"What Jesus Would Say"

What Jesus Would Say by Lee Strobel

This is another one I've had on my shelf for years and finally read as part of my plan to increase my spiritual reading. I didn't realize quite how old it was but some of it is quite dated. Having said that, I still think it's worth reading for the truth it contains.

The author's concept with this book is to look at what Jesus might have to say to various high profile people in today's word. When the book was written "today" was 1994 so much has changed. Some of the people are deceased and in 20 years the lives of the others have changed dramatically. The list of subjects are Rush Limbaugh, Madonna, Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, Bart Simpson, Donald Trump, Murphy Brown, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Mother Teresa, David Letterman and "You", as in all the rest of us.

The thought of telling anyone what Jesus would have to say to them sounds presumptuous, and even arrogant, but the author bases everything he says on scripture and he does it with humility and kindness. I think a lot of us would expect some scolding if not outright condemnation, but there is none of that. Every chapter is encouraging and hopeful and that, I think, makes it worth reading even if some of the references are a bit outdated.

Rather than condemnation for the less admirable things these individuals have done with their lives, there is encouragement to use their positions of public influence for good. We, the readers, are urged to be agents of real change by praying for people in public positions rather than spending our time making fun of them and criticizing their mistakes, a habit all to easy to fall into even when we have good intentions. The final chapter addresses the rest of us - the non-famous, ordinary people - with a similar message of hope and encouragement to live our lives spreading love and peace instead of scandal. That's a message that will never be outdated.

"The Anthologist"

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

A delightful surprise is the best way to describe this book. The main character, Paul Chowder, is a published poet trying to write an introduction to a new anthology of verse. Rhyming verse to be precise. He has a fascination, perhaps an obsession, with rhyme though he is incapable of it himself and writes only free verse. He doesn't merely love rhyming verse, he believes in it and in its power to say more, mean more and reach more people.

Unfortunately, Paul has a bad case of writer's block and cannot come up with anything, not even a beginning sentence, for his introduction. His attempts, and the things he allows to keep him from it, make for a funny, smart and cunningly educational story. What he is telling us about rhyme and meter are what he wants to tell his readers in his introduction but he hasn't got that figured out yet. In the meantime we stand to learn something about poetry. We may even be inspired to read more of it or put pen to paper ourselves.

I would hazard a guess that if you don't like poetry at all you might not find this book terribly interesting. I'm a fan, so I think the it's great. I'm not at all knowledgeable about poetry at all, I just like what I like and I don't like the rest. I keep a hand-written journal of my favourites so I'll always have them together in one place when I need them. That's the thing about poetry - sometimes you don't just want it, you need it. My favourites are old, dear friends that offer me comfort and make me feel like there is, indeed, someone who understands how I feel.

If the world of poetry holds any interest for you I think you'll enjoy reading about Paul Chowder and his struggles, personal and literary. I love the guy. He's so honest, and artless - a funny word to apply to a poet now I think about it. Paul and his theories are worth getting to know and - bonus - I came away with a list of poets/poems to check out.

I'll leave you with a quote and the hope that you will enjoy this thoroughly enjoyable book.

"It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing." 

"Nobody's Fool"

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

It took me about a week to get through all 549 pages of this novel and the truth is I considered quitting several times. I'm not sure what kept me going except that I quite liked one of the characters and wanted to know what would happen to her.

I'm trying to reconcile the book I read with all the reviews that refer to it as a hilarious comedy. I can see the humor in some of it but I found the whole story more sad than funny. It's a small town setting with ordinary people living ordinary lives and while that can be fertile ground for humor, most of the humor here is at the expense of other people. I know people say and do stupid things but I got tired of certain characters always being the butt of jokes. Not only was it repetitive, it was mean.

The cover of my copy has a picture of Paul Newman playing the lead character, Sully, and because I was always a fan of his it made me like Sully better than I would have otherwise. Even so, I didn't like him much. Maybe if I were to watch the movie I'd change my mind. He plays a 60 year old guy who has basically failed at everything in life: he has an ex-wife who hates him, a son he barely knows because Sully ignored him all the time he was growing up, a deceased father he enjoys despising, and a part-time girlfriend who is married to someone else. He doesn't have a steady job, he's rude to everyone and he drinks too much. He has moments of compassion for other people that make you think he's not so bad but then he does something so completely outrageous and thoughtless of others and their welfare that it's hard not to just write him off as a jerk. I can see though how he could be made into a sort of lovable character in a movie if some of the more ugly displays of selfishness were left out.

I think my biggest problem with Sully is not that he behaves like an idiot - we all behave like idiots at times - but that he never seems to learn anything from his colossal mistakes. He knows he's screwing up, but he never decides to improve. He never sets a goal to change his behavior or become a better person. He's sixty years old, still acting like a spoiled teenager and quite willing to accept that that's the way it has to be. Had the book been shorter I might have found it funnier, but 549 pages of this guy making the same mistakes over and over got monotonous.

There were characters I liked, but only two or three and they weren't enough to make me really enjoy the story. I did think it was interesting the way the story was written. It was almost like hearing it told by someone in a small town - unhurried, with a few sentences told about a situation, then veering off onto a side trail about the people involved or a bit of history related to the story, then back to it, then veering off again. I like small towns, small town people, and small town stories told that way.

I'm still a little confused about the ending. There's a moment when Sully's landlady, an elderly woman who used to be his eighth grade teacher, looks at him and see's in him a man who is "much harder and more dangerous" than she has ever known him to be. The moment passes and things return to normal. I don't understand what the reader is supposed to take from this. Is it a warning? Why wait till the very end of the novel to throw it in? All along we are led to believe that under all of Sully's immaturity and foolishness there's a good heart. Are we meant to think otherwise now? I believed right until the very end that Sully was especially fond of his landlady and would always do whatever he could for her. Now I don't know. Whatever the author's intention, I found it an unsatisfactory, and slightly creepy, way to end the novel.

"As For Me and My House"

As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross

As one of the saddest books I've ever read, this one had me quite eager to get to the last chapter and end the pain. Not the pain of a bad book but the pain of a tormented main character, one so terribly inconsequential in her own mind that she never even gives us that most basic and personal piece of information about herself, a name. She remains throughout the book just her husband's wife, Mrs.

Mr. and Mrs. Bentley have just relocated to an unpromising little prairie town called Horizon, where he will be the pastor of a small church. The unfortunate thing (actually one of many) is that this particular minister of the gospel doesn't believe in God and hates standing in the pulpit every Sunday and lying. He does it only to earn a living, and because he doesn't have the courage to be what he wants - and has the talent - to be, an artist.

Their new town is miserably cold and barren in winter, miserably hot and barren in summer; the church members are judgmental, unkind people who rarely think of anyone but themselves except as topics for gossip; and the house provided as part of his painfully insufficient wage package is small, dilapidated and unattractive. This turns out to be a perfect setting for the excruciatingly strained relationship between the two of them. I know it sounds like I must be exaggerating, but it really is that bad. Again, not the book, but the situation.

The writing is good, the characters credible and the situation truer to life than is altogether comfortable. There were a couple of times when reading it that I found my mind wandering and I had to force it back to the narrative, but I don't see that as a flaw in this book. Everything about it, everything, reinforced the numb ache of Mrs. Bentley's life and her hopeless attempts to make a life with a man as unyielding as the climate itself.

The uncomfortable reality is that many people live this life. Different towns, different times, but the same feeling of invisibility, the same vulnerability to the impulses and  inclinations of someone they love and believe they cannot live without, even in the face of the loved one's obvious lack of love in return. This woman made me feel anger because she wouldn't see her husband as the mean, selfish fraud that he was, then sadness because her pain was as deep and constant as the blood throbbing in her veins, and finally almost hopeless, because sometimes life just seems too, too hard.

In the end I found myself asking who the real coward was. Was it him for choosing the easier way, a life of lies that would poison his own soul and batter hers, or was it her, for giving in to the notion that she was better off being mistreated by the man she loved than living life without him? I have no answer.

Obviously I did not read this as a disinterested observer; I'm not sure any woman could. It's painful and sad, and disturbing on a raw emotional level. Still, it is a good book and one I'd recommend to most adult readers, with the possible exception of anyone dealing with depression or grief because it does leave you with a deep and lingering sense of melancholy.

"The Introvert Advantage"

The Introvert Advantage - How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.

I'm iffy about this book. The first part really just explained the differences between introverts and extroverts, much the same as I've read in similar books. The second part focused more on introverts and had what I considered more helpful information.

One thing the author said that I've never heard before is that introversion and extroversion are the two extreme ends of a continuum. Very few people, if any, are at the extremes. Most of us are somewhere along the line with a combination of introvert and extrovert traits, though closer to one end or the other. I find that theory more reasonable than just dividing people into the two categories and leaving them stranded there.

The book contains a lot of helpful suggestions for coping with introversion and practical helps for a number of situations. Still, she didn't convince me that introversion is an advantage at all. In fact, it seems to be treated more like a handicap with which we should learn learn to cope.

Maybe I'm too sensitive - too introverted an introvert. Maybe I'm just tired of feeling wrong all my life. Maybe I've read too many of these helping books and don't feel like I've advanced toward the extrovert end of the continuum at all. Maybe I'm just resentful that I never hear of extroverts being encouraged to be more introverted, or if they are it's considered a joke. Or maybe I'm just in a really bad mood. I guess time will show if I got anything out of the book or not. If I find my thoughts/feelings/behaviour changing in any way that reflects what I read in this book, I'll come back to this post and update.

I'm sorry if I sound negative, and, seriously, if you are looking for help, by all means read this book. The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone else. Heaven knows we could all use some honest encouragement. The author is sincerely trying to help and is qualified to do so. I don't doubt there is help available here for people who are just beginning to look at the introvert/extrovert conundrum. I hope you find in it what you need to become more comfortable in your own skin. For me, I think it's probably just too late.  

"Russian Winter"

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Alternating between two time periods, Russian Winter takes us through Nina Revskaya’s years as a star of the Bolshoi Ballet in her youth and then to her current life in Boston where, as an older woman wanting to close the door on her past, she is putting up for auction her amazing collection of jewelry, most of which was lavished on her as gifts from devoted fans of the prima ballerina.

Nina grew up, trained and danced under the communist regime, where it was common for people to be taken away in the night and never heard from again. One careless comment could get you sent to prison; no one could be trusted. When she married Viktor, acclaimed poet and love of her life, and things got difficult, she looked around at all the signs and believed that she, too, had been betrayed.
Decades later she is living in Boston and auctioning off her jewels to raise money for the city’s ballet corps. Twice she has been contacted by Grigori, a professor of Russian, who has an amber necklace in his possession that seems to match a set of her earrings and bracelets. He doesn’t know his family history, but thinks there might be a connection between them. He wants to find his past but Nina, wanting to forget hers, has refused to talk to him.

When Grigori puts his necklace up for auction too, Drew, an associate at the Auction House, gets curious and begins digging into their backgrounds. What she finds is the key to Grigori’s past, a past Nina has been keeping secret for half her life and has no intention of telling now.  

There were things about this book that I enjoyed, and a few I have reservations about. The history, life under the Soviet regime, the Bolshoi setting, the dancer’s life, the auction house setting all opened up new worlds to me and I found them fascinating. The relationships between Nina and Viktor and their best friends, Vera and Gersh, were well written and the characters well developed. That story had suspense, romance, intrigue, art…a bit of everything.  Those were the parts that I couldn’t wait to get back to.

The current timeline was less interesting. Grigori was fairly well developed but I found Drew’s character flat and uninteresting. The older Nina seems to be a completely different person than the Nina of younger years. Young Nina was loving, brave and strong; old Nina is just grumpy. A major disappointment for me was that there is only the barest mention of her story in between to link the two and explain why she is the way she is. Yes, she had a difficult past, but surely there had been mediating experiences in her life since. It seemed like a cop-out to me to ignore all those years and just leave her an unhappy old woman based solely on events of 50 years prior. 

There’s a bit about a journal belonging to Drew’s grandfather that didn’t seem to hold up. I found it a bit of a stretch that her unknown grandfather also happened to be Russian. What are the odds? She had a journal of his that for some reason the family didn’t have translated into English until Grigori came into the picture. It's hard to believe that no one had ever thought to have it translated before, especially given that they lived in a university town where it would probably not have been difficult to find a translator. I question even what the purpose of the journal was in the story as it didn’t move anything forward and the mere detail it added to Drew’s life seemed too coincidental to be quite real.

My final grumble is that the ending comes too abruptly. I have no problem with open endings - most of the time I enjoy the options they give the reader - but this open ending was quite sudden and left me feeling like I had missed a chapter.

All that said, I recommend Russian Winter. The early timeline is quite interesting with characters that are too good to miss. The later timeline's characters aren't so bad, they just aren't quite as good. The book is worth reading.