Books: This Is Your Brain on Music

March 27, 2017

Some weeks ago, I read about BookBub and signed up. I don’t care for reading eBooks, but I thought I might see some deals that would change my mind. So far I haven’t found any that persuaded me to read them on an electronic device (either borrowing my husband’s tablet or reading on the computer monitor). But the lists of books available has made me aware of books I hadn’t heard of, that I then decided to read the old-fashioned way.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin explores how the brain processes music. It’s more about the brain than it is about music, but it attempts to find answers to questions many of us would not have even thought to ask. How do we tell the difference between one instrument and another playing the same note? What makes your foot tap when listening to music? Why do some kinds of music make us happy while others evoke a feeling of sadness?

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Books: A Thread of Grace

March 26, 2017

Having read Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I was glad to find another book by her on the library shelves. (Though I have to admit I did not check it out the first time I saw it – I knew from her other books that it would be very well-written but also suspected it would be emotionally pummeling at times.)

It is quite a change from the science fiction of the other books, though unlike most science fiction those have as much philosophy as science, and reflect Russell’s background as an anthropologist (she creates entire civilizations to populate a faraway planet). I enjoy historical fiction, and this novel explores an aspect of World War II that I have read little about if at all previously.

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Books: The House of the Lord

February 27, 2017

At a conference (for leaders of small churches) that my husband and I attended in October, one of the workshops was about the use of the Psalms in worship. That got me not only looking for ways to use them in worship (such as using them for the readings with the lighting of the Advent candles) but also to know them better personally. When the Bible study I lead finished a study on Jonah, we started looking at some of the Psalms.

So when I came across a book for sale about “inhabiting the world of the psalmist,” and noticed that the author was one of the keynote speakers from that conference in October,  naturally I was interested. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament by Michael Jinkins explores first the world of the psalms in general, and then the psalms of lament in more depth.

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the psalms of lament. How do I identify with someone who has gone through such suffering as some of these describe? And to the extent I do identify with someone crying out, “How long, O Lord,” how does that shared sense of anguish help me deal with it?

I’m not alone in that discomfort. Jinkins notes that mainline Protestant churches rarely use psalms of lament in their worship, and if they wanted to sing hymns based on them would have trouble finding more than a few in their hymnals. Many people go to church to hear positive messages, and interpret complaints addressed to God as contrary to faith and thanksgiving.

When I mentioned this in a Bible study recently, someone’s response was that when times are hard, you’re supposed to focus on the blessings in your life and on God’s goodness. Why would you want to encourage people to bring up complaints to God?

Because, Jinkins says, “praise and thanksgiving divorced from lamentation, divorced from heart-felt observation of social injustices and the cries of the oppressed, divorced from a critical assessment of our role in human society, become expressions of vanity.” And because they can mask the voids in our spiritual lives, and give us fewer resources for working through some of the really bad stuff, the stuff we don’t talk about in church.

I remember a few times in my life when I found it difficult to go to church, when I was dealing with grief and found it hard to express emotion without breaking down in tears. There were no hymns we sang that gave voice to my grief, and when I tried to sing songs like “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” or “O Happy Day,” the words stuck in my throat.

There are churches that use the psalms of lament much more, and Jinkins explains that these are generally made of of people in the lower socio-economic strata of society. They can identify with the psalmist when he speaks of suffering oppression, of being treated unfairly, of anger at seeing people prosper from their wickedness and of longing to see justice done.

For me, those are abstract ideas that I can understand but not really identify with from my own experience. (Not that I’ve never been treated unfairly, but not in any ways that significantly changed the course of my life.) Perhaps greater use of psalms of lament would help to identify with those parts of the body of Christ who do suffer in these ways.

Depending on how one classifies the psalms, forty to fifty of them are considered psalms of lament. So nearly a third of them. They include expressions of faith and praise and thanksgiving, but these are arrived at by going through the complaint and the grief.

We often find that spiritual growth comes that way in our lives, by going through trials and troubles. So why not have our worship services make more use of such psalms, as the ancient Israelites evidently did? As I am on the worship committee at church, this is more than just food for thought, but something to look for practical ways to use sometimes neglected parts of Scripture.


Books: Memoirs of a Geisha

February 26, 2017

[I wrote this in January and just realized today I had never posted it.]

I’m sure I had heard of Memoirs of a Geisha, but it was never anything I had considered reading before it was announced as our book club’s selection for this month’s meeting. (I’m not sure what I had expected it to be like – true-life memoirs of a geisha, probably.) But that’s one reason I’m in a book club, to read books I wouldn’t be likely to read otherwise (and to have book-loving friends to talk about them with).

The (fake) translator’s note at the beginning notwithstanding, this is not anyone’s memoirs, just a novel written in that form. Apparently it is convincing enough that some people believe there is a real-life Suriya. If the book hadn’t said “a novel by Arthur Golden” on the front (not the name he used for the translator’s note), I might have thought so myself.

Golden does mention under Acknowledgements at the end that it is a work of fiction, but how many people read the Acknowledgements? Usually it is a list of people who are very important to the author but mostly unknown to the average reader. Golden acknowledges that he learned a great deal about the life of a geisha from a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement was a cause of grief rather than gratitude for her, as people blamed her for what Golden had written, even where it was not based on what she had told him. Mineko Iwasaki filed suit against Arthur Golden, claiming that he had agreed to keep her identity secret (he denied this), and that being named in the book had caused serious damage to her reputation in the geisha community (she is retired but has – or had – friendships there).

She later wrote her own book, Geisha: A Life, to tell the true story as a counter to Golden’s fictional version (perversion, in her opinion). While I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Geisha while I was reading it, once I was finished I was disappointed in the way Golden had concluded Suriya’s story. All that struggle and suffering, all the tension in her relationships with the man she wanted and the man who wanted her, and then abruptly it’s all wrapped up and over.

So I was very curious to learn more about the reality behind the novel, and I eagerly looked for Geisha: A Life at the library. There is certainly much that is the same in terms of the daily life and activities of a geisha, or of a girl preparing to become one. But at the end I felt I had a good deal more insight into a geisha’s life from the autobiography than from the novel.

I don’t know how much of that is because I knew it was an autobiography, and how much the difference between someone telling real experiences and someone making them up. You can make up circumstances that are far more dramatic in some cases, but it is hard for an imagined autobiography – especially a debut novel – to have the same psychological depth of a real one, especially in unless the author has similar experiences (which of course Golden has not).

There are heartbreak, cruelty, ambition, triumph, and disappointment in both books. Both tell the story of a girl’s struggle to become a geisha, her triumph, and then leaving that life behind. But on the whole, I found the autobiography to be the better story.


And more books…

December 26, 2016

With less than a week of 2016 remaining, it doesn’t look like I’ll quite finish my 2016 Reading Challenge – though as I’ve mislaid the paper where I was keeping track of it, I’m not quite sure which books I haven’t read.

A book based on a fairy tale? I enjoy these (not a retelling of the original fairy tale, but a new and often very different story using elements from the original), and own several, but I’m looking for books I haven’t read before. I had thought I might happen across one during the year, but I haven’t. But here’s a list that I’ll try to pick one from in the coming year (chances are it can fit somewhere in the 2017 Reading Challenge as well).

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Books: Slow Church

December 18, 2016

When my husband and I signed up to go to a “Slow Church” retreat, we had little idea what it was about. Obviously, it must be something to do with not being in a hurry. But beyond that, the phrase meant nothing to me.

At the retreat, we each received a copy of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. Chris Smith led the retreat, going over the ideas presented in the book he had co-written.

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Books: The Jesus Way

November 28, 2016

A couple of years ago I started a book by Eugene Peterson, author of The Message (a popular paraphrase of the Bible), Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, the first of a series of five books on spiritual theology. I also purchased The Jesus Way, the third book in the series, then set it aside until I had finished at least the first book.

But somehow the first book wound up in a pile of books I’m in the middle of reading, and hasn’t moved from that spot in a while. Then last month, when looking for something to read on a trip to a conference in Indiana, I noticed The Jesus Way and decided to read it. I read half of it during the trip, and finished it recently.

The subtitle of the book describes it well: “a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way.” Evangelical Christians are familiar with John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the way” (and “the truth and the life”). But what it means for Jesus to be the way is not usually explored, simply assumed: Jesus is how we are made right with God, how we get to heaven.

Peterson says, “Too many of my faith-companions for too long have been reducing the way of Jesus simply to the route to heaven, which it certainly is. But there is so much more.” Peterson emphasizes the meaning of “way” as a road to follow, not just for getting to the right destination, but for how to travel along the way.

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