Monthly Archives: March 2013

James, the Brother of Jesus, by Robert Eisenman (LentBooks 2013 #7)

jamesI was not long into the project of writing a novel about James, the brother of Jesus, a few years back, when someone asked me if I’d read Robert Eisenman’s massive scholarly work on the subject, James, the Brother of Jesus (which is the same title the publishing house ended up giving my novel, though it was not my working title). I hadn’t read it at the time and didn’t read it while I was researching the book, because I was specifically interested in writing about James from within the framework of the little that the New Testament said about him, and not drawing in extra-Biblical source material.

However, I have always felt a little guilty about not having read this book, and fascinated as I am by James, I decided that this would be my “big book” for Lent this year, as during my six-week fiction fast I usually try to tackle at least one book that’s long, heavy and a bit more “scholarly” than my usual reading.

Often such books present views and perspectives that are well outside the conservative-Adventist-Christian framework of Biblical interpretation that I’m familiar with. Although I frequently disagree with some of their conclusions, I always enjoy tackling big, meaty works of Biblical scholarship that challenge my ideas. I inevitably learn something and broaden my thinking even if I don’t come away agreeing with the author. Notable books of this type that I’ve read in the past include John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Finkelstein and Silberman’sThe Bible Unearthed.

I include this background information both to show what kind of reading experience I was expecting/hoping to have with Eisenman, and also to defend myself against the charge that “You just didn’t like it because it doesn’t fit with your orthodox beliefs.” Yes, my beliefs are pretty small-o orthodox, but I’m more than willing to read, think about and engage with non-orthodox ideas and scholarship. So my dislike of Eisenman’s James was not based on it being “too heretical” for me; it was based on it being a terrible piece of writing, full of argumentative holes through which one could drive a camel train, were one so inclined.

Disclaimer one: I’m not a scholar, just a moderately well-read layperson. These are my unprofessional, lay-reader responses.

Disclaimer two: This gets long.

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The Still Point of the Turning World, by Emily Rapp (LentBooks 2013 #6)

stillpointAs memoirs go, this is one of the most shattering, intense ones I’ve ever read. Given the subject matter, it could hardly be otherwise, though a lesser writer might have made it sentimental or just painful to read. When Emily Rapp’s only son Ronan was a baby, she and her husband learned that Ronan had Tay-Sachs disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder than is always fatal. They were told that over the next couple of years they could expect to see Ronan gradually lose all the developmental ground he’d gained in his first few months of life, and that he would probably die by age three (Ronan did, in fact, die just before the publication of this book).

This is tough material, and Rapp writes from right out of the middle of the experience, completing the book while Ronan’s short life continues and his disease progresses. I made several comments about the memoirs I reviewed last year to the effect that writers write better memoirs when they allow time to put distance between themselves and the experiences they’re writing about, and Rapp herself is well aware that this is generally true, and addresses it directly in the book. While it’s certainly true that she would have written differently about the experience ten years after Ronan’s death (and might yet, I suppose) there’s something about the raw immediacy of this book that’s compelling. As I said, another writer might not have made it work, but Emily Rapp does.

I noticed that in her Acknowledgements one of the fellow writers she thanks is Dani Shapiro, and that interested me because I thought about Shapiro’s Devotion when I was reading The Still Point. Devotion is the story of a mother who believed for months that she was going to lose her infant son, but who ultimately experienced the happy ending we all hope for, in life and in stories. Emily Rapp didn’t get that. Ronan’s condition was exactly what she was told it was, and she was his mother for a few brief years, knowing that it would end all too soon.

It makes for a fascinating meditation on parenthood and on unconditional love. Reading it, I was sobered to realize how much of what I think of as “parenting” has to do with investing in my children’s future, planning for it and trying to prepare them for it. Our approach to parenthood is almost completely future-oriented, even when we feel so crazy in the midst of the parenting trenches that we think we’re only living moment to moment. We’re really not: we’re nagging about homework and trying to cook balanced meals and refereeing sibling quarrels because we believe that someday our children will benefit from all that education and nutrition and discipline.

But what if they couldn’t? What if our children had no future — if all we had with them was the present moment? What would parenting look like then?

This is the question Rapp returns to over and over in this memoir — not to try to teach other parents anything about living in the moment, because most parents’ experiences are in no way comparable, and anyway Rapp (herself a disabled person, having had one foot amputated in childhood and using a prosthetic limb) vigorously rejects the idea that sick and disabled people are put on earth to be living object lessons for the healthy. She is simply telling her story; what conclusions we draw are up to us. The intensity of that story made it possible for me to overlook things that might have irritated me in a more objective writer (mainly her attitude to Christianity: Rapp is a minister’s daughter and former theology student who has since left the Christian faith, which is fine, but her scornful description of adolescent evangelical prayer groups set back-to-back against her uncritical enthusiasm for Reiki “healing” grated a little: can’t she at least see that some people have gotten as much benefit from prayers circles as she’s ever gotten from Reiki, and some people consider both to be equally hokum?). When I brushed up against moments like these I was reminded: this woman is telling her own story, a story that seared and changed her for life. Why should she be objective? She’s not, and I wouldn’t be either.

I’m not going to lie and tell you that The Still Point of the Turning World is an easy book to read, especially if you’re a parent. It’s not. But it is incredibly engrossing and rewarding.

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Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, by Marc Lewis (LentBooks 2013 #5)

addictedbrainWell it doesn’t seem like we can ever get through Lent without me reading an addiction memoir, but this one is definitely different, and I think it’s a good difference. Rather than just a person’s story of his journey through drug addiction and out into recovery — engrossing though those can be — this is a story by a neuroscientist who was a drug addict in his youth. Marc Lewis not only narrates the chilling and stupid things he did to his brain and body as a younger man; he analyzes, at each step (first drink; first joint; acid trip; near-death from heroin overdose; relapse…) what’s going on in the chemical-affected brain. Sometimes the neuroscience parts of the book went over my head, though he carefully couches everything in layman’s language and includes diagrams. But for what I was able to understand it was very interesting to see a brain’s-eye view, as it were, of how drug abuse and drug addiction impact the user.

There were a couple of gaps in this book that I wish Lewis had filled in. First of all, he didn’t touch on the question of who becomes an addict, and why. Of all the unhappy fifteen year olds like himself who get drunk and smoke weed, relatively few end up breaking into hospital labs (during their internships!) to steal drugs. I would have liked to know whether Lewis had any insight, from a neuroscience  perspective, as to why he was one of those who did become an addict. Is addiction wired into people’s brains in any way we can understand? Also, I find that while he spends a lot of time talking about his drug use he skates over  his recovery fairly quickly in the closing chapters. While this is a common failing of (some, not all) addiction memoirs, I was  particularly disappointed here that we didn’t learn more about how the brain changes during recovery, and how those patterns that have become so well-worn (and well-documented) can be changed. The book is both interesting and informative, but there were definitely areas where I felt the author could have told us more — not about his own life, which he covers quite well, but about the brain.

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The Idolatry of God, by Peter Rollins (LentBooks 2013 #4)

idolatryofgodThis is the first Peter Rollins book I’ve read, although people always seem to be talking about him. Some talk favourably; some less so. I was intrigued enough to add his new book to my Lenten reading list. Just before I read it, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article, and that writer’s critique of Rollins’ thought was in the back of my head as I read, chiming in, to some extent, with the doubts and questions I had while reading. That’s not to say I didn’t find a lot of value in The Idolatry of God, simply that I don’t uncritically agree with everything Rollins says.

The book is subtitled Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. In a lot of ways it speaks exactly where I am in my spiritual life right now, so I was intrigued. Growing up in a church where certainty about doctrine is prized as one of the highest values of the spiritual life, I find myself in midlife questioning almost every certainty I’ve ever been taught (see my Searching Sabbath video series for more details…) It’s been my observation that most people, when they experience uncertainty about their faith, tend to move fairly quickly towards greater certainty. It could be the certainty of rejecting belief and embracing atheism, or the certainty of seeking out another religious tradition to join, or the certainty of rejecting their doubts and holding firm to what they’ve always believed, stifling any further questions that may arise.

None of these options works for me. I want to be (as the tagline on my main blog describes me) a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who doubts, questions, and loves my church. Can one be a faithful doubter? Is it OK to live with uncertainty, to say of some issues, “I don’t know the answers, and that’s OK with me”?

It’s the embrace of uncertainty that I found appealing in The Idolatry of God. Rollins’ premise is that our basic human problem is one of idolatry: we sense a lack, a need in our lives, and we look for something — anything — that will fill it. Whatever we adopt to fill the void in our lives becomes an idol. Traditional Christianity would say the problem here is that we are filling the void with the wrong things: the void is God-shaped, and no idol will ever truly satisfy. Rollins turns traditional Christianity on its head by saying that the god offered in Christian churches is just another idol: we Christians hold out the same hollow promise as everyone else. “Worshipping [the right] God [in the correct way, as we do] will fill your emptiness and make you whole!” Christianity promises, and Rollins contends that in the end this idol is just as empty and unfulfilling as any other.

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A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (Second-Chance Books #4)

Tale of Two Cities Book coverSo far, I’m really loving this re-reading the classics project. I’ve always struggled with Dickens. A few years ago I spent an entire summer reading Bleak House, off and on,  and found it … difficult. The only other two Dickens novels I’d read were Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, both decades ago so that I didn’t remember a lot of detail about them. I did have a vague sense that back when I read A Tale of Two Cities, I had a big crush on Sydney Carton, plus it’s one of the shorter Dickens books, so it was the obvious choice for a re-read.

BOY I WAS NOT REMEMBERING WRONG ABOUT THAT CRUSH. Sydney Carton really is one of the great hotties of literature, especially given my love (in a literary sense, not so much in real life) for doomed but charming young men. He’s all that and a bag of chips. Even though I knew how the book ended (not so much from remembering my previous reading of it, as from general cultural awareness), I couldn’t put it down for the last few chapters. I stayed up late, reading and crying.

It’s a beautiful book, very tight and non-rambly by Dickens standards, and very much, of course, an Englishman’s view of the French revolution (and a historical novel even in its time, having been written more than 50 years after the events it describes). It was interesting to read it so soon after Les Miserables, which was written at about the same time, because there’s so much to compare between the two. Both writers share that rambling, discursive style so typical of nineteenth-century novelists (though Dickens far less so than Hugo, at least in these two novels). There’s the French revolutionary setting – one novel by a French writer, writing not about the 1789-92 Revolution but about a later insurrection that’s very much in the shadow of the original one, and the other an English writer trying to capture a sense of what it might have been like for an outsider in Paris during the Reign of Terror. Even some of the characters echo one another: Doctor Manette, though a much less compelling and complex character than Jean Valjean, shares with him a long and unjust imprisonment that gives him trouble readjusting to “real life.” Manette is as completely dependent on the love and support his daughter Lucie as Valjean is on his foster daughter Cosette — with the important difference that Lucie knows about her father’s imprisonment whereas Cosette is completely in the dark. Both girls, however, are idealized images of beautiful and perfect young womanhood — good, virtuous, selfless, golden-haired, lovely and just a little, um, dull.  And each is loved devoted by a young man who’s not terribly interesting either, though Marius Pontmercy at least has the saving grace of being a bit more complex and a bit less virtuous than Charles Darnay, who is little more than The Good Guy.

In each story, too, the most interesting character is the one who’s in the throes of unrequited love. And despite my long-term affection for Eponine in Les Mis  (more in the musical than in the novel, actually) I have to admit that Sydney Carton is the undisputed king of Unrequited Lovers, because he sacrifices himself, not just to save Lucie, which would be impressive enough, but to save Charles Darnay because Lucie loves him. Now, that’s pure gold. And after 150+ years, it hasn’t gotten old.

Should I attempt another Dickens novel? I won’t read Bleak House again — you can’t make me — but maybe Dickens fans out there can suggest one I haven’t read that might charm me. A sort of “If you liked A Tale of Two Cities, you might like …” kind of recommendation? What have you got for me?

ADDENDUM: After I posted this, my dad read it and sent me this cartoon, which he describes as his favourite from his days working in the publishing business:

dickens

 

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The Pope Who Quit, by Jon M. Sweeney (LentBooks 2013 #3)

popeWow, I wish I had Jon M. Sweeney’s luck. I mean, The Pope Who Quit was already doing well when it first came out last year, but I’m willing to bet sales have gone through the roof in the last couple of weeks. Sweeney actually discusses, in this book, the possibility that Benedict XVI might choose to resign. Now that the pope actually has done that, I’m sure readers are more intrigued than ever by this well-written biography of the only other pope in history who actually did walk away from the job.

Pope Celestine V, or Peter Morrone as he was known pre-papacy, was a hermit monk who founded a religious order and was a popular preacher and teacher in the Italy of the late 1200s. During a lengthy and fruitless conclave to choose a new pope, one of the cardinals suggested Peter as a candidate, and it appears the suggestion was seized upon as an example of divine inspiration. The reluctant hermit was hauled out of his solitary retreat and made leader of the church, but Peter/Celestine only held the position for fifteen weeks. During that time he was almost completely ineffectual, was believed to be a puppet of the King of Naples, insisted on living in a hut built inside a courtyard of the palace where he was supposed to reside, and made no effort to deal with the complex political and ecclesiastical problems a pope was supposed to handle. Three months into his term he resigned and went home, intending to return to his quiet hermitage. Instead, he was arrested and imprisoned by his successor (who had helped him with the legal procedures necessary for his abdication), and died a short while later in prison, possibly murdered.

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101 Letters to a Prime Minister, by Yann Martel

101lettersI got this book as a Christmas gift and only just finished it, reading a couple of the 101 letters every time I picked it up. Many Canadians will already be familiar, as I was, with Life of Pi author Yann Martel’s one-sided book club, in which he sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every other week for about for years, each one accompanied by a letter discussing the enclosed book and why Martel thought the Prime Minister of Canada should read it. (This process was documented on Martel’s website and in an earlier book that covered the first 55 books  in the series). Harper never sent Martel a single personal reply, although staff members did send a few carefully-worded form letters in response to some of the books.

There are two levels to 101 Letters: the political and the literary. Martel’s political agenda is not subtle: he is spurred to write by the Harper government’s apparent indifference to the arts and frequently refers in the letters to cuts to arts funding and other programs Martel sees as essential for a healthy society. His cynicism towards (verging on contempt) for Harper, his government, and his policies, frequently comes through in the letters: it’s clear that Yann Martel is suggesting reading as a program of self-improvement which he believes Stephen Harper desperately needs, but which he also thinks Harper is unlikely to avail of. By publishing the correspondence as it unfolded, Martel made it clear that the books and letters were always meant to be as much a commentary on and critique of Harper the politician, as a private message to Harper the man.

Personally, I’m no fan of Stephen Harper (to put it very very mildly) and my political views largely align with Martel’s, so I sympathize. But I also (oddly) found myself sympathizing with Harper (which I’ve certainly never done before). You can see why he wouldn’t want to reply to these letters, written in an apparently gentle tone that is almost always condescending and disapproving not very far beneath the surface. But one can hope that at least he read some of the books.

Which brings me to the second and more valuable purpose of this collection: the 101 wonderfully varied books (actually more, since Martel occasionally sent two or even three shorter books with a single letter) discussed in these pages contain several gems I wanted to add to my to-read list and some brilliant insights into books I’ve already read and loved. These aren’t necessarily Yann Martel’s favourite books: in fact, he includes some (such as an Ayn Rand novel) that he actively dislikes. It’s his discussion of why he’s chosen each book and why he thinks it would be a good addition to the library of a national leader. Regardless of your politics, any book-lover should enjoy this collection — though if you’re an ardent fan of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, you will find Martel’s attitude in these pages hard to take at times.

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