Posted by: Dan | June 8, 2006

May Books

Well, my life has been a wee bit crazy lately — moving, family events, summer school, etc. — and so I haven’t been able to post my May books… until now.

1. Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth. I’ve finally decided to work my way through Barth. For a long time I was too intimidated to venture into Barth because I had heard that one needs to read all of his books in order to understand each individual book. Given how prolific Barth was that’s a rather daunting task. However, this little book, that works through the Apostles’ Creed, is a great starting place. Very readable, a great intro to a number of Barthian themes, and actually quite inspiring. I am currently working through Brunner’s reflections on the Apostles’ Creed and so it is interesting to note the different stresses of Barth and Brunner, especially (surprise, surprise) when they discuss God as “creator of heaven and earth”.

2. Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. This book does a fine job of outlining the major themes, motivations, and methods of liberation theology. For those who have studied the likes of Gutierrez and Sobrino there isn’t too much new here (although there are some uniquely “Boffian” emphases) but this book, like the title suggests, is a great intro for anybody who wants to know what liberation theology is all about.

3. The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit by N.T. Wright. This book is basically a collection of homilies given by Tom Wright. The first half focuses upon the words spoken to Jesus on the cross (an interesting angle to take since most studies focus the words spoken by Jesus from the cross) and the second half focuses upon living Spirit-empowered lives as agents of God’s new creation. I especially appreciated Wright’s reflections upon Mary — it is always good to see Protestants engaging with a theme that has been so prominent in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologies. For anybody familiar with Tom Wright there won’t be a whole lot that is genuinely new in these reflections but it is always good to read and reread Wright — if we can learn to read the scriptures as Wright reads them, we would all be much better off.

4. The Meal Jesus Gave Us: Understanding Holy Communion by Tom Wright. This book is a very brief, very basic introduction to the practice of communion. Having recently completed a course on the sacraments, I can’t say this book really thrilled me. Too short, too simple.

5. God, Please Save Me by Sister Mary Rose McGeady. Sister Mary Rose used to be the Executive Director of Covenant House, an international non-profit that works with street-involved youth. This book is a collection of anecdotal reflection letters written by the good Sister to donors. The basic outline of the letters is the same throughout, so once you’ve read a few you’ll have a pretty firm feel for all of them: (1) Sister meets a youth who is especially special but especially wounded; (2) Sister gently asks youth what is going on; (3) youth debates about whether or not to trust the Sister but decides to trust her; (4) youth shares story and Sister wants to cry; (5) Sister offers help; (6) Sister thanks donors for all their help because without them places like Covenant House wouldn’t be able to survive. Too be honest, the book Sometimes God Has a Kid’s Face by Bruce Ritter, the founder of Covenant House, does a much better job of reflecting what it is like to journey with street-involved youth. Ritter’s insights are more profound, his rhetoric is more pleasing, and his reflections are more filled with turmoil, tensions, and the absence of easy solutions (although Ritter himself was later mired by scandal… that was never proved or disproved conclusively).

6. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison. Kay Jamison is a tenured professor and psychologist, and an international authority and researcher on mental illness. However, she is no detached academic (as if there is such a thing!) for she brings considerable insight to her writing based on her own experiences of “madness” — Jamison is bipolar and given to severe psychotic episodes (when she goes off of her meds). Within this book Jamison tells her story of growing up bipolar, struggling to realise she had (and has) a mental illness, and the impact it had upon her. I especially appreciate the way Jamison argues that love and intimacy must go hand-in-hand with medication. Love alone will not give a bipolar person what he or she needs to be healthy. Conversely, medication alone will not give a bipolar person the motivation to stay healthy. The two must go together.

7. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. You know, there are people who read literature because they delight in literature, and there are people who read literature so that they can say that they read literature. I think the people who gravitate towards Pynchon belong to the second category of people. If you like James Joyce (or even Faulkner) then you’ll like Pynchon. If you think Joyce (and Faulkner) write total garbage — like I’m inclined to think — then don’t waste your time on Pynchon. Granted Pynchon does have a wide knowledge of many subjects — from ballistics to obscure magical cults, from classical music to South African tribal history, and so on — and he can actually make you laugh out loud at different passages, but that doesn’t excuse the poor quality of writing that people want to pass off as “stream of consciousness”. Plus, I just can’t handle all the explicit sexual material in this book. Working with sexually exploited youth I have very little patience for authors who pass off sexual encounters with youth as a good and pleasurable thing, or with authors who equate violence with sexual pleasure, and Pynchon does both of these things.

8. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. This book rounds off a series of books about priests/pastors/vicars that I had intended to read for quite some time (cf. Diary of a Country Priest, The Power and the Glory, Cry the Beloved Country). What is quite fun about Goldsmith’s book is that it is written from the perspective of the Vicar and so it is interesting to see how the comments the Vicar makes about others (especially in relation to hubris) are actually quite true of him as well. Yet, for all his blindness to his own faults, the Vicar is still a lovable character — sort of like us.

9. Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday! by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I have decided that Vonnegut is at his best when he writes about war. This books explores topics of human identity and the impact of technology upon human persons — who are lead to see themselves as machines. Vonnegut looks at health and sickness, and there are still several times when he turns a good phrase but I think this book lags seriously behind his war novels (and even behind his most recent memoir).

10 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Again, this book isn’t as good as Vonnegut’s war novels. Here he explores issues of wealth and poverty, labour unions, corporate business, and governmental power and corruption. As usual he has many good things to say but they don’t come off as poignantly as his reflections in Slaughterhouse-Five or Mother Night.

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