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Entries in Reading (36)

Friday
Feb102017

What makes a book timeless?

Yesterday, in my theology class, we were discussing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and specificallly, the debate between continuation and cessation of gifts. Part of our assignment was to engage with a chapter from Charismatic Chaos and Showing the Spirit. Both of these books were published more than twenty years ago; Charismatic Chaos in 1992 and Showing the Spirit in 1987. I was curious if there had been any works that were more recent, and while I didn't spend a whole lot of time on the matter, I didn't find much. In fact, Carson's book is one of the Leader Recommended books at Westminster Books. My prof said that he thinks it is still one of the best books on the subject. John MacArthur, however, has written another book on the topic, Strange Fire.

I was perusing my book shelves this week, making space for books which had previously been beside my bed, and wondering what I could remove from the shelves. I noted that there were many books I purchased in response to some controversy or issue I'd been interested in. I think I can safely say that while I don't think I'd throw them out, the books on the Emergent Church (I have about four of them) can safely be tucked away in the Rubbermaid bin until such time as I have more bookshelves. Does anyone talk about the Emergent Church anymore? I don't think I'll read those books again.

There are other books on my shelf that I know I will read again. Books by Lloyd-Jones, David Wells, J.I. Packer, the Puritans, church history, and biographies by Iain Murray. The commentaries I have by Karen Jobes have been utilized more than once, and will no doubt be again. Yet there are other commentaries I have purchased which have made their way into the Rubbermaid bin because what I want from a commentary has changed over the years.

I've been trying to sort through what I think it is about a book which guarantees that someone will be reading it in ten years or even ten months. These days, books come so fast and furious, the lifespan of the interest in a good book can wane quickly. What was yesterday's "Must Read!" may be gathering dust on the shelf tomorrow.

One thing I think which makes a book have a longer appeal is what its concerns are. Matters like holiness, righteousness, conversion, the atonement, the Trinity, and the Scriptures are examples of ones that have always pre-occupied the church. And yes, marriage and children are similar topics, but the way those concerns are approached have changed. I doubt very much that the concept of "biblical womanhood" was probed too deeply 150 years ago, but men and women like the Puritans gave a lot of thought to marriage and family. I think many of the contemporary issues we spend a lot of time on ultimately become non-issues in a few years, despite our fascination with them at the time. Those books can ultimately provide historical material about the times, but there are still books which are read for their content which endures.

The question about what makes a book timeless is a question I continue to ask myself. Hopefully, my thoughts on the matter will shape my book purchases. I have far too many books which are kind of "obsolete" in a sense. I'm asking myself more and more if the book I'm investing in is something which will guide my thinking over the long haul or if it's just satisfying a momentary pre-occupation. If it's the latter, then maybe I don't need to buy a book, but instead just partake of a few well-written articles instead.

Yesterday, I finally acquired the Battles/McNeill translation of Calvin's Institutes. I wanted a hardback copy, and I didn't want to sell a kidney to get one. I found one used. It was cheaper than the new softcover edition. The dust jackets are pretty worn and its previous owner has underlined, but the bindings on both volumes are tight. I'm confident these will be well used for many years. Now, if I can just decide which books will be put into the Rubbermaid bin to make room, I'll have space for them.

Saturday
Jan282017

Where can a gal find an objective book review?

I know that the reality of complete objectivity is a myth. We all bring presuppositions to matters. However, there are times when we bring more or less. I have thought about this as I've watched my social media feed over a number of months presenting book review of numerous new books that came out over the past few months. 

I was approached by a publishing company recently to review a book. I had reviewed for them before, so I was among their contact list. This idea of hand-picking people to review new books is definitely the result of social media. I'm sure this practice is a very effective way of getting the news out about a good book. But are the people being asked the ones publishing companies know will give a positive review? When one receives a review copy, how much pressure does she feel to avoid saying anything negative?

In the past when whenever I have reviewed a book I have been requested to put the review on Amazon as are all the other people who received a review copy. Amazon is frequently filled with book reviews which are 90% five star reviews. Perhaps this reveals my glass half empty view of the world, but I want to hear what some of the downsides are. I'm aware that many people who received review copies are already pre-disposed to like everything the writer does, so will that reviewer be willing to share something negative?

Quite a while ago, I saw repeated rave reviews of a book and I resisted buying it because I didn't really have time to read it, and I didn't want to buy another book which would sit on the shelf unread. As it happens my friend had it, so I borrowed it. Ultimately, I was disappointed, and frankly, I could not see what all the fuss was about. Yes, it was good. But it had some problems, too. I looked at some reviews to because I thought "Why am I not seeing what everyone else is seeing?" I thought there was something very crucial missing in the book, but every review spoke about it as if it was the most perfect book ever written. Perhaps the problem is in how we review books. 

I have participated in review initiatives when the majority of the participants are already supportive of the author in general. It is a good way to promote a book, but I do feel a concern about there being a hesitancy to give a negative review. We follow these authors on social media; we read their blogs; we feel like they are our friends. How willing are we to point out something negative?

It's something I continue to think about when pondering books. I am finding more and more that the best place to hear about good books is a good book itself. I love books with notes and recommended resources. I've been very fortunate in gettng great recommendations from seminary profs. My theology prof will even recommend we read dissenting views. I have benefitted from Amazon reviews, but it's not always a place to find the best ones. I have also been more convinced that I'd much rather buy the book myself, read it at my own pace without a deadline, and enjoy it.

Tuesday
Jan032017

The gift of beautiful Canadian prose

This year is Canada's 150th birthday. I don't remember the celebrations of its centennial, but I do remember hearing about it. I think it would be interestng to look back at what has changed about Canada since 1967. I'm pretty sure that there is much that has not changed, which is a sad thing.

In thinking about the 150th of Canada, I thought it would be a good time to read more books by Canadian authors, whether fiction or non-fiction. As a Canadian who loves to read, I think it's a good idea to read what my country produces. I know a lot of people don't like Canadian fiction, and I understand that. There are certain kinds of fiction I don't like, too.

I put together a wishlist of various fiction books I want to read, most by authors who are well-established: Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowatt, Alice Munro, Joseph Boyden, and Roberston Davies. I added a book by Gabrielle Roy, because I remember reading some of her works in high school. I also looked specifically for up and coming Canadian authors. I don't remember exactly how I found it, but I saw a description of a book called The Break, by Katherena Vermette. I was drawn to the book because it is set in the north end of Winnipeg, a place where I lived for four years, although not in the exact place Vermette's characters live.

Vermette is Métis, and that also drew my interest, because my great-grandmother was Métis. Also, the struggle of Indigenous women in Canada has become an issue which has drawn attention in the last few years, as there are sobering statistics regarding the disappearance of many of them. 

I started The Break right after reading Hillbilly Elegy. The contrast was positively striking, although Vance's book also deals with a poverty stricken group of people. The difference, as well as the reality that one work is fiction and the other memoir, is in the prose. While I enjoyed Vance's book, I was not drawn in by the prose as I am with Vermette's writing. It is beautiful prose, despite depicting a very harsh world. I enjoyed the prose of Hillbilly Elegy more in its initial chapters. The end felt like neither memoir nor explication of the issue of poverty, and it felt rushed. Vermette writes in a much different style. I love fiction which I just can't put down, and last night, that was the case. The characters are rich and real. I hope that the other books I have on my wishlist will prove to be as enriching. 

Canada is home. It is where God, in his sovereignty, placed me. It is not a perfect country, but we will enjoy none of those until the final ushering in of God's kingdom. In the meantime, I will enjoy what my country has produced in the way of good reading.

Thursday
Dec292016

Initial thoughts about Hillbilly Elegy

I gave in and purchased Hillbilly Elegy over Christmas. I'm halfway through, and I am finding it a good read. It kind of reminds me of Angela's Ashes, although while Vance is a good story-teller, I enjoyed McCourt's prose more. McCourt managed to create a little humour to break the tension. Vance's grandmother sounds like a pretty interestng woman, but I cannot fathom my grandmother ever using the kind of obscenities that Vance's Mamaw used. 

The terms "hillbily" and "white trash" are not terms I grew up with. While there were any number of racial and socioeconomic insults heard on the playground, most of them were directed to Jewish students, black students, or in some places we lived, Indigenous students. The neighbourhood where I lived in Winnipeg for four years is no longer a newer community for young families just getting started, like it was when my parents purchased their first home there. It has become a run down, poor neighbourhood. When I purchased the book The Break, I was struck by the references to the poverty of North Winnipeg; that is where we lived. We didn't have a lot of money, but it wasn't as poor as it could have been.

While not called "hillbillies," my family roots are in the white poor. My maternal grandfather was a coal miner in Saskatchewan, and my paternal grandfather a farmer in southern Manitoba. My mother grew up in a mining camp and only later moved into town when the strip mine where my grandfather worked closed, and he moved to a different one. There was racisim in that community I am sure. For many years, I was unaware that my great-grandmother, my grandmother's mother, was, in fact, Métis. There was talk over the years that my ancestors were acquainted with Métis, but it wasn't until a few years ago when I was researching our family trees that I was given a photograph of my great-grandmother, Agnes, who was obviously of Aboriginal descent. On further investigation, I discovered that her father, originally from Manitoba, was shoved off his land and went to the United States for a few years before settling back in Saskathchewan. No one told me this. There was shame and racism, and I believe my grandmother was embarrassed by this heritage. I don't know why my mother never talked about it. I suspect she shared that shame.

The fact of the matter is that only a very minute percentage of the general population has its roots in wealth. North America was a colony. While it drew people with money, the immigrants who came here did so because they wanted a better life, and often arrived with very little. I think many people have a poor background, and passing on poverty is a difficult thing to prevent because breaking such cycles takes time. The issues around poverty are complex and cannot be answered easily.

What has struck me so far about Hillbilly Elegy is the matter of drug abuse and alcoholism. I realize that poverty tends to beget such abuses. My family was poor, and so were the familes of both of my parents, but substance abuse did not find its way to my parents. It was not an issue with my mother's parents nor my father's. I'm sure some other sorts of dysfunction were passed down, but thankfully, that's not one of them. We were always well-taken care of no matter how little we had, and there were no incidents of minor children having to fend for themselves while parents were absent or having to do without because a parent needed to feed his addiction.

It's been an interesting read, and I'm looking forward to finishing it and seeing what conclusions Vance draws from his story.

Friday
Dec232016

Have some poutine with your theology

True confession: I have never eaten poutine. I don't know why people even equate Canadians with poutine, because I've lived here all my life, and I'd never heard of poutine until maybe ten years ago. Yes, I am Canadian, but no, I don't eat poutine. And I'm not overly fond of the stereotypes of Canadians. And yes, I bristle when people say that American culture and Canadian culture are "identical." An American transplanted to Canada said that exact thing on Facebook a couple of years ago. Said transplant has never been outside of Ontario, so I took the comment to be simply a manifestation of being unaware.

American culture and Canadian culture have similarities, but they are very different. I had Michael Haykin as a prof this past semester, and he got to talking about being a Canadian working in the U.S., and his observations and reflections reminded me of how very unlike we can be. As a Christian, the differences are also quite telling. The religious climate in Canada is very different. If you start by examining the link between religious affiliation and political affiliation alone, the differences begin to reveal themselves.

Anyway, I digress.

I see a lot about how Christians are supposed to engage with culture. For some, that seems to mean looking for biblical truth in cable television programs; sanctifying WWF wresting, or looking for spiritual messages in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Some Canadian Christians know more about the U.S. political culture than they do our own. I understand that. The big theological influences are in the U.S. Here in Canada, we do boast of a few notable men: Michael Haykin, D.A. Carson, Richard Longenecker. However, we realize we're a little nation population-wise, and clearly, our evangelical roots are connected to those in the U.S. However, the origins of Canada and the U.S. are vastly different (we had a revolution, it lasted three days, and we lost), so our evangelicalism will be different. That's the part of culture we ought to pay attention to. How has our history affected our culture, and thus our faith?

In 2017, I want to pay more attention to my own country. My social media feed can often be biased toward American culture, and while I do appreciate it, I want to focus on my own. I've been hearing nothing but good things about the book Hillbilly Elegy. Before deciding to read it, I read quite a few reviews. I decided to read it because it sounds quite poignant, and I like prose like that. But I'm very aware of the fact that the book is faiirly culture specific. The principle of poverty with its related issues here in Canada is not the same. Even words like "hillbilly" and "white trash" are not words I grew up with. I went to school with kids who lived in low cost housing; I don't remember hearing them referred to as hillbillies, and the only reference to "white trash" I had was from the movie Gone With the Wind

I decided that if I was going to read Hillbilly Elegy, I ought to read something about Canada's poverty problem, too. This year, I'm going to read a few books specific to Canadian culture, and see where they take me:

Poverty in Canada - an interdiscplinary look at the matter of poverty in Canada and its effects.

The Break - a novel authored by an Aboriginal woman, dealilng with the fate of indigenous women in Canada.

A Culture of Faith - a discussion of evangelical congregations in Canada. I'm hoping to get some resources that point directly to the history of evangelicalism in Canada.

And I don't think I'll be eating poutine with my reading; maybe a double-double from Tim Horton's.