Tag Archives: books

Favourite books of Some of the books I read in 2019

2019 wasn’t a particularly profound year in terms of the books I completed. Some of my favourites of the year were re-reads. There were some good books, but for many I’ve already forgotten what they were about. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on the stresses of the year or if some of those books were, in the end, forgettable. But here are the highlights, such as they are, from the year, in order of reading. Turns out that often books have meaning to me for their “feel” and context as much as their content.

John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. This was the first book I completed (started it Christmas 2018) this year and it may well have been the best. The book was a profound reminder that there is more to the text of Genesis 1–3 than our reading habits, preconceptions, traditions, cultural expectations, etc. lead us to think. Which may explain why I never get tired of exploring that particular part of the Bible. (I also read John Walton and Tremper Longman’s, The Lost World of the Flood, and was comparatively disappointed.)

Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me. I loved the pace and feel of Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, which I read a number of years ago, and very much looked forward to this novel for this reason, in addition to the fact that the protagonist is a pastor. Some of that pace and feel (or mood) of Olive Kitteridge was present in Abide with Me. I think I liked it. I think.

Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Re-read. I think she says some thoughtful things in this book. I don’t remember. I like this book for its feel and pace. It exudes prairie, which is a good thing.

Billy Collins, The Rain in Portugal: Poems. It’s Billy Collins! Also, purchased at a discount at Tattered Covered Books in downtown Denver, Colorado, so it has some warm sentimental value.

John Le Carré, Call for the Dead. A fun read and, I believe, the novel that introduces the character George Smiley. It probably worked in this book’s favour that I read Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy not long before this one. That was also good, but significantly longer and more difficult to complete. But Call for the Dead had all the good things of Le Carré and George Smiley—cold, rainy London; lots of walking and talking; mystery and intrigue—but in at a fraction of the length of some of his other books.

Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Re-read. Wonderful story. Additionally wonderful because I look for a non-movie-tie-in edition in every bookstore I’m in (even though I think of the movie when I read it). It’s never in stock anywhere I go, so I took it as a sign that I should buy it when I found it on the shelf in a little bookshop in Estes Park, Colorado. Read it in a day or two in a cabin in the mountains high above Estes Park this summer.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda. My brother urged me to read this. It is the tragic story of the relationship between eastern Canadian First Nations tribes, as well as between those tribes and a group of Jesuit missionaries. It was an absorbing read.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Fascinating and helpful argument for the existence of God. Not specifically the Judeo-Christian God, mind you, even though Hart is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but helpful nonetheless. I would proffer this book over a more standard evangelical apologetics/arguments-for-the-existence-of-God book. That’s just a hunch, though, as I can’t say I’ve read a great deal of that flavour of Christian apologetics. This was a thought-provoking and challenging read.

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Reading two Hart books back-to-back within a month would have seemed impossible to me the month before I did that very thing. Hart is known as an exceedingly dense writer, whose books need to be read with a thesaurus in one’s other hand, but both of these books were engaging and readable. I read a very short book by Hart in seminary, and it was very difficult to understand. This CPAP machine I’ve been using must be helping my reading as well.

Opinions about this book tend not to be modest. Many people have expressed disappointed in it, though it’s not clear if that’s because his arguments are deficient or because here Hart turns his vitriol away from his usual target—New Atheists like Richard Dawkins—and points it at “infernalists” (Christians who hold to an eternal conscious torment view of hell). I do think that Hart tends to be a grumpy and cynical writer and wish he wouldn’t be (although sometimes it’s funny), but I didn’t take his vitriol personally. On the other hand are those who love the book and think it will be the one for “infernalists” to contend with for the coming years.

As for Hart, he says, both in the book and in interviews about it, that his argument is irrefutable. I’m not sure about that. But it is compelling, even convincing. But irrefutable? I doubt it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin. A posthumous novel edited by his son Christopher from Tolkien’s vast collection of papers. It expands on a chapter in The Silmarillion, posthumously published in the 1970s. A beautiful story.

Michael Palin, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Another book about the Franklin expedition—actually, it’s about several voyages of the ships Erebus and Terror, but it’s a publishable story mostly because of the Franklin tragedy. I don’t know why this story has fascinated me enough to read two books on it (Michael Palin as author helped), but something about 18th century explorers, ships, the craziness of being away from home and at sea for four years, and the mystery of the disappearance of these two ships and their crew is enough to keep me coming back.

Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I always enjoy a simultaneously humorous and helpful look at writing. (See also Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves; don’t see Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which could’ve been such, but isn’t.) But I am left wondering who’s rules—England’s or the US’s—I should be following when I write?

Unhurried Delight

Every year as part of maintaining “good ministerial standing,” our denomination requires its pastors to fill in a form in which we list educational and personal growth experiences, such as courses taken, workshops or conferences attended, and books read. I keep track of what I’ve read in a little notebook (and on Goodreads) and so I go back and look at what I’ve read.

What troubled me this time around is that I couldn’t remember a thing about one or two of the books I had read this year. I remember reading them (I think), but I don’t remember what they said. Which makes me wonder, why did I read them?

Eugene Peterson said somewhere (but I’m quoting his Twitter feed, and the same quote pops up every now and then), “Reading is a gift, but only if the words are taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Coincidentally, it was one of Peterson’s books that I don’t remember anything about.

His words get me every time. How often do I read with “unhurried delight”? Rarely. Usually I’m more concerned with getting through the book and adding it to my “books read” notebook. Part of the problem is that I have so many books that I want to read (and have already purchased in anticipation of reading them) that I feel like I can’t keep up, so I read quickly if I can.

Occasionally a book will be so striking that I soak it up in a hurry and remember it, but that’s not normally the case. But what’s the point in reading if I can’t remember it? Is there value in reading simply for the sake of reading and being changed in small ways along the way? I think so.

On the other hand, there’s really little value in hurrying through a book if I won’t remember any of it anyway.

I need more “unhurried delight” in my life—not just in what I read, but in all of my life.

Three questions ‘ere I go.

Leaving for a two week holiday tomorrow in which I plan to spend a significant amount of time on the beach. I’m in between books and in the middle of a bunch of others and I can’t decide what I should bring along. “I’m just going to bring a box of books,” I told Dixie. I can’t seem to just pick a book and go with it. I need time to browse, flip through a couple of books, and let settle on settle on me, but I don’t have time for that now.

I’m actively reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, so that one will come along for sure. But I suspect that bringing a book about the Sermon on the Mount to the beach is something I will regret. I’ve got stacks next to my bed and indecision weighs heavy.

What about some of the books I’ve started but put aside for the time being: The Brothers Karamazov; Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeA Brief History of TeaA Thousand Splendid SunsBeyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet; The Grapes of Wrath; Wolf Willow (started it ages ago, couldn’t get past the fiction bits but want to get to the non-fiction); Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.

Or maybe some new fiction or non-theology/Bible non-fiction, something to take my mind off the things that need doing: A Confederacy of DuncesLonesome DoveSuch is My BelovedRumpole for the DefenceAbout a BoyInto Thin AirQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingThe Neverending Story (which I started today to see if it would stick); perhaps another Wodehouse novel; perhaps I should start reading The Lord of the Rings again.

Or maybe it’s okay to walk that fuzzy line between work and play and read one of those theological/spiritual books I’ve been wanting to get into: Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us; A Thomas Merton ReaderChrist Plays in Ten Thousand PlacesIncarnation.

Or maybe I should just take Willard and find something else at that wonderful used bookstore in Penticton. I’ll probably do less reading than I think I will. Here it is 11:20. I’m fighting a cold and I should be sleeping, but these are important decisions.

Dixie loves packing, bless her heart. So my worries prior to our trips, outside of the cleaning and organizing that needs doing, are: do I have a book to read? do I have several changes of underwear? is my deodorant packed?

One way or another, I’ll have all three ‘ere we go.

How far have we come?

In the Koran, Allah asks, “The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?” It’s a good question….Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s, once having called forth the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened?…”God is subtle,” Einstein said, “but not malicious.” Again, Einstein said that “nature conceals her mystery by means of her essential grandeur, not by her cunning.”  It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat? (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 9)

The Hour of Decision

It’s decision time again, or nearing it. One of the pleasures of school life is selecting next year’s classes and perusing their syllabi. It’s also a pain trying to make the classes I want to take work with the classes I need to take as part of the program.

Decision A — Last fall I had decided to take the month-long intensive Greek course in May. Getting this introductory class out of the way will open up my choices for next year.  However, I had been warned by several people that when you take a month-long intensive language course you give up your life. I was dubious. They are morning classes. Surely I would be able to study in the afternoon and spend the evening at home with my family. And then last Friday a professor actually confirmed what had been told to me by students: with the intensive courses, you sell your soul to the language for that month.  I’m not sure I want to do that.

An additional quandary is that in May there will also be a couple of interesting modules taught by scholars from outside the school. Most notably, perhaps, is Tremper Longman III’s class on Proverbs, but there’s also Grant R. Osborne’s class on Hebrews.  Both Proverbs and Hebrews tend to be regarded as somewhat mysterious books which people are unsure of how to use. There is also a third, core course available at the end of May.

So many angles to consider: the subject matter; program requirements; unusual professors (e.g. scholars from the outside); which faculty members will be teaching the languages (they alternate from year to year); which courses will fit within the parameters of my program; which courses should be taken before which; which courses will require fewer other courses in the same semester; etc.

One of the frustrations is being “forced” by my program into not taking classes that I would like to.  Of course, I can take any course I want to, but at some point they will fall outside of my program requirements (credit and/or subject-wise). $1,000 a pop for courses which will not apply towards my degree is a bit steep. And auditing isn’t always a realistic choice. This semester, for instance, I had hoped to take 3 classes from a professor who will be leaving at the end of the semester, but because of scheduling conflicts and program requirements, I could only take one.

I want to make this decision soon, but unfortunately next year’s class schedule will not be available until mid-April. And next year’s class schedule will have a bearing on my choices for May’s classes.

Decision B — A fellow student alerted me to this once-in-a-lifetime deal on Karl Barth’s 14-volume Church Dogmaticsa savings of 90%–or NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS! ($100 for a $1,000 set)–on a foundational work of theology. My first impulse was to jump on the bandwagon and purchase the volumes (this is a pre-release special).  But then I realized from a short-term monetary perspective I could not justify the purchase. Plus there is the monument to impulse buys which is much of our property, including a number of our books. Plus there is the fact that I’m not likely to read them all.  So I had put that thought off for a while.

I mentioned it to my theology professor today–admittedly a Barthian–and he said that this was a price I’d never get again and that it is a reference work, essentially a set of commentaries which would be extremely useful to me (he also noted that he–a Barthian–had only read about 60% of it). He said that he wasn’t just suggesting that I buy it–he implored me to get these books. And when you consider the long-term monetary perspective, it does make some sense.

Social commentary

I received in the mail today a book entitled The Culture of Fear.  Its subtitle is, “Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” and its sub-subtitle (following the colon after the subtitle), “Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plan Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More”.  A veritable mouthful.

The book has been on my wishlist for some time now, but with all the craziness and confusion surrounding H1N1.*  I thought it would be a good time to read the book (over Christmas hopefully).

This book belongs in the category of sociology, which is becoming a bit of a hobby interest of mine, in terms of reading.  “Social commentary” might be a better term; it sounds less clinical and academic. Or maybe “Cultural Studies”. But I digress.

I’ve read a  couple of interesting books in this category: Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information; Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation; and Ferenc Mate’s Reasonable LifeTo an extent the books of Bill Bryson fit into this category, as do the films The Corporation and Supersize Me.

Other books of this nature I’ve picked up over the years (but have not yet read):

Some of these books may be a getting a bit too close to the genre of conspiracy theory (I’m thinking in particular ofTrust Us, We’re Experts), but sociology/social commentary is a broad genre, I think, and includes the likes of both Michael Moore (on the left–also, arguably, a conspiracy theorist) and people not so on the left (I had an example earlier in the day, but it escapes me now).

The Culture of Fear should be an interesting read.  I’ll let you know.**
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*including, apparently, the suggestion that I’m being selfish if I don’t get vaccinated: so now it’s not just the fear of the flu, but also the fear of how people perceive me!
**Of course, it’s the middle of November, so by the time Christmas rolls around I may have different reading plans–such as reading next semester’s books in advance!

Book recommendation

During our holiday I read Alistair MacLeod’s collected short stories, Island. It’s the kind of book that reminds me what good fiction is and why I love a good story.  The stories are mostly about Cape Breton Island fishermen, farmers and coal miners, but MacLeod somehow manages to make such a localized context accessible and moving to those of us far from the Maritimes.

Read it.  Now.

There and back again and then over there and then back again.

Got home late last night from our tour of southwestern Canada–all the way to Tofino, which is nearly as far west as a person can go in Canada.  We drove just a hair under 5,535 kilometres over our 3 weeks on the road.

I’ve been offline for most of the time away, which I’ve enjoyed.  I didn’t really miss the internets all that much, which, I suppose, is a bit of a lesson for me.  I plan on doing some posts about the trip in the near future.

I’ve unpacked the van and now I’m preparing to repack the van, as Luke and I are driving down to Otterburne tomorrow with a vanload of books, etc.* and to pay for our the trailer we bought.

As I’m boxing all of our books, Dixie and I get into a debate about my manner of packing.  You see, I’ve got a scheme in mind for the limited bookshelf space we will have in Otterburne.  I figure that if we have to choose a limited number of our books to shelve, then it should be those which we’ve already read.  Dixie, on the other hand, is more inclined to choose books in a set (i.e. matching spines–such as Penguin classics) or books she wants to read.  My argument runs thusly: if Joe or Jane Visitor comes over and looks through our bookshelf, as many people are inclined to do, and pulls out a book and says, “How was this one?” I think we should be able to give an answer.  Otherwise, the conversation will go like this:

“How was this book?

“Dunno.  Haven’t read it yet.”

“Did you like this one?”

“I haven’t read that one either.”

“Did you read this book?

“No.”

“Have you read any of these books?  How many of these have you read?”

“Few.”

And so on.

In my opinion, we shouldn’t have a bookshelf in which 90% of its contents are unread.

There will also be boxes of books marked “to read”, which are those books which we own, haven’t read, but want to read.  And, finally, there will be a third level of box holding books which we are in no hurry to read.  We may want to consider simply getting rid of that last set.

I have tentatively won the argument.  For now.

And so tomorrow the Vandermen set off once again.

Had a brief meeting today with our real estate agent.  We’ve lowered the price again.  We need to sell the house.  We also discussed some of the finishing work which should probably be done to sell the house.  I found it a rather depressing meeting.

But all shall be well.

in which I ramble…

Well, this is pathetic, isn’t it?  This blog is going to pot.  Completely.

I realized today that one of the reasons I’ve been blogging less lately is because I’ve been preaching more (approximately twice each month for the last couple of months).  Most of my writing energy and time has been directed at preparing and writing the sermons, which in the end doesn’t leave much for blogging.  Seems kind of obvious now, but it didn’t click until today.

I can’t say that the rest of my spare time has been spent studying for my seminary course–far from it, unfortunately!  It seems my study habits are no different now than they were in university nearly a decade ago.  But I’ve been fretting about the course and trying to work on it and think about it, which is draining.  And I find that required reading isn’t nearly as stimulating and thought-provoking as chosen (i.e. recreational) reading is.  I know I chose to take this course, but I think you can understand.

As my own personal confession I will tell you that I’m finding St. Augustine’s Confessions less than engaging.  Confessions is almost required reading for every Christian at some point and I had hoped it would be more enjoyable than it has been.  Maybe it gets better once he gets past the distractions and lusts of his youth (which aren’t at all tittilating stories, if that’s where you head is at).  I’m hoping that his conversion will be a turning point in Augustine’s book as well as his life.

I’m oscillating between panic (DEAR GOD!  HOW ON EARTH WILL I COMPLETE ALL THIS BY THE BEGINNING OF JUNE?!) and perhaps an overly optimistic rational calm (you have lots of time!  Read something you enjoy!)  Right now I feel calm.

I suspect the timing of all this could have used a bit more thought by yours truly.  It may not have been the best thing to start this seminary course just at the time that I was also starting to work at the church part time.  But then, knowing who I am and how I work, things would probably not have been much different if I had taken the course in other circumstances.

I have taken some time for myself and my family.  There has been some oscillation there, too (DEAR GOD!  CAN I AFFORD THE TIME TO WATCH THIS MOVIE WITH DIXIE?! and Take it easy for once!).  

I watched The Hours with Dixie the other night.  Philip Glass wrote the score.  His minimalist music is always stunning.  I first heard of Glass after inquiring into the beautiful score for The Fog of War (which you should watch), then I heard one of his “Dance #something or others” on CBC’s (now cancelled) Disc Drive.  I’ve never purchased an album or soundtrack by him–it feels like his music calls for immersion and yet I can’t bring myself to spoil the beauty of the music by having it around all the time.  It’s kind of like eggnog: if we had it all year, it wouldn’t be nearly as special.

Oh–how was The Hours?  It was pretty good, although there’s a good chance the mood of the music made the film for me.  But it was an interesting story.  It’s a study of bisexual relationships.  No–I’m kidding.  I kept joking about this throughout the film (breaking one of my own film-watching rules): lesbian kiss here, lesbian kiss there.  Oh, wait!–she also had a male lover earlier on in life, and this male lover is now gay as well.

But don’t let that stop you from watching the movie.  

For the morally sensitive ones among us, I recall a Bible college professor’s suggestion that the value of a film should not be judged by the moral actions of its characters.  There was more to it than that, of course (because clearly a pornographic film cannot be justified this way).  He made a connection to the Bible, which would be rated R or worse if made into a film (including all the gory sex and incest and murder details).

Moving on…

At Dixie’s urging, I plowed through Rob Bell’s new book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, earlier this week.  She she thought it was pertinent to what I was thinking about for today’s sermon.  It was, to an extent.  I heartily recommend this book.  Rob Bell has an amazing ability to explain big theological concepts in non-high-falootin’ terms.  It can be read in a matter of a couple of hours (thanks in part to his one-sentence paragraph style: I noted to Dixie that his publishing style is remarkably unfriendly in terms of conservation).  And there’s an “Aha!” moment every couple of pages.

I’m also almost finished Scot McKnight’s new book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, which I received as a Christmas gift.  Even though I’m not finished it yet, I already heartily recommend it.

So I’ve managed to fit in some chosen reading as well.  My justification: it’s personally edifying and beneficial to me and my position at the church and hence the church.

What I really need to do is learn to focus.  Much time is wasted aimlessly wandering around the house, flipping through books, checking email, being on the internet for no particular reason.  I hate to say it, but a little efficiency would go a long way for me.  I need to refine my use of time.

That is all.

Dan Brown foreshadows…

1. …subtly:

[Kohler said] “One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent.”

Langdon nodded blankly.

He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life. (Dan Brown, Angels & Demons, p. 29)

I actually laughed out loud after that paragraph.  Also, it reminded me of this:

“‘Little did he know.’ That means there’s something he doesn’t know, which means there’s something you don’t know, did you know that?

POP NAME THAT MOVIE!  I haven’t awarded a Pilcrow in some time.  No cheating.

2.The Da Vinci Code:

“This morning,” Kohler challenged, “when I typed the word ‘Illuminati’ into the computer, it returned thousands of current references.  Apparently a lot of people think this group is still active.”

“Conspiracy buffs,” Langdon replied.  He had always been annoyed by the plethora of conspiracy theories that circulated in modern pop culture.  The media craved apocalyptic headlines… (p. 51)

Cashed in on that one, didn’t ya, Dan?

Also, what kind of brilliant scientist with all sorts of computer technology at his fingertips would refer to a web search as “typing the word into the computer”?  None.  That’s the answer: none brilliant scientists.

Seriously, though, I loved The Da Vinci Code.  One of the few “unputdownable” books I’ve read in my life.  Great fiction.  Dixie tells me Angels & Demons is just as good.