Saturday, September 30, 2006

Leah McLaren, The Continuity Girl, 2006.

I read McLaren's column each week in the Globe. I am... more of Russell Smith's camp, when it comes to how I feel about McLaren. She writes of a world that I don't wish to be part of, but does it with sufficient verve and insight that I read the column.

The story is that of Meredith Moore, a script supervisor--who manages to get fired twice--desperate to have a child, belaboured with hippy and wacky mother, heavy-drinking unstable friend, and an odd relationship with her gynecologist. Yes, you read that correctly: and yes, such a summary should be enough to convince you not to read the book. Just to reinforce that conclsion, I will say the following.

The book is trite, and unimpressive. I'm not a fan of the term chick-lit, or the ubiquitous references to Sex & the City (Toby Young's blurb on the back cover reads "Leah McLaren is Canada's Carrie Bradshaw and a wit for the ages."), but I'm at a loss for describing the book in any other terms. It is disposable, relies heavily on more than one happy deus ex machina, and reads like a month-old, four-times warmed-over version of Twelfth Night.

So. Waste of time, could have been reading something good, and far too long an entry on such a book. Now, to go re-read The Undertaking for a paper.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Michael Schwartzentruber, ed., The Emerging Christian Way, 2006. Contributions from Marcus Borg, Tim Scorer, Tom Harpur, Thomas Berry, Sallie McFague, Matthew Fox, Bruce Sanguin, Anne Squire, Bill Phipps, Mack MacLean, Bruce Harding, Susan Burt, Donald Grayston, Nancy Reeves, and the editor.

This is a decent collection of essays. It's one of those books that didn't particularly grab me, because I've read chunks of most of these authors before, and none of them really said anything new or dramatic--which is only to be expected, given that many of these pieces have been previously published elsewhere.

I enjoyed Borg's piece more than most of his books that I've read, perhaps because it articulates quite clearly a vision for which I have great sympathy, of faith-in-action, working to bring about the reign of God.

Harpur was Harpur, talking about the historic creeds as stumbling blocks, and the need for creeds more based on a faith that stresses the nature of our relationship with God as transformational. I thought that his offering of a new creed was weak, though he is clear that it's only a starting point. (A better couple of possible starting points, to my mind, can be found in the New Zealand prayer book.) Matthew

Fox's piece struck me as self-serving and egocentric. Bill Phipp's essay was quietly interesting, and worth further thought.

Grayston's thoughts on pastoral care--and really, about faith development--might well be the best thing in the book.

All in all, it's a spotty collection. It's one of those books to dip into, to get myself thinking, but not something that offers a lot of framework or leading ideas, nor really, anything but the questions I bring.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 2004.

W-- recommended this book to me, back in May, and I've been meaning to read it all this time. The book is beyond genius. It's one of the best things I've read in ages, though in many ways, it's unrelentingly bleak. It's hard to escape a line that appears near the end that in many ways sums up the nature of the stories in the novel: Mitchell quotes from the Aeneid, and writes "sunt lacrimae rerum". The line in context is from 1.426: "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt", "these are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart."

It's not a happy book, but it's ingenious. A series of six stories, like nestled Russian dolls--an image that comes up in the book more than once, and to which Mitchell refers in this interview--they're intricately linked. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" turns out to be a torn book in the second story, "Letters from Zedelghem", and so on to the central story "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", and then back out again. Described in this way, the novel sounds precious, and hard to read: too intentionally post-modern to be of interest. It's anything but. Each of the six stories is compelling. They're allusive, and post-modern, to be sure, but intriguing and brilliantly told. I had a great deal of trouble putting the book down, especially as I read through the second, concluding parts of each story. Each one is fascinating, though I think I enjoyed "An Orison of Somni-451" and "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" the best.

At any rate. Go forth, and read. It's an amazing book, and I can't wait to read more Mitchell.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Philip Pulman, the trilogy "His Dark Materials":
The Golden Compass (1995, in Britain Northern Lights)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000).

I'd hesitate to call this brilliant fantasy series children's literature, as it seems to be received (the library copies I've read have bright, fluorescent green stickers that read "Teen"). Early on, you get brilliant descriptions of cultures that practice trepanation, and the books never seem to condescend. Pulman assumes that the reader, of whatever age, is going to be able to learn about this world akin to ours but so radically different.

The first book starts with Lyra, in Oxford, and her world changing around her. Children are disappearing, and Lyra is taken away from the College in which she grew up by Mrs. Coulter. She runs away, and is swept up with gypsies, and the story swirls through the remainder of the book and throughout the next two. The fantasy world revolves around the idea of many worlds, separated only slightly, and transitions between the various worlds. The story swirls around Lord Asriel, seemingly Lyra's uncle, who makes war on the Authority who is running the world. Describing the story, I feel the urge not to give anything away, and so I can't speak in more than generalities.

It's an incredibly well-written series. The allusions to Paradise Lost seem endless, but the story is clever, well-structured, well-told. The idea that the story is anti-Christian is patently ludicrous. There's a brilliant moment that I'll share that I'm still thinking about, about the nature of faith:
He closed the book.
"And that was how sin came into the world," he said, "sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons became fixed."
"But..." Lyra stuggled to find the words she wanted: "but it en't true, is it? Not like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn't really an Adam and Eve? The Cassington Scholar told me it was just a kind of fairy tale."
"The Cassington Scholarship is traditionally give to a free-thinker; it's his function to challenge the faith of the Scholars. Naturally he'd say that. But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can calculate all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it."
(The Golden Compass 327)

Read these three books. They're well worth the time.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 1997.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this book since I read it back in May. It sat at my desk at work all summer, waiting for me to write about it. Of course, I’d been meaning to read the book for two years before I got around to it—ever since I heard the idea of Open Space mentioned by my friend Stephen, quite a space back now.

Put simply, open space technology is designed to get the people who care about particular ideas talking to one another with the goal of action. It’s quite a simple idea, really, and is quite profound as many simple ideas really are.

Basically, one has a theme. The theme is shared in a large open space, and people create sessions, and move between the sessions as they feel called. The organizing principle is that the right people show up to the right sessions at the right times. It's called the Law of Two Feet: if you're not contributing to a discussion, or getting something out of it, you're in the wrong discussion, and should move to another. Four ideas come from that:

  • Each person who comes to a discussion is one of the right people to be there

  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened

  • Whenever it starts, it starts at the right time

  • When it's over, it's over

If people thought like that more of the time, I'd have fewer painful meetings to sit through! Owen goes into detail about how to run such a conference, and offers some intriguing guidance, mostly in the form of stories about a variety of experiences in such a setting.

The idea of open space is fascinating, and I very much want to see it in an effective setting. The book impressed me enough that I mentioned it to my boss’s boss in my exit interview, as we were talking about how to get a group of people to move forward with ideas. Open space is really about taking responsibility to articulate ideas, and then to implement them: Owen’s book is well worth a read. I’m glad I bought it.