Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015: Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith - Barbara Brown Taylor

First, let me state a couple of disclaimers:

I am not at a crisis of faith
I am not planning on leaving the Church
This book isn’t massaging some deep-ridden angst (well, maybe it is, but like THAT)
This book isn’t what it seems
Some of you would love this book

Okay. Now that is out of the way. I loved Leaving Church. It was a slow read. It’s one of those books like Becoming Human by Jean Vanier that you just have to read something and mull it over for a while. I probably highlighted this book more than I did the rest of the books I have read this year combined. Granted, this is a theology book, not fiction, so that lends itself to that.

What else do I say? I read this book after reading the blog of Jonathan Martin. He mentioned Leaving Church a few times. As I was trying to read a little more diversely this year, and as I had a gift card to Amazon I ordered the book. It took me a while to connect with Taylor. That is not because of her style; she is actually quite pleasant to read. She is this odd combination of being breezy and heavy at the same time. She swings her pen and you feel a breeze that both cools your face and pushes you back at the same time if that makes any sense whatsoever.

So, what is Leaving Church about? If I had to sum it up I guess I would say, an autobiographical critique of the way that vocation often destroys good people. Taylor was and is someone who loves God. She is someone who is incredibly gifted, particularly at teaching about things such as God and religion. She is someone who does relationships really well and did ministry for nigh on 20 years. But she is also someone who nearly lost her soul to the Church. I know that is a bold statement, but that is what I get from reading this work. Taylor, a woman who learned to connect with God with her back on the grass in a field in Kansas, found her way through college and seminary into serving God in His Church, only to find that the way that we approach ministry in the confines of the Church actually caused her to lose sight of God and instead live in a world that presented checklists for what pastors do. She lost her true self and became less human by becoming a pastor and found herself again when she finally entered a different vocation.

Taylor’s critique is poignant. She writes the experience that so many of my friends have had. The Church has become a systematized beast instead of a symbiotic gathering of mismatched people that somehow grow to love God and each other. I think that is something that needs to be considered from all sides, and Taylor’s book is a great place to start that discussion.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

2015: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness: Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree. (The Wingfeather Saga Book 1) - Andrew Peterson

I was talking with my friend Matt Webb about my plans for reading this year. He told me to stop whatever I was reading and read the Wingfeather Saga. He said it would be the best thing I read this year. And though that did not turn out to be the case, it was a pretty good little book. I like the way Andrew Peterson plays with words; I like the way that music has power; I like the way that unlikely characters have unlikely pasts that have put them in unlikely positions and unlikely relationships.

Peterson followed many of the rules that you are supposed to with a good fantasy series. We have a parent who is a dead, we have someone at risk so they have to leave home, we have a hidden treasure, we have named and unnamed villains. We have all of these things that produce a mystery as to what the heck is going on and why this story should interest us at all. When I read the story I thought it was written by a 9 year old. I think that persuaded me to keep pressing through what were some childish types of storytelling. It turns out he was in twenties, but just writing a youth fiction novel.

The reality is that the book is a little like Harry Potter, it grows. The language and the themes mature and it is a different novel at the end than it was in the beginning. The ending actually makes me excited to begin the second book, and the characters are living more into who they were called to be than they ever knew they would be.

I think what I like most about the series is that the hero(es) are not these robust, confident men and women that stumble into great destinies. These kids actually have a lot of help and for all but the last pages of the first book they have no idea who they really even are. In that regard you tend to get annoyed with certain attributes, but you slowly realize, or maybe remember, your heroes are 9, 11 and 12. So young! This isn’t the teenager or even young adult awaking to realize that they have been wasting life. These are school-age kids, not even to puberty yet who find themselves in the midst of something they could not survive without others.

The Wingfeather Saga is something that interests me now. It is also interesting to now realize that the writer is also a musician who produces music that gets played on the Christian music stations. I think that may open up some interesting themes in the future of the story.

2015: The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One - Patrick Rothfuss

 The third book I finished this year was the first in Rothfuss’s series The Kingkiller Chronicles. I started it about the same time I started Longmire. I finished Longmire and started reading Sherman Alexie and both of those just hit their stride before The Name of the Wind. That said, it was absolutely worth the set up to get to the story that Rothfuss had to tell. The book itself is about unfolding the true story behind the legends of a man named Kvothe. The concept is pretty fun. A storyteller has encountered the one man who can actually set the story straight.

The voice switches between Kvothe telling his story and the interruption of daily life surrounding him. Once Kvothe begins telling the story, I would like to say that it takes off. But the truth is the early part of his story, like the early part of any of our stories is not enthralling. There are big important things that happen, but this part of the story was just setting up for the important things to come. Where Rothfuss excels here is having Kvothe reveal insight that comes upon reflection of his life. He can see where certain things prepared him for next stages. He can also see where he was wrong and the influence of relationships looking backward.

One of the difficult things for me as a reader was that Kvothe remembers so many details that there are a lot of names of people. In most of my past reading anyone with a name was worth remembering. That certainly is not the way of things here. It is hard to figure out who exactly is worth remembering and why. I found myself investing myself in characters that just disappeared. And although that is a bit annoying, I guess, reflecting on it…that is part of life. We invest our lives into people that simply go away.

I will say that from the outset I expected to enjoy the book, but held in my mind I might be disappointed. My brother-in-law Tom told me I needed to read the book. Others said it was really good. I tend to have a predisposition to be disappointed in things that others like. I think it is the side of me that wants to be snooty and pretentious. But the problem is Rothfuss is a good writer. My BIL and my friends were right. This is just a well done story. Once you figure out who to invest in the story, it starts to take shape a little more.

This particular book is probably my favorite of the new four books I have read this year. That said, I will probably finish some other books I have going and maybe read a quick Longmire book, before I finish and start the next book. I think I want time to just sit with it and be ready to let myself be immersed in the story when the time comes.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

One of the things I was committed to in 2015 was to read more diversely. I am pretty niche – high fantasy and theology. But even within those genres I still read relatively few women and probably fewer who aren’t white. I became aware of Sherman Alexie as the screenwriter for the film Smoke Signals. I had thought several times that I might want to check out his writing, but never seemed to find the time. So, in that context, I picked up The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian not knowing it was actually Young Adult fiction.

Now if you know me you know I actually like some young adult fiction. There is a lot of good stuff in that category these days. From the Hunger Games to Harry Potter and from what I hear Divergent and Eragon, there is just a lot to celebrate there. How does Diary compare to these books? I think it holds its own. Sure, there is no magic like Harry Potter, sure there is no survival like Hunger Games, and sure there is no whatever it is that Divergent and Eragon do.

What you have instead is this comedic portrayal of Arnold Spirit, Jr. who discovers that in order to leave the cycles of poverty and despair at the Rez, he has to leave the Rez for school. The diary however is not just comedy, but does a great job of describing the plight of Native Americans stuck in alcoholism and poverty, because they were set up for failure. Beyond that it also has deep emotional resonance. Without giving anything away there are moments that you are pained for Arnold; Alexie writes in a way that you want to reach out and grab his shoulder and tell him that everything is going to be okay.

Alexie is equal parts prophet and comedian in this work. Everything is told in the words of a 14-year old who is probably a little too mature for his age. But because of his relentless optimism and tenacity he takes on some of the worst situations imaginable. What I like about this story though is that things change him; they do not defeat him, but they mark a change in the way that he understands life. There is growth over the course of this one man’s freshman year of high school.

So, who she read this book? Probably anyone who wants a good laugh or enjoys young adult fiction. Maybe those that really enjoy stories about first nation characters. I personally think that it would be best for those who just want to love a character for a weekend. I somehow read it in a weekend, because I just wanted to know how Arnold was going to tackle the next thing. And that was a very good thing!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015: The Cold Dish (Walt Longmire, #1) – Craig Johnson

Oddly the first book I finished of 2015 was not in fact theology or high fiction, but the first in the Longmire series. It was surprisingly well written. I mean that in the sense of having never been a fan of crime books/movies before. Walt Longmire is a great protagonist. Standing Bear is a great number two, as is Vic. Johnson did his job by surprising me with the murderer (I told you it was a crime book!). Although I had seen the first episode and remembered specifically it was not two people that they wanted you to believe, I could not remember exactly who it was.

What The Cold Dish does well is set the scene for the series. But it could have stood alone without much trouble. The history adds up. These are real people. There are real expectations for them. I think I appreciated a lot of the banter and development strictly because I am from a small town. I know what it’s like to know everyone and have an inkling of who could pull off something like a 500-yard shot down to 10 people. In that regard I really enjoyed the book.

Johnson did however make me wonder about the Native Americans in the book. I do not know many Native Americans. I don’t know that this captures them well in their speech patterns and stoicism. I don’t know that it does a good job of capturing their mysticism. But it certainly makes for fascinating story.

I found myself already recommending this book to a couple of people and that was even before I finished it. I think the way that Johnson writes is the perfect combination of descriptive, narrative, action and pause. I didn’t feel rushed to read it, but I enjoyed reading it. As the book carried on, I wanted less and less distraction to finish it. In that way it is a great story. You want to know.

In one crucial scene, even though I knew the end (because I had seen the TV show) I knew how it would turn out, but I still felt the tension that Johnson intended. That is good writing. To know, “Hey this is how that turns out” and to still wonder “Maybe they changed it from the book…because this HAS TO HAPPEN,” is a pretty remarkable feeling.

Overall I could see myself picking up the entire series. It is that well done. I think the exploration of Henry’s four-prong plan – Fix your house, fix your body, get you a woman and find you some spirituality will probably remain a focus through the series. The spirituality is already the interesting portion to me in terms of the Spirits that are already guiding Walt.

Not a bad start to the year.