Sunday, July 21, 2024

Review: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read this book for a while, but the fact that I'm going to be teaching an Indigenous literatures course next year meant that I felt it was time to get on it. While not necessarily a history (indeed, King disavows that it is a history per se), King looks at the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada and US as well as what it looks like now. His writing is really vivid and very funny, but also really hard hitting. He does not hold back and that's a good thing, especially for this topic.

One of his main point is that, fundamentally, North Americans have difficulties understanding Indigenous peoples as living and breathing, with needs and demands of their own; that one of the most persistent images of Indigenous peoples is the 'dead Indian' in which Indigenous peoples are only understood as people of the past, not people with whom we need to engage now. But much of the rest of the book shows the harm that image has caused and continues to cause.

Definitely an important book to read and understand!

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Saturday, June 29, 2024

Review: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume I by Fernand Braudel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This idea of this book has fascinated me for years, since my undergraduate days and my Methods in HIstory course in which the Annales school of history was first explained to me. So, when I found it in a astonishingly good second book store in Manitoba, I jumped at the chance to buy it. And, eventually to read it. For, as those of you who glance at the reading dates will realize, a long time. It has taken me over a year to read this, mostly because it is not a book you can rush through. It is, without a doubt, a tour de force, but it is not easy. Not at all.

The book is written as a total history. It is not just about Philip II's prodigious activities in the Mediterranean. It is, in an important sense, about the Mediterranean, which is, arguably the real hero of the narrative, if you accept it as a kind of tragic hero- noble, but in decline. Braudel is, probably, most interested in processes, rather than events, so he focuses on the cycles and structures in which history plays itself in the Mediterranean. That makes him consider the region over a long period of time, as well as thinking about the cyclical patterns as well, and after that (and only after all that), the events of Philip II's reign. This tripartite structure is Braudel's claim to fame and is often considered the unique contribution of the Annalistes. Never mind that the only person who has ever achieved this structure fully is Braudel himself and, really, only in this book. The approach remains fascinating, if only in theory, especially for those who, like me, are drawn to the very big picture. It does drive the more event focused completely bats.

Some caveats though. This book is looonnnggg! Two volumes of not especially easy prose (here in translation). It is, as my wife calls difficult books, 'stirring concrete with your eyelashes' at times. I mean, it's still fascinating and a tribute to Braudel's vast reading and erudition because the long duration is as densely packed with examples as the event focused last third of the book. But this is not popular history, so be ready to wade through the often sluggish prose. The sheer erudition and insight is worth the work, but, do not doubt it, it is work. A fast read this is not. This is best read slowly and carefully, and probably with lighter reading as a chasers.

But it is so much worth the effort to do, well, at least once. It is legitimately a classic in 20th century historiography and gloriously complex. And I say that as someone for whom the 16th century and Spanish history is distinctly a side interest. Read it, if only to see what a total history might look like. Or just for the spectacle of the Mediterranean in history. Or for the innovative ideas about historiography. Whatever. just read it.

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Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is very simply a lovely book. Written as a series of essays which reflect upon the sometimes incongruous common ground between science and Indigenous wisdom, this book offers a grounding in the natural world and a (re-) connection to the land which we in North America sorely need. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist, professor and indigenous writer, who reflects on the natural world through Indigenous eyes.

It's hard to sum up a book with so many disparate essays, of course. But several themes bind the stories together- gratitude, reciprocity, respect for the land and for non-human life, community and a general suspicious of our current Western capitalist economic thinking. The teachers, as the author says in several places, are actually the plants or the land around us, not humans who are really younger brothers, who need to pay attention to their elders, the non-human life around them. The essays confront climate change and our self-destructive compulsive consumption (symbolized by the Anishinabe beast, the Windigo) and give us much to reflect on.

This is not a book to read quickly or lightly. The language is simply too beautiful and reflective to do that and I suspect we would entirely lose the point of the book if we just consumed it in one gulp. But, if you're interested in an alternative, more sustainable way to see the earth, this is a good place to start.

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Review: As Long as You Need: Permission to Grieve

As Long as You Need: Permission to Grieve As Long as You Need: Permission to Grieve by J.S. Park
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, quite simply, a lovely, but painful book. Written by a hospital chaplin in California, we confront the challenges of that challenging vocation, as he faces loss, grief and trauma every day, helping people who are seeing their last hours and their families and friends. Told with great compassion and even greater honesty, it is a vivid view of what goes on everyday in hospitals, but which most of us don't encounter often.

What I loved about this book is the painful honesty of the author, who isn't afraid to talk about the difficult things, but steadfastly holds space for those he encounters each day. He's honest about his own struggles and his own burnout and mental health challenges and that of his family. There were times where I could only just cry with him as his stories about grief particularly struck a chord with me.

A fair warning, of course. Park's honesty is pretty raw sometimes, so if you're in a tender place, maybe hold off reading this for a bit. It can get overwhelming.

But despite that warning, I'd recommend this not only to chaplins, but to all who work in the caring professions as a model of how to engage with suffering without being overwhelmed. Definitely worth reading.

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Review: All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is, of course, a classic and, both Bernstein and Woodward would say (and do in the introduction of the new edition), a timely one. In this book, we follow the saga of the Washington Post's coverage of Watergate, spearheaded by two young journalists, Woodward and Bernstein, from the beginnings of the scandal to the resignation of President Nixon.

The story is well known and has so many twists and turns as journalists like Woodward and Bernstein sought the truth about the Watergate scandal and the Nixon administration desperately tried to keep it hidden. The tale is full of wrong turns and lucky breaks, but also shows the care that newspapers of the era spent to be sure that they were printing sound information. The sordidness of the Nixon administration's denials and obfuscations made that so much harder, of course.

Of course, the story invites parallels to today- both in the threat to democracy and the ways that ordinary decent people countered the threat when they found themselves in a moral crisis. It is ultimately a heartening one, although very much a cautionary tale.

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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review: Passions of the Soul

Passions of the Soul Passions of the Soul by Rowan Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran into this book on Google Play and, since it is a subject about which I'm interested (the link to early Christian and, here, monastic ideas around prayer and the self) and it is, after all, by Rowan Williams, I couldn't resist buying it. It is a superb book and definitely worth reading for those who are interested in prayer in general.

The book focuses on the Desert Fathers tradition and, especially, the eight bad thoughts (logismoi) which would eventually form the basis of the seven deadly sins in Western moral theology. Williams makes interesting links between these thoughts and the Beatitudes as ways to heal them. The discussions are helpful and, as one expects, erudite. I'm moderately familiar with the literature, so it made sense to me, although I worry that someone less familiar might feel overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. But that's a risk when approaching the Christian mystical tradition in general, which Williams rightly points out in his last chapter.

This is a really worthwhile book and will reward the effort to read it. It has that Rowan William's effect on me, though, that, as I finish it, I usually feel like I'm going to have to go back at some point and re-read it to see if I actually did understand it. It is complex and interesting, so re-reading just seems to make sense.

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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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