Tag Archives: reviews

O always looks surprised

Oh! I never saw that coming. The letter

O surpriseis for O’Flynn, Catherine O’Flynn, author of What Was Lost. The newspaper review for this book caught my eye. I am not sure what it was about the review that made me start reading it, as I am very selective about reading book reviews in the newspaper. I think the book was called Harriet the Spy for grown-ups. This caught my attention. I got the book. I wouldn’t compare it to Harriet the Spy, so don’t go there. It stands on its own merits — and it is full of merit, not to mention surprises. You should track this one down. What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn. It will get in your head.


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Re-reading, another view

I read an article on re-reading books in the Globe and Mail last weekend with interest. Few people write about their long-term relationships with books. Immediate impressions, passing potshots, or rave reviews seem more the norm for book bloggers and book columnists. I started this blog last fall with a discussion of books I’ve re-read. My own preference for books that carry the weight of re-reading comes from reading and re-reading An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis. Lewis contends that any book can be read once, but to attract a reader back for a second look means the book asks something more than just consumption from the reader. It encourages good reading. Lewis suggested we judge books by what kind of reading they encourage.

Joe Queenan describes the books that he re-reads. Some, he finds, always give off an aura of greatness, and the impression he has of reading them does not change. They are always good, always savoured. Other books improve on re-reading as different aspects of their greatness are highlighted and as one gains life experience. Some books don’t survive re-readings. He suggests SciFi doesn’t survive re-reading, but he’s never tried. I beg to differ.

Queenan’s re-reading list is different than mine, but I’ve also found that returning to a book that blew me away earlier can be a disappointment (recent personal example: Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein). On the other hand re-reading something I struggled to get through the first time, and finding that it is much better than I remember is a great pleasure (personal examples: Pride and Prejudice, and Cryptonomicon). Other times I’m just looking for a comfortable re-read, a pleasant visit with old friends in familiar places (personal example: most Maeve Binchy titles). Queenan doesn’t mention comfort as a reason to re-read books. I find that interesting.

Why do you re-read books? Or do you? Why not?

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In February, I saw an interesting article on the way we talk about books on the internet. Lev Grossman amusingly discusses the non-criteria by which books – and possibly other works of art – are judged.

The more I try to figure out how to talk about books well, with criteria, and explain what I mean, sometimes the more difficult the whole thing is. What is bad writing other than non-grammatical writing? Are there times when my grumpiness means I can’t read something well? Or are there times when I’m in such a good mood everything is good writing?

What criteria do you use to say whether a book is good or bad when you read it?

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Preaching the Old Testament

For the second post in a row, I’m sending you off to read a little Books & Culture. Go read that review linked in the previous sentence. Done? That was Lauren Winner’s review of Fleming Rutledge’s book of Old Testament sermons called And God Spoke to Abraham. Since it came out, I’ve been receiving that book into stock regularly at the theological bookshop where I work. Every time it comes across my desk I think about buying it. I haven’t yet. There are other collections of Rutledge’s sermons I’d like to get first. I’ve been eyeing The Bible and the New York Times for some time.

Back to Winner’s review of Rutledge. It amazed me that Winner admitted to defaulting to the gospel reading when she preaches. Of course, loads of people do this, but I didn’t expect that Winner would. It made me smile to think she’s only preached once from the Psalms — and I used a section of her Girl Meets God to justify preaching a sermon on Psalm 103 on Pentecost last year. Oh the irony.

I preach the Psalms quite a lot — in fact, the Psalter is my default book to preach from, not the gospels. Why? you might ask. As always, I’m happy to tell you. Most Psalms are neat single-sermon-sized packages. They are complete in themselves, so there isn’t a lot of exegetical work to figure out if you’ve got an appropriately complete section of Scripture to preach from. Most often, I preach single sermons scattered through the year. If I have a few Sundays in a row, I might do a mini-series, but for a single Sunday, a Psalm is nice and complete and tidy. I also like the challenge of preaching from poetry. I like the dense structure of Hebrew poetry. I like unpacking the way the words are put together. I like seeing the layers of meaning.

It felt a little experimental the first time I preached a Psalm. Now I wonder if I’m turning there too often. There’s such variety in the Psalter though! I certainly haven’t begun to preach what is possible there. I have been jumping around a bit randomly though — which is one of the benefits of preaching in church that doesn’t use the lectionary. I’m thinking about trying to be more systematic in preaching the Psalter, but I’m not sure I want to start with Psalm 2 (I’ve done a sermon on Psalm 1 already) and march on through as opportunity arises. Maybe I’ll take a peek at the lectionary for some direction about which Psalm to choose when I preach next month. That has some sort of system to it.

(In case you are interested, here’s one of my Psalm sermons.)

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The Prophetic edge to Comedy

Last year I read Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Halprin. This is an interesting story about the Prince and Princess of Wales being sent to re-conquer the United States. I won’t tell you if they are successful or not, that would ruin the fun. And they weren’t given an army to do it, they were dropped in via parachute (into New Jersey industrial lands), incognito, no money, nothing, and had to shift for themselves – like a giant survivor game, only in civilization, and without an emergency out.

The book is extremely funny, in the “this is ludicrous” sense. The names of the characters give you as sense of the sort of silliness I’m talking about: Lady Boylinghotte, Lord Cecil Psnake, Jus d’Orange ( a French military attaché), and Dewey Knott, the Republican Presidential candidate. The Prince’s dog wins the price for the most ridiculous name, Pha-Kew. Really. In one scene the Prince chases the dog, who has gone missing, and runs around town calling for the dog at the top of his lungs. Picture that.

One of the issues the book discusses is sanity. Prince Freddy’s interest in George III, who was infamously insane, makes sanity or madness idea come up frequently – as does the general worry, fed by the Press, that Freddy is himself insane. It runs in families after all, and George III is an ancestor. Freddy wonders (and so do we) what is sanity? What does it mean to be sane? Are we all insane in some way?

Freddy and Fredericka is extremely silly. It is so ridiculous that, a couple of times, I almost stopped reading. But then I didn’t. Something would happen and I’d be hooked again. Part of the hook comes from the interesting questions – like sanity, one of the clearer questions – and the social & political commentary the book makes. The book’s ridiculousness has an edge: Helprin uses comedy to tell us hard truth, softening the blow by making the hard truth look a bit ridiculous.

Helprin does as loads of questions and make comment on political systems in both the USA and UK. But it is hard to pin down exactly what he thinks things should be like instead. He tells us difficult things and makes us laugh, as any good comedian does, but then what do we do with this hard truth? Is it also the comic prophet’s job to give direction forward having pointed out the problem with the past?

I’m sure Helprin didn’t intend readers to muse on the function of the comic prophet in society after reading his book, but such things are out of an author’s control. Lots of comedians function as prophets in the West – they are almost the only people who can speak truth to power. In Canada, we’ve got 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer among others. They speak true things about the way things are, but do they always speak truly about the way thing should be? And does speaking truly about the future move away from comedy? I’m not sure.

What about prophets in the church? Should they bring in a comic edge to be better heard? Or does laughter drown out the truth?

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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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