Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

 (I’m having a hard time writing a review for this book because nothing I can say will do it justice. Please, just read the book.)

For the Triduum + Easter, I made my retreat this year by reading Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. Just as with Jayber Crow, Hannah’s story involves a great deal of reflection on scripture, but especially involves reflection over the line, “Thy will be done,” from the Lord’s Prayer.

Yet, again, it is not a book strictly about theology or faith. This is the story of a woman named Hannah Coulter, told by her as an old woman. She remembers the moments of her life, treasuring them as an old woman sitting alone in her rocking chair.

Berry’s writing is profound. Through Hannah, we experience loss, grief, and the guilt at loving again. We experience acceptance and the healing power of community.  Hannah’s thoughts and reflections over the events of her life made her the perfect companion on my Easter journey this year.

Reading Hannah Coulter was lovely for multiple reasons, not least of all hearing more stories about the characters I fell in love with in Jayber Crow. I long to enter into the books, to take part in the daily life of Port William—a place as real to its readers as the world in which we live and breathe.

Hannah’s story is that of a farm wife, a hard working woman who has known the pleasure of a well-lived life and the pain of children falling away from faith and family. Her story can touch anyone—she is so utterly relatable. I think everyone should read this book.

I give this book 5.5 stars—because 5 stars just aren’t enough.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow is probably one of my favorite books of all time, if not my very favorite book. Reading it was like spiritual reading and prayer and rest all at the same time. The line that will probably stick with me longer than any other is when Jayber says, “The Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen.”

Jayber’s reading of scripture and his belief in every line of the Lord’s Prayer make up a constant theme running in the background of the novel. Yet, do not be misled: this is not a book about religion or spirituality. The full title is Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. This is a book about the life of a man named Jayber Crow, told from his point of view as an old man looking back at the life he lived with joy and sorrow, pride and shame. He tells the story of his life with this belief: “I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.” The pilgrimage he speaks of is not one with marked roads like on el camino, but the pilgrimage of life in which one makes his own way.

The story begins with the tale of how Jayber ended up as a child at an orphanage, then tells of his time there and the time after, during which he thought he was to become a preacher. Then, he ends up (as you knew from the very beginning—it’s the subtitle of the book) in the small township of Port William, acting as their barber.

Jayber’s tale is told with care—with the wisdom of an old man telling his story. Berry’s writing is, as always, masterful. There is an element of the story telling that reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He tells the story, but often out of order and sometimes two ways.

Jayber writes, “I have raked my comb over scalps that were dirty both above and beneath. I have lowered the ears of good men and bad, smart and stupid, young and old, kind and mean; of men who have killed other men (think of that) and of men who have been killed (think of that).”  Yet, he loves them all—or almost all.

The connections that Jayber Crow makes with the people of Port William define him. They form and shape him. He tells about the old men, farmers who sit and tell stories or bring out their instruments and sing, “I loved to listen to them, for they spoke my native tongue.”

Jayber’s story is about community, about love, and about belonging. I think Jayber’s story can speak to us all. Berry’s expert storytelling gives us an old man that is lovable and relatable, wise and yet, through his reminiscences, in need of wisdom. There is much to learn from the old barber, Jayber Crow.

I recommend this book with all my heart. I give it a sold 5/5, maybe even a 5.5. Read it.

Some favorite quotes:
“The University… was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what it was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.”

“I became a sort of garden fanatic, and I am not yet over it.”

Of Miss Gladdie Finn: “When she got tired of some of her stuff, she would gather it into her apron and hike off among the neighbors to trade for stuff that they were tired of.”

Of WWII: “What had caused it? It was caused, I thought, by people failing to love one another, failing to love their enemies.”

Of Cecilia Overhold: “Of courses, Cecilia held some secret doubts about herself; you can’t dislike nearly everybody and be quite certain that you have exempted yourself.”

Of Roy Overhold: “Roy lived too hard up against mystery to be without religion.”

“I feel a little weary in calling them “the dead,” for I am as mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen.”

“As I buried the dead and walked among them, I wanted to make my heart as big as heaven to include them all and love them and not be distracted. I couldn’t do it, of course, but I wanted to.”

There is much, much more, but for fear of spoiling the story, I will refrain!

100 Book Challenge—Book #16 Farming: A Handbook by Wendell Berry

100 Book Challenge—Book #16 Farming: A Handbook by Wendell Berry

Last fall, in one of their update emails, Amazon told me that this book would be coming out and I knew I wanted to read it. I almost pre-ordered it, but since I had so many other things I was trying to read, I decided not to and then lost track of it. This week, during my many library adventures, I found it on a random shelf and decided that Providence was calling me to read it.

I love Wendell Berry. I love the way he writes, the words he uses, the way that his poetry echoes the song in my heart. I love the way that reading his words make me feel like I’m laying down in the field at home or sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ old house. I love Wendell Berry.

This book is no different. It’s mostly poetry, some of which I had read before, but most of it is new to me. And then, there is a small verse play, which is beautiful in its own way.

I can’t really describe Berry’s poetry to someone who hasn’t read him. He’s wonderful. Please read him if you haven’t. Even my dad loves his work.

One of the poems that I loved was the first in the collection. I thought I would share it.

The Man Born to Farming

The Grower of Trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,

whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,

to him the soil is a divine drug.  He enters into death

yearly, and comes back rejoicing.  He has seen the light lie down

in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.

His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.

What miraculous seed has he swallowed

That the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth

Like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water

Descending in the dark?

100 Book Challenge—Book #12 The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry

100 Book Challenge—Book #12 The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry

It’s hard to write a review of a compilation of essays, particularly ones as diverse as Berry’s essays. Some are religious, some are purely environmental, but all speak to my soul. Wendell Berry has been a personal favorite since my week at Bethlehem Farm when Jake Olzen introduced him to me. Since then, I’ve been in love.

I think there is much to learn from him, even when I don’t agree. His love and firm belief in the beauty of nature and his wonderful language, so thoughtful and elegant in spite of his country boy tongue, deliver his message well.

I would recommend reading this book or anything else he writes, particularly his poetry. For my friends who are more theological, the reason I bought this particular book was that I wanted to read his essay “The Burden of the Gospels.” His reflection on what it means to live life more abundantly is thought provoking, though no always exactly in agreement with what we might hear in our classes. But Berry is wise, as he should be in his late seventies, and wonderful to listen to. I recommend him.