Category Archives: Book Club

What I have tried to read and how cricket won me over

Half way through the year seems like a good moment to stop and update you on my ambitious reading goals for 2016. It actually just happens to be the first time in about a month when I’ve had more than a nanosecond and two spare brain cells in order to sit down and write.

If you were reading the blog in January then you’ll remember I committed to Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge, and simultaneously joined a new local book group, meaning I had to read at least two specific books a month whilst keeping a brand new baby and an adventure-loving toddler alive, fed and entertained. I am nothing if not optimistic.

So it’s time for an honest update. What has been brilliant about both the book challenge and the book group is being introduced to all kinds of new authors and books I hadn’t heard of or tried before. Almost all the books I’ve read have been novels, because I just enjoy them so much and so reading novels feels more like leisure than self-improvement. Plus, entering into entirely different worlds has been a welcome distraction from the trenches of parenting.

Here is what I managed, and what I thought about them (spoiler: I got hooked on a book Andy chose about CRICKET of all things).

January I dealt with in that first blog, but February I committed to read In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie for the book challenge (‘a book published this year’), and May We be Forgiven by A M Homes for book group. I was quite excited about the first one but just really struggled to love it enough. You know when you don’t love a book enough to actually make the time to read it (unlike the books I really love which I balance precariously in one hand and read whilst feeding the baby)? Well, that was it. The second book, however, was an unexpected joy. It was really nuts, and kept shooting off in the strangest direction. It was at turns hilarious, bewildering, terrifying and just plain odd. But always imaginative. I kept expecting everything to fall apart, but it never did, and I actually relished its perverse optimism.

In March I was allowed to pick our book group’s selection so I cheated and nominated the book I was already reading for the book challenge – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I loved it and devoured it in less than a week because it was just so darn good. The two main characters are utterly compelling. This book seems to be almost universally loved – it is beautiful, thoughtful, moving, surprising and gripping, so if you haven’t read it yet, go find it in your local library. (I now want to read Four Seasons in Rome by the same author which describes the year he moved to Rome with his wife and twin babies, during which he wrote much of All the Light We Cannot See).

In April I was supposed to read a book chosen by my local librarian and she gave me a book written by someone I knew at university, coincidentally – Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. I really enjoyed its quirkiness and readability – I also like it when I can’t figure out where a book is going – but I didn’t quite finish it within the month. And book group were reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman…which I didn’t even try to read because I wasn’t organised enough and then realised I couldn’t make the meeting anyway. (Shame).

In May we read A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler for book group which I enjoyed. Like the title suggests the story kind of keeps unwinding like a spool of thread, with no great climaxes or reveals, I guess more like real life just keeps going. It’s thoughtful and warm-hearted as it winds between generations. It starts with a kind of dramatic family crisis which turns out not to be so important in the end, but the characters are interesting enough to keep you following along (for me, anyway). Not one for people who like all their mysteries to be unravelled. For the reading challenge I was supposed to read a book I should have read in school. I actually forgot which one I had decided on (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and so started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins by accident. I’m only half way (it’s pretty darn long), still, but I am enjoying it.

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And now in June I am ahead of the game. Andy chose a book for my reading challenge. He kept threatening me with a history of American football but in the end went for a book written recently by a friend of ours: Following On: a memoir of teenage obsession and terrible cricket by Emma John. This book was a complete joy and I was totally hooked. A large part of that is due to the fact that the author charts not just her cricket obsession but her teenage years more broadly, and frankly I identified very strongly with her nerdy, hard-working, naive persona. I think we’re about the same age, and our families and backgrounds are similar. Plus, we both wanted to study English at Cambridge and become the next Emma Thompson (amazingly, neither of us managed it). Her writing is funny, self-deprecating and clever and she somehow got me completely enthralled by the story of the English cricket team. Their names were familiar to me because my dad’s family has a passing interest in the sport, so it wasn’t all new to me, but I loved the journey of discovery from Emma’s memories of the matches she followed to her modern day interviews with the key players from that era. I mean, I was just desperate to get to the Michael Atherton interview (which is right at the end), which is something you might find hard to believe. What’s more, Andy has been completely delighted by my new knowledge of cricket trivia. I have defended the legacy of Alec Stewart and discussed the relative strengths of England’s 90s bowlers. It’s not that I want to watch cricket matches any more than before, but I loved being taken into the world and given an appreciation of its beauty and drama. So thank you Emma John. (I finished it inside a week).

I am also a few days away from our book group meet-up and getting close to finishing Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all by Jonas Jonasson. It’s comical and fast-paced and, I am realising, not my kind of book at all, but I reckon I’ll make it through. The problem is that I want to care deeply about characters in books but this book just doesn’t let you. If I tried I would just be paralysed by sorrow at all of their pain and disfunction which is not really the point.

In July I shall be reading some L M Montgomery for the book challenge, and engaging in some literary matchmaking with my book group!

If you’d like to continue following my reading adventures or find out what else is on my nightstand, I have recently joined GoodReads so head over and find me there!

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Embracing small life and big books

Despite the rational voices in my head telling me to suspend all expectations for the year and just focus on keeping two small people alive while remaining sane, I haven’t quite been able to help myself. This unexpected ability to make non-baby related plans, even if a little nuts, hopefully tells you that we’re in a happier psychological state than I would have predicted!

At the end of 2015 I spotted (blogger) Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge and I got excited. I love to read but it tends to happen in fits and starts. So what better than a big year-long reading list in manageable monthly instalments to guide me through?! Here it is:

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Yes it’s true that this might be wildly over ambitious, but here I am at the start line anyway. And I’ll be kind to myself and probably make a few concessions along the way. In fact I already made one. Knowing that I would be having a baby in January I decided to swap the first two categories so that I began with a book I can read in a day; then I gave myself another break and decreed that as long as I could have read it in a day were I not having a baby and looking after a toddler, it was fine that I took a bit longer over it in January 2016. Ha! (And I made it).

So here is as much as I have planned out, and then I’ll tell you about my January read…

JANUARY: a book you can read in a day: Simply Tuesday by Emily P Freeman

FEBRUARY: a book published this year: In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

MARCH: a book you’ve been meaning to read: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (borrowing this one back from my brother who I bought it for last year).

APRIL: a book recommended by your local librarian (I’m off to join our local library TODAY!)

MAY: a book you should have read in school: (this is tough as I basically read the things we were meant to, geek that I am, but then I remembered one I never read in its entirety): The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

JUNE: a book chosen for you by your spouse (still waiting for Andy to decided, and feeling a little nervous as he is unlikely to pick a novel…)

JULY: a book published before you were born: Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery (yay for fun summer reading!) – currently 49p in the kindle store…

AUGUST: a book that was banned at some point: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (always meant to read some Hemingway…)

SEPTEMBER: a book you previously abandoned: (still thinking…)

OCTOBER: a book you own but have never read: (so many options…!)

NOVEMBER: a book that intimidates you (Help! there are TOO MANY to choose from! Moby Dick? Anything by James Joyce? Cloud Atlas? Catch 22? Brave New World?)

DECEMBER:  a book you have already read at least once: and here I shall reward myself with something by Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen.

Just to throw in another complication, I have tentatively joined a local book club. And their book for February is May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes. Which is not a small or light tome. So yes, I am attempting to read two substantial novels in February whilst working out how to look after two small children without my husband around every day (farewell paternity leave, you were a delight). Perhaps I will have developed a more realistic plan by the end of the month. Or maybe I will be feeling victorious and well-read.

Finally, I wanted to share some thoughts about my first read of the year, Simply Tuesday by Emily Freeman. Its subtitle is ‘Small moment living in a fast-moving world’ which sounded like just the thing to embrace at the start of this year. And I really enjoyed it.

If I’m honest, I really related to Emily’s struggles with feeling like she needed to achieve something big and significant with her life, and how this often robbed her of being able to embrace and enjoy smallness. I don’t especially like this about myself (and heaven only knows what big significant thing I’m ever going to accomplish); I couldn’t tell you exactly where it comes from, but I feel kind of haunted by this sense that I have to do something big and impressive with my life. Which hovers unhelpfully over days spent changing nappies and playing trains and burping babies. Emily’s writing definitely moved me further towards being at peace with things that look and feel small.

The book also reminded me how Jesus taught his disciples to pray each day for their ‘daily bread’, echoing the experience of the Israelites during the Exodus when God provided manna each and every day, but forbade them from gathering more than they needed for that one day. I realised in the last week how I have plunged once more into a season of taking each day at a time. The luxury of making long-range plans has gone – all I can hold in my head is the next feed, the next meal, the next nap. And actually, each day is great right now. But there is a fear and anxiety in me that wants assurance that I will be able to cope not just with today but with next week, or next month, that I’ll be able to handle this whole year despite all its challenges. And there is no assurance of that. All I have is each day, and amazingly there is enough grace and help and joy (so far anyway) that I know today will be fine. But I know no more than that. And to be ok with that takes faith and trust.

Near the end of the book Emily suggests an exercise of reflecting on each season of life and creating a list.  “These are the days of…” it begins. I love this as a way of rooting me in today and embracing its colours and flavours, knowing they won’t last forever. I remember when Jesse was tiny and I was trying to savour each day rather than counting them down, I would walk in the park and repeat to myself ‘Today is Tuesday 2nd February 2016 (or whatever the date was), and it’s a good day’. It was a way of trying to tie myself down into the here and now, and opening my eyes to what was wonderful about it. So in the spirit of Simply Tuesday…

These are the days of…

  • tiny people needing a lot of me
  • night feeds and broken sleep
  • long snoozy baby cuddles
  • endless toy chaos strewn across the house
  • embracing the amazing flood of practical help from local friends
  • evenings in
  • living life in a small geographical radius

What are these the days of for you?

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I’m a Jesus Feminist because…

To tie in with the launch of her first book, Jesus Feminist, the Canadian author and blogger Sarah Bessey has invited anyone who identifies with the label themselves to blog about why.  So even though the book doesn’t get released over here until the end of the month (actually this timing is better for me given I will have a newborn babe by then); and despite the fact that we don’t get the cool yellow cover, I’m joining in from afar because I’m too excited not to. (If you haven’t read Sarah’s blog, go now, seriously, don’t feel bad about leaving mine, she’s a beautiful writer…)

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I’m a Jesus feminist because of God and my mother and my education; because of a crazy American lady-pastor, because of Elaine Storkey, because of Walter Brueggemann and because of Germaine Greer.  They’d probably all be horrified to know how their influences have intertwined.

First there was God, because it really all started there, however fractured and tiny my perception of him was and is.  It was so early that he loved me and made me believe my life had a purpose and a value; and convinced me that he had sown stuff in me that others couldn’t see; and that he had some ideas for how we could walk it out together.  That was really all that mattered then, and probably still the only thing that does.

But then there was also my mother whose indomitable spirit and fiery independence I’ve written about before.  I could never have grown up timid in her orbit.  She made me a fighter.  She would not let me shy away from the world, or become less than what she saw me to be.  Sometimes it was exhausting.

And then when you’re in single sex education for 13 years, you get taught a lot about women’s potential and why it matters that you contribute (‘There aren’t enough women engineers!’).  I got so angry in university classes as the men waded in constantly with their opinions and the women sat quietly listening, waiting until they had something brilliant before they’d share it.  How I fumed in silent frustration, wishing I had something amazing to say.  You hear a lot, in a girls’ college, about how you have something to give to the world and that it matters that you give it.  I was convinced by the theory; just sometimes too cowardly to speak out.

I heard some different messages as the years went by, but really I was indoctrinated.  At church a man and wife pastored together.  Nothing was off-limits for me because of my gender.  There was little chance I could have grown up believing I should be less than a whole person with as much to offer as any man.  I had a voice and wanted to use it.

I could go on through the books I read, the arguments I had, the mentors who inspired me, the people who opened doors for me and invited me to speak and lead.  I grew in the doing.

But some days I was overly zealous and aggressive.  I had a couple of comical dates that ended with men running in the opposite direction, or expressing innocent surprise at the number of strong opinions I held.  There have been uglier moments when I have rebelled unnecessarily, refusing to help with Sunday School (‘you’re only asking because I’m a woman!’), feeling demeaned when I became a PA (‘a secretary?!’), shutting down debates without listening (‘I will never take a man’s surname!’).  I too easily make feminism into a platform for independence, when what I actually desire is partnership.  Inter-dependence.  Working together to our different strengths.  All of us choosing to serve and champion others.

But maybe that’s why Jesus Feminist feels like a better label than Feminist for me.  I don’t shy away from the latter, although I know how complicated, compromised and divisive it has become as a label.

I’m a Jesus Feminist because it starts for me with Jesus and how he loves me.  How he created me and invites me to express that in the world.  How he dignified and loved women when he walked the earth.  How he calls us together as a body rather than as lone rangers.

And because God is constantly teaching and inspiring and leading the world through women and he doesn’t even ask permission.  Ha! the very thought! He just goes ahead and does it.

 

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My week with Walter

It’s book group time again!  I am part of a virtual book group called Transit Lounge hosted by my friend Kelley at www.kelleynikondeha.com. Each month we read a book, in our different corners of the world, tweet our thoughts and reflections, and blog at the end of the month.  This month, in honour of the extraordinary Walter Bruggemann who wrote April’s chosen book, The Prophetic Imagination, Kelley has hosted a week of reflections over at her blog. And here is my guest post.

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“What a commission it is to express a future that none think imaginable!”

Walter Brueggemann frightens me.

I had never read a Walter Brueggemann book all the way through until this month; I had never dared. Finally Comes the Poet made its way into my sticky but innocent grasp some years ago and I was transfixed, exposed, entranced by its invitation.  And utterly terrified.  My hands shaking, I put it down again, two chapters in.

[“We are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen.”]

And now, years after buying The Prophetic Imagination for both my husband and my best mate – who both seemed to me to be in possession of that same imagination I feared I lacked – I finally turned to it myself.

Even in its early pages I heard that same, familiar song from before – a soul-deep, otherworldly chorus that gave shape to my clouded grief and my barely disguised longings.

“Yes!” I cry, from the depths of all I am, “Yes, I want to sing that song, I want to pour my whole being into its melody and sing it loud.  This is the purpose for which I was created.”  And then I weep for the slightness and inadequacy of my thin strains.

I am a singer and I know when my voice cannot do a song justice.  I am a writer and I know when my words are only dancing on the surface.

Read the rest over at www.kelleynikondeha.com

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Incognito

I have joined a new virtual (theological) book club called Transit Lounge and so once a month I will be sharing a post in response to that month’s book. It’s not a book review but more a collection of musings provoked by what I read. If you’re interested and want to read more about the book I’ll share a link to the book group’s homepage, otherwise known as Kelley’s blog. Things kicked off in February with Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

Disguise

Isn’t it interesting how Jesus lived on earth for 30ish years and no-one spotted he was God?

Deeply fascinating or deeply suspect, depending on what you believe.

Believing what I believe, it’s strange to think that God would hide, that he would take on a form so unrecognisable, live in the place we least expect to find him, and be ok with that.  Hiding for a while is fun, but we all quickly reach the point of wanting to be found (just play hide and seek with young children!).

The longer you hide, the harder it is to be found – it’s why when Jesus ‘ministry’ time started people so struggled with what he was saying – we know this guy, he’s the carpenter’s son.

It’s strange to find God next door, but familiar to me.  I seem to stumble across him in all kinds of places I didn’t expect – near and far.

But what if (the book asked me) this act of becoming human, becoming almost unrecognisable, taking on the form and the costume and the traditions of a real group of people in a specific time – what if this wasn’t a one off idea, but a repeated pattern?  A good idea that God returns to time and again?  Maybe one of his favourites?

Is he a fan of hide and seek?

The book is ostensibly about the Old Testament, that sprawling, violent, authoritarian, story-laden epic.  I love it and it bewilders me.  And many Christians, theologians and academics struggle to find God (or a God they recognise) in the midst of the stories – with all the text’s inconsistencies, its incestuous relationship with other contemporary religious texts, all the talk of cultural practices (or are they really for everyone?).

Enns’ book takes on all kinds of questions I hardly realised I had, and his beautiful central thesis is that God has always revealed himself from within (and perhaps also hidden inside) specific cultures and times, and has clothed himself in their language and practices.  We expect God to be outside and other and timeless, but instead we see this persistent joining in, these specifics, this closeness, this food and drink and clothes God.

This sets my pulse racing.

It’s the idea that God is obsessed by incarnation, this enculturation, this self-revealing in the concrete here and now we recognise.  And perhaps it makes the job of reading the Old Testament more of a mountain – how to sift through such an ancient culture to see God in their midst, as opposed to trying to lift it all out and into my context.  But it opens up more wonderful possibilities beyond the text.

Because surely this is what God wants to do, and is doing, here, in my neighbourhood, in my city.  Hiding.  Waiting to be seen (like in Matthew 28).

And maybe he asks us to do more than look for him, but to hide with him?

I remember another book that opened my eyes to the reality that the how is as important as the what (in everything, but especially in following Jesus).  Jesus said he was the Way as well as the Truth and the Light, so of course it’s not just about a destination or an outcome but a journey, patterned after his.   So what if this act of taking on flesh and culture isn’t just a one-off special, but a big shining arrow towards the how.  Not that we can become messiahs, but that belonging and being involved and almost unrecognisable is how it works?

Being sewn into the fabric of a community, a group of friends, a place, a time, is the call and the rest is to look for God and the good he is already up to and get really close so that we can, in faltering moments, be the sign or fragrance or faint hope that something better, truer, fairer is possible.

So here’s to a long old game of hide and seek.

Read more responses at Kelley’s blog. 

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