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.

January 29, 2012

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time - Marcus Borg

This is the next book that I've read for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am taking.

The subtitle of this book indicates the audience that this book is written for - "Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally". If you are a fundamentalist who reads the Bible literally, this book is not for you. (I should probably tread carefully here, since this is a major source of division amongst Christians, as I have experienced in my own life.)

The lens through which to read the Bible presented in this book is a metaphorical reading, which made perfect sense to me. After all, Jesus taught in parables, which are essentially metaphors. As the author states early in the book, "metaphors can be profoundly true, even through they are not literally true. Metaphor is poetry plus, not factuality minus. That is, metaphor is not less than fact, but more. Some things are best expressed in metaphorical language; others can be expressed only in metaphorical language."

I really appreciated the author's clarity of thought and language in this book. What disappointed me was that in trying to cover the whole Bible in 300 pages, some things were bound to get left behind (pun partially intended for anyone who gets it!). There is a whole chapter dedicated to the first 2 chapters of Genesis; and another chapter to Revelation. And yet the 4 gospels are crammed into one chapter; the prophets (another 21 books of the Bible) are given another chapter; and several books (e.g. Psalms, the non-Pauline epistles) are skipped over completely. I guess I have unrealistic expectations - if as much attention was given to the whole Bible as was given to the first 2 chapters of Genesis, the book would have been too long for all but the most dedicated readers! But still, I felt cheated.

But don't get me wrong - overall, I did like this book, and agreed with most of what was in it. There was particular attention paid to the themes of social justice that run through the Bible as a whole; and anyone who knows me (or is a regular reader of this blog) will know that social justice is something that I am passionate about. To quote the author in the epilogue of this book, "(t)he God of the Bible is full of compassion and passionate about justice."

I have always enjoyed reading the Prophets, and this book helped me realize why. It also made me long for prophets in our own time - people equally passionate for God and for social justice; and who are willing to break with convention to get their message across.

I figure that I'm on track with my required reading, with one book left to read before the next session at the end of March. I'm going to take another fiction break now, and get through some titles on my "for fun" TBR list. I've booked a week off work in February, and am planning a "stay-cation" with nothing but books, music, and the gym in my schedule!

January 14, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver - The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven

I first read The Bean Trees several years ago when I was living in Tanzania and would read any book that came my way if it was written in English. If it hadn't been for that, I probably wouldn't have picked it up, since I had previously read and strongly disliked Barbara Kingsolver's better-known book, The Poisonwood Bible. But I'm glad that I did pick up and read The Bean Trees because I absolutely loved it.

It features a cast of very likeable characters; it touches on some serious topics (child abuse, human rights violation and so-called "illegal" immigration, human trafficking) while maintaining a light tone and a sense of humour. I found myself especially drawn to Taylor, the main character, for her spunk, her innocence, and her determination to do what she feels is right. And Turtle, the child that she adopts - who wouldn't love her?

I knew that there was a sequel, but had never read it; however on a trip down to the US back in December, I managed to pick up copies of both The Bean Trees and the sequel, Pigs in Heaven.

Re-reading The Bean Trees, it was just as good as I remembered it; though there were parts of the plot that I had forgotten, or remembered differently than they were.

Pigs in Heaven starts 2 years after the end of The Bean Trees; and it picks up on the one tread at the end of The Bean Trees that had disturbed me (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read The Bean Trees) - the irregular nature of Turtle's legal adoption.

The conflict at the centre of Pigs in Heaven have to do with the adoption of a Cherokee child by a white mother. Who is the better person to raise a child - her tribe or the outsider with whom she has formed an attachment? There is lots of emotion in this book (as there was in The Bean Trees), and both books are so gripping that I had trouble putting them down. Along the way to the resolution of the primary conflict, other issues are addressed - the injustice of the cycle of poverty, racism, the history of the Cherokee people (of which I knew very little of before reading this book), and feminism, just to name a few. But the humour is always there, even when Taylor hits rock bottom and begins to question herself.

Taylor and Turtle are still the same likeable and engaging characters; Taylor's mother Alice has a bigger role in this book; some of the characters from The Bean Trees make an appearance (Lou Ann and Mattie - though I would have loved to have found out what happened to Estevan and Esperanza, the Guatemalan refugees); and there are a whole new cast of characters to get to know. Both of these books seem to have achieved the perfect balance of plot and characters.

I'm not going to spoil the ending by revealing it here; but I just want to say that it was satisfying. I would love to have another book featuring Taylor and Turtle, to find out what happens next; but I am also happy to leave it at that, knowing that things are going to work out for everyone.

I'm so glad that I discovered these books, because if it had been dependent on my reading of The Poisonwood Bible, I would have never picked up another book by Barbara Kingsolver. As it is, I read and loved her non-fiction book describing her family's effort to eat locally for a year - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And since Pigs in Heaven lived up to my memories of The Bean Trees, I will probably look up more of her fiction now.

January 8, 2012

Remedial Christianity - Paul Alan Laughlin

This is the second "required reading" for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am currently taking. I have already submitted my formal response; but thought that I would just jot down a few of my thoughts on this book in a more informal format here.

This book was written as a textbook for a college religion course, and it reads very much like a textbook. There are chapters on the bible, the historical Jesus, the Christ of faith, sin, salvation, and the history of the church. As the cover implies, there is some humour inserted throughout, in the form of cartoons, some sarcasm, and by the pointing out of irony. It was well written, and over all is much more approachable than many textbooks that I read in my university years.

There wasn't much new for me in this book. I self-identify as a Liberal Christian, and this book is written from that perspective. I can see, however, that a person with Fundamentalist beliefs might be very upset at some of the things written in this book.

My biggest complaint with this book is actually expressed in the subtitle. The full name of this book is Remedial Christianity: What Every Believer Should Know about the Faith, but Probably Doesn't. There was actually not much in this book that I didn't already know, and I found that the author's tone was quite condescending at times.

But overall, it was an enjoyable read; though I'm glad that I was reading it over the holidays when I had more time to concentrate on it. It wouldn't make good bedtime reading! A more enjoyable read for sure, than the last book I read for this course. I'm taking a bit of a fiction break now before tackling the next required reading - watch for another post later this week!

January 1, 2012

Favourite Books of 2011

In keeping with tradition, I have compiled a list of my best reads from the past year. Same rules as always - I must have read the book for my first time in 2011 (i.e. no re-reads); though it doesn't matter when the book was written/published. Any genre counts - fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novel, kid-lit.

So here goes, in a not-quite-random order. I have linked the books to my original reviews.

1. Le Petit Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) - I'm not counting this as a re-read, since it was my first time reading it in the original French.

2. Compassion and Solidarity (Gregory Baum) - for it's ability to change the way I look at the world.

3. The Best Laid Plans (Terry Fallis) - for sheer, laugh-out-loud humour!

4. Alone in the Classroom (Elizabeth Hay) - for the beauty of the storytelling.

5. Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (Jean Vanier) - for a combination of beautiful writing and a profound message.

6. Cool Water (Dianne Warren) - for it's ability to evoke a sense of place.

7. Skim (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki) - for taking me back to high school.

8. In Praise of Slow (Carl Honoré) - for validating my own opinion

9. The Beggar's Garden (Michael Christie) - for re-instating my love of short stories.

10. After Tehran (Marina Nemat) - for her courage in telling her story.

And if I may do so, I would like to give honourable mention to Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harries, for pure, guilty pleasure!

A few random observations on my reading in the past year:
  • I hit a real reading slump in January and February. I was re-reading old favourites, and not blogging, which put my post-count way down for the year.
  • My top 10 list is very balanced this year - 4 non-fiction; 1 short-story collection; 1 graphic novel; 3 English novels; and 1 French novel!
  • I suspect that giving up fiction for Lent pushed up my non-fiction count for the year (but that was one of my goals at this time last year).
  • Still lots of Canadian authors on my top 10 list!
  • In July, I decided to participate in the 5th Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set (my 3rd year participating); but to increase the challenge (and to give me an excuse to re-read old books), I decided that I would attempt to re-read and review 13 Canadian Books. 6 months in, and I've only managed to re-read 3, so I'm going to have to push myself to finish the challenge this year. I guess that is the point of a challenge!
So here's to happy reading in 2012!