Monthly Archives: December 2011

Other Seasonal Things

I’ve been talking about Seasonal Books all week. There are other Seasonal Entertainments that I enjoy. Reading I do all year round, and I’ve often read the “seasonal books” mentioned this week in other seasons, even that far distant season, summer. (Except Winter Solstice. That is pretty much a Christmas read.) But it isn’t summer, it is Christmas. This evening 1Mom and I went to a performance of The Nutcracker put on by a local ballet school. It was a lot of fun. I’ve never seen The Nutcracker in a live performance ever — I’ve watched it on TV, but never live. When I was small, I used to love to watch The Nutcracker on TV, then danced around the house (badly) for days or even weeks afterward. AMom thought this was cute, but not an indicator that I should take ballet. She was probably wise.

Other Seasonal Favourites:

1. The Messiah. I often go to the sing-a-long version the Sunday before Christmas. I’m not going this year, but I’ve been loads of times, and it is a lot of fun. I’ve also got a great recording that I listen to all year round. It is the performances or sing-a-longs that are seasonal for me.

2. Carol sings. The past several years I’ve gone to a German-English carol sing on the first Sunday of Advent. This is very fun and includes singing Kling Glöckchen! I’ve also gone to other carol services or singing events in the past. In the dim and distant past we used to go carolling with people from church every year. We loaded up a bus and went to all the houses of the seniors from our church.

3. Christmas TV specials. I don’t watch TV any more, but if I did I’d watch the Grinch and Charlie Brown for sure. Those were my favourites. I’m not so big on Rudolf or any of the others, but definitely the Grinch and Charlie Brown.

4. Gingerbread. AMom makes awesome gingerbread. She used to make gingerbread houses — once there was a gingerbread castle, and another time a Victorian Gingerbread Mansion. These days it is just gingerbread cookies, but that is fine. The gingerbread houses we couldn’t touch until they were stale. Cookies are better because we can eat them right away.

Lots of people talk about favourite Christmas movies. I’ve never seen most of the movies they talk about. I think I’ve seen the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” once. I don’t associate movies with Christmas. The only movie we’ve seen on a semi-regular basis as a family at Christmas is “The Sound of Music.” And that’s not really about Christmas.

What are your favourite seasonal things?

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Not Really a Seasonal Book: Scarlet Feather

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy isn’t really a seasonal book, though it does start with a New Year’s Eve party. In the book, Scarlet Feather is the name of a catering company run by Tom Feather and Cathy Scarlet. The book talks about the ups and downs of running a catering company in Dublin and all the intricacies of relating to people — clients, family members, and spouses. I think this book is one of Binchy’s best, though she does write quite a lot of really good books.  Scarlet Feather is one of a number of novels she has written about present-day Dublin. These novels are not all about the same people, but the characters in this novel show up in other novels as background figures. Similarly the background figures in this novel are slightly familiar if you’ve read others in the set.

Binchy’s earlier works tend to be rather depressing. Circle of Friends is an example of this earlier work. The movie is quite a good adaption of the novel, but of course the lengthy novel contains much more detail. The movie has Minnie Driver in it, so that is reason enough to see it. Of all the early works of Binchy, I thought Circle of Friends actually had a somewhat redemptive ending. Many others (Firefly Summer, Light a Penny Candle, Copper Beech to name a few) were very dark with little light in them. The more recent works, the ones with the community of characters, feel much lighter, more hopeful, less bleak. I’m sure Binchy might be able to tell us why this might be the case. I do not propose a reason, I just observe. This is not to say that (for example) Tara Road or Heart and Soul are all goodness and light — there are conflicts aplenty in the books. But somehow the endings are hopeful despite the pain the characters experience. The community of characters begin with Evening Class (1996) and continue to the present. I’ve not read the one that’s just come out, so I can’t say whether the community continues.

I’d recommend Binchy as an interesting read. Her books are not quite at the brain candy level, but they are not hard work either. I find them enjoyable reads with interesting characters and situations. There are usually some theological issues raised in the books, and a priest or nun show up as characters more often than not. Whitethorn Woods is all about miracles.

I’ve come to the end of the list of 25 books I’ve read more than three times. I’m quite sure I’ll have no problem thinking of something else to write about. We are getting close to the end of the year, so Year-End Lists will probably be my next big theme. Be  Warned.

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Seasonal Books 3: Bridget Jones’s Diary

Ah Bridget, what would New Year’s Resolutions be without you and your fine example? How could we think of ringing in another year without revisiting the Turkey Curry Buffet? Bridget Jones’s Diary, either the movie version or the book (in my opinion they are equally good) is quintessential holiday fare, especially for the single female.

BJD is a great read and re-read partially because of Helen Fielding’s adept use of language. I’m always in slight awe of the consistent tone of the diary — Fielding does not break cover. I’ve read all of Fielding’s books — there are only four — and I think BJD is the best of them. Part of this is the consistent tone and the interesting family plots, but there are also interesting literary references throughout the book. The most obvious references are to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. The casting of the movie with Colin Firth as Mark Darcy is beyond brilliant. (Also note that the writer for the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice is also on the writing team for the movie version of BJD.) There is another literary reference that I wonder about. I wonder where Fielding got the name Bridget Jones to begin with. Henry Fielding (1707-1758) wrote a novel called Tom Jones, which has a key character called Bridget. H. Fielding – X Jones. Hmm. No one has commented on this in print as far as I can see. Most people just ooh and ah at the layers of meta-fiction between Bridget and P&P both print and movie versions.

Apparently Helen Fielding spawned the “Chick Lit” genre single-handedly with the publication of BJD. I’d have to do a bit more research to find out whether that assessment is actually true. It is interesting that no-one has a genre category for books like About A Boy when it is (in my mind anyway) very much like BJD but with a male lead instead of a female lead. I’ve been trying to think of a gender-neutral genre label that has the same sort of snap that “Chick Lit” has, but have been thus far unsuccessful. Still thinking. Any suggestions?

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Seasonal Books 2: Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher is not on my List of Some Books I’ve Read 3 Times or More, though I have indeed read it three times or more. Representing Ms Pilcher’s oeuvre on the List in Question is Coming Home, which I discussed during Historical Fiction Week. I do, however, have to mention Winter Solstice here because it is so obviously a seasonal read. Much of the action happens before Christmas and the book ends before Christmas Day, but Christmas and the true celebration of that holiday is pivotal to the action in the book.

Because a Christian celebration is pivotal to the book you might think that the theology of the book is what makes it appealing to me. There’s some theology, but I’m afraid it is pretty far in the background. Some might find the theology in the book pronounced. I thought not. Oh, it is there, but it is a weak tea sort of theology, nothing robust at all. It is too bad, because there is potential for a bit more. I frequently read Winter Solstice at this time of year, not for the seasonal cheer, but because of a particular scene or two in which a guest or stranger arrives at a house and finds an unexpectedly warm welcome. This sort of theme recurs through the book. This theme is very theological, and much more robust than the explicit weak-tea theology in the book. The book also captures the darkness of the season well, along with the pleasure of a well-lit room viewed from a dark street. It is a nice bit of brain candy for the winter.

Today is Santa Lucia, and I did attempt to think of a book that connected with the festival. I thought of Coming Home (which led to Winter Solstice) because in the opening scene two friends leave school for the Christmas holidays after eating saffron buns. Saffron buns are a large part of celebrating Santa Lucia, even when we are slightly cheeky and call them eye-ball buns. The Norwegian taught us how to celebrate  Santa Lucia and so I lift a (unfortunately imaginary) glass of mulled wine in her direction and say Happy Santa Lucia!

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Seasonal Books: About A Boy

When I started blogging I made a list of Some Books I’ve Read 3 or More Times. I then noted that I could probably get a lot of mileage out of writing blog posts on the books on that list. I’m down to the last three books on that list, and doesn’t it work out nicely that two of them are books I associate with Christmas.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby is a book that has a movie version. I think I’ve seen the movie more often than I’ve read the book. That is rare, but in this case I own the movie not the book. This is also rare. I particularly like this movie adaptation as it has done a really good job with internal dialogue. The book is full of internal dialogue — and in the movie voice-overs provide access to the two point-of-view characters’ thoughts. I think it is well done.

Nick Hornby writes very interesting books about life in London. Yes, he is another UK writer that I like a lot. About A Boy happens to be his book I’ve read more than three times, and I do enjoy it, but I’m not sure it represents Hornby’s best work. I think one of Hornby’s most brilliant novels is Juliet, Naked. Really Really Really Good. Really. J,N plays with postmodern analysis of art, particularly music and lyrics, and the work of a particular artist. I’ve only read Juliet, Naked once so far, but I plan to go back to it.

One thing I appreciate about Hornby is the different things he tries in his books. He’s written from a variety of points of view, using male and female p.0.v. characters as well as old and young p.o.v. characters. His setting is usually London, but he isn’t stuck there. He addresses interesting issues and I like most of his characters. They are interesting people. There is usually a comic element in Hornby’s books even though they address big meaning-of-life questions. I enjoy the ironic twist in the books. All that to say if you haven’t checked out Hornby’s work, give it a shot. About a Boy is probably a good place to start. Read the book first, but the movie is also very good.

I almost forgot to tell you why About A Boy is a Christmas book! The main adult character makes his living from royalties on a Christmas song. That his father wrote. The book has some pretty good Christmas moments in it as well, complete with awkward families. It is a bit of a stretch to call this a seasonal book, but I associate it with Christmas. In my head it works.

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Sunday Lists: The Wonders of Wiki

This week I debated writing a list of my own for Sunday, but then found a lovely meta-list on wikipedia – a list of book lists! How could I resist exploring then sharing. The meta-list provides lots of exploring options. This is what I found interesting at first glance:

1. A list of bagpipe books. Who knew?

2. A list of fiction set in Toronto. Local Literature!!

3. Two lists to argue with. The first is a list of the 100 most influential books ever written. This list was compiled and published by a male person in 1998. It contains three (3) female authors. That’s 3%. Then there’s the interestingly titled list, Literary Taste: How to Form it. One forms literary taste by reading the authors on the list. This list was first compiled in 1909, then updated in 1935, both times by a male person. The combined list contains (by my count) 360 authors, 26 of whom are female. That’s 7.2%. 65 years earlier than buddy with the 100 most influential books and his 3%. Now I realize that the point of the two lists is different, and the criteria used in compiling them is therefore different. But women certainly did not gain ground in the 65 years. At. All. Of course there are other things to argue with about the lists. Really? Are these the most influential books? How can you tell? On the literary taste side I find little to argue about as I haven’t read most of the books. Thus, I probably have not properly formed literary taste, and so cannot make a judgment. I HAVE read Jane Austen, and she’s on the literary taste list. Maybe there’s some hope.

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True Confessions about Poetry

I mentioned in a previous post that I once had a dim view of poetry — something about it all being pretentious hipster blather. I have modified my opinion, partially because James Sire and Eugene Peterson convinced me that Poetry was worth reading. I’m still not a big poetry reader, though I am learning to read it better. With that in mind I have acquired some books (big surprise) so I can have poetry to read.

I started trying to read more poetry because I realized that I couldn’t understand poems that I liked that my friends wrote. I got bits of the poem, but I’m sure I’m not plumbing its depths. I have smart, well-read, articulate friends who write interesting things, but if I can’t understand them, possibly I should become better read. Anyhow, there are still lots of poetry books on my to-be-read list. Here is a smattering of what I’ve not read.

1. John Donne – most of his oeuvre. I’ve read some of his Holy Sonnets, but not many. I’m still working on it. I’ve got a book of Donne’s poetry that I dip into now and again. One thing I’m learning is that poems cannot be read quickly, nor does it seem that books of poetry are necessarily meant to be read cover to cover.

2. Danté, The Divine Comedy. I realize this is rather a long work, in three parts, but I do intend to read it. All of it. I have Dorothy Sayers’s translation which I hunted down for years, and only found one volume at a time in used book shops scattered throughout Ontario. In this search I also found a copy of Sayers’s translation of The Song of Roland. That is also on my to-be-read list.

3. Milton, Paradise Lost. I do research on women who interpreted the Bible in the 18th and 19th centuries. They all read Milton. I figure I’d better get on that.

4. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve got the collected poetry in the Penguin volume on my shelf. These poems have made the recently published list 25 Books Every Christian Should Read. This reinforces my inclusion of Hopkins on my list.

5. As mentioned above, I do research on 18th and 19th century women who interpret the Bible. These well-read women often read poetry. I’ve acquired 2 volumes of 18th Century Verse — one the New Oxford collection and the other a smaller collection by Penguin. I need to read those poems to understand the women I research.

I’ve got other books of poetry lurking on my shelves. I know I’ll read more. Soon.

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Further reflections on Genre, or What makes Rowling, Whedon, and Shakespeare Great

The title of this post may seem strange to you. Why would I link J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, and William Shakespeare? It is all the Playwright’s fault. Once I asked her (because someone asked me) what makes Shakespeare great? I wasn’t disputing the greatness, I just wondered at the universal acclaim surrounding the name. She gave me a long disquisition on the topic. I’ll summarize it for you:

Reasons Shakespeare is Great:

  1. Timing – the renaissance was a very fruitful time for all the arts in Western Europe.
  2. Number of works and Scope of work: Shakespeare wrote a lot about all kinds of things, both comedy and tragedy, history plays and  fantasy plays, and also poetry.
  3. He was Joss Whedon, that is, he took familiar stories/genres, and  gave them a little twist so that they became something different. That is, both Shakespeare and Whedon play with the boundaries between categories.
  4. He wrote fractals, that is the words, lines, stories, symbols all were interconnected and reflected each other very well so you can take a word or a line and begin to see the whole.

You’ll see that the Playwright put Whedon and Shakespeare together for me. She claimed that their works do similar things — blur category boundaries. Example for Whedon: Firefly. This completely awesome series blurs the boundaries between a Western (y’know with cowboys and gunfights and things) and Science Fiction. The stock characters from Westerns are present – the doc, the courtesan, the loner-fighter-for-justice, the minister, the hired gun, and etc. But they all live in a space ship. The best comedy moment of the series plays with the genre bending. (Wash: That sounds like something out of science fiction. Zoe: We live on a spaceship, dear.)

The other day when discussing genre, I acknowledged that Rowling flies pretty close to the edge of the way I define Fantasy. I posted my thoughts on genre and then went away and thought more about the Potter books. In an aha moment I made a connection between the genre boundaries Rowling negotiates and the genre boundaries that Whedon and Shakespeare also play with. Possibly this is part of why Potter is such a huge success. Rowling has given us something new — in between familiar categories she found and carved out a new space all for herself.

It seems that simple genre categories never work for really good books. Possibly this is the reason — really good writers find a niche between categories all their own and write it up. Then the rest of us sit back and admire what they’ve done, what they’ve seen that we hadn’t been able to see before. We are amazed we didn’t notice this between-space before because it now seems so obvious and familiar. Now we should all go read Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams.

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Reading Guides 2: Take and Read

Take & Read, Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List by Eugene Peterson is the other reading guide that I’ve read and re-read. I’ll start with the whole gender balance issue to get that out of the way, then move on to what I like about Peterson’s list.

As I mentioned yesterday, after reading Unless by Carol Shields I started looking carefully at gender balance in reading lists and in my own reading. It is relatively easy to get a good count on male and female authors from Peterson’s guide as it is primarily a set of lists. (The books by James Sire mentioned yesterday are more about reading rather than lists of things to read. Excavating how many times women and men were referenced involved the index and counting notes and I’m not sure my numbers are right.) The guide contains 204 named authors (excluding Peterson), 24 of whom are women. The books lists 256 works, and 28 of these works are by women. Yes, that means some women are mentioned twice. The women who are mentioned on two lists are Annie Dillard, Virginia Stem Owens, Evelyn Underhill, and Sigrid Undset. All in all Peterson doesn’t do horribly badly in the gender balance category, but 7 of his 19 lists include no women (Classics, Psalms, Prayer, Prayerbooks, Spiritual Direction, Pastors, and Commentaries).

Peterson’s annotated lists are categorized by genre and content. Each list has an introduction that explains why Peterson reads this kind of writing. Peterson also helpfully explains how he places items in this particular list — what makes a commentary a commentary, for example. The introductions are what I like most about this book. I’ve quoted from the Poetry introduction when preaching on Isaiah. In that introduction, Peterson explains what reading poetry does to you and why many people “get impatient and go read Ann Landers instead.” Here is an extended quote on the difference between prose and poetry:

“In prose we are after something, getting information, acquiring knowledge. We read as fast as we can to get what we want so that we can put it to good use. If the writer is not writing well — that is, if we cannot understand her quickly — we get impatient, shut the book, and wonder why someone does not teach her to write a plain sentence. But in poetry we take a different stance. We are prepared to be puzzled, to go back, to wait, to ponder, to listen. This attending, this waiting, this reverential posture, is at the core of the life of faith, the life of prayer, the life of worship, the life of witness. If we are in too much of a hurry to speak, we commit sacrilege. Poets slow us down, poets make us stop. Read it again, read it again, read it again.”

[Notice the feminine pronoun? That is Peterson. He switches back and forth between he and she instead of using their.]

The only think that makes me twitch about Peterson’s annotated reading list is his final list — books he wrote. Really? Is that necessary? And you leave us with that list. It puts a damper on the rest of the book. But the rest is really good, so I go back to it anyhow and try to ignore the final list.

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Reading Guides Part 1: How To Read Slowly

I first read How To Read Slowly in 2001 between finishing my master of divinity and starting my doctorate. This might seem like an odd time to read a book on how to read — clearly I could read as I’d managed to get the MDiv. I wrote the equivalent of my master’s thesis on teaching for moral growth through stories. I thought that my doctoral dissertation would go in a similar direction. It didn’t, but that is another story. I was expanding my reading about reading. In addition, I read this book in Lent when I’d given up reading fiction. Reading about how to read fiction helped me make it to Easter.

Sire wrote this book (still in print in a second edition) in 1978 after writing The Universe Next Door. People wrote to him after they read TUND to find out how to read books to discover the worldview it exemplified. How To Read Slowly was the long answer to this question. It is meant for Christians, but Sire noted in his first chapter (also the introduction) that reading is a pretty universal craft, and he thought non-Christians could learn to read from his book as well. Sire includes chapters on reading non-fiction, reading poetry, reading fiction, the contexts of pieces of writing, and how to choose what to read next.

I re-read the first couple of chapters today on the bus home in order to remind myself of why I like this book. Sire has a great conversational writing style. I didn’t feel like I was in a lecture with Dr. Sire — yet I wanted to take notes. I was reminded of why re-reading is often a good idea, why reading slowly is better than reading quickly, and what fun reading non-fiction can be. I now want to assign this book to all my students as a supplementary text, particularly the chapter on reading an argument in an article. The poetry chapter is pretty good too, and is part of the reason I no longer think poetry is all pretentious hipster BS.

I last read this book about two years ago, shortly after reading Unless by Carol Shields. In Unless, Shields makes the point that many influential reading lists are compiled by men and consist primarily of male writers. This made me think. I regularly look at other people’s reading lists and those lists influence what I read. I went off and examined the gender balance in my own reading (I keep a list remember). Then I examined the gender balance in the two reading guides I read most often — both by men. Sire actually didn’t do too badly. He used an article by a woman as his primary example in the non-fiction chapter. He quoted two poets as personal favourites in the poetry chapter — one male and one female. On balance, his work is heavily weighted in favour of male writers, but he did not exclude women, and in one chapter a woman writer was the key example. A later work of Sire’s (Habits of the Mind) mentioned 23 women intellectuals/writers vs. 311 men. These are things that make me slightly crazy. What is more crazy-making is that Sire does a better job of including women than many other reading guides. This means that a female to male ratio of 23:311 is better than most. THAT is crazy-making.

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