December 15, 2012

Mornings in Jenin - Susan Abulhawa

Back in September, we had a new minister join our congregation.  She is a Palestinian Christian and lived in a refugee camp in Palestine before moving to North America.  Many stories from Palestine are included in her sermons.  And this is a book that she recently read and loaned to me.

I read it in big gulps this week while I was working out of town, and finished it on the airplane flying home on Thursday (literally finishing it as the plane taxied on the runway to it's parking spot).  And it's a good thing that I was sitting in the very back row of the airplane where no one could see me, since I think that I cried my way through the last few chapters.

The last time that I had a similar feeling was when I read "What Came Before He Shot Her" by Elizabeth George.  When reading that book I knew the ending before I began, and the whole book was a tragic series of events, made even sadder by seeing how inevitable they were.  This book gave me a similar feeling, but was even more powerful since it read more like a memoir than a novel.

It is a family saga, telling the story of 4 generations of the Abulheja family, centered around Amal who was born in the Jenin refugee camp and who eventually moves to America.  Amal's grandparents were farmers in the village of Ein Hod, Palestine.  They are later evicted from their village by the newly-formalized Israeli army in 1948, along with their children and grandchildren, and end up in the Jenin refugee camp.  Amal is born in Jenin and eventually ends up at a school for orphans in Jerusalem and later receives a scholarship for University in the US.  After graduation, she moves back to join her brother in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.  She marries, and eventually raises a daughter back in the US.

I found the book to be one long string of tragedies.  Any time there was any sign of hope or joy, something would happen to make things even worse than they were before.  And yet since the book is very strongly rooted in history, there was no catharsis in reading it.  The whole Palestinian situation is a tragedy on a gigantic scale, and there is no hope in the real-life story; so why should there be any hope in the fictional account of one Palestinian family?

I found the language in this book to be very rich, and (for the most part), a pleasure to read.  Part-way through this book, a friend sent me a link on Facebook to an article about words that are seldom used, but that should be used more.  I commented that it was a fun article, and that there was one word that was new to me - parvenu.  And less than 30 minutes after posting that comment, I came across "parvenu" in this book!  At times, the writing crossed the line from rich and meaty to florid (I tended to skip those passages), but for the most part, it was a pleasure to read from that aspect.  And even though the author includes a fair number of Arabic words, they were placed so well in context that I found that I rarely had to refer to the glossary at the end of the book.

One little quibble was that I got annoyed occasionally by the changing point of view.  Some sections were told by Amal in the first person (or rarely another character), and some sections were told by an all-knowing narrator.  I found these sections to be clumsily linked together - there was almost a clunk as the point of view changed.

I think that the Palestinian story is an important one to be told; as the story told by the media is often manipulated politically.  A novel is, by definition, written with a bias, but this story rang true.  Sometimes fiction can be more true than non-fiction.  I wish that I could say that I was optimistic that a solution to the Palestinian "situation" can be found, but I am not optimistic and this book reinforced those beliefs.

This book should be read by anyone wanting to understand better the situation in Israel and Palestine; and especially by those who think that they understand the situation.

November 27, 2012

Divergent - Veronica Roth

This is the last book that I took on my beach holiday last week - I started it on the airplane flying home, and finished it on the airplane yesterday traveling for work!  (And then accidently left it in the airport along with my iPad and magazine I was reading - fortunately it is a very, very, very small airport and they were still on the table where I left them when I went back 45 minutes later after I realized that I had left them there!)

Anyways, back to the book.  I had picked up a copy after I had heard great things about it, but I didn't particularly enjoy it.  I felt as though the author was jumping on the current trend of Dystopian YA books.  It read like a bad take-off of The Hunger Games, which I had quite enjoyed.

For anyone who doesn't already know the plot basics - it is set in Chicago at some point in the future.  Society is divided into 5 factions (Amity, Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, and Candor) based on what they value and what they believe to be the cause of conflict.  No back-history is given, so the reader never learns what events led up to this situation.  At age 16, all children are required to choose which faction they wish to belong to - maybe the one that they were born and raised to, or maybe one of the other.  They are subjected to an aptitude test to determine which faction they would best be suited for.

There are also the factionless - those who for some reason have been kicked out of their faction, or are divergent (i.e. have aptitudes in more than one faction).  As you can guess from the title, the main character, Beatrice (later named Tris) is divergent.  She was raised Abnegation, but chooses to become Dauntless.  The story is about the challenges that she faces as a divergent, as well as what happens as inter-faction conflict develops.

What I liked:  it was an easy read - perfect for an airplane ride or two; the concept of factions was interesting (though I can't help but think that most people in real-life would be divergent); and the main characters, Tris and Four/Tobias were overall likable and realistic.

What I didn't like:  the secondary characters did not feel at all fleshed out - I didn't feel like I got to know them; it felt too much like a Hunger Games rip-off; no back-story was given at any point for the reader to understand how society got there; and overall it just felt a bit clumsy (I have to say that I wasn't surprised that it was mostly written while the author was a student and it was published when she was 22 years old).

I generally do like dystopian literature (Margaret Atwood - I'm waiting for you to finish the Oryx and Crake trilogy!); but I think that one of the key points to a good dystopian book is that it should make you reflect on current society.  This book did not fulfill this expectation.  With no background given, the society presented by the book seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to our current society, and so did not present any commentary on current society.  Which left me feeling flat and detached.

I don't think that I will bother reading the rest of the trilogy (Insurgent, and a 3rd yet-to-be-named book), unless I am desperate for an easy read and have nothing else on hand!

November 25, 2012

Y - Marjorie Celona

An Advance Readers' Copy of this book was sent to a friend of mine over the summer (it was released in September) and she raved about it and passed it on to me when she finished.  It later made the Giller long-list, but was cut when the shortlist was announced.

I don't think, with all of the books that I've read, that I've ever read a book dealing with the themes of this book, and it fascinated me.  Shannon (a.k.a. Shandi, Samantha, or Jo) is abandoned as a newborn on the steps of the Victoria YMCA.  She enters the foster-care system and is later adopted.  Layered with Shannon's story is the story of her parents and the events that led up to her abandonment; and later the threads of the life of Vaughn, the man who saw Shannon being left on the doorstop, are woven in as well.

Y, the title, can represent a fork in the road.  Yes or No?  The question, "Why?"  Or it can just be the Y where Shannon was abandoned.

Shannon, as she grows up, deals with issues of abandonment; issues of being adopted into a pre-existing family; issues of identity; issues of abuse.  I found her story to be very compelling.  Yula, her birth mother, I found much less sympathetic; however it was Yula's story that eventually brought tears to my eyes.  Vaughn, I found to be almost a non-entity, only introduced as a plot device.

Overall, I enjoyed this book... with reservations.  Those reservations come in the form of the inconsistency of the writing (e.g. Vaughn's story being introduced late in the day), as well as the neat and tidy ending, whereas in real life things seldom wrap up that way.  I would recommend this book to someone looking for an interesting read.  This is the author's first published novel, and I have very high hopes for her future books.

This book, along with the 3 previous reviews (419, Forgotten, and Bones are Forever) all count towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.  5 books down, 8 left to go, with 7 months left to go.  Should make it this year!

(I was on holidays this week, lounging on a beach in Florida, hence the time for reading lots of books and getting my reviews up-to-date!)

November 23, 2012

Bones are Forever - Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs tends to release a new book every year in late-August; and like clockwork, I pick up a copy the first time I see them on sale.  I think that I have mentioned in previous reviews of her books that she went through a slump for a couple of books a few years back, and I almost gave up on the series, but her more recent books have bounced back and this one is no exception.

I find it difficult to review mystery books without giving away too many of the plot twists, so please excuse me if this comes across as a somewhat vague review!

Tempe, the main character through the series, is a forensic anthropologist (i.e. she works in a morgue and handles the bodies that are too far degraded for the other medical examiners to handle - fire, water, and time being the biggest hazards).  She splits her time between Montréal and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Having spent 4 years on Montréal, the books set in Canada tend to appeal the most to me, since I can recognize locations around the city.

This book starts out on Montréal with the discovery of 3 infant skeletons / bodies in an apartment.  The chase then goes to Edmonton and eventually to Yellowknife.  It would take someone familiar with Edmonton and Yellowknife to know if the author captured those cities as well as she does Montréal, but it felt realistic to me!

There are the usual plot twists that I expect from a good mystery story, and as usual for Kathy Reichs, there are a couple of plots that end up twisted together in the final resolution of the book.  I did guess the ending in advance, but it was still satisfying to see the resolution coming.  I think that is why I enjoy mystery books on occasion - I know that there is going to be a good, satisfactory resolution after a few hundred pages of action and build-up!

So I will keep picking up her books each August when they are released.  I am happy to support a (part-) Canadian author by buying the books, even though I usually don't buy mysteries (they usually don't stand up to re-reading!).  I've passed this book on to my aunt and uncle, and told them to pass it along once they have finished with it!

November 22, 2012

Forgotten - Catherine McKenzie

Earlier this year, I picked up Catherine McKenzie's book Arranged as an impulse airport purchase.  Well, it wasn't a planned purchase, but I had heard her interviewed on the CBC and planned to read the book at some point.  And then I read it in a day and loved it.  I generally don't enjoy Chick Lit, but for some reason read a few books in that genre every year.  And books like Arranged are the reason why - they show what good Chick Lit can be - likable heroines, interesting and original plots.  And so based on my reading of that book, I had planned on picking up her other books when I was looking for an easy but enjoyable read.

So... imagine my delight when Harper Collins e-mailed me back in August, asking if they could please send me a copy of her newest book to read and review!  A book that I was planning to read (and probably buy) at some point, being sent to me for free!

I've had this book on my TBR stack for a while, but as I noted a few posts ago, my for-fun reading time has been somewhat limited this fall.  But this week I am on vacation with a beach and sun and lots of time to read, so I packed several of the lighter reads from my TBR stack in my suitcase.  This one was the first one up, and like Arranged, I polished it off in less than a day.

The premise in this one is very unique.  Emma, the main character, travels to Africa (to the fictional country of Tswanaland) for a month after the death of her mother.  She gets sick while there, and while recovering in a remote village, the country is hit by a devastating earthquake.  She has no way to communicate with her friends back home to let them know that she is alive; no way to travel to the capital city; and no way to fly out of the country until the airport has been re-built.  Fast-forward 6 months later and she arrives home to discover that she has been declared missing and presumed dead.

Can you imagine not having anywhere to live (her landlord got rid of her stuff and re-rented out her apartment), no job (she was a lawyer and lost all seniority as her cases got re-assigned), no boyfriend (he hooked up with her nemesis), and no mother, whose death she was trying to escape with her trip?

The premise intrigued me.  Emma was a likable character.  Not perfect, but very endearing.  Dominic, the love interest (this is Chick Lit after all) is also likable.  The emotions felt real as Emma dealt with the aftermath of her mother's death as well as the confusion of needing to start her life over again.  The writing was solid (I was reading an Advance Reader's Copy - I'm assuming that the handful of typos were corrected before the book was released).

So... this book has not changed my opinion of Catherine McKenzie.  I will continue to pick up her books when I am looking for something light and enjoyable!

419 - Will Ferguson

I want to start out by saying that I read this book before it won the Giller Prize!  I picked up all 5 short-listed books when the shortlist was announced back at the beginning of October; but my for-fun reading time was quite limited and I didn't have time to read my way through the whole list.  So instead, when I had some reading time, I picked up the short-listed book that interested me the most and lo and behold, a few weeks later, it takes the prize!

I admit that I am a sucker for any book set in Africa, and that is probably why I picked this one out of the shortlist to read.  419 refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code to do with fraud.  I'm sure that anyone who is online receives these e-mails on a regular basis.  "Dear Madam, I am writing you because ....  Please send me $100 immediately by Western Union, and you will receive $100,000 in return..."  Fortunately I have a good spam filter on my e-mail account so only see them in passing as I empty my junk folder!  The premise behind this book is that an older man falls for one of these scams, loses all of his money and is about to lose his house, and commits suicide.  His family is then left trying to put the pieces together to figure out what happened.

At least that is the top layer of this story.  What I loved about it is how gradually the author introduces seemingly unrelated story lines; and the reader gets to see the different story lines eventually converge in the end.  Another story line is of the independent e-mail scammer working away in an internet cafe in Lagos, Nigeria, and how he gets drawn into the world of organized crime.  Then there is the young girl who is pregnant fleeing her home in north-eastern Nigeria on foot.  Then there is the layer of a young boy growing up in the Niger delta - known these days for the oil companies destroying the environment and causing violent conflict and kidnappings and murders.

But it was not just the layered structure of this book that I loved.  It has now been a month since I finished the book, and it is the images that have stayed with me.  A young girl, on foot, walking through the desert.  The absolute devastation to the environment, and thus to the people living there, caused by the oil industry in the delta.  A slightly agoraphobic and neurotic woman flitting between her condo in Calgary and the food court downstairs.

Will Ferguson is known mostly for his humour writing which I have never read, but based on this book, I will be picking up more of his books in the future.

I have loaned my copy of this book to a friend.  I had to leave it in her mailbox and so I e-mailed her the next day to make sure that she had received it.  She replied that yes, she had it, and that she was half-way through it already and loving it!

November 21, 2012

Catching up...

 It feels like a long time since I have posted anything here, and looking back at my posts, it has been a long time!  Life has been busy for the past several months, and I haven't been able to keep up with my reviews.  That doesn't mean that I haven't been reading though!

Over the summer, I did a lot of "fluff" reading.  Last year, I mentioned that I had found my latest guilty pleasure when I discovered the first Southern Vampire Mystery book (a.k.a. the first Sookie Stackhouse book), Dead Until Dark.  In the second part of August and into September, I read books 2-6 in the series (there have been 12 published so far with one more expected).  They continued to be easy and enjoyable reading, but I started to lose interest in reading one after another at that point.  Friends have loaned the rest of the series to me - I will probably pick them up at some point in the future to keep reading - just not right away.

Since September, I have also been reading the next set of books for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am doing.  I'm not going to write full reviews here, but will write a few sentences about each of the books I have read for the course.

 The Sermon:  Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Eugene Lowry)
We were told to pick one book on preaching from a list, and I picked this one because the title appealed to me.  I loved the juxtaposition of the word "sermon," a word with connotations of dullness; with the words "dancing" and "mystery."  The book did live up to my expectations, and I have found that it has really changed the way that I think about sermons.

Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches (David R. Ray)
This book was required reading.  He defines "smaller churches" as anything with an attendance of fewer than 100; and so most of my worship experiences (in English!) fall into that category.  I did find that he provided a strong argument for the value of smaller churches, but I found him to be a bit prescriptive at times.





A History of God (Karen Armstrong)
This book was my elective from this time around.  It was very interesting reading - it looks at the way that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have perceived God over the past 4000 years.  I had no idea that there were so many ways of perceiving God, and my own perspective has been broadened.  I think that the most valuable insight that I gained is that while God remains the same, each time and place views God through it's own cultural lens.



Over the summer, I also discovered free e-books for the Kobo and Kindle app on my iPad.  The problem with free e-books is that you get what you pay for.  The advantage of free e-books is that they are free.  I am still opposed to e-books (I much prefer reading traditional paper books) and refuse to actually pay money for them, but when they are free....  I have been reading them at the gym on my iPad which has the distinct advantage of staying open on the ledge of the Elliptical machine (unlike a paper book), and you can make the font size large which is an advantage whilst reading.  But since they tend to be trash, I won't waste space here with reviews!

I have read a couple of other books, which I will write full reviews of in the next couple of days.

August 25, 2012

Still Alice - Lisa Genova

This book was on my TBR stack for several years.  I picked up a copy, probably 2 years ago, and then it just sat there.  In the interim, various people kept asking me, "Have you read Still Alice yet?"  I don't know why I didn't pick it up until recently.  Maybe I was a little worried about the subject matter - Alzheimer's Disease - since that is something that I see often through work.  Maybe I was a little worried about the "Heather's Pick" sticker on the front cover - I had yet to read a "Heather's Pick" book that I actually enjoyed unreservedly.  Whatever the reason, I didn't pick it up until I threw it in my pack for the canoe trip earlier this summer when I was looking for paperbacks on my TBR stack to take with me.

What makes a good canoe trip book?  It should be entertaining (i.e. a good plot); not too challenging to read as I am usually too exhausted after a day of paddling and portaging to be able to focus on anything too tough; and easy enough to put down as my eyes drift shut in the tent, often before the sun has even set.  This book met those criteria.

If anyone hasn't heard of this book (unlikely, I know), Alice is a Harvard Psychology professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease at the beginning of the book.  Actually - that was my only accuracy issue with this book - I had trouble accepting that the thought of Alzheimer's didn't even cross her mind (given that she is a Psychology professor and familiar with most of the cognitive tests that were administered) when she began noticing problems.

The book is not told in the first person, but it is definitely told from Alice's point of view.  Which made for interesting reading, because as time passes, Alice's memory and cognitive abilities deteriorate.  Alice's neurologist tells her early on that, "you may not be the most reliable source of what's been going on."  I know that in healthcare jargon (and I've been guilty of using the phrase as well), this is called an "unreliable historian."  Through the story, there are more and more holes that appear in the narrative as Alice's Alzheimer's progresses.

I mentioned in my last post that my friend's e-reader died part-way through our trip, so we both ended up reading both of the paper books that I had packed (Little Bee came home slightly soggy, but Still Alice is still in good condition!).  On discussing this book after we had both read it, we both agreed that Alice's husband was a bit of an a** in his dealings with Alice.  However on reflection, I wonder how much of this was Alice's poor memory.  It appears that he is springing a move from Boston to New York on her without consultation, but maybe there were hours of discussion prior to this but Alice doesn't remember them.  Her children, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly supportive, even when she doesn't remember that they are her children.

I'm sorry that I didn't read this book any sooner, and I'm glad that I packed it to take on this trip.  And I can no longer say that I haven't enjoyed any of "Heather's Picks"!  I plan on picking up the author's next book soon, entitled Left Neglected.  This one is about a woman who sustains a brain injury and ends up with left-sided neglect - also something that I see frequently at work.  I can't wait to see how she handles this neurological puzzle!

August 13, 2012

Little Bee - Chris Cleave

Still working on catching up with my reviews for books finished while canoeing last week.  We got wind-bound for a day which gave us both a chance to finish both paperbacks that I had packed.  LM (the friend that I was paddling with) had brought an e-reader which stopped working on day 5, so she was glad that I had packed a couple of real paper books!

Little Bee first came to my attention a year or so ago.  Two woman meet on a beach in Africa, only to re-connect when Little Bee shows up on Sarah's front step a few years later.  That was the extent of what I knew about this book.  But it is so much more than that.

First of all, I loved reading it.  It was easy enough reading and entertaining enough that it made great holiday reading (especially on a canoe trip where I am generally too exhausted after a day's paddling and portaging to be able to focus on anything more than a bit challenging).  And yet it brings up a lot of "issues", especially around immigration and refugee policies.

I hesitate to write too much here about the plot, because part of the pleasure of reading this book came in how slowly the plot and the past unfold through the chapters.  Let me just say that the original meeting of the two women on the beach was a lot more traumatic than I had originally thought.

The chapters are told in alternating voices - that of Sarah, an upper-middle class Englishwoman; and that of Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria - and the author does a very good job of making the two voices and perspectives distinct without resorting to cheap tricks like changing the font (I'm looking at you, Jodi Picoult!).  And as I said in my last post, I admire male authors who can authentically capture a female voice.

I loved Little Bee (the character), despite her imperfections.  She has such a quirky sense of humour that I found myself quoting the book to LM in places (she may have been wondering why I was giggling out loud as I read in the tent in the evening - but then she had to share the parts that made her giggle when it was her turn to read).  Some of my favourite examples:

"I think I shall teach you the names of all of the English flowers," said Sarah.  "This is fuchsia, and this is a rose, and this is honeysuckle.  What?  What are you smiling about?"
"There are no goats.  That is why you have all these beautiful flowers."
"There were goats, in your village?"
"Yes, and they ate all the flowers."
"I'm sorry."
"Do not be sorry.  We at all the goats."

Or:

I (Little Bee) said to her, "I do not think you are wrong for living the life you were born in.  A dog must be a dog and a wolf must be a wolf, that is the proverb in my country."
"That's beautiful," said Sarah.
"Actually that is not the proverb in my country."
"No?"
"No!  Why would we have a proverb with wolves in it?  We have two hundred proverbs about monkeys, three hundred about cassava.  We talk about what we know.  But I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country.  Then people will nod their heads and look very serious."

I'm not going to give any details about the ending of the book, other than to say that it was perfect.  I was hoping all along that everything wouldn't wrap up neatly in 266 pages because that isn't how things happen in real life.  The ending was perfect.

I'm glad that I read this book.  I know that there couldn't be a sequel to it without ruining that perfect ending, but I do plan on reading Chris Cleave's other books.  In fact, LM found a copy of his first book,  Incendiary, in the discount bin at a bookstore on her way home from the canoe trip; and she has promised to pass it along to me when she is finished!

August 8, 2012

Why Men Lie - Linden MacIntyre

Last week, on holidays, I finished 3 books and now it is time to get my reviews caught up to date.  (I spent a week canoeing in the backcountry with a good friend - no phones, no computers, no internet - bliss!)  I read this one in hardcover - I finished it before heading out paddling otherwise it would have been too heavy to make the pack cut.

I enjoyed reading The Bishop's Man a few years ago when it won the Giller Prize, so when I heard that Linden MacIntyre was writing a companion book featuring Fr. Duncan's sister Effie, I couldn't wait to read it.  It is only recently that I realized that The Bishop's Man was the 2nd in a trilogy that is completed by Why Men Lie - The Long Stretch was published in 1999 - I think that I have just added another book to my constantly expanding TBR list.  I had a vague feeling during The Bishop's Man that I was missing a bit of the back story, and that feeling was much stronger during Why Men Lie.  The existence of a previous book would explain that feeling!

I had mixed feelings as I read this book.  I enjoy MacIntyre's writing, so it was a pleasure to pick it up and read his well crafted prose.  My problem with the book was the story - there seemed to be no substance to it.  Fluff.  Effie, a 50 year old professor at the UofT spends the book anguishing over why a boy isn't calling her.  This could have been the ramblings of a 15-year-old high school student.  I very quickly ran out of patience with her.

I do think that MacIntyre did a good job, for a male writer, writing in a female voice.  Not quite as profound as Richard B. Wright managed in Clara Callen (I really must re-read that book at some point); but still I was able to forget for most of the book that the author was a man.  I wonder - is it easier for a female writer to write in a male voice, or for a male writer to write in a female voice?  As a female reader, I am amazed when a male writer manages to write a female voice in a believable manner.  Not being a male though, I can never tell if a female writer is accurate in portraying a male voice!

So I'm glad that I read this book, and I will be hunting up a copy of The Long Stretch.  I just wish that there had been more substance to the plot.  It was an easy read - perfect for reading on vacation - and pleasurable reading due to the quality of the writing.

I have entered myself in the 6th Annual Canadian Book Challenge, and this will be my first of 13 Canadian books read for the challenge.  I didn't manage to complete the challenge last year due to a combination of 2 factors - I decided to only count my Canadian re-reads; and with the reading for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am doing, it left less time for recreational reading.  Last year (July 1, 2011 - June 30, 2012) I finished 8 Canadian re-reads, but if I had counted all of my Canadian books, I would have easily finished the challenge with 22 Canadian books read.  The LWL course is going to last another year, so I'm going to go with the easier version of the challenge - to read 13 Canadian books without putting any limitations on myself!

July 23, 2012

In One Person - John Irving

This book is vintage John Irving, and since I love John Irving, I loved this book.  Unfortunately it took me more weeks to get through than I had hoped.  I started reading this book back in June, but then got sidetracked by a Little House marathon in June, the Hunger Games Trilogy on the July long weekend, and finally Quiet which I couldn't wait any longer to read.

My reading then slowed down again as I got 3/4 of the way through this book as it was set in the New York City gay scene in the early '80s at the start of the AIDS epidemic.  The writing was so vivid that even though I wanted to know what happened, it was tough going.  I have some experience working as a physiotherapist with people living with AIDS and being able to put real faces to the story being told made it difficult to read.

And finally, just a chapter or two before the end, my 5-year-old nephew was staying with me for a week.  It was a fun week, but it didn't leave much time for reading!  So last night, after my sister and her two younger kids had come up for the weekend, picked up the eldest, and flown back to southern Ontario, I finally had a chance to sit down and finally finish this book.

As I said, it is vintage Irving.  All of the themes, familiar from his previous books, were present.  Relationships between people who, on the surface, appear inappropriate.  Misfits trying to fit into society before accepting themselves for who they are.  The rigid New England class society of last century.  Dysfunctional families.

I found the protagonist, Billy, to be quite like-able.  Growing up as a boy in small town Vermont in the 1950s, he spends his adolescence questioning his sexuality.  "Crushes on the wrong people" is how he puts it, including Miss Frost, the town librarian, his stepfather Richard, and Kittredge, the school wrestling team star.  He then goes on to have a series of relationships with people that would be considered to be inappropriate by the society of the day, including the aforementioned Miss Frost, a classmate Tom, a rising opera star Esmerelda who he meets in Vienna, a much older poet Larry who was also his professor, a transgendered woman Donna, a much younger teacher Amanda, his sometimes lover and always best friend Elaine, and a series of short-term relationships and one-night stands.

He eventually comes to accept himself for who he is, and even to embrace his role as he moves back to his home-town and eventually becomes a teacher at the school he had attended as a boy.  I was a little bit disappointed with the ending when I first read it, but with 24 hours reflection, I do like it.  It wraps up the loose end that had haunted the whole novel.  "My dear boy, please don't put a label on me - don't make me a category before you get to know me!"  That is the take-home message.

So yes, I enjoyed this book.  If you are a fan of John Irving, definitely pick it up.  If his writing annoys you (as it does, some), don't bother since as I said before, it is vintage Irving.  If you are interested in reading a novel set in the heart of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, give this book a try since the section in that era is particularly vividly written.  I didn't love it as much as A Prayer for Owen Meany (one of my favourite books of all times!), but it is one that I will probably re-read at some point in the future.

July 9, 2012

Quiet - Susan Cain

Let me confess from the beginning that I am an introvert.  I have done the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, and both times I scored almost as far to the introvert end of the spectrum as it is possible to score.  And yet when I mentioned this (or mentioned this book) to several people that I haven't known for very long, they were shocked to learn that I am an introvert.  So I guess that I am an introvert who has learned to "pass" in this extroverted society in which we live.

I heard this author interviewed twice this spring on CBC radio, and knew that I would have to read her book.  I forwarded a link to one of the interviews to an introverted high school student that I know - she has an extroverted grandmother who has, frequently, pushed both of us to speak in a group when we would rather listen, absorb, reflect, and when we have something that we would like to share we will.  But please don't force us to speak if we don't have anything that we consider valuable to share!

Reading this book, I saw myself reflected on every page.  So that is why I feel that way!  That's what's going on!  I have also caught myself being much more aware of my introverted moments.  I am very sensitive to noises - someone's cell phone rings and I jump; I was doing a phone interview along with my boss this morning and the speaker phone volume was a bit too loud for me to be comfortable with; the kids playing at the back of the church during the sermon drove me crazy.  But I can accept that about myself now.

The book talks about coping strategies for introverts; since our society really is geared towards extroverts (the subtitle of the book is The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking).  It is OK to give myself permission to stay home if I don't feel like going out and socializing.  Introverts can act like extroverts at times (my recent experiences as being mistaken for an extrovert prove that point), but it is important to carve out time to recharge by being alone or taking part in solitary activities.  I especially appreciated the chapter sub-titled Public Speaking for Introverts, since I am terrified of public speaking.  I already partially overcame my fear by doing a lot of public speaking (teaching, preaching etc) in Swahili (not my first language) while living in Tanzania.  I knew that people would be surprised enough to hear a white girl speaking Swahili fluently that they would be more forgiving about the content of what I was saying!  But this book had some more tips for me - the more passionate I am about a topic, the easier it will be to speak about it (I think that I already had a sense of this); the more prepared I am, the better (don't expect myself to be able to speak "off the cuff"); and treat each public speaking expectation as a personal project - dig, create, and relish the challenge.

At the same time, this book helped me to understand my extroverted co-workers, friends, acquaintances better.  They aren't just speaking to hear their own voice.  Maybe silence and stillness are as scary to them as loudness and busy-ness are to me.

I do think that this book is good reading for everyone, introvert or extrovert.  Introverts - as it is written by an introvert, it will help you to understand yourself better and how you interact with the world around you.  Extroverts - it will help you understand your introverted family members, friends, and co-workers better, as well as how they relate to the world around them (including you).

Now, if only we can convince that extroverted grandmother to read this book...

July 3, 2012

Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

OK - I had to put this book down last night, 100 pages from the end, in order to get some sleep before work today (but if today had been a holiday too, I would have stayed up last night until I was done!).

I think that this was my favourite of the trilogy, even though one of my friends today told me that she didn't like this book as much of the previous books (and I think that many fans of the series feel that way as well).  It lived up to my expectations at the end of Catching Fire that it was going to be focused on the dystopian world that the author created, and unlike the previous books, I wasn't sure how this one was going to end.  It also gripped me the same way as the first book (though not the second) - I had trouble putting it down since I wanted to know what happens next.

SPOILER
SPOILER
SPOILER
I honestly thought that either Peeta or Gale was going to die.  I'm not entirely satisfied the way that Gale's character ended up at the end of the book - he just seemed to fade off into the background, not really caring what happens to Katniss.  I did like the line at the end of the book though, "...what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred.  I have plenty of fire myself.  What I need is the dandelion in the spring.  The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.  The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses.  That it can be good again.  And only Peeta can give me that."  I agree with her.
END SPOILER

Katniss grew through the series of books, forced for the main part by circumstances.  Given the choice, she acknowledges that she would have rather not been a tribute with all that followed; and yet she grows from a relatively sheltered girl to a ruthless killer to a symbol to a woman who knows her own mind.

I can't help, given the years that these books were written, to compare the fighting and wars in the books to the wars that were (are) fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The books do a very good job of portraying the psychological after-effects of fighting and killing; and I can't help but compare the Victors of the book to returning soldiers.  I wonder if this political statement was intended by the author - pointed at governments that better after care that what is currently provided is essential.  After all, many soldiers aren't that much older than the Tributes in these books.

They are books that left me thinking - always a good sign in a book.  They bring up issues of media and propaganda, right versus wrong, justice and equality, war versus pacifism, accepting the status quo versus taking a stand.  I suspect that they will stay with me longer than other recent "teen hits".  The plots of the Harry Potter books are already fuzzy in my mind despite at least 2 readings of each plus the movies; I have tried to forget Twilight; and yet the Hunger Games feel like they made an impression.

I'm glad that I read these books.  I liked the main character, despite her flaws, right up until the very end.  I think that the author has created a believable and consistent world for these books.  I do want to see the movies now to see how they compare to the books.  The descriptions in the books are so vivid that I hope that the movies live up.  I also love the cover art on the books, showing the mockingjay transform from the pin to a bird to breaking free on her own.  I especially love that they ended up on an upbeat note - the hope that things can be better this time around, that humankind won't be bent on destroying ourselves this time around.  And I'm glad that I read all 3 books after the full trilogy was released so that I didn't have to wait a year or so for the next one!

July 2, 2012

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

So a couple of hours later and I've finished the second book in the trilogy.  Still a fast engaging read, but I don't think that I liked it as much as the first one.

I found the love triangle thing to be a bit overplayed so that I was starting to get tired of it.  Oh, be quiet Katniss - it's not all about you.  And I was a bit disappointed that time rushed forward until we were back in the Hunger Games again - a bit of a recycled plot point.  And they weren't as brilliantly written as in the first book where the suspense was really getting to me - a little ho hum and let me wait for the ending.

But what I did really like about this book was some of the background into the dystopian world that it takes place in.  There were hints of it in the first book, but much more of the back story was given in this book.  A little bit Margaret Atwood-ian at times - think of the world of The Handmaid's Tale or the MaddAdam books (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and the book yet to be released).  The author has taken things that are happening today and spinning them out of control into the future.  Genetic engineering, nuclear technology, climate change, reality television, increasing gap between rich/poor and powerful/powerless.

And given the ending of this book (which I'm not going to give away here!), I have hopes that the third book will continue to explore this dystopian world.  Now on to Mockingjay - I'm not sure that I will get it done by bedtime though - that post may need to wait a day or two.  I do love long weekends!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I decided a while back that I would have to read these books.  Ever since the whole Twilight fiasco, I have been a bit skeptical of "runaway teen bestsellers" but enough people persuaded me that The Hunger Games were very different from Twilight.  Fortunately, I agree!

Having heard that these books would suck me in and not let me get anything else done until I was finished, I had to wait until the end of June before being able to let myself start.  And so I borrowed copies of the three books from a friend (thank you, Rachel, if you are reading this!) and decided that the Canada Day long weekend would be devoted to the trilogy.  Well, not quite completely devoted - I didn't get started until Saturday evening, and did do my usual double-header church thing on Sunday morning, but I still finished the first book (The Hunger Games) while eating my supper on Sunday, and am now half way through the second book (Catching Fire).  A very pleasant long-weekend diversion.

What did I like about this book?  The description is so vivid that I was there with Katniss.  The action is non-stop, and even though I was pretty sure that I knew how the book would end, I didn't know how the characters would get there.  The concept is unique.  The main character is likable, but human with her own faults at the same time.  She is stubborn, independent, fiercely loving of her family, and loyal.  I hope that she doesn't lose these traits in the next books.

I'm not going to bother with a plot summary - unless you have been deliberately avoiding this book, I suspect that you already know the basic plot.  I'm a bit curious to see the movie now to see how they handle a plot that is essentially about forcing teens to kill one another without making it so graphic as to be unwatchable.

OK - enough about the first book.  I should be able to finish the second book this afternoon, so watch for more posts upcoming.

June 13, 2012

Arranged - Catherine McKenzie

I may have ranted once or twice (or more) on this blog about my dislike for what is affectionately known as Chick Lit.  (Probably the 3rd link best describes the reason for my dislike.)  However for some reason, I will still occasionally pick up a book of Chick Lit.

A few weekends ago, I was looking for some fluff to read.  I have been reading lots of non-fiction this year (partly course-work reading), and it was a beautiful summer weekend for reading out on the deck.  And so I picked this book up off of my TBR stack.

Actually, this book had been an impulse airport purchase a few weeks prior to reading it, as I was worried that I was going to finish the book I was reading at the time before I got home.  I didn't.  It caught my eye at the airport bookstore, as I had heard the author interviewed a year or so ago by Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio; and the fact that her main character is named Anne Blythe caught my attention (yes, Anne of Green Gables still ranks near the top of my Favourite Books of All Times list).

This book reminded me of why I will still pick up the occasional Chick Lit to read.  I didn't hate the main character (she was actually quite self-aware - very rare in Chick Lit; not whiney; and had a life outside of the romance story line).  It was funny at times.  It wasn't overly formulaic - in fact, the prerequisite wedding happens half-way through the novel rather than at the end.

The twist on the Chick Lit genre here is that the main character (the aforementioned Anne Blythe) realizes that she has terrible judgement about men, and so connects with an Arranged Marriage service and follows it through.  There is a plot twist in the second half which I'm not going to reveal here, but let me just say that I didn't see it coming.

And while the personality of the main character is nothing like that of her namesake, I did enjoy all of the Anne of Green Gables references through the book.  Her mother is a bit of a fanatic - it is even suggested that she married Anne's father just because his last name was Blythe.  The fact that Anne's brother is named Gilbert should say it all.  Here's one of my favourite passages (a conversation between Anne and her arranged husband, Jack):

"What was it like growing up named after a character in a book?" Jack asks as we linger over dessert.
"It was harder for my brother, Gilbert.  He had girls following him around, hoping to play out some romantic scenario they'd read about."
"Doesn't sound too bad."
"That's because you're assuming hot girls are obsessed with Anne of Green Gables."

Anyways, this was a perfect summer-time deck read on a weekend where I was looking for something mindless and enjoyable.  I'll keep Catherine Mckenzie (whose day job is as a lawyer in Montreal) in mind, next time I am tempted to pick up some Chick Lit.

June 10, 2012

What's So Amazing About Grace - Philip Yancey

This was my next book for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am taking - and an elective this time.  It is also a book borrowed from my church's library, as I had volunteered to do a book review for an upcoming newsletter.  And it is a book that has been on my radar as one that I might want to read for some time.  Am I allowed to list 3 reasons why I read it?

For the course, I was looking for a book that wouldn't challenge me too much (unlike a book read a month ago for the same course).  Life has been somewhat busy and stressful recently and since I knew I had to finish this book, I wanted to pick one up that I knew that I would finish.

So what is so amazing about grace?  I'm sure that everyone reading this blog, Christian or not, is familiar with the song Amazing Grace.  And yet what is grace?  The author pins it down to love/acceptance/forgiveness which is not earned or deserved, but given freely.  So many structures in our world are built on ungrace - earning your rewards - so the fact that we don't have to earn God's love really is quite amazing.

The book was easy to read and follow, and as I suspected, it didn't push me or challenge me too much.  I did get a bit frustrated at the big section of it dealing with American politics (I'm Canadian, eh - we have our own politics to worry about, so I tend not to follow our neighbours to the south too closely) and actually the overall feel of the book was quite American.  And the viewpoint tended to be that of an Evangelical Christian - fair enough since that is the perspective that the author is coming from - and as a Liberal Christian, I felt that my own perspective was not necessarily voiced always.

But overall, I'm glad that I picked this book to read.  I've submitted my formal response for the course - now I just have to write my book review for the newsletter!

June 1, 2012

Adventures in Solitude - Grant Lawrence

I bought this book back in January (I think), and I only just got around to reading it now.  I'm sorry I waited so long, since I loved this book!

I knew of Grant Lawrence from being an avid CBC radio listener; and last summer some of the stories that made up this book were played as audio pieces in local programs across Canada.  I loved the stories, and his story-telling style, but I can't stand his voice.  So this book was the perfect compromise.  The stories are there, along with their humour and tragedy; but without the voice.

Desolation Sound is on the BC coast, north of Vancouver, and when Grant Lawrence was a child (a very nerdy, mal-adjusted child), his outdoor-loving father decided to buy a large plot of land, and subdivide it for cottages keeping the original site for his family.  The first half of the book is the story of Grant growing up and growing into himself; learning to eventually enjoy his time at the cottage every summer after a rough beginning.  This half ends with teenage rebellion, and his refusal to have anything to do with his family and the cottage.

The second half of the book then deals with him re-discovering the cottage and his love for it as an adult.  Here, he is going back with his friends, and meeting the neighbours who have moved into the cottages in the area.  The whole book is interspersed with back-stories of the neighbours, stories of the history of the area, and stories of the geography.

Why did I love the book so much?  The stories were intriguing, the book was well paced, and the book made me laugh out loud at times, and cry at others (I finished it on the airplane a few weeks ago, and yes, I did cry at the end).  And above all, this book made me really, really want to visit Desolation Sound.  It sounds absolutely breathtaking!

My favourite quote from the book came not from Grant Lawrence, but from a quote that he included at the beginning.  "Language has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone."  (Paul Johannes Tillich).  I don't like loneliness, but I love solitude.  One of my favourite memories from last summer came from a day spent paddling my canoe by myself through the wilderness of Quetico Park - glorious solitude, but not an ounce of loneliness.

I guess this is a rave review!  I loved this book so much that I gave my copy away to my sister as soon as I finished it since I think that she and her husband will both enjoy reading it as well.

May 17, 2012

Simply Pray - Erik Walker Wikstrom

After an overall negative experience with the last book I read for the Lay Worship Leader course, it was a relief to pick up this one.  While the last book felt very prescriptive, this book felt very liberating.  I couldn't wait to pick it up, each time I had a few minutes to read.

The author is a Unitarian Universalist minister, but this book draws on a wide variety of faith traditions from Christianity to Wicca to Judaism to Buddhism to Islam to Hinduism.  He focuses on what is common between the different religions when it comes to prayer rather than what divides them.

The book is about prayer, but it encourages freedom in prayer and argues (if that isn't too strong a word for a gentle book) that there is room in anyones faith for a wide variety of prayers - from spontaneous prayers to recited prayers to breath prayers.  No one way to pray is more right than any other way, and there is a time for every type of prayer.  Even in the chapter that outlines a more specific prayer practice using beads, the book doesn't prescribe the words to say - the beads only gently guide the overall structure.

I'm glad that I read these last two books in the order that I did.  This book calmed my spirit after a difficult go with the last book.  Now I just need to visit the local craft store to pick up some beads.  I may just try the bead prayer practice suggested in this book.

And with this post, I'm caught up on the books that I have been reading in the past month.  I'm just about finished another book, so watch for more posts next week!

May 12, 2012

Christianity: A New Look at Ancient Wisdom - David J. H. Hart

Continuing with catching up on books that I have finished in the past month...

This is the next book that I read for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am taking, and the first book for the course that really challenged me.  I actually ended up stopping reading part way through, and only picked it up again 3 weeks later.  If it hadn't been required reading, I probably wouldn't have picked it up again; and it was with a real sense of relief that I finished it.

It wasn't all bad.  I enjoyed the author's personal stories that he interspersed through the book.  I liked the emphasis that religion and spirituality have to be balanced - that religion without spirituality is hollow, and spirituality without religion is unfocused.

But I didn't like the author's tone at times.  He seemed very prescriptive and restrictive in his approach, and that is really what turned me off.  "You should pray this way because it is the best way to pray." (I'm paraphrasing a bit!)  And at times, he passes off his own speculation as fact.  How can anyone know what the soul/spirit experiences after death?

Let me end on a positive.  I loved the chapter on healing and the emphasis on holisitc healing.  I am a physiotherapist, and have known ever since school about the difference between curing and healing.  I have also done some work in palliative care in recent years, and know about the importance in hope for healing.  But I currently work in home care, and one thing that has often bothered me is when a client tells me something like, "I feel better just because of your visit."  My (internal) response has always been along the lines of "But that's not physiotherapy!"  This book helped me see that maybe this is OK - so many of the clients I see are house-bound and lonely and having someone come to their house will likely contribute to healing.  I just won't tell OHIP (provincial health care plan, for anyone outside of Ontario) what they are paying for...

So I guess that I'm glad that I read the book, and I'm even gladder that I'm done!

May 9, 2012

Believing the Lie - Elizabeth George

I am a big fan of the Inspector Lynley books - every time a new one comes out, I rush out to buy it!  I picked this one up back in January, but unfortunately wasn't able to read it until April (yes, I am a bit behind on my reviews).

I enjoyed it, as will all other fans of this series.  All of the favourite characters are here - Lynley, Havers, Deborah and Simon St. James, Hadiyyah and Azhar...  The characters that carry over through the series have their stories develop.  And the mystery develops slowly but surely, like a ball rolling down a hill, until the momentum of it can't be stopped.

My one complaint is that I found that the book could have used better editing.  My hardcover weighs in at a hefty 608 pages; and as I was reading it, I thought that it could have been pruned significantly.  She has a new publisher with this book, and I suspect that there may have been a new editor involved as well.  The story was there, but it wasn't as tight as her previous books.

I will stick with the series though, if for no reason than this book ended with a major cliff-hanger.  No more to say on this here, since I don't want to include any spoilers!  Based on the cliff-hanger though, I have great hopes that the next book will focus more on Barbara Havers, my favourite character in the series!

March 28, 2012

The Salterton Trilogy - Robertson Davies


I'm cheating a little bit here by reviewing 3 books in one post, but since I originally read them as a trilogy; and have just finished re-reading them as a trilogy; I am going to review them as a trilogy! These count as books 6, 7, and 8 in my attempt to re-read 13 Canadian books for The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. (5 books to go, and only 3 months left in the challenge. Can I do it?)

So, using the format that I have been using for these reviews, here goes...

Book(s): Tempest-Tost, A Leaven of Malice, and A Mixture of Frailties, aka The Salterton Trilogy. My copies are all in one volume (one rather thick-ish volume). I'm not sure that I like these covers that Penguin is currently using.

First Read: The spring of 1995. For anyone who attended high school in the same province as me, in the same era, I read them for my OAC English Independent Study. At that point, I had read all of Robertson Davies' other books, loved him as an author, planned on reading these books anyways, so why not read them for credit!

Original Impressions: Not surprisingly, I loved them. I went into the books expecting to enjoy them, so I did. I don't have the essay that I wrote about these books, but I remember the thesis - that these books marked Robertson Davies' transition from playwright to novelist. He had previously written several plays, and when he came up with the idea for Tempest-Tost (a group of amateur actors put on a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest), he figured that he would never get a group of actors to actually perform it as a play, since it is essentially poking fun at amateur actors and theatre groups. And so he wrote it as a novel, changing the direction of his future writing career. My essay was probably a bunch of pompous garbage, but I did inspire my English teacher to read these books (he hadn't previously, even though we were studying another Robertson Davies novel - Fifth Business - that year).

Current Impression: I have re-read these books many times over the years. Robertson Davies is one of my laugh-out-loud authors. I love his ironic sense of humour and his ability to draw such sharp characters. I still enjoy them. And I still agree with that original essay, though I could probably write it much better now. The first two books in the trilogy read more like plays - very character and action driven; an ensemble cast; episodic - I could almost see the scene and act divisions; and a romp with not much growth from beginning to end. But by the 3rd novel, there is a distinct main character who has grown by the end of the book.

The three books are held together by a common setting (Salterton - based on Kingston, Ontario) and by many common characters. The third book deviates a bit - it starts out in Salterton and the opening chapter gives the impression that the cast of characters is going to be similar to the previous books; but a new "main character" is quickly introduced, and the main plot line moves to London (England, not Ontario).

Let me say here and now that these books contain what is probably my favourite character in all of fiction - Humphrey Cobbler. How can I not like a character who is described as follows: "Cobbler was a man so alive, and so apparently happy, that the air around him seemed charged with his delight in life." Or who can declaim a speech such as, "Purcell! What a genius! And lucky, too. Nobody has ever thought to blow him up into a God-like Genius, like poor old Bach, or a Misunderstood Genius, like poor old Mozart, or a Wicked and Immoral Genius, like poor old Wagner. Purcell is just a nice, simple Genius, rollicking happily through Eternity. The boobs and the gramophone salesmen and the music hucksters haven't discovered him yet and please God they never will. Kids don't peck and mess at little scraps of Purcell for examinations. Arthritic organists don't torture Purcell in chapels and tin Bethels all over the country on Sundays, while the middle classes are pretending to be holy. Purcell is still left for people who really like music." I don't remember ever pecking away at Purcell's music for examinations; but I do torture Purcell on the organ the occasional Sunday! (Though I'm not yet arthritic.) I would love to meet Cobbler in person, but I don't know if I would be able to take his intensity if I had him as my teacher.

OK - diversion over. These books were written in the 1950s, and while there are a few cultural references that can place the books in that decade (see the gramophone reference above!), I can almost imagine much of them being written today.

One thing that bothered me on this re-read is Revelstoke's treatment of Monica in A Mixture of Frailties. Their relationship seems to be very much that of the abuser and his victim (psychological rather than physical); and possibly because I am older now than I was when I first read this book, it seemed more tinged by horror. I know that in the decade in which this book was written, domestic abuse was present by not openly acknowledged; but in this book, other characters reference it, and in the end she is free of him.

But all-in-all, these books include all that I love about Robertson Davies' writing, and really do show his development as an author. They will probably cycle through my re-read list every few years!


March 18, 2012

Say to This Mountain - Ched Myers et al

Yet another book I read for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am doing, and this is the one that has spoken to me the most strongly so far. It is also the book that has taken me the longest to finish so far, I think because I wanted to savour each chapter and take time to think about it as I was reading it. Anyways, it took me 3 weeks to finish a book that is just over 200 pages which is unusual for me (though I confess that I was reading some fiction at the same time - watch for a post later this week).

The books I have read so far were Required Reading, but this was my first elective book, and I managed to pick a good one from the pages and pages of possibilities!

This book goes passage by passage through Mark's gospel, drawing out themes of discipleship. In my formal reflection that I submitted, I summarized the message of this book as: The world we are living in is full of injustice. Jesus' mission was to overturn the social order and bring justice to the world. And Jesus calls all who would follow him to do the same.

Each chapter deals with a passage from Mark, working all of the way through the 16 chapters of the gospel. The chapter starts by giving context - what was going on in Mark's world as he was writing, and how might his original audience heard these words? - and then goes on to look for examples of "The Word in Our World". I found here that I didn't necessarily relate to all of the examples given (I found many of them to be U.S. based), but at the same time my brain was working overtime while reading and I had no trouble coming up with other examples on the same issues.

I was a little bit skeptical coming into this book, as it is written by committee; and having seen how committees work, I don't know how they managed to end up with such a cohesive, engaging, and read-able book! Ched Myers wrote a book entitled Binding the Strong Man, and this book was later written to make the material more accessible to the lay reader. In the introduction to this book, the group of authors describes themselves as follows:

"Our group represents a spectrum of church traditions: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and "free ecumenical." We live and work in Los Angeles, Tucson, and Washington, D.C. We are male and female, lay and clergy. None of us are professional academic theologians, though we all take the task of critical theological reflection seriously. We are of middle-class, European-American background, yet we are deeply committed to defecting from our dominant culture entitlements in order to participate in the work of justice and peace in solidarity with the poor in the U.S. and abroad."

This book takes many of the themes from a book I read last year, Compassion and Solidarity, and expands them and digs in more depth than was possible in that book.

There was much in this book that I could relate to personally with my experience of living overseas in Tanzania, from the more profound: "To be in relationship with these brothers and sisters is to become a divided person, tied to the worlds of both the privileged and the oppressed." to the every-day: "No one who has lived in a poor country can enter a First World supermarket without being overwhelmed with anger and sadness."

I could probably go on a lot longer here, but let me just finish by saying that this is a book that I will probably go back to and re-read in the future, as there was way too much to absorb the first time around.

Next course weekend is coming up in a week. I can't wait!

February 21, 2012

Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

This book kept coming across my radar, so I figured that I had better give it a read. A word of warning for anyone considering picking it up - this book is a 300 page, very graphic argument for vegetarianism; so if you are militantly anti-vegetarian, or have a weak stomach you may want to give it a miss.

Basically, Foer investigates the modern factory farm and examines all of the reasons why they are bad - bad for the animals, bad for the environment, bad for our health. There are very graphic descriptions of these farms, the animals living (if it can be called "living") on them, and the high-volume slaughter processes.

This book has not convinced me to become a vegetarian, but it has reinforced my already-held beliefs about eating meat. 5 years ago or so, I stopped buying meat at the grocery store, choosing instead to purchase any meat directly from the farmer who raised the animals. I do not eat meat every day (or every week, even). For me, this decision was based not so much on the ethical treatment of animals, but more on the environmental impact of shipping food half way across the country and back again before it reached my table; as well as the taste factor (animals raised in more traditional methods taste better than factory-farmed animals).

Here in Thunder Bay, we do not have any factory farms (except for one egg farm), and our only slaughter house (which I have visited) works only on a small scale, processing one animal at a time. Therefore, by buying local meat only, I know that the animal has not been subjected to factory farming practices. Right now in my freezer, I have beef from Mile Hill Farms; pork from Sandy Acres Farm; and lamb from Little Doo's (who are too small to even have a website!). The downside of this is that I have had to eliminate chicken from my diet as we do not have a chicken abattoir and it is illegal to sell meat that has not been killed in a government-inspected abattoir. This may change in the future as there is a move afoot to build a poultry abattoir; so for now we just won't tell anyone about the "illegal" chicken that is in my freezer waiting to be cooked. Now if I could just find someone to sell me the live chicken (or if the city by-laws would change to allow urban chickens), I could do the deed myself; but for now I will just hope that some day soon I will be able to eat chicken again.

The author, Jonathan Safran Foer does admit that choosing only to eat ethical meat is another option to vegetarianism; but states that he himself has chosen vegetarianism to satisfy his conscience. His main arguments for this decision seem to be that it is the only way to be 100% sure; and that if other people see you eating meat, it can be seen as a justification that eating any meat is OK (i.e. vegetarians can set a good example for others).

There was lots in this book that I agree with (even if I am not a full-time vegetarian myself). I already knew about the environmental and ethical and health concerns of factory-farmed meat. I did find this book to definitely be written from a North American cultural bias (e.g. the opening chapter using pet dogs as a comparison standard - in most parts of the world, dogs are not considered "pets" - in fact in Swahili, the same verb is used to refer to keeping dogs as you would use for goats, cows, or chickens). And all of the facts and data are American (as in USA) in origin. I am now curious to learn more about Canadian regulation and enforcement, as I know that while factory farms do exist in Canada, our farming legislation is very different here than in our neighbours to the south.

So for now, I will carry on buying my local, ethically raised meat. When I go out to restaurants, unless I know that they are buying from our local farmers, I will usually choose the vegetarian option. My biggest dilemma comes when eating at the table of friends and family. Here, I usually prioritize fellowship over meat-eating issues; but I rarely miss a chance to bring ethical meat issues into the discussion.

Supper tonight? A lovely vegetarian chick-pea curry!

February 18, 2012

The Secret of Willow Castle - Lyn Cook

Carrying on the trend of re-reading books from my childhood, I decided to pick up this book out of my bookcase. My copy has been re-read enough times that the binding is falling apart. Given that, I was quite disappointed to discover, while searching for a cover image, that this book seems to be out of print. Lyn Cook was one of my favourite authors when I was in primary school. I think that I read library copies ofmost of her books, as this is the only one that I own; but I remember reading and enjoying Samantha's Secret Room, Pegeen and the Pilgrim, and The Bells on Finland Street. Now on to this book...

Book: The Secret of Willow Castle by Lyn Cook. It is the story of Henrietta Macpherson, age 11, of Napanee, Ontario in 1834. She is dealing with lots of problems as she is growing up - a secret friend who is a servant for her father's political adversary; the social expectation for her to act like a "lady"; a beloved cousin, John Alex who is rising in the world (and later became Sir John Alexander MacDonald, first Prime Minister of Canada); slavery as it is being abolished in the British Empire; and just day-to-day life for a well-off family in rural Upper Canada in 1834. An interesting note - Henrietta's father, Allen Macpherson, was a real person (I haven't been able to find out if Henrietta was real or not), and their house really exists in Napanee.

First Read: I don't remember. Probably around grade 3 or so, when I was devouring "chapter books" like crazy. I enjoyed it enough to re-read it countless times between then and now.

Original Impressions: This was the first Lyn Cook book I read, but it lead me to read many of her other books as I mentioned above. As with Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, I loved reading books set close to where I lived, and Napanee was less than a half hour drive away.

Current Impressions: It is still an enjoyable read as an adult. I enjoy the pen and ink drawings that accompany each chapter. Henrietta is believable as an 11/12 year old. And I love historical fiction written for any age group - it is a window into a different time.

And that is about all I have to say about this book; other than I wish that it were still in print.

This is my 5th Canadian re-read for the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.


February 12, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard - Alan Bradley

This is the third Flavia de Luce mystery (there is a fourth one that came out just before Christmas - I am Half-Sick of Shadows - but this is one series that I tend to wait for in paperback). I was mildly entertained by the first two books (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag), so figured that the series was worth sticking with.

What I liked and disliked about this book is pretty much the same as the other books. I thought that Flavia was just a bit to precocious to be believable as an 11 year old; and yet I loved the relationship between the 3 sisters and thought that was quite believable (as one of 3 sisters myself!).

As in the last book, there are several mysteries some of which are loosely tied together in the end. A gypsy woman is attacked in her caravan. A local fish-poacher and sometimes antiques-dealer is found murdered at Buckshaw (Flavia's home). And there seems to be something suspicious going on around an antiques shop.

In this book, Flavia does more active detective-ing than in the last book - rather than just overhearing gossip, she is out actively searching for clues. However, the longer that this series carries on, the more one has to wonder just how many murders can take place in a small village like Bishop's Lacey, and specifically Buckshaw. This is the same question that is always lurking in the back of my mind with successful mystery novels or television series (think Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders)...

So a pleasant, easy-reading diversion this week; and I will continue to follow this series, and I suspect that I will continue to enjoy it.

February 5, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley - P. D. James

I have wanted to read this book ever since I heard about it. I love P. D. James' books. I love Jane Austen's books. Therefore a P. D. James written sequel to Pride and Prejudice must be right up my alley!

As an aside, it seems as though Pride and Prejudice spin-offs have become an industry of their own. I was in a bookstore in Minneapolis with a friend back in December, and we lost count of the P&P sequels, fan fiction, and other various and assorted spin-offs. Other than an unfortunate encounter with P&P&Zombies, this is my first experience with this quickly expanding genre. I suspect that the popularity of the movie versions may have something to do with this trend (I myself am a fan of the 1995 BBC version, but not so much the more recent one with Kiera Knightly).

It was a pretty easy read, but I came away from it with mixed feelings. Parts of it really felt like they were written by Jane Austen herself, with her distinctive voice and sense of humour. But parts of it read very much like a P. D. James mystery. The overall effect was very much a patchwork of the two styles - I never knew what to expect at the start of each chapter (or even each paragraph at times).

The mystery itself, and the solution were a bit predictable. I had guessed most of the ending by part way through the book. But isn't that the fun of a mystery - trying to guess the end, and seeing if you are right?

It was fun visiting with all of the characters from Pride and Prejudice again, and meeting some new characters. I thought that P. D. James stayed very true to the original characters. And it was fun spotting characters from other Austen novels. Mr. and Mrs. Knightly make a cameo appearance, as does the friend of Mrs. Knightly (née Emma Woodhouse), Mrs. Martin (née Harriet Smith). And James has Mr. Wickham working for a time as the secretary to Sir Walter Elliot, meeting up with his daughters.

So an in-between review of this one. If you are a Jane Austen fan, you will either enjoy the time spent with old friends; or you will be horrified at the liberties taken with the original. If you are not familiar with the original story of Pride and Prejudice, but are a fan of P. D. James or gentle mysteries, you will probably enjoy this one. But if you don't know Pride and Prejudice and aren't a mystery fan, you probably won't turn to this book anyways!

January 30, 2012

Shadow in Hawthorn Bay - Janet Lunn

Here is my 4th Canadian re-read for the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. Is it cheating that I've picked a YA novel this time around and finished it in under 24 hours?

Book: Shadow in Hawthorn Bay by Janet Lunn. It is interesting to note that my copy is so old that the publisher has been out of business for 20 years, and forget trying to find a website for them advertised anywhere on the book. It is labeled as a First Edition from 1986. My physical copy of this book is beautiful - thick paper, and beautiful artw
ork on the first page of each chapter.

First Read: Probably not too long after it was published - I suspect that it was a birthday present from my parents either that year of the next. I read it in the summer time when I was probably 10 years old or so, and just truly falling in love with books and reading. I went camping for the week with one of my friends from Girl Guides and her family. I was the kid that always got homesick even if I was away for just one night, so I made sure that I packed books that I thought would keep me distracted. That week saw me read and fall in love not only with this book, but with another one of my life-long favourites, Emily of New Moon (by L. M. Montgomery).

Original Impression: I fell in love with this book the first time I read it, and continued to re-read it regularly through the years. It fell out of frequent rotation when I started university, but I still come back to it on occasion. It was written as a follow-up to her better-known book The Root Cellar. I have read her other historical YA novels and love to see how the same families that she created keep popping up through history, but this book has always been my favourite of hers.

Current Impression: I still love this book. The characters seem so real to me. The story is beautiful - a hit of mystery and the paranormal, a quiet romance, and very real human emotions throughout.

It is historical fiction, which I loved reading when I was growing up, and still enjoy reading. The story is of Mairi, a 15-year old girl in the Scottish Highlands in 1815 with the Second Sight (interesting to note that Emily, the other heroine from that camping trip also has the Second Sight...), who hears her cousin and best friend calling her from Upper Canada, the other side of the ocean. Mairi leaves her family, and the land she loves, and the only life she knows to travel across that ocean, only to discover that her cousin has died and the rest of her family has left to travel back to Scotland. She is then faced with the dilemma of what to do and how to survive.

What struck me this time was how descriptive this book is. I hadn't noticed before the contrasting descriptions of the Scottish Highlands with Upper Canada as it was 200 years ago. I was born and lived the first 18 years of my life just north of where this book is set, in what is now known as Prince
Edward County (or "The County" for those of us from the area!). It is hard to imagine the open farm lands of today described as being "dark with forest." Mairi's journey west from Montreal towards Kingston is described as "giant pines rising a hundred feet and more into the air, their trunks over six feet across, their branches starting only thirty or forty feet from the ground and meeting high above the rough road." I guess those early settlers did their work well clearing the land, because no hints of that forest remain today.

The emotions remain real throughout this book, and even though I have read it countless times before, I stil
l caught myself tearing up at the end. This book will definitely stay in my re-reading rotation, any time I need an easy yet engaging read.