Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 2016 "Quick Lit"

As I do on the 15th of most months, I'm joining Modern Mrs. Darcy's "Quick Lit" linkup, where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.

All Out by Kevin Newman & Alex Newman (memoir). 
This excellent memoir explores the relationship between a father and son. Kevin Newman's demanding career as a journalist and broadcaster in Canada and the United States not only exhausted him and caused him to doubt who he really was -- but also created distance between himself and his son Alex, who was struggling with his own identity and his sense that he was not the son his father wanted him to be. Alex's coming out as gay was a catalyst to bring the two closer together and allow them to start really knowing and understanding each other. I loved the honesty and authenticity of this book; its unique structure, with the two authors' voices alternating from chapter to chapter, allows us to see many of the same events from both father's and son's perspective, adding to the emotional impact.

This is Not My Life by Diane Schoemperlen (memoir). 
Schoemperlen, a well-known Kingston novelist, was volunteering at a soup kitchen when she met and became romantically involved with another volunteer, Shane, a parolee who had been convicted of murder. In this book, which chronicles their tumultuous six-year relationship, Schoemperlen explores why she fell in love with Shane, why she stayed in the relationship as long as she did, and the truths she had to face about herself in order to move on with her life. Schoemperlen's beautiful, honest writing makes you want to keep reading, even as you sense that the relationship can't possibly have a happy ending. The book also takes a sobering look at the effects of the Canadian prison system on inmates and their loved ones.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (memoir). 
Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon with a brilliant future when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at age 36. In this small but powerful book he discusses the questions about calling and purpose that led to his becoming a doctor; the decisions he and his wife had to make after receiving his diagnosis (could and would he continue to work? would they have a baby?); and the process of facing death while embracing life. His wife Lucy, also a doctor, provides a moving epilogue describing her husband's death and the legacy he left to their family and others. A beautiful exploration of life, death, and meaning.

Positively Powerless: How a Forgotten Movement Undermined Christianity by L.L. Martin (nonfiction).  
The "forgotten movement" in question is the positive thinking movement, whose history Martin sketches in the first section of the book -- but as she shows, the ramifications of this philosophy are still present. She explores how the foundation of this movement -- a focus on self-affirmation and optimism -- is largely at odds with Christianity and can be dangerous because it fosters pride, de-emphasizes human brokenness, and wrongly encourages people to expect perfection in this life. I particularly liked her final chapter on facilitating safe, transparent community, as well as her "Appendix of Practical Ideas and Resources for Cultivating Humility and Staying Focused on Christ"; these help show that her purpose is not just to criticize a movement but to encourage readers toward a healthier view of self and God. Martin, whose blog I often read, is a thoughtful, clear, balanced writer.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (fiction). 
My book club did this novel for our latest meeting; this was my first time delving into the popular young-adult trilogy. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. The concept -- highly controlled dystopian world in which two children from each of twelve Districts are forced to compete in a violent death game in which only one can be left standing -- is original and interesting. The narrator, 17-year-old Katniss, is an intriguing character: tough, brave, and reluctant to trust. I found the writing a bit cliched -- "My whole body's shaking like a leaf" [of course it is!] -- but the book raises thought-provoking questions about heroism, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and power; and it kept me turning the pages.

What about you: have you read any of these? What have you been reading this past month?


Friday, June 10, 2016

The power of the putdown

Last week Allison and I went to Toronto for a day so she could see a specialist about the jaw problems she's had these past couple of years. The appointment went well: the doctor suggested a wait-and-see approach, and booked us for a follow-up appointment with the oral surgeon at the same clinic eight months from now.

Allison saw a resident first; he was very pleasant and took her medical history and did a brief exam. He was being shadowed by a first-year dental student, who basically just stood in the corner and watched. Then they went off to consult with the senior dentist, whom we were booked to see. 

While we waited, I watched the activity in the hallway. It was a busy clinic. Another senior dentist was working across the hall. I could tell he was one of the head guys because he said (loudly) to his patient, "I guess it's OK if we use this room; my name is on the door." His patient, whose first language wasn't English, was inquiring about the fit of her dental plate, and he was contradicting her opinions in a way that seemed brusque and dismissive.

The resident and student soon came back with the doctor we were seeing. He was older than the doctor across the hall and was very nice and friendly. Allison clearly warmed to him, saying more to him in two minutes than she'd said to the resident in twenty.

Then the guy from across the hall stuck his head in and asked if he could "borrow" the resident for a few minutes. The dental student moved toward the door to go too, and the doctor laughed loudly and said, "No thanks, I don't need your incompetence!" Still laughing, he said with even more sarcasm, "Right, this is a problem that can only be solved by a first-year dental student!

The student laughed, too, but his face turned red and he was obviously embarrassed. Of course he hadn't been offering to come to provide expertise; most likely he just thought he should follow along and learn. He probably wasn't sure exactly what was expected of him and was all too aware of his lack of knowledge. And it wasn't like he'd made some rookie mistake or technical gaffe that earned him a scolding.

There's a saying attributed to Plato: "The measure of a man is what he does with power."  My exposure to this doctor was limited, I know; but if how he treated the student was a representative sample of what he does with power, then I don't think he measures up. He had a high status in the clinic, yet he felt the need to make fun of someone who was already at the bottom of the hierarchy, and for no real reason. It was a little unnerving, actually, that this was such an instantaneous response, and that he seemed to get so much enjoyment from it. 

It's nice to have prestige and skill in our field, but without a bit of consideration for those who don't (yet) have those things, they can be pretty hollow. I hope the student benefits from the experience, though -- that when he's an acclaimed doctor he'll treat awkward newbies with respect rather than unnecessary putdowns.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Gazing upward at night (with Chesterton)" - a poem

(photo: Wikipedia)

Today, May 29, is the birthday of writer G.K. Chesterton, who was born in 1874 and died in 1936. In one of my posts from a while back, I  quoted from a passage in his spiritual memoir Orthodoxy in which he tells of his conversion to Christianity. He describes the experience like cogs in a machine clicking into place: everything he'd been questioning and pondering suddenly made sense, and all his "blind fancies of boyhood ... became suddenly transparent and sane."

My favourite sentence in his conversion account is this one: "The fancy that the cosmos was not vast and void, but small and cosy, had a fulfilled significance now, for anything that is a work of art must be small in the sight of the artist; to God the stars might be only small and dear, like diamonds." 

I love his description of the universe as "small and cosy," not cold and impersonal, and of God seeing the stars as "small and dear." In fact, I've looked at the night sky and, as I describe here, experienced that same sense of warmth and closeness.

Chesterton's words inspired me to write this poem. Today, being his birthday, seems the right time to share it.

Gazing upward at night (with Chesterton)

So I was thinking that if the stars
are (to You) small and dear, diamonds
skeined through the tissue of sky
by Your fond fingers,

and if, on any given night, You do not merely
stand back, admiring Your astral handiwork (finished
an infinite number of nights ago), but instead
begin afresh, newly sequinning the heavens –
naming, calling, loving each
and every star
for pure delight
alone –

well, then, I wondered
whether perhaps Your thoughts of me
are even more precious – that maybe
rather than surveying me from afar, You long to
catch my hand, swing me
into the celestial dance, laughter me
through the cosy vastness, while the stars
sing around us, joying in
Your delight in
(small, dear)


Monday, May 23, 2016

Sometimes a cliche is just what you need to hear

noun: cliché; plural noun: clichés; noun: cliche; plural noun: cliches
  1. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Most of the time I don't appreciate clichés. For a writer, they're the enemy: a good writer will try to say things in a fresh, vivid way, not just reach for an easy shortcut like "Suddenly the truth hit him like a ton of bricks" ... zzzzzzzzzzz.  

Clichés can also be clumsy attempts to gloss over a difficult situation or to offer phony comfort without real understanding: 

  • "Just fake it till you make it."  

  • "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." (My friend Tim Fall's version of this one is better: "What doesn't kill you can still hurt quite a bit.")

There are also quite a few clichés about special needs parenting, like 

  • "I don't think I could do what you do." (Meant as a compliment, but there's an unspoken "And I hope I never have to try!" in there.)
  •  "God never gives us more than we can handle." (Well, God may not, but sometimes life does. And anyway, I don't think God doles out people's circumstances according to what He thinks they can "handle.")
But sometimes, a cliché is just what you need to hear.

Two summers ago when we were in PEI, I attended a reunion for the New Christian Singers, a group I had been in when I was in my late teens. This reunion took place when my mom was in hospital and facing her cancer diagnosis, so although the event was happening at a very challenging time, it was an amazing opportunity to catch up with people I hadn't seen in years and share stories of God's faithfulness in our lives.

On that weekend our group performed three concerts. Because of what was going on with our family I could only sing in two of them; Richard and the kids came to hear us both times. At the Saturday evening concert, he and the kids sat in the front row, and a group of older people whom I didn't recognize sat behind them. 

As soon as the music started, Jonathan got excited. VERY excited. He called out "Mommy!" Throughout the concert he laughed and whooped and clapped and bounced up and down.

I was worried that the people behind them might be upset -- maybe Jonathan was spoiling the experience for them. But since I was up on stage for the entire hour, there wasn't much I could do about it.

The concert went really well. The church rang with our harmonies, and our hearts soared as we sang songs many of us hadn't sung in thirty years or more. Our group and the people who'd come to hear us all seemed to have a wonderful evening. 

Afterward, when I stepped down off the stage, one of the people who'd been sitting  behind Richard and the kids -- an older woman with a touch of a French accent -- came up to me.

"Was that your little boy in front of us?" she asked.

It did occur to me to say, "Oh, no, I've never met him before in my life" --  but I decided I should tell the truth and say yes.

She remarked on what a good time Jonathan seemed to be having and how well Richard had dealt with him. Then she told me she had had a handicapped son who had died many years ago -- and she said, "It's a special thing to have special children." 

I didn't know this lady at all. She was from way up in the west end of the Island and had come to the concert with someone she was visiting. Those words about having special children, coming from a stranger like she was, might have ended up sounding trite or simplistic. But to me, they were a blessing. She spoke from the heart and from a depth of personal experience that our brief conversation couldn't plumb. And Jonathan's enthusiasm hadn't bothered her or ruined the concert for her. In fact, she had enjoyed it, and she made a point of letting us know. Her words helped both me and Richard at a time when we were under a lot of stress. 

Proverbs 25:11 (in the Message) says, "The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewelry." Who knew: even a cliché can be the right word at the right time.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

May 2016 "Quick Lit"

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

About Grace by Anthony Doerr (fiction). Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize last year; About Grace is his only other novel, written ten years earlier. The main character, David Winkler, has been troubled since childhood by dreams which later come true in real life. When he dreams about his baby daughter, Grace, drowning in a flood, he runs away in a desperate attempt to prevent the dream from coming true. The novel chronicles his years-long estrangement from his family and his past, and his eventual journey back home to Alaska to see if Grace might still be alive. I was completely engrossed by Doerr's wonderful use of detail and his compassionate depiction of a flawed but sympathetic character. This book won't disappoint Doerr fans looking for more of his great writing. I'm also planning to check out his short story collections, The Shell Collector and Memory Wall.

 In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker (nonfiction).  When I read Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes a few months ago (see review in an earlier "Quick Lit" post), I had no idea that another book on the history of autism had also been published within the past year; a commenter on my prior post alerted me to In a Different Key's existence. This book covers a great deal of the same ground as Silberman's does. It details the varied contributions of autism researchers and addresses changing diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, the vaccination controversy debacle, and current autism advocacy by parents and autistic persons. 

However, this book comes at these issues from a somewhat different angle: whereas Silberman's overall approach is to celebrate autism's contribution to human diversity, Donvan and Zucker (both of whom have family members with autism) place more emphasis on how families and communities have experienced the mysteries and challenges of autism. Their analysis differs from Silberman's in some key areas, one being the extent to which Hans Asperger might have been influenced by Nazism. And some parts are tough reading, such as the chapter about a desperate parent who killed his autistic son. But the book as a whole is informative and empathetic and, like Silberman's book, is written in a way that creates suspense and humanizes all of the characters in this fascinating story. I would advise those who want a good sense of the ongoing conversation around autism to read both NeuroTribes and In a Different Key.

Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God With the Spiritual Disciplines by Preston Yancey (nonfiction). This book addresses the topic of spiritual disciplines from a fresh perspective, by linking them to the process of making bread. I enjoyed the seamless way Yancey moves from the "spiritual" to the "mundane" (showing, of course, that those aren't two separate categories). For example, he expounds for a few pages on the practice of examen, then says briskly, "We need to talk about your oven," and starts explaining how to prepare an oven and discern its hot spots. As we read, we realize he is still talking about self-examination, mindfulness, and discernment of our own personal hot spots. Kneading dough is discussed as analogous to intercessory prayer ... and so on. I particularly appreciated the part about iconography, which is an area completely foreign to my faith background; in fact, when the topic of icons came up in a Bible study discussion I was involved in recently, I was able to share material from this book and demystify the concept a bit.

While a more rigorous editing should have caught unfortunate errors like "the easy yolk of Jesus," the writing as a whole is warm and engaging. Yancey challenges us firmly yet gently, sometimes pulling us up short with a stark metaphor: "Fasting makes us uncomfortable enough to stop pretending Jesus is somewhere floating in heaven with a smile plastered on his face for all eternity. Jesus is here in the emergency room of our being. Jesus is with us." 

Questions and suggestions for deepening the practices appear at the end of each chapter. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an accessible yet challenging discussion of spiritual practice and sacramental living.

Epilogue by Will Boast (memoir).  Boast is a university student when his mother dies of cancer; soon afterward, his brother dies in a car accident and his father dies of alcoholism and grief. Seemingly alone in the world, Boast is  going through family papers when he discovers that his father was previously married and fathered two sons. As he makes plans to meet his "new" half-brothers he is forced to reexamine everything he thought he knew about his past. A very moving and gritty memoir.