August 25, 2011

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

This is a highly entertaining book by the author of The Know-It-All, a hilarious account of the author reading through the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in one year. The Year of Living Biblically is subtitled: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs has a Jewish background but his parents were non-observant and going into this project, he identified himself as an agnostic. He devoted about two-thirds of his year to following the Old Testament laws and about one-third to the New Testament.

To start, he read through the entire Bible and listed every instruction he could find. He came up with over 700. He couldn't obey them all on Day 1, but he checked them off as he had obeyed them - for example if the instruction was to play a 10-string harp, when he got to that rule, he researched 10-string harps, bought one, and played it as part of his daily meditation time. In places where he found the rules contradictory, he struck a compromise - e.g. with praying, he decided to pray three times a day. His first prayers were awkward but he figured out how to use Bible verses as prayers and eventually came to look forward to praying. Other things like not wearing mixed fibres and not lying he incorporated into the entire year. He met with lots of different religious groups, from fundamentalists to Catholics, and developed a group of mentors that he could call on to ask questions.

The really funny part of the book is the reaction of his wife to the project. When he told her what he was planning, she "just emitted a little sigh," having hoped his next book would be "a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt or something." Her support wears thin on such laws as building a hut for a Jewish holiday - he lives in a high-rise in New York, so he builds one in the middle of his apartment's living room. She also hates such New Testament adventures as snake-handling and his increasingly long and scratchy beard.

I have this book and am happy to lend it. One of Jacobs's main purposes is to prove his idea that even the most literal of Bible literalists are picking and choosing. The front cover flap says the journey Jacobs takes is both universal and personal and will make you see history's most influential book with new eyes. The Year of Living Biblically is a very funny book, but even better for me was that it fit into the new philosophy of the Bible I've been thinking about. Jacobs's conclusions about what the Bible's all about match closely with the ideas Rob Bell talks about in Love Wins.

August 16, 2011

Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler

I used to read everything I could get my hands on by Anne Tyler, but then started to find that I couldn’t relate to her characters very well any more and Morgan’s Passing is no exception. The protagonist is an odd-looking, bearded 45 – 57 year-old man (the book takes place over 12 years). This guy runs a hardware store and fixes stuff, wears an endless variety of costumes and amuses and annoys his wife and mostly grown children. He is a little bit endearing sometimes but mostly so eccentric and so absolutely unable to connect to most people that it’s hard to figure out why he’s worthy of his role as the central figure of a book. The big surprise of the novel occurs about 3 or 4 chapters from the end and the rest is a strange anti-climax in which not much new happens.

The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith

I feel as though I have found another reading treasure in Alexander McCall Smith. He wrote the famous #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which I haven’t read, but he also has several other series, including Corduroy Mansions, of which I recently read the first book. The Lost Art of Gratitude is one of the Isabel Dalhousie series. Just great light summer reading with some gentle insights into human nature. I like the setting, too – it’s the author’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland. His love for it shines through in the lovely descriptions of the city and surrounding countryside.

Monday Morning Choices: 12 Powerful Ways to go from Everyday to Extraordinary by David Cottrell

This is a pretty disturbing book in a lot of ways. The author is one of those motivational speakers that corporations hire to get their sales people revved up. I was amazed to find hardly a single example in the whole book of how a woman might apply these principles or of any woman succeeding. All but one or two of the illustrations are about men. Not sure why I kept reading, but it was an easy read and there was some challenge in it.

The premise is that you should study one of the 12 principles with a group of like-minded people for about an hour for 12 Monday mornings in a row to get yourself motivated and change your life. The principles are very good, e.g. “the no victim choice – don’t let your past eat your future” and “the do-something choice – don’t vacation on ‘Someday Isle.’” As you can tell from just those two examples, the book is filled with clich├ęs and we know most of the principles quite well. And although almost all the application is to financial success, which interests me only slightly, the principles do apply to any area of life.

The best thing I got out of the book is a saying that sounds negative, but at least attempts to nail down something about (self) discipline that I’ve been kicking around for some time. It is this: “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is that discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” I take this as a challenge for some of the things about which I would say “I always wanted to do that.” As I found out with my cartooning this past year and a half, applying discipline to even a (for me) far-out goal of drawing cartoons does yield results. Had I compromised and done something a lot easier for Ezra, I think I would have been sorry. The same principle applies to things in my life, like prayer and meditation, to which I haven’t applied discipline and I feel the regret of it every day, although not like a weight of tons but just as a vague sense of failure and of missing out on something that could make a significant and positive difference.

AApprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein

The author of this first novel about the crossroads of the worlds of academia and poetry is herself an aspiring poet. It’s a pretty funny book, although at times frustrating because the very smart protagonist doesn’t realize how she’s being used by Z., the eminent poet to whom she’s apprenticed. She does all Z.’s work for her, including picking up her dry-cleaning and supplying her with metaphors, and meanwhile her own creativity and in fact her whole life, are on hold. She also has a penchant for unsuitable partners. A smart and entertaining summer read, maybe with a few somewhat r-rated parts.

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

I noticed that Muriel Spark was in the Literature section at the used book store (as opposed to Popular or Chick Lit, where I usually shop for fiction). There are probably some prizes involved. Spark is a good writer. This book is a little dark but with some great characterization, a bit of a plot, and some wry humour. It’s short and it kept me reading.