Tag Archives: Atwood

Favourite Non-Fiction Books

After posting my ten favourite novels I got thinking about a top-ten non-fiction list. This turned out to be much harder than I thought it would be. I’ve got a list of non-fiction books that I like and have been influential, but how do you pick favourites? And how do you eliminate some of these? I’m not sure. So I have two lists.

The first list is my current top ten, ordered alphabetically by title. Here it is:

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner

Holy Writing Sacred Text by John Barton

How To Read Slowly by James W. Sire

Outsmarting IQ by David Perkins

Second Words by Margaret Atwood

The Call of Stories by Robert Coles

The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education by Walter Brueggemann

The Godbearing Life by Kenda Creasy Dean

The Science of God by Alister McGrath

The second list is the next twenty books. These books might make a top ten list given more or different criteria, or given a different week or month. I couldn’t quite bump them up, but neither could I let them go. So here they are for your consideration, again alphabetically by title.

100 Ways to Improve your Writing by Gary Provost

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Between Two Worlds by John R.W. Stott

Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry by William R. Myers

Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Everybody’s Favourites by Arlene Pearly Rae

Knowing God by J.I. Packer

Like Dew Your Youth by Eugene Peterson

Of This and Other Worlds by C.S. Lewis

Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative by Adele Berlin

Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Take and Read by Eugene Peterson

Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible

The Bluestocking Circle by Sylvia Harstock Myers

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Original Vision by Edward Robinson

The Scope of Our Art by L. Gregory Jones

This Odd and Wondrous Calling by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell

How about you, any favourite non-fiction reads?

 

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Influence Part Second

Some people with some time on their hands searched Facebook for everyone’s lists of ten influential books/books that stayed with them, then compiled the top twenty. I’m pleased to say that not a single one of my ten books of influence made the top list. I’ve read most of the books on the list (16/20) but none is in my books of influence list.

Are you one of the mob? Or do you stand alone?

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A Dozen Books of Influence

Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote an article called “Classic literary works to challenge the thinking Christian” in which she lists 12 + 1 (a baker’s dozen) works she recommends because they are challenging but rewarding, and all have helped her “to love the Lord my God with all my soul, all my strength, and all my mind—and to be a better steward of this world in which God has placed us.”

It is a good list. I’ve nothing against Prior’s list. So far I’ve read 2 of her 13, and have at least three others on my shelf. I agree that the list is challenging. I started one of the books she lists, and was not able to go on after about a page. I’ve not had the courage to try again, though everyone raves about Beloved. (Does this count as a true confession? Probably.) Though Prior’s list is good, it isn’t my list. So I’ve come up with a list of my own, not to replace hers, and not with exactly the same criteria. I made a list of books, works of fiction, that have in some way shaped my spiritual life and thinking. Often a particular author has been a spiritual guide in many works, but I have only chosen one work by any author.

Disclaimer: These are all works of fiction, and I don’t think any of them is classified as “Christian Fiction” anywhere. Some come closer to actually being that than others. Just because a novel is on Prior’s list, or on my list, you shouldn’t think it is “safe” or happy-clappy or filled with people going to church. These books gave me some kind of positive spiritual insight, but they are not in the least preachy.

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve set this as an option for an intro to the OT class I taught. I have enjoyed students’ thoughts on this as well, and learned from them.
  2. John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. I’ve also set this for that OT intro class. This has some striking ideas about what it means to be created Imago Dei.
  3. P.D. James, The Children of Men. You may notice a speculative/science fiction bent to this list so far. Yes, that is true. Sometimes by writing about worlds askew somehow from reality, writers are better able to comment on lived reality.
  4. Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. And a fantasy novel?? Yes. See above remark. Also see the works of C.S. Lewis, who I have not included on this list anywhere.
  5. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana. More fantasy. Don’t worry, I’ll turn to more “serious” fiction next. If, however, you think that the speculative/science fiction and/or fantasy is less serious than other kinds of fiction, I refer you again to that guy Lewis.
  6. John Grisham, The Last Juror. Yes, this could be classified as genre fiction of a certain kind (Thriller? Mystery?). Grisham is, however, a good story-teller, and his stories can pack a punch. You don’t need to go to the classics for the possibility of life-change.
  7. Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. At last! A canonical writer! Bet you’ve never heard of this Tolstoy though. You should check it out. It is his last novel.
  8. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. More solid recognized fiction, even recognized as Christian. I read Resurrection and The Power and the Glory this year. The timing was good for me on both of them. If you don’t find them appealing now, try again some other time.
  9. Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths. Again, Howatch’s Church of England series is pretty churchy, but not in a conventional way. I picked this one out of all of them because it was the one that resonated with me most when I read it.
  10. Chaim Potok, In the Beginning. All of Potok’s books belong on this list, as with Howatch above. Let’s just leave it there. With Potok we end the obviously religious books.
  11. Emma Donoghue, Room. This is a life-altering book. I’ve heard lots of people say so. I don’t think anyone who says that has exactly the same experience reading the book. You should try it.
  12. A.S. Byatt, Possession. I debated putting this book on this list. It could also be on a list of books that have influenced my personal life, or resonated with me personally/emotionally/intellectually. It does all those things, but it also has spiritual resonance.

And now the plus one for the baker’s dozen. Ready for it?

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ll just leave it there for you to ponder.

What about you? Books that have influenced your spiritual life in some way?

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Second Thoughts

After I posted my thoughts on the number 2 and books, I had second thoughts. Maybe I caught my second wind. No, I just had second thoughts.

Secondary literature — books based on other books or written sources — is sometimes easier to access than primary literature. Example: Some guy called Plato wrote dialogues thousands of years ago. I’ve never read Plato in Greek, though I’ve read a little Plato in translation. I’ve not caught the world of Plato from the primary sources, the writings of Plato. I’ve read lots ABOUT Plato, books that reference Plato, books that analyze Plato, books that compare Plato to Aristotle (among others). I’ve learned about Plato from secondary sources.

One of Margaret Atwood’s collections of essays and articles is called Second Words. In her introduction to the collection, Atwood gives two reasons for the title: she is first a novelist and poet and only secondly a critic and essayist; and people have to write literature before that literature can be written about, thus all criticism is secondary literature by its very nature.

Secondary literature is not inherently bad or necessarily poorer than the primary work it reflects upon. Atwood makes this clear: “This is in no way to imply that words spoken first are always better than the critical fabrics raised upon them. It is only to state what seems to be obvious; that is, that you can’t have a thought about a stone without first seeing a stone. (Which leaves us in a curious position vis à vis unicorns.)” (Second Words, 11.)

All the writing I do in this blog is secondary literature. Of course you can use it as primary literature, you can see it as about me, as something to study, and then you build the fabric upon the fabric.

Possibly it is time to move on from the number 2. But it has been fun.

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Weekend Links and William Faulkner

I’ve found some interesting lists for a foggy Saturday.

Apparently there are a lot of movies based on books coming out in 2014. Who knew? Obviously I’m out of touch with movie-land. Of the sixteen book-based movies listed in that linked article I’ve only read two: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. I enjoyed both of those books and would recommend them. I’m not at all sure Winter’s Tale can be made into a movie without hurting the book. It will be an interesting problem. Of the other 14, I intend to read The Giver sometime; the others I’m not sure yet. Also Gillian Flynn appears to have won the author adaptation prize for the year — she’s got two books on the list. Further, is anyone surprised that The Fault in Our Stars is being made into a movie? Anyone? No? I thought not.

Sometimes books contain other books that don’t exist. Possession and The Blind Assassin are my two favourite examples of books nested in books. Now there is a list of Best Books That Don’t Exist because authors made them up. Such a great list.

In other news, I’m reading Light in August by William Faulkner. The Constant Reader told me that this would be light reading compared to The Sound and the Fury. I’m not there with her. I found The Sound and The Fury readable and followed the story — Light in August is tortured and twisted in comparison. Maybe it is just the weird January weather. Maybe my brain can’t take the polar vortices followed by what appear to be chinooks.

What are you reading?

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Best Question Yet

Over in the UK, Jen Campbell has been collecting Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. All of us bookshop workers have our stories about customer oddities. This week though, I had a great question from a customer. I really enjoyed talking with him and figuring out what he was looking for. He asked me for a story book by a famous author from Canada. I was a bit mystified. He wasn’t sure that famous was the word he was looking for — English was a bit of a struggle for him. Famous was correct — he explained that he wanted a book by a famous Canadian author, better yet from Toronto, but he didn’t know who they were. “Like Shakespeare,” he said. “Ah,” I said. “Well, I can tell you who I think is like Shakespeare but not everyone will agree.” This seemed fine.

Off we went to the only Margaret Atwood book in the store. Remember, I work in a theological bookshop. Literature is not our speciality. We do stock The Year of the Flood, though, mostly because some Old Testament instructors (myself included) have used it in courses. I assured the young man that the book was indeed a story, and not too difficult. He told me he found Wuthering Heights difficult when he read it in university in Japan. I told him I hadn’t read WH as I don’t find it appealing. (English majors may now start wailing and bemoaning my education.)

I asked him why he was looking for this book, was it to help him with studying English? No, it was to help him to get to know about Canada and Toronto. “Hmm.” I said. “This book is about the future, and may not be what you are looking for.” I gave him a bit of paper with Margaret Atwood Cat’s Eye and Michael Ondaatje In the Skin of a Lion written on it. He did buy The Year of the Flood as I sent him off in search of other famous Canadian authors who write about Toronto. I hope he enjoys it. And the others too, if he finds them.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to think which other Canadian author is most like Shakespeare. If not Atwood, who? Do tell me what you think.

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Recommended Reading?

A few years ago the Telegraph published a list of 100 novels everyone should read. Of these 100, I’ve read 15, own 4 with the intent of reading them, am actively interested in finding a copy of about 4 others, and have no intention at all of reading 2. My question is, why should everyone read these novels? What makes this the definitive list? Why should everyone read certain books?

I think part of the answer to why we continue to make lists of books everyone should read is the idea(l?) of a common culture. If we have stories in common, we will know how to talk with one another. Previously, the Bible provided a common fund of stories and proverbs and phrases that most people knew and could refer to. In our 21st century culture are literary novels and the always-debated canon of western literature replacing the Bible? Perhaps required reading lists only add to the Bible. Now we have even more to know.

Do you pay attention to these lists? Why or why not?

If I were to make a list of 100 novels everyone should read, I’d probably include many of the 15 books I’ve read that are on the Telegraph’s list. I’m not quite decided about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think my list might have more Canadians on it. I’d probably throw in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. Margaret Atwood is already on the list (Handmaid’s Tale), but Robertson Davies needs to make an appearance. I’m sure there are others. I think I’d add Harry Potter to the list. Potter has shifted the way people think about children’s literature, and whether you think that is good or bad, the fact is that Rowling’s books are a cultural phenomena. If we read for shared stories, everyone should read Potter.

What about you? What books would you include in your 100 novels everyone should read?

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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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A is for Author, or, this blog goes alphabetical

One of the things I said I would do in this blog is talk about how I find the books that I read. I propose to do this in 26 blog posts each featuring a letter of the alphabet. Why? Because it gives me a theme for the next few weeks and that just makes writing posts easier to do for me.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter

A

A is for Author. I often read all the books by a particular author. Once I’ve decided that I like author X, I look for books by author X at used bookstores or in the library. If I really really like author X, I’ll watch for new books they write and procure them as quickly as I can. Other times I know that author X is a reliable source of a certain kind of reading material and thus I go to that author’s work when I’m in the mood for that kind of material. This is all very vague and needs some specificity.

Let’s say A is for Atwood. I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s novels and her essays very much. I found that I don’t enjoy her novels written prior to The Handmaid’s Tale as much as I like her more recent material, so I ignore those. I tend to keep an eye out for the latest Atwood as I think I’ve read all her fiction written since The Handmaid’s Tale — oh wait except for Alias Grace. There is a new book of essays (on science fiction and speculative fiction) that I have not yet read and would like to acquire. I’ve squinted at a copy in a local bookshop a couple of times, but my To Be Read pile is teetering over and I’m not sure I’m in the right space to read that book just at this moment. I may be soon, though, and then I know where to look!

A could also stand for Atkinson, as in Kate Atkinson. I had lunch with one friend and coffee with another in the past two days and they both have read an Atkinson book recently. The Street Pastor borrowed Atkinson from her father over Christmas. The Restless Teacher read one Atkinson from the library and bought the latest one on her recent vacation. She is going to lend me Started Early, Took My Dog and I’m very pleased about that as SE,TMD is high on my mental To Read list.

Atwood and Atkinson are both authors I quite enjoy, but they write vastly different material. Atkinson writes quirky and dark mysteries and literary novels. Atwood writes quirky and dark speculative fiction and literary novels. Hmm, that makes them sound rather similar. Their particular kind of quirkiness is different. I haven’t heard anyone start out by describing Atwood’s work as odd. Lots of people I know start out by describing Atkinson’s work as odd. I need to be in a particular headspace for both Atwood and Atkinson, but it is a different headspace for each.

I went off to my favourite website for keeping track of what books which author has written and made the happy discovery that Atkinson and Atwood have both contributed a short story to the same collection, Crimespotting. This book has been added to my mental “To Find” list. It also features another author I like, Ian Rankin. Library website, here I come.

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Fantasy Is Not Science Fiction (and vice versa)

Recently Margaret Atwood wrote an essay in “The Guardian” on genre — and she defined what she meant by the terms “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.” (I’ve referred you to this article before, I highly recommend it, go read it now. Atwood’s literary essays are always worth reading.) It annoys me, and I think it also probably annoys Atwood, that Fantasy books are often shelved with Science Fiction books in bookshops. The two genres are stuck together with the SFF label. My friend the Biologist recently asked me what the difference is. I’m afraid I gave her an extended lecture. Here is a slightly condensed version that may be slightly better thought through.

Fantasy is best exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books. They are books set in a completely other world with no apparent link to earth as we know it, except that people live there. In these other worlds there are also other creatures, like dragons, and elves, and wizards. Not all fantasy books have dragons in them, nor are all fantasy books swords and sorcery books, but they all have a not-of-this-world aspect to them. These other worlds might have technology (example China Miéville’s worlds), but the worlds themselves have no connection to this world.

Obviously this definition means that the Potter series is not strictly fantasy. It is connected to this world. Harry leaves for school from a London RR station that you can visit — and loads of people do visit it. I still think Potter is fantasy because Harry so clearly enters a different realm when he goes to school. Similarly, in the Narnia series, people travel from our world into Narnia and other worlds. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar series people also travel from this world into another. Fantasy worlds are parallel to our world at most — but the key idea is that characters travel between worlds and the main world of the story action is clearly not this one. J.K. Rowling comes closest to merging her fantasy world with our reality. There are an increasing number of books that introduce fantastic elements into our reality. We might need a new genre for those works.

Science Fiction is exemplified by works like War of the Worlds or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It deals with the interaction between this world and the worlds possible out there in space. Lots of science fiction has little (if anything) to do with life on earth in the future, it has lots and lots to do with life in distant galaxies and how to get there, or at least how to travel around said galaxies. Or it can be about earth colonies on other worlds — like Mars or the Moon or things like that. Generally science fiction depends a lot on the technology available to people, and the technology available is often crucial in some way to the story. In some ways, if there isn’t a crucial piece of technology then some space operas are just another form of fantasy.

I like Atwood’s discussion of the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction. I find the distinction helpful. Some speculative fiction has a crucial piece of science or technology at its core; others depend on some other possible future course for humanity and for earth as we currently know it. Atwood’s definition means that most of William Gibson’s oeuvre should be classified as speculative fiction. Interesting thoughts.

Once I thought that if I wrote fiction I’d want to write fantasy novels and create an entirely different world. The more I read well-crafted Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction, the more I admire people who can build a consistent and different world and make it live for readers. Some writers are spectacularly good at this (Rowling, Gibson, Atwood, Bujold to name but a few) and others are not. I feel a bit intimidated to even try. But I might yet.

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