Book Reviews

Book Review: The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

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After I finished writing my guide to the Book of Job, several people told me I ought to read The Shack. I wasn’t that keen. But my Pastor handed me a copy, so how could I resist anymore?

The Shack by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2007) is one of those publishing phenomenons à la The Celestine Prophecy, where it seems like everyone has read it or is about to read it. Most people I knew enjoyed The Shack hugely; some weren’t all that thrilled with the writing. I personally found it lightweight but with one essential truth in it, a truth that few who talk forgiveness rarely discuss or even mention.

Young wrote The Shack originally for his children, in obedience to his wife. His imaginative story unfolds in a way that slowly reveals the tragedy that changed the protagonist Mackenzie fundamentally. The tragedy happened in or was traced back to a shack in the middle of the National Reserve wilderness in Oregon. It’s a bleak place of dereliction, loneliness, and loss. Young said in an interview that the shack is a metaphor for a place where we get hurt and stuck. A few years after the tragedy, on a brittle, cold day, Mackenzie is called to go back to the shack through a note. When he later spoke to his wife, he chose not to tell her about this odd note. It’s a telling little detail about how we justify leaving people out when in fact it’s all about our own fear and selfishness.

Up to this point, The Shack is a traditional novel, firmly grounded in reality. The language is ordinary; the emotions evoked not all that powerful. I found for such a tragedy as Mack experienced, I was not all that moved. I think more evocative language, better word usage, less artificiality in the build up to the big reveal, would probably have created a more passionate response. But if the very mention of child and tragedy in the same sentence moves you to tears, then this will do it.

When Mack hikes up to the shack and enters it, all that reality morphs; he enters a fantastical world. He encounters God in three. God is a black woman; Jesus is a carpenter; and the Holy Spirit is a being hard to see and pin down. The setting morphs from bleak and inhospitable to a flourishing summer, an inviting garden, a rather obvious metaphor for what it’s like to be without God and then with God.

Young uses these characters to show the reader how the Trinity works and to challenge the stereotype of God being only male. I’m not sure how well it works as a visual aid to the Trinity; I feel no more enlightened than before. Yet it is a creative way to show the Divine. And he does a good job of illustrating an ideal relationship, such as exists between the three God in one.

Mack spends time with each manifestation of God and finally feels his way through his grief into acceptance of his loss. He comes to regret not telling his wife of the note. Near the end of his time with this entertaining Trinity, Mack receives redeeming gifts that are entirely in the realm of fiction. Us humans would not likely have God descend upon us and show us our dead kin. In that respect, although it was a nice feel-good moment, I found its artificiality, its non-connection to real suffering and how God usually works in our lives, a bit off-putting.

Yet Young goes from that trite scene to a compelling conversation about a truth I so rarely hear today. It’s become commonplace to hear zealous talk about forgiveness, about how we should forgive for our own sake, to make us better, that it has nothing to do with the person we’re forgiving, that’s why we ought to forgive. Gag me. But even leaving aside the idea of making forgiveness palatable to the masses by transforming it into a selfish act, forgiveness is often foisted upon Christians as a must-do, with no acknowledgement that forgiveness is only one-third of the equation. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, and it is not forgetfullness. Yet it’s either portrayed as a selfish act that has nothing to do with mercy or reconciliation or as a way to kiss and make up with your oppressor, the one who harmed you. Neither is forgiveness. Kissing and making up is reconciling and is also only one-third of the equation. The last third that connects the two is the one who harmed you acknowledging the harm and asking for mercy. Forgiveness, asking for mercy, and reconciliation are all about our relationship with the other. They are not supposed to be solitary activities, even though it seems too often one has to forgive in solitude or send a request for mercy off into the void.

“Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation. And sometimes — and this may seem incomprehensible to you right now — that road may even take you to the miracle of fully restored trust.”

“…forgiveness does not excuse anything.” (Page 226, God to Mack.)

The Shack is a pleasant read. Its theology is not to everyone’s taste — as evidenced on YouTube. It ends on a good note; it wraps things up nicely. I often think that the ending of the Book of Job is also a nice wrap up that has no basis in reality. We may often be redeemed in our suffering, but the questions that the tragedy raise remain unanswered and the losses don’t get replaced. Does a book such as this need to end in this way though? There was a feeling awhile ago that for a book to be authentic it has to be realistic. But fiction is also escape. And people who are suffering greatly like nothing better than a happy ending, like Job had, like Mack does. Young gives his readers the happy, neat ending they crave. It is the reason for The Shack’s popularity I’m sure.

The Shack is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, among many, many retailers.

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele

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When it came time to pick another book to review, I chose the well-received The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele (Doubleday Canada, 2008). According to the back cover, it’s about a young mother and her relationship with her fast-living sister Beth and how one weekend “Beth upends everything Peachy thought she knew about being happy.”

It had been years since I’d been able to read literary fiction (because of my brain injury), and I wanted my first foray back into this old, familiar territory to be an enjoyable one. I also wanted to read a Canadian author. And so I was both tentative and excited when I sat down in my comfortable armchair, coffee at hand, flipped the pages to chapter one of Gabriele’s book, and began to read. So imagine my disappointment when within the first dozen pages, I was not only not interested in the protagonist Peachy, but was also mightily confused at first as to who Lou was and then what time period we were in. In fact, it’s only after I had read the entire book that the first few pages became comprehensible. I suspect that would be true for most of the first half of the book.

It’s an interesting idea to try and replicate the way the mind works, the way when your eye falls on an object all sorts of memories surface and are briefly relived. But writing in that way is tough. Jumping in time causes confusion, and then when characters speak or act out of sync with their age or even their relation to the protagonist – is Lou boyfriend or father, I wondered at first – it makes the time jumping harder to follow. The author often introduced characters or events out of the blue, unexplained as to who or what they were, because obviously Peachy knew who they were and would hardly describe them to herself, yet it leaves the reader confused, and not in a good way. Authors usually tread a fine line of describing the introduced character or event so that the reader can follow the thread, or at least be enticed to follow it, without making the narrator sound ridiculously false. To not tread the line at all is to invite confusion and annoyance.

As I continued to read, it struck me that the protagonist’s sister Beth was a much more richly drawn character than the first-person narrator Peachy, making me wonder if the author related better to Beth than to Peachy, while it took a good chunk of the book before Peachy’s husband became more than a one-dimensional-barely-there personality despite his important role. Lou, the father, was mostly a hovering type of character so why Peachy decided to introduce him to a friend was never clear to me, as the reader, beyond the usual clichéd assumptions. That introduction came out of the blue – how else would it come? – in an ending that was too pat, too quickly wrapped up. But by that time, I was glad the book was over.

Even though the telling of Peachy’s story finally settled down, finally left the frenetic time jumping, and became mildly interesting halfway through, that was too late in the game to engage me. I almost always find good literature grabs me and holds me in the first page, certainly by the end of the first scene. And in this society of short-attention-span folks, it’s more important than ever to engage the reader immediately. A writer doesn’t necessarily have to have a sympathetic character as the heroine or hero of the story, so long as their story grips the emotional belt of the reader and hangs on. I struggled mightily to become involved in this insipid Peachy, to care enough about her and the emotional cesspit her sister landed them all in, but I couldn’t. The plot itself was interesting enough once I got the hang of it; the characters were not; and the time jumping was disastrously done.

Book Reviews

Agatha Christie Muses on Euthanasia in “Curtain”

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I have not read all of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books, but he’s such a timeless character, the series not needing to be read in order, that I recently devoured the very last Poirot book: Curtain.

I’ve been reading Christie for as long as I can remember. Well, maybe not since the age of 2, but at least since my early teens. I’ve enjoyed her books as light reading, not-so-easy mysteries to solve, escapism, but never as social commentary. But as I was reading Curtain, I started to see that a very real discussion was under way in Christie’s mind about the worth of life. She several times brings up the idea of lives that are sick, injured, in pain, old, disabled in some way — in other words “weak” — as not really worthy of life, and she culminates it in a big discussion between several of her characters in chapter 11. She has one character say, rather shockingly, “Unfit lives, useless lives — they should be got out of the way.” Isn’t that how many perceived Robert Latimer’s daughter? And not just her?

I had always thought euthanasia was a fairly recent trend, but given she wrote this 60 years ago, apparently not.

Christie wrote Curtain during World War II, when bombs and guns snuffed out lives in hundreds of thousands in a never-ending barrage. The sanctity of life must’ve become rather theoretical when so many people were dying, when so many made daily decisions about who would die. War makes one nation a bit god-like over deciding the human worth of another nation. Yet living in peace does not seem to have changed attitudes much. Despite society deciding to close institutions for the mentally ill 30 or so years ago and recently institutions for the intellectually disabled, on the basis that these lives are worth more than being shut up in a warehouse, the public showed more sympathy to Latimer the murderer than to his daughter the victim. People are averse to disease, afraid of weakness, and this showed up blatently over the Latimer reaction. His life was worth more than hers, the Canadian public decided.

Christie hammers over and over the idea of euthanasia as good, the value of playing god and snuffing out weak lives, the idea that “Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live.” But in the end, she neatly flips all those ideas on their head in Poirot’s own mortal-taking decision. Any Poirot fan knows how immodest he is. He is supremely confident always in his “little grey cells,” his deductions, his decisions. Poirot is the antonym of humble. Yet after his final act, he expresses doubt, soul-deep doubt: “But now I am very humble and I say like a little child ‘I do not know…'”

Curtain. After finishing this book, that simple, single word means so much more than Poirot’s last case. Curtain: the last of Poirot. Curtain, the end of a famous life. Curtain, the end of the idea of human life being sacred. Curtain: healthy, god-like humans bring it down on the weak. And yet Curtain: the worth of life is not black and white, not so easy to decide.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Otherwise by Farley Mowat, an Enthralling Read

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Farley Mowat begat the popular Black Brant sounding rocket and air-to-air missile Velvet Glove when his patriotism and search for a new purpose after WWII led him to… well, you’ll have to read Mowat’s latest book Otherwise (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008) to find out how he accomplished this feat.

The few reviews I’d seen told nothing about this unMowat-like exploit, but it doesn’t surprise me. George Stroumboulopoulos of The Hour probably asked Mowat to recount another WWII tale, one not in this book, as it speaks to Mowat’s status as eccentric, anti-war, compassionate environmentalist unlike the one beginning on page 138. But the rocket story enthralls much more.

Otherwise covers Mowat’s life from his birth in 1921 to 1948 (officially from 1937 to 1948). He writes with his distinctive verve and, at the beginning of the book, is much in love with lists, lists of collections, lists of food, and lots and lots of lists of birds. He flows through the years seamlessly with stories hilarious and sobering, including his gleeful description of killing birds for science’s sake. He uses journal entries and letters effectively, especially for the war years. Depending on his old writings for those years, I imagine would be easier on the psyche since it would allow a distance that putting oneself back in time would not.

Whether writing about his 16th birthday among the birds or WWII or his expedition to the Barren Lands or even resolving mysteries and giving background information, Mowat shapes his stories with a cadence and love of words, using the language of the day, that draws you in to that time, keeping you glued, until he jars with a note of present-day opinion. It is said better to show than to tell, and nowhere is that adage clearer than when Mowat injects an opinion that he holds today — rather than one from that time — and it is especially bad when it is based on faulty fact as on page 83 with his reference to coyotes (contrary to Mowat’s opinion and as experts have shown, coyotes thrive when humans threaten).

Unfortunately, he resorts to this habit in the ending and makes a blanket statement about humanity. I wonder how much his war experiences, his own reactions to terror, and his need to extrapolate to all other humans, minus the aboriginals in his opinion, shaped that statement. I, personally, would not have reacted in the way he did and was dumbfounded by his. It would have been much more effective if he had left the story in such a way as to cause readers to consider their own reactions in light of his; even if he had simply omitted the last two sentences it would have been better. Instead he crashes the mood he had so carefully built up in the last pages and creates a barrier to self-reflection in the reader.

Critics opine that Mowat is free and easy with his facts. But I also believe that editors ought to be held accountable. Whether it was the famous James Frey incident or the recent Herman Rosenblat story or the year that changes from page to page in Otherwise, publishers go the cheap route, leaving the writer to be writer, editor, and fact checker all in one (which is just about impossible to do as writing puts you so close to the manuscript that you need a fresh, objective perspective to find the verbal tics, inconsistencies, and questionable facts). The ordinary reader relies on the editor and fact checker to do this job as Mowat’s writing is so good that one would not know which is truth, which fiction. Some of the errors in Otherwise were easy to spot, easy to fix. Why did editors not do so? Facts relying on his memory and journal entries would’ve been harder to check up on, true, but his historical asides would not have been since there exists published material and other sources on them. And, as well, why did no one at M&S think to add a map? Editors of mass paperback historical mysteries manage to think of such things, knowing most readers aren’t geography majors.

If you are a Mowat fan, you will enjoy reading this book, from its familiar Mowat-type tales to the shocking revelations. If you have not read anything by Mowat, begin with Otherwise. It sets up and explains the birthing of his previous books, and it will make you fall off your chair laughing and sit still in deep thought.