Sunday, January 15, 2017

January 2017 "Quick Lit"

Today, as I do on the 15th of most months, I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," where we share short (or long: let's not kid ourselves) reviews of what we've been reading.

(Anyone who is interested may also want to take a look at my "All the Books I Read in 2016" post: CLICK HERE.)


Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times (Jennifer Worth). The first book I read this past month was actually a re-read. Richard gave me this book for Christmas because we'd just finished watching all six seasons of the TV series of the same name. I thoroughly enjoyed going back to re-read Worth's descriptions of her years as a young nurse-midwife working with an Anglican nuns' order in East London in the late 1950's. This memoir is full of fascinating social, religious, and medical commentary, and the real-life stories of her patients and colleagues are told with humour and respect.


Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God (Gary Thomas).  The heading on the back cover says "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's spiritual walk" -- which is a great way to approach this helpful and interesting book. Thomas covers nine different "pathways" to connecting and relating to God: 
  • Naturalists: loving God outdoors
  • Sensates: loving God with the senses
  • Traditionalists: loving God through ritual and symbol
  • Ascetics: loving God in solitude and simplicity
  • Activists: loving God through confrontation
  • Caregivers: loving God through loving others
  • Enthusiasts: loving God with mystery and celebration
  • Contemplatives: loving God through adoration
  • Intellectuals: loving God with the mind
He describes each pathway by giving personal and Biblical examples; discusses benefits and possible pitfalls; and provides a checklist for readers to test which pathway(s) might be right for them. I scored highest on Contemplative and Traditionalist, while Richard was highest on Caregiver and Naturalist -- no big surprises there! This would be a great book to study with a spouse or friend or in a small group. It encourages a greater appreciation for other perspectives and personalities and reminds us that there really is no One Way to have a spiritual life.


Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (D. L. Mayfield). I confess that if I'd gone solely by the title and cover of this book, I might not have read it. To me, the main title gives the impression that this will be a  more journalistic exploration of how refugees and immigrants are treated in America -- and that theme is touched on. But I'd read some of Mayfield's writing in journals like Image and Ruminate, so I expected the book would be far more tender and personal than that -- and it is. 

This is a beautifully written, heartfelt collection of discrete but connected essays about Mayfield's relationships with refugees and other displaced people. As a Christian teenager wanting to please God and make a difference in the world, she started working with Somali, Bhutanese, and other refugees -- but as her efforts to teach English, share the gospel, or show the Jesus film languished, and as she got more overwhelmed by trying to meet the needs of her new friends, the more she was able to realize God's grace for herself. Through discouragements and humiliation, she slowly learned that sometimes ministry was just sitting on someone's couch and letting them feed her, without thanks or reciprocity or results. 

In relation to the Sacred Pathways book mentioned above, I think Mayfield's book depicts a very real, beautiful combination of Activism and Contemplation: of feeling that sense of calling to work for God yet also humbly beholding and adoring God as He appears in unexpected places and faces. In one of my favourite passages near the end of the book, Mayfield writes,

Like many of our stateless wanderer friends, my little family and I have moved a few times. And each time we pack up our apartment, my refugee friends and neighbours bring gifts: clothes for the toddler, fried fish cooked whole and sliced like a baguette, crumpled dollar bills that they shove into my shirt. Before, I would have felt ashamed, unworthy, like I could have done more. Now, I weep with relief, with the blessings of being loved. As my friends offer to help clean and pack and take many of our worldly goods back to their ow apartments, it feels good, even authentic, to be the recipient. To be the one in need. It confirms that this is quite possibly the only posture that Christians in this day and age can take, to be in a place where we freely admit our shortcomings, where we desperately need our neighbours. A place where we throw off the voices telling us to insulate ourselves from the great brokenness of the world and the burning fire that is the love of God.

If you're feeling jaded by triumphalist missionary stories, discouraged by failure in your own calling, or just ready for some moving and authentic writing, I'd strongly recommend this book.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Five Minute Friday: MIDDLE

Today I'm linking up with Kate Motaung for Five Minute Friday. Today's prompt was "MIDDLE."

photo: The Weather Network

Earlier this week we had a night of high winds and freezing rain. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the power going off. How the sudden silence of the house could wake me up, I don't know, but it did. 

Richard was sleeping in the spare room because he had to get up earlier than me, so I went upstairs with a flashlight to be sure there were no fallen trees or anything else (other than ice and wind) causing the outage. Jonathan woke up too, and wanted to get up, but since it was 4:15 (slightly earlier than I'd intended to get up for the day), I was able to persuade him back to bed.

I lay there in the darkness and my mind immediately started racing, imagining and planning what would happen if the power wasn't on by morning. The gas fireplace would turn on, so we'd have some warmth. We could light the gas stove burners with a barbecue lighter and heat water for coffee, even toast bread in a frying pan. How many times would we need to open the fridge to cobble breakfast together? What if the power was off at Jonathan's school, though: he'd have to stay home, and I had a (rare) meeting on campus at 11 that I couldn't miss. But what if power was off on campus too? My mind was swirling at top speed.

Somehow these racing thoughts calmed themselves, and I must have fallen asleep, because I was suddenly awakened again by the bedroom lights coming on. Jonathan must have flicked the light switch on when he came in earlier to investigate what was happening. It was 5:15. I turned the lights off, got back into bed with a sigh of relief, and slept.

That wasn't the first time I'd lain awake in the middle of the night, with thoughts and worries swirling through my mind. I wish every time it happened, problems would be obliterated by a sudden burst of light -- but that usually doesn't happen. Most of the time answers are harder to come by, so I wait, wonder, and try to trust.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Five Minute Friday: CONNECT

Today, for the first time, I decided to participate in Kate Motaung's Five Minute Friday linkup. Each Friday Kate provides a one-word prompt, and participants do a five-minute freewrite on that word and post it on their blog.

The word today is "CONNECT." It jumped out at me because I've been reading a lot of blog posts where people choose their One Word for the year. I wasn't really planning on doing that, yet for some reason the word "connect" kept bouncing around in my consciousness. So when I saw Kate's prompt, I decided to write this little five-minute post.


Unusually for us, we traveled at Christmas. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live 6 hours away, invited us; we arrived there on Christmas Eve and stayed three nights. They were such wonderful hosts. We ate lots of good food, played games, and had a chance to relax.

They got a new hot tub last fall. My sister-in-law, who is the youngest of 13 children, lost both of her parents in the past year and a half; family and connection were very important to her parents, so she bought the hot tub as a symbol of connection and being together. So far, she says, their three teens aren’t using it a whole lot, but for her and her husband, sitting in the hot tub in the evening is a wonderful way to relax and connect.

On our last night there, a few of us went out and sat in the hot tub. They turned off as many lights as they could so it was as dark as possible. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the stars seemed to pop out of the sky. There was the Big Dipper, hanging there reliably as ever. The stars seemed linked together in an invisible net.

Connection is something we can foster (by buying a hot tub or gathering for a meal or a holiday), but it’s not something we have to strive for. We ARE connected, like the stars in the heavens. God holds everything together, and we just have to rest in that knowledge and pay attention to the signs all around us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

All the books I read in 2016

As I do every year at this time, I’m posting a list of all the books I read in 2016. I read some great stuff this year and am happy to have a chance to share it with you!
I’m dividing my list into Nonfiction and Fiction – and once again the former far outnumber the latter – but this time I’m presenting my top choices (the Five-Star books, that is) in each category first.
All views expressed here are mine; I wasn’t paid or given any free books in exchange for a review.
Top 5:
  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was a successful neurosurgeon with a brilliant future when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at 36. This small but powerful book explores the questions about calling and purpose that led to his becoming a doctor; the decisions he and his wife made after receiving his diagnosis (could he continue to work? should they have a baby?); and the process of facing death while embracing life. It’s easy to see why this beautiful, inspirational book has stayed to the top of bestseller lists for so long. (5/5)
  2. NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. An in-depth discussion of the history of autism.  It covers early autism and Asperger syndrome research, controversies over clinical approaches and diagnostic criteria, the autism/ vaccination controversy, famous autistics like Temple Grandin, the making of Rain Man, and case studies of autistic people and their families. Silberman argues that autism is not a new phenomenon (as the increase in diagnoses might suggest), but a natural difference that has always existed but has often been misunderstood, misdiagnosed, or suppressed. Instead of viewing autism as a tragic epidemic and focusing on causes and cures, we should recognize the gifts (even genius) that autistic people bring to society and provide support and services, where necessary, to help them flourish. (5/5) 
  3. A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold. This is a heartbreaking and riveting book by the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenage boys who killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 at Columbine High School in 1999. As a loving, involved mother, Klebold struggles to explain (and even understand) what led up to her son’s participation in the massacre and how she and her husband could have been so completely unaware of his intentions. I don’t think any parent could read this book and come away thinking, “Whew – the Klebolds were a whole other species; I don’t have to worry about this ever happening in my family.” A very tough book, but so worth reading.  (5/5) 
  4. All Out by Kevin Newman and Alex Newman. Kevin Newman's demanding career as a journalist and broadcaster not only led to exhaustion and self-doubt, but created distance between himself and his son Alex, who was struggling with his own identity. Alex's coming out as gay was a catalyst to bring them together and allow them to truly know and understand each other. I loved the honesty and authenticity of this excellent memoir – as well as its unique structure, with the two men’s voices alternating from chapter to chapter. (5/5) 
  5. Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist. Having never read any of Niequist’s books before this one, I was delightfully surprised by how much I loved this book. In it, Niequist reflects on how she found herself exhausted and depleted by busyness and striving, and how she learned to experience grace, freedom, and connection -- to her own true self, to her loved ones, and to God. I enjoyed Niequist's warm, disarming style. (5/5)

Other Nonfiction I read this year (alphabetical by title):
A Grace Revealed: How God Redeems the Story of Your Life by Jerry Sittser. This is the followup to Sittser's book A Grace Disguised, which is about his process of grieving the deaths of his wife, daughter, and mother in a car accident. In this one, Sittser explores how our personal stories fit into God's greater redemptive story. (3/5)

 Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me by Lorilee Craker. This lovely and touching memoir interweaves episodes from Craker's favourite novel, Anne of Green Gables, with her own experience as an adopted child and as the mother of an adopted child. Craker will have you laughing at her goofy, Anne-like foibles one moment and getting misty-eyed about her heartbreak the next.  (4/5)

As a Child: God's Call to Littleness by Phil Steer. An insightful book that explores 20 different words from Scripture related to our call to be children in the kingdom of God. (3/5)

Columbine by Dave Cullen.  This seminal book about the Columbine High School massacre debunks many of the myths around the event and shows that the killers were not the stereotypical bullied loners, but a deadly mix of a psychopath who wanted to kill and a depressive who wanted to die. Very tough, detailed, gripping. (4/5)
Epilogue by Will Boast.  Boast was a university student when his mother died of cancer; then his brother died in a car accident and his father died of alcoholism and grief. Seemingly alone in the world, he then discovered that his father had been previously married and had fathered two more sons. A moving and gritty memoir.  (3/5)
Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage by Michael Coren. I enjoyed this book very much. It discusses Biblical texts related to homosexuality, different churches'/denominations' approaches to the issue, stories from gay people, and future prospects for gay rights/acceptance within Christianity -- all in Coren's incisive and witty style. (4/5)

In a Different Key by John Donvan and Caren Zucker.  This excellent book on the history of autism covers a great deal of the same ground as Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes (see above): the varied contributions of autism researchers, changing diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, the vaccination controversy debacle, and current autism advocacy by parents and autistic persons. However, this book puts more emphasis on how families and communities have experienced the mysteries and challenges of autism. (4/5)
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. This memoir by the author of Carry On, Warrior details how infidelity shattered her ideal-looking family, forcing her and her husband Craig to unlearn unhealthy patterns from their past and forge a new, more genuine relationship. I appreciate Melton’s honest, vulnerable approach and her determination to face with courage the "brutiful" aspects of life and relationships. (4/5)

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl, a psychiatrist and concentration-camp survivor, wrote this now-classic book in 1946. It describes daily life in the camps and expounds Frankl’s belief that meaning can be discovered in all human experiences, even suffering. Frankl challenges us, regardless of our life situation, to focus not on what we expect from life, but on what life expects from us.(3/5)

Never Go Back by Dr. Henry Cloud. Cloud encourages readers to recognize destructive patterns in their lives and to "never again" do what hasn't worked in the past, "never again" try to change another person, "never again" take their eyes off the big picture, etc. As in many of his earlier books that I’ve read, Cloud emphasizes that we need two things to truly change: connection to God and connection to other people. (3/5)

On Living by Kerry Egan. In this moving book, Egan, a hospice chaplain, shares stories of the patients and families she has met, as well as her own experience of postpartum psychosis and how that has shaped her as a person and a chaplain. She insists that "the dying" are no different from the rest of us; they're just people doing something the rest of us have not done yet. (4/5)
Out of the House of Bread by Preston Yancey. This book addresses the topic of spiritual disciplines from a fresh perspective, by linking them to the process of making bread. I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for an accessible yet challenging discussion of spiritual practice and sacramental living. (3/5)

Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. The author recounts her faith journey, showing how she has wrestled with topics like the person of Jesus, the Bible, the work of the Spirit, community, the Kingdom of God, and more. Bessey is like a wise, safe friend sitting cross-legged on the floor with you, unpacking boxes, sorting through old possessions and traditions, and sharing her own story of the joys and disillusionments of faith. (A great companion to Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans: see below). (4/5)
Positively Powerless by L.L. Martin. Martin explores the history of the positive thinking movement and its current manifestations in our culture. She discusses how the foundation of the movement 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. Thoughtful and informative. (3/5)
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. This book is structured according to seven sacraments; each section contains several chapters that address both Evans’ own ongoing love-hate relationship with the evangelical church and other themes and stories about the church at large, past and present.  Her style combines poetic description, thoughtful storytelling (with lots of humour, often at her own expense), and honest questions about the church and her place in it.  (4/5)
Soul Keeping by John Ortberg. Written in Ortberg's usual straightforward style, this book draws heavily on the influence of Ortberg’s mentor, Dallas Willard, as it discusses the importance of understanding the soul and what it needs to be healthy and connected to God. (3/5)
The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew. In this memoir, Kinew recounts his challenging relationship with his father: a Catholic-residential-school survivor and respected Anishinaabe chief. Forgiveness, reconciliation, spirituality, and family are focal points of this moving book. (4/5)
 The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. This book on the Enneagram system of personality types is both in-depth and accessible, well-suited to both Enneagram newbies and those with more background.(4/5)
The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. Those who have read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, about a young American man named Chris McCandless who died in Alaska while on a solo hiking excursion, will be interested in this memoir by Chris’s sister Carine. She opens up about the abuse and deception that occurred in her family home and explains a great deal about why Chris made the decisions he did. This book is nowhere near Krakauer’s calibre in literary terms, but I liked it. Krakauer supplies the foreword. (3/5)
This is Not My Life by Diane Schoemperlen. Kingston writer Schoemperlen had a tumultuous six-year romantic relationship with Shane, a parolee convicted of murder. In this fascinating memoir 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. (4/5)
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild). This book is based on Strayed's "Dear Sugar" advice column, which she wrote anonymously in an online magazine for several years. Strayed doesn't dispense advice from a lofty mountaintop: she shares honest, often painful stories from her own life, challenges her questioners to face and live out of the truth, and encourages them (with expressions like "sweet pea" as well as more, uh, colourful language) to dig deep and be their best selves.  (4/5)

Uniquely Human by Barry M. Prizant. The book’s subtitle is “A Different Way of Seeing Autism.” Prizant encourages us not to focus on eliminating autistic people's "behaviours," but to go deeper and see what these behaviours are communicating. He sees "dysregulation" (inability to maintain a well-regulated emotional state) as a key feature of autism. If we can understand the source of the person's anxiety or distress and help them feel more secure, we can then find strategies that will help them regulate their emotions so they can communicate and learn in productive ways. (4/5)

Top 2 (5 stars):
  1. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. This wonderful novel is about a group of young Londoners drawn together – and apart – in World War II.  Cleave blends extensive detail with a true love for his characters, plenty of witty dialogue, and inspiring moments of friendship, sacrifice, and courage in the midst of world-changing events. (5/5)
  2. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. When narrator Lucy is hospitalized for several weeks, her mother, whom she has not seen in years, appears at her bedside. They chat about old neighbours and people in the news – but despite Lucy's questions, her mother can't open up about the poverty, isolation, abuse, and other secrets that shaped their family's history. This brilliant novel is unsettling, but not depressing. And it’s so well written: very spare and memoir-like compared to Strout’s other books. (5/5)
Other Fiction I read this year (alphabetical by title):

About Grace by Anthony Doerr. This book was written ten years before Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See and is his only other novel. Main character David Winkler is troubled for years by dreams that come true in real life; after dreaming that his baby daughter, Grace, drowns in a flood, he runs away in a desperate attempt to prevent the tragedy. 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. (4/5)

 A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. This novel covers several generations of the Whitshank family. I liked the sections about the first Whitshank ancestor, a social climber afraid of being held back by his much-younger girlfriend. But the modern-day sections felt like reheated Tyler standbys: ditsy matriarch, stoic patriarch, assorted kids and in-laws that you can't keep straight, odd anachronisms (a baby named Susan in the 1990's?), and potentially explosive secrets that seemed to fizzle. (2/5)
I Am David by Anne Holm. In this 1963 children’s novel by a Danish writer, a 12-year-old boy named David, who has lived his whole life in a (probably) Communist prison camp, gets an unexpected chance to escape when a brusque commandant helps him. The book details David’s journey to freedom, the people he meets, and the lessons he learns about God and others. The book feels allegorical, mainly because of its somewhat distant, telling-not-showing style. I didn’t love it, but it was interesting. (2/5)

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light by Cordelia Strube. Don’t be fooled by the pretty title. Harriet, a foul-mouthed, lonely 11-year-old who resents her divorced parents and handicapped younger brother, dumpster-dives to find scraps for her art and makes money by running errands for the elderly residents of her building. Despite some quirky humour, I quickly tired of the parade of interchangeable, eccentric seniors and the numbing in-real-time plot – and I felt cheated by a shocking twist that made the second half of the book feel like a desperate retread of the first. Disappointing.(1/5)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey.  Retired fisherman and lighthouse keeper Moses Sweetland refuses a government payout that requires every single inhabitant of his remote Newfoundland island to relocate to the mainland. This beautifully written novel details his resistance to the government, his relationship with his community (especially his eccentric, and likely autistic, great-nephew), and his increasingly lonely struggle with the ghosts of his past. (4/5)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This novel (first in the popular trilogy) takes place in a 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. While the style is somewhat cliched (a character shakes "like a leaf," of course!) the book raises thought-provoking questions about heroism, sacrifice, loyalty, and power, and it kept me turning the pages. (3/5)
The Lake House by Kate Morton. Like Morton’s other novels, this one develops a complex mystery spanning decades. In 1933, a baby boy disappears from his family's estate during a summer party; 70 years later, a detective constable named Sadie stumbles upon the ruins of the estate and starts to investigate the unresolved case. The modern-day plot line felt clich├ęd, but Morton again demonstrates her talent for weaving together different plot threads, building suspense, and showing how small incidents have ripple effects across generations. I liked it, but not as well as some of Morton’s other books (especially The Secret Keeper). (3/5)
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this long list! I hope you find something here that you’d like to check out for yourself. And if you’ve already read something on my list, I’d love it if you’d share your opinion in the comments. 
(I'm linking up with Kate Motaung's end-of-year book post too.)