Bill on Books - June 2019

Bill on Books - June 2019

One of the tasks that I enjoy is ordering new titles for the store. In a year I pour through hundreds of publisher catalogues as well as reading thousands of reviews published in New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Christianity Today, New York Times Book Review, First Things, Englewood Review of Books, plus the endless book mentions on blogs, in op-ed columns, word-of-mouth, and it goes on. The end result is that here at Regent Bookstore it is Christmas every day and regular shipments of books arrive! All this reading tends to give a bookstore buyer knowledge that is a mile-wide and hopefully a little more than an inch deep. In thinking on this I have decided to start sharing short reviews under the heading of Three Inch Reviews. I have spent years in close proximity to so many titles that I have not actually read even if having an acquaintance with many of them, and even readily recommending them. In this last part of my bookselling career I am thinking it would be good to share some of this knowledge with brief summaries. Here is my latest installment.

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Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Spiritual Practice
Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Spiritual Practice
Ed. by John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel
InterVarsity Press
2019
According to the editors, there has been a gap between expectations of the spiritual life and engagement with the spiritual theology of our evangelical forebears.  This gap is especially present in the Christian practice of “contemplation” and here the million-and-a-quarter word Christian Directory by Richard Baxter is referenced. Baxter was well-versed in Roman Catholic sources and showed how contemplation was a part of the broader Christian spiritual tradition. Following in this tradition, these evangelical Protestant contributors to Embracing Contemplation seek to portray from different angles the truth that “contemplation and contemplative prayer are the simplest experiences in the Christian life.”  (Contemplation is a loving or grateful adoration of God while meditation often involves texts, including Scripture.)  Divided into two parts, Part One is a series of eight “Historical Inquiries” while Part Two puts forth seven “Constructive Proposals.”  Christian contemplation must be grounded in the Incarnation as defined in the Nicene Creed. But there is room for a variety of approaches including “wordless” prayer, Medieval exercises of self-examination and, following Calvin, the practice of a kind of “Sabbath mysticism.” I found particularly helpful the historical chapter by Tom Schwanda. Other contributors include Hans Boersma and Simon Chan.
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Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope
Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope
Davide Enia
Other Press
2019
“History is sending people ahead, in flesh and blood, people of every age.” “History” in this narrative is set on the island of Lampedusa, the site of landing for tens of thousands of refugees but also the environs where countless others met their end, having failed to reach shore. The focus here is the October 3, 2013 tragedy that saw a 66-foot boat sink with the drowning of more than 360 migrants. Written by an Italian playwright, the book is a flowing set of eyewitness accounts, without chapter divisions, that tell the stories of both rescue and horrific failure. When one group of survivors are asked where they are from, they respond, “Niger,”  “Cameroon,”  “Syria,”  “Eritrea,”  “Sudan,” “Somalia,”  “Morroco,” “Tunisia,” and then, “Nepal!” Faith is at most an intuition within Enia’s perspective, but still there are images of survivors arriving on shore with arms held up in prayer while others fall to their knees in thanksgiving. Water-soaked Bibles and Korans are left in boats, often no doubt by individuals who did not survive the voyage. This is a bleak book, but one  that reminds the Christian of the commandment to always have an open heart to the refugee.
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The Library Book
The Library Book
Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster
2018
Susan Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker, tells the story of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library that consumed more than 400,000 books and damaged hundreds of thousands more.  This is a mystery story from beginning to end even though the question of whodunit is never finally resolved.  Along the way the cultural history of the LA Library is told in a compelling fashion. Back in 1880, eighty percent of librarians in the US were male although the LA Library saw several strong-willed women hold leadership roles at various times in the early years. The library continues to evolve and with the advent of the Internet, the Central Library now trucks 35,000 books each weekday to it seventy-two branches. The city library has become a centre where the homeless generally find a place and new immigrants are provided with important settlement services. In the US there are more libraries than there are McDonalds! At the end of this stimulating ride, I was left pondering the place of the book in Christian culture. Apart from the story of a fundamentalist burning of some thousand comic books several decades ago, predictably the place of the Christian book in American culture is absent from Orlean’s book – this despite the fact that mass literacy was the product of Christian civilization.
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The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
David Brooks
Random House
2019
This is a courageous book. David Brooks, a prestigious op-ed writer for the New York Times, had years ago climbed his mountain of accomplishment but then found himself in a deep valley of defeat and despair. The readers of his columns picked up on some of this. But in the last couple of years Brooks has been beating a new drum. Augustine, he has said, is now his hero. He unabashedly advocates finding new strength by setting out on a quest to climb a second mountain that involves shedding one’s ego and starting a life of interdependence. Before the Introduction is finished, Brooks has quoted C.S. Lewis three times including from the Weight of Glory; “[the] burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back.” The reader may wonder where this is going. Towards the end of the book, Brooks reveals that he has in fact undergone a Christian conversion, albeit not an “individualistic” one. We are called to a life of commitment and solidarity with our neighbours. Joy is a theme throughout the book, and this is a joyful read.
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