Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mike Nickerson, Life, Money & Illusion: Living on Earth as If We Want to Stay, 2006.

Is the way we think about and use money the root of the problems we face as we try to live on our planet in a sustainable way? Nickerson’s (difficult to obtain) book makes a good case to answer that question with a resounding “Yes!”

He argues that conventional economic analysis makes fundamental assumptions that are wrong, and ignores the consequences. Nickerson puts it this way: economics is three-fifths of ecology. Economics concerns itself with “Materials / Processing / Distribution”; Ecology concerns itself with “Natural Resources / Materials / Processing / Distribution / Waste” (124). An economic outlook assumes that the other two aren't important, aren't relevant--an outlook which can lead to all sorts of problems. As just one example: when we think about, say, iPods, Apple tends to worry about obtaining the materials needed to make iPods, making them, and then selling them. Our economic systems don’t encourage Apple to worry about minimizing the use of non-renewable natural resources, or using less renewable resources than can be replenished within the product’s life cycle. Our systems also don’t encourage the concern with safely reclaiming those resources, while minimizing the amount of energy consumed in the entire process. In fact, our systems encourage the opposite: Apple’s shareholders would sell stocks if Apple’s profits don’t continue to grow the company. So, a new version of the iPod gets released each year, and are encouraged by advertising to get the latest—the nano, the video, etc. I’m picking on Apple, but Nickerson’s argument is that this problem is systemic. We measure the well-being of a country by its GDP, and that needs to grow each year. (He makes some interesting points about better measuring systems, too.) Our debt-based money systems and need for compound interest to work as it does (and oh, how timely this seems, given the current crisis with the subprime mortgage issue) encourages us to ignore the other two-fifths of ecology, to continue to use more and more natural resources and to ignore the reclamation of materials.

Nickerson’s book is eminently readable, but it’s complex. He teaches well, and explains the difficult economic concepts which he engages. It’s a book that, whether you know economics well or not (and it’s an area in which I’m weak), will take some time to read because it challenges learned and ingrained presuppositions about things we tend to take for granted—how money works, and so forth. I picked it up because my friend Yaacov recommended it to me, and it’s rewarded my time. It is a persuasive argument that illuminates problems and offers some suggestions about how we might move—and at that, largely within local communities—-toward transforming our world that we may live on it in a sustainable way. It’s a book that will be of interest to anyone concerned by environmental issues; it’s a book that should be read by nearly everyone.

It won’t be, of course, because it challenges accepted wisdom. Moreover, it uses rhetoric like “Global Monopoly Game” in ways that will put off a number of readers. It’s too sloppy with sources. It would be stronger if many of the facts Nickerson relies upon were cited; it would be stronger if the sources he does use weren’t as likely to be perceived, by those who will disagree with his conclusions, as biased themselves. These weaknesses, though, don’t make me hesitate in recommending this book to anyone and everyone.

I am going to end this blog entry by quoting a key set of eight ideas. More information is available at the Sustain Well Being site.

Well-being can be sustained when activities
1) use materials in continuous cycles.
2) use continuously renewable sources of energy.
3) come mainly from the qualities of being human.
(i.e. creativity, communication, movement, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development).

Long term well-being is diminished when activities
4) require continual inputs of non- renewable resources.
5) use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
6) cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
7) require resources in quantities that undermine other people’s well-being.
8) lead to the extinction of other life forms.

You’ve read this far. Take another moment to answer Nickerson’s four questions about these principles (349):
  • Is this what we mean by sustainability?
  • If it is not, upon what point(s) do we disagree?
  • For what reasons?
  • Is there anything missing?

I’d add two more questions:
  • what can we change about how we live as individuals to live within these principles?
  • how can we advocate for systemic changes that every human lives within these principles?

I also, before ending this now rather long blog entry, want to quote two sentences that better illuminate principle number three.
...our well-being thrives on the things that come from exercising our own living selves: our senses, our relationships, our creativity, our understanding, and our imagination. These things are the stuff from which ourselves are made.(45)

It’s hard to argue with Nickerson when he makes so much sense, as he does for most of the book. Whether you agree with his point of view and his arguments or not, engaging in this debate is worthwhile. Read his book.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stephen Marche, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, 2007.

It’s taken me a long time to come to blog about this book. My normal pattern is to blog quickly; this site is, after all, a reading journal, and I’m trying to catch first thoughts and initial impressions rather than trying to write careful reviews or essays.

I think this book is particularly challenging to write about because I enjoyed it and disliked it. It’s very clever: it purports to be an anthology of fiction (and some criticism) by the North Atlantic island of Sanjania, edited by Marche. By the time you’ve finished reading it, you have a very good sense of what life was like on the island (through at least to the 1960s, when you start to have a sense of what emigrant experience is like). Some of the stories are better than others, but they’re all at least interesting, and so the book held my attention, despite being read across a couple of weeks.

If you have a degree in English, you’re likely to have read such an anthology (of a non-fictional place’s literature), at some point, and the tone of Marche’s editor’s voice and notes is spot on. The stories work together, and reflect a care of selection: indeed, Marche says in one interview that he wrote many more stories, and that this work really is an anthology.

The problem is that the conceit wears thin. [A friend responded to me describing it in a phrase I’m loathe to repeat, but the essence was him suggesting that only pretentious CanLit types would ever pick up the book in a first place. It’s a fair cop.] As intriguing a place as Sanjania is, with its capital city and remote, isolated cove towns—and I would dearly like to visit it—the fiction isn’t sufficiently captivating. The book, ultimately, is not one I expect I will reread, unlike his brilliant first novel, Raymond and Hannah. So. Give this one a miss.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, 2007.

I’ve been fond of Alberto Manguel since first reading A History of Reading. I’m not a fan of his fiction, but his expository work is brilliant, so I was excited to hear that he is giving this year’s Massey lectures. The public lectures began this past Friday; they’ll be broadcast on Ideas in early November (the 5th to the 9th). In the midst of the scheduled lectures are some readings, and I’m looking forward to hearing one, at McMaster next Monday (tickets available from Bryan Prince Bookseller). His argument is that stories offer insight to help us with in the political arena in which we lead our lives.

The first lecture introduced me to Alfred Döblin. Manguel draws a comparison between Döblin and Cassandra, the prophet who was so cursed as not to be believed: Döblin, he suggests, offers a view to a better future through his writing, but is ignored. At the heart of the lecture is one question: what role do stories play in our societal conversations about what society ought to be?
Manguel’s asserts
Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all, they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of underlying currents and depths. (9-10)

Stories can do this because of how they use language. Because unlike “the limiting imagination of bureaucracies”—-and, with them, the limited use of language—-stories “can oppose an open, unlimited mirror-universe of words to help us perceive an image of ourselves together” (27), and thus allow us to build/rebuild/move toward a new organisation possible because of the maker’s craft.

I don’t think it’s an especially easy argument to follow, or to which assent can be readily given. It’s often highly reminiscent of a simple reading of Matthew Arnold, that poetry can be our salvation in a secular world. Manguel is—-appropriately—-much more cautious, but his lectures offer a vision of the prophetic role which literature can play in our, in which language and possibility are too often diminished and ill-used. I am, though, a sympathetic audience.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.

I picked up Bryson’s book—having been urged to read it for some time now—-in the airport in Glasgow, because I had nothing I wanted to read on the flight home.

Bryson’s book won’t teach you anything you didn’t know, detail-wise, about science if you’re remotely interested in science. So why read it? My answer is that it gave me two things: a light-hearted and amusing look at some of the back-stories that lie behind scientific discovery (and in particular, a view of interesting personalities), and a renewed appreciation for the sense of scale in a scientific approach to the world. The first is light-hearted fun. The second is at turns a delightful reminder of our human egocentrism that allows us to neglect both the vast number of things left to be discovered and the sheer complexity of what we do know; and at others a scary reminder of the precariousness of human life (be it in terms of axial tilt, ice ages, super-volcanoes, diseases, mutation, …). All in all, if you like science, it’s a pleasant read—I bothered to finish it upon my return, albeit slowly—after starting it late in the plane ride following a Robert Ludlum divertissement.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, 2006.

This novel is the first time I've read Desai. I heard of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, but I haven't picked it up. In fact, I don't know what prompted me to pick up The Inheritance of Loss. Some of my friends make it a habit to read the Booker winners (and nominees), but it's never been one of my habits.

It's an odd book. There are gorgeous moments of lyrical prose, but the book feels almost too composed. It begins in medias res; its plot lines are slight and ephemeral. Ostensibly, the story revolves around Sai, who goes to live with her grandfather when her parents are killed. In India, near Nepal, Sai, her grandfather, and the cook have the shape of their lives changed dramatically as the Gorkha National Liberation Front begins to push for a separate Gorkha state. Interwoven into this context is the story of the cook's son, an illegal immigrant in New York City. There are major plot points: Sai falls in love with her maths tutor, who falls in with the GNLF. The lives of their neighbours are shifted and turned upside down by the GNLF. We see the history of the grandfather, as he studies at Cambridge, and returns to be a member of the Indian Civil Service as a judge. We see his own tortured marriage. To my reading, though, the story is less important than the atmosphere, and the books that Desai shows Sai and Noni and Lola (two neighbours) reading themselves point to the greater importance of milieu than of plot. It is a story of a particular place at a particular time, and how people living their lives are swept up by, or have their lives changed by, the events going on around them that they themselves might prefer to have remain peripheral.

It's an intriguing book, and a quick read. I'm certainly glad I picked it up. It's not, though, one I think I'll return to.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007.

Do you not know what happens in the book yet? If you don't want to know, don't read this blog entry. I'm not much for summarizing plot, but I'm not going to conceal it. Deal with your own issues elsewhere.

This blog entry is in two parts.

Part I: The book itself.
A writer to Salon commented that Rowling's prose is sturdy. It's unexceptional, but it's fun and it suits the purpose. It's not Tolkien, and it's not art. It is quite entertaining, though. An associate writes that much of the book is filler, as Ron and Hermione and Harry wander through England without a real plan. It's dull. Note to JKR: not having an editor? Dumb idea on your part. There are moments of levity, but most of the book is an attempt to be as well-done with the chapter ending cliff-hangers as is a novel by Dan Brown; Rowling doesn't do it as well. Harry's death is poorly written; the train station scene ludicrous. The entire situation lacks the pathos needed. The fights through the climax are fine, but I have the sense that characters were introduced in other books so I'd care that they're killed off now; with few exceptions, I was not much moved. Ho hum.
The part which I found baffling was the postlude set 19 years into the future, with a happily married Harry, complete with three kids. I recognize that some people aren't happy unless they know everything turns out well, but the postlude was just silly.
The book is quite good for children's pulp.

Part II: Spoiler silliness

Right. Anyone remember the beginning of Romeo and Juliet?

Chor. Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The eminent playwright begins the play by telling you EVERYTHING that will happen. I don't remember people being upset about this when Luhrman's version was splashed on movie screens across the globe. Yet, for the last months, there has been inch after inch of copy filled with news of the embargo on this book. Who's been feeding spoilers? There's surely a special hell for those people!

I have no sympathy for this crap. What happens is never as important as how it happens. Little Nell dies, people. So does Smike. If you missed it being telegraphed when they were first introduced, it doesn't matter. The HOW matters, and that's the point of the sonnet I've quoted above. I've grown weary of the idea that knowing what happens "spoils" what is to come. That's just not the way books have ever worked for me. /rant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Benjamin Constant, Adolphe, first version published in 1816.

The eponymous protagonist falls in love with Ellenore, a woman who is the secure mistress of Comte de P.--; he woos her, and she leaves the Count. The two characters are then unhappy until Ellenore’s death.

That’s actually how short Constant’s supposedly semi-autobiographical novel seems. There’s little action. Nearly every word is Adolphe reflecting on what is happening, rather than him describing the plot. There are moments of great beauty, but I found it hard at times to connect with the musings because they were often so detached from the plot. Adolphe speaks, time and again, of his weakness, and his inability to break things off with Ellenore, but most of those words felt forced to me, and lacked much in the way of passion. I do think a better than passing understanding of how society worked in the time period might well help me the better to connect, but this novel seems more ripe for a good Merchant Ivory film adaptation than for me to reread it, slight though it was.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Martin L. Smith, The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, 1989.

I had this book recommended to me by my spiritual director quite a space back, and on first glance, fell in love with it. I read the first chapter, thought that it was bang-on, and then school interrupted my reading. I took advantage of another educational moment to read it in its entirety, and its initial lustre seems to have faded for me.
Smith begins with a relaxed and informal introduction to what prayer can be, how it can be the placing of ourselves into a position from which we can more easily listen for the movement of the Spirit in our lives. He engages and makes sense of popular misconceptions, and attempts to de-mystify prayer while retaining a sense of its necessity and rewards.
It’s the second part of the book that disappointed me. While the ideas are sound, I found myself reacting against the book: Smith feels prescriptive as he outlines meditation, lectio divina, and contemplation as options for prayer. Unsurprisingly, he privileges stillness in a way as to make my kinetic self deeply uncomfortable.
I need to give some of his ideas a fair chance, but this book is unlikely to be the wondrous tool for merging encountering scripture and prayer together that I at first hoped it would be. I think it's likely a great book for people who are just encountering these ideas for the first time, or for whom stillness is more likely to be a rewarding part of their prayer life, than it was for me.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Reread: Raymond and Hannah by Stephen Marche. I have little to add, since my last reading of the book a few years back. I picked it up off the shelf a couple of weeks back to read from, just to skim, as I was waiting for L- to be ready for us to go off somewhere. I kept reading. I really do think that, overall, the book is very good. It captures lust, longing, and love--or at least, with regards to the latter, its absence--so ridiculously well that Marche remains on my Keats List. Hmph.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon, 1984.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve reread this book. I just so enjoy falling back into Howard’s world, as he puzzles out the seven siblings who “farm” various aspects of life in the town in which his family lives. It’s one of those wacky bildungsromans that can only happen in a brilliant fantasy world that is so closely tied to reality and yet so far from it at the same time. Part of my fascination is that I identify with Howard, as he daydreams and constructs spaceships in his head; part of it is that I long for adventure and mystery. Plus, a goon just sounds like fun.
How can one dislike a book that begins by identifying facts it will prove? They're not boring and trivial facts, either, but are essential and life-changing facts like “All power corrupts, but we need electricity” and “It pays to increase your word power.” Like most of Wynne Jones’ books, this one is fun and silly, and repays rereads. A nice divertissement.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, 2007.

Dillard’s novel is elegant and spare. It is, in fact, so spare as to lack much of a plot: rather it is a story of two lives, intertwining and growing apart and back together in unexpected ways. Much like her essays, the telling of the story uses detailed observations woven together with allusions and direct reference to ideas, poems, and stories, and almost all conclusions are left for the reader to discern.

It’s an intriguing book, slow-paced and told by a narrator content to jump ahead in time and then back again, as she traces the course of lovers who fit together and yet jar at the same time. Her depiction of Cape Cod is stunning in its detail, but more stunning still is Dillard showing life: offering facts without drooling admiringly over love, she allows the reader to come to a sense of what it is to live: how one finds and pursues avocation, and how one relates to the others in life. The novel is delightful; I don’t think it will find a wide audience. It circles away from its story, and reveals in ways so apart from the norm that I think it would take, if not a fan of Dillard’s work, at least a determined reader to move through its economy of telling two lives. Like all Dillard, though, it challenges the reader to grow into something more: it’s a wonderfully revealing prism into what I—and you—believe life to be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves, 1994 (this collection).

I find it onerous to try to write anything sensible about a book by Calvino, even after reading slowly and carefully. This difficulty troubles me all the more because I greatly enjoy Calvino’s ethereal writing that both reveals and obfuscates, that shares inner motives and outer details but hides an essential and unnameable aspect of the stories and draws me in yet deeper. I could cheat, and quote the happy text on the back of the book:
an almost miraculous balance between the real and the imaginary, the familiar and the fabulous. Calvino transforms the lives of ordinary people into brilliant explorations of intricate interior worlds. Blending reality and illusion with elegance and precision, he weaves into his writing instants of recognition in which he cherishes deceptions and illusions of love swept away.

The jacket captures some of the appeal of this collection of nine short stories, one longer story, and one novella that all revolve around love un-attained, or love overpowered by a love from self rather than a love for other, or… Two of the short stories are, to my mind, pure genius: the adventure of the reader, and the adventure of the photographer. In both tales, the protagonist is unable—though desirous—of leaving behind a passion for an action in favour of a passion for a person, in differing ways that are brilliantly honest.

I’m going to stop trying to write about this book, now. It’s very good, and I strongly recommend it. The photographer’s adventure is the perfect compliment/antidote to anyone currently wrestling with Baudrillard; but the book is fun, and well-worth the slowness of reading stories by Calvino.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Vincent Lam, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, 2005.

Yes, it was after I knew it was a Giller nominee, and even the winner, that I added this book to my to-read list. I fell in love with it. The stories are short, and sharp. Lam writes with a voice that is at once detached and at the same time deeply caring for his characters. I really am starting to think that I have a problem with collections of linked stories; they’re a form I find hard to resist.

I think that what makes this collection so inviting is the way that the characters draw the reader into their excitements and their challenges. Reading the stories that centre on Fitz, I had a very deep sense of who he is and what motivates him, his passion for medicine, and his growing problems with what I would term accidie. Chen’s passion for medicine is accented with his desire to avoid conflict and his need to have others be happy—and the limits of that need, tinged with impatience. As I floated through the medical world of these doctors—but especially these two central characters—they felt alive to me, revealed through their actions because of the careful crafting of the stories themselves, rather than merely being told who they are and what motivates them.

Lam’s book is well worth a careful read or two. It’s also enough to convince me that I’d love to teach a class on Canadian linked story-cycles…

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero, 2007.

The English Patient was for me one of those books that changed the way I read. I think what I responded to was something I’d call opacity: the way Ondaatje simultaneously reveals and hides facets of the characters and details of the plot to create a landscape and mood at once clearly visible and at the same time cloudy and uncertain. This opacity of writing seemed to capture something of what life was like, a verisimilitude that I had yet to encounter or perceive in any other writer.

I’ve since read all of Ondaatje’s other work, and spent time writing about it and even teaching his work. While I’ve enjoyed much of his other work, The English Patient has remained a touchstone text for me, along with a couple of the poems that act in similar ways. Where Coming Through Slaughter and In the Skin of a Lion try to accomplish this opacity, they’re not quite as good as my first encounter; Anil’s Ghost was a tremendous disappointment to me. He’s sufficiently important, though, that I needed to read Divisadero.

It’s a strong novel, perhaps as good in my estimation as In the Skin of a Lion. The first half of it revolves around two daughters and an almost-brother, a family and a relationship with it that is fractured irretrievably by an episode of violence. The sisters part company, and the father is a figure lost in mist thereafter, referred to only vaguely. Each sister bears the scars—an important idea indeed for Ondaatje—of this encounter as they progress through their respective lives, and the scar tissue is rubbed and agitated in a variety of new encounters and relationships. The second half revolves around the life of a poet, and the relationships in his life. These two portions are interwoven only minimally, and I’m glad for the serendipity of just having finished reading some of Dillard! (In fact, Ondaatje quotes a beautiful portion of Dillard near-ish to the end of the book.) The reader is left to make connections for herself or himself, and to come to whatever understanding of the story is possible for her life or his life. In fact, I think the connection is left perhaps too tenuous, and just a few scattered lines might have left me thinking of this book as an interconnected whole rather than two intriguing novellas linked so very barely.

It's a good book, and well worth the read. For me, though, it's no The English Patient.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 1999.

I re-read, from time to time. You may, reading this entry, be interested in reading about the last time I read this book--though I said even less about it, then, in January of 2004.

There’s an elusiveness to Dillard’s musings. She presents an idea, and then a story. A reflection, and another story, and another idea. Seemingly unconnected they weave together with a lack of tangibility akin to the attempt to dance about architecture.

This book about life, and its essential nature as ephemeral. About death, and its pervasiveness. About meaning, in a life lived—and that lack of tangibility beyond a mere moment. About theodicy, and about what it means to believe, to be in relationship with God.

There is a striking beauty in this patchwork quilt of ideas, thoughts, and reflections. The spare-ness of Dillard’s writing combines with the weight of the subject and with her unflagging sense of wonder in the face of life, death, God, and existence, to create a book that is not sum-up-able in a short post on this blog. Rather, the book is an experience designed to awaken questions in the mind of the reader, and to provide an organising metaphor or two—to provide an image—that might help the reader struggle with these perennial questions. Dillard returns, time and again, to the prayers of thanksgiving of the Jewish community, at every aspect (both positive and negative) of life, and to the thought and wonder of the Jesuit geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I don’t know if the second will provide lasting insight for me. Certainly, the contrast between the vastness of time of geologic processes and the brevity of our lived experience is telling, but I feel a degree of being unsettled that makes me long for some of the unwoven threads of this book to be more neatly tied together. I don’t yet know if that’s a desire reflective of an incompleteness that should not be, or of an incompleteness that is me not yet fully engaged with the questions Dillard raises for me. I do know it’s a book to which I will need to return.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Paul Gibson, Discerning the Word: The Bible and Homosexuality in Anglican Debate, 2000.

I want to be Paul Gibson. Well, in fairness, it’d be more accurate to say that I have a deep and abiding respect for the Rev. Dr. Paul Gibson. He writes and speaks with astounding clarity and insight, and is to my mind the epitome of someone whose attempt to articulate issues of faith honestly and prayerfully, with the deepest possible commitment to engaging fully with scripture, reason, and tradition.

His book is interesting enough on the issue of homosexuality and the church, but what makes me appreciate it more deeply still is his care and sensitive approach to how scripture has been read, and how scripture should be read. For example:

It is possible to treat the Bible in exactly the way earlier generations of Christians treated the person of Jesus and the sacrament of the Last Supper. [that is, particularising one aspect in such detail as to move into heresy] It is possible to deny the human, the this-world dimension of the Bible and with the same devastating results.

Gibson offers a path for reading and engaging with scripture in a way that finds a via media between Bibliolatry and the dismissal of the Bible as mere human scratchings, and his path is a clear statement of how I myself think the Bible should be read. Someday, I’d like to be able to articulate such things as well as does the Rev. Dr. Gibson. It's a book well worth reading, to think about how to be with scripture.

For some online wisdom from the Rev. Dr. Gibson, read through his response to the St. Michael report.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, 2005.

I met Rakoff as I met David Sedaris: through listening to NPR’s This American Life. Someday I will recover from my desire to have Ira Glass’s job. Maybe.

This collection of essays is not, generally, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s thoughtful: Rakoff muses and considers. He shares personal experiences, and the essays feel almost like magazine pieces, if the magazine in question happened to be The Believer. They range from experiencing a private resort to fasting, from becoming an American citizen to foraging for food in the wilderness of New York City, and so forth.

My favourite piece is “J.D.V., M.I.A.” In it, Rakoff describes participating in a scavenger hunt in which one elaborate clue leads to the next; I identify strongly with his relative inability to solve the brainteasers, and feeling out-of-place with those who can. For me, it happens when I try to engage with a cryptic crossword: I might get one or two answers, but my brain doesn’t turn sideways that way. Present in the essay is an admiration combined with a sense of self-recognition and self-awareness that appeals strongly to me.

The pieces are pleasant. They are occasionally sharp and acerbic, but never mean. Rakoff tends to move toward a flatter, more descriptive prose style that lacks emotional content, when he wants to convey disappointment or other negative perceptions of some subject, and that habit gives the book a charitable, polite tone. It’s an engaging read, well-worth the time it will take you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green, 2006.

Despite internship pressure, despite the busy-ness of Holy Week, I finished a novel that I thought was going to take me a lot longer to read. Black Swan Green is, you see, brutal. It is brilliantly written; it is a compelling read. Its sharply accurate portrayal of childhood, though, is brilliant.

The story is part general bildungsroman and part künstlerroman. Describing it that way might well frighten off people who have been forced to read too many of such things—ah, Wilhelm Meister, and your apprenticeship!—but Mitchell’s story of Jason Taylor as he moves from childhood to a more adult view of the world, and into someone who begins to take his art seriously—is fresh and entirely enjoyable.

It’s told from Taylor’s perspective, complete with daydreams, nightmares, and musings. The nasty pecking order of middle school, and bullies, and the sheer miserable-ness of other miserable people combined to bring back repressed memories in myself, which floods may well explain why I found it a brutal book to read. Taylor falls in love, watches the turmoil in his family, and tries to make sense of what it is to want to read and to write when such things are “gay”—and how desperately, madly, does he want to fit in and to be popular! Yet given opportunities for advancement, he rejects them when they conflict with his own developing moral sense. Jason’s the kind of kid you’d be happy to call your own: earnest, and trying to do the right thing. You just wouldn’t want him to have to go through his travails.

I’m making it sound like a dire book, but it’s infused as well with a gentle, self-deprecating humour. I can’t recommend it highly enough; Black Swan Green is a wonderful book, and one I’d like to see widely read.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Susan Howatch, Glamorous Powers, 1988.

I mentioned the first one in this series some weeks ago, and my thoughts about this one are much the same. It's a decent book, but not quite what I hoped for. Heavy on the Freudian analysis. Far less plausible than the first; I have trouble believing that the central character of this book, Jon Darrow, could have been so effective a spiritual director in the first book with his own self so unbalanced. The notion of glamorous powers is intriguing, though--and the book explores well how misused they can be in ministry and within the church.

I'm not convinced I'm going to read the other four novels any time soon, but we'll see. I'll want to relax with pulp this summer.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Essays and Reviews, 1860. Eds. Victor Shea and William Whitla (2000)

I’m nearing the end of my second year of a three-year program at Trinity College. That has not meant less reading, as the decrease in blog postings might suggest, but reflects a decision I made at the beginning of last year. I have not blogged about the books I have read for classes. There have been a large number of such books, but when one is writing essays and assignments, a blog is not the place in which to work out the beginnings of my thoughts about these texts.

This book, though, is one I started reading some time ago, and the sidebar of this blog advertised for a long time that I was reading it. Last term, I designed a reading course around it, and now that that course is out of the way, I felt it appropriate to blog about the book now.

Essays and Reviews is a massively important book to the history of Anglicanism. It reshaped how people thought about the Bible; it reshaped how people approached the discussion of religious norms. To describe its publication as beginning a revolution would not be an exercise in hyperbole.

Before I take a quick look at the seven essays and reviews which form this book, as it was first published in 1860, I want to discuss briefly the importance of this particular edition. William Whitla and Victor Shea, of York University, have produced an apparatus that brings this book back to life. The ideas of Essays and Reviews are far from daring in contemporary Anglican thought, and so the real value of reading the book now lies in the field of social history, or the history of ideas. It is difficult to do such a reading, though, because of a loss of context. The copious notes provided for each essay by Shea and Whitla restore this context: they translate the fragments included in original languages, left untranslated in other publications of Essays and Reviews; they explicate history and allusions; and they make clear which points were disputed and why, offering an entry into the ludicrously vast collection of secondary literature about this book. Their masterful introduction not only explicates the essays themselves and gives requisite biographical information about their respective authors, but also situates the book within the context of the Victorian church far better than many book length studies of the issues. (One might well argue that their writing is itself book-length! This tome, after all, with introduction, essays, supporting material, bibliography, and information about both the publication history and the heresy trials of the authors, weighs more than a large sack of sugar, and is more than 9.5” by 6.5” by 3”. It’s not light reading material!)

Seven pieces comprise the original text. Frederick Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury) contributed a piece entitled “The Education of the World,” a rather Victorian look at progress in humanity’s evolution and life of faith. Rowland Williams was tried for heresy for his review, “Bunsen’s Biblical Researches.” Nominally a look at a German theologian, Williams used Bunsen’s ideas as a basis for his own assertion of principles of higher criticism. Baden Powell’s essay, “On the Study of the Evidence of Christianity” is a rejection of the type of logic so inextricably associated with Paley. Henry Bristow Wilson’s interesting essay is called “Scéances Historique de Genève: The National Church,” a critical look at the Church of England. Charles Wycliffe Goodwin’s contribution, “Mosaic Cosmogony” is a look at the relevance of geological sciences and the accepted history of the world from a faith perspective (Ah, Archbishop Ussher and the world being created in exactly 4004 BC!). Benjamin Jowett's essay is about the proper interpretation of scripture. The final essay, and one of the most intriguing, is a brilliant work of history by Mark Pattison, “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688-1750.”

None of the essays are particularly earth-shattering to modern ears, and it’s hard to feel the storm of excitement that arose because of this book. So why look for the excitement? Well, for two reasons. The first is that, in 1860, the world (by which I mean people in England who could read) cared—about poetry, science, and religion. They cared about ideas, and so it’s interesting to try to gain some sense of what that was like. The second reason is that the controversy around Essays and Reviews was largely confined to the Church of England, and was principally about how to read the Bible. It’s an argument in which the Anglican Church, now even more widespread, finds itself engaged. Moreover, the actual details of the argument have not shifted much. Does, then, Essays and Reviews offer us some solution? Certainly if history repeats itself, things would look bright for the more liberal side: some trials and tribulation, followed by an acceptance of correctness? While I doubt that things will fall out in quite so simple a repetition of the past, Essays and Reviews—in the remarkably large Shea & Whitla edition—is well worth the time it takes to engage with a fascinating period in the life of the Church.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Susan Howatch, Glittering Images, 1987.

DW suggested that I take a look at this series of six novels, telling me that each of the novels is a compelling read. It sounds uninteresting when described as a history of the Church of England in the twentieth century, told in specific narratives—but judging by this first volume, I agree with DW.

Glittering Images is the story of Dr. Charles Ashworth, a cathedral canon and Fellow at Laud’s College, Cambridge, and the protégé of ++Cantaur, Dr. William Cosmo Gordon Lang. Following a public spat in the House of Lords between the Archbishop and bishop of the fictional diocese of Starbridge, revolving around A.P. Herbert’s divorce bill, the Archbishop sends Ashworth to Starbridge ostensibly to investigate whether Bishop Jardine might be vulnerable to gossip in the tabloids. While there, Ashworth finds himself immersed in a familial mystery, and finds himself in a spiritual crisis. He retreats to an abbey, and the new abbot challenges him to deal with the traumas that have brought him to this point. I found Ashworth’s story compelling, and though the details of his journey are far different from my own, some odd similarities caused me to have a new look at my own spiritual life. Given tools to help him in his life, Ashworth re-emerges to grapple with the mystery and situation in which he finds himself immersed.

The novel is fascinating. Much of the story is told through dialogue, and certainly the novel has a greater appeal if one is passing familiar with both the history of the Church of England and theology. Regardless, it is a novel I read in a gulp, reluctant to pause, although I have marked passages to which I want to return. It is a romance, as much as anything else, and its only real flaw is that one might well think Ashworth’s recovery an easy path—akin to the psychiatrist who can cure a patient within a half-hour television episode—rather than the more difficult journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance that it actually represents. The book is, as well, a remarkable look at the church in the late ’30s, in the midst of trying to make sense of a great deal of change in social mores and behaviours. I’m quite looking forward to the second volume.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scarlett Thomas, The End of Mr. Y, 2006.

I read a review of this book in Salon, and was intrigued. It’s an interesting story, well-done (though falls down a bit at the end). A magazine writer becomes a Ph.D. student in English literature, taking a look at 19th century gedankexperimenten. Ariel stumbled into this life: she happened on a presentation about a book, The End of Mr. Y, by an author named Thomas Lumas—a book that is notorious as cursed.

Her supervisor disappears, leaving her somewhat at odds, and she just happens to find a copy of the book—and, despite the curse, reads it. Wackiness ensues as Ariel enters another world based on instructions that are part of the novel. As worlds collide, Thomas weaves together philosophy—quite the fan of both Heidegger and Derrida—and modern physics, not overly well but not too poorly, either. She sometimes loses both plot and characters, and gets distracted, because this book really is a novel of ideas—though she finds her way back to both.

It’s suspenseful, and it plays well with ideas about what language is, and what it does. It’s a fun read, made more fun by some familiarity with philosophy and science—and more fun still if you’re interested in a fascinating romance about what University life is like, filled with sex and intrigue. Ariel finds herself chased, in mortal danger at every turn, before coming to a solution that seems almost too easy but costs her dreadfully. It's a book worth its read.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gary Wills, What Paul Meant, 2006.

Wills romps through Paul’s writings in an effort to reclaim what he sees as the—too often occluded—true message of Paul. He argues that Paul did not “subvert” the true message of Jesus, but rather that Paul is transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus, and so seeks constantly to find the fullness of his Jewish faith as expressed through Jesus. Much of the book is taken up with addressing the concerns of specific criticisms of Paul’s writing. Wills makes an effort to rebut those who charge Paul with anti-Semitism, misogyny; he offers another look at Paul’s relationships with Rome and with Jerusalem. It’s a much better book than Wills’ earlier book, What Jesus Meant, though it’s nowhere near as strong a book, for example, as Donald Akenson’s Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus—a book that accomplishes the same tasks, but with more depth. The difference between the two is that Wills’ book is aimed at a popular audience, and Akenson’s requires more of its readers.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg, 2006.

My mother the children’s librarian handed me this book, and said, do you have a moment to review it? I thought to myself a) It’s by Diana Wynne Jones! b) Its main character is Cat (Eric) Chant!

I’ve missed Cat since the last time I read Charmed Life. He really is one of my favourite creations of DWJ. The story itself revolves around a feud between two witching families who are hoping to avoid the attention of Chrestomanci and his staff. Complicating matters are woods that repel visitors from Chrestomanci Castle, a rambunctious horse, an eager young griffin, and the mechanical antics of Roger Chant and his new friend, Joe Pinhoe. Alternating between the perspectives of Cat and Marianne Pinhoe, the story tells how the village moves to a new understanding of what life is supposed to be. It is a worthy sequel, full of secrets from grown-ups, and the stark contrast between parents who know how to leave room for children to grow and those who believe that the way to raise a child is to exercise constant control.

I think what I like best about this world is how individual magic is, and this book begins to explore how Cat and Marianne think and do magic. At another level, it’s about growing up and learning where one’s gifts lie, and how to use those gifts. As I read the book, my wife kept coming into the room and ask my why I was smiling and laughing—the novel is a lot of fun.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Kim Moritsugu, Old Flames, 1999.

This novel is another one of those books that came to me via the Library after I had forgotten what hard prompted me to read the book itself. This process is happening more and more frequently; it’s enough to make me seriously concerned about my memory.

At any rate, Moritsugu’s novel is well-written and interesting, though more concerned with people and feelings than with plot, which truth may explain away the awkward deus ex machina ending. The story revolves two woman: one a suburban housewife, and the other an up-and-coming advertising executive who has just left New York to take over the Toronto office. The latter is obsessed with an old boyfriend—hence the title—and the missed possibilities that she remembers from her teenage years. The former woman remembers both her pre-married and pre-children years, and her own career in public relations, and comes to wonder about an old flame of her own.

It is a competent novel about regret and the acceptance of one’s life, and has flashes of pellucid writing, but I found it somewhat uneven. [It is published by one of my favourite Canadian presses, Porcupine’s Quill, and reminded me for reasons I can’t fully articulate a novel called Buying on Time, by Antanas Sileika.]

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant, 2006.

My systematic theology professor mentioned this short little book last year, as he tried to make sense for us of the relevance of the study of the historical Jesus to systematics.

The professor likes this book because it moves beyond the insipid WWJD crap that seems all too prevalent these days, and I like that about it too. Wills tries to get a sense of who Jesus is, and what he was saying. Wills answers return time and again to the idea of “heaven’s reign,” and he wrestles with the various parables to explain both how wondrous such a vision is, as well as how different it is, how difficult it is to wrap one’s mind around it.

My problem with the book is that, in many ways, it’s simplistic. The gospels are smushed together to create one story: from that story Wills extracts his conception of heaven’s reign, and builds a theological framework. The gospels, though, are both simultaneously one story and four-plus stories: they’re about God, and his interaction with us, but they have different concerns and say different things about who Jesus is. How can any worthwhile semblance of Christology be built without acknowledging that fact, and without showing an attempt to grapple with that difficulty?

I like the focus of the book; I like many of Wills’ conclusions. I’m looking forward to reading the book he wrote immediately afterwards, What Paul Meant. But I’m not expecting much more than a couple of hours of mild engagement. What I’m really looking forward to finally reading is my untouched copy of Wink's The Powers that Be.