Monthly Archives: October 2013

‘Blood Brothers’ by Elias Chacour

Blood BrothersstarstarstarI read this book in preparation for an upcoming trip to Jerusalem. It is a highly readable and recommended overview of the issues in the Middle East.  Chacour tells his own personal story of his efforts to promote reconciliation but also offers a historical overview of main events that contributed to the present situation. He also offers reflections all along on his life’s journey. Can bitter enemies ever experience reconciliation? Can misunderstandings ever be resolved? Is there reason for hope of any kind?

Elias Chacour lived in a small Palestinian village in Galilee. Once his townspeople lived at peace with their Jewish neighbours. But in 1948 and ’49 all that was swept away as tens of thousands of Palestinians were killed and nearly one million were forced into refugee camps. With this new reality, he had to struggle with his love for the Jewish people and the world’s misunderstanding of the Palestinians. How can you deliver a message of heavenly peace in a place where there is daily war? Devoting his life to the cause he has found an answer in the haunting words of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemaker.” Something his father said, stayed with him, the only way is by “softening one heart at a time.”

A moving account of  peace and reconciliation in the midst of hatred, destruction and death. It offers a human perspective in the midst of political upheaval.

‘The Importance of Being Seven’ and ‘Bertie Plays the Blues’ by Alexander McCall Smith

The Importance of Being Seven

starstarstarIs this what is meant by compulsive reading? It’s like eating chips, or enjoying cookies straight out of the oven, it’s impossible to stop at one! As a break before the next ‘heavier’ book I need to read, I thought I would squeeze in another of the 44 Scotland Street series, and yes, it became two! I had to spend just a bit more time with these characters and discover if there would be any break for Bertie from his overbearing mother, any happiness on the horizon for Matthew, and perhaps news on who the father of Ulysses really is. Would Cyril bite anymore ankles and would Stuart ever be able to remember where he parked his car?

Daunt BooksAlexander McCall Smith fans will be envious to hear that I had an opportunity to hear him speak at a marvellous old bookstore in London called Daunt Books. The store is an original Edwardian with oak balconies, skylights and a fantastic window. Books seem even more magical on Daunt shelves, and I always buy a book in independent bookstores like this to make sure they can survive. This little gem is a must-see right alongside Big Ben & Buckingham if you ever come to London!

Bertie Plays the BluesstarstarstarThe author was in fine form that evening. What an engaging speaker, and I realized that the reason for his animation is that he truly loves the characters in his books (and that’s why we do too–it’s contagious!). He launched into his talk speaking about Bertie and Isobel and Mma Ramotswe as if they were old friends, his own chuckles bubbling up as he discussed their recent misfortunes or speculated on future foibles. And surely they are ‘old friends’ to all of us, if we know the series well. Palpable in the room of fans was this odd feeling that somehow, though all strangers to each other, we were linked by a group of fictional people!

Here’s a clip from a talk in Toronto where he reads from this instalment–it gives a flavour of what he’s like in person – a delight to listen to.

‘The Dove in Bathurst Station’ by Patricia Westerhof

The Dove in Bathurst Stationstarstarstar


“Toronto is a city at once obsessed and oblivious to the water that lies all around and beneath it.”

Michael Cook (http://www.vanishingpoint.ca/sewers)

Following her collection of short stories Catch Me When I Fall comes Patricia Westerhof’s  first novel, set in the city of Toronto. The Dove in Bathurst Station is an exploration of the soul and how roots can give strength but can also entangle. Everyone is the product of upbringing and life circumstance. Just as the characters in her story explore Toronto’s underworld of sewers and drains, so Westerhof explores what lies beneath the surface of our spirituality and emotional health.

Much of Christian fiction genre tends to tie everything up with the requisite conversion experience leaving the writing quite one dimensional and unhelpful in a complex world. Westerhof has crafted a fine example of what good Christian fiction should be, a much more real and redemptive multilayered literary experience. She has the courage to leave some questions unanswered.

Marta Elzinga, a high school guidance counsellor, struggles with work, marriage and family. She is dedicated to her job and relationships but often feels inadequate and not up to the task. Seeking adventure and meaning in her life, she embarks on a new interest that just may get her landed in jail!

Westerhof sets her characters in the Dutch sub-culture in Canada. Having grown up myself in this community, there were many familiar points of connection for me: my Dad a CRC pastor with similar outlook, being uprooted as a preacher’s kid,  spending my teens in southern Alberta. However, the most important point of connection I felt was much more powerful than that. A typical and familiar aspect of the Dutch reformed faith is that striving to experience the love and forgiveness of God in the midst of our broken world. God’s kingdom has come already, but not yet in its fulness. This “already but not yet” creates a constant tension which Westerhof addresses in the novel.

We all suffer from the pain that is caused by loss, shame, guilt and regret. The very things which we would love to just be able to erase from our past, are the very things that have shaped us and have contributed to the people that we are. Just as the city of Toronto has evolved and developed – not always through careful controlled planning – but often haphazardly in reaction to historical developments, so unique character is built. And yet God loves us each unconditionally with all of our quirks.

Forgiveness, grace and healing are at the heart of this story and I commend the author for keeping the novel fresh. Other less skillful authors may have been tempted to descend into “light at the end of the tunnel” type moralistic cliché.  And even though the novel ends on a hopeful note, it is not necesarily happily ever after – life is like that.

‘Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s’ by Jennifer Worth

Call the MidwifestarstarstarstarWhat a wonderful read, in so many ways. Finding a true story that is truly a page turner is amazing. I learned so much  about the London East End and public health in the 1950s. The poverty and struggle are quite graphically portrayed but it is the beauty and the courage of  the women that shines through. At a time when much of London had disgustedly turned a blind eye to this region of slums and dockyard tenements, it was the trained midwives of a local convent that bravely laboured to work amongst the poorest of the poor. Visiting homes at all hours of the day and night, often on a bicycle, they offered safety and support to those women who could not afford doctor assisted deliveries. But this book is about so much more than childbirth.

Jennifer Worth was a midwife and she tells her own engaging story. But she doesn’t portray herself as a heroine. Jennifer considered the women she served and delivered to be the true heroines for managing to keep families happily together in unbelievably squalid, cramped, and inadequate conditions. Worth guards against judgment and instead seeks to look deep within and find the good in everyone. She achieves this with a lighthearted style that  includes a great deal of good humour, frivolity, and irreverence…even in a convent!

Call the Midwife is the first in the trilogy, followed by Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. I chose to read the Illustrated Edition, full of original photos and historic posters, which greatly enhanced the reading.

There is also a popular BBC period drama series in two seasons based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, entitled Call the Midwife. The series has been praised for its sharp blend of period charm and hard-hitting social commentary, also evident in the books.

BBC News clip – Family pride of woman who inspired Call the Midwife