Billy Collins: Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2013)
I’m, glad that I decided to make 2014 the year of reading Billy Collins poems. I haven’t decided for sure, but it seems to me that perhaps not only is poetry an acquired taste, but it is a flavor that develops with age. I seem to find more meaning and pleasure from poetry now that I have passed 60 than I did when I was younger. Among other things, I finally give myself the gift of time to read and savor poems. One or two a day is enough and gives enough time to think and remember and enjoy.
Billy Collins has a unique kind of genius with words that allows him to explore a wide variety of meanings while at the same time maintaining a sense of playfulness. Everyday life is his source of inspiration. Some poets write about the extremes of love and life and loss, and their poems are rich and meaningful. Collins writs about everyday objects, situations and the kind of people I know. His poems become one of the refrains of my struggle to make meaning out of this one life on earth.
This is a book to which I will return again and again. It is a book that will be a source for perspective for many years to come.
Farley Mowat: No Man’s River (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004)
I am glad that I had already read People of the Deer and The Desperate People before I picked up No Man’s River. This book really is a triumph of storytelling. I know that there are criticisms of Mowat’s blending of factual reporting and fictional storytelling, but this does need to be judged in the context of his subject matter. The people of the far north live immersed in a tradition of storytelling. The oral tradition and the refinement of story by telling it several different times, with several adjustments to the details is a method of conveying meanings that are deeper than simply a list of facts. Mowat achieves this kind of storytelling in No Man’s River.
I found myself to be caught up in the story even though I knew parts of it from my recent reading of other Mowat books. His characters, including himself, are strong people in the face of a brutal environment. His ability to speak of indigenous, Metis and newcomers as people who can communicate and develop genuine concern for one another is an important message in 21st Century Canada where the struggles for reconciliation will yet take hundreds of years of careful storytelling and listening.
I’m glad I discovered Mowat this year and that I had the opportunity to read his books in a short period of time. He is a writer whose works will continue to be important in the story of Canada and in the struggles of her people for generations to come.
Peter Rollins: How (Not) to Speak of God, (Brewster, Ma: Paraclete Press, 2006)
I have had the good fortune to meet Peter Rollins face to face and to hear him speak so I have some sense of the person behind the book. Like many other postmodern deconstructionists, he is willed at leveling accurate criticism at the theology and practice of the contemporary church. Part of the criticism leveled doesn’t apply to the corner of the church where I live and practice my ministry because we have experienced several decades of postmodernism now, but there are definitely places where Rollins is very good and very accurate at pointing out theological inconsistencies.
What is missing from this book, not that Rollins intended it to be included) is the sense of the way forward and a sense of the nature of the emergent church. There are several services included in the volume that seem to be descriptive of a particular style of worship - al are heavily scripted and well thought out. There is, however, no real discussion of how such services can be presented in some kind of sustainable format. The meeting in the pub congregation doesn’t seem to have enough organization to provide for the quality of leadership that is required for such events to continue.
Deconstructionists, however, are not concerned with sustainability. They really aren’t concerned with offering alternatives, but rather in identifying the problems with the current powers that be. At that Rollins is willed and effective.
The book is a good read for those familiar with postmodernism and probably should be required reading for some of our colleagues who are caught up in more fundamentalist theologies.
Phil Snider: Preaching After God (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2012)
I arrived at seminary in 1974 after the wave of “Death of God” theology. There were, however, still plenty of deconstructionists around and I appreciated some of their careful theological observations about the traditional church. It added to the academic experience to have intellectual critics who were able to provide a bit of analysis of the structure of traditional theology. In the midst of this rich academic environment, we developed the beginnings of our own systematic theologies. I went on with my life and didn’t bother to read much deconstructionist theology after that time.
When I first encountered deconstructionist theology in the emergent church with authors like Peter Rollins, my initial reaction was that they were simply discovering postmodern theology some thirty to forty years after I explored that genre. Many contemporary postmodern theologians, like Rollins, come from more fundamentalist backgrounds and often from traditions that are not known for being on the cutting edge of academic theology.
Phil Snider, however, comes from a tradition closer to my experience. He is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor who serves a church a bit closer to the liberal end of the theological spectrum. His book provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at postmodern theology and try on some of the ideas of the deconstructionists.
For the most part Snider doesn’t have a whole lot of new theology in his book. He spends most of his time exploring theologians who emerged just after the Second World War. Still it is an intriguing book and gives a perspective and some language tools to talk with all of the millennials who are just now discovering the theological concepts that I thought were brand new when I was their age.
The book is a good read for those who love theology and a good discussion starter for clergy and lay persons alike.
Farley Mowat: The Desperate People (New York: Little Brown, 1959)
Reading Mowat’s People of the Deer really made me want to find a copy of The Desperate People. There is something more raw and more urgent about Mowat’s description of the Ihalmiut, their decline and near distraction amidst the forces of cultural change and governmental ignorance and indifference. There is always something about a survivor’s story that captures my attention and I find myself hoping that there will be survivors at the end of the book and that the survivors will discover new energy and hope of a revival.
The story of these people simply does not have a happy ending. The book is not a happy book.
It is, however, an important book because it tells a story that might not have otherwise been told. As we seek reconciliation in our relationships with indigenous people, it is critical that we open ourselves to hearing more than just part of the story. The story of people on this continent is an ancient story with many different twists and turns. To think that our generation is the only one to have witnessed the power and beauty of the land is to embrace a falsehood.
Im grateful to Mowat for this book despite the fact that it was a very difficult book to read - a story I wish was not as true as it is.
Farley Mowat: Never Cry Wolf (New York: Little Brown, 1963)
I have friends with whom I can start an argument by bringing up the subject of wolves. There is little doubt that the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone Park ecosystem has had some very positive results. The decrease in the elk herds has meant that there are more willows by the streams. This has led to an increase in the beaver population. More beavers means more dams, more dams means more ponds, more ponds means more moose, and down the road more meadows. But if you are a sheep rancher near Yellowstone Park (and I know some) you probably will also notice some significant losses. Wolves are opportunistic eaters and they pretty much hunt and eat whatever is handy and available.
So I am not prone to be as romantic about wolves as is Mowat. Nonetheless, there is a significant degree of truth in his writing. I don’t know what has engendered such fear of wolves and such irrational animosity toward them. Wolves pose very little danger to humans. Unlike other apex predators such as the grizzly or the mountain lion, there are no reports of wolves killing humans except in fiction. I’m not saying it never has happened, just that it isn’t something that one needs to fear.
Underlying the discussion is the simple fact that Mowat is a master story teller and his book presents the story of wolves in the way that an academic study might never have done. Yes, he does bend the facts a little bit. The criticism of the book is, for the most part valid. But sometimes the best way to tell the truth is to tell a story and Mowat has certainly told a compelling story with this book. For lovers of the north country and lovers of the animals and people who live there, this book provides a window on a place that few will ever visit.
Farley Mowat: People of the Deer (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005)
I confess that somehow I didn’t discover Farley Mowat until I read his obituary on the BBC web site. Even though one of his books had been made into a movie, I just hadn’t caught up with him. He is a wonderful storyteller whose subjects live in land that is of great interest to me. I have always felt the call of the north and am very interested in the people who live there, enduring the cold and dark of winter, making weapons and tools from scarce materials and forging a way of life that was very sustainable before the advent of European settlers.
Mowat stirred some controversy during his life, more from his writings about wolves than his writings about people, but he did sound a cry for a change in our attitudes and behavior toward indigenous people. It took a long time for people to respond to the voices like Mowats, but slowly things are changing in the north country. In some cases it is too little too late,
People of the Deer is a good starting place to read Mowat. His careful description of the geography and its people is inviting and eye-opening. The result is a delightful and challenging book.
Jennifer Michael Hecht: Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013)
Jennifer Michael Hecht is nothing if not thorough. A few years ago I read her book “Doubt” which, like this one is primarily a history of philosophy book. Now I am an armchair philosopher, after majoring in philosophy for my undergraduate degree. I actually am interested in the history of ideas and have great admiration for the careful research and comprehensive approach that Hecht brings to her work.
But I do have to admit that this book is a little dry in some places. Still, the book is well worth reading and the information very useful. The preface tells the highly personal story of how the author got into the study of suicide and the ways in which various cultures have dealt with self-caused death. Her essay with the same title as the book has received a lot of attention in suicide prevention circles and is very touching and worth quoting.
I am grateful for the work that has gone into this volume. I wouldn’t label it an easy read, either intellectually or emotionally, but it is a critical subject and one worthy of such a complete review by such an exemplary scholar. Every college library should have a copy and the book would be a good textbook both for philosophy classes and for psychology classes examining the subject of suicide.
Graham Warren and David Gidmark: Canoe Paddles: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own (Kingston, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2001) I have a copy of the fifth printing in 2012.
I build canoes, why shouldn’t I be carving my own paddles? It is a good question, though it didn’t interest me much before I started to get a bit more serious about freestyle paddling. As I experimented with different paddles, I began to get a sense of what I like and what I don’t like. Before long paddles that I have used for decades became not as favorite as others and my interest was sparked. I have access to a fair amount of Black Hills spruce, all air fired and ready for carving. It seemed like it was time to fire up the planer, get out the crooked knife and spokeshaves and get to work.
Friends in the canoe world all agree that Warren and Gidmark’s book is the best guide to making your own paddles. I had instructions for making paddles from several other canoe-building books, but this really is “complete” just as the subtitle claims. It is good to learn a bit about the history and and differences between various paddles and to learn how to make paddles that are not only functional, but also beautiful.
I still can’t carve a paddle that is as good as some of the ones that the custom paddle makers produce, but I and learning and there is great satisfaction in paddling a canoe you made with a paddle you carved.
Nadia Bolz-Weber: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful, Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013)
Nadia Bolz-Weber and the church she founded in Denver are often cited as examples of the emerging church movement. She has been interviewed by Christa Tippet for her On Being program. She has appeared on the stage at the Wild Goose gathering with the likes of Phyllis Tickle. It seemed like a good idea to explore her book and hear her story from her own point of view. There is something wonderfully hopeful for me about the book, but it really isn’t that I believe that the emerging church is somehow going to be a once-in-500-years reformation of Christianity.
What struck me most about the book and about Bolz-Weber is how conventional she is. Her ideas are not somehow new and radical and different from the ideals with which we began our ministry. Her church is not somehow liturgically distant from the rest of Christianity. It seems to me that what she and her community are doing is trying to live the faith as genuinely and as sincerely as they are able - and doing so with humor and a dash of creativity.
No, I don’t think our church is likely to put a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font for the Great Vigil of Easter. But I do find it hopeful that the House for all Saints and Sinners is observing the Great Vigil of Easter. What Bolz-Weber is offering, it seems to me is Christianity that is in many ways more steeped in the traditions of the church and its biblical and historical roots than many big-box mega churches and mega-church wannabe congregations. When she speaks of the Christian faith, what she describes is the journey that the church has been on for a couple of thousand years.
The book is a good read. Her congregation would be well worth a visit. And I hope that she gets some recognition outside of mainstream Christianity. For me it is hopeful to recognize that the emergent church is more of a reaction to the negativity of fundamentalism than it is a reaction to mainline Christianity.
Billy Collins: Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2000)
I invested the year 2013 in Rilke, reading at least one of his poems every day and pondering not only the man, but also the sparseness of his words and the ability of very few words to convey great meaning. So I started 2014 wanting to continue the discipline of reading poetry every day, but looking for something that was a bit less esoteric. Who better than Billy Collins? The former Poet Laureate of the United States and Distinguished Professor at the City College of New York has an ability to make poetry fun while at the same time expressing some of the deepest emotions that we experience.
This collection of poems did not disappoint me. Although I had set the discipline of reading one poem a day to allow the poems to sit with me and me to reflect on them, there were days when one Billy Collins poem just wasn’t enough. I found myself reading the poems out loud when I was all alone and laughing out loud as well.
Although the words Collins uses are simple and common, there are no simple phrases anywhere in the book. Each combination of words serves as an invitation to go deeper into our emotions and our observations. Collins can take some simple experience and turn it into a slice of life that makes you want to remember.
My choice of poet for 2014 has been just right for my year.
Jane Austin: Pride and Prejudice
There is something about the particular path I took through high school and college that meant that there are a number of books that are considered to be part of the canon of English Literature that I haven’t read. So, I have been trying to do a little “catch up” and from time to time read some of the classics that I had otherwise missed. So it was that I found myself with a copy of Pride and Prejudice that was clearly designed to be a textbook. It contained a biography of Jane Austin in the beginning and commentary on the novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Macaulay, W.F. Pollock, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Goldwin Smith and F.W. Cornish. I skipped the commentaries, read the biography and soon was caught up in the story.
There is no mystery about why this novel has become known as one of the pieces of literature that defines the form. It is well-written and carefully crafted. The characters are fully developed and we get a sense of their inner lives and motivations as well as the narrative of the story. The problem is that the story itself is well, rather boring. There really isn’t much of a story her at all.
The thing that I didn’t expect was the amount of humor in the book. There are some real “zingers” in the book - conversation that would have been pointed in which to participate and very funny to witness. Her characters possess great wit and the ability to deliver that wit to the source of the humor.
All in all, it is a book worth reading.
Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators and editors: Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005)
I suppose the fact that I am writing this review in August of a book that I read last year is a sign that I am way behind in writing my book reviews. The truth is, however, that I haven’t really finished this book. I have read all of the words, cover to cover, but it isn’t the kind of book that one reads once and then lays aside. It is a kind of a companion for thinking about some of the really big thoughts of life. So, little by little, I have been reading and savoring and re-reading and living with these wonderful poems.
Even though I don’t read German, I find the layout of this book to be just right, with the German text on the left and the translation on the right. I always think of German as an expansive language with very long words and lots of run-on sentences, but in virtually every poem, it takes more words to express the meaning in English than in German. I have developed a deep respect for Barrows and Macy in their work as translators. On several occasions I have used the poems as devotions having a colleague read the German so that we can hear the rhythm of the original and compare it with the rhythm. In some cases, you get the sense that Barrows and Macy have almost produced entirely new poems. Except the seeds of the ideas are contained in Rilke’s originals every time.
This is a book that many will want to own. It is one to which I will return again and again.