Monthly Archives: July 2009

Salvation on the Small Screen? by Nadia Bolz-Weber

smallscreenI had to buy this book after reading an excerpt from it in Geez magazine.  Yes, it’s another one of those “I picked some bizarre challenge and wrote a book about it” memoirs (and yes, it has a front cover blurb from A.J. Jacobs — does this guy spend all his time writing cover blurbs now? Will he do one for me?).  But the premise here is irresistible to me — and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a self-described heavily tattooed Lutheran minister who’s engaged in starting an edgy, alternative, inclusive church community — only gives up 24 hours of her life. (Actually, it’s technically 48, because she has to repeat the experience due to a hard-drive crash.  But she only writes about the second 24 hour period, the one that counts).

The challenge? Hipster liberal Christian Bolz-Weber volunteers to watch 24 hours of evangelical Christian television on TBN.  Her responses to it, and the conversations she has with the friends who drop over to watch with her, are funny and insightful (although, as she herself admits, they get less insightful as she gets closer to the end of 24 hours of uninterrupted TV viewing).

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Building a Home With My Husband, by Rachel Simon

simonRachel Simon scored a hit with her memoir Riding the Bus with my Sister, a story about learning to connect with her mentally disabled sister by riding city buses with her.

I guess she figures the title set a good precedent, because she’s followed it up with Building a Home with my Husband, a memoir about living through a gruelling house renovation.  As we all know, there’s nothing like home renovation to test a marriage, and the process of gutting and restoring their home leads Simon and her husband, Hal, to a variety of revelations about their relationship.

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Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

toibinbrooklynFor obvious reasons, I had a bit of resistance to overcome in reading this book.  When you release a book about immigrants to Brooklyn, NY, which has the name “Brooklyn” in the title, it’s not tremendous fun to find that a hugely successful and critically acclaimed Booker-nominated author has released a novel about immigrants to Brooklyn, simply titled Brooklyn, in the very same month.  When you consider that Colm Toibin’s main character, a young Irish girl named Eilis, has a sister named Rose and an Italian boyfriend named Tony, well, you can see why I felt a little queasy and uneasy.

But really, despite surface similarities, Toibin’s Brooklyn couldn’t be more different from my By the Rivers of Brooklyn — and not only because Toibin’s a widely acclaimed literary genius and I’m pretty much nobody.  In writing about Newfoundlanders making their home in Brooklyn, I was looking at a pretty broad scope — three generations of one family, focusing on six individuals over eighty years.  Scenes and vignettes from each person’s life were woven together to create what I hoped was a very big picture of immigrant life from several different perspectives. By contrast, reading Toibin’s Brooklyn is like looking at a slide under a microscope — a clear, detailed focus on one life and one experience over a relatively short span of time.

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Mindset, by Carol Dweck

mindsetIn Mindset, Carol Dweck explores two different ways people look at concepts like talent, ability and intelligence — two outlooks which, her research suggests, have a profound impact on how people learn and how they cope with setbacks.

People with what Dweck calls the “fixed mindset” believe that talent, ability and intelligence are fixed qualities which cannot be altered very much.  People with this mindset can be very bright and talented, but they tend to fold when faced with failure because they believe failures prove they aren’t actually that bright or talented. They are more likely to play it safe, seeking out situations where their abilities won’t be challenged too much.

People with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, are more likely to see talent, intelligence and ability as fluid qualities that can change with effort and hard work.  Such people see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth, and are far more likely to move forward.

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The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

nannydiariesThis is a perfect example of the kind of book I wouldn’t think to pick up if it weren’t on the list for an online book club I sometimes frequent.  I knew it would be somewhat light and fluffy, but I also expected this very popular tale of a nanny in a wealthy Manhattan household to have a sort of nasty edge to it.  Instead, I found it not only fun to read, but, in a way, sweet and a little sad as well.

The book is a novel, although it seems both the co-authors worked as New York nannies and are writing from a wealth of experience. The main character, who is just named Nanny (Nan to her family and friends), is a university student who finds a job as a caregiver for four-year-old Grayer.  Grayer’s dad, Mr. X., works too much (and fools around on his wife when he isn’t working) so is rarely around.  Mrs. X. doesn’t work at all, but needs a lot of “me time” so is also rarely around.  Mrs. X. has moments when she seems almost human, but she so shamelessly takes advantage of Nanny and has so little emotional connection with Grayer that she’s extremely unlikeable.

My biggest stumbling block with books about rich people like the X’s is that I find it so hard to believe people like this really exist — yet many people who’ve read the book and worked in similar situations say it is frighteningly accurate. Which is just … frightening.  It’s a glimpse into another world, one which most of us can be glad we don’t inhabit no matter how much money fuels it.  Nanny’s view of this world from the perspective of the (under)paid help is funny, smart, and, yes, more than a little sad.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, even though it made me sad that there are children out there being “raised” by monsters like Mrs. X and a succession of nannies.

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The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

unlikelydiscipleNow here’s another memoir that capitalizes on a couple of trends I’ve noticed in my reading lately: the “I’ll do something odd for a year (in this case a semester) and write about it” trend, and the “friend of A.J. Jacobs whose book bears some striking similarities to his” trend.  Kevin Roose was A.J. Jacobs’ intern when he wrote The Year of Living Biblically; you may recall the passage in which Jacobs decides he’ll take Kevin on as an intern on the condition that he’s allowed to refer to him as his “slave” and apply Biblical rules regarding slaves (although there are no beatings). Kevin got a pretty good payback from being a slave, because now his own book is out with a blurb from Jacobs on the front cover, which can’t hurt.

But say that his book is trendy and that he probably got some help and guidance from his former slave-owner is not intended in any way to denigrate Kevin Roose’s accomplishment in The Unlikely Disciple.  His plan was to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester (Kevin was a student at Brown University at the time) to explore from inside the world of evangelical Christianity, which to him was an alien culture.  Coming from a family of not particularly devout Quakers, Roose went “underground” at Liberty, pretending to be a born-again Christian.  The fact that he didn’t come clean about his background and motives created some strain in his new friendships, but allowed him to see Liberty students and faculty, at least to some degree, as they would see each other, rather than presenting their best face to an outsider.

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Brainiac, by Ken Jennings

brainiacAfter trying out for Jeopardy!, the next logical thing to do seemed to be to read Brainiac by Ken Jennings, the guy who made Jeopardy! history by winning 74 games in a row.  Brainiac is not just Ken’s memoir about his time on the classic game show, thought that story is woven in there.  It’s also a sort of history of trivia, with glimpses into the many diverse ways and places people play trivia games today — in pub quizzes, in college bowl tournaments, and around the coffee table with a Trivial Pursuit board.

As if a memoir and a survey of trivia weren’t enough, there are also quite a lot of trivia facts and questions embedded throughout the book, making it even more fun to read.  In the acknowledgements, Ken Jennings mentions that without his editors urging him to write a book about trivia and his fascination with it, he probably would have gone for “the usual ghost-written celebrity bio.”  I don’t know if he worked with a ghostwriter on this book, but if so, s/he’s a good ghostwriter, and if not, Ken Jennings is a funny guy who writes well — along with being one of America’s foremost trivia buffs.

I can only hope that when I win a record-setting string of games on Jeopardy!, my memoir is half this enjoyable to read.

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Songbird, by Lisa Samson

songbirdSongbird is a novel about Charmaine Hopewell, a Christian gospel singer whose ministry has arisen out of a life of hardship and disappointment.  Abandoned by her mother when she was only 11, Charmaine has met with difficulties and also with love and encouragement along her journey.  Her faith in God and her love for music have kept her going, and eventually she builds a life for herself as a Christian recording artist and wife of a popular preacher/evangelist.

Charmaine is an engaging character with a strong voice (not just her singing voice!), and the novel touches on some interesting issues, such as evangelical Christian attitudes towards mental illness and mental health professionals, and the televangelist scandals of the 1980s.  In spite of this, I didn’t find Songbird as absorbing as the other Lisa Samson novels I’ve read, but it’s still a cut above most of the women’s fiction produced by Christian presses.

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Farm City, by Novella Carpenter

farmcityThis was certainly different and interesting.  Farm City is Novella Carpenter’s story of her urban farm — a plot of land (not owned by her — she was basically squat-farming behind the house where she rented an apartment) in the middle of an Oakland, California slum.  In this unlikely spot, Novella not only grows vegetables and raises chickens, she keeps bees, raises turkeys, ducks and geese, and eventually raises and slaughters two pigs.

Given my own interests, I found the “urban” part of her story almost more interesting than the “farm” part (which, once she got to slaughtering and butchering, was a little too graphic for me at times) — I loved the descriptions of Novella’s eccentric inner-city neighbours and the neighbourhood.  It was an eye-opening description of how much farming you actually can do in the city if you’re committed to it, and I can see after reading this book that urban farming actually makes a lot of practical sense.  It’s definitely not something I’ll be getting into, since I struggle even to keep potted plants alive, but I would be very interested in learning more about, supporting, and if possible even buying produce from urban farmers in my area.  Farming is much more difficult in Newfoundland than it is in California, but this book made me want to know more about what’s happening with urban farming in my own community.  Novella Carpenter’s writing style is breezy, fun and engaging, which helped make this a quick and fun read as well as an informative one.

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The Pretend Wife, by Bridget Asher

pretendwifeNormally I’m not a fan of novels about infidelity, and now I’ve gone and read two in a row.  I mean, I know that marital infidelity makes a great plot and I don’t mind people writing about it, but I do have a problem with a novel that somehow manages to make me cheer for the person who is cheating on their spouse, as though this will solve their problems or someting.  The Pretend Wife, though, puts a very unusual spin on the whole question of cheating.

Gwen is settled, if not deliriously happy, in her marriage to Peter when she runs into an old college boyfriend, Elliot.  She remembers her relationship with Elliot as  overwhelming: she loved him too much, and feels that such a love can only be disastrous. But when Elliot asks Gwen to accompany him to his family’s summer home to pose as his wife so he can assure his dying mother he is married, she steps out of her cautious character and accepts.

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