Monthly Archives: March 2009

Justice in the Burbs, by Will and Lisa Samson (LentBooks #3)

justiceThis is book I was actually anticipating during Lent.  I learned about it when I read one of Lisa Sampson’s novels, which I find generally a cut above the average “Christian women’s fiction.”  Looking for more books by her, I was intrigued to discover that she and her husband had co-authored a book about pursuing a Christian lifestyle of social justice while living a traditional American, middle-class suburban life.

This is a constant pre-occupation of mine, because I feel the call to a life of justice strongly, yet I am deeply rooted in my middle-class lifestyle.  My problem is not so much living in the “burbs,” but rather living in the inner city (as “inner city” as St. John’s gets; we live on the edge of one of the city’s oldest public housing developments) with a surburban lifestyle and mentality.  I’m in the middle of people in genuine need and yet I often feel isolated in my middle-class comfort.

I found this book well-written, interesting and inspiring, as well as practical.  Lisa’s skills as a novelist are evident in the introduction to each chapter as she writes a short narrative passage following the experiences of Matthew and Christine, a typical suburban Christian couple who become convicted of the call to live a life of justice.  Their experiences — and the expository chapters that follow — underline the obvious fact that trying to “do justly, and love mercy” is not easy.  It will be disruptive to your comfortable lifestyle.  This is a constant challenge to me, and this book inspired me to deepen my commitment to a Christian vision of social justice.

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Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams (LentBooks #2)

findingbeautyThis was another random library find to kick off my Lenten reading list.  It’s an odd book.  Personal, and very readable, but the links Williams makes among her subjects are not always apparent, though in the end the pieces do come together.

This collection of essays and reflections begins with the author learning the art of mosaic from Italian mosaicists.  It’s easy to see how mosaic can serve as a metaphor for the process of finding beauty in a world torn apart by chaos and violence: you can’t have a mosaic until things get broken.

From there, she moves to a topic that obviously has great impact for her but whose connection to the mosaic section is less obvious: a long section on the lives, habits, and endangered status of prairie dogs in the American west.  The author’s point here it to demonstate the interconnectedness of species and remind us that even something as small and apparently insignificant as a prairie dog has value and a place in the big picture.  This point came across effectively, but I felt far too many pages were spent on detailed notes taken during the weeks she spent prairie-dog-watching. This was the one section of the book that I skimmed a little, I’ll admit.

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Journey of the Magi, by Paul William Roberts (LentBooks #1)

magiSeldom have I started my Lenten non-fiction reading journey in a less auspicious way.  I went to the library to look around for books that grabbed my eye — I’m usually looking for things at least tangentially related to religion, spirituality or theology, although in some cases the connection is tenuous and clear only to me.

My eye lit upon Journey of the Magi, a book about a guy who decides he’s going to retrace the journey of the Magi from Persia to Bethlehem and along the way learn the true meaning of who they were and why they were present at Jesus’  birth. Sounds like a great concept, doesn’t it? Since I’m planning to write a novella about the Magi story, I thought this would be a great read.

It starts promisingly enough, as Roberts explores a version of the Magi story recorded by Marco Polo and teases out the differences between it and the Biblical account told in Matthew’s gospel.  But before he even gets to Iran to begin the journey, Roberts indulges in a huge and tiring amount of pop-theology — the kind of “Jesus Seminar Lite” stuff that’s rooted in an innate distrust of organized religion and a deep dislike (in Roberts’ case, I’d call it a visceral hatred) for the canonical New Testament, along with the automatic privileging of non-canonical texts that always seems to accompany this attitude.

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The Tsarina’s Daughter, by Carolly Erickson

tsarinaThe Tsarina’s Daughter is a historical novel about the Russian Revolution, told from the viewpoint of Tatiana, one of the four daughters of the last Czar of Russia.  As the story is told in first-person, the presumption of the narrative is that Tatiana survives her family’s execution and escapes to start a new life, allowing her to tell her tale.

Anastasia is, of course, the daughter who was widely (and romantically) believed to have survived the execution of the Romanovs (the bodies of the Tsar, the Tsarina, and three daughters were found in a mass grave, fuelling a century of speculation about the fates of their son, the Tsarevitch Alexei, and the missing daughter). Belief in Anastasia’s survival fuelled hundreds of legends and stories and the careers of numeruos imposters, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, whose lifelong claim to be the last Romanov was debunked by DNA evidence ten years after her death.

At first, picking up The Tsarina’s Daughter, I wondered why, if  Erickson wanted to retell the Romanov story, she didn’t do it from the more popular perspective of Anastasia. I think the reason she chose Tatiana (whom no-one has ever seriously claimed survived the massacre, a point Erickson is quite clear about in her afterword) is because, first, there isn’t a lot of mythology and legend already surrounding her, and second, she was four years older than Anastasia, and would have had much clearer memories of the years leading up to the Russian Revolution, experiencing them as a teenager rather than a child.

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84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

84charingWhat an odd, quirky little book this is! I’m amazed I went this long without reading it, because I’ve often heard people talk about it and it seems to be a favourite of many.  However, I apparently wasn’t paying close attention when they talked about it, becaus I was more than 2/3 of the way through this very short volume when I realized that the name of one of the “characters” writing letters in what I had taken to be an epistolary novel, was in fact the author’s name. Subsequent reading and research clarified for me that 84, Charing Cross Road is not, in fact, a novel, but is a real collection of letters between New York writer Helene Hanff, and the staff of a real bookstore at that address in London.

The letters begin in the late 1940s, when Hanff writes to a London bookstore for copies of rare books she can’t find locally.  When bookseller Frank Doel begins finding treasures for her and shipping them across the Atlantic, she expresses her gratitude with gifts of food that are hard to find in London, still affected by postwar rationing.  A genuine friendship by letter springs up between Haff, Doel and the other bookstore staff.  Again and again over the next 20 years Hanff expresses her intention to come to London and meet the employees of her beloved bookstore, but she waits too long: Frank Doel dies in 1969 and the two transatlantic friends never get to meet.

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