Book Reviews

Chasing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger with Andrew Quicke

Book reviewed by Ken MacLaren

chasing-the-dragonWhen Jackie Pullinger entered Hong Kong’s forgotten slum, the Walled City in the late sixties, it was Triad territory. This feared territory was known for smuggling, heroin, opium, prostitution, pornography, extortion and fear.

Here is the story of a woman, and those who joined her, who put their trust in the Lord and got down to the nitty-gritty of loving people Jesus’ way – through patience, teaching, understanding and forgiving.

The results were phenomenal! The Holy Spirit began pouring out its gifts on those seeking Christ. Suddenly, opium addicts hopelessly caught up in their vice, with no hope of escape, were freed painlessly from their addictions through praying in the Spirit. These manifestations were not limited to a few either, but poured upon the many that came and heard about how the Holy Spirit could free them from the “dragon”.

Powerful manifestations of God’s presence are told in a compelling fashion. Jackie Pullinger’s story of God’s work in the now vanquished Walled City is an example of how putting the love of Christ into action brings forth the outpouring of the Spirit, and the powerful transformation that comes through the gospel message.


A Simple Path (1995) by Mother Theresa

Book reviewed by Rudy Pohl

motherTeresaSimplePathFrom the first pages until the last, I was deeply touched by this little book by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here at Ottawa Innercity Ministries, Mother Teresa holds a special place in all our hearts, not only because of her amazing work among India’s poorest of the poor, but also because of her direct influence on OIM’s Director, Susan Brandt, years ago.

In 1988, while working as a public health nurse, Susan sensed a call from God to launch an outreach ministry to the discarded souls who inhabit the streets and shelters of downtown Ottawa. She had just read Something Beautiful for God, an account of how Mother Teresa of Calcutta had founded the Missionaries of Charity and ministered to thousands sick, dying and orphaned outcasts living in one of India’s most impoverished cities.

On an impulse Susan wrote to the woman who had become a world-wide symbol of Christian charity to confide her own budding sense of mission. Susan never expected to get a reply, but six months later a letter arrived with a Calcutta postmark. The brief hand-written note said:
“Dear Susan, thank you very much for letter. Do all for Jesus, with Jesus and to Jesus. God loves you very much and will reward your generous desire of giving of yourself to His poor.”
“It was signed “M Teresa MC.”

That was all the confirmation Susan needed. By June 1988 she had secured sufficient start-up funds from a coalition of local churches to start Ottawa Innercity Ministries together with friend and co-worker Katrine Coward.

In considering what I should write in review of this book, I felt that the words found on the inside book jacket and on the rear cover presented this book far better than I ever could, and so I decided to quote directly from these.

From the inside jacket and rear cover of “Mother Teresa: A simple Path”…

Known around the globe for her indefatigable work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the dying, Mother Teresa has devoted her life to giving hope to the hopeless in more than one hundred and twenty countries. She inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world. How has one woman accomplished so much? And what are the guiding principles that have enabled this humble nun to so profoundly affect the lives of millions?

Now in her own words, Mother Teresa shares the thoughts and experiences that have led her to do her extraordinary charitable work. A candid look at her everyday life—at the very simplicity and self-sacrifice that give her the strength to move mountains—A Simple Path gives voice to the remarkable spirit who has dedicated her life to the poorest among us.

Just as important as her beliefs is how they are put into action in the world, and A Simple Path also tells the story of the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, their purpose and practice, and the results of their tireless work. Through faith, surrender, and prayer, the missionaries live to serve others; they have improved the lives of countless souls and given dignity to the dying. Their mission has also produced a ripple effect, spreading human compassion to communities where there is need.

Through these examples, as well as the uplifting words and guiding prayers of Mother Teresa and those who work with her, everyone can learn how to walk the simple path that Mother Teresa has laid out for us, to help create a truly kinder world for the future.

A Simple Path is a unique spiritual guide for Catholics and non-Catholics alike: full of wisdom and hope from the one person who has given us the greatest model of love in action in our time.

Born in 1910 in the former Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa went to Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham, Dublin, in 1928 and from there to India where she began her novitiate. She taught geography in St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta from 1929 to 1948 before becoming especially interested in the poorest of the poor. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. She has won many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and has founded hundreds of homes throughout the world.

* * * * * * *

“We have all been created for greater things—to love and to be loved. Love is love—to love a person without any conditions, without any expectations. Works of love are works of peace and purity. Works of love are always a means of becoming closer to God, so the more we help each other, the more we really love God better by loving each other. Jesus very clearly said: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Love in action is what gives us grace. We pray and, if we are able to love with a whole heart, then we will see the need. Those who are unwanted, unloved, and uncared for become just a throwaway society—that’s why we must really make everybody feel wanted.”

“There is something else to remember—that this kind of love begins at home. We cannot give to the outside what we don’t have on the inside. This very important. If I can’t see God’s love in my brother and sister then how can I see that love in somebody else? Everybody has got some good. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there.”
—Mother Teresa

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John Healy’s The Grass Arena

A book review by Jelica Zdero

The Grass Arena – first published in 1988 and later by Penguin Modern Classics in 2008 – is one of those rare books that sticks with you long after it is read. John Healy’s autobiography about his fifteen years as a homeless alcoholic in London during the sixties and seventies is so brutal, so shocking, so sad and yet so compelling that we, the readers, gradually begin to care deeply about this man’s journey towards improbable sobriety through the game of chess. Already considered a modern classic, The Grass Arena is more than a book. It is a testimony of a salvaged life.     

Born to poor Irish Catholic immigrants in London in 1943, Healy had a tumultuous childhood. When his religious father was not beating him, the schoolchildren in the playground were. Even his playmates’ parents insulted his immigrant origins. These circumstances caused him, as Healy puts it, to be “timid” to speak “in open company.” Introduced to alcohol by an older boy, Healy found it helped release the “tension.”After leaving school at the age of 14 and becoming an accomplished sparring partner at a boxing gym at 16, Healy continued to drink. He was eventually fired for being intoxicated in the ring though later he became a boxing champion in the Army.  His new life in the military was not enough to stop his drinking, though, and he was dishonourably discharged. With nowhere to go and his addiction full blown, Healy began befriending the “winos” in the parks and streets of London where, for the next fifteen years, he led a life of idleness, thieving, and panhandling all for the sake of the drink.

It was while in prison that Healy’s life took a dramatic turn. A fellow-inmate introduced him to the game of chess and Healy discovered he had a natural talent. Soon after his return to the outside world, he continued to play, even becoming a chess champion and receiving grants to play, all of which garnered him media attention. More importantly, for the first time in his adult life, Healy stopped drinking. “Yes, it happened just like that,” Healy writes, “no dribs or drabs. Chess is a jealous lover. Will tolerate no other.”  Although Healy’s sudden turnaround does not come without personal and social challenges, his victory is no less triumphant.     

The Grass Arena is an exceptionally gratifying read. Healy is a highly sympathetic ‘character’ whose story-telling, while grim and sometimes disturbing, never indulges in self-pity nor denial of his criminal past. His spare writing style leaves little room for such digressions, putting the onus on readers to make up their own minds. And, it appears, we do. Like detectives, we piece together his motivations and wonder at his choices, yet all the while sympathizing with him as only flawed individuals can do. Perhaps most revealing is Healy’s description of his gradual, almost imperceptible descent into a chronic, single-minded alcoholism that appeared so bleak, so relentless, that it seemed almost impossible to break. Healy’s unlikely redemption found in, of all things, the game of chess is thus truly remarkable.

 The Grass Arena is not a book that a reader will soon forget. In fact, Healy’s life has been the subject of numerous articles, a movie (1992), and documentaries, including “Barbaric Genius,” just released to great reviews in the UK in May (2012). Few good books survive their generation in their impact and influence in society. This is, indeed, one of those books.