September 27, 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbrai

Just in case you didn't know already, let me fill you in on the secret.  Robert Galbraith = pseudonym of J. K. Rowling.  Yes, that J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.  The story is that she wanted to see if her books would sell without her name attached to it.  What is less clear is how word got out within a few weeks of this book being published that she was the true author.  I've heard stories ranging from a language-use computer analysis to someone spilling the beans to suspicions over why J. K. Rowling's editor would edit the book of a first-time author.  Who knows!

I read this book back in August when I was visiting my sister.  She had put her name on hold at the library for a copy of this book; and when it came in, she was part-way through a book and told me that I could read it first.

So, what was my opinion?  Knowing that it was written by J. K. Rowling, it seemed to be very much in her style.  What I remember from the Harry Potter books was her extreme overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  Nothing could just happen or just be; and that held true in this book.  The aforementioned sister remembers that in the Harry Potter books, the verb of most sentences was "said".  That trait (fortunately) did not carry over to this book!

This book is a mystery.  I have to confess that I like my mysteries fairly fast-paced, and I found that this book dragged.  Coming in at just over 400 pages, it took me several days to get through it.  And I did guess the resolution to the mystery before the end, but don't worry - I'm not going to post it on here!

So I guess that my overall opinion would be "meh."  I probably won't be actively seeking out any of her other books, though if the opportunity arises (like it did for this book), I would probably read them.

August 11, 2013

Dear Life - Alice Munro

Last weekend was a long weekend, so I decided to spend at least part of it binge-reading the newest Alice Munro collection of short stories.  I don't know what it is about Alice Munro, but I always associate her with summer-time reading, even her stories that are set in the dead of winter.  This is possibly because of the summer 12-ish years ago that I spent reading everything written by her that I could get my hands off!  But for whatever reason, as soon as I start reading something by Alice Munro, I think of hot summer days.  And so an August long weekend was perfect to spend curled up with a new collection.

It is hard to write a review of a short story collection, as each story is individual unto itself.  An Alice Munro short story is like a snapshot in time.  Sometimes you get a bit of background of what came before, and sometimes you get a hint of what might happen afterwards.  But generally, you are just thrown right into the middle of the action which will end 20-30 pages later.  I find her writing to be very vivid that it only takes a couple of paragraphs before I am right there with the characters.

This collection was no different.  I was able to relax, knowing that I was safe in the hands of a master storyteller.  That doesn't mean no plot twists, it just means that I know that I am not going to be left hanging at any point, I am going to be immersed in the setting and the action, and that the characters are going to be realistic and true to themselves.

Interestingly, the last 4 stories in the collection she referred to as the most autobiographical stories she ever had written or will write.  And yet they still had the feel of an Alice Munro story.  The only thing is that as I started each one, I knew who the narrator, who the "I" of the story was going to be.  But each story was an independent snapshot, not dependent on one another.  And I guess that can be interpreted as a compliment on her short stories.  If the non-fiction felt like the fiction, then the fiction is so true-to-life that it could have happened.

I think that it was Shelagh Rogers who said that she has a bittersweet feeling with each new collection of Alice Munro stories, as she is unsure if this is going to be the last collection due to the author's advancing age and health concerns.  I can echo that sentiment - I truly hope that there are more stories to come from this Master of the English Language; but even if she never publishes another story, this would be a good collection to go out on.

August 4, 2013

The Virgin Cure - Ami McKay

This book took me a long time to get through, and an even longer time to get around to writing a review.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement now, is it?!

Everyone out there seems to have read Ami McKay's debut novel, The Birth House, but I somehow missed it.  I certainly have seen copies in the bookstore, but never got around to picking up a copy.  This was possibly due to it's release date (February 2006), right in the middle of my 3-year cultural gap when I was living overseas and out of touch with current books and movies and music.

Anyways, after all of the hype (good and bad) about The Birth House, I decided to give her second novel, The Virgin Cure a try.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

It is the story of Moth, a girl trying to get by after being abandoned by her mother in the seedier side of New York City in the late 1800s.  She eventually lands in a "house of ill repute", with a Madam who makes a small fortune by selling the virginity of young girls to the highest bidder.  The Madam is especially careful though to avoid customers looking for The Virgin Cure - a belief that having sex with a virgin would cure syphilis.

I wasn't particularly drawn to any of the characters.  For me to get into a book, I generally have to be rooting for at least one of the characters, and I didn't find anyone to cheer on in this book.  Probably the character that was the most sympathetic to me was Dr. Sadie, a Lady Doctor whose job included looking after the girls in the brothel.  However even she seemed a bit to pedantic - she was so sure that she knew the best way for everything.  Moth, the main character, was a bit to cold and calculating to be particularly endearing.  And all of the rest of the characters seemed to come and go without making a very big impression on this reader.

I was especially disappointed with the author's note at the end where she talks about the origins of this book and she spends quite some time talking about syphilis and the virgin cure.  But not once does she mention that the belief in a virgin cure is still alive today, but that the disease that it is supposed to cure is AIDS.  In my time in Tanzania, there were many girls (some very very young girls) admitted to the hospital after being raped (often by a relative) in an attempt to cure AIDS.  And yet the author talks about the virgin cure as if it is a thing of the past, not as a very real and present thing in the world today.  And so the final pages of the book left a bad taste in my mouth - possibly the reason why it has taken me almost a month to write this.

Anyways, I did not enjoy this book, and I probably won't pick up any of Ami McKay's other books in the future.  I apologize to her multitude of fans out there.

July 5, 2013

Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

This is a book that I have wanted to read for quite some time.  I have heard the author interviewed on CBC radio at several points, and then this was one of the selections for the Canada Reads debates this year.  Though why it was the British Columbia book is beyond me - this book is set, heart and soul, in north-western Ontario.

And that is why I finally picked up a copy.  I am almost finished an 8-month stay in the beautiful town of Kenora, before moving back to Thunder Bay in mid-August.  Richard Wagamese is definitely considered a "local boy" around here, even though he currently lives out in BC.  He is Ojibwe, from Wabaseemoong First Nation (known in English as Whitedog First Nation), a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive north of Kenora.  Since I work in home care and the territory that I cover includes Kenora, west to the Manitoba border, north to Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows, and south to Whitefish Bay, I have become very familiar with the land where much of this book is set.  The main character, Saul Indian Horse is from Wabaseemoong (though it is never mentioned by name - it just talks about a community north of Minaki on the shores of the Winnipeg river), and there are frequent mentions of other communities in this area - Kenora, Minaki, Redditt - as well as communities further east - White River where Saul is sent to school, and Manitouwadge where he eventually settles.  As I said, a book firmly set in north-western Ontario!

I was hooked right from the opening paragraph.  As I was picking up this book to begin, I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone from Whitedog with the last name of Indian Horse - if I were writing a book with a character from Whitdog, I would have given him/her the last name of Muckle or Mandamin.  And there in the opening sentences, "My name is Saul Indian Horse.  I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian horse."  I may have laughed out loud at this point, but I was hooked...

Anyways, on to the story.  The premise will be familiar to anyone who is aware of First Nations / settler history over the past few centuries.  Saul is born in the bush.  His family is divided by traditional beliefs and the Christianity imposed by the European settlers through the residential school system.  His grandmother tries her best to keep him from being taken away from his family and sent to residential school, but in the end, she is not successful.  The full extent of the abuse that Saul suffers at school aren't revealed until close to the very end of the book, and the way in which the abuse unfolds is disturbing.  One thing that did come from his residential school experience is a love and talent for ice hockey, and eventually he has a chance at making a career of it; but due to systemic racism (which is, unfortunately, still very much present today though perhaps less overtly), he ends up leaving hockey behind and deals with his demons in his own way.

This book felt very personal to me, possibly because the stories ring so true.  Through my work, I have been hearing stories from clients about residential schools - the good, the bad, and the ugly if I may borrow a cliche.  I have heard stories about life in Wabaseemoong before the road was built, before the hydroelectric dam flooded much of the land, and before 3 independent communities were forced to co-exist.  I have heard stories of abuse and alcoholism and racism.  And this book does not shy away from any of these stories.  (Just to clarify - I am a physiotherapist, but there is often a lot of conversation and story-telling that goes on during my physiotherapy sessions!)

Despite the decision of the Canada Reads panelists, I do think that this is a book that every Canadian should read.  It is fiction, but it is a fair representation of our Canadian history over the past century that has too-often been hidden away and denied.  And since so many of the issues continue to resonate today, the more that they can be brought out into the open, the better.  Thank you, Richard Wagamese, for sharing this story with the world.

July 4, 2013

The Great Emergence - Phyllis Tickle

For some reason, ever since February, Phyllis Tickle's name kept coming up in conversation, generally by people whose opinion I respect.  And so when I noticed this book among the 16 pages of electives to choose from for the Lay Worship Leader course I am taking, I had to pick it up!  (Incidentally, this will be the last book that I read for the course, as we are finished in a few weeks.  But for this last interval, we had to read 3 electives and I couldn't narrow it down to just 3, so I ordered 8 and still have 5 left on my bookshelf to read!)

Anyways, getting back to this book, anyone in Christian circles these days has surely heard about the "crisis in the church" - shrinking attendance, small or no Sunday Schools, amalgamations, church closures, financial burdens, increasing policies and procedures to follow, aging clergy... the list could go on for quite some time.  What this book does is it takes this so-called crisis and puts it into perspective - both a historical perspective and a cultural perspective.

From a historical perspective, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a ground-shaking earthquake.  Tickle calls this a giant rummage sale - put everything on the table, decide what is essential to keep, and get rid of the non-essential trappings.  500ish years ago was the Protestant Reformation followed by the Roman Catholic counter-reformation.  500ish years before that was the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church dividing from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  500ish years before that was the splitting off of Oriental Christianity (Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian) from Western Christianity, along with the founding of monastic orders.  500ish years before that, Christianity was a renegade off-shoot of main-stream Judaism.  The name given to the upheaval that we are in the middle of is The Great Emergence.

From a cultural perspective, each of these "church rummage sales" has accompanied a massive cultural upheaval.  2000 years ago, it accompanied the Roman Empire and all of the good and bad that went with that.  1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages.  1000 years ago ushered in an age of broadening borders (Vikings and the Norman Conquest anyone?) as well as local fiefdoms.  500 years ago saw expanding scientific discoveries (Copernicus and Columbus) as well as the possibility for a middle class.  And the past century has included another seismic shift from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics, the harnessing of electricity, and internal combustion engines. Is it any wonder that the church has to shift as well?

And that is what I loved about this book.  If you just listen to the media and church board meetings, it may seem like we are seeing the end of Christianity.  But in each of the previous upheavals, the Christianity that has emerged has been more vital, less ossified, and has been able to spread to new geographic and demographic locations.  And so, rather than mourning the death of the church as we have known it (at least for the past 400-500 years), we should be celebrating the fact that we get to be a part of this shift.  I am rejoicing!

In the last section of the book, Tickle tries to predict how the church is going to move in the future, and the model that emerges is quite beautiful.  Flavours of Christianity from across the multi-dimensional spectrum converging around the centre, along with those that resist this convergence moving to the margins and re-defining and re-strengthening their beliefs, and various other points in-between.  It was fun to try and place my own beliefs, as well as those of my church into the model.

If I had one little quibble about this book, it is that it focused on Western Christianity rather than a more global perspective.  As someone who spent a few years involved in the church in another part of the globe (Tanzania), I couldn't quite see how the non-Western perspective would fit into this model.

But a great book overall.  I'm glad that I read it, and it left me filled with hope for the future.

June 2, 2013

Inceptio - Alison Morton

With this blog, I am occasionally contacted by authors and publishers asking to send me books to read and review.  I end up turning down more of these offers than I accept for two reasons:  1)  My to-be-read stack is overflowing and so I don't want to pile it even higher, even if the book is free, and 2)  I don't want to accept books that I don't think that I will like since, fun as it is to write negative reviews, I don't want to be in a position where I have to write a negative review on a book that was given to me for free!

Fortunately, I am not in that situation with this book!

When Alison Morton approached me last winter and offered to send me a copy of Inceptio when it was published, I was intrigued by the concept.  This book is considered to be "Alternative History".  What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen?  What if a faction had left Rome and settled in a corner of Europe, and had created an independent country which had survived and thrived through to today?  I have to say that the Roman period of history has fascinated me since I was young and exposed to novels like Eagle of the Ninth.  In high school, I wanted to learn Latin (my school had the only Latin teacher left in the school board), but I was the only one in the school who wanted to learn Latin and so the class was cancelled.  And so I agreed to receive a copy of this book for review.

It did take me a bit to get into, but I blame this on the fact that I started reading it in the evenings while sleeping in a tent on a weekend filled with 12-hour days of meetings.  When I was able to start reading it for real this week, I was hooked.  I blame this book for too many nights this week spent up waaaay too late reading, since I couldn't put this book down.

The main character, Karen Brown / Carina Mitela has lived her whole life in the country of Eastern United States.  Both of her parents are dead, and she is very self-sufficient in New York City.  But then her world starts falling apart as she is fired due to corruption from the volunteer position that gives meaning to her life; and all of a sudden her life is being threatened.  She then discovers that she can renounce her EUS citizenship and become a citizen of Roma Nova as her mother was from Roma Nova, and she is her grandmother's heir.

I was fascinated with the Roma Nova society.  It is matriarchal - the women have the power, and the eldest female inherits from her mother.  There are elements from ancient Roman society that have carried over, including the gods and the festivals and the language (Latin isn't dead after all!); and yes, prisoners of the state are sentenced to hard labour in the silver mines.  It is a very hierarchical society, and Karen is lucky to have been born into the top layer; however the genders are treated equally, with maybe a slight preference towards females.

And speaking of females, let me say that Karen / Carina was an awesome heroine!  She takes charge of her own life and she does things her way rather than being a pawn - she is a kick-ass (literally, at times) character as she trains her body and her mind and rises to the top of the Roma Nova military (the Praetorian Guard Special Forces).

If I had one complaint about this book it would be that it is almost too action-packed.  It almost felt like 3 or 4 books crammed into one.  Some stretching out of the time in between the action or description of normal day-to-day life in Roma Nova would have been nice.

I was, however, excited to read at the end of the book that there is a second book in the series planned - Perfiditas.

Thank you, Alison Morton for writing this book and for sending me a copy!  It was a treat to read a book that was well written, imaginative, and gripping all in one.

May 20, 2013

Parables: The Arrows of God - Megan McKenna

I really feel as though I don't have much to say about this book.  It was a good book and all, but I still feel as though I am in the middle of a "book hangover" after finishing Quantum Theology which was a great book.  It doesn't feel fair to review the two of them so closely together, as this book will end up with the short end of the stick!

The Lay Worship Leader course that I have been taking is drawing to a close.  We have met for the weekend 5 times over the past year and a half, and our last weekend together will be in July.  Each interval, we have been given assignments which have included reading and reflecting upon 3 books.  Usually, there have been 2 required books and one elective (chosen from a 12-page-long list of books). This interval is slightly different in that all 3 books are electives.  However, as I perused the 12-page-long list, I couldn't decided on only 3 titles from the ones that remained, so I ended up ordering 7 books.  Of those 7, I picked Quantum Theology to read first (I had wanted to read it ever since I spotted the title on the list), and this book to read second.

The book takes a look at several of the parables told by Jesus, and sometimes flips the conventional interpretation completely on it's head.  For me, one of the most important distinctions made by this book is the difference between allegory (items and characters are representative of another item/person/idea), and parable (multiple layers of meaning, multiple interpretations).  This new way of looking at the parables could prove useful to me as I am writing sermons.

But other than that, I don't have much else to say about this book.  It was an easy read and didn't present any roadblocks.  With Quantum Theology, I found myself slowing down half-way through the book, mostly because I didn't want the book to end.  With this book, I read it straight through in a week.

And that is it.  I feel as though I haven't done this book justice by comparing it to the last book I read, but so be it.

May 14, 2013

The Harem - Safia Fazlul

I wanted to love this book; really I did!  When the publisher e-mailed me, asking to send me an e-copy for review, I was intrigued by the premise.  A young girl, raised in a strict household by parents from Bangladesh, within an Asian community located in a large Canadian city (never named as Toronto); asserts her independence by leaving her parents and eventually running an escort agency to try and buy her financial freedom.

A quick note on the format - this is the first time that I have reviewed an e-book on this blog.  I am opposed to e-books both on principle (an electronic copy seems so much less permanent than a physical book), as well as for the reading experience (I like being able to flip around and skim a book with ease).  That being said, I have both the Kobo and Kindle apps on my iPad, but I won't buy e-books.  I use the apps for reading at the gym - I can prop the iPad on the ledge of the machine and it won't fold shut the way a real book will; plus I can make the font size big which makes it easy to read while exercising!  Up until now, I have downloaded anything free from the Kobo and Kindle sites that looks like it will entertain me during my workouts; but most of what I have read in e-format isn't worth a review (with free books, you generally get what you pay for!).

Anyways, back to this book.  I didn't dislike it, but I didn't like it as much as I had hoped for.  Let me try to break it down a bit further...

Things I liked:

The premise.  Lots of the themes covered in this book are ones that I tend to be drawn to in literature.  It is a coming of age story; it deals with the immigrant experience; it points out the class inequality here in Canada.  And I have to say that I have never read a book that involves a group of young women essentially setting up a brothel (OK, a call service) and pimping out other young women.  The idea of the moral and ethical issues that this would present intrigued me.  And for the most part, these expectations were fulfilled.  Especially when the main character's best friend decides to work for them as a prostitute.

The atmosphere.  To me, this book reeked of darkness and rain, with a few bright spots of sunny daytime thrown in for contrast.  Most of the story seems to take place at night, or with the curtains drawn, or in the middle of a rainstorm; and the atmosphere was so well drawn that as I was reading it, I would occasionally look up from the book and out the window (remember that I'm reading this on the elliptical machine at the gym!) and be surprised at the blue sky and sparkling lake right in front of me.

Things I didn't like:

The writing.  I found much of the writing to be clumsy and the language over-wrought, and this did take away from my enjoyment of the book.  A sample picked at random from somewhere in the middle of the book:  "As my tired eyes hover over the stained bowl, I become aware of the mundane sounds of the world out there.  I never before paid attention to the chirping of birds; the tinkling melody of the ice cream truck; the idle prattle from the neighbours.  These sounds come from outside my window, so close.  But I'll never feel part of them again.  I have too many secrets."

The ending.  I felt that the story line and tension built up and built up and built up; and then all of a sudden, boom, story ended.  I found the ending to be particularly unsatisfying.  There were too many threads that tied up too quickly, and too many other threads that were left dangling.

So a mixed review overall.  I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either.  This is Safia Fazlul's first novel, and there was enough about it that was good that I hope that she continues to write.  I feel as though she has a story that she wants to tell, a message that she wants to get out.  I will read any future books that she publishes.  Thank you to TSAR Publications for sending me a copy of this book.

May 11, 2013

Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics - Diarmuid O'Murchu

In order for what I am about to say to make sense, you have to know that I have a very strong aversion to writing in books.  I feel as though books are to be treasured, and making any marks in them decreases their value.  (Yes, I am familiar with the argument that writing in books increases their value - and in neither case does value refer to monetary value!)  I have very few books with any marks in them.

However, when I started reading this book, I found myself reaching for a pen within a couple of pages.  I kept a pen with this book right up until the end.  There was just too much in there that resonated with me.  I found myself underlining phrases and sentences and paragraphs that lingered with me and that I wanted to remember.  My brain was kept busy making connections and references and expanding on thoughts that I kept scribbling phrases and ideas and questions in the margins.  I rarely went more than a page or two in this book without making some sort of mark.

And then a few pages after I started making my marks in this book, I started posting quotes from this book on my Facebook page.  This book was just too good to keep to myself!

When I was in university, I started in the Pre-Physiotherapy program which meant essentially a year of pure sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus) and as long as my grade point average stayed above a certain point, I would then transfer straight into the Physiotherapy program.  There were several points in that year where I thought that if the whole Physiotherapy thing didn't work out, I could quite happily study Physics or Chemistry.  There were points in those classes (once we moved beyond the boring Newtonian Mechanics) when we would be presented with concepts that I found that I couldn't think about directly.  I could think around them, and maybe glance at them sideways through the corner of my eye, and occasionally get a glimpse of something big, something beautiful, something awe-inspiring.  I wanted to dig deeper into those ideas, but then I did get the marks to move into the Physiotherapy program and that was the end of my Physics and Chemistry career!

I think what I'm trying to say is that I have understood for many years - for much longer than I have identified as a Christian - that the world is bigger and more complex and more beautiful and more organized and more random that our puny little human brains will ever understand.  The world is full of mystery, lying just below the surface of what we can perceive.  And yet it is only in the past year or so that I have been able to acknowledge that "mystic" is a large part of my Christian identity.  I find myself getting more and more in touch with the Holy Mystery that is God.

And I suppose that is the main reason why I have never been able to accept that there is any sort of contradiction between science and religion.  The mysterious, the incomprehensible, the awe is a part of both of them.  And after all, if I can accept that light is both a particle and a wave at the same time - a quantum of energy - why can't I accept that Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time?  Interestingly enough, the April edition of The United Church Observer included an article addressing this very same question, with very similar conclusions - Will Science Eventually Explain Everything?

I apologize - this post is straying very far from the book!

The most concise description of this book that I gave to a friend of mine is that it is like a non-fiction version of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series.  There is another writer who saw absolutely no false dichotomy between science and religion!

This book is a seamless melding of the world of Quantum Physics and Theology.  It looks at how science has expanded and developed and evolved over the past century, and how parallels can be drawn with our understanding of God.  Some of the parallels drawn include looking at quarks as a model for the Trinity; a re-telling of the Genesis 1 creation story melded with the big bang creation story; dark matter is as necessary for matter, just as Calvary is necessary for the resurrection; photosynthesis as a cosmic parable; the fundamental importance of light in both the quantum world view and the theological world view.

And now for a few of those quotes I was sharing on Facebook:
"No longer do we understand the earth to exist primarily for the benefit of us humans.  The earth exists to manifest the beauty and grandeur of the creator; it is an "alive" planet with a capacity to grow and survive, endowed with a resilience that we humans cannot match." (p 19)
"Reality is bigger than our ability to perceive and since it grows forever in complexity it will probably always outstretch our imaginations and outwit our intelligence." (p32)
"With two-thirds of humanity struggling to meet basic survival needs and the other third largely preoccupied with accumulating and hoarding wealth, the human capacity for reflection, intuition, and the development of the imagination is at an all-time low." (p126)
"Often it is our fears that cripple us - fear of the new, of letting go of the old, of being challenged, of taking risks, of broadening our visions and horizons.  The call to conversion is an invitation to outgrow our fears and trust ourselves to the unfolding process of life and meaning.  Once we realize that the unfolding process itself is fundamentally benign and benevolent, then we begin to realize the profound meaning of the words:  "Perfect love casts out fear" (1John 4:18)."  (p217)

OK - sorry for the long and rambling post.  I am just so excited to share this book with anyone who will listen!  I am going to celebrate this book by adding a re-read of the A Wrinkle in Time books to my summer reading list.  And possibly by purchasing this t-shirt.

April 7, 2013

The Magic of Saida - M. G. Vassanji

I finished this book about half an hour ago, and want to get this written while the magic was still fresh in my brain.

I discovered this author a few years ago when I read (and loved) The Book of Secrets.  I was excited when I heard that he had a new book coming out last year, and I finally got around to reading it this winter.  (Yes, I know that the calendar says that it is spring, but the snow falling outside my window says differently.)

I actually started reading this book back in February, but made the mistake of starting it on a weekend when I didn't have either the time or the mental energy to do it justice.  It is not an easy read - as with his other books, the writer makes the reader think.  And so it languished on my bedside table until this weekend, when I read the last 2/3 of it almost in one sitting.

One aspect that I really enjoyed in his other books is the structure.  In this book, the story jumps seamlessly between three different times in the main character's life; with the story unfolding like a flower opening up (the peonies that grow at my house back in Thunder Bay come to mind) until the heart of the matter is finally revealed.

One major issue explored in this book is that of identity.  Kamalu (my brain kept wanting to flip the consonants and call him Kalamu - Swahili for pen) is born in coastal southern Tanzania to an African mother and an absentee Indian father.  He is raised as African, though he is never fully accepted by the community around him.  He is later adopted by his paternal uncle in Dar es Salaam, the major port city up north from where he was born.  There, even though he is half-Indian, he is never quite accepted as Indian.  He later emigrates to Canada, along with his Indian bride (born and raised in Dar es Salaam), where he runs a successful medical practice.  At one point, he wonders if his two children would have been any worse off if they had been born and raised in Tanzania.

That is one issue that I have come to terms with.  I feel that culture shock when traveling to foreign countries, as well as reverse culture shock upon returning home, originate in trying to compare one culture to another and rank one as being better than another.  I lived in Tanzania for 3 years (2003-2006), and while I was homesick for Tanzania after returning "home" to Canada, I didn't experience severe culture shock, because I was able to accept that in Canada we have one culture and way of life, and in Tanzania there is another culture and way of life.  One isn't better than the other - they are just different.  I think that has helped me to stay in touch with my Tanzania friends, and to flip back and forth from one culture to another when I have traveled back twice to visit.

Anyways, back to this book!  I may be a bit of a sucker for books set in Tanzania, and this book scratched that itch, placing me right there, with all of the sounds and smells and sights of life in rural Tanzania.  There is a lot of Swahili scattered through the book, and I caught my brain translating the dialogue into Swahili.  Most of the English dialogue felt (to me) as though it had been translated from Swahili into English, with the vocabulary and phrasing that was chosen.  I wonder if this would be as rich to someone who wasn't fluent in Swahili?

As for the plot, there are 3 threads that are woven together, each one dealing with a different period of Kamalu's life.  There is the story of his growing up in the town of Kilwa along with his best friend Saida, moving to Dar, ending up in university in Kampala, and eventually in Edmonton.  Then there is the story of his returning back to Kilwa in middle-age, searching for his mother and especially Saida.  And then there is the story of his recovery from exposure to magic while looking for Saida, and telling the previous stories to an interested companion.

For me, it was the structure of the book, as well as the atmosphere, that compelled me to keep reading (once I was able to devote my full attention to it).  There were times when I felt right back in Tanzania while reading.

And now to celebrate this book, I am cooking Tanzania maharagwe (beans) and wali (rice) for supper, with the maharagwe cooked in coconut milk the way they would be on the coast of Tanzania (though not in the interior where I lived - no coconut trees, minazi, there!).  Though I am cheating and the kidney beans came from a can rather than being cooked for hours over a charcoal stove, and the coconut milk came from a can rather than being grated on a mbuzi ya nazi and soaked in water!

March 20, 2013

Sloppy Firsts - Megan McCafferty

It has been many years since I was in high school, and yet I haven't forgotten feeling like I didn't quite fit in; that I didn't quite get the system.  And all of those feelings were brought back (painfully, at times) by this book.

Jessica Darling is 16 years old, and in her second year of high school.  Her best friend, Hope, has just moved to the other side of the country.  She is intelligent, athletic (long-distance runner), snarky (I secretly loved her snarky comments!), and a social mis-fit.  She tries (at times) to fit in with the group of friends that she and Hope hung out with, but she secretly calls them the Clueless Crew.

The story is told in the first person by Jessica, through journal entries and the occasional e-mail to Hope.  Her voice shone through, and I was rooting for her all the way; while cringing at times with remembrances of my own high school experiences when I was too shy to talk to anyone, longing to be as social as my younger sister, not understanding the high school culture around me, and wanting yet not wanting to fit in.

I had heard about this book for a while, and was loaned a copy last year.  I'm glad that I finally got around to reading it!  There are apparently 5 books in the series, and I am curious enough to find out what happens to Jessica as she grows up that I will probably read them all.  Though I hope that she doesn't change too much - there are some of us so-called-adults who still feel a bit cut off and disconnected from the world around us.

March 12, 2013

Up And Down - Terry Fallis

Terry Fallis is one of those authors whose books I will automatically buy, without knowing anything about the book.  His first two books, The Best Laid Plans and The High Road were laugh-out-loud funny (literally - I wouldn't have been able to read them in public places without causing a disturbance).  And I may have mentioned in a previous post that I got to sit beside Terry Fallis for lunch at the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival a few years back, and he is just as funny in person.

And so Up and Down is his latest offering.  It isn't a sequel to the previous books in that it isn't to do with electoral politics.  This time 'round, he takes on the world of PR.  The opening line says it all.  "Welcome to the dark side."  The main character, David, has recently made the switch from working for the government taking care of the press for the Minister of State for Science and Technology (a real post in the Canadian cabinet), specifically liaising with the Canadian Space Agency (a real agency); to working for a private PR firm in Toronto.  He gets thrown into the fray right from his first day on the job, and ends up heading up a program that will put the first Citizen Astronaut (rather than a professional astronaut) into space.  One thing leads to another, and much hilarity ensues.

Like with his first two books, there is much humour to be found; as well as some over-the-top-improbable situations.  But unlike his first two books, there is more emotional impact in this book.  In his previous books, there was some poignancy with the inclusion of the relationship between Angus and his late wife.  In this book, family dynamics are much more fleshed out in both David's family and in the family of Landon Percival, Canada's first Citizen Astronaut.  This added much more punch to the story.

Things do wrap up very neatly in the end (much more neatly than they would in real life), but that is OK with me since the book isn't intended to be realistic in any way.  It was an easy and enjoyable read, and I will continue to buy any book that Terry Fallis writes!

March 10, 2013

The Witch of Portobello

A bit of history behind my reading of this book.  When it was first published back in 2007, it caught my eye in the bookstore because of the striking cover; but when I picked it up and read the cover blurb it didn't capture my imagination enough to actually read it.  Fast-forward a few years, and for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am taking, we are required to read one novel from the list.  I had already read most of the books on the list, and it includes some that I loved (The Diviners, Good to a Fault, The Life of Pi, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, A Complicated Kindness); others that I had mixed feelings about (The Red Tent, The Shack), and others that I disliked (The Poisonwood Bible, The Stone Diaries, anything by Jodi Picoult).  So when a book that had previously tempted me appeared on that list, and I was struggling to chose a novel anyways, I decided to pick this one up.

I think that part of the reason that I had resisted reading this book is the popularity of the author, and how he is lauded as a great spiritual leader.  Call me cynical, but that made me dig my heels in a bit.  And I'm afraid that reading one of his books hasn't changed my mind.

I think that I was craving / hoping for something deeper, and yet this book made me feel as though it was only scratching the surface without giving any real substance.

I did enjoy how the book is structured.  It is centred around one woman - Sherine, who changes her name to Athena.  It is a fictional biography that is constructed through interviews with people who knew her in one capacity or another.  You get to see Athena through other people's lenses and memories, without her actually making an appearance in the book.

I did not like the ending.  It seemed to build and build with fore-shadowing galore; but then seemed to just fizzle out when I was hoping that it would go out with a bang.

Overall though, I don't think that I will be reading any of this author's other books.

On a more positive note, I am facilitating and participating in a reading challenge on FaceBook, and one of the challenges was to read a book that you chose because of it's cover.  The cover is even more striking in real-life than in the picture; but unfortunately the book didn't live up to it's cover.

February 3, 2013

The emerging Christian Way - ed. Michael Schwartzentruber

Yet another "required reading" for the Lay Worship Leader course!  This one is a series of essays from a variety of writers, all writing from a liberal Christian tradition.

Like any collection, there was variety in the different essays, despite all of them having the same liberal bias.  Some of them I felt more drawn to, some of them I found myself resisting, some of them were unmemorable, and some of them had me adding authors to my list of books that I want to read!

There were a few essays that made me sit back and think.  One entitled "Consider the Lilies of the Field:  How Should Christians Love Nature?" by Sallie McFague gave me a better understanding of why I need to spend time outside.  Another, simply titled "Spiritual Discernment" by Nancy Reeves I found to be enlightening, since this is something that I struggle with.  How do I know if it is God that wants this, or just me?  I hope to read her book on the topic at some point.

Other essays had me resisting them, but I think that it was mostly because of the style of the writing.  "Experience:  The Heart of Transformation" by Tim Scorer I found myself skimming, probably because the author wanted the reader to play along and do an activity while reading the chapter, while I just wanted to read!  Another chapter on "Christian Education and the Imaginative Spirit" by Susan Burt I found to be to unfocused and ramble-y to get anything out of.

And then of course, the chapters on "Radical Inclusion" (Anne Squire) and "Social Justice and a Spirituality of Transformation" (Bill Phipps) had me nodding in agreement all the way through; but I found that I didn't get anything from them since I already agreed with what the authors were saying!

The chapter that troubled me the most was "On Being a Post-denominational Priest in a Post-denominational Era" by Matthew Fox.  For the most part, I agreed with what he was saying, since I myself identify myself as a Christian before any denominational associations; but then when he started listing off the faults of specific denominations (especially the Roman Catholic Church - the author was very hurt by the Roman Catholic church), I felt very uncomfortable.  I thought that I was going to add him to my list of authors that I want to read more of, but by the time I had finished the chapter, I had removed his name from that list.

Anyways, an interesting read nonetheless, for the variety of perspectives presented and topics covered!

January 25, 2013

This United Church of Ours - Ralph Milton

More catch-up happening here!  This was (not surprisingly) the next instalment in the required reading for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am currently taking (2/3 of the way through - I can't believe that we are on the home stretch already!).

This book is a very practical introduction to the United Church of Canada - from governance to theology to practical day-to-day stuff like what worship services might look like.

My honest thoughts?  I wish that someone had given me this book to read 13 years ago when I was new to both church in general and The United Church of Canada specifically.  Or maybe 5 years ago when I started becoming involved with the committees and official board of my church.  At this point, I didn't find that there was anything new for me to learn from this book.

It was an easy read, and if nothing else, it affirmed to me why I choose to be a member of The United Church of Canada.  I am here by choice, not because I was raised here or told to be here.  I love The United Church of Canada, despite (and sometimes because of) it's faults.  We may not do some things well (e.g. sharing our faith), but there is lots that we do do well (e.g. being accepting of and welcoming towards everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from, as well as all of the social justice stuff).

And so that was this book.  If you are curious to learn more about The United Church of Canada I would highly recommend it.  I would also recommend the blog of the current Moderator (national leader) of the United Church, Gary Paterson.  You can find it by clicking here.  He writes very well and provides insight into some of the behind-the-scenes stuff at the national church level, as well as his own experiences traveling the country (leaving family and friends behind) to represent the church.

January 22, 2013

Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols - Madeleine L'Engle

Since I last posted on here, I have had a somewhat last-minute move across the province (this is two cross-province moves in a row that I have made in January - next time I will move in a month that does not involve snow and frigid temperatures!) with some stress involved.  But one of my friends commented that she was sure that I was continuing to read books through the move to review on my blog here, and she was right!  I am a few books behind in reviewing, but let me start with the one that I finished this evening, as it is freshest in my mind.

I love Madeleine L'Engle's books.  I loved her Wrinkle in Time books when I was young (the original trilogy), and have continued to re-read the full expanded series through high school and as an adult.  I have also read some of her non-fiction, which I have found to be equally enjoyable.

This book falls into the non-fiction category.  It was written as she traveled to Antarctica after recovering from a severe car accident that almost took her life.  The basic premise is that an icon is any item that opens our eyes so that we can see God better; and yet if begin valuing it as an item rather than for it's power as a window to God, then it becomes an idol.  Each chapter deals with items or ideas that can be either icons or idols.  (How's that for an alliterative sentence?!).  Expectations, Family Values, Bodies, Stars, Words, The Bible - all of these and more have a chapter dedicated to them.

Each chapter reads almost as stream of consciousness, with one idea leading to the next leading to the next, but eventually relating back to the theme of the chapter.  I loved it for the window into the author's mind that it gave me.  I also think that reading books like this give me a much deeper understanding of how Madeleine L'Engle's theology impact in her fiction.

And in general, I agree with the themes that she emphasizes through the book.  If it isn't love or loving, than it isn't God.  God is mystery - if we can understand God, than it isn't God.  She writes that the penguins in Antarctica, in their vulnerability, became icons for her; and very good icons since it is difficult to turn a penguin into an idol.

If you like Madeleine L'Engles other writing, I strongly suggest that you add this book to your To Be Read stack!

And finally, let me end with a prayer that she ends the chapter on Stars with:

"Maker of the stars, maker of me, I do not understand, but I love you for your love of us, for all of us, for every sparrow, every galaxy, every gnat, every drop of water and all that is within it, universes within universes, and all made by you, with love.

Amen.  So be it.

January 2, 2013

The Imposter Bride - Nancy Richler

As promised, I am catching up on my reviews for books I finished in December!

This was the second of the Giller shortlist that I picked up to read (on the recommendation of a good friend!).  The basic story is of a young Jewish girl from Poland who survives the second world war by stealing identity papers from a girl, Lily Azerov, who had died.  She uses these papers to travel to Palestine (Israel wasn't yet a country).  Her "family" there (who recognize that she isn't who she says she is) help her to arrange a marriage with a man in Montreal.  She travels there, is rejected by her potential groom, and she later marries his brother.  They have a daughter, and when the daughter, Ruth, is a few months old, "Lily" abandons her family.

What made this story stand out to me wasn't so much the plot, but the structure.  There were different threads of plot that were woven together like a blanket.  The story of "Lily" making her way to Canada; the story of the young bride and her young family; the story of Ruth growing up mother-less.  The amazing thing is that even without the hints that some authors like to give at the beginning of chapters, I always knew where I was, as well as who was telling the story, and when.  Beautifully structured!

This structure lead to a gentle and intriguing unfolding of the story.  What happened to the real Lily Azerov?  How did the imposter Lily get ahold of the real Lily's papers?  Why did "Lily" leave her family?  What happened to "Lily" after she left?  Will Ruth and Lily meet up again?  These are the questions that are slowly unravelled that kept me reading.  I found this to be a hard-to-put-down book while I was reading it.

And yet it didn't quite grab me to make a lasting impression.  Three weeks after finishing it, not much of the book, other than the basic plot and structure, has stayed with me.  Not the language, not the writing, not the characters.  It was an enjoyable read, but I suspect that it isn't one that I will go back to in the future.

One thing that I've been thinking about recently, given the past few books I've finished (this book, along with Mornings in Jenin), is the situation in Palestine / Israel.  One theme shared by the two books is the world-wide guilt following the Second World War and the treatment of Jewish people not only in Europe but around the world.  This collective guilt led to the support for the formation of the country of Israel in 1948, and even today leads to things like the recent handful of votes at the United Nations (including from my country - I was ashamed to be Canadian that day) attempting to deny Palestine "observer-status" at the UN.

One final thought on this book, and that is the spelling of "imposter" in this title.  I didn't even think about it until I was typing up this post and my computer spell check keeps highlighting that word as mis-spelt.  I looked it up, and apparently both "imposter" and "impostor" are equally acceptable, with "impostor" being slightly preferred.  I wonder why the author chose to spell it "imposter" in the title?

January 1, 2013

Favourite Books of 2012

Even though I'm a few books behind in terms of reviewing, I'm going to keep with tradition and come up with a list of my favourite reads of 2012.  Same rules as usual - it doesn't matter when the book was written, but I have to have read it for the first time in 2012.  Any genre counts.  And this is a purely subjective list!  So here goes, with links to my reviews...

1.  Say to this Mountain (Ched Myers) - this was one of my elective books for the Lay Worship Leader course that I am taking, but had a very profound impact on me.  I've found myself turning back to it on a regular basis since I read it back in March.

2.  Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking (Susan Cain) - as an introvert myself, this book gave me a new lens through which to view the world around me.

3. 419 (Will Ferguson) - my favourite fiction read of the year, and deserving (in my opinion) of the Giller Prize that it won.

4.  Still Alice (Lisa Genova) - cliché, I know, but I enjoyed this book and keep on recommending it to people I meet.

5.  Mornings in Jenin (Susan Abulhala) - a beautiful, heartbreaking book that again changed my perspective on the world - in this case, the situation in Palestine and Israel.

6.  Little Bee (Chris Cleave) - another cliché, but a book that manages to be funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

7.  In One Person (John Irving) - people either love John Irving's books or hate them.  I happen to be in the faction that loves them.  So of course, his latest is going to be on my list.

8.  Adventures in Solitude (Grant Lawrence) - a memoir about growing up on the west coast.  Solitude vs. loneliness.  I am a big fan of solitude.

9.  Death Comes to Pemberley (P. D. James) - one part Jane Austen, one part P. D. James - who wouldn't love this book!

10.  Arranged (Catherine McKenzie) - I discovered this author this year and read two of her books - I'm not usually a fan of "chick-lit", but books like these keep me coming back to the genre to give it another try.

A few notes:

  • I struggled a bit to come up with this list.  My 2012 reading was filled a lot with reading for the course, interspersed with fluffy books to give my brain a break.  But I still managed to read some gems this year!
  • I think that this is the first year that a non-fiction book has placed in the #1 position on my list.  And in the #2 spot.  I have been doing more non-fiction reading this year than usual (given the course), though with only 3 out of my top 10 being non-fiction, I don't think that they were proportionally represented here.
I finished up 2 books in the past few weeks and still have to get some reviews posted - maybe later this week.  Plus I did go on a boxing-week book-buying spree, so have a fresh stack of books on my TBR stack!

Happy New Year to everyone, and may your 2013 be filled with lots of time for good books!