Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012

In 2012 I read 52 books. Some were great; many were not so great. Here are my favorites:

Most Important book of the year: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt. It changed my outlook on politics and religion.
Funniest: Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. Laugh-out-loud funny skewering Seattle.
Best Essays: We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider. A strange and wonderful look at life.
Most Heartbreaking: Defending Jacob by William Landay. Still haunts me especially in light of the Sandy Hook shootings.
Best Cookbook: Simple Pleasures by Cornelia Guest. I loved the recipes and all the photos of Cornelia Guest’s home.
Best Swedish Mystery: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff. Masterful work by a sister team.
Best Family Story: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin. Great character development.
Biggest Surprise: Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Looks like Chicklit. Deeply engrossing character study.
Best Presidential Assassination: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. A whole book about an aspect of history of which I knew nothing.
Best Disease Book: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan. One of my most popular postings this year.
Best Spiritual: An Unquenchable Thirst by Mary Johnson. A former nun tells about life as a follower of Mother Teresa.
Best Immigrant book: Into the beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. Very funny look at illegal immigration.
Most Self-Serving:  Saving Each Other by Victoria Jackson and Ali Guthy. Mom’s career or daughter’s illness? Which is more important?
Worst Novel: Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp and Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil

 Alexander McCall Smith
New York, Anchor, 2013
224 pages     Fiction

“How complex this world is, (von Ingelfeld) thought; how easily may things appear to be one thing and then prove to be another. And how easy it was to see the worst in humanity when what we should really be looking for is the best.”

Well, folks, Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld is up to his ears in pomposity once again in the latest episode of The Portuguese Irregular Verbs series by Alexander McCall Smith. If you have not met Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld, you must. His last name, by the way, means hedgehog field, and we are reminded of that fact several times in each book. Von Ingelfeld is a professor at a German university and one of several linguists who make up the cast of characters of the four books in the series. A well respected linguist, (primarily in his own mind) von Ingelfeld’s main call to fame is a book called "Portuguese Irregular Verbs" that he wrote several years previously; at 1200 pages long, the book never made the best seller list, obviously. McCall Smith calls Unusual Uses for Olive Oil “an entertainment” and it is truly entertaining because, although only five chapters long, it makes fun of academia and all of its pretensions. Each chapter is an episode (or an entertainment) in the life of von Ingelfeld, who is myopically attuned to the arcane meanings of words and to his own use of those words.

Von Ingelfeld’s co-workers are equally self-involved and self-important, except for the librarian, Herr Huber, whose life totally revolves around his aunt who lives in a nearby nursing home. Von Igelfeld wonders if Herr Huber has enough blood pressure, and he muses: "There are some people who gave the impression of having a great deal of blood coursing through their veins – robust and ruddy people who moved decisively and energetically. Then there were those who were pallid and slow in their movements; people through whose veins the blood must move sluggishly, at best, with only the pressure expected of a half-inflated bicycle tyre. The Librarian belonged in that group, von Igelfeld thought.” It is this kind of observation that makes the book fun to read. Even as von Igelfeld observes the absurdity of his world, we are observing the absurdity of von Igelfeld. 

There is so much to love in books by Alexander McCall Smith. His characters are unique, and in the case of Professor Dr. von Ingelfeld, totally ridiculous. The plots, although slim, are fully developed. And they are completely entertaining and satisfying. There are two important aspects for anything written by McCall Smith: you will close the book with a smile on your face, and your intelligence is never underestimated. McCall Smith has several series of books that he continues—each with a set of unique characters and settings. The other von Igelfeld book I read and blogged about is Portuguese Irregular Verbs. My all-time favorite, of course, is the #1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. I have blogged about several including The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party and  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

Friday, December 28, 2012

When "Spiritual but not Religious" is not Enough

By Lillian Daniel
New York, Jericho Books, 2013
215 pages     Spiritual

Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ pastor, has created an interesting amalgam in her book When “Spiritual but not Religious” is not Enough. Part sermon, part memoir, part existential musings; Daniel is always on point and personal as she explores what it is to be Christian in the 21st century.  

A contributor on several national blogs, such as The Huffington Post, Daniel is also a nationally known speaker and workshop leader. She is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Some of her entries in this book are obviously sermons. One that I especially appreciated is called, An Honest Prayer. I have always been a bit a bit reticent about the asking for myself in prayer. I am pretty good at asking for others, praying for others, or asking for clarification for situations. In other words, I ask for others and not myself. Daniel says, “…that reluctance to ask God for what we really want is arrogance posing as humility. It seems humble to not ask God for our own desires, and to put other larger matters first. But doing that seems to imply we have power in all this. As if by asking God to cure diabetes before asking for a raise, we might actually affect God’s priorities.” What I especially appreciated about this essay on prayer is that I have noticed that when I pray sincerely, I usually end up in a different place than where I was as I began the prayer. Daniel confirms that power in our prayers…”an exposure of the deeper need beneath our prayers.” 

I also enjoyed the brief essay entitled Things I am Tired Of. She begins by saying “I am tired of hearing people say stupid things in the name of Christianity.”  She suggests that we live in a society where ”…stupid and simple spirituality always trumps the depth of a complex faith.” It echoes my sentiments exactly. Some essays and sermons are scarcastic and biting; others are joyful, while others are haunting—especially the final essay in which Daniel discusses her parent’s separation and divorce in relation to our relationship with God. She says that we are always trying to separate ourselves from God and each other, while God is always trying to knit us back together again. This essay really touched me because we have family members who are trying to find ways to remain in relationship; I wanted to print off the essay to give to them, but they are “spiritual but not religious” and I’m not sure they would appreciate my intervening. So, I will have to pray for them instead.

At best, the essays are profound; at worst they are trivial. There is an unevenness to the essays that makes the book all the more interesting, because the reader is left in a guessing game. I have issues with the title of the book; it is too cumbersome. However, that is a minor issue. Then I wonder who I will give this book to. Who is the intended audience? in other words. I liked the book; it caused me to think, but I am not sure who else would appreciate it.  Publishers Weekly calls this book a “wise and witty collection” and answers my questions about the intended audience when they say that Daniel “offer(s) a rich banquet for pastors, lifelong congregants, disaffected Christians, and confused seekers alike.” Daniel makes me want to attend her church or one of her workshops. I like how she connects her faith with the trials of living. Her concerns remind me of my own.

There are a lot of Lillian Daniel sermons on You Tube. Here is one of them:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Shortest Way Home

.by Juliette Fay
New York, Penguin Books, 2012
386 pages     Fiction

Life is complicated. Life is messy. There is no way to escape either the complications or the messiness, so you might as well just make the best of it. That is the one sentence summation of The Shortest Way Home by Juliette Fay. If you have ever looked around at your life and thought “I gotta get out of here!” then this is the book for you.

Sean is a 40-something nurse who has been traveling from third world country to third world country for many years trying to do some good in the world even as he tries to escape his upbringing and the potential of a fatal genetic disease. He arrives home to New England for a short visit at the behest of his younger sister and finds himself caught up in family messiness. As Sean becomes more and more entangled in life back at home, he questions his purpose in life, the reasons for his wanderings, and his ability to change. It is a bit refreshing to have a male protagonist in this kind of family story; he is an interesting character as he tries to make sense of what life has become for his family, a family he has all but abandoned.

The Shortest Way Home has an abundance of characters, all with a lot of complications—all trying to negotiate through life’s messiness. Each character is fully developed with intriguing life circumstances. One reviewer says that the characters are “wonderfully imperfect lovable people.” The two characters I appreciated the most were Kevin, Sean’s orphaned nephew and Da, Sean’s long-lost father who arrives on the scene about half way through the book. Kevin is a pre-teen and has been virtually raising himself. He has sensory issues as well as ADD, but he has found a way to negotiate through life. The reader becomes so proud of him and the progress he makes, but the author doesn’t turn him into an unbelievable hero-like character. He remains a clueless pre-adolescent. Da, on the other hand, reminded me of several people I have known; someone whose life fell apart in his 30s and he has spent the last 30 years trying to put himself together again.

It is impossible to navigate in this brief book review all the topics that are discussed, “topics as varied as family loyalty, genetic destiny, responsibility, the duties of friendship and the strength of faith” in the words on one reviewer. Any one of these issues could be the theme of the book. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the whole plot could dissolve into absurdity. A book I read earlier this year did just that, and as I looked back on that review, I realized how delicately Fay handles all the issues of The Shortest Way Home. I kept reading because I really liked the characters and wanted to know how things would be resolved. Of course, as in all of life, there is no absolute resolution, but the characters find a way to clear back some of the brambles that cover the path to happiness.

Some of the more interesting questions raised in the book deal with Sean’s concerns about faith. His Catholic faith had served him well throughout his journeys and his nursing had been, in effect, a healing ministry. He prays over all his patients. But, things have changed. He tells his friend Rebecca: “I stopped believing in a God who cared.” She suggests that perhaps he had seen too much suffering. No, he admits that “It’s way more selfish than that. I stopped believing in a God who cared about me.” He had stopped believing that he had been chosen by God to do good in the world. An beguiling theme in and of itself.

I can recommend The Shortest Way Home to readers of family fiction or problem fiction. It is the third book of a series about a small New England town. You might also enjoy The World Without You by Joshua Henkin that I read a couple of months ago—similar themes, similar resolution—same literary quality. The Shortest Way Home was chosen as one of the top five best books of 2012 in women’s literature.

Juliette Fay’s website:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our lives for spiritual transformation

By Ruth Haley Barton
Downers Grove IL, IVP Books, 2006
191 pages     Spiritual

Sacred Rhythms is Ruth Barton’s personal look at the traditional spiritual disciplines. Barton is a pastor, author, and seminar leader. She is a former pastor at Willow Creek Community Church and now runs the Transforming Center in Wheaton Illinois. 

The traditional spiritual disciplines as outlined by Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline are:
  • ·         Inward Disciplines of Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, and Study
  • ·         Outward Disciplines of Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service
  • ·         The Corporate Disciplines of Confession, Worship, Guidance, and Celebration.
Authors tend to focus on only a few of these disciplines. In my teaching of the Companions in Christ curriculum, we speak of the spiritual disciplines as aspects of spiritual formation. We have studied forgiveness, prayer, scripture, discernment, and spiritual guidance. Each of these areas include some of Richard Fosters disciplines but focus more on formation rather than discipline.

Barton has made these spiritual disciplines personal, which is the beauty of this book. Each chapter discusses one of the spiritual disciplines: Solitude, scripture, prayer, honoring the body, self-examination, discernment, Sabbath, and rule of life. I particularly appreciated the chapters on honoring the body and Sabbath. I have a lot of growing to do in both of these areas, and I liked the honesty with which she addressed her own needs. She also discussed ways in which a person can discern some rules for living--another area where I could use some growth.

At the end of each chapter, Barton includes some suggestions for ways to practice the discipline, and apparently there are leader’s guides and participants books which can be used in training sessions. I found this book to be valuable as a stand-alone to remind me of the practices that are so very easy to get sidetracked from practicing.

One reviewer called Sacred Rhythmsa gracious and gentle approach to the use of spiritual disciplines.” I really liked the examples she used from her own life experiences. These are examples that I can relate to. Here is something I found startling: that the spiritual disciplines have become a part of the InterVarsity Press lexicon of books. I wouldn’t have expected that. However, in my search for reviews to utilize in writing this blog posting, I did find this review that didn’t like the idea of evangelical theology veering off into such touchy-feely stuff: “Sacred Rhythms serves as an excellent example of where the spiritual formation movement is attempting to take the evangelical church, which is back into Roman Catholic mystical experiences and practice because the movement does not emerge from the Scriptures.  It does not form biblical disciples of Christ and is ultimately destructive.”

Which—of course—makes me like it all the more.

Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center Website: