Rudy Wiebe: ‘Collected Stories 1955-2010’

8807488Some very good stories here, but overall the collection is uneven. I didn’t especially enjoy most of the stories that were originally alternative chapters from the author’s published books. As usual, Rudy Wiebe’s descriptive writing is excellent, but his long run-on sentences are often hard to follow.

I’m a fan of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, especially ‘Peace Shall Destroy Many’, ‘The Temptations of Big Bear’, and ‘Sweeter than All the World’. I would not rate this collection as highly as the novels. In fact, many of the stories feel incomplete, more like unnaturally isolated chapters from novels than real short stories. Three stars out of five.


Book Review: ‘Tolstoy Lied’, by Rachel Kadish.

1577123The starting point of this story is the famous Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the intro says, literature professor Tracy Farber disagrees with this quote, which seems to imply that only unhappiness is interesting. Happiness is boring and predictable.

This controversy is presented to us as both the theme of this book, and also a project within the book, a project which Tracy never quite gets around to beginning until the end of the story. I believe in her project and I agree with her: I think literature (and music and poetry, for that matter) does indeed have a prejudice against happiness, especially happy marriages and families.

But I’m not sure this book is going to drive the coffin nail into Tolstoy’s maxim. Yes, I found it a very interesting story, but it was the conflict and the unhappiness (actual and threatened) that was interesting. When the happiness came back in all its glory, it was within only a few dozen pages of the end of the book.

Still, I loved the book. I enjoyed the honesty of the love story. These are real people making the mistakes that real people make, and yet living to tell the tale. I loved the quality of the writing; Rachel Kadish is highly literate and I enjoy reading a book written by someone who knows how to write excellent English sentences and paragraphs. I found the characters believable and credible. I found it hard to put this book down. I’ve read Kadish’s more recent work, ‘The Wright of Ink’, which is also excellent, and look forward to more great stories from her in the years to come.

Book Review: ‘Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada’ by Roy McGregor.

34127974Marci and I read this one together. It wasn’t what we were expecting, but it was very good.

Roy MacGregor takes a close look at sixteen iconic Canadian rivers: the Columbia, the Fraser, the Bow, the North Saskatchewan, the Red, the Dumoine, the Ottawa, the Don, the Grand, the Niagara, the Muskoka, the Rideau, the Gatineau, the St. Lawrence, and the Saint John. He writes as a journalist, with an eye to current events and contemporary stories. but he is also well aware of the history behind these rivers. I actually expected more history (and would have welcomed more), but what was there was accurate and well-written, and I suspect most Canadians would learn more about the story of their country from reading it. He also writes as a keen canoeist who has paddled many of these rivers. This hands-on perspective adds what might be called a water-level view to the narrative, and I enjoyed it.

This book also tells a sad story. Most of these rivers are in difficulty because of human activity. Some of them have been brought back, but some have not. We depend on the water from these rivers, but we continue to pollute them with industrial waste, sewage, garbage, and chemicals. In the words of Jacques Courcelles (whose family have lived near the Red River in Manitoba for five generations), “Sometimes you have to think beyond your lifetime”. Some Canadians are getting this message. Many, sadly, are not. It’s ironic that many of the same people who get agitated about leaving government debt for their grandchildren to deal with seem to have no such qualms about leaving their grandchildren to deal with the consequences of their (our) environmental irresponsibility.

I would recommend this book to all Canadians who want to earn more about our country’s history and geography. I would also recommend it to newcomers to this country. If you want to find out about the soul of Canada, this is a good place to start.

Book Review: ‘The Weight of Ink’, by Rachel Kadish

35721108First, I’ll quote the blurb from Amazon, and then give my own response to this outstanding book.

Here’s the blurb:

An intellectual and emotional jigsaw puzzle of a novel for readers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

Electrifying and ambitious, sweeping in scope and intimate in tone, The Weight of Ink is a sophisticated work of historical fiction about women separated by centuries, and the choices and sacrifices they must make in order to reconcile the life of the heart and mind.

And now for my own response.

I have not read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, to which this book has been compared, so I don’t know whether it’s a fair comparison. But I do know that Rachel Kadish has her own distinctive voice. This is the first novel of hers I’ve read and I definitely want to read her others.

I wasn’t sure if I’d like the plot device of writing simultaneously about two women separated by over three hundred years, but I quickly got used to it and found the two parallel stories fascinating and compelling. It was rather like watching a mystery unfold from both ends, hoping that eventually the stories would meet in the middle. Of course, they did, but the ending was not predictable.

The 17th century English history seems very well done. I love history but I’m not well versed in this period; however, it seems authentic to me. And the writing style was very polished and intelligent. It required some effort from me, and I appreciated that. I’ve noticed that very few of the books I find memorable have been effortless reads.

This is only the second book I’ve finished so far this year, but I think it’s going to be one of my favourites. I highly recommend it.

Books I Read (or Re-Read) in 2018.

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2018, in the order in which they were read:

Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials
Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed
Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie: The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity
Columba Stewart, OSB: Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition
Esther DeWaal: Seeking God: the Way of St. Benedict
Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
William L. Lane: Hebrews: A Call to Commitment
Alexander McCall Smith: Emma: A Modern Retelling
Timothy Fry, Ed: The Rule of St. Benedict
James D.G. Dunn: Romans (The People’s Bible Commentary)
Jane Austen: Emma
Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved
Adam Shoalts: A History of Canada in Ten Maps
Michael Bond: A Bear Called Paddington
Sarah Ruden: Paul Among the People
David Hackett Fischer: Champlain’s Dream
Karl Vaters: Small Church Essentials
Chaim Potok: The Gift of Asher Lev
Gregory Alan Thornbury: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock
Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone
Wendell Berry: Hannah Coulter
Mark D. Baker: Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross
John Grisham: The Last Juror
Karen Swallow Prior: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More
Ariana Huffington: The Sleep Revolution
Bruce Hindmarsh: The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World
John Goldingay: Psalms for Everyone, Part 1
Donald C. Posterski: True to You
Pat Barker: Regeneration
Winnfried Corduan: A Tapestry of Faiths
Pat Barker: The Eye in the Door
Pat Barker: The Ghost Road
Rudy Wiebe: Sweeter than All the World
Randy Ingmarson: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method
Alexander Fullerton: Love for an Enemy
Alexander Fullerton: Submariner
Michael Frost: Keep Christianity Weird
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Jaron Lanier: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Roger Coleman: New Light and Truth: The Making of the Revised English Bible
Dante Alighieri: The Portable Dante (translated by Mark Musa)
Stephen P. Dawes: 1 & 2 Kings (People’s Bible Commentary)
C.J. Sansom: Dissolution
Katharine Welby Roberts: I Thought There Would Be Cake
Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
C.J. Sansom: Tombland
Catherine Fox: Angels and Men
Alan Kreider: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church
Susan Pitchford: Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone
Catherine Fox: Acts and Omissions
Catherine Fox: Unseen Things Above
Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol
Catherine Fox: Realms of Glory

And now, as is my custom, a few reflections.

Most enjoyable read of the year? This was a tough one to choose this year, because I read41TIyKAbOpL._SY346_ many really good books. However, if pushed to select one, I’d go with Gregory Alan Thornbury‘s ‘Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?I was a Larry Norman fan in the 1970s and 80s but lost touch with him after that. I heard stories about his failings, but was never really familiar with his story. So I was excited when I heard about this book, and it did not disappoint. Larry emerges from these pages as a real human being, one who struggles with weaknesses and failings as we all do. And yet, his influence on my life as a Christian and a musician was entirely positive, and I suspect thousands of others could say the same thing. I expected to think less highly of him after reading this book, but the opposite was the case. I now go back to the old records and listen to them again with more appreciation for the real human being who created them, and I gladly own up to being a Larry Norman fan. Five stars.

51k74TM4QqLIf I could add a second choice, I’d go with David Hackett Fischer‘s ‘Champlain’s Dream‘. I love Canadian history but my knowledge of it is heavily skewed toward the west. I knew very little about Samuel De Champlain, but this book has more than redressed the balance. Meticulously researched (there are 270 pages of appendices and notes) and beautifully written, it is one of the best historical biographies I have ever read. Also five stars.

Least enjoyable read of the year? Probably Alexander McCall Smith‘s Emma: A Modern51KGPkNsVeL Retelling. Maybe it’s asking too much of a modern writer to try to relocate a classic Jane Austen novel in the modern world. So many of Austen’s story lines depend on social conventions (regarding the roles of women, for instance) that just no longer apply today. This is one of the books in the so-called ‘Austen Project’, in which all of Austen’s novels get a modern makeover. I’ve read several of them and I have to say that only Joanna Trollope’s retake on Sense and Sensibility comes anywhere near success for me.

Important discoveries:

Catherine Fox. I didn’t enjoy her Angels and Men, and it took me a while to get into her51mdHKJtjnL Lindchester Series, but by the end of Acts and Omissions I was hooked, and I gobbled up Unseen Things Above and Realms of Glory. I would describe them as being part Barchester Towers, part Susan Howatch’s Church of England series, but much more lighthearted (though, paradoxically, there’s a real depth to them as well) and with a much broader range of brilliantly developed (and very honestly portrayed) characters. The omniscient narrator is not a style of writing I’m used to, nor is the present tense narrative, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

51szsJbYt-LKaren Swallow Prior is another writer I’ve never come across before but I loved her biography of Hannah More, Fierce Convictions, and am looking forward to reading her newest book On Reading Well.

Bruce Hindmarsh is not exactly new to me as I read his book about John Newton some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was 512CP34YQtLlooking forward to his book about eighteenth century evangelicalism and its interaction with the arts and sciences of its day, and I was not disappointed. I highly recommend The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism to anyone who suspects there’s a lot more to this movement than praise bands and Trumpian politics.

51TBxH8M5VLFinally, a new novel by C.J. Sansom is always a delight, and Tombland was excellent. I was not familiar with the historic incident the book is based on – the Norfolk rebellion in the reign of Edward VI – but the character of Matthew Shardlake was as compelling as ever and the historical research behind the novel is meticulous.

I was surprised to discover that the only poetry book I read this year was a re-read of The Portable Dante. It’s not that I haven’t read any poetry; I simply haven’t finished any collections! I’ll have to make a point of that this coming year, as I do find poetry hugely rewarding.

And now – on to 2019!

Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.