Monthly Archives: April 2007

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

There just aren’t words for how much I love Anne Lamott.

The other day I heard Shelagh Rogers on Sounds Like Canada interviewing Heather Mallick about her new book Cake or Death (which you’ll probably see me reviewing here, eventually).  They got talking about writers they like, and one of them mentioned Anne Lamott.

“Oh I love Anne Lamott!” swooned Heather.

Love her!” agreed Shelagh.

“And you know what? She’s – a Christian!!” Heather confided, in tones of shock and awe.

“I know! A Christian!!” Shelagh concurred. 

Here they were, these two cool, smart, funny, left-wing, middle-aged women, gobsmacked at the thought that cool, smart, funny, left-wing, middle-aged Anne Lamott is (gasp) a Christian.

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Mary, by Janis Cooke Newman

Mary is a fictional biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln.  Without knowing a great deal about the real Mary Lincoln, I found this an engaging and engrossing read.

I had a vague sense of having read somewhere that Mrs. Lincoln was mentally ill, and in fact while I was reading this novel I ran across a random reference from someone in an online forum who made passing mention of the fact that “Mrs. Lincoln was completely batshit.”  Like so many nineteenth-century women she seems to have suffered from a variety of poorly-understood neuroses, compounded by copious use of the popular treatments for nervous disorders, including laudanum.  Her eldest (and only surviving) son Robert had her committed to an insane asylum for a period of time, although she eventually got out of there and lived independently for her last few years.

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Lucky, by Alice Sebold

Like many readers, I only picked up Lucky after I had read Alice Sebold’s very successful first novel, The Lovely Bones. I assumed that the memoir came after, but the fact is it was published three years before The Lovely Bones, and rereleased after the novel proved so successful.

Both books tell the story of a young girl’s rape.  The Lovely Bones is fiction; Lucky is fact, telling Sebold’s own story of being raped by a stranger in the park during her freshman year in college in the early 1980s.  The title is, of course, searingly ironic.  Sebold was told she was “lucky” to survive because another girl had been raped and murdered in the same park.  She agrees that survival is a great thing — but surviving as a rape victim is far from “lucky.”  The memoir portrays not just a raw and honest portrait of the rape itself but also of the aftermath: how Sebold was changed by what happened to her.

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Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik and his wife Martha moved to Paris with their infant son, Luke, in the late 1990s.  The two New Yorkers had had a lifelong fascination with Paris and spent some time there before, and decided it would be a good place to spend their son’s preschool years.  Paris to the Moon consists of the columns Gopnik wrote for the New Yorker during their years in France, along with some more personal reflections.  It’s sort of a cross between a memoir and travel-writing.

Gopnik spends a fair bit of time in the introduction of the book apologizing for how much he talks about his personal experience as the parent of a young child in Paris.  I thought this was funny because, for my money, I’d have liked the book to have included a lot more of that personal, family perspective.  My favourite parts of the book were where he talked about buying Christmas tree lights in Paris, or taking Luke to the park or swimming pool.  The family-memoir aspects of the book were far more interesting to me than Gopnik’s reflections on French politics or fine dining in Paris.  These were all too often inflated with philosophical-sounding generalizations about Parisians and New Yorkers, about the difference between American life and French life, which, when you peeled away the intellectual language, boiled down to nothing more than sweeping generalizations.

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The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory

SPECIAL NEWS FLASH!! Third Goddess Added to Pantheon!Yes, it’s true. The time has finally come.  After withholding judgement for a few years, I have decided to elevate Philippa Gregory to the vacant third position in my pantheon of Historical Fiction Goddesses, alongside long-time Goddesses Margaret George and Sharon Kay Penman.

I’m sure Philippa has been waiting with bated breath for this announcement and can hardly contain her glee.

While I haven’t read her earliest work (most people say she’s gotten better with time), I have read all of her recent series on the Tudors, and generally enjoyed them, though none as much as the first in this series, The Other Boleyn Girl.  The latest, The Boleyn Inheritance, is the only one to surpass that, and I enjoyed it so much it earned the author a place in my elite pantheon of very favourite historical fiction authors. Continue reading

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Forest Mage, by Robin Hobb

For item #2 on my post-Lent fiction fun list, another new novel by another of my favourite fantasy authors.  I have loved all nine of Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” trilogy of trilogies — the Assassin series, the Liveship Traders, and the Tawny Man trilogy.  The first volume of her new Soldier Son trilogy, Shaman’s Crossing, seems to have generally gotten less effusive reviews than the earlier books, but I enjoyed it.  Now I’ve finished the second novel in this trilogy and I’m eagerly awaiting the third.

I’ve read some bad reviews of Forest Mage on Amazon, usually complaining that not much happens in this book.  Frankly, much as I love Robin Hobb, there’s a point I reach in every one of her books where I think, “This could have been cut a little” because there always seems to be a stage at which not much is happening and the hero or heroine seems to be stuck in a rut.  This is certainly true of Nevare, the hero of Forest Mage, who has just about every bad thing you can imagine happen to him in this book.  His body and mind are being taken over by an alien magic; he loses his fiancee, his military career, and his family, not to mention his manly physique.  He doesn’t necessarily respond with courage and initiative; at a lot of points in the novel, Nevare folds like a card table. 

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Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay

For my first plunge back into fiction after Lent, I could not do better than read the newest book by my favourite fantasy author.  I was first introduced to Guy Gavriel Kay through reading his Fionavar trilogy back in the 80s — classic high fantasy with characters from our world drawn into an epic conflict in a fairy-tale world where the archetypes of all our myths and legends live and breathe. 

His later novels took a different direction, which I liked even better — vividly drawn fantasy worlds based on places and periods in our own world’s history, but with fantasy “twists” thrown in.  My favourites of these later novels include Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan, but they’re all great.

Ysabel takes Kay down a completely different path.  First, though I haven’t seen it marketed as a young adult novel, it certainly seems more geared to that readership than his previous novels which were clearly “adult.”  The teenage protagonist, the lack of spicy sex scenes common in Kay’s other novels, and the single main plot rather than the usual complex tapestry of interwoven subplots, all suggest that this book could more easily be enjoyed by teen readers than most of Kay’s other work.  That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable for an adult reader, although I missed some of the complexity and surprises that I’ve come to rely on in GGK’s writing. Continue reading

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Aaaand … We’re Done With That

So, I’ve reached the end of my non-fiction reading list for Lent 2007.  The final tally is

  • 19 books
  • 17 read in their entirety during Lent; two started earlier but finished during Lent
  • One Biblical book read (Luke)
  • One cheat, but only for work (had to reread the novel Waiting for Time for a class)
  • Favourite and most thought-provoking books from this year’s list, without question: The Irresistible Revolution by Shaine Claiborne, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

And now…I’m diving back into fiction with gusto as I attack several long-awaited new library books piled up on my bookcase headboard.  Just to give you a glimpse of what’s ahead…

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Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic Tradition, by Esther De Waal (LentBook #19)

As with Julian of Norwich, this is a book I’d been planning to read for a long time.  I’m very attracted to the idea of “Celtic Christianity,” even though I know it’ a vague concept into which people tend to toss whatever ideas they like about early Christianity in the British Isles (including the prevailing Seventh-day Adventist belief, tenacious though hard to document, that many Celtic Christians worshipped on the seventh day).

I wear a Celtic cross because the little I do know about Celtic practices within early Christianity suggest that Ireland, particularly, was one of the few places where Christianity blended into the culture by adopting and “baptizing,” rather than condemning and abolishing, existing pagan practices.  I don’t mean pagan practices such as human sacrifice, which the early Celtic Christians were rather strongly opposed to and with good reason.  I mean that many of the attitudes, the artwork, even the local gods (transformed into saints) of pagan Ireland were included in Celtic Christianity.  It seems a much better model of how to evangelize than the traditional Christian “missionary” model which says “Your culture is all wrong; here, take ours instead!”

These are the ideas I’ve picked up about Celtic practices from general reading and from attending a workshop on the subject a couple of years ago.  A lot of those ideas were popularized by Esther De Waal in this book and others, as she has made something of a career of uncovering the history of Celtic Christian practices in Great Britain and Ireland.  She describes a Christianity very much in harmony with traditional culture, very closely tied to the earth, and very affirming of the goodness of God’s creation.

In many ways the things I read about Celtic Christian practices in this book reminded me of what I found in Julian of Norwich, though she was an English Roman Catholic who lived about 1000 years after St. Patrick.  In both I found the same affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation co-existing alongside a harsh asceticism with a strong emphasis on suffering and penitence.  I think it’s hard for our modern minds to put those two ideas together (it may get easier, as our minds get more postmodern).  I tend to think that people who live in tiny hermitages and stand in icy-cold water to pray probably view God as a harsh and punitive God, this earth as a bad and sinful place, and the body as something to be mortified and denied.  But that’s not true, either of the Celtic Christians such as St. Columba, or of Julian of Norwich.

This is very interesting to me, given that so much of my reading and thinking this Lent has been about desire and self-denial, about living simply, about what we can and should give up, and why.  I’m seeking a balance, I guess — the same balance Elizabeth Gilbert sought when she went on her journey to explore pleasure, prayer, and how to harmonize the two. Hints along the way — such as Every Earthly Blessing — suggest that such a harmony is far from impossible, perhaps even essential.  That we need to know that God is good and the world is good before we can begin ordering our desires, disciplining ourselves to lay aside some pleasures for the greater good.  I have a lot of thinking yet to do on this issue, but Esther De Waal’s explorations of Celtic practices have helped me along the way, and provided a nice endpoint to this year’s Lenten reading and reflection.  At the very least, I have a new list of questions to start asking myself in the year ahead.

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The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, by Natalie Goldberg (LentBook #18)

One of the things I love about my Lenten reading project is the role serendipity plays in it.  Some books I select, because people recommend them or because I’ve meant to get around to reading them for awhile.  Others just fall across my path, like this one, and somehow fit neatly into other things I’m reading and thinking about.

This Thursday I was almost through my pile of nonfiction books, which seemed about right since Lent was almost over. Yet I had the nagging feeling there should be just one more — not anything long or difficult or theological, but a nice memoir I could immerse myself in.  I went to Chapters and looked at several — all interesting, but also ones I could probably get from the library.  None seemed worth the $20+ cover price (and the library was closed for the long weekend by this time).  Then, walking past the bargain rack, I saw a $5 copy of this book by Natalie Goldberg, and picked it up.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg, and enjoyed them all, though she’s sometimes almost too intuitive and unstructured — to the point where she starts sounding scatterbrained.  Still, she has some great thoughts on writing and life.  I knew she grew up Jewish, not particularly observant, and started practicing Zen as an adult — Long Quiet Highway is about her spiritual journey, while the other books I’d read by her were about writing.  This book promised to explore her relationship with the two most important men in her life — her father and her Zen teacher — and how those relationships affected Natalie’s own path.

The two men — Ben Goldberg of Brooklyn and Long Island, retired in Florida, and Katagiri Roshi, Zen master from Japan who opened a Zen centre in Minnesota where Natalie began studying Buddhism.  Yet she loved both men, and both let her down.  Her father was — not directly abusive, but sexually “inappropriate” as Natalie describes it, when she was growing up (walking in on her in the bathroom and bedroom, making sexual comments about her in company).  When she tried to deal with this issues as an adult, her father didn’t want to hear about it or discuss it.  He wanted to maintain a good relationship with his daughter without talking about anything uncomfortable or troubling. 

Natalie turned to Roshi for spiritual guidance and a relationship uncluttered by inappropriate sexuality.  Only after his death did she discover that this man she’d idealized had had sexual relationships with his students — not with Natalie, but with others.  She was shattered and disillusioned.

In this memoir, Natalie Goldberg manages to make peace with her father before his death, and with  Roshi’s memory after his death — not by clearing the air and discussing the issues, but by accepting both men as flawed and fallible, yet valuing the gifts each one gave her.  This was a good book to read right after You’re Wearing THAT?  Deborah Tannen’s book made me think about the importance of accepting our parents as they are (and vice versa, of course); Natalie Goldberg’s provided an illustration of what that looks like in real life.  I think this was my favourite of Goldberg’s books, and I’m glad I noticed it on the bargain shelf!

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