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Lessons and Carols
A Meditation on Recovery
HARDCOVER; Published: 5/2/2023
ISBN: 978-0-8028-8249-3
Price: $ 25.00
207 Pages
Trim Size, in inches: 5.5 x 8.5
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Maybe redemption is not a place you find, but a system of mapmaking. Sketch a land. Pencil in dragons. Imagine it real, resplendent, and broken under a waxing moon.
Lessons and Carols is a genre-bending memoir that explores the aftershocks of alcoholism and mental illness through a fresh look at the powers of poetry, ritual, and community. As a new parent, West grapples with his own fragmented recovery and grief for the friends he lost to addiction, asking if anyone can really change, or if we are always bound to repeat the past. 

Echoing the form of a traditional Anglican Christmas service of stories and songs, West’s lyrical prose invites readers into an unorthodox rendition of the liturgy called Lessons and Carols. Each December, a faithful circle of irreligious friends assembles to eat and sing and reimagine an old story about love made flesh. In that gathering’s glow, resentments turn to quiet wonder at the ways a better world can appear. 

Both tender and bracing, West’s poetic meditation of the possibilities of change will resonate deeply with anyone who has tired of their own destructive loops. In this stirring account of recovery, redemption remains elusive—and as tangible as the promise of a newborn. 

Hardscrabble winter, gray and lonely, requires Christmas. Or, rather, in its depths, I require Christmas: words no longer cold, chrome, and barren, but alive, golden, cradled in my arms.

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Table of Contents

The First Lesson
The Second Lesson
The Third Lesson
The Fourth Lesson
The Fifth Lesson
The Sixth Lesson
The Seventh Lesson
The Eighth Lesson
The Ninth Lesson
Some Notes on the Text
Suggested Carols

“In the middle of Lessons and Carols, John West claims he is ‘no poet.’ But Lessons and Carols itself argues most convincingly that he is a poet. And he is the best kind of poet—a poet who can make moments of the highest lyricism also moments of perfect clarity, one whose way of saying is necessary to what he’s saying. Lessons and Carols is a beautiful book, a heartbreaking book, a book that with its fullness reaffirms life, and so it is a gift of a book.”
—Shane McCrae, author of The Gilded Auction Block  

“In poetic prose of spare, searing beauty, John West helps us see Christmas as another name for the human condition. These haunted, humane meditations are at once elegy and hymn, psalms of ascent and lament. West finds possibilities for language that birth possibilities for how to be. A singular book.” 
—James K. A. Smith 
editor in chief of Image and author of How (Not) to Be Secular and How to Inhabit Time  

“With sensitivity and wild intelligence, John West enters a psychic and emotional netherworld, moving among the shades of addiction, the fog of confusion, to emerge changed, connected to life and to love and to art. Lessons and Carols enlists the power of poetry, the consolation of philosophy, and the intense scrutiny of the autobiographical to describe—lyrically and movingly—the reconstruction of the self. Lessons and Carols is not a conventional story of adversity overcome, but the narrative of the author’s commitment to the making of a soul.” 
—Mark Wunderlich 
author of The Earth Avails and God of Nothingness 

“John West’s Lessons and Carols envelops the reader in sound and feeling, a melodic and observant book unafraid to circle the complexities of love and parenthood. Smart, potent, and fearless writing.” 
—Megan Mayhew Bergman 
author of How Strange a Season and Almost Famous Wome

“Memoirs composed of sections are tempting to a writer, but the deeper difficulties belie the seeming ease. The overall rhythm, the weave of recurrence, the manipulation of the timeline—every element must be tuned by instinct. John West has that instinct. In Lessons and Carols, he offers a wincingly vivid account of freeing himself from the long embrace of alcohol. Self-scouring at every turn, the memoir eventually pays off in shocks of joy and affirms the grounding sobriety of parenthood.” 
—Sven Birkerts 
editor of AGNI and author of Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir 

Lessons and Carols fearlessly examines ideas about innocence, resentment, loss, and renewal, asking, can we actually change or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes forever? John West’s pursuit of truth and beauty in this book is both masterful and unforgettable.” 
—Chelsea Hodson 
author of Tonight I’m Someone Else 

“‘This happened,’ John West writes at the end of one chapter. ‘It is also a metaphor.’ His words might serve as an epigraph for his frank, edgy, hopeful story about recovery and slippage and squalor and eruptions of love and sudden epiphanies. These nine memorable ‘lessons and carols’ take us through episodes in an unsettled life interrupted by faith, love and a baby. For those who have struggled with addiction or depression, and those who love them, this is a gritty, gutsy, unabashed and surprising book about hope.” 
—Marilyn McEntyre 
author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and When Poets Pray   

Publishers Weekly
“West’s writing is affectingly raw and often lyrical.”