Reading Round-Up: April 2018

Happy May! It’s a glorious spring here where we are; the trees are blossoming, the sun is out, and the books are good. Here’s what I read in April:

  1. The Stranger from the Sea (Winston Graham)
  2. The Miller’s Dance (Winston Graham)
  3. The Loving Cup (Winston Graham)
  4. The Twisted Sword (Winston Graham)
  5. Bella Poldark (Winston Graham)
  6. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
  7. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (Rhoda Janzen)
  8. Simplicity Parenting (Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross)
  9. The Year of Less (Cait Flanders)
  10. Human Chain (Seamus Heaney)

This will be a shorter wrap-up post, because I’ve already treated three of these in their own posts: the two books by Rhoda Janzen and Simplicity Parenting .

The month began with the final five books of Winston Graham’s Poldark series — I touched on that a bit in last month’s round-up, so I will just add that the series ended as well (or better!) than it began and had me its pages eagerly until I finally reached the last. It’s a great series; I highly recommend it.

When I started reading The Year of Less, it took me a few chapters to figure out why it felt so familiar: I used to read Cait Flanders’s blog a few years ago, back when she was just known as “Blonde on a Budget.” This book isn’t just recycled blog posts, but it does retell a lot off her same story, of the year she decided to enact a personal shopping ban: for one year she would buy nothing but consumables (groceries, gas, toiletries) or items on her brief “allowed purchases” list (travel expenses, a few other things). During the year of the shopping ban she also decluttered an impressive 70% of her belongings. It was an interesting read and Flanders certainly learned a lot about her own consumption habits and shopping triggers, but it wasn’t until I was finishing up the last chapter or two that I was able to put my finger on what was bothering me about it all: the narrative and the project are both entirely self-centered. I mean that in the strictest descriptive sense: everything was about what Cait was saving for, what Cait was spending on, what Cait’s money could do for Cait. The idea of living on less so that we can share with or bless others never entered the picture, and by the end it seemed a pretty glaring omission.

I first read Seamus Heaney back in December and have been meaning to pick him up again — so I did. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes find Heaney obscure. Perhaps if I knew more about Ireland it would be different — or could translate the Irish into which he occasionally slips. Nevertheless I find his poetry highly evocative and it often gives me “the flash” even though (or perhaps because) it often speaks of something that I cannot quite grasp. I will be coming back to Heaney, I am sure.

And that was all she  ̶w̶r̶o̶t̶e̶  read! On to May…

Reading Round-Up: March 2018

I have been putting off and putting off writing this post, because I keep thinking that I need to write a proper full post for Culture Making before writing the round-up. But given that it’s mid-April… I think I need to accept that it’s not going to happen. So without further delay, here’s what I read last month:

  1. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Andy Crouch)
  2. Ross Poldark (Winston Graham)
  3. Demelza (Winston Graham)
  4. Jeremy Poldark (Winston Graham)
  5. Warleggan (Winston Graham)
  6. The Black Moon (Winston Graham)
  7. The Four Swans (Winston Graham)
  8. The Angry Tide (Winston Graham)
  9. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)
  10. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)
  11. Meet the Frugalwoods (Elizabeth Willard Thames)

First: let’s talk Poldark! Some months ago our choir director played us a clip from some show I had never heard of (the music ends around the 1:12 mark):

That short minute or so of singing was enough for me to go hunting to find out what this “Poldark” thing was: a BBC/PBS production based on Winston Graham’s twelve-volume series of novels, set in Cornwall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My husband and I love watching period dramas together and so we devoured Poldark seasons 1 and 2 before I decided to see if our library system had the books. And they did, and then I was off to the races! I finished the first seven in March, before taking a small non-fiction break as a bit of a palate cleanser. Now, I think that Poldark is fantastic TV. We have really enjoyed watching it and are looking forward to season 4 which is supposed to air sometime this year. That being said: the books totally blow it out of the water. They are phenomenal. At the moment of writing this post I am about a hundred pages into Bella Poldark (book 12 of 12) and Graham has commanded my attention the whole way through. They are absolutely engrossing reading and I would highly recommend the series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

As to March’s non-fiction reads —

Like I mentioned above, Culture Making really deserves its own post (that, at this point, it’s not likely to get). Andy Crouch devotes the first part of the book to looking at what “culture” is and isn’t, and detailing four of the Christian world’s typical responses to secular culture: to condemn, to critique, to copy, and to consume. As an alternative, he offers us two paths: that of the gardener (cultural cultivation) and the artist (cultural creation). For me, the most insightful/inspirational part of the book was in the latter half when he looks at the idea of cultural continuance in the New Heavens and New Earth (looking through the lens of both Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophets):

But just as we hope and expect to be bodily present, in bodies we cannot now imagine yet that we believe will be recognizably our own — just as the disciples met Jesus in a resurrected body that had unimaginable capabilities yet was recognizably his own — it seems clear from Isaiah 60 and from Revelation 21 that we will find the new creation furnished with culture. Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet the will be recognizably what they were in the old creation — or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been. The new Jerusalem will be truly a city: a place suffused with culture, a place where culture has reached its full flourishing. It will be the place where God’s instruction to the first human beings is fulfilled, where all the latent potentialities of the world will be discovered and released by creative, cultivating people. (169)

and

We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to — the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in — be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural traditions? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making “Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts. Nor is this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are devoting our lives to? (171)

There is, of course, much more to the book than I can do justice to here — it’s well worth reading.

Speaking of cultural critique, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a year or so ago and promptly filled up my library list with her other titles. Bright-Sided looks at the “relentless promotion of positive thinking” as it impacts various facets of American life — most interesting to me were her takes on how enforced positive thinking has become part of our anti-disease regimen, particularly in regards to cancer, and her take on the prosperity gospel put forward in many American churches — especially mega-churches like that of Joel Osteen. It’s an insightful book, although longer on descriptions of the problem than on solutions — those have largely been left as an exercise for the reader.

And finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I’ve read The Tipping Point and I think Blink was much better. It deals with “the power of thinking without thinking”, or intuition / gut reactions as we might be more used to naming them. A glance at its wiki page reveals that its reception has been fairly mixed, but it’s excellent food for thought. Blink is at its most powerful when discussing implicit biases; as an example, he looks at how the proportion of women playing in professional orchestras soared (from virtually none to near 50%) once screened auditions (where the player is hidden behind a screen so that the music is the only identifying aspect presented) became popular. For those willing to confront their own implicit biases in action, Gladwell mentions the online tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Those tests may not provide comfortable results — but Gladwell assures us that our biases can be challenged once we are aware of them. In this case, knowing is definitely more than half the battle.

Meet the Frugalwoods has already been reviewed in its own post.