Three of our faithful readers share their recommendations of books and a podcast to enjoy at the cottage, campsite or park this summer.
Julie Lane Gay is a writer and editor who lives in Vancouver with her husband, Craig, and their four children. She attends St John’s, Vancouver.
Calling it a “wonderful book on sin” sounds like an oxymoron, but Dennis Okholm’s Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of the Ancient Monks is the most helpful book I’ve read on the topic since devouring C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters many years ago. Focusing on the seven deadly sins (from which all other sins emanate) – gluttony, lust, greed, anger, envy, sloth and vain glory, Okholm dissects each sin from the dual perspective of what three early monks (who viewed themselves as physicians of the soul), Evagrius (4th C.), Cassian (5th C.) and Gregory (6th C.), taught us about how these sins operate in our lives (“Like an engorged tick, envy is a parasite that swells to the degree that the other prospers”), and what current psychologists teach us today. Lest you wondered, sin hasn’t changed much in 1500 years.
As an Anglican priest and a systematic theologian, Okholm’s book is both empathetic and substantive. This is a book for anyone who lives or works with, well, anyone else.
I doubt I’ll be able to embark on a thirty-day, silent, Ignatian retreat any time soon, but Paul Mariani’s Thirty Days makes for an exceptionally interesting vicarious experience. While I started out curious about the logistics of being so quiet - eating without conversing, wondering what you’re allowed to read, how to buy something in a store - what was compelling about this diary was the front row seat we are given to watch how God worked in the author’s mind, and heart, over this significant month. Mariani, a respected poet and English scholar, is a wonderful writer, but he’s also honest, funny and humane. By the end of the book, I not only wanted to do my own thirty-day retreat, I wanted to be Mariani’s friend. I wanted God to work that way in me.
Some cookbooks feel like they belong on the coffee table, while others feel so culinary, so erudite, that you sense that even your buying it was a fluke. Thankfully, Renee Erickson’s A Boat, A Whale and a Walrus, feels like a chatty letter from a friend who runs a cozy local diner. It’s one-part recipes, one-part foodoir (a memoir based on food), and one-part celebration of Northwest bounty. Erickson fetes not only oysters, salmon, blackberries and apples, but also family, customers, farmers, boats and childhood celebrations. It’s a treat to read about someone who not only enjoys their life and their food, but feels so grateful for them.
Organized into twelve seasonal menus, there is an abundance of easy recipes such as Chilled Asparagus Soup with Yogurt and Roasted Red Pepper Flan. But there’s also chatty advice on holiday wines, cleaning mussels and eating spot prawns and their shells (topics which I am not all that interested in but still enjoyed reading about). While oysters might be harder to find in Brandon, MB, the majority of recipes have ingredients that you can buy at your local grocer.
Erickson’s profiles of her butcher, her beekeeper, and her wine consultant introduce us to friends we’d all like to have. She’s a really good chef (with three very successful restaurants in Seattle) – and has a big heart as well as a fine palate.
Siobhan Laskey and her husband, Fr. Gerry Laskey, find themselves ‘at home’ in the Anglican Parish of Derby and Blackville on New Brunswick’s majestic Miramichi River. They covet the quiet moments when they can immerse themselves in good reading – whether alone or together.
There can be an element of serendipity in how we pick a book to read. Recently, whilst surveying the offerings available in a local hospice shop my husband and I were surprised by a children’s book by Mark Helprin, The Veil of Snows (which is the last part of a trilogy). This led us to explore his other writings, including a book of short stories, Ellis Island and Other Stories. His tales are thought provoking, richly textured, wonderfully varied, full of vivid imagery and riveting. This summer we are looking forward to reading his novel, A Soldier of the Great War – especially after randomly opening the book to find a line from an interrogation of the Italian protagonist’s faith: “Life is so quick that it’s all played out at the gates of death, and the value of resolution is that it quickens life.”
For a long time we have been asked if we have read any of the “Mitford series.” We are pleased to say that we now have and are delighting in reading them aloud whenever we can grab a few minutes or when we are on a road trip. In her book At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon first invites us into the world of Fr. Timothy Kavanaugh and his small Anglican parish of Mitford with a genteel “y’all come and stay a while.” The characters are eccentric, yet believable. The plot is contrived, yet enchanting. And the dialogue has a wonderful rhythm that makes the reader a part of the conversation. The theology is not too bad, either. We have been amazed that we have become invested in the characters and are reading through the series with a lot of engagement in their adventures (and misadventures). It has, perhaps, the best quality of a good series – you want to stay with them to find out what happens next.
There is a writer whose mastery of words almost always causes us to catch our breath and our hearts to skip a beat. His insight is compelling, lucid and articulate and it speaks for the voiceless, challenges the complacent, comforts the weary and tickles the funny bone. Alden Nowlan’s poetry and prose take us to places we revisit and discover anew with such anticipation that we can easily find ourselves immersed in a period of refreshing timelessness. This summer we hope to revisit Miracles at Indian River and his other short story collections. We know we will find ourselves in the good company of his poetry – of which there are many collections, all of them highly recommended. For a taste of his poetry, check out pieces like the poignant “The Bull Moose,” “A certain kind of holy men” or “He sits down on the floor of a school for the retarded.” Patrick Toner has said of Nowlan, “His true talent lay in his ability to juxtapose sentimentality and romanticism with irony and satire to create unforgettably honest, brutal, and touching portraits of the human heart.” Seek out his work – it will not disappoint.
Bruce Robertson is the Head of the Department of Classics at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, where he enjoys skiing and cycling.
I had almost come to the conclusion that twenty-first century literary fiction was just never going to engage me: there seemed far too much cleverness and not nearly enough humanity in so many recent works. The structure of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, with story set within story (within story) in a sort of six-tier wedding cake, might well have been another triumph of form over substance. Yet each of these tales, with the outermost set in the Pacific islands of the nineteenth century and the innermost taking place in a ruined and perilous distant future, seizes the imagination relentlessly. The ne’er-do-well British musical genius, the two-bit publisher comically stuck in a retirement home, and the Korean clone born solely to serve in a subterranean fast-food restaurant: their stories and ideas thoroughly took over my thoughts.
Sure, there’s a puzzle-like quality, and David Mitchell has fun with the interplay between the plots. The point, early in the second story, where a character’s insight suddenly transforms one’s reading of the first, is quite a reader’s delight, and the interruption of the five inset stories are explained satisfyingly upon their resumption. Ultimately, though, these tales weave together a powerful meditation on the stain of enslavement in its many forms and the counteracting power of human kindness, one small example of which begins and ends the book.
(I should mention that the book is for adults: it has some “mature” content. I’ve not seen the movie Cloud Atlas, so cannot comment on it.)
Our Rector recommended Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another by Rowan Williams as a parish-wide Lenten reading. And though I never did make it to his 7 a.m. discussion sessions at Tim Horton’s, these 100 short pages were deeply instructive. Williams sets himself the task of improving Christian community by exploring the words of the desert fathers and mothers, Christians who, from the third century AD, left the cities of Egypt to seek God through life in nearby deserts. Through a meditation on the wisdom of colourful figures like Abba Moses and Amma Synlectica, the former Archbishop of Canterbury shows that “God’s world … needs a Church renewed in contemplation,” as Desmond Tutu says in his Foreword.
Williams, using examples from our current lives, guides us into these timeless Sayings, at least one of which will likely end up posted on your refrigerator. Here’s a taste: a monk known as ‘John the Dwarf’ said: “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.”
My last recommendation isn’t for a book at all – it’s for a weekly audio recording or “podcast.” Summer is podcast season, I think: an engaging story nearly always neutralizes a traffic-snarled drive to cottage country. For two-and-a-half years Robin Pierson has been telling The History of Byzantium, a true-to-life tale, with a charming accent and clear diction.
Byzantine history is like a Hollywood sequel to Roman history: in the first episode the Empire declines and falls; but wait, in episode II we find that in a distant land – Istanbul -- it held on for a further millennium! This age’s reputation for being a bit, well, byzantine is, of course, unfair. Melodramatic, maybe: it includes wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of sports fans who undertake a political revolution, an Emperor with a false nose made of gold, and the Muslim conquest. To sample this free series, don’t start at the beginning; instead, listen to the recent episode #71 on Iconoclasm, which I think highlights Pierson’s admirable blend of accessibility and sensitivity to this fascinating culture. TAP