Monthly Archives: February 2008

LentBooks #6: The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacob’s The Year of Living Biblically is one of the books I was “saving” for Lent, knowing that I’d enjoy it.  In case you haven’t heard of it (and you probably have, because it’s getting a lot of hype), it’s Jacobs’ story of the year he spent trying to follow every precept and rule in the Bible as literally as he possibly could.

Now, if you know your Bible well, you know that he had to cut some corners.  He didn’t kill anybody (which there’s plenty of Biblical injunctions to do) and he didn’t perform animal sacrifices (though he does attend a Hasidic ceremony in which a chicken is killed and it does come pretty close to the real thing).  Some of his compromises are pretty lame, like tossing a few pebbles at an adulterer (to get around “stoning”) or leaving a plate of food out as an offering.  The ones he got the most attention for were the obvious outward things, like wearing white clothes and leaving his hair and beard untrimmed for a year.  Although Jacobs doesn’t just play the Bible for laughs, this is a very funny book and Jacobs is a witty, engaging and self-deprecating narrator (my favourite kind).

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LentBooks #5: Simply Christian, by N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is one of those writers who has had a major shaping influence on my life and thinking. At a time when I was reading a lot of Biblical criticism and questioning whether it was possible for an intelligent, educated scholar to take the Gospels seriously as history, someone pointed me towards his works and he opened a lot of doors for me. I began by reading his heavier, more scholarly work, so that books intended more for a “popular” audience like this one come as somewhat of a relief after pages dense with footnotes.

I’m still not sure this would qualify as a “light” read, though, because even in his popular works Wright demands a lot of his readers. You have to pay attention and keep up. Here he is trying to do much the same thing as C.S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity – he is trying to look at and explain the essentials of what it means to be a Christian in a way that might make it plausible and even appealing to a non-Christian.

Lewis’s Mere Christianity was a life-shaping book for me at a much earlier age; when I was a teenager it assured me that a rational basis for faith was possible. Later, of course, I came to perceive a lot of holes in Lewis’s logic (Lord, liar, or lunatic … anyone?) and it didn’t satisfy me as it once had, but I still give it a lot of credit. So of course I was interested to see one of my current favourite Christian writers attempt a similar task.

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LentBooks #4: No god but God, by Reza Aslan

Like lots of Westerners, I probably don’t know enough about Islam. I read No god by God (recommended by Catherine) in hopes of correcting that deficiency. It was a good choice.

Reza Aslan is a young, Iranian-born-but-living-in-America, scholar of Islam. I have no idea how other Muslims regard Aslan or this book, but he seems to be the perfect author to introduce Western readers to the origins and history of Islam.

The early chapters tell the story of Muhammed and the rise of Islam. This section is beautifully written and easy to follow. Aslan writes from the perspective of an educated, critical scholar who is also a believer approaching these stories with reverence — in other words, he writes abut Muhammed the way someone like N.T. Wright writes about Jesus. I learned a lot I didn’t know before from this part of the book.

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LentBooks #3: Me, Myself and Bob, by Phil Vischer

When was the last time you read a business book that ends with the author’s business going bankrupt and being sold off to the highest bidder? When was the last time you read a book about Christian ministry that ends with the ministry collapsing in disarray and being sold to a non-Christian company? In other words, when was the last time you read a really good book about failure?

Well, your wait has ended.  Phil Vischer’s Me, Myself and Bob is the book you’ve been waiting for.

If I ever make that list I’m always threatening to make — the list of people whose writing, testimony and ministry has most nurtured my spiritual life — there’s no doubt Phil Vischer will make the list.  I would have put him on there anyway, just for all I’ve learned from Veggie Tales over the years, but this book sealed the deal.  It’s a heart-rendingly honest and personal story of a spectacular success and even more spectacular failure in business and in ministry … oh, and it’s funny, too.

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LentBooks #2: The Faith Club, by Ranya Idilby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner

This is a book I’d heard about for awhile and was anxious to read. It’s the story of three women — one Muslim, one Jewish, one Christian — who began meeting together to talk about their three faiths, to explore differences and find common ground. Ranya, Suzanne and Priscilla didn’t know each other when they first began their project, which started after the 9/11 attacks as a plan by Ranya Idilby to write a children’s book about Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The project soon became a friendship — but not one without challenges and arguments as the three women got to know each other and talked honestly about what they believed.

I found the process these women went through, both as a group and individually, to be absolutely fascinating. The group process is interesting because we are so trained to avoid discussing controversial subjects in social settings — and, as women particularly, trained to avoid conflict altogether. My closest group of women friends doesn’t include a Muslim and a Jew but it does include a wide diversity of religious beliefs and unbeliefs, and while we have had a few frank conversations about religion we have also tiptoed around possibly controversial subjects.

There’s no tiptoeing here. Suzanne, Ranya and Priscilla honestly confronted and thrashed out questions like: Does Christianity portray Jews as Christ-killers? Is Islam a repressive religion for women? and many, many others. At the end, they found common ground they could stand on and an appreciation for their differences.

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LentBooks #1: Everything Must Change, by Brian McLaren

The first book on this year’s Lenten reading list is one I picked up in a store a few weeks ago and saved for Lent. McLaren’s subtitle is: “Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope,” which sounds like everything I want to read about.

However, the book wasn’t nearly as thought-provoking or inspiring as I’d hoped. McLaren’s thesis is that Jesus’ message was as much (or more) about social justice and caring for the poor as it was about personal salvation, and that the church needs to be more active in responding to and putting into practice Jesus’ radical worldview. And that if we did, things would be better.

Well you’re preachin’ to the choir here, Brian. Obviously, this is everything I believe. What irked me was that he kept talking as though these were shockingly NEW ideas that no-one but Brian McLaren and a select few others in the 21st-century emerging church movement had ever revealed before. I saw one review of the book that described McLaren’s view as “ahistorical” and I think this really sums it up. He has a good grasp of all the (many) ways the Christian church has gotten it wrong in the past, but little awareness of or sense of continuity with the many, many Christians who have preached and practiced this same message throughout Christian history. So, that bothered me.

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LentBooks 2008

Yes, fellow Compulsive Overreaders, it is time once again for my annual experiment in laying aside fiction and getting through a hefty pile of spiritual, theological or generally religious-ish non-fiction — usually things I’ve wanted to read but haven’t got around to because there are too many good novels to read.  I’m starting Lent this year with a shelf-full of books and an attitude of openness to other books that might fall into my path, as some always do.

If you’re interested in what I’ve read and reviewed in past years, last year’s Lenten booklist can be found here by looking at the archives for Feb., March and April 07 (see the sidebar for links).  In a different format on my old non-bloggy blog, you can find reviews of the books I read in Lent 05 by scrolling down this page; likewise 2004 can be found here. (I think 2006 was the ill-fated year I tried to give up reading altogether for Lent, which is why there are no reviews for 06 and why that whole six-week period is probably best forgotten).

As you can see if you checked any of those lists, I get through a very diverse range of books.  To some extent I create a reading list for myself by choosing and finding copies of interesting books I’ve heard about during the year.  I make vague attempts to balance generally devotional and thought-provoking books about Christianity with something more heavy and scholarly (this year I have something called Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World), at least one book about a non-Christian religion (this year’s selection is No god but God, a book about Islam that comes highly recommended), some memoirs (I’m a little short in that department this year, so any suggestions are welcome!), a Christian “classic” (this year it’s Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle), and at least one book that I think I’ll violently disagree with (I am trying to get either God is Not Great or The God Delusion for this year, but both have long waitlists at my library).

Apart from the books I plan to read, others tend to fall serendipitiously into my lap during Lent.  One year Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God was an unexpected discovery; last year both Shaine Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love were impulse reads about which I knew very little, and all of those have become favourites of mine.

My journey through my Lenten reading list is almost always my most profound spiritual experience of the year — from books that inspire me to books that disturb me, and always lots of books that make me think about something new and different.  I hope you’re on board for this year as I start reviewing what I’m reading over the next several weeks between now and Easter. 

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Lost in the Forest, by Sue Miller

Those last two reviews make it sound like I’m particularly hard to please, don’t they? In both cases I tried a novel by a writers who previous work I had enjoyed, and in both cases I was let down.  This was my third shot, as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Sue Miller in the past.  This time the results were much happier.

Lost in the Forest is the story of a family’s response to a sudden, tragic death. When John is killed by a car, his wife Eva is devastated, as are their three children — teenaged Emily and Daisy, Eva’s sons from her first marriage, and Eva and John’s small son Theo.  Eva’s ex-husband Mark is also affected by John’s death as he tries to step into the gap in his daughters’ lives — and finds himself wishing he could step back into the gap in Eva’s life as well.  Meanwhile, out of all the family Daisy finds it hardest to adjust and her loneliness and pain lead her into a dangerous relationship.

Lost in the Forest is told from multiple viewpoints, as Miller slips into and out of the heads of the different family members.  Each voice sounds sure and believable, and the writing is clear, easy and insightful — well-written without being showy.  As a fictional exploration of how people cope with grief, Lost in the Forest is a thoroughly engrossing book.

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The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold

As with the Kate Atkinson book, I chose Alice Sebold’s latest novel on the basis of having enjoyed her previous work.  Maybe “enjoyed” isn’t quite the right word for a powerful novel narrated posthumously by a raped and murdered teenager (The Lovely Bones) and a searing memoir about her own experience of rape (Lucky).  But I thought both those books were thought-provoking and very well-written.

I almost gave up on The Almost Moon within a few pages.  The basic premise is that Helen, a woman who has always had a difficult and intense relationship with her mother actually murders her mother when the mother is elderly and in need of care.  I’d say my mom and I have had as complex a relationship as most mothers and daughters, but Helen’s assumption that lots of people have thought about murdering their parents without actually doing it, left me behind.  The murder made Helen’s character so unattractive to me from the beginning that I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay with her for the rest of the book.

It did get better as the story follows Helen through the days after her crime and she attempts to deal with what she has done.  But I always found her such an unpleasant and unlikable person that I remained at a distance from the book, and I wasn’t sorry at all when it was over.  This won’t go down as one of my favourite books, or even one of my favourite Alice Sebold books. 

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Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read — funny, insightful, and with a brilliantly twisty plot.  I read her second novel, Case Histories, and thought it was really good although not as powerful as Behind the Scenes. So I had fairly high expectations of Emotionally Weird.

Probably the most accurate thing I can say is that Emotionally Weird is aptly named.  It’s not a good title, but the book is definitely weird.  More literarily than emotionally, though.

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