Sunday, September 11, 2005

Anne Hines, The Spiral Garden, 2005.

A Globe & Mail review from the same week as One Foot in Heaven pointed me to this book.

So. First of all, the basic plot is as follows: the Rev. Ruth Broggan, a (it's called something else, but it's quite obviously) United church minister moves--not of her own volition--to a much smaller and older church in Toronto than where she had been. She's met by inertia, not all that unusual for a parish: the parish is quite set in its ways, and resists any ideas she has for growth. She feels caught, snagged in a mire that seems hard to escape. The depth of her isolation is brought home in part by the way the story is told: what we read are her EMails and letters, her sermons and her thoughts--and we don't see replies thereto, but do read of her wanting to hear more from her friends, all of whom are at a distance. The story at this point is poignant, and seems to accurately capture the difficulties and challenges that face a minister who doesn't seem to meet the people of her congregation where they are. Perhaps the most interesting moment, for me, is when Ruth speaks of a talk with a neighbouring rabbi:
"As the rabbi got up to leave, he said, 'Well, if there's any way I can return the favour, just let me know.' And I said, 'Actually, there is a way. You can tell me how we know there really is a God.'" (79).
His response isn't what Ruth wants to hear, doesn't really help her--but the way the story is told, we know that not much can help Ruth. She retreats into her manse, promising to stay there until God speaks to her.

Then the television cameras and the reporters arrive on her lawn.

Much of the rest of the book is told--again in notes and messages, EMails and short and scattered writings--from the perspective of the people affected by her absence, and then her re-emergence. This section is where the book gets weird. The first part is almost a neat study of parish dynamics, and the second is an odd mix of hagiography and a postmodern, new-age-y mélange of feel-good, non-denominational (and inter-religious) spirituality. There's little I can say about this section without revealing too much, but there are some moving bits despite the oddness.

One of my favourite bits in this section are Kit's diaries. Kit is one of Ruth's best friends, who unrequitedly and erotically loves Ruth, and tells of what must be simultaneously both a lovely and a frustrating return of agape. The diaries are moving in their depiction of an interesting and thoroughly self-involved woman. The book then comes to an ending that is both unexpected and the only possible ending for such a story; I felt it to be thoroughly unsatisfying.

The book is very well written, and I'm glad I picked it up. I did, however, enjoy the first and more realistic part of it much more than the second that wanders into a weird example of magic realism that never quite anchors itself in a world other than our own, nor adequately critiques this world.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, 1998.

I've been reading this book for what seems like a VERY long time--it's been renewed at least three times, and is about a week overdue from HPL, and has been making me feel guilty. W--. from church recommended it to me, and I've greatly enjoyed it, though it's a very slow read indeed. Thank heavens for two long flights, or I'd still not be done. I need a copy of my own of this book.

At any rate. I've been reading the Desert Fathers quite a bit, and so this book fit neatly into that, and helped me to think a bit about the apophatic tradition. Lane is quite good indeed at exploring the subject matter of the book--quite well summarized in its title--and I especially enjoyed the way he wove his personal experiences and ruminations together with a very careful and clear academic treatment of the various sub-topics. The stories of his life and some of its troubles add a great deal of valuable contextual material to the book that form a lens through which I found it easier to make sense of the history and theology being explored.

Lane's basic argument is that "fierce" landscapes encourage an apophatic response, a rejection of imagery of God, and a focus on interaction with God that is, if not more intense, more specific. He argues that the landscapes in which we live form a habitus: that they influence the way we pray and the way in which we experience God. Much of the book shows different ways in which this process occurs, and explores it in detail. The book is certainly centred on the historical Christian church, though there is some limited treatment of mysticism in the Sufi and Jewish traditions.

It's a great read, if slow-going at times. I need a copy.

A few representative bits:

There's a rare snow leopard at the Saint Louis Zoo,
a trapped lion of the tribe of Judah. I seldom stop
to look at the cage; it seems to painful an intrusion.
I sometimes wonder at what price rare animals should
be preserved from extinction. It's enough for me
that a few of these great beasts still stalk the high
country of the Himalayas, like ancient griffins and
dragons roaming free and seldom being seen. The memory,
the story is enough. (85)

For Meister Eckhart, this involved meeting--like Moses--the
One who is without name, who is a denial of all names.
While this may sound like a repudiation of any speech
whatever about God, in none of these writers does the
task of negation dissolve into a simple anti-intellectualism.
Reason is essential to the work of affirming and negating
all that is and is not God, but the vehicle within us by
which we finally meet God is the human will, our naked
intent. Thought may help us locate the mountain, but faith
is what finally makes the ascent. (108)

Garrison Keillor has described himself as a storyteller
"telling lies" about places that don't exist. Yet he
views that very act as an exercise in faith. Artfully
imagining nonexistent realms expresses a yearning for the
Kingdom of God.
The reason you tell lies about a wonderful place is
that you believe thatif you get every detail right--
absolutely right, and every character in that story
has exactly as many hairs on his or her head as he's
supposed to have--that if you get it absolutely perfect...
you will be lifeted up out of this life and you will
be set down in that wonderful place that you've told
lies about. And all your lies become true.
He keeps telling stories with the hope that ultimately he'll
be able to live his way into them. That's why we all love
tales that give form to a world that is not yet here. (143-44)

Having once known the desert in a way as intimate as this,
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry could never again succumb to the
naiveté of desert romanticism. Those of us whom the
desert has never touched find it much easier to imagine only
the beauty and glory of desert spirituality, thumbing our way
through old copies of Arizona Highways and dreaming of
desert retreats. We suppose arid and empty terrain to be
naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation.
But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn't
give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost
infinite. It was precisely this sense of danger and disregard
that fed the spiritual vigor of early desert monasticism.
There is an unsolicitous and ungenteel quality about
the desert Christians that makes them especially attractive
in our current climate of sentimentalized, "feel good"
spirituality. The spiritual life extolled in popular religious
circles today is eminently unexceptionable, generically
inoffensive, and (almost without exception) culturally
correct. We too often substitue amiability for friendship,
agreeableness for dialogue, pleasantry for compassion. The
acrid smell of the desert is lost.
By contrast, one has to consider the surly, discourteous
piety of the desert fathers and mothers. They were "resident
aliens" in a world that fostered gentility and comfort. They
simply did not fit. As Bruce Berger observes, "the desert
notoriously harbors the loner, the misfit, the only child."
It attracts a people who are downwardly mobile, often
cantankerous, ill at ease in polite society. Shun the city
and all of its niceties, growled Jerome from his desert lair.
His Christianity required the harsh solace of open spaces. (187)

Again, it was a superb book, and I was very grateful indeed to W--. for bringing it to my attention. It makes me wonder about a Canadian, a southern Ontario habitus, not à la the trite-ly overused garrison mentality that's so often misused, but something else. I'm not sure what that is, but it's certainly an interesting thought to live with for the next while.

Friday, September 02, 2005

David Waltner-Toews, One Foot in Heaven, 2005.

This book may be the best thing I've read that Jim Bartley's "First Fiction" column in the Globe & Mail's Books section has reviewed since Kelly Cooper's Eyehill last summer. Well, this book and Stephen Marche's Raymond and Hannah.

Bartley's reviews are always worth reading, and he finds some treasures. Waltner-Toews' collection of linked stories is breathtaking, the sort of book for which the cliché "I couldn't put it down" accurately describes.

I did find the book a bit difficult to get into. It's very much the product of a Mennonite culture, with worries and concerns that seem exaggerated to me because of the differences between that culture and the one in which I was raised, so I found it difficult to relate to the characters at first. It's odd, though, that my feeling that slipped away. By "Mennonite Baking", I was hooked. It's a beautifully structured story of a young love affair conducted almost entirely through notes, and that is closely linked with the tactile experiences of baking. It's simply brilliant.

The book's back trumpets a snippet of Rudy Wiebe's review: "insightfully, profoundly human," and while I'm normally inclined to snark at such reviews, this happens to be a good description. Waltner-Toews has an eye for people and how they are, how they live, how they think. He never patronises his characters. I'm convinced he must have an impressive pastoral relationship with any animals and their caretakers for whom he's served as a vet--and his clinical, careful attention to detail and ability to present the story in such a compelling way makes me think he must be very good as an epidemiologist.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Dance of Death, 2005.

A nice bit of pulp. Pendergast's evil younger brother emerges as a master criminal, Pendergast and D'Agosta try to stop Diogenes before it's too late. Things snowball badly. To say more would reveal too much.

Far from anything special, this book's an enjoyable and quick little read.