March 18, 2011

Compassion and Solidarity - Gregory Baum

"In these lectures I have been discussing a new movement in the churches, one that binds Christian faith to the yearning for social justice."

"All who love justice, therefore, of whatever class, must support the poor in their struggle for liberation."

"Today, almsgiving is no longer enough. Love of neighbour calls for social justice, for a transformation of society, so that the victims will be delivered from their crushing burdens. In our day the love of neighbour generates a passion for justice."

"... despite it all, and in the face of it all, even though we see no immediate solution, we resist, and in this resistance we are consoled by God's presence and God's promise."

I don't normally write in books, but it is for the sake of books like this one that I keep a pen in my bedside table. The above are just a sampling of passages that I have underlined in this book.

There is a bit of a story behind my reading of this book. I picked up a copy 4 years ago (I think) because the topic is one of my passions, but then it sat on my bookcase through several moves without being read. Then I picked it up at Christmas time, deciding that it's time had come to be read, and after finishing the first chapter, I promptly left it behind at the Toronto airport when traveling to visit my family. So I re-ordered a copy, and finally had a chance to finish it this week.

This slim volume is a transcript of the Massey Lectures from 1987. The Massey Lectures were set up in 1961 in order to "invite a noted scholar to undertake study or original research in his field and present the results in a series of radio broadcasts." I have previously enjoyed listening to Stephen Lewis and Jean Vanier in their series of lectures, but this is the first time that I have read the transcripts.

I'm glad that I was reading the lectures rather than listening to them. The material was so thought provoking that I could stop and pause and think about an idea before continuing on; as well as flip back and forth and cross-reference one idea off another. Even though the book is short (106 pages) and has only 5 chapters (each of the 5 one-hour lectures), I could only read one chapter per day in order to absorb the information and reflect on it.

The ideas presented, as you may have guessed from the quotations above, have to do with social justice, liberation theology, and the faith-and-justice movement in the churches. Gregory Baum is an ex-Catholic priest (who left the priesthood over a disagreement with his order rather than a crisis of faith), so the book is presented from a Catholic viewpoint, but is very ecumenical in scope. Some of the references are a bit dated (computers as a new and emerging phenomenon in the workplace!), but so many of the themes are relevant today, maybe even more so than when the lectures were originally given.

I had so many thoughts and ideas while reading this book that if I were to try and write a full review, it would probably be as long as the book itself! I loved the fact that the overall tone was one of optimism - yes there are bad things in the world, and yes it can seem overwhelming to think about effecting change, but societal transformation is possible. And this is something that I have experienced and something that I believe strongly in. (Around the same time as I bought this book, but long before I read it, I wrote an essay - also for the CBC - along similar lines but much shorter of course. If you want to read it or hear me read it, it is still available online here.)

So an excellent book, and one that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in social justice and liberation theology.

March 14, 2011

Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

This is a book that I have heard about for years, but have not had a chance to read until this past week. And once I started reading it, I couldn't put it down.

It is the latest in a series of books about life in The Islamic Republic of Iran under theocratic rule that I have read in recent years (Persepolis and Prisoner of Tehran being the others). The subtitle is "A Memoir in Books" and that is truly what it is.

Azar Nafisi was from Iran originally and grew up under the regime of the westernized Shah, but was sent abroad at age 13 for her education. She returned back to Tehran in 1979 on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, newly married, and ready to teach English Literature at the University of Tehran. She eventually quits her job there after refusing to comply with the law that women must wear headscarves; spends several years (though the Iran-Iraq war) hiding at home; and then accept a job teaching at the more liberal Allameh Tabatabai University (where she teaches, wearing the mandatory headscarf - though as carelessly as she can get away with, with hair showing!). When she eventually leaves this job, she starts up an illicit study group with young women - some of her best students - out of her home, where they freely discuss classics of western literature.

I quite enjoyed the structure of this book. There are four sections with the first and final sections centered around the discussions that she and her "girls" have in their sessions; as well as the friendships that grew out of these sessions. The middle two sections are more of a chronological relating of events that led her from America back to Iran and through the revolution and war with Iraq. Always, the story revolves around books that are being read and discussed; and parallels are drawn between the books and events in real life. Even though I haven't read many of the books that are discussed, enough of the plot of each is outlined for the comparisons to have made sense to me.

Compared with the other books about Iran in this time period, this book hit home a lot more to me. I suspect that this is because the author was a bit older than the authors of Persepolis (who was a child through the Islamic Revolution) or Prisoner of Tehran (who was imprisoned at age 16 early in the revolution), and she had lived abroad before returning to Tehran; therefore she had a better perspective and could give more background to what was happening. But still it is a memoir, and is one person's experiences of historical events.

My roommate from university was born in Tehran in 1976 and told stories of the bombings through the Iran-Iraq war; as well as the liberation that they felt when they could leave Iran on holiday and leave behind all of the imposed Islamic restrictions. My brother-in-law was also born in Tehran in 1980, and his mother (my sister's mother-in-law - another Azar) was a student of Azar Nafisi at Allameh Tabatabai University. I asked our Azar what she thought of Azar Nafisi as a professor in the time period being written about, and this is what she said:

I can't tell you much about her from 20 years ago when I was doing my B.A. It was a dark time from political point of view, most educated people including Dr. Nafisi didn't have political/democratic activities at that time because of the regime.

She was only teaching english literature and linguistics. She was bright and deep but not talking about things other than linguistics as I remember.

My sister read this book and passed her copy on to me. She didn't enjoy it as much as I did, and found the author to come across as condescending. (Laura - if you are reading this, please feel free to expand your opinion in the comments section!)

There was a great question that Azar Nafisi posed to her very first class, on her very first day of teaching at the University of Tehran. "What do you think fiction should accomplish? Why should one bother to read fiction at all?" She gives part of an answer at this point, "... most great works of the imagination were meant to make you feel like a stranger in your own home. The best fiction always forced us to question what we took for granted. It questioned traditions and expectations when they seemed too immutable. I told my students I wanted them in their reading to consier in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes." She expands a bit more later in the book when she talks about novels allowing the reader to experience different worlds, and through different points of view. You can expand your world view in this way, but you can also then draw comparisons between yourself and your situation, and others.

So this made me ask myself, why do I read fiction? I read fiction because I love it. Why do I love reading fiction? I am very much an escapist reader. When I am reading (well-written and engaging) fiction, I am in another time and place while I am reading. But that may not always be a good thing, when the fiction takes me away from the here and now. This Lent, we were posed the question, what distracts you from God?, and after much soul-searching, I have decided to fast from fiction this Lent. I am hoping to now have time over the next to read some non-fiction that has been sitting on my TBR stack for a while. Watch for upcoming reviews...

March 6, 2011

Cool Water - Dianne Warren

This is a book that first hit my radar about a year ago. I was working with a patient who had had her hip replaced, and her local rural librarian was plying her with books during her recovery period. (I used to book extra-long sessions with this patient - we would rush through the physio, and spend the rest of the time talking about books we had read in the past week!) This book came up as one that the librarian had given the patient to read - the patient said that it was one that she probably wouldn't have picked up on her own, but she had loved it and highly recommended it.

Then it made the long list for the Giller Prize last year, and ended up winning the Governor General's prize. Now I don't always like the GG winner (there have been some odd choices made in the past), but I loved this book.

It has an unusual structure. The whole book takes place over a 24 hour period in small town Saskatchewan. There are 5 different stories being told - different characters and family groups - as they move through the day. But rather than being told one after another, they are woven together over time so that the reader is able to follow what is happening in each story as the day progresses. Each chapter covers a period of time, and is broken into several parts according to the different stories being told.

As I said earlier, I loved this book! The characters, while not all likable, were so well drawn and real. They could be real people in just about any small town in Canada. And the setting was so vividly drawn that while I was reading the book, I was there in the hot, dry, southern Saskatchewan summer rather than in snowy northern Ontario in March. And the stories were so engrossing that I couldn't put the book down. Yes, I sprained my ankle badly on Saturday morning so wasn't moving far from my sofa anyways; but I really couldn't put the book down and the sprained ankle just gave me an excuse to keep reading!

Have you ever had the experience of a book being inexorably linked with a place? I know that when I had an opportunity to walk in the Sahara desert, I couldn't stop thinking about The English Patient; walking through the UofT campus screams Robertson Davies at me; and driving through the Muskokas always brings Valancy and The Blue Castle to mind. This book has left such a strong impression on me that I am sure to think of it, and it's characters, if I ever drive through southern Saskatchewan in the heat of summer.

Twenties Girl - Sophie Kinsella

Have I mentioned before that I don't usually like Chick Lit? Mostly because the plot is predictable (girl in crisis, girl dating wrong man, girl hits rock-bottom, girl starts dating right man, everyone lives happily ever after); and I don't usually sympathize with the main character. But my sister handed me her copy of this book over Christmas and told me that it was better than the average Chick Lit; so I threw it in my suitcase a couple of weeks ago as airplane reading when I flew out to BC to go skiing.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with my sister - I didn't find that this book stood above the Chick Lit average. I didn't particularly like the main character, and it did follow the predictable plot line. The only thing that made it different was the presence of the ghost of her great aunt.

Plot summary: Lara is at outs with her family, recently broke up with her boyfriend, and about to lose the business that she had put all of her savings into. Her great aunt dies at age 105 and at her funeral, the aforementioned ghost appears to Lara - Lara is the only one who can see or hear her; however the ghost can influence the behaviour of others by screaming in their ear. Over the course of the book, Lara gets together with her ex (who is still Mr. Wrong), loses the business, meets Mr. Right, starts up a new and more successful business, and along the way, solves the mystery of her great aunt's life and necklace.

So overall, not a great book; but it did get me out of the reading slump that lasted a month and a half. It was a good book to be reading on vacation as not much concentration was required. And I was able to pass my sister's copy on to our cousin when I was finished. And the reading slump is now officially over, and I am ready to get on to new and better books!

Intuition - Allegra Goodman

This is the second book that I finished in early January that lead to my reading slump. I didn't really dislike this book, but I can't seem to pin down why I didn't like it either.

It is set in a research lab in Massachusetts, in the land of scientists and postdocs and grad students and undergrads, all trying to find a cure for cancer. This is a world in which I have lived vicariously through several friends who work in this messed-up world of scientific research. So I have heard all about the hierarchies, and jealousies, and competition, and back-stabbing from them.

In this book, a postdoc on the verge of being fired comes up with a seemingly miraculous breakthrough, which another postdoc suspects might be fabricated. The story deals with the fall-out of both the breakthrough and the accusations.

Overall, I should have liked this book. It is a very different setting than any other novel that I have read. I allied myself with some of the characters, and against others. The "truth" of what really happened is kept hidden, and so the plot unfolded almost like a whodunit and kept me guessing. And it was fairly well written.

But somehow, something was missing, and I can't quite put my finger on it. I was reading this book at bedtime, and if I am reading a good book, I often have trouble closing it in order to turn off my light and go to sleep. But with this book, I found myself dozing off after only two or three pages. Has anyone else read this book? Can you enlighten me on why I didn't enjoy it as much as I think that I should have?

The English Stories - Cynthia Flood

I really must apologize to anyone who is reading this blog - two months without a post. I have not only been in a blogging slump, but also in a reading slump and I spent all of January and most of February re-reading old favourites. I am going to blame the fact that early in January, I finished off two very mediocre books that made me crave books that I knew would be engrossing and comforting. But I do have a few reviews to do, that I'm going to try and get posted in the next couple of days.

The first of the mediocre books finished in January was The English Stories by Cynthia Flood. There are 12 inter-connected short stories in this collection that cover a 2 year period in Amanda's life as she enters adolescence in the early 1950s. Her father is an English Literature professor in Toronto who takes a sabbatical to go to England to do research "for a year that stretched into two". The stories are told from different points of view - Amanda's, her parents, her teachers, the other residents at the boarding house where they live - and deal mainly with Amanda's adaptation to a different culture as well as her growing up.

I liked the fact that different voices were used, but I didn't think that Amanda was a very likable heroine, and so I didn't really care what happened to her. And I also found it difficult to keep the characters straight, especially with the perspective changing from story to story - I found myself flipping back and forth a lot trying to remember who was who. And honestly, I didn't find any of the characters to be very likable which made it difficult to care about any of them.

Two months after finishing this book, none of the stories really stand out in my mind - only a somewhat vague memory of not particularly enjoying reading this book.

(For another opinion on this book, check out Buried in Print.)