Monday, June 2, 2014

Dream Books and Others Littering My Livingroom

I’ve compiled a summer reading list based on books I’ve found lying around my living room—you know, the ones that you just can’t get rid of, that stick in your craw, that you think you might read later, or that you love to come back to, again and again. Here they are:

So first—Coffee table books about dreams that are unlikely to come to pass. For me, this is a large pile of books about houses. I can remember designing houses, over and over again, ruler and eraser in hand, as a grade school child. Even now, I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling. I would love to design and build that one, perfect house of my dreams.

Unfortunately, living in Toronto, there simply are no lots close enough to transit to make building such a house from scratch a real possibility. But still, I imagine. My favorite house book is Susan Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Newton, CT: The Tauton House, 1998). Susanka suggests that many of us have houses full of space we don’t really need (a two-story entrance way, perhaps; or a fourth bedroom) and missing spaces we could really use (a cozy away room, perhaps, or a boot room). She urges us to consider how to make space do double duty, and then suggests the use of beautiful materials and design features that make this possible. A slew of follow up books by Susanka on themes like renovations are also very good.

My second book about house dreams that are unlikely to come to pass is entitled, More Straw Bale Building: A Complete Guide to Designing and Building with Straw (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005). I love the idea of building with straw, especially since it is a completely renewable building material that goes very easy on Mother Earth. It is also long-lasting, safe, relatively inexpensive, and can be molded into all sorts of interesting shapes, finishes, and interior nooks and crannies. I wouldn’t be surprised if straw bales are an essential part of home-building in the near future.

Second—books about dreams that still have a chance. I’d love to sail all over (if not around) the world. I really started thinking about this as a life goal years ago when our family read, aloud and together, Tom Neale’s All in the Same Boat: Living Aboard and Cruising (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1997). The book told the story of a Canadian family that built their own boat, and then sailed it around the world. Next, a few years ago, my son signed up as crew on a 30-foot sailboat that crossed the Atlantic. He loved the experience—the stars at night, the dolphins racing along beside, the solitude of taking the night watch and the camaraderie of a small crew that gets along. And then there were the places he went: Îles-de-la-Madeleine, the Azores, and Portugal.

So I bought a stack of books about sailing. I’ve spent many hours reading, daydreaming, and putting numbers to the back of a napkin imagining how Irene and I could spend five or ten years sailing as an early retirement lifestyle. My favorite among these books is Evans, Manley and Smith’s The Sailing Bible (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2009). The ideal scenario is Irene and I spending six months in the Mediterranean Sea with our grandson Taps as assistant to the assistant captain.

Third—books by authors I’ve loved in the past, but can’t get into now. I read Les Miserables once a year for over twenty years after first reading it in college. I still dip into it from time to time. It was my one literary compulsion. My unabridged version, probably the third that I’ve owned, is held together by duct tape, all 1400 pages of it. In view of my delight in Les Miz, I though I’d love Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame too. I bought it years and years ago, but it sits on the shelf in my living room, mostly unread. I’ve tried. I’ve made it a hundred or so pages in. But somehow, it just doesn’t grab me. Not sure why. But it isn’t Jean Valjean.

I’ve also reread—albeit only twice—Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play. I loved the novel, in part, because I’ve always been interested in how illiterate people learned about Christianity, and these morality plays are part of the story. But Morality Play is also a mystery, and a good one at that. Lots of medieval color and a surprising number of plot turns make it a page-turner. I picked up Unsworth’s The Ruby in Her Navel a few years later, expecting much the same. It is also set in medieval times, although in far more exotic Sicily. It is also full of mystery and plot turns. I did actually get through this novel—but I had to work at it. Again, I’m not sure why it didn’t sing. Maybe, it just isn’t as good a novel as Morality Play. Or it might be because it was just too complicated.

Four—novels about ministers. In particular, I have a thing for novels about ministers either finding their faith or losing their faith, and have a shelf-full of them at work. My favorite in the former category is Grace Irwin’s Andrew Connington (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966). It’s a mid-century “Christian” novel, of no great literary merit. It is however, a good story simply written. Set just after WWI, Irwin tells the story of a gifted man who is drawn to the United Church ministry because of the opportunity it affords him to do social work. At seminary, even though he doesn’t believe, students drawn to Liberal Christianity repulse him. The problem appears to be that they are not as intellectually rigorous as the old conservative scholars Connington is strangely drawn to. Connington’s lack of faith is ultimately challenged by the work he does in a large Toronto congregation. The communion service during which it all comes together for him is perfect melodrama—and maybe something more. This hard-to-find novel is also a fascinating portrait of the upper-middle-class Toronto church scene when Toronto was still Hog Town.

As for ministers who lose their faith, my favorite is Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard, 1960). Originally published in 1896, the novel chronicles the sometimes hilarious and at other times tragic life of a Methodist Minister. He begins his ministry as a gifted speaker without much by way of formal theological training. Among other things, he soon encounters Catholics, historical criticism, beautiful women, and lousy trustees. I won’t say, exactly, what happens to his faith, but it makes for a great read that resonated with me. While I hope I am never as naive as Theron Ware always is, his personal struggle to “get it right,” in a world full of contrary opinions is actually quite moving.

One non-novel about finding and losing faith deserves mention here. It’s a dense but insightful theology book by Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia U Press, 2009). Kearney asks, “What might the faith of someone who comes back, look like?” Richard Kearney tries his hand at describing such a faith, especially perhaps for Christians who have struggled with questions of theodicy. I was challenged by every chapter, and am still mulling over what his take might have to do with my faith.

Five, two of the best books I’ve read since last summer. I’ll pick both a fiction and non-fiction book. On the fiction side, the best book I’ve read—a page-turner with substance—is probably Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda (London: Oneworld Pub, 2013). This novel won the CBC’s Canada Reads contest (irritatingly hosted by faux-culture-critic Jian Ghomeshi) this year, but only by a whisker over the Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, book two in the Maddaddam trilogy (which I also loved). The Orenda is a heart-wrenching novel about the Jesuit mission to the Huron Indians in the early 17th century. None of the players—Hurons, French, Iroquois, come out of this looking very good. I wonder a lot about the historical accuracy of some of the religious, cultural, and war episodes. But overall, this is a novel that looks hard truths about human nature and Canadian history straight in the eye. I’m going to read The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King as a corrective to some of The Orenda’s excesses, this summer.

The best non-fiction book I’ve read this past year has to be Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011) by Janet Reitman. I was at turns shocked, dismayed, and angry as I read this account of what makes Scientology click. The book also serves to remind us that most people join faith communities not because they are convinced by the truth of that religion’s claims, but because they find community among its adherents. This is a critical reality that people of all faiths need to fit into their thinking about church or temple if they are to live with spiritual wisdom in today’s world.

So that’s it. Maybe there’s something for you in this list? Or a book I ought to add to my reading list? Let me know!


  1. Evonne PlantingaJune 12, 2014 at 9:18 PM

    I love looking at others' reading lists, so thanks for this post. Worth a second read >> "Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving.

    Worth reading >>"Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman.

  2. Thanks, Evonne. I've read Prayer at least twice, but the last time was long ago. You're the second person to recommend Faidman's book. Both are no my Kindle list for summer!


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