Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown (LentBooks 2010 #12)

Ian Brown is one of the many, many CBC journalists that I’ve had a little radio crush on over the years, although these days he works more in print media and I don’t get to hear his lovely mellow voice like I used to on Talking Books.  But even in print, that voice is there, vivid and warm and personal, in The Boy in the Moon, Brown’s memoir about raising a profoundly disabled child.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about disability that gives a more raw, honest portrait of the mixed emotions, the love, the frustration, and most of all the sheer mind-numbing exhaustion, that parents experience when caring for a child as severely compromised as Brown’s son Walker.  It’s all there — the physical restraint, the sleepless night, the strains on the parents’  marriage and on their other, non-disabled child, the gut-wrenching decision to eventually put Walker into care outside the home.  The Boy in the Moon is painful to read sometimes, but I found it impossible to put down.

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The Bread of Angels, by Stephanie Saldana (LentBooks 2010 #11)

Bread of Angels is a memoir by a young American woman who goes to Damascus (on a Fulbright scholarship) to learn Arabic.  Her academic purpose is to study the Qu’ran in Arabic and learn more about the Muslim portrayal of Jesus.  Her personal goals are less clear: after a difficult childhood and youth, and a young adulthood spent wandering the world as a student and journalist, Saldana attempted to settle down in the US, but the result was a broken heart and another flight out of the country.  Like many travellers, she’s on a journey to find out what she wants in life, and hers takes her to some unexpected places.

The Bread of Angels is many things. It’s a great piece of travel writing; Saldana vividly captures the experience of being the only American in a Middle Eastern neighbourhood, being a curiosity to her neighbours, struggling with an unfamiliar language, and knowing that she represents a country that most of those around her actively hate.  But the book is also a powerful spiritual memoir.  Saldana’s struggles with God and faith climax partway through her year when she spends several weeks at a remote desert monastery practicing the Ignatian spiritual exercises.  At this point she transitions quite smoothly from writing about culture shock and her Damascus boarding house to writing about mystical experiences of Jesus, and brings the reader along with her on this strange journey (during which, for awhile at least, she decides the best solution to her life is to become a nun).

This book is many things — travel writing, personal confessional, spiritual memoir, and, oh, did I mention it’s also a love story? For me, though, the one thing it never ceased to be was compelling, I was with Saldana every step of the way, and intrigued by her story.

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In Search of Paul, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed (LentBooks 2010 #10)

Between N.T. Wright’s In Search of Paul and Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of the apostle Paul during this Lenten reading series. Not that that’s a bad thing.

In Search of Paul brings a unique perspective to the apostle’s work. The authors explore Paul in the context of the Roman and Jewish worlds of his time, as revealed through archeological discovery.  The main burden of the book is to show, as the subtitle says, “How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom,” and this is highlighted by archeological discoveries showing how Caesar Augustus and the subsequent emperors positioned themselves as gods and saviors within the Roman Empire, and how Paul’s language about Jesus clearly challenged that.

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The Blue Parakeet, by Scot McKnight (LentBooks 2010 #9)

The Blue Parakeet is a book I picked up because I’ve seen it positively reviewed and recommended many times.  Basically, it’s a non-academic, popular book written for evangelical Christians, about how we read the Bible.  McKnight’s basic premise is very simple: nobody, even people who claim to follow “the Bible and the Bible only,” is capable of reading the Bible without interpreting it.  We all read through some interpretive lens; we all “pick and choose” what we will follow out of the Bible; we all have to deal with or else ignore Bible passages that don’t fit within our framework (these are the “blue parakeets” of the title, a metaphor that I personally thought began to feel a little tired by the end of the book).

I guess there are people who will find this a shocking premise, but to me it’s pretty obvious that every Christian, everywhere, is reading the Bible through some kind of interpretive framework, and the question is not how to stop doing that — you can’t – -but rather, given that we have to interpret what we read, how should we interpret it?

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Making Toast, by Roger Rosenblatt (LentBooks 2010 #8)

This is another memoir: I tend to alternate “heavier” reading during Lent with memoirs to  lighten the load. This one is light as far as length and writing style goes, though the subject matter is hardly easy.  A young wife and mother drops dead suddenly, and her parents — author Rosenblatt and his wife — move in to their son-in-law’s home to help their three small grandchildren cope with this unimaginable loss.

Making Toast is, as the title suggests, filled with the small details of a family’s daily life as they all move through grief.  If I have any criticism about this book, it’s that, while the book depicts loss and grief in a believable and poignant way, the relationships among the family members seem almost too nice, smooth, and harmonious.  Everyone, including the children, seems to be on his or her best behavior; there are none of the arguments, tension or stress I’d expect to see among a family who has just experienced such trauma. 

Either Rosenblatt whitewashed the story to make family members come off as well as  possible, or he really does have the most polite family in the world — even in the midst of a terrible loss. It’s at the opposite end of the memoir spectrum from the last book I read, Diana Joseph’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way — rather than being a confessional tell-all that risks revealing far too much, Making Toast seems guarded and cautious. Which may be perfectly fine and probably healthier for all concerned — but in this society where everyone’s a memoir artist, maybe we’ve come to expect a little more in the way of soul-baring.

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I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, by Diana Joseph (LentBooks 2010 #7)

I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is a memoir in the form of a collection of short, funny, sometimes poignant essays, each of which Diana Joseph shapes around one of the men in her life — father, son, ex-husband, boyfriends, friends, and, in one case, dog.

This is one of these memoirs that seems so painfully honest, so revelatory in its details, that you wonder if any of the men in Diana Joseph’s life are still speaking to her since its publication — especially since many of them are introduced by both first and last names, leaving the reader to wonder whether these are pseudonyms or whether she’s really exposing her subjects as mercilessly as she seems to be doing.

Her revealing character sketches tell the reader a lot about each of these men, but of course they end up telling us a great deal more about Joseph herself — her background, her mistakes, her neuroses, what she loves and values.  She comes across as a funny, perceptive, though more-than-slightly screwed-up woman. Despite the tongue-in-cheek subtitle, there is nothing particularly “astonishing” about her stories, except that she tells them well and they’re a pleasure to read.

 

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Paul: In Fresh Perspective, by N.T. Wright (LentBooks 2010 #6)

Don’t pick up an N.T. Wright book if you’re not prepared for some serious, hard-core Biblical scholarship that challenges your perceptions and yet still manages to inspire. His book on Paul — adapted from a series of lectures — develops themes he has already presented elsewhere, in book such as What Saint Paul Really Said, and there are plenty of hints that these themes will be far more fully developed in the next massive volume of his exhaustive and daunting Christian Origins and the Question of God series.

Wright examines Paul’s letters in the light of traditional and current scholarship.  He confines his discussion mainly to the seven letters that are widely accepted as Pauline, though he makes it clear that he believes that at least Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians are also authentic.  However, presumably to meet more liberal theologians on their own ground, he draws evidence primarily from the undisputed epistles of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and 1 Thessalonians.

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Living Oprah, by Robyn Okrant (LentBooks 2010 #5)

Ah yes, yet another variation on “I set myself a ridiculous year-long challenge and got a book contract from my blog.”  Okrant, a yoga teacher and actor in Oprah’s home city of Chicago, decided to spend a year following, as literally as possible, every piece of advice she was given by the “Queen of Talk” for a whole year. 

She garnered advice by watching the Oprah show daily, reading O, the magazine, and checking out Oprah’s website.  Any advice that seemed to come directly from the lips of Ms. Winfrey herself, Robyn Okrant did her best to put into practice, from buying a pair of white jeans to increasing the frequency of intimate marital encounters with her husband to an Oprah-approved level.

Once you know the premise, there’s not much here to surprise you.  It’s an easy, relatively entertaining journey, on which Okrant discovers, to no-one’s surprise, that trying to live by all the dictates of any self-help guru can be difficult, expensive, time consuming, and sometimes self-contradictory. There are no shocking insights here, but I do like that she so clearly points up the contradictory nature of many of the messages women get from the Oprah media machine.  Consuming less is better for the planet — except for these shoes we just can’t live without.  Accept your body and love yourself as you are — but sign up for a weight loss challenge! And also, treat yourself with this decadent dessert! I doubt anyone out there takes Oprah’s advice so seriously that they would be shocked by Okrant’s revelations, but it’s fun to watch her give it a shot.

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Canada Reads: Midweek Update

So, we’re up to Thursday morning – three broadcasts down, two to go — and I’ve been listening religiously to the Canada Reads broadcasts.  Yesterday, we learned that Generation X was the first book voted off the table; today we’ll find out the results of yesterday’s vote and learn which book is off, and which three remain.

I wasn’t sorry to see GenX go, because, as you know, I simply couldn’t get into it and in the end refused to read it.  But as the debates continue and the voting marches forward I notice an interesting thing happening.  I went into this cheering for Good to a Fault,  a book I enjoyed tremendously but could see flaws in as well.  Now I find myself getting super-defensive when I’m listening and a panelist says anything bad about Good to a Fault.  As for the remaining three books, all of which I liked things about, I find myself focusing on how depressing Fall on your Knees is, how The Jade Peony was really three stories instead of one, how I didn’t like the lack of resolution in Nikolski.  In other words, the competitive structure of the show, and the fact that there’s a book I really like, is polarizing my attitude toward all the books, because I want GtaF to win (although I don’t think it will).

Despite this, I still think Canada Reads is great.  With all the ridiculous reality spectacles we’re encourage to watch and care about during this, the fall of western civilization, Canada Reads at least encourages us to get vicious and competitive and to oversimplify our complex responses … to something that really matters.  Books.  I love this country.

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We Interrupt Lent to Bring You … Canada Reads!

The frabjous day (calloo! callay!!!) is finally here.  Canada Reads begins tomorrow.

For those of you not in the know, Canada Reads is a nationally-broadcast radio competition where five people each defend a book that they have chosen to be the book all Canada should read.  And lots of us Canadian bibliophiles listen and cheer for our favourite books and whine when they are voted off.  Last book standing is the winner. And the debates begin, on CBC radio and online, tomorrow, March 8!!

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