Books and Book Reviews: November 2008 Archives

This is going to be a very difficult book to review. I'd rather just quote the entire thing to you--it is simply THAT good. Ostensibly a book on child-rearing, Ms. Jungreis-Wolff uses the occasion to teach all of us some solid Torah wisdom that we would be wise to incorporate into our own lives. Let's start somewhere:

from Raising a Child with Soul
Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

[Speaking to parents who are concerned about taking their daughters to the funeral of their grandfather]

"I appreciate your concerns," I told them, "but life is not Disneyland. Besides the proper honor that is required to be given to their grandfather, your girls must experience life. We cannot protect our children forever. This is a perfect time to teach your children about the body and soul. Spend time putting together a beautiful memory journal about Grandpa. Permit your daughters to observe that sometimes parents cry and experience sadness for those we love. It's okay. Reassure them that we also find comfort with time and don't cry forever. We feel happy again. Memories remain in a special place, deep within our hearts, forever."

A simple enough beginning--although this isn't anywhere near the beginning of the book, but it is followed close on by this passage:

A disciple approached his rabbi, the renowned Baal Shem Tov. "Each time I feel that I am approaching G-d, I find myself farther away than ever."

The Baal Shem Tov replied, "When a father wishes to teach his infant how to walk, he waits until his child is able to stand on two feet and then places himself nearby. He stretches out his arms within a few inches. Even though the child is afraid, his father's presence encourages his child to take a step. After the first unsteady footstep, the father retreats a bit, his arms still beckoning his child. Seeing his father still within his grasp the child moves one foot forward. With each retreat comes one more step.

"'What's happening?" the child wonders. "Every time I try to reach my father he retreats. I move closer but he is farther away.'

"Your situation is quite similar," concluded the Baal Shem Tov. "G-d wants you to travel a distance and grow as you seek Him. Learn how to search for G-d and you fill find that G-d is there, right in front of you."

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff then continues to teach us what this has to say about child rearing, but we would do well to pause and internalize this lesson for ourselves before we try to apply it to our children. And that is the small miracle of Ms. Jungreis-Wolff's book. She teaches us that we must first live what we want our children to learn, and then, learn it they will--by example rather than by words that are often contradictory.

Let me share another moment, earlier in the book:

[referring to getting calls from parents trying to help their children deal with the fallout of 9/11]

I introduced the parents to a most poignant prayer, one that is also part of the bedtime Shema. It is the prayer of the angels. We tell our children that we call upon G-d and his ministering angels to protect them during the darkness of night.

"Beshem hashem . . . . in the name of G-d, may the angel Michael be on my right, may the angel Gabriel be on my left, may the angel Uriel be before me, and may the angel Rafael be behind me and above me is the presence of G-d." These words convey to our children that the angels above along with G-d love them as much as their parents and protect them at all times. Our children never feel alone.

And what better lesson can be found to teach a child.

While Slovie Jungreis-Wolff provides us with sound advice about how to raise our children, she also feeds our souls and encourages us to become better people ourselves--in that way our children receive the maximum benefit.

The book is filled with fascinating insights into Judaism and has a tremendous amount to say to those of us who have also inherited the great traditions of the Jews. That is not to say that we are one in the same, but that we have much to learn from the wisdom and insight that great Jewish thinkers, scholars, teachers, and simple people have preserved from the treasury G-d has given them.

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff is an Orthodox Jew and as such they hold the name of Our Father and Heaven as Holy and not something to commit to a medium as transitory as paper or pixels on a screen. Because I hope that she will be encouraged to do more books like this when she sees this review, I choose within it to honor and respect her great tradition.

I can only hope that G-d continues to raise up such great, wise, gentle, and caring teachers. I can only hope that G-d cultivates the garden of our barren hearts to receive the seed of wisdom and allow it to grow. Only in this way can we preserve a good life for our children--a life that will be a joy despite the hardships and difficulties a life in which we remember always:

Honor and respect are the basic foundations of our homes. Our sages give us guidelines as to what constitutes honor and respect. As parents, we are responsible for setting certain standards of behavior in our homes. Some behaviors are acceptable, and some are never up for discussion.

In Judaism, we call this derech eretz, literally, "the way of the land." It means that there is a spiritual standard of living. It is the proper way to act in life. We establish a fundamental quality of life by which we exist. This spiritual standard of living guides us in our day-to-day relationships in life.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if more people would observe a derech eretz both within their homes and outside of them? Wouldn't we be approaching that kingdom of G-d we claim to want in the world? Wouldn't it be great if our actions in addition to our words inspired our children with love of family, love of neighbor, and love of G-d?

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff does not need me to tell her this, but you do: this book is a great mitzvah a blessing-act for everyone who encounters it. Just in reading it, our hearts are raised to love Our Father G-d. In living it, our lives are made a mitzvah for our children and for countless others we encounter every day.

You must have this book--you really must. You must read it and allow its deep and compassionate wisdom to transform your life. In living these truths, we become not only better people, but better Christians--we reconnect to the roots that give life to the whole tree. G-d grants His wisdom where He may, and we are free to receive from the many fountains He raises. Do not pass this one by--it is too wonderful for a review to make clear. It has the power and potential of a great devotional--a wellspring of love for G-d shared with the whole world, starting with our own families.

Ms. Jungreis-Wolff, if you should happen to read this, thank you, thank you, thank you. What a blessing this book is to all of us. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your compassionate heart with all of us.

This book is due out 6 January 2009, ordering information follows:

ISBN: 0-312-54196-1
St. Martin's Press
Trade Paper $14.95
Slovie Jungreis-Wolff
Raising a Child with Soul

If you are raising children yourself, know someone who is raising children, or need to raise your own spiritual child, you cannot afford to be without this book.

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The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved


This book by Gary Jansen is yet another discussion of the Rosary. But this one has a number of differences that makes it stand out from the rest. While Mr. Jansen gives a brief overview of the history and meaning of the prayer, he also opens it up to our protestant brethren, suggesting variations that encourage the same mediation on the mysteries, the same rounds of prayer, but deemphasizing the Marian elements that might be off-putting. He even adds suggestions for mysteries that might be good to reflect upon for those who have no problems with the Marian aspects--The Second Coming and The Kingdom of God. Those of us used to the pattern of prayer might ignore these, but I think they would appeal to a great many people--myself included.

Also, in the section that covers each mystery, beads are shown on the page and and can be used to say the prayers. The art for each mystery varies, from some classic and beautiful images to some more modern and haunting images (for example, the picture shown for the resurrection.)

Finally, Mr. Jansen incorporates the Luminous mysteries into the bok between the joyful and sorrowful, giving the fullness of the Rosary--a reflection on the complete Life of Jesus Christ including the ministerial years.

In addition to being short and encouraging, the price is right as a gift for a friend who may be unfamiliar with the Rosary, or, for one like me, who finds a deep challenge in the prayer. This book was a positive encouragement to pray this powerful and beautiful (if difficult) prayer. I've said it somewhat easier in the past few days with the help of the meditations, pictures, and quiet advice of Mr. Jansen.

Highly recommended for everyone.

On a personal note: This book arrived completely out of the blue and given the struggle I've had in recent days, it was a gift from Heaven. I have been able to pray the Rosary more easily (though still not easily) and I am encouraged as I dip into the pages of the book from time to time. I am reminded that in the Rosary, I am praying with a dear friend who cares for me deeply and personally--she who has been given the privilege to be Mother of Our Savior and Mother to the World. I can't thank God enough for the blessings of this book and its timing.

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A Profound Opinion Re: Globalization


from Love Over Scotland
Alexander McCall Smith

The Morning After Coffee Bar was different from the mass-produced coffee bars that had mushroomed on every street almost everywhere, a development which presaged the flattening effects of globalisation; the spreading, under a cheerful banner, of a sameness that threatened to weaken and destroy all sense of place.

This is from the third novel in the Scotland Street series and it, perhaps, presents a good example of the critique I cited in the review of those books. However, I also think it is an observation that many of us have already internalized. I know that there is a certain comfort to the familiar, but a spreading and corrosive tedium also. There soon will be no more "exotic" you'll go to Kingali, Kikwit, or Hachinohe and see only Starbucks and MacDonalds out to the farthest horizon. Its a bit sad.

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The two books in the title are by Alexander McCall Smith and represent the first two volumes of a serial novel published first within the pages of a daily newspaper in Scotland. As such the chapters are short, there is a propensity for minor "cliff-hangers" at the ends of chapters and there is a general scattteredness to the motion of the novel that comes from a "slice-of-life" approach to a number of characters.

Some of the reviews I have read of the novel on Amazon and other places have critiqued them for being too didactic and preachy. And I suppose some of that comes through. But it comes through naturally as an expression of the concerns and ideas of a teacher. Mr. McCall Smith is a professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh university and is deeply concerned with bioethics and other philosophical matters. While the bioethics does not come through all that prominently, there are any number of chatty chapters about difficult philosophical issues and I suppose that gives some weight to the critique. However, they are short, light, and swiftly done away with in the running tide of the story. I found them admirable in that the novelist is attempting to cultivate a thinking readership in the course of a daily chat about some people he knows in and around Scotland Street.

One of the characteristics of every McCall Smith book I've read is their gentleness and kindness. Bad things do happen in some of the books (although in these, not so many and not so bad). Good people do bad things for reasons they think good. Bertie's mother, attempting to raise an "ungendered" son paints his room pink and has him wear "crushed strawberry" (pink) dungarees to his school She forces him to go to saxophone and Italian lessons and takes him to double yoga classes on Saturday. Bruce can't pass by a mirror without taking a long, loving, glance and admiring deeply what he sees. Matthew has problems keeping his businesses running and is frequently bailed out by Dad who, it seems, has taken a fancy to a woman who may be a golddigger. Domenica, is the resident sage of Scotland Street, commenting on all the events of the day and sharing her insights with what one could consider the central figure of the books--the Character who brings them all together and binds them into a story--Pat. One particularly revealing episode in the second book has Pat attending a Nudist Picnic in late summer/early Fall Scotland.

McCall Smith writes well. There is a suppleness and almost a poetry in his simple, direct, clear writing. There is an obvious affection for even the most odious of characters and he can't seem to quite give them their comeuppance. And in the course of the books, that turns out to be quite all right.

If you need something to take your mind off of present difficulties, or if you're looking for something to fill in the gaps left between the novels of Jan Karon, you may enjoy the works of McCall Smith, and most particularly these two books about the residents of Scotland Street.

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With the gift-giving season approaching, this handsome small book is a perfect, thoughtful present for anyone who wishes to pray more earnestly and to understand the spirituality of Mother Teresa better.

After a short introduction and some general instructions in prayer there follows the text of a novena illustrated with photographs of the great lady hereself. The texts for each day's novena prayer are drawn from the writings and sayings of Mother Teresa and each day focuses on a different aspect of learning to love God better.

I am not a great devotee of novenas; however, I found the texts within the novena prayers to be fruitful for thought, meditation, and spurs to contemplative prayer.

A beautifully bound book, relatively inexpensive and well-worth the money as a gift for a catechumen, a candidate for confirmation, or any person who you know needs a boost and a reminder of the Hope that we all have and hold.

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Michael Crichton (may he rest in peace) died today. The bestseller industry is on the verge of disintegrating. May God preserve Stephen King a bit longer. The book industry is quivering.

Seriously, it is a great loss to those who enjoy popular literature and, of course, to his family. May God grant him rest and peace.

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In this insightful follow-up to the magisterial The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan offers us a manifesto in seven words:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.

The remainder of the book is a fantasia on this theme, exploring each of the phrases and its ultimate meaning.

As a scientist, and one who has watched the nutritionist arguments back and forth for years, and even one who has taken some delight in the egregiously wrong recommendations that have issued forth from nutritionists and health advisors, I delighted in the junk science exposed in this book. I delighted in the parsing and picking apart of well-known "facts" about nutrition--for example the relationship between blood cholesterol levels and heart disease--for which there has never been an adequate medical demonstration.

Pollan makes a great deal of what I refer to as the great margarine debacle in which the food science industry and manufacturers called upon us to abandon the neutral to good fat in butter to accept what has been shown to be perhaps the only "toxic" fat precursor in the catalog--trans-fats.

For Pollan, food, real food, is a gestalt; that is, it cannot be understood, nor can its health effects be evaluated by evaluating the different constituents of it. We have been so indoctrinated in the fat, protein, cholesterol, minerals, and vitamins school of looking at food, that we have come to accept the food substitutes dished up by the food science industry as normative eating. Pollan demonstrates time and again how this kind of diet contributes to what is variously called "Syndrome X" or the "Western Diet Syndrome." In one spectacular case, he describes research conducted amongst a group of aboriginal people from Australia who moved into urban centers and adopted the western diet there prevalent. These people eventually developed high blood pressure, borderline type II diabetes, etc. When a volunteer group was returned to the outback to resume a traditional diet of real (if somewhat distasteful, from a Western point of view) foods, many of the observed health deficiencies were resolved or greatly ameliorated within seven weeks.

Pollan's point is not to denigrate those who have tried to understand how food affects health, but to point out that it is a complex study that may need something other than atomization to begin making real progress toward understanding the interrelationships. Moreover, his point is to get us to begin to consider our own diets and how many of the things we eat are not so much food as comestibles designed to resemble food. One of his rules in the book for identifying true food is to never eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

As with much of the food world these days, Pollan encourages us to eat with the season. To eat real food--mostly plant matter and most leaves and stems, not so much grains and hard-shelled fruits (nuts). But he points out along the way that nearly every native diet consisting of real food substances from the Kikuyu mix of cow's milk and blood, to the relatively high-fat diet of the French, tends to a healthy balance of the things we need to consume.

The book is a delight from beginning to end--not so much pushing an agenda as revealing where the, perhaps unconscious, agenda of nutritionism has put as as a society today.

Highly recommended.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from November 2008.

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