December 2014

Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins

Elizabeth Stone, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008)

Stone - Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins
A college course in storytelling has me back into reading textbooks. In fact there are six books recommended for this course and I plan to read them all. Elizabeth Stone has written a book that is more about understanding family life - a kind a parapsychology book - more than a book about storytelling technique. Nonetheless it offers great understandings for story tellers. Just being able to identify family stories and to understand how certain types of stories find expression in a wide variety of families is a useful process. Stone has interviewed a lot of people in preparation for the book and her telling of their stories in the context of other stories begins to identify the types of stories that we tell about ourselves, our families, and why our lives have turned out the way they have.

Understanding families has a lot of different practical application from human resources management, to pastoral care to telling stories. Understanding how certain stories fit into the context of bigger stories is a boon to all storytellers. The book fits well into the lectures of the class to provide a continuity of understanding.

Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

Rob Schindler, Hot Dogs & Hamburgers: Unlocking Life’s Potential by Inspiring Literacy at Any Age (Austin, TX: River Grove Books, 2012)

Shindler - Hot Dogs & Hamburgers
The United Church of Christ has adopted this book as a “One Read” for our denomination for this year. We have been promoting it in our congregation as a part of our participation in the life and programs of our church. There are a few more than 40 copies circulating in our congregation, including one set of CD’s for those who are not able to read the words on paper. It is the kind of book that can be read in one or two evenings, and Shindler’s story is compelling and engaging.

Briefly his story goes like this: Frustrated with his son’s inability to read and his own inability to teach his son how to read, Shindler becomes a volunteer tutor with the Chicago Literacy Council. He not only learns the skills he needs to engage his son in reading and become a better father, he also makes lasting and life-long connections with the remarkable people who become his students. His perception of the kind of people who are unable to read is forever changed and his family is renewed in the process.

It is a delightful story with a powerful ending. We have had two different groups in our congregation discussing the book and more than a quarter of our congregation have now read the story. That’s pretty remarkable for us.

I have a close friend who did not learn to read until he was 30 years old, so I have a sense of the wonderful contributions that can be made by those who cannot read. I also know a bit of the frustration and heartache that comes from not being able to read and thinking of oneself as not being intelligent. And I have witnessed the transformation that occurs when the former teaching disability is overcome and the person learns to read.

It is a great choice for a one read and a book that is easy to recommend.

Poems that Make Grown Men Cry

Anthony and Ben Holden, eds, Poems that Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words that Move Them (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Ben Holden - Poems that make Grown Men Cry
I am not one who can read and process poetry at a rapid pace. In fact, I sent a little over three months with this book. It is delightfully well-constructed with an introduction by each author about why and how the words affect them emotionally and spiritually. Then the poem is presented. There is at least one case where multiple authors selected the same poem, but their individual reasons are unique and worth reading. The poems, like many others, deserve to be read aloud and pondered.

Being a grown man myself and discovering that age is making me more, not less, sentimental, I found this volume to be powerful. Perhaps that is the desired effect among sentimental old fools. If so, I’m just the audience the book seeks.

One comment that starts with a story. A decade or so ago, I met Robert Bly. He was in our city for a workshop that our church hosted. It was the day of men getting in touch with their feelings. There was drumming and other activity. My initial reaction, I must say, was not very positive. I found the man to be pompous and full of himself, and not very aware of the writings of others, even those in his field. I am a student of philosophy and enjoy a good philosophical discussion, but he wasn’t interested in anything except his own point of view. So, it seemed quite appropriate that out of 100 authors, only one chose his own work as a poem that moves him emotionally. You guessed it. That one exception was Robert Bly.

Had I been editing the book, I would have left that entry out and sought out one more writer.

Dandelion Wine

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (New York: Bantam, 1976)

Bradbury - Dandelion Wine
OK, so somehow I lived more than six decades as an English-speaking person who considers himself to be literate and I had not yet read any Ray Bradbury. I heard an interview in which a literature professor, who I think is with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, said that he reads Dandelion Wine every year. I decided that it was time.

I guess I am just not in the same league with that literature professor. At least I didn’t have any sense that this was the greatest use of the language ever. And I didn’t emerge feeling that I had missed anything. I guess it is a sort of coming of age story. It is a description of a young boy’s summer of ’28. Bradbury is a good writer. And he does turn a good metaphor. But he is not a keen observer of culture. I can see why he made his fame in the field of science fiction. His regular fiction is certainly not rooted in the kind of experience that real people have.

You have to suspend all kinds of disbelief to connect with a young boy who has no sense of religious traditions and meanings. Who has to discover every fundamental truth about life and death without any sense of connection with previous generations and the great philosophies that have been shared from generation to generation.

He uses language well. He crafts elegant metaphors. And he creates characters who are unlike any people I have ever met.

The book did not plant in me any desire to read more Bradbury.

I guess I just don’t get it.

The Wisdom Jesus

Cynthia Bourgault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind - a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008)

Bourgeault - The Wisdom Jesus
The reviews I read of this book had led me to believe that Cynthia Bourgault was offering a fresh perspective on Jesus. I think that is an exaggeration, but she does merge Western and Eastern interpretations in a way that is certainly not mainstream. She invites us to step out of our tendencies to over rationalize the Gospels and read them freshly with emotion and passion. Her book, however, is fairly heady - a theological approach without the footnotes. She writes well and the book is a good read, but I just couldn’t bring myself to understand her approach as something radically new in the world of Christianity.

Many of the disciplines and approaches of which she speaks have long been present in the Western Church as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. She seems to be more educated in Eastern practice than in that of some of the orders of Roman Catholicism, for example.

The third section of the book is a rather elementary introduction to spiritual practices that have been taught and passed down for centuries. My advice to those who have not yet read the book is to skip to that section first. If those practices are new to you and invite you into a deeper relationship with Jesus, then, by all means read the entire volume. It is a good introduction to a deeper faith. If you find very little that is new in those practices, chances are you won’t find too much that is new in the rest of the book.

This book would be a good book for spiritual practices groups or for spiritual direction and is good to have in the library of resources.

Empire of the Bay

Peter C. Newman: Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers that Seized a Continent (Toronto: Madison Press Books, 1989; New York: Penguin, 1998)

Newman - Empire of the Bay
Two books, one author, one title. Actually, the illustrated version contains parts of the complete text, which I read in the Penguin version. An epic company deserves an epic history and that is just what Newman has compiled. 584 pages of text covering 300 years of history. The Hudson’s Bay Company was at one time the world’s greatest monopoly - the largest monopoly in the history of the world. Its dominance was so extreme that for nearly a quarter of a millennia, the story of Canada, except for a small bit of it on the East Coast and along the St. Lawrence River was the story of the Hudson’s Bay Comany. No student of the history of Canada can avoid a serious study of the company, even though for much of its history, the Company was not open to study and was not eager to share its story.

Newman - Empire of the Bay2
Times, however, have changed. The company of adventurers now has evolved into a normal business enterprise, no longer join charge of law enforcement and no longer directly involved in the fur trade. The Bay, as the company is now called, is largely in the department store business, though they remain the exclusive vendors of certain goods in some rural and isolate communities. The large illustrated version, however, is no substitute for the Newman’s complete work. I was fortunate to find used copies of both books and read the longer version first and used the illustrated version as a refresher of the history that I had just read. The illustrations are wonderful and well worth the price of the book, at least on the used market.

Although these books are by no means new, they remain good sources of information on the history of Canada and the story of The Hudson’s Bay Company.