Monday, April 01, 2024

Review: Apollo 13 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Apollo 13 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Apollo 13 Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by Jim & Jeffrey Kluger Lovell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We've had this in my family library in Google Play for a while, so, when I was between books, I decided to have a look. And I'm glad I did. I mean, I saw the movie, which was really well done, but having a first hand account of this mission was worth the read.

For those of you who don't know the story, this is the story of one of the Apollo moon missions which had intended to land on the moon in 1970. After the first moon landing in 1969, the missions had started to get routine, so this mission was given rather short shrift from the media. However, when an oxygen module ruptured on the way to the moon, all attention returned as NASA struggled to bring home the crew of the crippled spacecraft. Almost miraculously, they managed it, but it makes for a fascinating of human endurance and technological improvisation,

This account is based on the Jim Lovell, the commander of the expeditions, account and gives an hour by hour, almost minute by minute account of what it was like in the crippled space craft as well as a detailed explanation of what was happening on the ground- both in mission control, but also at home and in the media. It is a gripping account and, even when the science sections get a bit thick, it is quickly relieved by the human factor both on the spacecraft and on the earth.

This is an excellent book and really worth reading, especially for those who enjoy stories of survival against the odds, or even just space flight.

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Saturday, March 30, 2024

Review: Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer

Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer by Tyler Staton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay, I admit it. I absolutely chose this book because of its title. Anyone who knows me or have read my reviews will know that that choice was simply inevitable. My enthusiasm for monastic spirituality is clear once you look at my list of books, so no one should be surprised I added this one.

However, this is really is an interesting book. If you're trying to figure out where to place this book, I'd say the starting point is in the context of New Monasticism, that lay movement which started picking up speed in the late 90s and which sought to take the wisdom of monastic communities and apply it to the lives of lay people, whether through creating quasi-monastic communities or just encouraging monastic practices.

The other important connection is with the 24-7 prayer movement and, ultimately, the Moravians, especially the influence of Herrnhut and Count von Zinzendorf in the 18th century. That gives really important context because this book is absolutely a book on prayer, but a highly personal and highly emotional prayer style. And I love the passion and the eagerness to contend with the emotions of prayer and how to make it available to all. Staton weaves his discussion about prayer with his own experience as a pastor, which makes the discussion more real and relevant. It grapples with the hard issues with prayer- unanswered prayer, denied prayer, but also maintains the hope that prayer brings us.

So, this is really worth reading, whether you're an experienced pray-er or whether you're stuck or it or it just doesn't make sense.

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Review: The Wisdom of St Benedict: Monastic Spirituality and the Life of the Church

The Wisdom of St Benedict: Monastic Spirituality and the Life of the Church The Wisdom of St Benedict: Monastic Spirituality and the Life of the Church by Luigi Gioia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I stumbled on this book in much the same way as I find a lot of books, by finding it in my public library's digital books section. Being a sucker for monastic spirituality, how could I not have a look at this. I found the book good, but heavy going at times.

What was good about it was that it really was a thoughtful and careful theological reading of monastic spirituality. It is, I should caution, primarily concerned with the 'inside' view, that is, it is primarily about monastic communities, which limits it direct applicability to someone, like me, who isn't a monastic and not going to be one. That isn't a criticism because I often find the monastic perspective really helpful in living my vowed life of being a husband and father, But it is good to know the primary audience and monastic communities is it. I appreciated the erudition and the honest appraisal of this book and parts of it resonated with me.

However, like many theological works, the discussion can get a little abstract at times. Again, not necessarily a criticism, in the sense that the point of theology is to work out the big stuff in our spirituality, but parts were like stirring concrete with my eyelashes. And I doubt if I understood all of the book. That is, probably, a function of my limitations, but also the difference in audience. There are simply things I didn't understand because they aren't my experience, so no one is at fault with that. My policy in a book like this is to look for what is helpful for me and let go of the things that don't really make sense to my life as is.

So, definitely worth reading, if you're interested in monastic spirituality. Being a monk, I suspect, helps though, but even a middle-aged husband/father with a soft spot for monastic spirituality can get something out of it.

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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Review: The Leopard

The Leopard The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is actually a recommendation from an Italian friend of mine, who suggested in in a conversation about our favourite books. I noted it down and was able to hunt out the translation in fairly short order.

Mostly set in the 1860s, when the Risorgimento finally reached Sicily and the unification of Italy was finally realized, the story follows the crucial weeks in which the main chracter, Don Fabrizio, the prince of the aristocratic Salina family grapples with the collapse of the Bourbon kingdom of Sicily and Naples the new allegiance to the new Italian state, unified by the Piedmontese. In the midst of this, Don Fabrizio finds himself contending with the marriage of his favourite, but poor nephew, Tancredi, to the beautiful daughter of the nouveau riche mayor of the town nearest his rural palace, Angelica. The novel really is an exploration of the dying of the old, aristocratic dominated Italy and the birth of a new Italy, turning its back on the old. Don Fabrizio is probably the most sympathetic character, although I think the sympathy that he evokes is that of a man who realizes that he's the last of his kind, rightly so. His world is burdened by the past and he recognizes that there is nothing to save it. So, there is a real melancholy in this book and a human complexity because we realize slowly that the new Italy isn't going to be problem free either.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. Its reception in the 1950s was controversial as well, infuriating both the right and the left. But I am glad I read it because it is a window to that confusing time when Italy began to reinvent itself.

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Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another of my gifts from the individual novel project for my English classes over the last year. It has been a perennial selection, for good reason, over the last few years. It is a riveting story and a disturbing one in an altogether good way. It is a coming of age story, but one that admits of the complexities of race in America (and Canada) today.

I'll keep myself from spoilers, but the story centres on Starr Carter, a 16 year old African-American girl who comes from a poor neighbourhood, who attends an affluent and mostly white prep school. Starr finds herself between her two worlds, adapting to fit in at school with some skill, if not always straight-forwardly, but also feeling on the outside in her own community. The precarious balance she's striking at the beginning of the book is shattered when she witnesses the police shooting of her childhood friend. What follows is an exploration of trauma, individual and communal, and of the racial divide as Starr struggles to honour her friend and speak out against the injustice of his death. The result is a painful story, but one that contains real hope, but hope in the struggle.

This book has, of course, been pretty controversial because it confronts the problem of police violence and racism in a way that makes people, especially white people uncomfortable. And, as a middle-aged white guy, I was uncomfortable, but, I think, the right kind of uncomfortable, approaching a world that I have no experience of, but need to learn about. Angie Thomas' book does that and gives a compelling story, with characters which are hard not to love and a hope that, maybe, just maybe, that we'll find a way to heal our divisions.

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Sunday, February 18, 2024

Review: The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first ran into this book from my students. In the English classes I occasionally teach, my final product is a novel study in which the students choose their novel. Midnight Library appeared in this year's batch of papers and I was intrigued with it when I read the student's paper. The aspect of being able to jump into alternative lives and the subtle difference between those lives was fascinating for me. So I picked it up from my Library app.

The story is an intriguing one, even if it starts sadly. It features a woman, Nora Seed, who attempts suicide because she feels that no one cared whether she lived or dies. She goes into a halfway point between life and death which manifests itself as a library in which all the books are some variation on her life. So, she begins to sample lives, exploring her greatest regrets and starting a voyage of self-discovery as she discovers that the lives that she most regretted weren't necessarily much better than the one that she had. I won't spoil the end, of course, but she ultimately discovers that the answer wasn't in the the lives, but in herself.

Despite the sad beginning, this is actually a deeply hopeful book. It is a book in which life is always better than death and that the ties that bind are what are valuable in this life. It is a wonderful book and well worth reading!

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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Review: City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, Its Popes, and Its People

City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, Its Popes, and Its People City of Echoes: A New History of Rome, Its Popes, and Its People by Jessica Wärnberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book while checking out e-books dealing with Rome after the Roman Empire. That's a search in which isn't necessarily the easiest to find good materials, so I was happy to find this. City of Echoes especially focuses on papal Rome, which was exactly what I was looking for. My recent trip to Italy (March 2023) highlighted the gaps in my knowledge of papal Rome and this book really helped to bridge those gaps.

The focus of City of Echoes is, of course, the evolution of Rome as a city under papal rule. It partly looks at monuments, partly at papal history and weaves both into the life of the city over fifteen hundred years of history. The impression is the layering of influences which you can see in the city as well. The ancient layer, of course, but also a the Christianization of the city, the mediaeval dying back, the Renaissance rebuilding and the centuries of disunity leading to unification in the 19th century. Warnburg's account is compelling and she manages to keep the human element front and centre.

This is truly well worth picking up, if you're interested in Rome the city. Warnburg is an excellent writer and she kept my interest through out.

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Saturday, December 30, 2023

Review: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has taken a surprisingly long time for me to get around to reading, given just how much I enjoy the movie Shawshank Redemption (one of my favourite movies!). But I kept forgetting about it until a student decided to read it for an independent novel project this year in one of my English classes. So, I thought it was a good opportunity to read it. Of course, some of what comes below will be informed my better understanding of the movie, but I'll try to give the book its due.

Fundamentally, the plot of the book is the same as the movie. Yes, the wardens are compressed into one. Yes, there are adjustments to the plot to intensify the 'Robin Hood' aspect of Andy Dufresne's financing efforts, but, fundamentally, the story remains the same. And that is the story, told by a fellow inmate, of Andy Dufresne, wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and imprisoned in Shawshank Prison for almost thirty years before his almost miraculous escape. It is a meditation of guilty/innocence, freedom and how to live with integrity in a moral cesspool. The centre of the book is always Andy, as told through his relationship with the narrator, Red.

This is really a lovely book. Don't get me wrong. It's brutal in parts, as one would expect of a prison book. The discussion of prison rapes and solitary confinement make that brutality very clear. But, ultimately, it is a book about hope, which is probably why I love it and the movie so much.

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Review: Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health

Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health by Kati Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up from my library app on a bit of whim. I'd seen Kati Morton's YouTube videoes a few times over the last couple of months and found her quite helpful, so thought I'd look this up. It took me only a couple of weeks to get it from the on holds, so I was able to get to it quite fast.

Morton's book is really an introduction to therapy and to psychology. Like her YouTube channel, Morton is really good at explaining the complexities of psychological treatments and approaches as well as illnesses in clear, easy to understand prose. Her style is easy to read and really quite compassionate. Her good sense comes through and she is full of recommendations of how to approach mental health issues. The book is intended for someone with limited experience with therapy, so I found that I knew a lot of what she was talking about, except, of course, the more nuts and bolts who does what kind of things (which really only applies directly to California). But I still found the book helpful.

If you're struggling and wondering about a book to de-mystify how to get help, this is a good book to start with. And, of course, Morton's YouTube channel.

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Review: Braided Learning: Illuminating Indigenous Presence through Art and Story

Braided Learning: Illuminating Indigenous Presence through Art and Story Braided Learning: Illuminating Indigenous Presence through Art and Story by Susan D. Dion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was loaned to me by a colleague as a kind of introduction to considering how to include indigenous voices into the high school classroom. It is an development of Dion's Braided Histories, which tells the stories of indigenous peoples in Canada. This book includes some of the stories, but also includes indigenous art pieces and a really useful consideration of how education fits into the efforts to bring out the indigenous voice in Canada.

I found the book really helpful in my efforts to improve my understanding of indigenous voices, so I would recommend it on that basis. Dion spends the time to explain the complexity of those voices, which is helpful for those of us who are on the outside. The fact is that, like most other communities, there is no uniform indigenous voice, so we have to ready to embrace that complexity. And Dion helps us on that journey.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Review: Seasons of a Family's Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home

Seasons of a Family's Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home Seasons of a Family's Life: Cultivating the Contemplative Spirit at Home by Wendy M. Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. I found it, really, because I was re-reading Richard Rohlheiser's Domestic Monastery which references a talk by Wendy Wright. That mention intrigued me, so I hunted out her books and was able to find this is one of the theological libraries near me.

This book looks at family life from a contemplative angle which is both genuinely contemplative, but also pretty robust theologically- an unusual combination believe me. Many of the books on family spirituality I've run into tend to get into didactic mode, telling the reader how to do family (meaning, in the way the author does) and never really gives much flexibility to explore and to delight. Wright's book understands contemplation and understands what Christian contemplation is, and genuinely delights in it. It is firmly convinced that we discover the way to God in parenting, but that that path is as individual as the people who tred the path. And that is refreshing.

This is Wright's second book and I fully intend to hunt out her first one. This one spoke to me also because she was at a similar point in parent as I am when she wrote this. That is, she has two children in university and one in high school. I'm a little behind that, but not so far that I don't understand where she is. That helps, but, it isn't necessary because Wright reminisces about all the stages of her parenting life.

This is definitely worth reading- a lovely mix of personal memoir, robust theology and poetic, contemplative spirit.

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