Monthly Archives: January 2012

M is for Monday. And Memoir.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter

M is for Memoir.

A memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. Often memoirs are confused with autobiographies, but memoirs do not tell a person’s whole life story, but recount a specific part of their experience. My blog post yesterday is an example of a short memoir, a narrative based on personal experience. I’ve  been collecting conversion memoirs lately, stories people have published about their conversion to Christian faith.

The first conversion memoir I remember reading was Born Again by Charles Colson. I usually don’t tell people that one of the reasons I decided to study theology was reading Colson. I’m not an American, but if I was, I wouldn’t be a republican. Colson is, of course, a notorious republican. I remember Born Again appearing on my father’s shelves shortly after it was published. My 10-year-old self was disconcerted by this. I recall wondering what political benefit would come from Colson’s book. I didn’t say those things out loud. I remember being suspicious of the whole thing, though, certain that this conversion could not be real. I didn’t actually read the book until about 15 years later. By then Colson had also written many other books, one of which, Loving God, got me further along the studying theology path.

Other conversion memoirs that I’ve read include: Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis, Girl Meets God, by Lauren F. Winner, Take this Bread, by Sara Miles, and Surprised by Oxford by Caroline Webber. Lewis, Winner, and Miles I unreservedly recommend. Webber I wanted to like, but found her narrative under-edited and over-written. Some people I know absolutely love it, though, so you might as well.

Colson wrote another memoir about living the Christian life called Life Sentence. I’ve found that many people who write conversion narratives often write this sort of follow-up memoir. Some new follow-up memoirs (by Lauren F. Winner and Sara Miles) have very recently appeared. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Why read Conversion Memoirs or Christian Life Memoirs at all? Why should someone else’s reflection on their own life, their navel-gazing, have any interest to me? I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Why Narrative? on theology and stories. In one of these essays, Nicolas Lash argues that the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse is autobiography. Testimony, our own testimony of God’s work in our lives, is the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse, beginning with the confession that “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). As we listen to the testimony of other people, we learn to live our own story. This is what makes these memoirs important for me to read. From them I’m learning to better live my own story.



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My 80th Post – By Request

This post is not about books, but about a party. I’m not actually sure what I’m going to say here, but one of my brothers requested a blog post about tonight. So just for him, I’m posting. Plus we are in the middle of the Alphabet Series, so a small diversion is nice. Also this is my 80th blog post. So to celebrate, a post about a party.

I said above that one of my brothers requested this post. I have three brothers. You’ve met two of them if you are a careful reader of this blog. RestorationArchitectBrother (RABro) and YoungestBrother (YBro) both gave me books for Christmas and got mentioned in that context. The third brother is MontrealBrother (MBro). RABro is the brother I grew up knowing in our AFamily. MBro, YBro, and I share genes, but not much history to this point. They are part of 1Family, and I met them a little under a year ago. We are working on the shared history. Shared history is part of what this post is all about.

MBro told me tonight that he enjoyed what I said about Russian Criminal Tattoos back when I gave Volume 3 to YBro for Christmas. As I left the party we all attended, he said (rather loudly) “Hey, write a blog post about tonight!” So here it is, even if MBro doesn’t remember the request — and I’m not at all sure he will.

This evening 1Mom co-hosted an engagement party for the son of one of her close friends, the kind of friend who is included in family events. The groom also went to grade school with MBro. Though I’m a late arrival to 1Fam, I was included in the invitation to the party and happily went. MBro, his gf, and I hung out a bit and we all wondered where YBro was. So did 1Mom. An hour and a half into the party, MBro called YBro. YBro had people at his house, so he brought his party with him to 1Mom’s party. Let’s just say that the dress code at YBro’s party was much more casual than at 1Mom’s party. Things Got Interesting when YBro’s party arrived. If Looks Could Kill might be a title for a representation of scenes that ensued. The gentlemen from YBro’s party hit the buffet in short order, then found places to stand close to the bucket of beer next to the bar. The volume of the party went up a few decibels. Vodka was available at the bar, and shots were done. More beer. Champagne (for toasts). Vodka. Many things became very funny. My brothers and their entourage took up convenient chairs next to the buffet table so they could graze at the food while they quenched their thirst. They were still ensconced in these chairs when I left. I wished 1Mom best of luck cleaning up around the barbarians in the dining room and took to the icy road.

Shared history is part of what makes a family. I’m building up shared history with 1Fam, and tonight certainly added a new chapter to it.



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L is for Lurking in Libraries (and other Locations)

The letter

brings you today’s post. L is for Lurking.

I lurk in libraries and other locations where lots of books live. Like used bookshops. I find things to read by standing and looking at shelves and shelves of books. I realize that not everyone finds books this way. I’ve got friends who complain that bookshops are overwhelming — they’ve no idea what to pick or where to look or if something is any good. But I lurk and find lovely and unexpected things.

I found my dissertation topic while lurking in the stacks of a major research library. Really, that’s what happened. I didn’t initially use the word “lurk” for the process, but when I described what happened to a prof, he said “Oh, you were lurking in the stacks.” Yes, that is exactly what I was doing. I was lurking in the stacks looking at books on biblical studies. I was working as a research assistant on a project to recover women interpreters of the Bible, particularly women from the 19th century, thus I always kept my eye open for old books. I spotted an old book that said “Trimmer on the Bible” on the spine. I pulled it off the shelf. I was holding a 200-year-old commentary on the whole Bible written by Sarah Trimmer. It turned out that Trimmer was a prolific writer, primarily interested in teaching the Bible to others. Since that was also my interest, I did a little research and wrote a dissertation called “Teaching the Bible with Sarah Trimmer.” Lurking pays off. (That’s Trimmer on the left.)

I also lurk in other locations where books can be found. I said used bookshops above, but any bookshop will do. I prefer used bookshops because they seem somehow more suited to lurking. Inveterate browsers often congregate there. There are three used bookshops within walking distance of my house. I lurk in all of them at different times. The closest one tends to the pricer side, but they also frequently have interesting items. I found Elizabeth I: Collected Writings there. I snapped it up. The other two are next door to one another. This may seem odd, but they are not remotely similar. One is The World’s Messiest Bookshop. Seriously. You cannot beat the place for mess. The advantage is that the guy who runs the place knows his stock. Every single time I buy something from him he has a comment on the book or the author. This shop also has The World’s Longest Sale going on, so I keep going back. He’s got loads of interesting Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Mysteries. The next-door shop appears, by contrast, to be the World’s Neatest Bookshop. This guy’s collection is smaller, but he is selective. I’ve also found some interesting things there.

The most interesting used bookshop I’ve been in recently is only open in the summer. It is called The Net Shed and books are paid for by donation to the Friends of the Meaford Library. They had all kinds of interesting things and a large number of lurkers the particular Saturday 1Mom took me there. It is her favourite source of books.

Where do you lurk to find books?


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K is for Key, as in the Key to the Cipher

Today’s Post is brought to you by the letter

Where K is for Key. As in cipher key.

I like books about codes. As in secret codes, not writing code as in computer programming. There are some similarities between coding and encoding, but for now, let’s leave it at I like books about secret codes.

I’ve mentioned Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson before in this blog. I called it twisted history at the time. Cryptonomicon is mostly about codes, as in secret codes and encryption systems. I really like this aspect of the book. Enigma by Robert Harris also includes a lot of secret code stuff in it, as the action centres around Bletchley Park, home of English and Allied code-breaking operations. Bletchley Park also features in Cryptonomicon. I’m sure there are other books that feature WW2 code breaking, but those are the two I know about and enjoyed reading.

Codes also feature in Have His Carcass, by Dorothy L. Sayers. HHC features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finding bodies and solving murder mysteries. It comes after Strong Poison, and before Gaudy Night. If you like the characters, HHC has them, PLUS, as an added bonus, it has secret codes. And spies. And all kinds of cool stuff. You should check it out.

I’ve got A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar on my shelf to read. It is also about cryptography. I’m interested in the subject, and think the book looks fascinating, so I’m not quite sure why I haven’t read it yet. So many lovely things to read though, that could be part of it. I get distracted by other shiny books.

Update: You may remember that I thought I might read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies but wasn’t sure because of the person who recommended it. I’m almost finished and totally hooked on Robertson Davies. Now I can say I’ve read Davies!


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J is for Jackets, or Judging A Book By Its Cover

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter

J is for Jacket.

(See how the letter J illustrated above goes with the whole Jacket theme? Huh? Do you see it? Isn’t it clever? Aren’t I annoying?)

Yes, I do judge books by their covers. I’m pretty sure we all do it, even if we pretend we don’t. How do I know? I work in a bookshop and a lot of my job is receiving books, both new books that are shipped to us from publishers & distributers, and used books that people sell us. I like my job because it means I touch almost every book that comes into the store. I get to see what people ordered, and I get to see the new arrivals when they first arrive. This is a fun job. Since the bookshop that I work in is a Theological Bookstore, not all the books have enthralling covers. Many are pretty straightforward with one or two colours and title and author. Sometimes books with well-designed and attractive covers come in and these often attract the attention of the staff. Once a really badly designed book cover came in. I’m afraid we judged the book and we still mock the cover. Have a look:

Seriously. C’mon. Who thought that having a back-lit grim-reaper figure would somehow make this book better? Yes, I’m judging. The cover screams that church planters are scary horror movie figures. It says Run Away! (Side feminist note: the subtitle implies that church planters are all men. Hmm.)

Here is a cover I like:

True, the feminist in me cringes at grown women calling themselves “girls,” but I like the cover, and the recipes look good too.

Book covers are a part of picking books. Without well-designed covers, books can become bundles of print that are difficult to distinguish from one another. Here are some more beautiful covers.

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What to Read Next? I is for Internet

Today’s post, brought to you by the letter

is all about finding books on the Internet — because I is for Internet.

Obviously, I write this blog about books thinking that people might find it helpful in figuring out what to read next, and this blog is on the internet, so the internet MUST be a helpful source of information to figure out what to read next, right? Yes and no.

Let’s start with No so we move in a positive direction. In the past when I’ve followed advice from internet-people-I-don’t-know, I’ve been disappointed. In a usenet group I read a positive comparison between Codex, by Lev Grossman to Possession (which is my selection for The Best Book Ever). It turns out the comparison between Codex and Possession was made in the New York Times Book Review and did not originate with the person who continued the comparison in the usenet group. All I have to say to the reviewer is You Must Be Joking. And: Have You Read Possession? Possession has a depth to it that Codex certainly does not have. Codex barely sustained one reading let alone the multiple readings I’ve subjected Possession to. There are some similarities in subject matter, but there the similarities end. I was thoroughly disappointed in Codex and am surprised it is still in print. This bad experience means a few things. (a) I’m suspicious of recommendations from people I don’t know in usenet groups. (b) I’m really conflicted about trying Grossman’s later books — which look interesting — because of the bad earlier work. (c) No one should ever compare books with Possession. IMHO of course.

On the other hand, Yes, I’ve found the internet helpful in figuring out what to read next. I use the fantastic fiction site regularly to keep up with favourite authors, and to find out which book comes next in the series I just found. This is the website that alerted me to the fact that Margaret Atwood and Kate Atkinson contributed stories to the same collection called Crimespotters. I ran out and read Crimespotters and quite enjoyed it. I also use the LibraryThing recommendation lists. I think there are flaws in the recommendation algorithm at LibraryThing and you do have to be a member with some books entered for this to work (I think) but it gives me a sense of what people-with-books-like-mine have in their collections. Then there are social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Last year the Toronto Public Library FB page offered to recommend books if people sent them three books they really liked a lot. I did this. It took a while for the TPL staffers to get back to me — I think they probably got flooded with requests — but the list they sent was helpful. And I liked the books they recommended.

What about right now? Has the Internet recommended any books to me lately? Yes. And I’m of two minds about the recommendation. On the NPR site is a new blog post by Lev Grossman recommending books for one’s inner geek. I classify myself as a geek. I’m suspicious of Lev Grossman (see above). Reading a blog post isn’t too much of a commitment, so I clicked on the short link in Twitter. Grossman recommends three books: Possession (which I love), Snow Crash (which I also love, but which is so different from Possession), and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, which is on my to-be-read shelf. Rats. I think I might take Grossman’s advice and read Fifth Business. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

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H is for eigHtH in the alpHabet

Here we are at

Where H is for History.

H is for History, as in non-fiction, not historical fiction. There was a week on historical fiction back in November as you may remember. If you don’t remember, the five links in the previous sentence point you there. Right. History, not the fictional kind. I like to read history. When I was an undergraduate, lo these many years ago, I studied aerospace engineering. As a break from all the physics and calculus I read history. All my elective courses were in history. Sometimes I mixed things up and read about the history of mathematics or science. Twice a year there were book sales at the Graduate Student’s Union in the gym. I primarily bought history books at the sales. I still have some of those books.

I didn’t get hooked on history during my engineering studies. I’ve been hooked on history for as long as I can remember. OK, since grade 2 for sure. How do I know? During the year I was in grade 2, that is when I was 7, I lived with my family in the UK, in Greater London. I remember quite distinctly being upset that my parents went to the British Museum on a week day when I was in school. I also remember being intrigued by all the really old places we visited that all had interesting stories behind them. I think it was the interesting stories that caught my attention at the time. After we came home to Canada, I continued to be interested in old things with stories. And in archeology. Digging old stuff out of the ground was fascinating.

I figured out that history, while an acceptable hobby, was not considered by people I knew to be an acceptable career choice. So I kept reading history as a hobby. Now it is part of what I do for a living as well! How exciting. I write about women who are dead (making them historical figures ;-)) and what those women wrote about the Bible. This is a particular area of the broader burgeoning field of reception history.

What history books do I like? Last year I read Enthusiasm by Ronald A. Knox. I was disappointed. I found Knox a misogynistic and unsympathetic writer. I’d hoped for more in this history of charismatic movements in the church. I also read Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought which was dense, and de Vries Perspectives in the History of Religions, which ended up being more about method. I like reading about historical method, but find it preferable if a method is actually used so that conclusions can be reached. At present I’ve got a book called The Last Divine Office by Geoffrey Moorhouse on deck. It is about the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. I’ve also got Volume 3 of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples (I’ve finished 1 and 2), and a biography of Catherine de Medici. And a book of essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb. We cannot forget the Himmelfarb.

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Letter G, Letter G, Letter G, Letter G – there will be an answer…

The letter

brings you today’s post. G is for Genre.

I’ve discussed genre before a couple of times and noted that part of what makes a book great is the subversion of genre, or blending genres (example: Joss Whedon’s Firefly series). That being said, booksellers and publishers classify books by genre because then people have some idea what they are getting. People decide they like or dislike various genres, thus saving themselves the bother of perusing those shelves at the local library or bookshop. I, for example, don’t bother looking at the Romance or Horror sections of any bookshop. My friend the Restless Teacher avoids the Science Fiction section along with the Fantasy section (should they be separate items). I like the genre sections of bookshops and libraries because sometimes, I just want a straightforward crime story, and if I look in the mystery section, I’ll find one. Problem solved. Well what to read next solved, the mystery itself may take a little longer.

I also read science fiction, but this is less of a fall-back category for me as I find that this genre has a significant range in it and I don’t like all aspects of its range. Some SciFi books feel like poorly disguised romance novels with a little space travel thrown in to fit the genre. You may recall that I’m a rocket scientist — I find some SciFi books are just not interesting because of the lack of science/technology or the poor science/technology in them. SciFi books are idea books. Crummy concept = crummy book. Thus I am more cautious about the SciFi genre, though I’ve been getting back into it in the last year or two.

Mysteries are my fall-back, a comfortable genre that I can usually count on for brain candy. I like finding new authors and reading through their backlist. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked through Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott books, Stephen Booth’s Cooper & Fry set, and David Hewson’s Nic Costa series. I don’t always read everything an author has written — sometimes I stop after one or two. I’m not a fan of Martha Grimes, for example, I couldn’t get past the first few of her books that I read.

I also like speculative fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Historical fiction is seldom separated out from the general fiction or literature section in libraries and bookshops. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with its own spot on the shelves. I’m not sure why that is. Of course you can have mysteries with an historical setting (Ellis Peters pops to mind), and thrillers set in the past, and romances with history as a backdrop, so maybe a setting in the past isn’t enough for a separate section. Fantasy and speculative fiction often get blended in with SciFi as SFF. I’ve ranted in other places about why this should not be so. I can see speculative fiction and science fiction getting along better than SciFi and Fantasy. I’m not sure at all why fantasy get’s put in that category. If someone has an explanation, I’d be happy to hear it.

All that to say, genre sometimes determines what I’m going to read next. I look for books that are similar to others that I’ve liked. At the same time I recognize that genre blending or genre twisting can make a book great — so classifications as issued by publishers or booksellers or librarians don’t always reflect the potential a book has.

What genres do you like? Why?

[The title of this entry probably means you’ve all got Mother Mary running through your head. Sorry about the earworm, I’m just passing it on.]

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The Letter F brings you today’s post

is for Friends & Family who recommend or suggest books. At times they demand that I read books.

You may object that a friend or family recommendation is pretty similar to books suggested by conversations, which I’ve already mentioned in my list of How I Find What To Read Next. Let me make some distinctions between friend/family recommendations and books suggested by conversations. The conversations that suggest reading don’t have to be about books to begin with, and often the conversation suggests a book only afterwards, when I’m thinking about the discussion. Example from last week’s post, later reflection on the endnotes vs footnotes conversation got me thinking about the Bartimaeus trilogy, fantasy books that feature footnotes. When friends or family recommend books to me they are quite specific about the book they suggest, they often give mini-reviews of the book in question, and may follow up the recommendation by lending me the book.

Friends & Family often begin conversations about a book they are going to recommend with the question “Have you read X?” When I admit to not being familiar with that particular book, responses range from gasps of horror (“How could you not have read ____?? You are a book fiend/math person/geek/other descriptor as appropriate!”) to mild dismay (“Really? But I thought that X is the kind of book you read”) to lack of surprise (“OK, it might be outside your usual reading, but I think that this one is worth your time”). Then comes the pitch. The friend or family member who asks “Have you read X?” expecting a “no” answer may skip the response part and launch directly into their pitch for the book. “Oh you MUST read this.” The pitch then goes on to give reasons for reading the book and may give a synopsis of plot if that seems appropriate. If the book is of a particular genre, that may be mentioned in the pitch, especially if the recommender knows that I read the genre.

I like family and friend reading suggestions. If the book in question is thrust upon me as part of the recommendation it makes it easier for me to read the book. I’ve got a friend who doesn’t like it when people lend her books so she’ll read them. She tends to avoid those books. I don’t do that. I may not get to it immediately, but I will read the book. Friends & family may suggest books to me but I may forget what the book is called, or the author’s name. Those are the suggestions I don’t follow up on, not because I don’t want to read the book, or I mistrust the recommendation, but because I can’t think of the information I need to find the book. If the book is a bestseller or a movie is out based on the book, I’m more likely to remember what friends & family say about it.

Last year I read a lot of books based on recommendations from family and friends: Room, the first few Sookie Stackhouse books, Treason, and I’m sure there are more. Those are the ones that pop immediately to mind. I’ve got a few on my list for this year: Wolf Hall is one. A while ago someone recommended Neil Gaiman’s works in general, so I’ve got one of his in my TBR pile. The Restless Teacher is going to lend me Kate Atkinson’s most recent book because she really liked it.

What about you? Do you trust recommendations by your family and friends? Do you suggest books to them?

Follow up: Last week while writing the A for Author post I made the happy discovery that Atkinson and Atwood both have stories in the collection Crimespotting. I said I was hitting the library, and I did. I’ve just finished the book and quite enjoyed it, and recommend it. I don’t think you’ll find it to buy, you’ll probably have to go to the library. Hunt it down.


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E is for Monday. No, that doesn’t work!

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter

Where E is for Education.

Education, that sounds boring. How does Education help me find books to read? My area of specialty is Religious Education, so I read books about education. And you are right, many of these ARE boring. This does not bode well for teachers and students everywhere because, in my humble opinion, education should not be boring.

Remember that whole thing I wrote the other day about people with doctorates and how sometimes they write stuff that no-one seems to edit? This seems to hold true in the field of education in general, but religious education in particular. I’ve found that people write the most amazing drivel in my field. Possibly others find this in their own specialties. Maybe once you get to a certain level in an area of study everything looks the same and it isn’t challenging or interesting any longer. Maybe, but that seems wrong. Surely there must be someone doing something of interest that they can communicate well. Somewhere. Please?

Obviously I went into religious education thinking it was interesting enough to study. I must like some books on Education. And I do. The best education book I read last year was Taught by God: Teaching and Spiritual Formation by Karen Marie Yust and E. Byron Anderson. It looked at some things we can learn from history about teaching and spiritual formation. It had depth and insight and didn’t jump onto the latest trendy theoretical bandwagons. It is the sort of book I’d like to write.

Other interesting books on education include Stages of Faith by James W. Fowler and Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner. Both of these are seminal theoretical works that need to be read to understand all the reaction to the two theories. Mercifully, both books and theories are interesting. I’m not saying the books are a breeze to read, but both Fowler and Gardner communicate clearly. Both Fowler’s stages of faith and Gardner’s multiple intelligences have been oversimplified and turned into something else by people who popularized them and turned them into bandwagons for others to jump onto. Reading the original work is always better than reading someone else’s summary.

I find cognitive theory very interesting, and with that in mind, one book on education I’m most looking forward to reading is How We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner. Gardner’s multiple intelligences is also a cognitive theory book — cognitive studies examines how we think and what makes the brain tick. I also find developmental theories interesting (Fowler is a developmental theorist). The book I most look forward to reading on developmental theory is Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School ed. Caol Gilligan, Nona P. Lyons, and Trudy J. Hammer. Hopefully these books will have some substance to them so that I won’t want to throw them against the wall.

Happy Monday everyone!

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