Monthly Archives: March 2012

Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott (LentBooks 2012 #8)

It’s well-established that I love Anne Lamott and her ruthless, charming, disarming honesty. She’s never afraid to expose the ugly dark side of her own human nature, and to rejoice in the quirky ways God loves her in spite of that. I love what she had to say about parenting in Operating Instructions, about writing in Bird by Bird, and about faith in Traveling Mercies; Plan B; and Grace (Eventually).

Some Assembly Required returns to the home-front territory of 1993′s Operating Instructions, which chronicled Lamott’s first year as a single mother caring for her new son Sam. Almost 20 years later, art student Sam Lamott presents his mom with another surprise: he and his sometimes girlfriend Amy are having a baby. And keeping it.

Grandparenthood in her mid-fifties, the shock of her son being a teenaged parent, admiration for and clashes with fierce young mom Amy, overwhelming love for baby Jax and the blessed ability to give him back to his parents at the end of a visit – all this gives Lamott loads of material to write about, and she does it in her usual funny, self-deprecating, insightful voice. Sam’s reflections on being a dad are interspersed throughout his mom’s story, but this is still, ultimately, Anne Lamott’s story. All her nonfiction, whatever it’s about, is really one story — the story of a woman who’s well aware of her own flaws and neuroses, and also well-aware of the grace of God that has seen her through addiction, single-parent-hood, the death of friends and loved ones, the ups and downs of a writer’s life … and now, grandparenting.

Oh, there’s also a trip to India thrown in there. The only thing I’d like more than visiting India would be visiting India with Anne Lamott, so I thought that was great, even if it was a bit of a deviation from the main story of Jax, Sam, Amy and their relationship with Anne. Everything that happens to an insightful writer like Lamott is material, whether it’s changing a diaper or (against all good advice) giving cash to beggars in India — and she handles her material wonderfully. It’s always a pleasure to read an Anne Lamott memoir, and I hope life keeps handing her great experiences to write about, so I can keep reading them.

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (LentBooks 2012 #7)

Wild is a wonderful, absorbing memoir about a completely misguided, poorly-planned journey of self-discovery that somehow ends in triumph rather than disaster. Cheryl Strayed was 26 when, with her life falling apart after her mother’s death and the end of her own early marriage, she made the impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is the west-coast equivalent of the Appalachian Trail that we here on the east coast of the continent know better: a mountainous hiking trail that winds from America’s southern border with Mexico up to the northern border with Canada, passing through rugged and remote regions of California, Oregon and Washington.

Strayed was a day-hiker and camper but had never attempted a long backpacking trip before and was completely unprepared for the rigours of the trail. Her pack was too heavy; her boots were too small; she herself was untrained and unready for such a demanding trip. She just set out and … did it.

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The Re-enchantment of Nature, by Alister McGrath (LentBooks2012 #6)

This is a very interesting exploration of the connection between Christianity and the natural world, written by a theologian who also has an advanced degree in molecular biophysics. So you’d have to say McGrath knows his stuff.

In this book, his goal is primarily to refute the popular assumption that Christianity is anti-environmentalist, that the Scriptural statement that God gave man “dominion” over the earth means that Christians see humanity as dominant and the natural world as something for us to exploit. McGrath argues that nothing could be farther from the truth (though in fairness, I think he should have admitted that there are some Christians who interpret Genesis in this way, even though neither he nor I would consider this a valid interpretation).

Rather than being a Christian idea, McGrath argues, the belief that nature exists only to serve humanity is a product of Enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment humanism, which made man the measure of all things, “disenchanted” nature by removing the idea that the natural world had any intrinsic value or power of its own, or that it represented the work of a Creator. Christianity and other religions placed limits on what man could do to nature because man was never the ultimate authority: God, the gods, or nature itself were seen as higher powers to which humanity must answer.

The important task for our time, McGrath says, is for Christians to “re-enchant” nature — to recognize that the natural has worth and value over and its value to humanity. This is an important concept as we face an age of potential environmental devastation unless humans are willing to make major changes to their own behavior. It was also an important idea for me to introduce into my Lenten reading, as I reflect on the relationship that I, a confirmed city-dweller, have to the natural world — and also in view of the memoir I was reading at the same time (to be reviewed shortly). Also, throughout the book McGrath takes on crusading atheist Richard Dawkins with his claims that religions is the source of all ignorance, and science the source of all answers. It’s always nice to see a really intelligent Christian tackle Dawkins’ arguments on his own intellectual ground. 

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Mere Churchianity, by Michael Spencer (LentBooks 2012 #5)

I’d never read Michael Spencer’s blog, Internet Monk, before his untimely death in 2010, but I’ve heard a lot of recommendations for this book, so I finally decided to pick it up. Subtitled, “FindingYyour Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality,” the book is aimed mainly at those who have become disillusioned with church and specifically with the American evangelical subculture, yet who still retain, or want to retain, a faith in Jesus.

As such, I wasn’t really the book’s target audience, although I certainly share many of Spencer’s critiques of American evangelicalism (Spencer was a Baptist pastor for many years) and recognize many of the same shortcomings in the Adventist subculture. Spencer begins the book with a story about a Baptist youth group behaving badly at Dairy Queen one night after a youth group meeting, leading a non-Christian staff member to write him a letter chastising the young Christians for not reflecting the spirit of Jesus. I’m sure the same scenario could have played out on many a Saturday night in the fast-food joint nearest to most Adventist academies and college campuses. All of us professed Christians, Spencer argues, are very much in love with our church culture, with acting churchy and behaving in ways that promote what he calls “churchianity” but may have very little to do with Jesus.

Spencer does a good job at pointing out the disconnect between church culture and the Jesus we claim to follow. I think he’s a bit weaker on the prescriptive part — what does “Jesus-shaped spirituality” actually look like, and how do we keep the pursuit of a “Jesus shaped” life from becoming just another exercise in being, or seeming, “good”? Maybe the reason the later part of the book didn’t connect with me is because I’m not quite the target audience: I agree with many of Spencer’s critiques but come at them (as he probably did himself) from the perspective of someone still every much invested in the church and in church culture, who wants to know how we can make it better. The two things I took away from his vision of Jesus-shaped spirituality were certainly things I need in my spiritual life: humility and honesty.

In Spencer’s view, a Jesus-shaped spirituality consists not of going to church and doing churchy things so you can fit in with the club: it consists of being honest about your brokenness and reaching out to other people in theirs — reaching out, it should be added, in the real-world context of where you live and work, rather than through church “outreach” programs. Some will criticize his vision as placing too much emphasis on the individual and too little on the community, but it’s important to remember here that he’s speaking to people who believe the Christian community has failed them — and he agrees that it has.

Michael Spencer was certainly an engaging and readable writer with a message that needed to be heard. As with anyone who dies too young, it’s a shame he didn’t have more time to share his insights.

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What Disturbs Our Blood, by James Fitzgerald (LentBooks 2012 #4)

This was an interesting book that took me awhile to get through and left me with mixed feelings. You’ll notice that I’ve tagged it both as “memoir” and “general nonfiction” because it has elements of both. James Fitzgerald tells the story of his own life, his father’s and grandfather’s lives, but also brings in a huge amount of very information social history, particularly about the history of medicine and public health in Canada.

Fitzgerald’s grandfather, Gerald Fitzgerald, was a prominent physician and researcher, a contemporary of Banting and Best. He was involved not only in their discovery of insulin but in the discovery and promotion of vaccines for diphtheria and many other diseases, in the founding of Connaught Labs and the School of Hygiene at the University of Toronto, and in the promotion of preventative medicine and public health in Canada throughout the early 1900s. Yet this brilliant man had a deeply unhappy personal life that ended in depression and suicide; his son Jack, who followed his father into the medical profession, also followed him into mental illness. Jack — the author’s father — suffered years of debilitating mental illness, several suicide attempts, and serious drug abuse. As Fitzgerald’s memoir reveals, not only his father and grandfather but many other members of the extended family also experienced serious mental illness and either committed or attempted suicide.

With such a tortuous family history, it’s not surprising that James Fitzgerald felt the need to dig deeply into his family’s past in hopes of sparing himself the same fate as his father and grandfather. Or, perhaps, given the heritage of upper-class stiff-upper-lip repression that comes through in the story (Gerald Fitzgerald’s suicide, for example, was a closely-guarded family secret that James didn’t know about till he started researching this book), maybe it’s more surprising that he DID decide to excavate the skeletons in the family closet, rather than keeping them securely buried. The dark secrets of mental illness and family dysfunction permeate this book, and Fitzgerald has taken two paths to explore them: first, through Freudian psychoanalysis, and second, through researching and writer his father’s and grandfather’s stories for this book. And it seems that in doing so he has saved himself from the family curse, and is a more mentally stable and well-adjusted man than might be expected from his background.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (LentBooks 2012 #3)

This book took me a little while to get into because at first I had trouble identifying the many characters and keeping their names straight. But once I figured out “who’s who” — by about the end of the second chapter — I was hooked, and found this piece of  nonfiction as much a page-turner as the best novels.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of life in a Mumbai slum, as seen through the eyes of several residents — teenagers, adults, women, men, Hindus, Muslims. A single incident — a woman sets herself on fire and blames her neighbours, with whom she has been quarrelling — serves as the focal point for a story that stretches over two or three years, revealing the lives of those both directly and indirectly involved in the incident, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath. But the woman’s self-immolation is just an entry point to explore the many issues that face slum-dwellers: the (in)justice system, the (lack of) health care system, an economy in which booming wealth for the middle and upper classes trickles down to the poor in the form of a thriving market in saleable garbage. Most importantly, there is corruption — at every level, permeating every aspect of life. For the fiercely ambitious, upwardly-mobile residents of Annawadi slum — and most of the book’s characters are, in one way or another, ambitious — the goal is not to end this corruption or even to find a way around it, but to figure out how to get their piece of it.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a refreshingly different look at extreme poverty in the developing world, in the sense that its primary goal does not seem to be to evoke pity for the downtrodden poor, nor admiration for their nobility. The people of Annawadi are just like you and me — flawed, anxious, hopeful, greedy, generous, vindictive, humble and arrogant. In the Afterword, Katherine Boo explains how she gathered material for this book, describing years of length interviews with the people she met and studied. This afterword is a useful piece of context, because Boo writes the book as if she has a transparent window into the lives of her characters, rather than inserting herself into the narrative and explaining her presence there (with notebook, recording equipment, camera and translator). Clearly this is a situation where the act of observing cannot help but impact the people and events being observed, but by using so many direct quotes from her interview subjects, Boo may have gotten as close as an outsider can ever get to capturing an insider’s view of this particular world.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a vivid reminder of two things we already know, but often forget. First, the problem of poverty is real and deserving of our attention. Second, none of the solutions are simple. In this story alone, aid money from governments and well-intentioned charities gets misdirected, repurposed, and diverted away from its intended recipients in more clever ways than we guilty cheque-writing Westerners could ever imagine. This book is engaging, enlightening and informative, and I recommend it very highly.

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Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman (LentBooks 2012 #2)

Well, I do love a good memoir, and especially during Lent, a good memoir about a spiritual journey or quest. I’ve read so many books by Christian women about travelling into, out of, or around their faith, that I’m always on the lookout for books by women from other faith backgrounds. So it was hardly surprising that I jumped on Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, subtitled “The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.” 

Hasidic Judaism is one of those subcultures that’s fascinating to a lot of us on the outside, and Feldman does a good job here depicting the extremely insular Brooklyn community in which she grew up, and which she eventually left. If I have one quibble with the book it’s with a certain naievte or lack of subtlety that sometimes comes with a memoir by a very young author. I’m not one of those hardened cynics who believes that nobody under 30 should write a memoir — if younger writers have had interesting life experiences, there’s no reason they shouldn’t tell their stories — but sometimes, when reading such stories, it’s hard not to wish that the author had had the benefit of a few more years’ perspective and reflection before putting pen to paper. Unorthodox is a good story (though I really dislike the self-congratulatory use of the word “scandalous” in the subtitle), but it’s very much written in medias res, seemingly composed in the breathless moments right after Feldman took her young son, left her Hasidic husband — who seems like a half-decent fellow, if only their subculture had given either him or Feldman a chance to grow up before binding them in marriage — and set out on her own journey.

I guess what I mean about the naievte and immaturity is encapsulated in the fact that one of Feldman’s great moments of self-directed freedom near the end of the book comes when she … wait for it … smokes a cigarette. It’s pretty horrific to think any young woman in this day and age could see that as a freeing, life-enhancing choice (Feldman proudly includes a picture of herself having a smoke, just in case you didn’t believe her). It’s certainly a comment on the narrowness of the world in which she was raised, but also a comment on how close she is to leaving that world, and the limitations of her ability to critique her own choices. It feels like the ink is barely dry, which gives the story both that frustrating immaturity, but also a refreshing immediacy. There’s a moment of perspective near the end when she revisits her old neighbourhood and realizes that all the while she was living what she felt was a boring life and longing for excitement, she was actually living in a world that would have seemed exotic to the average American teenager. But that kind of perspective is achieved too rarely in this memoir.

Apparently Feldman is at work on a second volume of her story: I’ll be interested to see where it takes her. This was an enjoyable read, even if I found myself wishing she’d waited five years to write it.

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The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith (LentBooks 2012 #1)

This year I’m picking up my old practice (which I abandoned last year, but had been doing for a few years before that) of giving up fiction for Lent. This is not really a hardship, although there are definitely times when it would be relaxing to settle back with a good novel. But the main function has turned out to be that it gives me six weeks to read great non-fiction that I always mean to get around to reading but too often don’t.

The first book on the list this year is a bit of a cheat, because I did start it before Lent, but I finished it a few days in, and as it is nonfiction I decided I could count it. I first read about this book on Rachel Held Evans‘ blog, and it grabbed my attention because it seemed to be addressing a lot of the issues I’ve been struggling with in my current read-through-the Bible program. Smith attacks the problem of what he calls “biblicism” in evangelical Christianity, and sets out to prove that whether it’s right or wrong, it’s impossible. It simply doesn’t work, and insistence on a biblicist reading actually robs the Bible of its power.

Smith defines “biblicism” in a lengthy definition involving several points, but to sum up as briefly as I can, it’s a position that holds that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, that it is self-interpreting and self-explanatory, and that it provides everything we need to know, not just for salvation but to live in a God-approved fashion in every area of our lives. He illustrates with many examples of books found on the shelves of evangelical bookstores, promising “Biblical” guides to everything from managing your finances to a healthy sex life.

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Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Like The Fault in Our Stars, which is one of my favourite books so far this year, Looking for Alaska is a book I read because of my son’s current obsession with John Green. I didn’t find Looking for Alaska (Green’s first novel) nearly as compelling as Stars, but it was well-written and engaging. I’ve tagged this review as “Children’s” because I haven’t yet got around to creating a tag for “Young Adult,” but I would definitely recommend this book for mid-teens rather than pre- or young teens. The characters are 15 or 16, and the issues they face definitely have “mature themes.” If I’d read the book first, I probably would have wished Chris to wait a year or two before reading it, but as I didn’t, I’m glad I read it right after him, since I think that books are not the worst way for kids to learn about some of these things — sex, alcohol, suicide, etc — but that it’s good for parents to know what their kids are reading. Chris and I have already had some interesting conversations growing out of Alaska, and I’m sure there’ll be more.

This is the story of a moderately nerdy kid, a bit of an outsider, who goes to boarding school and finds the kind of friends he’s always dreamed of having. He also finds the girl he never dared dream of — Alaska Young, one of those beautiful, smart, self-destructive and ultimately doomed teenage girls that blazes like a firecracker across the lives of her more ordinary friends. The book is divided into “before” and “after” the key event that shatters the lives of protagonist Miles and his friends, and beyond all the angst common to many young-adult novels, there’s something deeper going on here. Green uses the device of a religion class, a charistmatic teacher, and a paper Miles has to write, to probe the issues that lie beneath the events — how do we deal with the pain of this life? And do we dare to hope for anything more?

I find John Green fascinating because I see him as a “Christian writer” in the same way I see Joshilyn Jackson as a “Christian writer” — a writer who is obviously a person of deep faith, who writes about subject matter that many Christians prefer not to read about, and many Christian parents prefer their kids not to read about — sex and drugs and maybe even a little rock’n’roll. Yet it’s through these cracks in human experience that writers like Green and Jackson and others are able to let the light shine through … in a way that writers who have the imprimatur (and limitations) of Christian publishing all too often don’t.

Looking for Alaska is one of those teen novels that’s often been banned and criticized for its all-too-honest portrayal of some aspects of teen life. If you’re a parent whose teen wants to read Looking for Alaska, you should read it too — and be ready to talk.

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“John A: The Man Who Made Us” and “Nation Maker,” by Richard Gwyn

It’s great to rediscover an old love. When I was a teenager I was fascinated with Canadian history and Canadian Prime Minister, and at one point had sort of a posthumous crush on Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister. I haven’t done much with Canadian history since I stopped teaching the subject (though pulling out a $10 bill still gives me kind of a warm glow) but I was grateful for the chance to revisit that era, and its most fascinating character, Sir John A., through Richard Gwyn’s weighty and well-researched two-volume biography.

Gwyn’s claim for John A. is simple and sweeping: he claims that Canada as we know it today would not exist without John A. Macdonald. It was not so much a fierce loyalty to the idea of Canada as a fierce determination not to become Americans that motivated Macdonald and the early confederates, but that was enough to form the basis of what would eventually become a nation. These two books are a thorough, readable and engaging journey into the early years of this country, and have whetted my appetite for more Canadian history.

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