Tag Archives: books

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.


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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When 2 become 3

Now don’t get over-excited, it hasn’t happened yet.  I still have a gigantic balloon of a belly growing daily, and am getting more than my fair share of sleep.

Today’s title refers to a one-day course we did recently that is supposed to prepare you for imminent parenthood.  It got me thinking about all the ways we’re trying to get ready.

We haven’t decorated a nursery or bought anything really, if we’re talking practically.  We have a whole host of hand-me-downs which I think will see us through.  We’re not really big on stuff, but when it comes to information – I have been cramming it in.

I’m a reader, so there have been a lot of books passing through the flat.  (Faves so far: Childbirth Without Fear, that classic from 1942 by Grantly Dick-Read; the rough guide to Pregnancy is pretty hilarious; and anything by the godmother of all midwives, Ina May Gaskin is pretty good but may make you want to move to Tennessee).  Gina Ford has not yet made an appearance, I’ll be honest – although the shelves of our local library are well-stocked should I feel the need. My reading has been accompanied by plentiful eye-rolling by the older generations who are quick to point out that they all just muddled through and everything turned out fine.

Even beyond all the reading material, there’s no shortage of advice on offer – from the community midwife (who is amazing) to the NHS ante-natal classes (which help), from NCT (which is a bit pricey) to hypnobirthing courses (which are similarly expensive and a step too hippy even for me), from the Starbucks barista concerned that I shouldn’t be drinking coffee in my state to the alarmed passers-by who glared at me carrying home a six-pack of beer (it was alcohol-free, people).  And that’s before you factor in the personal experiences so readily shared by friends and family and neighbours and, of course, total strangers.  Most of my African neighbours are convinced I shouldn’t be budging from the sofa between now and the birth.

Even that isn’t enough for us. We’ve expanded our curriculum to take in a quick pre-birth marriage course (so we can finally nail all the problems in our relationship before a baby makes us feel even more dysfunctional – ha!) and another surprise entry, the Circle of Security course run by a child psychiatrist friend.

It’s a lot to take in.  Too much, really.  I’m reading way more books than many of my pregnant friends want to (I’ll be honest, they’re mainly on the hippy end of the spectrum).  This morning my local health visitor came by to spend 40 minutes repeating a long list of information that I’d already been given by my midwife.  She also outlined all of the services she’d be offering us in the next five years – none of which I could repeat to you now.

A few books currently on loan to me

It’s brain overload.  Especially when you’re still trying to juggle other significant mounds of information for things like your job.  Apparently, the secret to all of this is tuning into your monkey brain, finding your inner-ape, and filtering out all your sophisticated human reasoning.  It sounds appealing, but the chance would be a fine thing.

Definitely one of the most helpful spaces we found to get our heads around things was this one day course called As 2 become 3 (don’t think of the Spice Girls…but you’re probably already singing it now, right?).  It’s for couples expecting their first child, and the team who run it take you through all kinds of helpful conversations like how much your relationship and lifestyle are about to change, how you’ll still find time for each other, who else is going to help you (family, friends etc), how to cope with a huge drop in income, what your approach is to parenting, how to work as a team, what your values will be as a family… It’s clearly way too much to sort through in a day, but there’s a helpful booklet to take away, and a lot of encouragement to keep the conversations going.

Having a baby puts huge pressure on a relationship and there are some scary stats about the number of relationships that don’t survive those first few baby and toddler years.  So a little preparation that focuses on a couple themselves seems important.

I learnt plenty.  Like that there is something absurd called a ‘push present’ that men sometimes give their partners when the baby is born.  A diamond ring was suggested by some of the female participants.  I made it clear to Andy that if he blew the family budget on something so ridiculous I would be unimpressed.

But most of what was said was more helpful than that.  The space they created felt healthy and important; what was being passed on was wisdom and encouragement.  And just having a day together with your partner to be able to think and talk was also a gift.  I highly recommend it.

I’ll have to get back to you about what proves most helpful, but I think my best guess is that I’ll be continuing to tune into my book-loving, inner-monkey…


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How I started to write again

Recently, I was reading “A Circle of Quiet” by Madeleine L’Engle (because all those North American bloggers go on about her so much) and she was reflecting on the art of writing and how we need to practise:

Inspiration does not always precede the act of writing; it often follows it…I cannot neglect my practising.

(She had books published consistently over a 56 year career so you’d have to admit she took her own advice).

I’m not sure I love being told to practise anything; it rings with the memory of years of being told to practise my scales and my fingering charts (which was so BORING).  And then there’s the fact that we’re all as lazy as we dare to be (as a friend once said); at least, I am.

There’s an inevitability about practising that means you get better over time; which makes the beginning the most painful for a perfectionist.  And so then pride and cowardice come to play a part in stopping me getting started.

I love to write, to shape sentences and clothe thoughts in words.  But when I married a man who had already written three and a half books I decided not to compete.  I wouldn’t have framed it quite like that, but I stepped out of the arena.

He’d tell me sometimes to write articles, but I had no confidence or motivation to write into a vacuum. I was out of practise and wasn’t sure what I had to say.  When I’d travel, he’d encourage me to write down the stories I encountered, but it was so hard and I didn’t understand why.  It took me so long to work out that the stories would rarely present themselves as fully formed parables or meaning-laden chronicles, and that I would have to ponder them and wrestle with them, to find in them a shape and form, and to scavenge for meaning.

That’s when blogging became a gift.  I started cautiously and sporadically; if nothing else as an attempt to make myself write about the people I met on my travels and how they were changing me.  It was practise.  As it grew to a weekly discipline I would often sit in creative paralysis come Monday morning, with no idea what to write.  But writing made me more attentive to my week, and often as I started with only the crumb of an idea, inspiration would follow.

This year or two of practice has, at the very least, got me going again.  And now I find that the year ahead is dominated by writing projects which I have dared to initiate, and in particular by three great sprawling endeavours that will stretch me beyond anything I have done before.  Clearly the best time to embark on such ambitious adventures is when one is pregnant.  I’m writing a book, and a play, and a cabaret show. (Because why start with just one?).

My next blog will be about the cabaret because it’s nearly done, and opens in about two and a half weeks (and you must come!).  And then more will follow about the book (which relates to my travels with Tearfund and how they have shaken the foundations of how I see the world), and the play (with The Ruby Dolls, of course).

How has a little bit of practise helped you?

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If your soul needs more poetry

This week I saw Sarah Bessey had tweeted “We need more theologians with a poet’s soul, I think. A little imagination when talking about God never hurts.”

And I thought, ‘Yes!’.  And then how I wished there was more poetry in my own words.

Given that I’ve spent the last three days having a little time off in Cape Town, I thought the best I could do this week was offer up the best piece of poetry I’ve stumbled across in recent days.  It’s from a novel I am loving called Home by Marilynne Robinson, written in the person of an old man writing to his young son, and it had me in tears on the plane:

I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.   And I can’t believe that when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility , we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

And I’d love to know where else I can find some…

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