Monthly Archives: January 2013

January Overview

Here’s a video version of me talking briefly about each of the books I’ve reviewed below. You can enter to win a copy by liking or commenting on this video on YouTube, or by sharing it on Facebook or Twitter.

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A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver

thousandmorningsMy other goal this year is to read more poetry. Any poetry, apart from what I teach my students in class. It’s been far too long since I’ve read poetry and I think one of the essential problems is that I don’t really know how to approach a book of poetry. I’m used to sitting down with novels and memoirs and blowing through them in a day or two. When I last decided to read poetry, a few years ago, I borrowed a couple of books of poetry and just stared at them, not sure how to read them.

This time I started modestly, picking up a single book of poetry. I’d read a few Mary Oliver poems in isolation and decided to try her new book, A Thousand Mornings, reading a few poems at a time. This seemed to work. The poems are beautiful, mostly nature poems, and the language really glows. That’s the best I can do — I don’t really know how to review poetry, either. I’m just going to say that this is a beautiful collection of poems, and if you like poetry, you should check it out.

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The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Second-Chance Books #1)

greatgatsbyI read this book for a college literature class and can remember thinking, “THAT’S the Great American Novel? Really? What is all the fuss about?” I found all the characters so unlikeable that I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to them, and I never gave the book a second thought.

However, this is going to be my year for “second-chance books” — re-reading or finishing books I disliked or abandoned when I was younger. I got interested in rereading The Great Gatsby by John Green’s “Crash Course Literature” videos about it. In this first video he addresses his “me from the past” character who interjects with exactly the same issues about the book that Trudy-from-the-past had and argues that you can’t judge the value of a book by the likeability of its characters. I realize that that’s true, but I think it’s hard to become emotionally engaged with a book if you can’t care about what happens to the characters, and you can’t care about people if there’s absolutely nothing about them that stirs your empathy.

After watching the John Green videos, my fifteen-year-old son decided he wanted to read The Great Gatsby, and loved it. (Subsequently John Green also got him to read Catcher in the Rye, but neither for Chris nor for John Green nor for the blog can I bring myself to attempt that again). So I decided to give it another try. My capacity for empathy must be greater in my 40s than it was in my late teens (I would hope so!) because characters that I found annoying before — particularly Daisy and Gatsby — I found poignant and sad this time, and with a better sense of history I can appreciate better the book as a product of its time. It was definitely worth a re-read, and I hope that will be true of most of the books I reread this year. We’ll see.

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Long Way Round and Long Way Down, by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman

longwayroundbookLong Way Round and Long Way Down are two British TV series featuring famous actor Ewan McGregor and his friend, less-famous actor Charley Boorman, taking extreme motorcycling trips around the world. Jason and I watched both series on DVD and found them very funny and enjoyable. In Long Way Round they travel from London to New York by going across Europe, Mongolia, and parts of Russia, then over to Alaska and down through and across North America. Long Way Down takes them from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of South Africa. Along the way they have plenty of adventures with their bikes, with each other and the rest of their crew, and with the people they meet.

The two books are companion volumes to the series and are told in the voices of Ewan and Charley alternating with each other as they describe some of the behind-the-scenes elements of their adventures. Frankly, I don’t think they’re fascinating enough as examples of travel writing to stand alone if you haven’t seen the series, but if you have watched the series (which I highly recommend) these work great as sort of “DVD-extras,” showing you more of the story. I enjoyed both, and like many Long Way Round fans, am hoping Ewan and Charley do another road trip sometime soon so that we can enjoy watching.

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Sweet Jesus, by Christine Pountney

sweetjesusStill on the subject of portrayals of conservative Christian faith in mainstream literature — but on a very different note from the last book reviewed — comes Sweet Jesus, by Canadian writer Christine Pountney. This novel tells the stories of three siblings — twenty-two year old Zeus (short for Jesus), a young gay man who makes his living as a therapeutic clown in a children’s hospital, and Zeus’s two older adoptive sisters Connie and Hannah (their parents adopted Zeus as a child after discovering him while on a mission trip). Connie is living a highly respectable, church-going, married-with-children suburban life while Hannah, a writer, is more of a free spirit and is currently in a relationship with a man she loves who does not share her desire to have a child. As the story opens, each of the three siblings is at a crossroads: Zeus’s partner dies of cancer; Connie discovers her apparently reliable husband has gambled away everything they own; Hannah considers breaking up with her partner. Connie’s desire to visit a spiritual life centre in Kansas where her mother once found hope and healing coincides with Zeus’s desire to find his birth parents (also in the US) and Hannah’s desire to just get away for awhile and think things through. These three very diverse siblings set out on a road trip, each seeking his or her own kind of salvation.

The writing here is absolutely beautiful; the characters are minutely observed. Point of view shifts between each of the three main characters, with shorter sections coming from the points of view of Connie’s husband, Hannah’s partner, and Ruth, the mother of the three siblings. In general, the religious element is handled well, with both faith and doubt treated respectfully. I realize I’m hyper-sensitive to how religious characters are treated in literary fiction, but I did have a problem at first with Connie, the only religiously observant one of the three siblings: I thought she was, in the beginning, the least believable character. Pountney puts religious-sounding words in Connie’s mouth that did not ring true to me: I’ve spent my entire life around a wide variety of Christians from many different backgrounds and have never heard anyone utter a sentence like: “Yes, yes, I know; it’s moral scrupulousness that ensures the resurrection of the flesh,” which Connie says (apparently without irony) early in the novel.

However, my Connie-related problems fell away as I read on and she became more real and rounded to me. In general, my only quibble with this beautifully-written book was that it took awhile (more than a third of the way through the novel) before I felt emotionally engaged with the characters; when I did, I wanted more and it felt like the book ended too quickly. As is so often the case, I think this may be more a limitation of me as a reader than of Pountney as a writer, so I’ll conclude by saying that this book tells an interesting story very well, with lovely use of language, and I recommend it highly to lovers of literary fiction.

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Does this Church Make Me Look Fat? by Rhoda Janzen

doesthischurchThis is Rhoda Janzen’s sequel to her first memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dressand continues the story of the author’s return to faith (first to the Mennonite church of her childhood, then to a Pentecostal church when she begins dating and eventually marries a born-again charismatic.) This story also includes a harrowing bout with breast cancer, about which Janzen said less than I wanted to know. Her trademark style is light, funny and breezy, even when discussing very serious issues — usually this worked for me, but there were times when I wanted a little more depth.

A recurring theme in this book is the need to lay aside intellectual analysis to accept things on faith — whether that be accepting a relationship with a man you love who seems like he’s your polar opposite in every way, accepting that prayer and the laying-on of hands might actually bring healing, or accepting that abstaining from sex before marriage could make your relationship stronger. I appreciated seeing issues of faith — especially conservative Christian faith — being treated with such respect in a mainstream memoir (i.e. not one published by a Christian publisher or targeted at a Christian readership). However, one of the places I wished Janzen would “go deeper” was in exploring the limitations of this attitude. Like Janzen (who is a university English professor) I struggle a lot with reconciling faith and intellect. When she confronts the issue of joining a church that takes Paul’s words about not allowing women to teach or hold authority literally, Janzen’s husband suggests that maybe she is being called to learn rather than teach at this point in her life, and she latches on to that as a wonderful example of how she needs to stop analyzing everything and take things on faith. I couldn’t help wanting to yell at her: “You’re effectively marrying not just this man but his church,” (she gets re-baptized in her husband’s Pentecostal church) “–is this always going to be a good enough answer for you? Accepting things on faith doesn’t mean shutting down your intellect, after all!” I’m sure Rhoda Janzen’s very well aware of that, but it was one of many places in the book where I found her answers a little too easy.

Still, this was an entertaining and in some places thought-provoking memoir, and as I said, I’m very glad to see a story like this on mainstream bookstore shelves rather than confined to the Christian bookstore ghetto.

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Maphead, by Ken Jennings

mapheadsmallWith his second book (after Brainiac, which I enjoyed very much), Ken Jennings has established himself as being, like Susan Orlean, a writer who can take subjects I didn’t think I was deeply interested in and make them fascinating to me. Maphead is a book about maps and people who are fascinated with them. I learned to read highway maps on family vacations at a young age and have always enjoyed looking at maps, though I don’t think I’d qualify as a full-fledged “maphead” in comparison to even some of the milder enthusiasts in Jennings’ book. 

Jennings explores the history of maps from the earliest written maps all the way up to Google Earth; he talks to rare-map dealers and buyers, attends the National Geography Bee, and dips into the world of compulsive geocachers. He interviews people who make it their life’s work to visit the highest point of elevation in every one of the 50 states of the US, and folks with various other geographic obsessions. The writing is always funny and interesting. If you’re at all interested in maps and geography you should read this book, and you’ll probably be able to up that from “interested” to “intrigued” by the time you finish (but not to “obsessed,” because after reading this, you’ll know what the real obsessed folks look like).

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