Saturday, June 15, 2019

June 2019 Quick Lit: What I've been reading

Today I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. 
I have read some of Berry's poetry and the occasional essay, but this was my first foray into his fiction. This is a magnificent book that reads more like a memoir than a novel. As she nears the end of her life, elderly Hannah Coulter reminisces about her life in the Kentucky farming community of Port William: her formative relationship with her grandmother; her youthful, short-lived first marriage; her years married to Nathan and raising three children on the farm; her observations about agriculture, changing times, and community. The whole time I was reading this book I was wishing I'd read it while my mom was still alive so that I could have told her about it. She'd have read it; then she'd have passed it on to Dad; and they'd likely have spent many hours talking about it and connecting with its themes. It's really beautiful. If you're looking for fast pacing and a strong narrative arc, this book won't fit those requirements -- but if you want an uplifting story about ordinary people living ordinary but meaningful lives, this book is for you.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb.  
While Berry's book is a novel that reads like a memoir, this one is a memoir that often feels like a novel. Gottlieb, a therapist, is devastated when her longtime boyfriend ends their relationship because he doesn't want to marry someone with a child. She realizes she herself needs a therapist to work through this crisis and the deeper issues it has brought to the surface. Gottlieb's story of her work with her therapist, Wendell, is interwoven with stories of her own clients as they work their way toward healthier relationships and greater life satisfaction. This book is entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking and will probably provide a few aha moments for any reader.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. 
Wang was diagnosed with schizoaffective/bipolar disorder as a teenager; in this collection of beautifully written essays, she discusses not only her own personal experiences -- such as how she was essentially pushed out of Yale University because of her illness when she was a student there, or how she uses her knowledge of fashion to help her pass as more put-together and therefore more stable -- but broader themes such as media depictions of mental illness, crimes involving mental illness, and the debates surrounding diagnosis of schizophrenia and related disorders. Wang's blending of memoir and rigorous research makes for a fascinating book.

 Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life by Henri J.M. Nouwen.  
This is the book I'm currently reading. Nouwen was a prolific letter-writer, and this volume is a collection of letters he wrote to friends and strangers about spirituality, faith, and vocation. This book is more than just a window into an interesting life; reading it is a truly spiritual experience in itself. Nouwen's kind, probing words, his vulnerability and sharing of his own struggles, make you feel like you're in the presence of a trusted friend or spiritual director who, with a few well-chosen questions, will give you new perspective and grounding. Brene Brown's foreword to the book shows that this was her experience too. I'm reading this book slowly and really savouring it.

What have you been reading lately? I'd love to know!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Five Minute Friday: NAME (for Rachel Held Evans)

I haven't written anything on this blog since April 19, Good Friday. Life has gotten in the way: my mother-in-law broke her ankle a few weeks ago, had surgery and was in hospital for over a week, and is now in a convalescent unit getting back on her feet, literally and figuratively. Sometimes creative pursuits have to take a back seat when these sorts of things happen.

As I looked at the Blog Archive section of my blog, I realized that it's been years since I had a month with no posts -- and May ends today! So I'm barely getting in under the wire with today's short post, but it's one I'm glad to write. I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community to write about the word NAME -- and about Rachel Held Evans.

If the name Rachel Held Evans isn't familiar to you, she's a writer who explored issues of faith and doubt in her four bestselling books, all of which I've read and reviewed here on this blog: Faith Unraveled (a.k.a. Evolving in Monkey Town), A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Searching for Sunday, and Inspired.

I never met Rachel or even attended a talk she gave. But her books were a window into an intelligent, passionate, questing soul. The Christian faith of her upbringing disappointed her in many ways, but this disappointment challenged her to go deeper: to learn what it really meant to be a woman of faith, a doubter, a lover of Scripture, and a member of the body of Christ. She had many detractors who believed that her support for LGBTQ people and her refusal to accept easy answers about Scripture made her a bad influence. But she inspired many people to keep following Jesus, to keep asking questions and grappling with doubts, to come to Jesus' table in confidence that there was room for everyone.

Rachel died a month ago after being hospitalized for treatment of an infection; a reaction to medication had caused brain seizures and required an induced coma. She was 38 years old and left behind a husband and two small children. Tomorrow her funeral will be streamed live on her website.

Rachel Held Evans' death is a tremendous loss, but her name and voice live on in her writings and in the countless people who were encouraged by her words and her life. She was, to use the Hebrew phrase she championed, a woman of valor: eshet chayil.

Rachel Held Evans, 1981-2019

Friday, April 19, 2019

Five Minute Good Friday: NEXT

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. 

This week's word is NEXT.

I look out my window. The sky is whitish-gray, with darker gray clouds moving across it. Gusts of wind scatter leaves and debris across the street.

We are expecting rain today. It is supposed to start sometime this morning and rain all day and into tomorrow: 30-60 millimetres total before it's all done.

The forecast for Sunday is much better, though.

I wish we could skip the next two rainy, gloomy days and just go straight to Sunday.

Sometimes I feel the same way about Good Friday. It would be so much easier to just skip these next two days -- the increasing darkness and suffering of Good Friday, the silence and emptiness of Easter Saturday -- and go straight to the joy and celebration of Easter Sunday.

But the way of Jesus is through: not around, not over, not under, but through. He walks the road of suffering. He doesn't take a shortcut past the hard parts, the pain and desolation, to get straight to the triumph.

So we wait with him now and over the next hours and days. 

We wait in sorrow and hope. 

We go through.

Monday, April 15, 2019

April 2019 Quick Lit: what I've been reading

Today I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

For last month's Quick Lit post I did only a single longer review, of Karen Swallow Prior's On Reading Well. So I have some catching up to do here. I'll try to keep my reviews brief, but you know me: writing in a concise fashion is not a quality I have successfully mastered as of this point in time.

I read four nonfiction books and four novels in the past couple of months. I'll start with the nonfiction:

 Becoming by Michelle Obama. 
I really enjoyed this memoir. Obama describes in fascinating detail her upbringing in a working class Chicago family, her work as a lawyer (where she met future President Barack Obama), and her eight years in the White House as First Lady -- where she advocated for girls' education and improved nutritional health, all while supporting her husband through difficult national events and raising her daughters in the White House fishbowl. Here is a key passage from the final pages of the book:

"So many of us go through life with our stories  hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn't live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there's only one way to be American -- that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don't belong. That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.
        I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it."

 Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. 
Last year we watched the four-season British TV series based on this book (actually a collection of three books) about a small hamlet and neighbouring town in rural England in the late 1800's. The book gives an abundance of historical detail about life in this time period: childhood, farming, education, hobbies, family life, religion, and more. I enjoyed reading about some of the quirky hamlet-dwellers who made their way into the fictionalized TV series. 

Once We Were Strangers by Shawn Smucker. 
This beautiful, moving book is an account of Smucker's friendship with Mohammad, who fled Syria as a refugee with his wife and family and ended up in Smucker's town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Smucker's story of his deepening relationship with Mohammad may cause us to rethink our definition of hospitality, as well as our willingness to have the grace not only to give but to receive. A wonderful story about the beauty and simplicity of friendship and the universally human desire to create a safe, secure life for ourselves and those we love.

 The Bible Tells Me So: How Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns. 
This is the first book by Enns that I've read, and I loved it. Enns explains why reading the Bible as a "spiritual owner's manual complete with handy index" doesn't work -- nor do the desperate efforts Christians sometimes make to protect the Bible from criticism or critique. Addressing many controversial aspects of Scripture, Enns urges us to read the Bible as it is meant to be read rather than expecting it to do things it was never intended to do -- and to realize that trusting God and trusting the Bible aren't the same thing. Thought-provoking, challenging, and really funny too.

And now for my fiction reads:

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. 
This novel follows naive social climber Undine Spragg as she tries to make her way in New York City and Paris. Her efforts to determine who's "in," to infiltrate the "right" crowd, and to find a husband who will keep her in the manner to which she feels she deserves to become accustomed, are as pathetic as they are laughable. Reading this book is like watching a train wreck: you can't tear yourself away. I really enjoyed it, though -- and it gives the lie to the notion that a protagonist has to be "likable" for a novel to be worthwhile. Undine is not likable; but like other heroines of her stripe (Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Bovary come to mind), she certainly is interesting.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. 
This highly acclaimed novel won the Giller Prize and was a Booker Prize finalist. It's the story of Washington Black, a young boy enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados; he becomes personal servant to the master's brother, who turns out to be an eccentric inventor. When a horrific event forces the two of them to flee the plantation, Washington is caught up in a whole new life, traveling to the Arctic, London, Morocco, and elsewhere. This book was instantly captivating, but it did not deliver quite to the level I was expecting. Too many peripheral characters and episodes seemed to dilute the intensity after a while.

All He Ever Wanted and Stella Bain, both by Anita Shreve.
These two novels need to be discussed together because they are about the same people and events.  

All He Ever Wanted is told from the point-of-view of Nicholas Van Tassel, a somewhat stuffy college professor in New Hampshire around 1900; his world is turned upside down when he encounters a young woman, Etna Bliss, outside a hotel after a fire and becomes instantly obsessed with her. Her cool, enigmatic demeanour only fuels his determination to marry her. Looking back years later, Van Tassel reflects on the nature of his relationship with Etna and whether having felt a great love (whether or not it is returned, and for that matter whether or not it is really love) is enough to make one's life worthwhile. This novel reminded me in many ways of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, with its somewhat unlikable, probably unreliable narrator. It's a frustrating but masterfully written book.

Stella Bain, which Shreve wrote twelve years later, tells Etna Bliss's story: how she is found in a French field hospital in 1916, unable to remember anything other than that she is an ambulance driver, and a few consonants that lead her to think her name is Stella Bain. Her fight to recover her memory and rebuild her family is compelling, but overall I found this novel less satisfying than All He Ever Wanted, despite its having a much more sympathetic main character. The writing is not nearly as good here: it's told in the third person, so we never really get inside Etna's head the way we did with Van Tassel. Phrases like "Etna was concerned that..." make me feel like I'm watching the character think, which is not exactly gripping. What is great about this book, though, is that it fills in the gaps of the plot, giving Etna's perspective on events which we only saw from Van Tassel's viewpoint in the other book. So if you're going to read All He Ever Wanted, be sure to read Stella Bain too.


Well, that's what I've been reading lately. Have you read any of these, and if so, what did you think? What have you been reading?

Friday, March 29, 2019

Five Minute Friday - MEASURE

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. 

This week's word is MEASURE.


For the past few years I've been struggling with double vision. It's something I've always had a bit of trouble with: whenever I was having my eyes tested and the eye doctor would show me two separate images and ask me to tell him when they merged into one, I found it very difficult -- and the problem has only gotten worse.

Several months ago I was referred to an opthalmologist who specializes in strabismus (misaligned eyes); she told me I  have a "moderate misalignment." The options, from least to most invasive, are (1) to put prisms in my glasses, which I already have; (2) Botox injections, which numb/plump the eye muscle and need to be done every 3-4 months; or (3) surgery to adjust the eye muscles and straighten out the eyes. I've decided to go for the surgery, so last week I got started on the process for that.

The first step was to be fitted with a Fresnel prism. I had an appointment with an orthoptist at the opthalmology clinic and she did all kinds of tests and measurements on my eyes.

Fresnel prism on right lens of my glasses. I already have 
very thick lenses because of nearsightedness, but the prism 
is very, very thin. You can see the ridges at top.

Here is what the Fresnel prism looks like when it's on. It is a thin flexible plastic film, smooth on one side and ridged on the other. The orthoptist cut it to fit my glasses; the smooth side sticks to the inside of one lens, with water -- sort of like a removable window decal.

This is what I am looking through with my right eye.

When I have this prism on my glasses and look into the distance, it fuses the two images into one -- so I no longer see two clocks, or two stop signs, or two of the same person coming toward me. That part is awesome.

 It feels pretty strange, though: I'm constantly looking through these tiny ridges, and they create quite a glare. The lens also gives a slightly curved effect, so there's a bit of a fishbowl sensation. But after a week I'm getting used to it, and I'm very much appreciating the improvement in distance vision. The idea is that I use this prism for several weeks/months to see if it will keep my eyes from turning in, so that surgery can then be performed.

The big downside is that the prism interferes with my close-up vision. It's a lot harder to work on the computer (it's like I'm staring through glasses that have had Vaseline smeared on one lens), and I pretty much have to remove my glasses altogether to read. Considering how much of my day is spent reading and working on the computer, this is a major bummer.

But I'm determined to see this through -- no pun intended. And hopefully, the eventual outcome will be measurably improved vision.