Book Review: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page

Author: Stuart McLean

Publisher: Viking & Penguin Canada Books Inc.

Hardcover, 294 pages

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

Stuart McLean was a best selling author, award-winning journalist and humorist, and host of CBC Radio program, The Vinyl Cafe. Stuart began his broadcasting career making radio documentaries for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning. In 1979 he won an ACTRA award for Best Radio Documentary for his contribution to the program’s coverage of the Jonestown massacre.

Following Sunday Morning, Stuart spent seven years as a regular columnist and guest host on CBC’s Morningside.

Stuart’s ten Vinyl Cafe books have all been Canadian bestsellers. He was a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. Vinyl Cafe books have also been published in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

In December 2011 Stuart McLean was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was a professor emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto and former director of the broadcast division of the School of Journalism. In 1993 Trent University named him the first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research. He was also honoured by Nipissing University (H. Ed.D.), University of Windsor (LL.D.), Trent University (D.Litt.), Saint Mary’s University (D.C.L.), University of Calgary (LL.D.), Concordia University (LL.D.), and McMaster University (LL.D.). Stuart served as Honorary Colonel of the 8th Air Maintenance Squadron at 8 Wing, Trenton from 2005 to 2008.

Since 1998 Stuart toured with The Vinyl Cafe to theatres across Canada and the United States, playing towns from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Whitehorse in the Yukon; from Bangor, Maine to Seattle, Washington.

Stuart McLean passed away February 15th, 2017, at age 68. McMaster University is the home of Stuart McLean’s extensive personal and literary archive.

The Genre

This volume consists of 19 fictitious short stories. The main characters, as in otherVinyl Cafe volumes are a family of four: Dave and Morley, and their two children Stephanie and Sam. The stories focus on, among other subjects: husband-wife and sibling relationships, growing up, aging, death, grief, change, historical tidbits.

McLean had the incredible gift of describing the beauty, the preciousness, the holiness of life in what others would regard as boring, mundane and far too ordinary.

Insightful Examples

Motherhood, she (Morley) thought, as she stood there between the display racks of men’s underwear, was a poorly planned journey. It wasn’t a sailing trip. It was more like a race (p. 4).” Morley’s thought while buying underwear for her growing son, Sam.

There are moments in every life when things change…forever (p. 59).” An observation in the context of an aging shopkeeper and Sam growing up and taking on more responsibility.

Jimmy Walker, from Newfoundland, loved to share tidbits of history that were forgotten by most people. “Well, the thing is that margarine was outlawed across the Dominion of Canada soon after Confederation (p.115).” Jimmy then told folks how Newfoundlanders would smuggle it into Halifax.

Commenting on the reality of children becoming more independent and parents needing to accept this reality, McLean shares the following insight in the story “Home Alone.” “It’s a tricky thing to negotiate, the war of independence. Both side approach the battlefield full of righteous conviction—but righteousness always conceals uncertainty, and conviction is never far from doubt. (p. 172).”

In the short story “Crushed,” photographer Tommy (Stephanie’s boyfriend), took pictures of crushed wildlife run over by vehicles. People thought they were artistic and poetic. However, Tommy and Dave said they made them feel sad. They didn’t regard them as beautiful as some did.

Then McLean observes: “Like poetry, you can find beauty in the most unexpected places: in a snowy wood and on the wings of butterfly, yes, of course. But in sorrow as well as in happiness. In death as well as in life (p. 259).”

I’ll tell you what I think,” said Tommy. “I think it means that beauty trumps morality. I don’t think it should be like that. That’s the way of the world (p. 260).”

Humour

McLean includes some humorous stories in this volume. My favourite one is “Yoga.” It is absolutely hilarious. Daughter Stephanie had planned on a yoga retreat with her friend Becky. However, Becky cancelled out. Stephanie then asked if her mother Morley would go with her, she had a previous commitment. So, by default, her dad, Dave went with her. The retreat had three categories: gentle, intermediate, and vigorous. Stephanie chose intermediate, and Dave chose vigorous. The attendees were given three treatments to choose from as part of the retreat. Dave chose Happy Hour, three honey-mint-refresh-colonic cocktails.

For this reviewer, “Yoga” was almost worth the price of the book!

Book Review: When The English Fall

When The English Fall

Author: David Williams

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

257 pages, including Acknowledgments, An essay-The Root Of Apocalypse, and Questions For Discussion, paperback

David Williams is an American Presbyterian pastor, and this is his debut novel. As a first novel, it has gained considerable acclaim by various reviewers, and rightly so. Williams writes in a brilliant way, simple yet profound.

He describes this work as “Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” (p. 247), and “an epistolary novel,” (p. 255). It is written as a journal by an Amish farmer, husband and father of two children. The daughter is afflicted with seizures, yet is given what some believe to be divine visions or insights.

Williams tells readers that the novel was inspired by at least three things: i) his study and curiosity of the Amish as a university student; ii) reading about the solar storm called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859; iii) and his personal daydreams and creative imagination about the Amish.

The novel is set in rural Pennsylvania, in an Amish community. All is going reasonably well among the Amish, until an apocalyptic-like event occurs, which knocks out almost all of modern technology—everything from household appliances, to vehicles, machinery, etc. Banks are impractical since all the financial records were kept on computers. Martial law is imposed, travel is limited, the military does its best to keep law and order and oversee the distribution of goods and services. The weather wreaks havoc with high winds and heavy rains and flooding—damaging and destroying property.

More and more people are carrying guns and turning to violence. In one scene, Jacob the writer of the journal, thinks about his gun, which he uses only for slaughtering animals on the farm. These thoughts lead him to others concerning “the English,” a term the Amish use to describe all non-Amish people. He thinks the English keep many guns for very different reasons than the Amish. “It seems to me that it is all based on a feeling of fear. To keep a gun because you are afraid of dying, and because you want to be ready to kill another human being, it just feels like such a strange thing. So filled with pride, and so dead to God. I do not understand it. Why would I fear dying, when we all die?” (pp. 136-137)

As the violence of the many English moving into the Amish community becomes more threatening; Jacob agonizes over whether he and his family should continue to stay in the community or leave for what some Amish hoped would be a safer place to live in Ohio. Jacob consults with his daughter Sadie about it. “Which is God’s will? Both. Neither. And the many ways between. There are so many ways in between.” (p. 232)

I hope this spiritual-ethical dilemma serves to spark enough interest in those reading this review to find out for themselves what happens in the end.

I was impressed with the thoughtful way in which Williams emphasised the complex relationship between the Amish and the English. It was not a black and white one for certain—both were influenced for ill and for good by one another. One lesson to be learned from this novel is that we are our neighbour’s keeper, whether we are Amish or English. We all need one another as members of the human race, and we all have things to learn from one another.

Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Brief Book Review

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok

This summer I had the opportunity to read one of my favourite novelists, Chaim Potok. I read, by now an old novel, The Book of Lights, which like his other novels is autobiographical—Dr. Potok was, in addition to being a novelist, a rabbi and professor and U.S. army chaplain in Korea. As with his other novels, Potok touches on similar motifs: Biblical, theological and philosophical scholarship, the tension between Western secularism and traditional Judaism, the quest for communion with God, survivor guilt, suffering and grief, darkness and light, good and evil, prayer and mysticism to list a few.

In The Book of Lights, protagonist Gershon Loran, a seminarian, is a budding Kabbalist scholar inspired by his Kabbalah teacher Jakob Keter. Another seminary professor, Nathan Malkuson, scorns Gershon’s interest in Kabbalah, and tries to persuade him to pursue Talmudic studies. Gershon gets lost in the ancient and medieval Kabbalist texts, dreams dreams and sees visions. Yet, as gifted a young scholar he is, his life is full of uncertainty and doubts. His parents, on a trip to purchase real estate in Israel, were killed in the crossfire between Arabs and Jews while sitting in a café, leaving Gershon with his poverty-stricken uncle and aunt. His seminary roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur is not a very ambitious seminarian, and does minimal work in his courses. However, again there is irony here, since he comes from a distinguished Boston secular Jewish family. His father is the famous or infamous—depending on your worldview—theoretical physicist, Charles Leiden, who worked with scientists like Einstein to invent the atomic bomb. His mother, Elizabeth Leiden, is a distinguished professor of art history. Arthur did his undergraduate work in physics at Harvard. However, he finds darkness rather than light in physics. The legacy of his father creates much survivor’s guilt within Arthur as a consequence of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. So in a quest toward the light, Arthur agrees to attend seminary.

At the end of their seminary studies, both Gershon and Arthur serve as U.S. army chaplains overseas in Korea. Gershon seems to find his way quite well within the military milieu, gaining the trust and respect of his C.O. and the rank-and-file troops, while Arthur complains about the frugal conditions and continues to seek ways to atone for his father’s sin. I won’t indulge you in further details of the novel, except to say that there are a couple of surprising turns at the outcome—which inspire readers to reflect on the destiny of the characters as well as their own. For anyone interested in Chaim Potok and Judaism’s encounter with the contemporary world, The Book of Lights is a worthwhile read.