Category Archives: Books

Walking Together

I’ve been reading Walking Together: Intercultural Stories of Love and Acceptance a new book written by Edith and Neill von Gunten who are members of my church.

Using the Ojibwe Seven Sacred Teachings as a framework they relate stories about what they learned during their nearly fifty years of doing peace and reconciliation work for the Mennonite Church.

What adventures Edith and Neill have had! They marched in Chicago with Dr Martin Luther King and shared housing with two of his organizers Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy.

For decades they lived in different communities around Lake Winnipeg where they built lasting and meaningful friendships with their Indigenous neighbours. The book includes many engaging stories that illustrate the things Edith and Neill learned about the sacred teachings of love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth.

There’s a story of a harrowing snowmobile trip during a blinding blizzard, another about Neill and a friend spending time living with the homeless in Winnipeg, a night where Neill’s pacifist beliefs were tested because he was called to intervene in a violent domestic altercation, a high stakes ping pong game with a gang leader and a delicate situation where Neill had to decide whether to report an illegal fishing operation.

Edith and Neill von Gunten- photo from a 2005 issue of the magazine Intotemak

I think my favourite section was the one where they talk about how eagles have appeared at various important times in their lives to provide direction, reassurance, comfort, celebration and affirmation.

Elder Barbara Nepinak and Elder Clarence Nepinak from the Pine Creek Ojibway First Nation provided a quote after reading Walking Together.

“The stories Edith and Neill share truly reflect how to create a good life journey with open ears and hearts.”

The book is available from the Common Word bookstore on the Canadian Mennonite University campus.

Other posts……….

Common Threads- Indigenous Spirituality

Common Threads- The Hopi

Doctrine of Discovery

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I was about halfway through reading Kate Bowler’s latest book Good Enough when I watched her online interview with Winnipeg Free Press Faith columnist John Longhurst.

One of the words Kate used in her interview and uses often in her book is enoughness. She talks about her cancer diagnosis and treatment and how during that very difficult time of her life she felt the enoughness of being loved by so many people and by God. Kate says we need to be grateful for that love and not always feel like we have to earn it.

Kate’s latest book Good Enough has 41 devotionals that encourage the reader in all kinds of ways to give up the need to be perfect. We are encouraged to let go of our obsession to create material for a show and tell of our seemingly perfect lives on social media, and to realize that God is always beside us as we try to mitigate society’s constant urging to improve rather than be content with what is already ours.

Photo of Jessica Richie and Kate Bowler from the Kate Bowler website.

Kate wrote Good Enough with the executive producer of her podcast Jessica Richie and in the introduction, they talk about a good enough faith that doesn’t reach for the impossible but looks for beauty and truth in what is possible.

One thing you will quickly discover if you listen to Kate Bowler speak is that she has a marvellous sense of humour. Perhaps that is why she can get away with saying some hard and perhaps even controversial things.

She urges people from the Christian tradition to reevaluate the message they have often received from televangelists who promise them the best life now.

Instead of talking about having the best life Kate urges us to think about the precarity of our lives. Sometimes we are happy and have as Kate puts it the wind in our sails but at other times everything goes wrong and we feel like the unluckiest person in the world. She says God is with us at all places on the precarity continuum.

Kate in conversation with John Longhurst – photo from the McNally Robinson Booksellers Twitter page

In her interview Kate made me laugh out loud when she encouraged us to just do our best to transform one or two terrible things about ourselves before we die. Kate made me smile in her book when she encourages us to stop trying to have a perfect life and just aim for a mediocre one.

Each devotional in Kate and Jessica’s book Good Enough has a personal anecdote, a blessing and a good enough step we can take in our lives.

Listening to Kate’s interview made me eager to read the second half of Good Enough. I know I have lots to learn about appreciating enoughness.

Other posts……….

Your One Wild and Precious Life

Faithless? Definitely Not.

The Purpose of Life

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A Book That Makes You Lift Your Eyes

“I like to read books that make me lift my eyes from the text occasionally to contemplate some aspect of my own life. That, dear reader, is what I hope will happen with this one.”

Dora Dueck wrote that line in the preface to her new collection of personal essays called Return Stroke. I have just finished reading it and I have to say I lifted my eyes a lot more often than occasionally as I made my way through the book.

I loved her food autobiography where she talks about various stages of her life through the lens of experiences with food- the buns she baked at age thirteen, the popcorn she ate to stave off loneliness in college, the companionship she experienced sharing a cup of maté with her husband in the mornings, and how she feels about taking communion- the smallest meal of all.

It got me thinking about what kind of food autobiography I could write perhaps one about soup- my grandmother’s summa borscht which I loved as a child, the five cans of Campbell’s soup that got us through the week when my husband and I were poor students and the wonderful won ton mein at a restaurant near our apartment in Hong Kong.

In another essay, Dora reminisces about a series of books by Mrs O.F. Walton. Her mother read them to Dora when she was a child. They were intense stories of sadness and misery and religious zealotry. It reminded me a great deal of the Elsie Dinsmore books I read as a child.

Photo of Dora Dueck from Twitter

Return Stroke gets its name from a chapter where Dora talks about her father-in-law a man she never met. Listening to anecdotes about him from his family, seeing photos of him and reading his diary allowed her to reconstruct her father-in-law Heinrich’s story. She eventually comes to feel she knows him and perhaps he has even come to know her.

This made me think about how I barely knew my grandfather Peter Schmidt who died when I was only seven. In order to make him a realistic character in a novel I wrote I interviewed family and looked at photographs and studied genealogies until I felt like I did know him.

I was particularly moved by Dora’s essay Mother and Child in which she relates the experience of her daughter telling her parents she was gay. It brought to mind the day I found out my brother was gay and how the various people in our family responded to that news.

Anyone who has walked through the final days of a person’s life with them as I have with two family members will appreciate the honest and sensitive essay in which Dora reflects on the experience of her husband’s death with her readers.

The bulk of Return Stroke is about the years during the 1980s Dora and her family lived in Paraguay. This is an engaging story that tells how Dora made friends, had a baby daughter, parented her two sons, tried to pursue her passion for writing, and grew to learn more about the country that had become her home for a time.

Again I found myself lifting my eyes and comparing various experiences that Dora had in Paraguay with my experience of acclimatizing to a new place when we lived on the Hopi First Nation in Arizona with our two sons.

I attended the launch of Dora’s book at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg. Here she is being interviewed by Mary Anne Loewen. photo McNally Robinson Booksellers

I can highly recommend Return Stroke. I am fairly certain that if you read it you will also find yourself lifting your eyes from the text to contemplate the way Dora’s beautiful prose connects with your own life.

Other posts………

Sons and Mothers

A Mennonite on a Motorcycle

Our Favourite David Bergen Book

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I read the book Pachinko by Min Jin Lee in January of 2018 and writing about it on this blog I called it a riveting read. So I was excited to learn that Apple TV had produced a dramatic eight-episode series based on the novel.

Pachinko is a multi-general family story with a Korean woman named Sunja at its heart. She leaves her widowed mother in Korea and immigrates to Japan with her new husband when she is pregnant with her first son. Her second son is born in Japan and the two brothers are bound for very different destinies.

At first, I wasn’t sure I liked the fact that the television series jumped around in time rather than telling the story in a chronological way as the book did. But by about the third episode I started to really appreciate that production decision and the way it allowed the viewer to first be introduced to a character and then later learn more about their backstory and in doing so help us come to understand that character better.

One of the things that fascinated me about the novel was learning how Korean people were so terribly discriminated against by the Japanese who annexed Korea in 1910 the year the story in Pachinko begins. This aspect is emphasized even more in the television series with any number of scenes that don’t take place in the book. I thought that was a good production decision too.

Sunja on the right played by actress Minha Kim and her sister-in-law Kyunghee played by Jung Eun-chae form a strong bond

Pachinko is a story with strong resilient female characters and illustrates the way women band together to help each other survive.

It clearly demonstrates how your family’s past is bound to influence who you become.

It is about how the choices we make change our destiny and we are often left to wonder whether we have made the right ones.

It explores the idea of how much we can conform to those in power without losing ourselves.

We are almost finished watching the first season of Pachinko and I was happy to hear recently that there will be a second season. Often the film version of a book doesn’t live up to its source material. I think Pachinko does and in fact enriches it.

Other posts……….

A Touching Moment at the Oscars

Ten Thoughts After Watching the Movie Minari

Ten Observations After Seeing the Movie Parasite

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Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer

You’ve probably heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” That adage is illustrated in such a heartwarming and yet heartbreaking way in Leslie Gentile’s debut novel Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer. Leslie a singer and songwriter who lives on Vancouver Island has set her novel in her home territory.

The story takes place in 1978. Truly Clarice Bateman the twelve year old female narrator lives in the Eagle Shores Trailer Park with her mother Clarice. Truly has overheard someone remark that her mother doesn’t have ‘a maternal bone in her body’ and now that Truly (her name was to be Trudy but there was a mistake on her birth certificate her mother didn’t bother fixing) is twelve she understands more fully what ‘no maternal bone in your body’ means. Her Mom struggles with managing her alcohol intake and holding a job for very long. Clarice leaves Truly to fend for herself while she spends time with the latest in her string of boyfriends.

Luckily for Truly a grandmotherly neighbour Andy El from the Salish First Nation takes Truly under her wing and provides her with safety, security and love. Other residents in the trailer park and members of Andy El’s family also rally round Truly when her situation with her Mom goes from bad to worse.

The title of the book Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer is intriguing. Truly learns that her biological father whom she has never met is living in Vancouver and is a huge Elvis Presley fan. Andy El has helped Truly set up a lemonade stand for the school summer vacation and Truly decides to use the money she makes to go to Vancouver, find her Dad and tell him that a man who she believes may be Elvis Presley is living in her trailer park. Turns out the fellow is an Elvis impersonator and he also befriends Truly.

Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer is a wonderful story and as I so often tell my readers it may be written for a middle grade audience but that doesn’t mean adults won’t enjoy it too- especially if you were a child in the 70s.

I would highly recommend Elvis, Me and the Lemonade Stand Summer. It is one of the books nominated for a MYRCA (Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award) along with my book Lost on the Prairie.

Leslie Gentile from her Facebook page

While looking for a photo of author Leslie Gentile I found this one of her in a west coast book store with her novel. Imagine my surprise when I noticed my novel on the shelf behind her.

Other posts……….

In the Wild Light

A Kid’s Book Set in a Funeral Home

The Undercover Book List

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Remembering Maurice Sendak

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…………

His mother called him “WILD THING!”

and Max said, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”

So he was sent to bed without eating anything. 

Those are the first sentences in the book Where the Wild Things Are winner of the 1964 Caldecott Medal for children’s literature. When they were small my sons loved Where the Wild Things Are. I had to read it over and over and over. When I started sharing it with my grandchildren it had been more than twenty years since I had last read Where The Wild Things Are , but I could still recite almost all of the text from memory.  

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s death. Although Where the Wild Things Are was his most famous book as an educator and parent I was equally passionate about some of his other books. 

When I taught kindergarten and grade one I used the rhymes from Sendak’s book Chicken Soup With Rice to help children learn the months of the year.  Sendak created a funny illustrated poem for each month and the children and I chanted them together. I can still recite many of these lively poems from memory as well.

I’ll never forget the stir Sendak’s book In the Night Kitchen caused when it arrived at an elementary school where I was teaching. The story is about a little boy who has a dream he is helping to bake a cake. On a number of pages in the book, he is nude and his penis is showing.

Our school librarian solved the controversy about whether to put the book on the library shelves or not, by drawing in and colouring little pairs of pyjamas on the boy on all the pages where he was naked. 

At least she didn’t pull it from the library something that might happen today when children’s books are being censored at an alarming rate in many places.

My very favourite Sendak book however is Pierre. Its hero is a boy whose favourite line is…….

“I don’t care.”

“What would you like to eat?”

“I don’t care!”

“Some lovely cream of wheat?”

“I don’t care!”

“Don’t sit backwards on your chair.”

“I don’t care!”

“Or pour syrup in your hair.”

“I don’t care!”

Eventually Pierre meets a lion and his “I don’t care” refrain results in him being eaten alive. Luckily a doctor gets Pierre out of the lion’s stomach……. but after his ordeal, he never says “I don’t care” again.

Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell library which contains minature versions of four of his stories is often tucked into my bag when I go to visit my grandchildren.

Some people have criticized Sendak because his books are on the dark side and involve rebellious children and scary monsters. But his characters and storylines are no more frightening than those of many fairy tales in which witches kidnap children to fatten them up for eating, or a little girl in a red hood gets gobbled up by a wolf.

Photo from Wikipedia

Maurice Sendak was quite a crusty fellow, a bit of a curmudgeon. The last time I saw him was about four months before his death when he was a guest on The Colbert Report. He told host Stephen Colbert, ” I don’t write for children. I write and then someone says, ‘That’s for children.’

Sendak also said he didn’t write to make children happy or make life easier for them, admitting that while he didn’t really like people, he did like children better than adults. 

Sendak illustration from Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak’s books have sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into some 40 languages. He left a lasting legacy in children’s literature.

Other posts………..

Perfect for Pre- Schoolers

Check out the Kid’s Section

Talking About Diversity with Kids

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Mennonite Humour

A 1989 article in The Mennonite Encyclopedia about humour by a former editor of mine Katie Funk Wiebe, says that humour has not been a traditional feature of Mennonite culture. The church’s history of persecution, a preoccupation with schismatic activity, and more recently the pursuit of social justice have required a serious honest faith and life that left no room for humourous stories with their use of fiction, hyperbole and satire.

Katie Funk Wiebe cites leaders of various Mennonite denominations who admonished their members about the perils of jesting and joking and laughing. She does note in her article however that things are changing and Mennonites seem to be more open to poking fun at themselves.

The proof of that change, and it’s been a huge one, was on dramatic display Friday night when I attended an event at McNally Robinson Booksellers called Mennonites Laughing featuring Andrew Unger, Armin Wiebe and Corny Rempel.

Andrew is the author of the novel Once Removed which won the prize for Best First Novel at the Manitoba Book Awards last year. In January Turnstone Press published his The Best of the Bonnet a collection of posts from Andrew’s hugely popular blog The Daily Bonnet.

In his writing, Andrew comments in a humorous way on many aspects of Mennonite life. On Friday night when questioned about whether the joke or the plot comes first in his writing process he said for his novel he planned the plot first but with his Daily Bonnet posts the joke is definitely what comes first and once he has that figured out the articles almost write themselves.

Armin Wiebe a former winner of the Manitoba Book of the Year award has written five published novels. Four are set in the same fictional Mennonite community. He has also published a book of short stories called Armin’s Shorts and written two plays.

In an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press just before the first stage production of one of those plays Armin said we misjudge Mennonites if we see them as humourless or serious. In reality, he says they love to laugh, tell jokes and do crazy things.

On Friday night there was some joking about whether Armin might be confused with a much more serious Mennonite writer who shares Armin’s last name- Rudy Wiebe. We also witnessed Armin’s ability to create humour when he made a deprecating remark about marriage which had his wife popping up to question him from the audience.

Mennonites Laughing was ably hosted by the comedian Corny Rempel who is also a popular radio show host and world-renowned Elvis Presley impersonator.

A highlight of the evening was his performance of the Elvis hit Blue Suede Shoes in both English and Low German.

There was a full house for the Mennonites Laughing evening at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Because I recognized so many people I know the majority of them were Mennonites ready to listen to someone make fun of their culture and faith. They loved all the joking, jesting and laughter clearly proving that it is definitely time for The Mennonite Encyclopedia to update its entry about humour.

Other posts……..

What I Liked About the Novel Once Removed

The Brommtopp and Cross Dressing Mennonites

He Hasn’t Lost His Sense of Humour

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Getting A Glimpse Into The Country Music World

I’d never read a book by best-selling author James Patterson before but listening to an interview with him and his latest famous collaborator Dolly Parton tickled my curiosity enough that I bought the book they wrote together Run Rose Run.

It is about a young woman named AnnieLee Keyes who goes to Nashville to try and become a star. She is befriended by Ruthanna a former country music icon who has become a recluse and Ethan Blake a handsome singer and songwriter AnnieLee meets in a bar. Fiesty and independent AnnieLee is running from a past with dark secrets that are only revealed at the end of the novel.

Dolly Parton has recorded an album of new songs she wrote to go with the novel.

I read Run Rose Run for two days when we had horrible weather and I was pretty much trapped inside our condo. It was perfect escapist fare. The character development is a little thin and things work out in a rather predictable fashion but I learned quite a bit about the country music world. Even though I’m not really a country music aficionado I enjoyed listening to some of the catchy tunes on the album Dolly Parton has released to go with the book. The songs follow the plot of the story and one wonders if they won’t form the soundtrack if the book is ever made into a film.

With friends at a Dolly Parton concert in Winnipeg

I have a lot of respect for Dolly Parton. A friend arranged a girls’ night out once when Dolly gave a concert in Winnipeg. I so enjoyed Dolly’s high energy performance and it was at the concert I learned more about the important work Dolly has done in the area of children’s literacy. Her Imagination Library has donated nearly 180 million books to young children in five different countries.

Dolly Parton and James Patterson in their interview with CBS

Dolly Parton and James Patterson’s novel provided me with a look into the country music world which I knew little about. It’s good for me to expand my reading and listening horizons. Run Rose Run did just that.

Other posts……..

Dolly Patron or Parton?

Selfie with Willie Nelson

The Perfect Novel For Me

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Bird by Bird

This puzzle is called Avian Friends but I ordered it because it reminded me so much of the title of Anne Lamott’s famous book about the craft of writing Bird by Bird first published in 1994. The title of the book comes from a piece in Lamott’s book that reads…….

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Anne’s father’s advice rings true for writing projects but also for almost any task that seems overwhelming. You have to start and take one step at a time and eventually the task will get done. That was certainly how I felt when I wrote my novel and how I feel when I am preparing to learn all the material for an exhibit at the art gallery or when I have to clean my whole house. But if I go ‘bird by bird’ it gets done.

Another thing I liked about this puzzle was the way the birds were pretty easy to put together they were so bright and unique in their colour and design but it was the pieces that connected them that took so long to figure out.

And isn’t that true? Figuring out how to bring together diverse people at work or in a family or figuring out how to take the diverse aspects of your life and bring them together in a way that is meaningful and manageable is always a challenge.

I loved the puzzle Avian Friends. But I would have called it Bird by Bird or Coming Together.

Other posts……….

A Different Kind of Puzzling

The Missing Piece

Hugo Bartel’s Puzzles

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In the Wild Light

author photo by Annie Clark

I made the mistake of starting the novel In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner just before I went to bed. I read the first few chapters and turned out the light.

But I couldn’t sleep as I mulled over the poetic beauty of the writing and tried to figure out what was going to happen with the two main characters who had so thoroughly engaged me in the initial chapters. So…….. I ended up reading all night. I did close the book and turn out the light a couple of times but the story wouldn’t let me sleep. I finished it around 6 am.

The novel is about two best friends Delaney and Cash who live in a small poverty-stricken Appalachian community. They meet at a Narateen meeting because both of their mothers are opioid addicts. They have each other for care and support but they also have Cash’s grandparents who have raised him since he found his mother’s dead body in the cramped bathroom of their squalid trailer. Mamaw and Papaw provide both Delaney and Cash with unconditional love and it’s what carries them through when they receive scholarships to a prestigious prep school in Connecticut.

I loved this book because the author’s descriptions are total sensual experiences. You smell. You hear. You see. You feel.

I loved this book because a young man’s life is turned around by poetry. I taught poetry to teens for many years and remember how exciting it was for me to see kids who thought they’d never write a poem come to realize that with some support and practice they could. I loved watching as they discovered poetry was a way to record their life, examine relationships and convey their feelings.

One reviewer called In The Wild Light a love letter to possibility and that’s another reason I loved this book. It does not shy away from lots of trauma and trouble but it holds out the possibility that there is hope for a better future no matter what kind of dismal circumstances you have in your past.

Jeff Zentner is a Mormon and this book has a faith element to it, but it doesn’t hit you over the head and the kids who talk about God do so with questions and critical thinking.

The characters are so well-developed. You really feel like you know them and that’s not just true for the two main characters but minor ones too.

The book is chockful of passages that make you stop and think about them. Here are two.

Fear tells you to make your life small. Fear tells you to think small. Fear tells you to be small-hearted. Fear seeks to preserve itself, and the bigger you let your life and perspective and heart get, the less air you give fear to survive.

You are not a creature of grief. You are not a congregation of wounds. You are not the sum of your losses. Your skin is not your scars. Your life is yours, and it can be new and wondrous. Remember that.

In the Wild Light is billed as being for teens and young adults but I am convinced adults will thoroughly enjoy it too. As you can tell, I certainly did.

Other posts………

I’m A Winner

A Book Set in a Funeral Home

Star Fish

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