Monthly Archives: December 2012

Best of 2012, Part One (Non-Fiction)

It’s time once again to take a look back through the year to see what I’ve read and what I’m recommending. As discussed in the video above, it’s been a fantastic year for reading, so much so that I’ve made two lists: Top 10 Non-Fiction and Top 10 Fiction. I’ve also made vlogs (the non-fiction is the one posted above; fiction is coming tomorrow) to talk a little bit about each of the books, and at the end of the video there’s an explanation of how you can enter your name to win a book. Lots of book-related fun for everyone!

I read and reviewed 86 books this year: 45 fiction and 41 non-fiction (I read a lot more non-fiction than I used to — a good broadening of my reading habits I think!). For interest’s sake, I also like to look at how many books by women and how many by men I read, because I used to have a huge bias in favour of female authors, but in that area, too, I’m broadening my tastes. This year 52 books were by women and 34 by men. The really impressive thing is not just that I had 20 books I loved so much I had to make two Top Ten lists, but that so many other books I read during the year could have also been on those lists. It was really a stellar year for reading, for me.

Here’s my final list, with links to the original reviews (further discussion in the video above):

#10 Drop Dead Healthy, A. J. Jacobs

#9 Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

#8 Finding Me in France, Bobbi French

#7 Small Man in a Book, Rob Brydon

#6 Night of the Gun, David Carr

#5 Holy Ghost Girl, Donna M. Johnson

#4 Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo

#3 Back Story, David Mitchell

#2 Wild, Cheryl Strayed

#1 Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

Be sure to watch the video above (sorry, it’s a bit on the long side; tomorrow’s will be shorter as I’m working on trying to make my reviews more succinct!) and see how you can enter to win a book. I’m giving away two from the non-fiction and two from the fiction list this year. I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Fiction!

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Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

telegraphavenueI’ve never read anything by Michael Chabon, and more and more this was seeming like an oversight that needed to be rectified. The descriptions of Telegraph Avenue made it sound like a book I’d enjoy. A strong, character-driven story focused around quirky people in a neighbourhood known as “Brokeland” (Berkeley and Oakland, California), a vintage vinyl record shop whose existence is threatened by the opening of a huge chain store … all in the hands of a writer who is an acknowledged virtuouso of the English language. Sounded like it couldn’t miss.

Well it did, for me, but I’ll lay the blame entirely at my own feet and not at Chabon’s. He is, indeed, a brilliant writer who plays with language like a good juggler plays with juggling clubs or even with fire — making it dance, making it move so quickly that you wonder how he did that, always seeming confident and assured. But for me, it was too much showmanship — enough that the writing, beautiful as it was, stood in the way of me getting connected to the characters. Especially at the beginning of the novel, which took me forever to get into. I was constantly checking back to see who was who and how people were connected, because there was so much wordplay that I just kept getting confused.

The main characters in this novel are two families — Nat Jaffe and his business partner Archie Stallings, owners of the barely-surviving Brokeland Records; Nat’s wife Aviva and Archie’s wife Gwen, who are both midwives and also business partners; Nat and Aviva’s fourteen-year-old son Julius and Archie’s fourteen-year-old son Titus, whose existence Archie has barely known about or acknowledged up to the point when they meet in this book. Of the three pairs of characters with their three separate storylines (not to mention numerous tangents involving minor characters) the only ones I really cared about were Gwen and Aviva. Every time the book focused on the two women and their midwifery business (which is under threat after Gwen understandably mouths off to a doctor who puts her down when one of their home-birth patients has to be admitted to hospital), the pages just lit up for me and I was reading with real enthusiasm. On the flip side, their two husbands, Nat and Archie, were both such completely unsympathetic characters that I couldn’t get invested in their stories at all.

I can admire Chabon’s writing and recognize that what he does, he does really well. And for many readers, that’s exactly what they’re looking for, and they can read the celebrated 12-page, gramatically correct sentence that comprises one entire chapter and applaud Chabon’s brilliance. Whereas I’m just standing back going “Show-off!” and wishing I cared more about the characters. I recognize that he’s a great writer, but he’s not destined to become one of my favourites. That’s OK though — Chabon has lots of fans and I don’t think he’ll miss me. And if you love really brilliant writing and for you it doesn’t get in the way of the story, you probably should check out Telegraph  Avenue. You might like it a lot better than I did.

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My Journey, by Leona Glidden Running

myjourneyDr. Leona Running has lived an impressive life. She became a scholar of ancient languages and a highly respected professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at a time when that career path was, to put it mildly, quite unusual for a woman. Though I never met her during the years when I was attending Andrews University and she taught there at the Seminary, I became aware of Dr. Running and her legacy some years later when I was working on a historical novel about Queen Esther and I needed someone to read it over for historical accuracy. I sent it to Dr. Running and she gave me an incredibly thorough and detailed reading and critique, and corrected me on several historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. Now in her 90s, though no longer teaching classes, she remains actively engaged and involved in the world of Biblical studies in the Adventist church, most recently gaining attention by writing General Conference President Ted Wilson “An Open Letter from your Hebrew Teacher” on the subject of women’s ordination, a cause Dr. Running has supported for many years.

In My Journey Dr. Running tells her life story. It’s a very straightforward and not particularly literary telling, but will be of interest not because of style but because of content. Anyone interested in SDA church history, in Biblical studies, and especially in the life of a woman academic in the early- to mid-twentieth century, will benefit from reading this book. Certainly there were times when I was frustrated by the things Running chose to dwell on in detail (whom she visited and stayed with and often what and where they ate on her many journeys around the world, for example) while quickly skipping over topics in which I was more interested, such as a period when what she describes as a “witch-hunt atmosphere” prevailed at the SDA Theological Seminary and she and others felt their jobs were at risk. That gets only a paragraph, when I would have liked to know much more about those controversies!

She gives a little more time and space to the first moves towards ordaining women in ministry in the SDA church in the early 1970s. She relates the fact that in 1970 she was asked by the General Conference to write a paper on the role of women in the church. When a colleague mentioned that he thought the GC was concerned with the question of women’s ordination. Dr. Running, who had never given much thought to the issue before:

“…added a paragraph saying that if God calls a woman to that work, who is to stand in her was? (How naive I was!)”

Running continues with the interesting reflection that most of the scholars who originally proposed opening up the issue of women’s ordination thought it would be a fairly quick and non-controversial process. Forty years later we’re more deeply divided than ever on this issue; I’d like to have read more of Dr. Running’s thoughts on that process and the direction it took.

But these are merely quibbles: it’s her book, not mine, and obviously she recorded the things from a long and eventful life that she thought were worth recording. I’m glad to have this book in my library and particularly honoured to have an autographed copy (given to me by a mutual friend). Leona Glidden Running is an inspiration to me and should be to every Christian woman who refuses to be defined by narrow gender roles.


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Fall to Grace, by Jay Bakker

falltograceIf you’d told me back in the 80’s that the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would be one of the Christian speakers and writers I’d be most interested in hearing from in 2012, I … well, I guess I would have believed you; I’m not sure. I probably would have said, “It’s weird how things and people don’t turn out the way you expect, isn’t it?”

As the son of a famous (and then famously disgraced) televangelist couple, Jay Bakker could’ve gone one of two popular routes: the Franklin Graham “I’m going to be everything my dad was only even more conservative and reactionary!!!” route, or the Frankie Schaeffer “I’ve rejected all that and I’m faintly embarrassed I was ever associated with it” route. Jay Bakker didn’t go down either of those easy paths. After some years of adolescent and young-adult rebellion which included alcoholism and recovery, Jay discovered the message of God’s grace and now is a pastor — the hippest of hip pastors, tattoo’d and pierced and preaching out of a bar in Brooklyn, apparently.

To be honest, all this could just be window dressing for an ultra-conservative ministry as it is with far too many “cool, young pastors” if it weren’t for the fact that Bakker has also come out (as it were) as a gay-affirming pastor. There are very few people who teach what is an essentially conservative, evangelical understanding of the Bible and also openly welcome and include gays and lesbians in their churches, and as one of those LGBT-affirming evangelicals myself (but mercifully not a pastor), I’m grateful for Jay Bakker’s ministry.

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1982, by Jian Ghomeshi

1982-2It’s an interesting choice, to write a memoir so tightly focused on a single slice of time that it’s not just a coming-of-age story but a turning-fifteen story. In 1982 I was turning 17, finishing high school and starting university in St. John’s, while Jian Ghomeshi was finishing Grade 9 and starting Grade 10, crushing on an unattainable girl, adoring David Bowie, and trying to simultaneously stand out and fit in as an Iranian immigrant in whiter-than-white Thornhill, a Toronto suburb. So, my life experience is in some ways, chronologically at least, very close to his, while in other ways very far removed. This meant that for me 1982 had both the benefits of familiarity, particularly in its multitudinous pop culture references, and also the advantage of giving me a peek into a different life.

I find Jian Ghomeshi as a radio personality to be very polarizing: people either love him or hate him. I have always loved him, way back before he was the host of CBC’s Q to when he was in Moxy Fruvous, one of my favourite bands ever. I do sort of understand why some people don’t like his on-air persona though: much as I like him, there’s a feeling sometimes in both his interviewing and his humour that I can only describe as  “trying too hard.” That same factor is on display in 1982 and sometimes kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to. Often, in this book, Ghomeshi is genuinely very funny; other times his humour just felt like he was trying too hard to be ironic or witty. I could have done without the short lists he compiled in virtually every chapter, as they didn’t add anything fresh or funny to what I’d just read.

Despite the occasional times where the humour fell flat (for me anyway), there was a lot to love about this book. Obviously Ghomeshi could have chosen to write a memoir about his whole life thus far, but while I would have loved reading about Moxy Fruvous, I admire the choice he made in focusing on one year.  I doubt there are few years in anyone’s life as poignant, painful and full of emotion as the year they finish Grade 9 and start Grade 10, so it’s a perfect choice for a book that is primarily about identity, about the ways we fashion and refashion ourselves, sometimes in the image of our idols (like Bowie, in Ghomeshi’s case) and sometimes just in a desperate attempt to be unique. The hopeless crush, which I assume is part of most people’s adolescent experience and is perfectly depicted here, is really a part of that self-making: the shattering love you feel for the person of your dreams when you’re 14 has almost nothing to do with that actual person, and everything to do with who you aspire to be, how you see yourself, and how you want others to see you.

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