Supplementary reading

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I should be reading books from my 50 Book Challenge list. I’m far enough behind already that I shouldn’t even be looking at other book covers let alone cracking the spines. But I couldn’t help myself when I heard about the release of The Name Therapist by Duana Taha.

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Taha is a television screenwriter and a contributor to the gossip site Lainey Gossip, which is how I first came across her work. She writes a column called Duana Names in which she offers, you guessed it, naming advice to expecting parents (and the occasional pet owner). The column is equal parts informing, amusing, and reassuring as she digs into a vast personal bank of names to suggest or, more often than not, tell people they aren’t going too far by picking a name not familiar to most ears. (Although, her column talking a soon-to-be mother of twins out of naming her son Kale is what put her in my must-read pile.)

So I’m sure you can understand why I jumped at the chance to read Taha’s book. With a name like Bryony, I’m often the one holding the “Friend” mug while everyone else has a personalized cup from which to sip their morning coffee, and I’ve written about my name and the novel from which it came before. But, now, I had the chance to read the experiences of another unusually named child.

For those of you familiar with Taha’s column, this book will feel like a deep dive into the topics and issues she only gets to briefly discuss there. For the uninitiated name nerds, you are missing out, as you will learn when you read this book.

The Name Therapist is partly a name memoir, but she uses her own experiences and “name pain” from having an unusual name as a starting point to discuss the stories behind how we name our children; living in a multicultural naming playground; naming trends, influences, stereotypes, and nightmares; and if we are defined by the name we have no say in choosing.

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Just like in her column, Taha’s absolute delight in talking about names is evident. She makes no apologies for her name obsession, more frequently wondering why no one else cares about names with the same intensity. Her writing, while informative and candid, is also light and quickly paced, which may be the only draw back as I wished she could have spent a more time fleshing out some topics such as the white-washing of non-European names or, on the other side, the trendiness of some cultural names to the exclusion of others (especially in light of increasing discussions of cultural appropriation).

Still, I was hooked in Chapter 2, Where Do Duanas Come From? when she names – first and middle – two people, just based on the time they were born, and I know people with those names! I wonder if she is asked to use that skill as a party trick? Come on, Duana, 20 questions and then guess his name. Plus the conversations she has with unevenly named siblings or the bit about Mormon names (I had no idea!) – the section on the name Jennifer alone is worth the read. Taha leads you through all the things you never realized if you have a name easily found on key chains and coffee mugs or has you nodding your head and saying “yes!” if you either carry a unique moniker or have kept a name diary since childhood.

And, while my name never came up, I won’t hold that against her. I’d like to keep Bryony out of the top 100 names anyway.

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A sanctuary for doubt

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Doubt has an uncomfortable place in faith. We’re not supposed to doubt, not supposed to question the ideas and stories that make up the foundation of our faith. But doubt is one of those sensations that, even as we try to push it down or run away from it, bubbles up until we can’t avoid what is bothering us anymore.

Fortunately for us, writer Rachel Held Evans is comfortable discussing her discomfort. In her third book, Searching for Sunday, Evans writes about feeling out of place in her faith community. The book is not so much about a crisis of faith but a crisis of community. Not of believing you know everything but of wanting to find people you can feel comfortable not knowing everything with.

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As Evans’ faith evolved, from easy acceptance to conflicting doubt, she found that her home church no longer had a place in which she could question freely or live out her faith. She and her husband found themselves staying at home more often than not on Sunday mornings, trying to disengage quietly from the church community in which she had grown up. Using the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation) as guideposts, Evans tells the journey they took from the church home they outgrew, to an experience in church planting, to finding hope and welcome in a new Christian community.

Each section begins with a more prosaic rumination on the sacrament, focusing on something tangible (water, ash, hands, bread, breath, oil, crowns) as a way into the topic. The introductions serve as a reminder of the ways in which we try to comprehend the vastness of God, while the chapters share her personal experiences of those touchstones. Her writing is sprinkled with humour that both informs and disarms, bringing familiarity and reassurance to the lonely experience of doubt.

Reading Searching for Sunday made me feel less alone. Growing up and away from the bedrock community of faith I had been raised in made the whole world seem unsure, and the place I would usually turn to for comfort now felt restricting.

Thankfully, like Evans, I have the support of my husband. Our family is a blended family, by which I mean that my husband and I were raised in different Christian faith environments. I come from a long line of Christian Reformed believers: Dutch, Protestant, reserved. My husband was raised in a Polish Catholic community: ritualistic, traditional, nostalgic.

Growing up, I never really thought about how Christians could be different. I thought that except for a few minor theological divergences, like transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ), the differences were more a matter of style than substance. Never mind that a difference of opinion about transubstantiation would get me burned at the stake during the Reformation, to me, all of that was behind us. You do you, Catholics, and I’ll do me. Christian is Christian.

It wasn’t until I actually had to interact with people of different backgrounds that I saw how profoundly my background impacted my faith. Building a faith life within our family is an ongoing project. When we first met in university, my husband referred to himself as a recovering Catholic and joked that I was a closeted Agnostic. I laughed but the idea that I was not committed to my faith, as I’d always believed in, made me uncomfortable, nervous. I began to notice the ways in which my church community no longer lined up with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of faith. I began to doubt. And my doubt turned to searching.

We were married in a Christian Reformed church by my family minister, and every moment was perfect, but after the wedding we moved to a different city, and we began to look for a church. We finally settled on the Catholic cathedral downtown. The service started at noon, so we could sleep in, enjoy CBC News: Sunday, and still make it on time. The liturgy took a while for me to get used to, but the sermons always gave me something to think about. I also got to hear the Alleluia Chorus sung by a professional choir for the first time. A perk of having a Bishop preach in your church at Easter, I guess.

Music would play a huge role in choosing our next church home after we moved once again. We spent over a year looking, with many listless Sundays spent at home. We discovered our current church through a rock band we both enjoy (The Low Anthem, in case you were wondering). They were using our church as a venue. We didn’t end up going to the show, but after perusing the church’s website we decided to give it a chance. We haven’t looked back.

Splitting the difference on our religious backgrounds, we started attending an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The choir is phenomenal, the clergy engaging and challenging, the community supportive. I feel at home in our church for a lot of reasons. In it, we get to live our faith by praising God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, writing to the imprisoned, and asking questions. There is room for doubt in the pews and chairs of the sanctuary. For confusion and anger and hurt. Without brushing away those emotions, but embracing them. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.

I may have doubts when I enter our church, but I always leave with a bit more hope. Perhaps that is what I search for each Sunday – hope.

Since the beginning of the year, our church has sent forth two priests to other ministry opportunities: one, a recently ordained minister; the other, the head priest for the last 15 years. As we wished them well, the whole congregation gathered around them and sang a beautiful song that I have a difficult time finishing without choking up. As anyone who has been part of a choir, or even just sang with the crowd at a concert, can attest, there is something special about joining a group of voices together. In these two lines, I feel unburdened from my fears and doubts and remember there is still hope.

Be not afraid, my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Be not afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised to always be near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast Reader, Slow Writer

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Getting caught up in a good book is easy enough to do, especially in the winter. What’s not to love about curling up with a hot drink and a strong story and watch the cold nights pass by.

While work generally leaves me little time to read in the winter, this year I did a pretty good job of keeping up with my reading. I think being part of a 50 Book Challenge really helped, and, though I’m a little behind schedule, I’ve managed to not completely lose momentum.

Except when it comes to writing.

Reading is easy. Enjoyable. Cozy. Writing, however, is work. Most days it requires great effort to put words to page. The struggle is real. I would much rather sit and enjoy quietly turning the pages than curse-out a blank page or delete and retype a sentence that just won’t come together.

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So while I’ve read the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I haven’t been writing about them. I’m trying to get caught up now. Trying to remember the books I finished reading weeks ago and write something thoughtful about the stories and my experience of them. But if I thought it was difficult when the stories were fresh in my mind, putting off writing about them has not done me any favours.

I am a huge procrastinator when I have the chance. A habit only matched by my fiery determination once I set myself to a task.

I have three books to write blog posts for:

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

 

And three books to read:

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Looking for Alaska by John Greene

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu

The challenge for me this month is to write as much as I read. I’m trying to take it one book at a time and remind myself that while I did organize the books by month, the point is to read them all not read them as a prescribed time, so I’d like to have all the posts caught up by April. I really enjoyed all the books I’ve read. This was the first time I’ve read Alice Munro and the series of stories—wait, I’m going to save it for the blog post.

Happy reading (and writing!)

BJL

I am Seaweed

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As I read more of the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I find I am responding to them personally instead of intellectually. By which I mean, my reading feels like listening, like someone is telling me their story and I am there not to judge but just to listen.

I certainly felt that way as I read Arnold’s story in Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards. This is the first of seven of his novels I will be reading as part of my 50 Book Challenge (and Richards’ fourth novel overall) and, as I’ve read his books, I’ve developed the suspicion that I am one of the people he is chastising for their good intentions. I’ve read and not really understood why his characters make the decisions, poor decisions in my mind, they do. I’ve enjoyed the stories he tells, the craft of his writing, but the characters have been largely unlikeable. I have, as Richards has accused his critics, mistaken nice for good.

But, with Road to the Stilt House, I felt like I was starting to understand Richards’ point.

20160125_120015Stilt House tells the story of Arnold and his family. They are extremely poor. They fight. Randy, his younger brother, has just returned from being placed in foster care. His mother is ill. Her boyfriend and his mother poke and prod for sport. They are unlikeable and difficult and yet to pass judgement on them would only feed the source of their struggle.

The novel is one of Richards darkest but I found it made his point more clearly, largely due to the shifting narrative viewpoints from first and third person: being able to see inside Arnold’s head opens up a lot of understanding not because things are spelled out for the reader but because his feelings behind his actions are more evident.

Also, the personal toll of Arnold’s life – events outside of his control, illness, and universal sorrows – help retain empathy for him when he spits harsh words and lashes out at those around him. And they are not excuses for his behaviour; they are the roots of understanding him. His depression, ignored by those meant to help his family and used as a weapon by those within his family, holds him in place.

One scene in particular stands out. Throughout the book, Arnold deals with bad teeth. They are rotting and falling out. They have cut his mouth and his gums bleed. Finally, he works up the courage to ask the social worker assigned to his family to help him get his teeth fixed. She is embarrassed and asked why he didn’t go to the dentist years ago. I felt such rage toward her for asking that question. To punish him instead of helping. She waves it off by saying they cut back on teeth and he makes light of the problem but he is deeply hurt by the exchange:

And now Seaweed too. Even Seaweed was asking her favours!
He went upstairs. He sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. His chest shook and shuddered.

He refers to himself in the third person by his nickname, which only highlights his perception of worthlessness, as a thing instead of a person, and hates himself for asking her to do her job. This woman is meant to help him and instead she increases his shame, his sense of powerlessness, his sense of being stuck. That kind of systemic failing is what I believe Richards’ is trying to impart. The problem isn’t Arnold, it is those who would judge him for something over which he has no control, including the reader.

While Arnold does eventually get new teeth, this, of course, does not repair all the damage in his life. It is a cosmetic fix that does nothing alter the circumstances that led him to need them in the first place.

By the end of the novel, Arnold loses control over his life and, in fact, loses his life. His loss of control is reflected in the novel’s structure as his cousin finishes telling Arnold’s story for the last 28 pages.

I can only hope that Richards, as he frequently does in his novels, picks up Arnold’s tale and fills in the how and why of the end of his life. To be left as he was at the end of Road to the Stilt House is an unfair conclusion to his life. But perhaps that is also point. That the structures in place that contributed to his end are the same that will brush his life and death aside as inevitable. That we shouldn’t care or look too closely at Arnold’s death.

After all, it was just Seaweed.

Putting the Awe Back in Awesome

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Like a lot of great books I’ve read, I first encountered Pär Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl as part of an English course, in this case a second-year course on myth and symbol. As a young woman from a small, Christian community in a staid, mid-sized city, this course and this book started opening a lot discussion for me about faith, God, and religious experiences. I’ve read it two or three times before, but I reread it for my 50 Book Challenge because the characters’ encounters with god feel so unlike anything I’ve understood or experienced but, as the sibyl remarks, “I think I recognize that god.”

The Sibyl tells the story of two people: first, the story of a man who is cursed by Jesus for preventing him from resting against his house while carrying the cross to Golgotha, commonly known as the Wandering Jew; and second, the main arc of the novel, the story of the former oracle of Delphi, now living a disgraced and outcast life in the hills outside of the city.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 13.38.25My reading of this book then and now isn’t about good or bad. Reading this story is about taking part in something larger than yourself, something not completely understandable, something just meant to be experienced, incomprehensible, greater-than, awesome – in its truest meaning.

Awesome is not just the easy descriptor given to everything from that burger you had for lunch to the new Star Wars movie. Awesome means to inspire awe. It is means, if I may reference the OED, immediate and active fear, dread or terror.

Perhaps this is not the first way most Christians want to think of God, but throughout this past Christmas season, as I read the story of Christ’s birth to my children and attended church services from different denominations, fear was brought up a lot, though rarely honed in on.

The children’s Bible that my family reads pulls together in one Christmas story: the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan, Joseph’s doubts about their marriage and the subsequent dream of an angelic visit, as well as the traditional stable, shepherds with angel chorus, wise men and baby Jesus. Three times we read that the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. I mean beyond the startling experience of seeing an angel, commonly depicted as a glowing, floating figure that only Fox Mulder could believe in, why would meeting an angel be frightening? But three times we read do not be afraid. And this is a creature only next to God. Not God, but a servant of God. If an angel can inspire fear, how much more so could an encounter with God?

Which brings me back to The Sibyl. The man has come to ask the sibyl what his future holds now that he has been condemned to wander for eternity and to find no rest. Her response is her own life story: her childhood; her experience with god as the temple’s pythia; her great love of a neighbour, his death, and her pregnancy and resulting violent expulsion from the city. As they discuss their stories, the sibyl keeps coming back to the idea that an encounter with god is not simple experience.

He is not as we are and we can never understand him. He is incomprehensible, inscrutable. He is god. And so far as I comprehend it he is both evil and good, both light and darkness, both meaningless and full of a meaning which we can never perceive, yet never cease to puzzle over. A riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist. To exist for us always. To trouble us always.

Her life, tied so closely to the experience of god, was lived in opposites. Life in the temple lifted her up but held her separate. She experienced ecstasy and terror by god’s hand. As a result, she does not deny that she hates god for the destruction in her life but also says she owes god her every happiness. The space created in this story to both doubt and believe, to feel anger and peace, to be part of and separate from God continues to fascinate me. The awe of encountering something incomprehensible, to be touched by God, bound up in him, has a certain pleasure that is irrationally appealing, as the pythia’s story reveals.

In the end, the man leaves her side believing the answer he is seeking may only be found in his endless wandering. The answer cannot be spoken but only lived.

I read and reread books like The Sybil to find more clues to the riddle that is God, to find the edges of my own understanding and belief. I accept that I will not find an answer to my questions or doubts, not for myself or for any others who come and question faith and the existence of God, but in reading and questioning and discussing, I live and search in hope of a truly awesome encounter with the incomprehensible I AM.

A prayer for a good book

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Hurrah!

The first week of my 50 Book Challenge and I finished the book! Is that too many exclamation points to kick off a post? I don’t care because I’m off to a good start with this challenge and I’m feeling pretty excited!

Seriously, every time I have a dry spell in finding a good book, I need to remember that I can always turn to Sarah Dunant. With reading Sacred Hearts I’ve finished all of her historical fiction, so I’ll have to try her earlier work, which is in the thriller genre, unless the follow up to Blood & Beauty comes out (fingers-crossed).

For now, I just enjoyed devouring Sacred Hearts. Published in 2009, Sacred Hearts was shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The story takes place in the convent of Santa Caterina in 1570 in the city of Ferrara. Serafina, a novice, is entered into the convent against her will and is placed in the care of Suora Zuana, the dispensary mistress. While Caterina and Zuana bond as they work side by side in the dispensary, the head of the convent, Madonna Chiara, manoeuvres to fix the novice’s place in the convent while maintaining peace within its walls. Through all this, Serafina is used as a conduit through which convent struggles to find a balance between the warring forces of the counter-reformation and a more well-rounded experience within the strictures of convent life.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 22.43.06At two moments in the book, I really wasn’t sure how the story would unfold and could see the plot spinning off in totally different directions. This is one of Dunant’s great skills – presenting the possible outcomes before pushing the chips in one decisive direction. The first break takes place as Serafina carries out a plan of escape from the convent and is confronted by Zuana. The second is as Suora Umiliana, the sister in charge of the novices, makes moves to unseat Madonna Chiara and change the lives of all who dwell in the convent. The way Dunant is able to unfold both these plot lines feels unforced and true to the world she has created. All at once, you believe the contradictory thoughts that everything is both an inevitable progression as well as the consequence of random decisions and moments.

Dunant’s other great strength is her ability to weave historical detail into the story in a way that doesn’t just provide context but also enhances the characters’ personalities and moves the plot forward. The opening chapter sets the stage and players so clearly, you feel completely immersed in their world very quickly, mostly due to her eye for detail for the lives of the women whose story she is telling. On another day, I’ll do a close read of the opening scene and try to highlight the layers of history and character that Dunant uses to set the scene and lead in the reader.

Having finished this book makes me regret that I only put in one book from each author (excluding David Adams Richards) for my 50 Book Challenge. I count Dunant in my top five favourite authors and I’m really glad that I started this challenge off with such a strong book. I hope it bodes well for the rest of my choices.

One down, 49 to go!

BJL

I’m with the tortoise

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I decided to take my reading out of my home by joining a book club at my local library. I went to my first meeting last month to discuss Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I read it when it first came out in 2012, but went to the meeting anyway as I had enjoyed it and wanted to hear other peoples’ thoughts.

This month, we read Come, Thou Tortoise, the debut novel of Jessica Grant. I thought I would put my reaction to it here first before talking it out in book club.

Uneven. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking back on this book.

There were moments when I couldn’t stop reading and moments when I thought I could put it down and never pick it up again. I reached page 150 before I had a genuinely pleasurable moment. If not for the book club, I may have set it aside.

But I am glad I pushed through. The traits that bothered me grew fewer in number as the plot deepened and the main character came out of herself.

Come, Thou Tortoise tells the story of Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, a young woman with a below-average IQ, dealing with the death of her father and the loss of her Uncle Thoby, who lived with them for most of her life and who abandons her after the funeral.

Her father, Walter, was a scientist trying to find the key to immortality by teaching cells to remember how to be young. Complex ideas like Walter’s work, or Uncle Thoby’s history, or how not to be afraid of airplanes are all presented through the explanation that makes most sense to Oddly. As her capacity to fully understand all that is occurring is diminished, so is the readers.

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photo by Peter Pearson (bit.ly/1JLD0tH) License: bit.ly/1jxQJMa

Mixed into this story is the experience of Winnifred the tortoise as told from her perspective as guest of Audrey’s friends (she is left behind when Audrey returns home) and as companion to Audrey and others over her long life. I really enjoyed Winnifred’s sections; her concerns for her own well being and for Audrey or other former housemates blend well with the larger narrative. Winnifred also provides a relief from the oddness of Oddly. Think about that. The narrative of a tortoise is more normal than the thoughts and actions of the human protagonist.

Mostly this is a result of Grant’s use of wordplay. Oddly loves puns and uses them as a way to deal with or deflect from difficult situations – calling her father’s coma a comma, which I misread every time, or using French words in place of English, which worked well. The device is over used at the beginning of the novel, perhaps to help establish Audrey’s personality, but it got old pretty fast and I was glad when the plot made it more difficult to work the puns in organically. At times it is difficult to trust the narrative. Is it true or just wordplay?

I like humour in my books, but often find books that are meant to be funny to be the least funny things I read. Maybe it is the expectation that I should be laughing at every page, but most often they are disappointing. While I laughed at times while reading Grant’s novel, I think it is a disservice to the story to present it as funny book. The heart of the book is the relationship between Audrey and the two men who made up her family.

Walter’s death opens up many questions for Audrey, most of which have nothing to do with what you or I would consider important. A missing hamster. An arch-nemesis. Audrey takes for granted the stability of her family life, until Uncle Thoby’s disappearance forces her to look more closely at the people nearest to her and those she would keep at arms length.

Even with (and perhaps because of) the unanswered questions, the centre of Grant’s story and Oddly’s life holds – a family is made by love:

But my dad had explained this to me. That sometimes there is only one parent. Sometimes there are two. Sometimes there are three. But what it comes down to is who wants to be. And if someone doesn’t want to be, they shouldn’t have to be. And if someone does want to be, like my dad, who really really wanted to be…or like Uncle Thoby, then that person should be allowed to be.

And that kind of love is something you should not say no to.

Book club is tomorrow. I’ll be sure to update you on how other people took Come, Thou Tortoise. For more of my thoughts on this novel, check out my Twitter feed @rereadpages for my live tweets from reading this book under #comethoutortoise. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

BJL