The Lord of the Rings (review)

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The Lord of the RingsThe Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently finished reading The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien—all six books, a Kindle edition purchased May 9th, finished reading around August 14th.

Here are some of the things that impressed me about book(s).

The contrast between good and evil. Good characters and settings were beautiful, wholesome, verdant, fragrant, admirable, while the evil characters and settings were creepy to grotesque, debauched, barren, in some cases smelled vile, and were frightening and repulsive.

That said, characters were still complex. Though the good characters were essentially white, they still had the capacity for foolishness, made mistakes etc. This made for my continued interest.

My favourite character was Frodo’s servant, the loyal Sam Gamgee. Through him Tolkien illustrates the values of love, faithfulness, perseverance, courage etc. in the face of insurmountable odds.

The hobbit characters retained their love of hearth, home and a good meal. Their reminiscences about these things and their appearances in the story even when situations were at their worst (a good meal cooked when making a fire was a dangerous act; the singing of a lullaby during captivity by evil orcs) kept me hopeful that the good would win.

As I looked for Christian allegorical themes, and knowing that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were contemporaries and literary buddies (the Inklings), these jumped out at me.

1. The fight between good and evil—a biblical theme if there ever was one.

2. Saruman and Sauron as types of Satan.

The wizard Gandalf says of Sauron:

“… I found our fears were true; he was none other than Sauron, our Enemy of old, at length taking shape and power again” – p. 250.

Treebeard says of Saruman:

“He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things” p. 473.

3. King Aragorn as a type of Christ:
In a scene with the hobbit Pippin:

“’King! Did you hear that? What did I say? The hands of a healer, I said!’ And soon word had gone out from the House that the King was indeed come among them and after war he brought healing.” P. 286.

This wasn’t my favourite book in the world. The language is more descriptive and flowery than I’m used to, though I felt it suited the story genre well. I also found the use of words and phrases in Tolkien’s made-up language confusing in that they slowed me down, though again, they made the story feel like an authentic middle earth tale.

All in all, this was a very long but worthwhile read. If you haven’t read it maybe you should for aspects of this story (in book and film) are now woven into the imagination and fabric of our culture.

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Unknown Enemy (Review)

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Unknown Enemy (A Green Dory Inn Mystery, #1)Unknown Enemy by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Landon Smith gets a call to help Anna, the woman who was an anchor to her in her troubled past, she leaves her college dorm in Toronto for a weekend in Nova Scotia with hardly a second thought. Once there she is immediately caught up in the mystery of who is terrorizing Anna’s business, the Green Dory Inn. Or is Anna, whose husband died recently, falling apart mentally and seeing things?

Unknown Enemy is full of tension as we try to puzzle out with Landon and Anna who, in Sketchley’s cast of colourful (and complex) characters, could be behind this. When the weekend has passed and the mystery is still not solved we wonder, will Landon be able to get to the bottom of this before her exacting prof drops her from her course.

I love the local colour of the Lunenberg setting—an actual town in Nova Scotia—and all the homey touches of the inn (beautiful décor, lots of tea and homemade baking). I wish the Green Dory Inn wasn’t fictional as I’d love to stay there!

Faith plays a big part in all of Sketchley’s stories and this one is no exception. Landon has made a practice of handling flashbacks of past trauma with prayer. That’s something she learned from the almost saintly Anna, who is a paradigm of loving the outcasts and marginalized.

I enjoyed this quick read, which kept me turning pages way past when I planned to stop.

With this novella, Sketchley introduces a new series: The Green Dory Inn mysteries. Fans of contemporary Christian mystery won’t want to miss one installment. Unknown Enemy releases August 2nd, 2018.

I received a copy of Unknown Enemy as a gift for the purpose of writing a review.

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The Way of Letting Go (review)

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The Way of Letting Go: One Woman's Walk toward ForgivenessThe Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk toward Forgiveness by Wilma Derksen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The abduction of their 13-year-old daughter in November off 1984 shunted Winnipeg residents Cliff and Wilma Derksen onto an unfamiliar and horror-strewn track. The discovery of her body seven months later, bound and frozen, provided closure on one level. She had been murdered. She was never coming home. But that day opened a Pandora’s box of feelings, reactions, learnings, and conclusions about how to deal with the unthinkable crime of the murder of their child. Early on, the Derksens declared their decision to forgive.

In The Way of Letting Go, published in 2017, 32 years after the crime, Wilma Derksen describes what forgiveness has entailed for her. Drawing inspiration from “the Nazarene” and the Sermon on the Mount she tells (in chapters titled, for example: “Letting Go of the Happy Ending,” “Letting Go of Fear,” “Letting Go of my Ego” etc.) incidents that triggered realizations of what she was hanging onto and needed to release. She also analyzes the spiritual and practical implications of these relinquishments.

The triggering incidents she tells help us to put together the Derksen’s story in a puzzle piece way. We also get glimpses of what it was like to be in the spotlight of the victim and involved with the police and justice system of Canada.

The Way of Letting Go not only tells a riveting story but also challenges us to consider (when we’ve been wronged) the difficult, complicated, repetitious (“Seventy times seven”) response of forgiveness. Highly recommended.

This book is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Psalms Alive! (review)

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Psalms Alive!Psalms Alive! by David Kitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Psalms Alive! author, pastor, and dramatist David Kitz takes us on a journey through thirteen selected psalms. In the Preface Kitz explains why he wrote the book:

“For the past number of years I have been bringing the Psalms to life for audiences through the medium of live drama. Here now in book form, from a dramatist’s perspective I provide a glimpse into the prayers and praise of the psalmists” 18.

Each of the book’s 26 chapters begins with the quoted scripture passage under discussion. This is followed by Kitz expanding on it in a variety of ways that include personal stories, explanations of biblical customs and settings, devotional inspiration, and challenges to apply the scripture’s advice to life. Each chapter ends with a “Bringing Life to the Psalms” section consisting of three to four discussion and personal application questions.

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Bible art journal on Psalm 19:14 using a quote from Psalms Alive! (Photo © 2017 by V. Nesdoly)

Kitz’s writing is lively, picturesque, and wise. He expands liberally on the ideas presented in the Bible passage. He doesn’t leaves us in the theoretical clouds though, but makes sure his conclusions connect to everyday living. My book is full of underlined sections. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

From the Preface: “When we handle the Word of God, we are handling life. When we take hold of the Word of God, it takes hold of us” – 17.

From a chapter on Psalm 19: “Your heavenly Father does not need a stethoscope to check on the condition of your heart; he needs only to listen to the words coming out of your mouth” – 43.

From a chapter on Psalm 103: “Relationship is always the wellspring of all revelation. It is while we are in God’s presence that we discover the mind of Christ” – 149.

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Bible art journal detail (Photo © 2017 by V. Nesdoly)

I used this book, along with others in an online creative Bible study and found much inspiration in it for Bible art journaling. It has deepened and broadened my appreciation of the psalms discussed. It would make an excellent textbook (along with the Bible, of course) for men’s or women’s Bible studies.

I received this book as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review and participating in the study.

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When You Lose Someone You Love (review)

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When You Lose Someone You LoveWhen You Lose Someone You Love by Joanne Fink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author and artist Joanne Fink’s husband Andy died suddenly at only 53 years of age. After 29 years of marriage, Joanne was devastated by his death. A few weeks after he died she began journaling and drawing her thoughts. When You Lose Someone You Love is the result of those cathartic writings and sketches.

This pocket-sized book (it’s 4×6, the dimensions of a photo, and ¼ inch thick) would fit in a small handbag. The pages alternate between artistically whimsical black and white line drawings and easily readable text utilizing a variety of casual craft-type fonts.

Here are some of my favorite pages (I can’t quote page numbers because there aren’t any):

“When you lose someone you love everything seems disjointed.
TIME seems to move at a different pace for you than for everyone else.”

“When you lose someone you love, you can be OK for hours or even days at a time and then totally lose it for No reason at all.”

“When you lose someone you love, you begin your life journey anew.”

Did I say the drawings were black and white. Well, that’s not entirely true for toward the book’s end color begins to make an appearance on the pages (a wonderful metaphor for what’s happening in the bereaved one’s heart and life) … just a bit at first with a little more color added on each succeeding page until the last full-color pages.

This book would make a perfect gift for a new widow, widower, or person who has just said goodbye to a parent, child, sibling or close friend. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen another publication quite like it. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful way to share sympathy and caring.

I received this book as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Well (review)

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Well: Healing Our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West AfricaWell: Healing Our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa by Sarah Thebarge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Well, Sarah Thebarge immerses us in her three-month experience of working as a Physicians’ Assistant in a missionary hospital in Togo, West Africa. From her first days of climate and culture shock to her trip back home, she shares not only what she sees, hears, and smells, but also what she feels on many levels—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Many chapters are short. Some are narrative—wonderful storytelling. Others read like essays that speak to large themes of love and the meaning and purpose of life in the shadow of unspeakable suffering and the inequality of the developed versus the developing world. Scattered throughout her chronological account of her Togo experience are flashback stories about her medical training, her battle with breast cancer, and her experiences in Portland.

Thebarge is an excellent writer and a delight to read. She remembers events in amazing detail—though I’m sure some credit goes to her journals, which she repeatedly refers to keeping. However, many of the stories are hard to read because of their content. The book is heavy with heartbreaking tales of death disease, and primitive conditions. Over and over Thebarge refers to Togo as the saddest place on earth. She is deeply affected by the inability of the medical staff to help more people and prevent what appear to be the meaningless deaths of newborns, children, mothers and fathers needed as parents.

Thebarge’s dedication and love are Mother Teresa-esque. One of the most beautiful passages in the book for me was this short exchange between her and Omari, her Togolese work partner:

“I want to see patients like you do.”
‘You already said that,’ I teased him.
“No, no, I mean, I want to look at people like you do.”
“What do you mean? How do I look at people?”
“You look at people with love,” Omari said.
O thought about Massiko’s words, that love looks around.
And the father’s words, “There is love in your eyes.”
And now Omari’s words, ”You look at people with love.” – Well, p. 219.

I would like to recommend this book without reservation, but can’t quite do that. For Thebarge’s theology does not, as I’ve picked it up from Well, agree completely with the Bible. She seems to take a Universalist approach toward the mostly Muslim patients that come to the hospital, implying that in death all will find themselves transported in love to the same loving God.

She is sharply critical of what she calls the “fundamentalist” Baptists who support and run the hospital, offended that the chaplains speak to the dying of hell and how to avoid it.

I found her explanation of the Incarnation interesting as well.

I wondered what, if anything, was the point of Jesus being physically present in our world. What was the significance of Emmanuel—of God being With Us?

If we look at everything Jesus left undone when he departed from the earth, then his presence hardly mattered at all. People were still sick, they still died, they were still oppressed, and they still suffered.

So why did it matter that Emmanuel was here?

As I thought about it, the question became its own answer. Emmanuel’s value did not lie in what he did or didn’t accomplish while he walked the earth. What mattered was that he was here. – p. 294

Maybe I missed it, but in Well I never came across the crux of the Gospel—that Jesus came to earth to show the Father’s love and be with us, yes, but to also die in our stead, to pay the death penalty our sins deserve. His atoning sacrifice is the reason we can look forward to spending eternity with Him and God the Father. Though this is a free gift, it’s a gift we receive when we, with our volition, accept it.

I have nothing but praise for Thebarge’s loving empathetic heart and tireless work. I have much to learn from her. The theological critique notwithstanding, this book is a worthwhile read because of the part of the world it shares and the way it challenges the reader to grapple with issues that Thebarge has faced and worked out in her way.

I received a copy of Well as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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It Happened in Moscow (review)

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It-Happened-in-Moscow0001It Happened in Moscow: A Memoir of Discovery by Maureen Klassen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It Happened In Moscow begins with a surprise phone call to Herb and Maureen Klassen’s Moscow apartment in 1993. That call opened a Pandora’s box of secrets.

Herb’s parents (C.F. and Mary Klassen) had immigrated from Russia to Canada in 1928 in the nick of time, just before the doors to exit Stalin’s Communist Russia slammed shut. Though Mary’s children knew that she was a divorcée at the time she married C.F., she rarely spoke of her early life and never mentioned her 10-year first marriage. Even Harold (her son by that marriage) only found out about his birth father at his 16th birthday when C.F. and Mary sat him down to reveal the truth. Both C.F. and Mary had since died, so many questions about Mary remained unanswered.

Now the female voice on the other end of that phone call claimed she was Harold’s younger sister Erika.

If this was indeed so, could Erika hold answers to the mystery of Mary’s first marriage? Did she know what had happened to Mary’s first husband (and Harold’s father)? Could she shed light on how an entire generation of Russian Mennonites had fared during that period in Russia?

It Happened in Moscow is memoir—the unfolding of a fascinating family discovery through Maureen Klassen’s eyes. In 1993 Maureen and Herb Klassen were working for Mennonite organizations in Moscow and were fluent in Russian and German. These things made them the perfect recipients for the information that Erika had gleaned in her search for family. Via Erika, the family learned the fate of Jacob (Mary’s first husband) and thousands of Mennonites who were hindered from or chose not to immigrate from Soviet Russia.

Maureen Klassen’s charitable depiction of the two main players in this tale (Mary and Erika) make this an uplifting and pleasurable story to read. Historically, the way it shines a light on years of religious repression under the Communists makes it an integral piece of the Mennonite puzzle. It is also a testimony to God’s faithfulness through generations.

If you’re interested in Mennonite history or even just enjoy a well-crafted memoir with lots of human interest delivered in cultural detail with historical accuracy, you’ll love this book.

(My sister-in-law who, with my brother, lived for a time in Mary’s “glasshouse” in Clearbrook B.C., lent me this book.)

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