from over-enthusiastic light saber battles? Would you feel at home without your bare feet harvesting stray Cheerios and tiny plastic jewels? Can home be home without your consent? Is home a place? A thing? A feeling? A person? A mysterious amalgamation of all these and more? Under what conditions does home become something other than home--a holy land or a prison cell? Two books I have read recently ask compelling questions about the places we call home.
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant book jacketCan't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is Roz Chast's memoir of her end-of-life experiences with her elderly parents. Devastating, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, she must navigate senility, hospitalizations, assisted living and all the responsibilities an only child of elderly parents must shoulder. What is it like to move parents from a home of 50+ years to a place you--and they--know they will never leave? What does a childhood home mean once you've left it behind? What does it mean when you return? And what happens when you must sort through that home, object by object? Is it possible to concentrate the idea of home into other containers when it finally ceases to exist? This is a must-read book for anyone facing parental transition and a graphic novel for those who do not feel at home with graphic novels--you know who you are. (Think of it as a book-length New Yorker cartoon, and you'll be okay.)
California by Edan Lepucki is an apocalyptic fantasy posing interesting questions of home within a mesmerizing dystopian setting. California book jacketCal and Frida have left the world they've known in a crumbling Los Angeles to make a new life together in the wilderness. They disrupt their tenuous homesteading to seek out a nearby community when Frida discovers she is pregnant. Their marriage is tested by what they find. Is trust directly proportional to home? Or is trust a constant in the equation? While I found myself desiring more complex characterization, the setting continues to haunt. 
Is home the beginning? Or the end?
Dear Summer Vacation,

What is it about you that makes my children bound out of bed at 6:00 a.m., ready for action and aiming their destructive laser beams at any hilariously misguided idea I had for a few minutes of extra sleep? School Year never did that. 

All is entropy and my house looks like that not-so-mythical gyre of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean: Nerf darts, boomerangs, water balloons, molecule models, yo-yos, pieces of Risk and Stratego and little Monopoly houses and those dastardly Danish blocks I fully expect will one day require surgical extraction from one or both my feet. 
And the sopping wet piles of clothing and towels--what's up with that, Summer V.? My children don't even bother with swimsuits any more. Because they're not going swimming. At some point during the day, every day, they just go outside and turn the hoses on one another while fully clothed. Because they can. Because of you, Summer Vacation.
Of course you have your good points, S. V. You've got your trips away, and dinner on the grill almost every night (mostly, it must be said, because the cook can park her rear in a lawn chair outside with a book and ignore the screaming children in the house), and ice cream, and that holiday with its permissions to play with fire and blow things up. Hello, sticky s'mores and raspberries growing in the backyard and fuzzy bumblebees in the lavender.
If I had any skills in photography I would take pictures before you get away again, Summer Vacation. There are a million books I could read, but looking at pictures seems the right thing to do now, while the sun shines and gifts us all with extra daylight. Here are a few recommendations should you find yourself in an Adirondack chair under a leafy tree with a tall glass of iced tea (or, like me, caught between a grill of burning hot dogs and a leaking half-full kiddie pool soup of toys and grass and dead or dying insects while holding someone's drippy purple popsicle):
Summer Food book jacketSummer Food: New summer classics by Paul Lowe is that rare cookbook--photography gorgeous in its own right, with the added bonus of recipe after delicious-sounding recipe. The recipes are simple and straightforward without a bunch of strange "where the hell do I get that and what is it anyway" ingredients. I want to make almost everything in this book. But even if I never do, the pictures are enough. Just don't eat the book. I'll want to check it out again.
This Is the Day: The March on Washington is a striking photo-essay by Leonard Freed documenting the historic March for Jobs and This is the Day book jacketFreedom on August 28, 1963 which included the "I Have a Dream" speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the Lincoln Memorial that day. Freed's images seem illuminated from within by a moral beauty and the human dignity so central to the civil rights movement. This book is not about Dr. King or his speech or famous events but about the ocean of ordinary people who marched in peace for justice and ultimately carried the day and the movement.
Once Upon a Playground book jacketOnce Upon a Playground: A celebration of classic American playgrounds, 1920-1975 by Brenda Biondo is a time capsule. Careful: you may be transported to that park that you could walk to by yourself when you were nine, the one with the giant metal rocket you could climb. This book is a visual tribute to the iconic play structures rapidly vanishing from the collective cultural landscape. The book juxtaposes contemporary photos of structures along with vintage catalog advertisements, postcards and photographs of the same structures. The result is a ride on a haunted merry-go-round.
I can't decide whether I want you to spin faster or slow down, Summer Vacation. Just don't ever disappear.