Monthly Archives: November 2013

Someone Else’s Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson

someone else love storyWhen I finished reading this book, I felt such a sense of loss, it was like a break-up. We’d only been together less than a day — since I could not stop reading it — but during that time I fell deeply in love with at least three of the book’s characters. As for the author, I’ve always been in literary love with Joshilyn Jackson, but this, her sixth novel, may be my very favourite.

Someone Else’s Love Story tells the stories of two characters — Shandi Pierce and William Ashe — whose lives collide when they are both held at gunpoint in a convenience-store robbery. Shandi is a young single mom trying to finish college, raise a brilliant three-year-old, and balance the competing claims of two divorced parents who both love her very much but want different lives for her and her son. William is a brilliant scientist with a touch of Asperger’s and a life shattered by the tragic loss of his wife and daughter a year earlier. Shandi falls head-over-heels for William, and the story alternates between their two perspectives (Shandi’s in first-person, William’s in third-person) chapter by chapter as they deal with the aftermath of the store robbery and the secrets from their pasts each of them has been forced to confront.

Jackson has such a beautiful command of voice in this novel: William and Shandi are very different people and the way they think and view the world is completely different, and the language in their chapters reflects that perfectly, drawing us into each of their minds. This is not the sort of story where the desired “happy ending” is obvious from the start: as you read you realize that many outcomes are possible and there will be some joy and some loss however it works out. One thing Joshilyn Jackson is a master of is the unexpected twist in the story that forces you to view everything that’s happened so far in a different light — and when she pulls off the twist in this one, the ground under your feet will shift and so will your idea of what a “happy ending” might look like.

Shandi and William are great, multilayered, well-developed characters but so are the others in this book — William’s tough-as-nails best friend Paula; Shandi’s mother; William’s wife Bridget, whose love story unfolds in the flashbacks, and perhaps my very favourite, Shandi’s devoted best friend Walcott, who genuinely seemed to me like he had wandered into a Joshilyn Jackson novel from his original home in the pages of a John Green novel. Even the most potentially hateable character in the book — I won’t tell you who that is — turns out to have a very human face. This is a novel where people are capable of making wrong choices and doing very bad things, but even the villains are viewed through a compassionate lens.

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s writing is that she’s a good church lady whose books are full of the kind of scenes that good church ladies’ books aren’t supposed to contain — by which I mean that she’s a Christian who writes novels no Christian bookstore would carry, because they have sex scenes and people are flawed and messed-up and real. Every book Jackson writes is a work of theology and her one theological teaching is always the same: grace. Her characters need grace and they extend it to each other, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Her novels nearly always include at least a few characters who are overtly religious, church-going people — and often it’s those same characters who are agents of divine grace, but rarely in traditionally religious ways. For example, in this novel, William’s wife Bridget is a devout Catholic girl who plans to become a nun. Even after she abandons that vocation to marry William, she works at inner-city missions, but for her atheist husband, the most powerful way in which Bridget acts out grace is through a rundown city park that she transforms into a place of beauty and refuge by planting flowers and building birdhouses. In Jackson’s novels, grace comes in unexpected ways and sometimes from the people  you’d least expect to receive it from — but it never fails to show up.

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Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

pastrixI’ve been a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber since I read and reviewed her first book, Salvation on the Small Screen?, in which this liberal Lutheran pastor watches and comments on twenty-four hours of evangelical Christian television on TBN. I sometimes read her sermons on her blog, Sarcastic Lutheran (the name alone would be enough to hook me). In many ways she’s the stereotypical hipster liberal Christian — she pastors a small church plant that welcomes gays and lesbians as well as anyone else who has trouble fitting into the traditional church mold; she peppers her writing and even her sermons with swear words; she’s famously covered in tattoos. And these are not pre-conversion tattoos that she wears as a reminder of her troubled worldly life, though she definitely did have such a life before becoming marrying a Lutheran minister and re-converting to a more welcoming brand of Christianity than the one she knew growing up in the Church of Christ. No, Bolz-Weber’s tattoos include an icon of Mary Magdalene, whom she calls her “patroness,” on one forearm, and Martin Luther’s quote “Simul Justus et Peccator” (“a saint and a sinner at the same time,” very loosely translated) around her wrist. The tattoos, like the swear words, are part of who she is as a Christian and as a pastor.

What I love about Nadia Bolz-Weber — apart from the fresh, funny, honest tone of her writing — is how willing she is to confront her own prejudices. She writes with great perceptiveness about the time she got conned while trying to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, and fearlessly explores how much her own self-righteousness, her desire to be seen as a hero, got her into that situation in the first place. She writes about her shock when her edgy, experimental church gets invaded by middle-class people from the suburbs who look like everybody’s parents. She writes about forging a friendship with a conservative Christian blogger who publicly attacked. In every situation she faces, she’s always quick to identify her own weaknesses and flaws, which allows her to at least attempt to extend a hand of fellowship even to those who might be quick to reject such a hand if it came attached to a heavily tattooed arm. In other words, she believes in loving not just the marginalized, but the marginalizers, which is a much tougher call.

While I said that in many ways she fits the stereotype of “liberal Christian pastor” — emerging church, LGBT-affirming, non-traditional — there are key ways in which Bolz-Weber does not fit the “liberal Christian” paradigm. She has no interest in Jesus as a good moral teacher or a good example: she’s the first to admit that she’s incapable of emulating a good example or applying any good moral teachings Jesus might have on offer. Instead, she’s very traditionally Christian — more specifically, traditionally Lutheran — in her insistence that God’s grace must be at the centre of the gospel — the radically accepting grace of God that offers a welcome to every sinner, every outcast, and every self-righteous conservative. Just as Nadia and her church, the House for All Saints and Sinners, are trying to do. This is the best and most engaging memoir I’ve read this year; I found it almost impossible to put down, and recommend it very highly.

 

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Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

hyperboleLike many readers, I was first introduced to Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half, by the post about the Alot, the mythical creature Brosh invented in her fertile and slightly twisted brain to help her deal with the murderous rage incited by seeing people write “alot” instead of “a lot.” Her deliberately scrawly yet brilliant drawings are the perfect counterpoint to her snarky yet perceptive voice as she tells stories from her childhood and her present life in ways that make you laugh till you cry … and sometimes just skip straight to crying. Never was this more evident than a couple of years ago when she wrote/drew a post called Adventures in Depression, which struck a chord with many readers who had been through similar experiences. Then she disappeared from her blog for well over a year, leading everyone to wonder if she was OK.

She wasn’t. But she wasn’t gone for good either. Brosh returned to the blogging world a few months ago with Depression, Part Two, which updated her story of dealing with depression and again, won huge acclaim and appreciation from people who were happy to see a popular blogger’s experience with mental illness described with precision, sensitivity, and humour. And for those who love Allie Brosh’s work, there’s now a collection on paper that you can hold in your hands and thrust into the hands of unsuspecting friends and relatives, as long as they have a sense of humour and don’t mind swear words (that last part is kind of important, because the language is as colourful as the drawings in this book).

While the Alot is sadly missing from this collection, some of Brosh’s best-loved posts are here — not only the ones about depression and other serious/funny glimpses into her psyche, but some hilarious stories from her childhood and, funniest of all in my view, posts about her dogs. Her drawings of dogs alone ought to earn her some kind of an award, but the accompanying text pushes them over into genius terrority. If you haven’t heard of Hyperbole and a Half, and you clicked any of the links above and thought, “This stuff is good!” then you really, really must buy this book. 

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Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

dissolutionThis is going to be sort of a catch-all review, because after a co-worker loaned me C.J. Sansom’s Tudor-era mystery Dissolution, I immediately went out and borrowed the next book in the series, Dark Fire, from the library, and am now into the third book, Sovereign. If you enjoy historical mysteries this is a series not to be missed. The “detective,” Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who, as the story opens, works for Thomas Cromwell. He is committed, like Cromwell, to the cause of Protestant Reform in England. He’s also hunchbacked, which gives him a little bit of the status of an outsider, and he is indeed a keen observer of, and reflector on, the people and events around him, which makes him an excellent detective. At the beginning of Dissolution, Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate a murder in one of the monasteries that’s slated for dissolution under Henry VIII’s reforms. What happens there not only provides an engaging puzzle for Shardlake and the reader, but also changes Shardlake as a man and as a reformer, causing him to question many of the certainties to which he’s clung so tightly.

This is the best kind of historical mystery, rich with period detail and focused on a character who is clearly a man of his time, yet relatable for modern readers. In the second book, Dark Fire, Shardlake has distanced himself from Cromwell but gets pulled into his web of influence again as he has to track down a group of people who may just have discovered the ancient weapon known as Greek Fire — and Shardlake has to face the question of whether anyone can be trusted with a weapon of mass destruction. Also, in the second book, he’s acquired a reluctant sidekick, Jack Barak, a wonderfully drawn and engaging character who’s a great foil to Shardlake in every way. There are three more books in this series and I’m sure when I’ve done the last one I’ll be eagerly waiting for Sansom to come up with more, so I hope he’s working on that!

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Torn, by Justin Lee

torn

Despite my affinity for such books as Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate and the much more recent Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu, I have to say that if I were to pick one book to recommend to people regarding the current tension over same-sex marriage and gay relationships in Christianity, it would be Justin Lee’s Torn. Lee skilfully combines his own story of growing up as a deeply committed evangelical kid who struggled to come to terms with the fact that he was gay, with a broad look at the “bigger picture” of how gays and lesbians are treated in churches today. As the subtitle suggests, he seeks to suggest a way forward through one of the most contentious debates of our time, and he speaks with the voice of someone uniquely qualified to understand both sides of the story.

Those who uphold the traditional Christian position on sexuality often dismiss gay Christians as people who ignore clear Biblical teaching in an attempt to justify their own sin. Anyone who thinks that way needs to read Justin Lee’s story and appreciate how very much this devout young Christian man did not want to be gay. Like many others before him he prayed earnestly to be free of attraction to the same sex and explored ministries and programs that promised to deliver him from homosexuality. Not only did he find that neither prayer nor counselling changed his orientation, he also discovered that most of the “ex-gays” he met in these ministries were really very far from “ex.” In other words, he found that for him and for most of the people he encountered, the “solution” most frequently proposed by the church — God will take away these evil desires if you really have faith — simply did not work.

Justin Lee is also unique among the authors I have read on this subject in that he takes the other “approved” option — lifelong celibacy for gay Christians — very seriously. But he is also very serious, and honest, about helping straight Christians see what this means. Not only a life without intimate, loving companionship, but also life without even the hope of such companionship (at least most straight Christian singles who would rather be married can cling to the hope of Mr. or Ms. Right coming along someday, and know that if s/he does, their marriage will be accepted by their church community). He also examines the Biblical passages dealing with homosexuality and looks at them both in the sense of what’s being said in terms of cultural context and the meaning of words, and also how they fit into the larger context of the Bible as a whole.

Lots of readers will not agree with all of Justin Lee’s conclusions but I find it hard to see how any reader could fail to be moved by the experiences he writes about with such moving honesty. Even if you hold very firmly to a traditional Christian view of sexuality, I believe that you will emerge from reading this book with a more thoughtful perspective on the issue and an understanding that the church needs to do far more to show real Christian love to gays and lesbians in the pews.

 

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Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver

big-brother_customI’ve never read a Lionel Shriver novel before, because everybody I know has read We Need to Talk About Kevin and I just found the subject matter too disturbing to pick it up. I did feel I ought to read one of her books and I was intrigued by the premise of Big Brother — a middle-aged woman takes her brother, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician, into her home for awhile, but is horrified to discover that in the years since she’s seen him last he has become morbidly obese and a compulsive over-eater. It’s not like these are the only problems in their adult sibling relationship — they both bear the scars of being raised by an actor father more invested in his Brady-Bunch-style TV family than in his real kids — but Edison’s weight is always central to the story. His sister, Pandora, is married to a man who is as obsessed with health and fitness as her brother is obsessed with snack foods. For her, Edison’s obesity leads to reflections about her own body image, about the meaning of eating and food in American culture, and about the responsibility family members have toward each other.

I found this an interesting book to read; my enjoyment of it was somewhat muted by the fact that I disliked all three of the main characters — Pandora, Edison, and Pandora’s husband Fletcher — almost equally. I go back and forth on this question of how likable characters should be — I know you don’t have to “like” characters in order to find them well-written and compelling, and you certainly don’t need to approve of their life choices, but I think for me it’s hard to connect emotionally to a book if there’s not at least one character I find sympathetic on some level, so that was a problem for me here. The main character, Pandora, was one of those characters I just want to shake till her teeth rattle, which did not predispose me to be sympathetic to her.

Other quibbles I had with the book — parts that I thought were simply unrealistic or unbelievable — were beautifully resolved by some unexpected twists at the end, which left me far more impressed by Shriver’s skill as a writer than I had been in the middle of the book. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, but I don’t think it will linger as long with me as some others because of my inability to connect with the characters emotionally or care deeply about what happened to them.

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Caught, by Lisa Moore

caughtLisa Moore’s latest release, Caught, has garnered the level of critical acclaim and major literary prize nominations readers have come to expect of a Lisa Moore novel, including a Giller Prize nomination. Full disclosure here: while I’ve always admired the precision and beauty of Moore’s writing, I have often found in the past that her short stories and novels were difficult for me, as a reader, to connect with, because the literary virtuosity overpowered the plot and character development (I’m quick to admit that this is far more a shortcoming in me as a reader than in Lisa Moore as a writer). From this perspective, for me, Caught was by far her best work to date. It combines the skillful mastery of language typical of her work, with a tightly-plotted, character-driven story that is as page-turning as any bestselling thriller.

The novel begins with David Slaney escaping from prison after serving four years of a sentence for drug trafficking. Slaney is on the loose with the clear-cut intention of breaking the law again: his former partner in crime, who got away scot-free last time, has another drug-running scheme planned and if Slaney can get away clean and get on board (literally, since the plan involves sailing a boatload of marijuana up from Central America), he’ll finally be rich — and free. Slaney doesn’t suspect that every step of his escape has been not only monitored by in some cases abetted by the police, who are hoping he will lead them to his partner and to an even bigger bust that will put them both in jail.

The tension of Slaney’s attempt to escape from prison in New Brunswick and get to Vancouver without being caught alternates perfectly with glimpses into the point of view of the federal agent who is tracking his every move. The dramatic irony’s pretty intense, but what I found most interesting in this part of the book were the vignettes of the people Slaney meets along the way. Some help him out with no idea that he’s an escaped convict; others do know, or figure it out, but often aid his escape plan anyway. There are great, tiny moments of human connection and kindness here, though the reader may sometimes wonder if such kindness is wasted on David Slaney, a character in whose point of view we are immersed but whose motives may remain elusive. Slaney wants to be free — and mistakenly thinks he is — but if so, why is he escaping only to commit the same crime and risk prison all over again? He’s a smart guy and by no means a stereotypical criminal, but the narrowness of his thinking can be frustrating sometimes — which is part of what makes his character intriguing to read about.

Because we know about the high-tech surveillance going on behind the scenes (high tech, anyway, for the late 1970s when this story is set) and because we know that some of the people on whom Slaney and his partner Hearn are relying are actually police or police informants, there’s a sense in which this story has all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy — though Slaney is not necessarily the towering figure of a tragic hero. The moral questions raised by the book are coloured in multiple hues of grey because of the fact that the entire plot centres around importing a substance — marijuana — that a huge percentage of the book’s readers are likely to feel should not be illegal in the first place. The question of whether to side with cops or robbers is never clear-cut — you want to root for Slaney because you’re immersed in his perspective, yet there’s little about the man to admire or cheer for.

This moral ambiguity, along with the incredible clarity and precision of the language (Moore is master of the tiny detail that illuminates an entire scene or character in a sentence or two), takes a story whose plot is pure thriller, and elevates it unquestionably to the level of the finest literary fiction. This is a brilliantly crafted novel.

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