April 23, 2011

Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John - Jean Vanier

This is a book that is very difficult to review. It is a devotional, with meditations written on John's gospel, by a hero of mine, Jean Vanier. Each chapter is devoted to a section of the gospel (usually a full chapter), and reads a bit like a sermon - not the boring kind of sermon that is easy to tune out but more like the type of sermon that engages your attention and causes you to reflect on the implications in your own life.

It was recommended to me by a retired minister a month or so ago, when I phoned him to ask him to cover a Sunday service at my church. He told me about this book, and that he reads through it as a devotional every year during Lent. As I mentioned above, Jean Vanier is a hero of mine; plus I love reading the Gospel of John, so the book seemed like a perfect match. And so it was. It lived up to it's title, "Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus" and at times I could sense the presence of Jesus in the room with me as I was reading.

I also managed to time my reading so that I was reading through the second half of the gospel this past week; reading about Jesus entering Jerusalem last Sunday (Palm Sunday), his arrest and crucifixion yesterday (Good Friday), and then his resurrection today, as the world prepares to celebrate the Easter miracle tomorrow. I suspect that this added extra depth to my reading.

Who would I recommend this book to? Anyone who is a fan of Jean Vanier and his work; anyone who loves the Gospel of John; and also to anyone who is seeking to know Jesus or learn more about Christianity. I suspect that I will join the retired minister who recommended this book to me in making it a part of my annual Lenten devotions.

April 17, 2011

In Praise of Slow - Carl Honoré

Before I begin this review, I should probably say that Honoré is preaching to the converted in my case! Maybe that is why this book appealed to me so much when I saw it sitting on my friend's coffee table last week and asked to borrow it.

The basic premise of this book is that we live in a world obsessed with speed - that all domains of our lives are dominated by the clock and by our need to do everything faster. He starts out by explaining why this is detrimental to our health (physical and mental), our relationships with others, and the quality of everything we do, as well as our enjoyment of life. He then goes into different movements around the world aimed at slowing down different aspects of our lives - food, cities, mind and body, medicine, sex, work, leisure, and child-rearing - and makes connections between the different movements, connecting them all by the underlying philosophy that if you slow things down, you can enjoy them more. He also clarifies that he isn't a Luddite (there is even a plug for book blogging - not only is reading a Slow hobby, but then you slow it down even more when you reflect on what you have read); nor does he say that everything you do has to be at a slow pace, rather there is a "Tempo Giusto" or proper speed for everything.

As he said, he is preaching to the converted in my case. I work 4 days a week by choice, and my job (as a homecare physiotherapist) allows me to take time with each patient; I cook most of my food from scratch; I enjoy Slow hobbies such as reading, music, and gardening; I drive the speed limit (usually); I no longer have a television that works; and while I volunteer and participate in activities outside of work, I am nowhere near as scheduled as I was 10 years ago and have learned how to say No. My friends laughed at me when I picked up this book, telling me that I was the last person who needs to read it!

I especially enjoyed the section talking about the Tempo Giusto movement in classical music. Basically this says that all music written before 1900 is today played about twice as fast as it was originally intended to be played; and that while the increased speed allows for virtuosity, the music loses meaning when it is sped up too much. I was at a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony a few weeks ago, and while I came out of the concert impressed with the performance, during it I found it to be too rushed (at least 3 out of the 4 movements) and that I didn't have time to enjoy the music. At a music lesson last week, my teacher told me that one piece by Bach I am working on is "basically correct, but needs to be about twice as fast." I should come back to him next lesson and tell him that I am practicing Tempo Giusto!

The book itself is very readable, well paced, and well organized. Overall, an enjoyable read. And with one week left until Easter, my fiction fast is almost over. I have had some cravings along the way, but have managed to hold out; and have discovered some excellent books along the way. I've placed a couple of fiction holds on books at the library - I just hope that my turn doesn't come up before next weekend!

April 3, 2011

The Great Work - Thomas Berry

I always approach books recommended by friends with some trepidation. On one hand, the recommendation comes from someone who knows me and what I like to read; but on the other hand, what happens if I don't like the book (remembering Wide Sargasso Sea)?

The Great Work is the all-time favourite book of a good friend, and I finally sat down to read it this month. While I liked it, I didn't love it.

Berry's main premise is that our current geobiological era is ending, due to the devastation that humans have wrought on the planet; and that the Great Work of our present age is to move from our current way of living (all things are placed on the earth for humans to use) to a more benign way of living, in harmony with everything on the planet. (all things have equal right to exist and be). He explains in the first chapter, "We have human rights. We have rights to the nourishment and shelter we need. We have rights to habitat. But ewe have no rights to deprive other species of their proper habitat. We have no rights to interfere with their migration routes. We have no rights to disturb the basic functioning of the biosystems of the plane." Later, he describes standing by a meadow as a child where he observed, "Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this medow or negates it is not good."

The first part of the book describes the earth's history and emergence of life, with the cycles of seasons and days; with a particular focus on North America. The next part describes what has gone wrong, in human history - the human-centered rather than earth-centered norm; ethical thinking that favours humans over non-humans; corporations that control all aspects of our lives; over-reliance on petroleum; education and political systems that promote the status quo; and an economy that depends on extraction of resources from the earth that by definition must come to an end. And the final part of the book describes what must be done to enter the new era of living in harmony with the earth - re-inventing the human using the wisdoms that we already have but may not recognize (the wisdom of indigenous peoples, the wisdom of women, the wisdom of the classical traditions, and the wisdom of science).

I found much of this book to be very bleak - describing how all aspects of life have gone wrong due to human actions. A quote on the cover calls this book "the modern equivalent of the biblical book of Revelation" however I found myself comparing the author to John the Baptist, "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness," calling on all people to repent of our ways.

This is a book that I do think that people should read. Our current way of living is unsustainable. Petroleum is going to run out, possibly within our lifetime. Life in the future will, by necessity, look different than life today.

I did have a few quibbles with this book though. I found it to be written from a North American (and particularly US) point of view. If our Great Work is to re-invent how we live in relation to our earth, it will necessarily need to involve all people from all cultures. Having lived for a few years in another culture (the Haya people in Tanzania), many of the statements of why life is going off-the-rails don't apply in that culture.

Also, I found the overall impression to be very bleak. Given our capabilities of today, I feel very hopeless that we can as a human species make this transformation into the future. Take an example of food - humans can digest raw food, yet studies show that food becomes more nutritious if it is cooked. What is the way of cooking this food that is in harmony with the planet? Electricity? Coal vs. nuclear vs. hydroelectricity - all of these place stress on the planet. Wood? Air pollution and deforestation? Charcoal? Ditto. Various petroleum options? Air pollution and non-renewable. Even the "cleaner" sources of energy such as solar and wind affect the planet in a negative way though the production and transportation on a large or small scale of the components required. (This example is mine - it doesn't come from the book.)

And at the same time, I found his solutions to be naively optimistic at times. "We need not simply a national or a global economy but local subsistence economies where the variety of human groups become acquainted with the other species in the local bioregion." He does state that local populations will need to adapt to the local environment; but is this truly feasible?

But overall it is a book that made me think and made me consider the way that I am living now. I am the first one to admit that, much as I try to make as small of a footprint on this earth, I am still dependent on petroleum and the extractive economy. Thank you, LM, for the book recommendation!

I am going to end with the poem that serves as the dedication to this book, as I think that it is very beautiful and sums up this book very well.

To the children
To all the children
To the children who swim beneath
The waves of the sea, to those who live in
The soils of the Earth, to the children of the flowers
In the meadows and the trees in the forest, to
All those children who roam over the land
And the winged ones who fly with the winds,
To the human children too, that all the children
May go together into the future in the full
Diversity of their regional communities.