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July 2020

Normal People

Normal PeopleNormal People by Sally Rooney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The main characters Connell and Marianne are fully realized, with rich inner and outer lives, well narrated.

Rooney also uses some creative structure in the ways chapters unfold the story, however, it feels as if a couple of structures become a form that then all the chapters must fit, so it came across as overly structured.

I think my biggest complaint, however, is that almost none of the supporting characters (only Eric maybe?) is more than one-dimensional. Now, we mostly view these characters through the inner lives of the two main characters, but I still think they could be more richly conceived.

So, I found the novel entertaining enough, but not a rich reading experience.

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The Magnificent Conman of Cairo

The Magnificent Conman of CairoThe Magnificent Conman of Cairo by Adel Kamel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read an announcement of the new appearance in English of this classic Egyptian novel and was intrigued enough to order it. I've greatly enjoyed the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and was excited to read this novel of another writer in his circle that he recommended.

Much of the book was both enjoyable and funny, filled with satire, as we follow to young men, one poverty-stricken, the other a spoiled-rich university grad. The opening chapters, in particular, also were plotted in interesting and unique ways. As a writer, I was drawn to the time-sequencing and parallels. So the very structure of the novel was enjoyable for me.

However, I thought the story wasn't as enjoyable near the end, as it became a little more politically didactic. And the very final scene left a bad taste because of its sudden moral seriousness. In retrospect, this is clearly where the author was leading, but I wasn't expecting to head in that direction.

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Thomas Reid: Inquiry & Essays

Inquiry and EssaysInquiry and Essays by Thomas Reid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Thomas Reid in preparation for my general exams and then completed this collection when I was done with the major work on my dissertation and reading philosophy not related to it. Now I returned to it as my now almost decade long project of reading back through the philosophical canon chronologically. I had forgotten how clearly, concisely, and with such common sense he responds to, or even takes down, key theories in modern philosophy. I felt the same about Reid that I did two decades ago, that many of his ideas are more fully developed in later thinkers, including the American Pragmatists. He remains one of those secondary figures in our tradition, but worth reacquainting myself with him.

One funny reading experience--finding myself laughing outloud at a good joke he made, only to turn to the back of the book and see that twenty years ago I had indexed that page as "a good joke." I guess it made me laugh out loud both times. Here's the joke: "It seemed very natural to think, that the 'Treatise of Human Nature required an author, and a very ingenious one too; but now we learn that it is only a set of ideas which came together and arranged themselves by certain associations and attractions." Yeah, only philosophers are going to cackle to that.

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Preaching as Testimony

Preaching as TestimonyPreaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard Anna Carter Florence preach at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta in 2006. Despite not being close to the most famous preacher in the line up at that event, she was, by far, the best preacher in the bunch. And since then she's remained one of my favourite preachers to hear preach or to lecture on preaching. Somehow I has missed this book before.

But it is either the best or second best book I've read on my craft (Fred Craddock's classic Preaching being the other).

Florence argues that faithful and effective preaching is a form of testimony, in which the preacher shares about their encounter with God in life and in the text. She develops this idea in three sections. The first is a history of the tradition of testimony in preaching focusing on three women Ann Hutchinson in the 17th century, Sarah Osborn in the 18th, and Jarena Lee in the 19th. These are excellent chapters. Even if you have known something about these women before (Osborn was new to me), you'll learn much more about them. Florence teases out the themes that are shared by these preachers, particularly that they spoke from outside the systems of authority.

The second section develops the theory of testimony based on Paul Ricoeur, Walter Brueggemann, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, and Rebecca Chopp. Florence writes about theory with felicity, humor, insight, and grace.

The final section gives practical advice to preachers on how to preach in this tradition. Clearly many of the techniques and suggestions are developed from her own practice and years of teaching at Columbia Seminary.

This was much more than just a book about preaching, it was a theology, a hermeneutic, an excellent contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of the church.

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"The War." The War?

Last night Sebastian wasn't listening.  I was in a patient mood, so I sat him down to talk about it to see if there was some reason he wasn't listening.  "Are you mad or something?" I asked.

"I'm sad," he answered.

"Sad?  What about?"

"The war."

"The war?"

As I probed further I realized he meant the Second World War.

Why would my five year old child in 2020 be concerned about World War II?  Two stories.

Over the recent holiday weekend we watched the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe which begins with the London Blitz and the Pevensie children being sent into the English countryside.  Sebastian had this spring also watched a number of times Return to Neverland, the Peter Pan sequel also set during the Blitz. 

So, he asked questions about what was going on in the movies, which prompted me to tell him about the war.  And to personalize it by sharing stories of his great-grandfather who had served.  Knowing me, I'm sure I was a little emotional telling about it.

Then, last Thursday, we were driving home from piano lesson and he saw a billboard on I-80 for the Marines that had the Iwo Jima Monument pictured on it. He asked what the image was, so I told him and he immediately connected with the earlier conversation.  I said that none of our family, that I knew of, had fought at Iwo Jima.  He responded, "But they fought in the war?"  Yes.  "And they fought for freedom?"  Yes (and score parenting points).  

Clearly Sebastian has no sense of the war being seventy years ago.  All he knows is that twice recently it has come up and both times he's felt some familial and personal connection and sensed emotion from his father.  So, for him, this historical event must feel very real.

And the more I reflected on this moment, the more I felt awed by his empathy and intelligence.

The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought volume one of this trilogy was amazing. I cared less for the second installment. At first I felt the same about the third as the second, particularly because lots of new material was being introduced. Geek question to debate: Should the final volume of a sci-fi trilogy introduce new complications or simply resolve and reveal the questions arising from the first volume?

But the ending I felt was very strong and the themes of the book make it a worthy contribution to our shared literary tradition.

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FloridaFlorida by Lauren Groff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short story collections are not my favorite genre of literature. One reason is how often a collection is inconsistent in its quality. But that's not the case with this collection. I enjoyed every single story. The are about women and girls with some Floridian connection dealing with the troubles of their lives. Often a sinister foreboding hangs over the story, though rarely materializing in any horrific way (these aren't Karen Russell stories, for instance).

I've not read Groff before but will definitely read more. She has great skills in developing a character, revealing inner thoughts, setting a scene, building tension. In other words, an excellent story teller.

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The Age of Anxiety

The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque EclogueThe Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by W.H. Auden
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read The Age of Anxiety because it was discussed in a book I read back in May about how Christian intellectuals had grappled with the crisis of the Second World War. This is a very strange poem, and most of the time I wasn't sure what to make of it. There were some good lines here and there. It does have a reputation for expressing the anxiety of its age, which I trust it does. But I didn't find much that I could make use of in our own anxious time.

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Breaking White Supremacy

Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social GospelBreaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel by Gary J. Dorrien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dorrien's second volume in his history of the Black Social Gospel is not as strong as the first volume. That is partly because so much in the first volume is a revelation--learning about people, ideas, and movements that one was unlikely to be well acquainted with before. This volume covers more familiar ground.

The opening chapters lay the groundwork of connecting the DuBois generation to the King generation, so those chapters are more like the first volume, with good introductions to Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

I thought that the King chapters dragged on, particularly because I've read better accounts from both historians and religious scholars. These chapters didn't really break any new ground, though they did a better job of interpreting King in light of this long tradition and set up his abiding theological influence.

The final chapter is on the initial development of Black Liberation Theology and then closes with the spotlight on Pauli Murray as a figure on the fringes of the story told throughout the book. Dorrien presents her as a model for what would come in Mainline Christianity--"an all-are-welcome version of the social gospel with a feminist sensibility and a passionate commitment to renewing the civil rights movement." I've been wanting to know more about Murray for a while, and this gave me more, but also deepened my hunger to read more about her.

Dorrien doesn't plan a third volume, but there really could be a third discussing developments in Black Theology since the 1970's.

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Disarming Beauty

Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and FreedomDisarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom by Julián Carrón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Faith is 'verficiation' when it shows its ability to illuminate and bring to fullness the typically human dynamics of reason, affection, and freedom, and so increases the existential certainty essential to an adult in all of life's circumstances."

According to Carron, Christianity should be attractive and appealing to humanity because Christian's should live rich, full, beautiful lives of affection, reason, and freedom.

I don't remember how this book entered my to-read list, probably something in The Christian Century a few years ago. The author is a Spanish Catholic theologian supporting the witness of Pope Francis while also embracing the theology of Pope Benedict. There were a number of areas where I disagreed about the particulars of an ethical and faithful life (marriage for instance) but the broad ideas were engaging and resonated with some of my other theological reading such as Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I think I'll make use of some of the ideas and sentences, and always good to keep a little theological diversity in one's reading.

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