I love uni, and more specifically at the moment I’m loving Summer. Next week I start work (hurrah!) but for the past few weeks there has been much time just to relax, enjoy the sunshine and read, and I have read a whole lot.
A while back I read The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. I was initially attracted to it by the bright cover design, but then, more convincingly by the story and the setting, the questions about existence and reality, and the complex descriptions Thomas uses. I loved the book and snaffled up another of her stories, which sat on my burgeoning bookshelves whilst I wearily studied.
Popco, this second book, was brilliant. I honestly couldn’t put it down for three days. Its about a girl called Alice who works for a multi-national toy firm, and basically charts her growing dissillusion with the corporate machine. I really liked the character of Alice (although she did bear much resemblance to the two other main protagonists in the other two Scarlett Thomas books I’ve read), and I enjoyed the story of her growing up as it was spliced between her adult, day-to-day life. I loved all the mystery and treasure-hunting aspects, and it was the first book I’ve read in a long time that has actually challenged me to consider the way I live and the choices I make (veganism anyone?!).
The third book of hers that I read, this week, is called Our Tragic Universe again I really enjoyed this, completing it in two days. I realised I’d actually learned something in this year as I recognised some postmodern literary techniques – metafiction, where an author writes about writing, and her attempts to make the novel a plotless plot, an antinovel. This made it much simpler than Mr Y, but again I found it inspiring and a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon sitting in some Fransciscan gardens.
Unusually, too, my delving into these books have led me to other, related non-fiction books that continue the themes raised. So I’m reading No Logo, by Naomi Klein, which is all about globilisation and branding etc, and The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker. What with these, and busily revising the whole of Whittards tea and coffee brands, I think my mind might just go into meltdown!
I have read three novels this week (coincidentally none of them are the ones I am meant to have read for my course… oops). I have loved, intrigued and eagerly devoured all three, and have thrice experienced that familiar paradox of satisfaction and disappointment as I finished the last word of the last paragraph of each one. So I thought I’d write about them
Firstly, I read Beloved, by Toni Morrison. An account of one woman and her family and their experience of slavery. The language was quite hard to get to grips with, as it’s based in 19th Century America, and the content was difficult, graphic, disturbing. That said I think it was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It was gritty and complex and I couldn’t switch off when I put it down. I found myself willing there to be a happy ending. I found myself thinking about the subject of slavery long after the story was over. I also found myself thinking about suffering, the strength of the human spirit, religion, and a whole bunch of related stuff that is still percolating in my mind.
Next on the list was The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. The best surprise about this was that when I started reading I realised I recognised the scenery and the setting, so I could visualise what I was reading from almost the first page. That really brought the story alive for me. I loved the main character, Ariel… I could identify with her a lot, and so I found myself willing her to make the right decisions and to triumph. I liked the messiness and the unpredictability and the sheer imagination woven through the plot. I went straight to Amazon after finishing and got her next book (for a penny… result!).
Lastly I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. I loved the merging of genres in this. Sometimes it felt like a history book, sometimes comedy, sometimes romance, and other times it made me feel so sad. I liked the way she surreptitiously makes comments about society, racism and loneliness. Like the other two, this felt like a story about struggle… I wasn’t sure how it would end or if good would triumph. It made me laugh and cry.
I suppose I should get back to Doctor Faustus now… Joy of joys!
I was feeling book-hungry at the start of this year, and this was one of those books I picked up and knew immediately I wanted to read.
I loved the characters in the story, their idealism, and their weaknesses. I willed them to act differently, I was excited with them at the possibility that they could be different. I smiled to myself at little commonalities, and then was shocked and troubled just a few pages later. I love books about people who try to do things differently, to break the mould, to swim against the tide. I thought this was a brave exploration of that sort of decision, and how our personalities, backgrounds and cultures both aid and hinder us.
I also enjoyed Yate’s exploration of insanity… and how it compared with the ‘sanity’ of the characters surrounding. It reminded me of books like ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest’, where you wonder if it is mental illness, or the society the character exists within that is actually the main issue.
A couple of my fave quotes:
“She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.”
‘ “Helen here’s been talking it up about you people for months” he told them. “The nice young Wheelers on Revolutionary Road, the nice young revolutionaries on Wheeler Road – got so I didn’t know what she was talking about half the time.”
According to the genius of Wikipedia, Yates, the author is quoted as saying: “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” that makes me sad, but, emotion aside, it is a theme that is powerfully communicated in this book. I was amazed at how ‘apart’ two people could be, even when they shared the bond of marriage.
The story has been turned into a film, starring Kate Winslet & Leonardo DiCaprio, to be released at the end of Jan. I’m really intrigued to see what will be made of it, as I think one of the best things about the book is that not very much happens, but so much happens, the pace is very slow and yet things change very fast. Part of Yate’s skill is in his characterisation, and the rich description he uses. I am intrigued to see how this comes across on the big screen. I’m also quietly cynical about the kate/leo combo. I’m hoping they do the plot justice, and that it doesn’t get pushed under by the whole ‘titanic reunion’ furore.
Somehow, amidst some rather circuitous dashing around the country last week, I managed to read two books and see one film. All of them impacted me in different ways, and so I thought I’d attempt to write about them here. These count as recommendations, by the way. Go read…
Firstly is a book called ‘The Declaration’, by Gemma Malley.
This book reminded me a lot of The Handmaids Tale, by Margaret Atwood. It’s the classic ‘Utopia gone wrong with severe consequences for a certain section of society’ story, but as it’s written for teenagers it’s not quite as dark as others I’ve read.
The thing that struck me most about this story was the way truth can pervade into the darkest of places and change someone’s life. I love what the story has to say about love. My fave quote has to be this one:
”Surplus meant unecessary, not required. You couldn’t be a Surplus if you were needed by someone else. Youn couldn’t be a surplus if you were loved.”
The end was a little rushed, but it paves the way neatly for the sequel. It’s a little unemotional in places too, but it was definitely worth the read, and it made me think a lot (and cry too, somewhere between Doncaster and Leeds!!).
My second book of the week was, ‘On Chesil Beach’, by Ian McEwan.
Now, If I had a pound for every time I’ve nearly picked this book up to read, I’d be quite rich by now. I’m not sure what’s stopped me before, but last week I decided to go for it, and I’m really glad I did.
The story is quite intense, it covers just one evening. Although a lot of the background goes much further back, into the murky depths of what makes the two main characters (Edwards and Florence) who they are, and how their relationship develops and flounders.
I think what shocked me in this story was the lack of honesty the newly-wed couple were able to share. McEwan paints a historical picture well, you can almost visualise the staid confines of propriety and expectation. There is much unspoken, too, which adds to the sense of mystery and lack of communication. It’s a short book, but there is a depth of description and relational observation which makes it feel like a much longer book. Combining depth and brevity strikes me as a gift in writing.
This made me cry too (I promise I didn’t spend the whole weekend sobbing piteously!). And I can’t really explain why without giving the plot away, but I will say that it had me thinking and praying a lot afer I’d finished.
After all that reading, and with an afternoon in Bradford to kill. I decided to head to the cinema (if only to celebrate the £2.10 saving I made compared with cinema prices in London!). I decided to watch the new X Files movie, ‘I want to believe’.
I struggle with films if I can guess how the plot is going to pan out, so this was a refreshing change. (I decided against going to see Mamma Mia because I couldn’t face anything quite so cheery and saccharine). Again this made me think a lot.
Predominant themes running through were the nature of belief and forgiveness, so that was interesting from a Christian perspective. Some of the scenes were a little too gruesome for my liking; I went expecting aliens and unexplained phenomena, but the plot was very definitely about human nature, and the darkness within it!
It’s worth watching just to see Billy Connolly playing the part of Father Joe. Very creepy, very believeable. Very thought-provoking.
I should read books and watch films more, I forgot how much I like it.
So, I seem to be suffering from a similar ailment to certain friends of mine, who neglect their blog for a couple of weeks and then have a million things to fit in one entry! I have only been neglecting for 9 days, but even still lots has been going on, and so in an attempt to be organised I am going for some categorisation
Work – Work has been very cool over the last couple of weeks. We wrote a resource to help people get to grips with praying for their communities. It basically has 28 questions you work through, which then gives you a workable foundation to build a prayer strategy on afterwards. So that was much fun. I enjoyed canvassing opinions to work out the best colour scheme for it, and spent days agonising between green and purple (all the while secretly adoring shocking pink). Purple won out in the end. I spent this week despatching said resources to lovely praying people, so that’s nearly all done. Have some other writing stuff to do but having got around to that yet.
ROOTS – (I’m cheating because the work paragraph was getting too long!!) ROOTS is the SA’s annual renewal conference, held in Southport. To cut a long story short, we get a huge tent, pack it with prayer stations and a glorious prayer team, and then 4000 people descend (There are loads of other top quality venues too). It’s the first bank holiday weekend in May, so a week today we will be there (argh!). So this week has passed in a flurry of packing boxes, losing gazebos, purchasing silk flames, compiling endless lists, misplacing vital components, driving round South London and squeezing stuff into mini-buses. I can’t wait for ROOTS this year, it feels like God has some exciting things up his sleeve!!
Wandsworth – Wandsworth is great and wondrous. Good things are happening here. Last Saturday we held a Civic Service, with the Mayor, Head of the Council, Police and MP’s etc. We also lauched the Wandswoth Street Pastors team, which was very exciting. 170 people came and we chatted, prayed, networked and generally had a fab time. There was a cool gospel choir too! The next few weeks look exciting too, as we have a couple of specific days set aside for prayer and prophetic intercession for the borough. So I am really looking forward to those. I’m heading up a lovely team of ‘Prayer Pastors’, which is great experience. Oh, and the corps hall is nearly built. It’s looking very swish and it’s all feeling a bit more real! We should be in the new building by September. Apart from that, life at the Boiler Room is exciting. Oh, I’m speaking this weekend there and haven’t written my sermon yet – this is not so good!!
Life – Life has been an intriguing old thing the last few days. Along with a host of other joys, I was ill last week, so was looking forward to a nice week before the madness that next week will be. But my life has resembled an Eastenders script over the last few days, with one late night drunken admirer turning up at the door, and then a couple of nights later the police!! It’s ok, I do not have a secret criminal past… they just wanted me to help them with some stuff. (I’d have been wholly more appreciative had it not been 12.15am!!! )Think it’s all sorted now though. Although I think my housemates probably think I’m mad!! Hasn’t been much space for much else, what with ROOTS prep. Oh, I went to Costa on Monday and debated the issue of grace… that was a highlight!
Misc – I can’t think of much else but I love the word miscellaneous. So must think of something interesting to say!! Oh, that’ll do. I’m looking forward to May 12th, because me and an esteemed Wandsworthian colleague are off to Sweden to teach on prayer for a week… So that will be fab.
Also, I want to recommend that you all read ‘A Certain Rumour’, by Russell Rook. It’s all about Cleopas and the journey along the Emmaus road, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about the Kingdom of God, hope, lots of exciting things like that… a top read.
Philip Pullman is another of my favourite authors, and he’e just published a book called ‘Once Upon A Time In The North’. I am very very excited about Monday, when I will be able to buy and read this.
Now, I need a new book to read after that. (I am behind on my target of 100 this year)… anyone have any suggestions?
“God often sends you somewhere you didn’t want to go to teach you something you thought you already knew.”
When I was growing up, I spent days and hours reading Nancy Drew novels, and the Famous Five series. I never was very good at predicting the ending or solving the mystery, but I revelled in the complexity of the plots, and I admired the intelligence and perception of the heroes and heroines.
I also enjoyed the sense of unpredictability. You could usually guess that at some point there would be a happy ending, but there was little else of certainty. Sometimes the most trustworthy character turned out to be the perpetrator of a heinous crime, sometimes it looked like everything in the world of the story was irrevocably damaged, sometimes I wanted the author to airlift her detectives out of the danger and uncertainty, and to abandon the plot entirely.
I was always struck by the subtexts and subplots in the stories. They were not just rescuing lost sailors, finding missing gems or thwarting smugglers. Throughout their stories, the Five, and Nancy found themselves discovering much about the world: about human nature, about the consequences of the choices that each of us make, about greed and misadventure.
The other thing that always made me smile as a child was that the children never specifically went looking for situations which needed their detective intervention. These just seemed to, well, happen in their midst. Even if they went on holiday somewhere utterly new, it wasn’t long before they were embroiled in cunning and intrigue.
Anyway, why am I ranting on about my juvenile literary preferences? And what does it have to do with the quote at the top of this post?
When I think about the way God teaches me things, I am so aware that it is often through situations which I would not have chosen. Circumstances where, had I been orchestrating the path of my life, I would have gone out of my way to avoid. When these arise, I sometimes feel a bit like Nancy Drew: facing a mystery with seemingly not a clue in sight. Finding myself scrabbling around looking for a hint, weighing up the options and hoping for guidance. I feel like the Famous five children: I did not seek these situations out, they just seemed to happen around me.
When God leads me into a situation that looks disastrous, I know that there is a bigger picture: more to the plot than meets the eye, the opportunity to learn from the situation, gems to be found amidst the soil and mud of the hard times.
Like the old fashioned mystery stories, often so much is unpredictable. God takes us to places we don’t really want to go, but it is through them we find the greatest and most meaningful truths – how mindblowing is that?!
2 Corinthians 4 puts it like this:
“We’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.
What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among
them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’
life all the more evident in us.” (The Message Version)
If you had asked me last year if I believed God brought beauty from pain, I would have said yes. If you had asked me whether he had the ability and desire to use all situations for good, I would have agreed. If you asked me if he was my ever-present help in times of need, my answer would have been in the affirmative.
Somehow though, from where I am standing now, all of those truths sparkle with greater clarity. I feel like I know them in reality, as if they are shape my waking hours at present, rather than just existing as simple truths I have read on a page since childhood. God has truly taken me to places I would never have chosen and used them to show me things I thought I already knew.
One of the things that frustrated me about the childhood stories was their neatness. By the end of the 200 pages, all the loose ends were tied up, the disaster averted, and normality restored. Even as a small child I knew that things were rarely this simple in real life. As I walk this journey with God, I find that rarely are things tied up this neatly. We never really reach the end of our mystery stories, but we move on to the next chapter nonetheless carrying the truths we have gleaned and growing in hope because of them.
*Caution – contains plot spoilers!*
Since Christmas I have spent a lot of time squirrelled away with my nose in a book. For the first week it was the Chronicles of Narnia, as I worked through the box set that I received for Christmas. I loved reading the books, loved the simplicity and complexity, loved the characters and the battles they have to face, loved the metaphor and allegory that is woven through the text.
My favourite had to be, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ I enjoyed it so much because it seemed like many stories woven into one. Eustace’s transformation into a dragon and the resulting transformation in his character, Lucy’s battle with the temptation to read a spell that will make her ‘the most beautiful woman on earth’, Reepicheep’s bravery and focus on getting to the lands of the east, etc etc.
I was a little bemused at the end of the books, where it turns out that the children have all been killed in a train crash, but it was more a sadness that the stories had ended than anything else.
After finishing the books I felt quite odd – I had spent every spare minute for a week living in a strange Narnian fantasy world where anything was possible, suddenly I found myself wandering round Wandsworth expecting squirrels to talk and wardrobes to lead to other worlds. It was a little disconcerting.
More pressing was the need to read something else, to get my teeth into a new literary challenge. Before Christmas I had read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, book one of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. I’d read it partly to see what all the furore surrounding the books was about, and partly because I wanted to see how closely the text followed the recent film. I was unsurprised to see they differed vastly, and interested by the plot and characters that Pullman presents.
So, armed with a Waterstones ’3 for 2′ bargain, I have since been wading my way through the other two books in the trilogy – ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’. I have been pleasantly surprised. In the 2nd book I was impressed with the way Pullman weaves different worlds together, so they run alongside each other, and impressed with the way the plot switches between these worlds. The introduction of Will was a stroke of genius, and the end of the story made me desperate to start book three.
I haven’t been dissapointed so far. I havent got to the end yet but the whole story is building to an impressive climax. I think one of the things I have enjoyed most is that the stories have really made me concentrate. Usually I can read a book in 24 hours, it’s like I can read over the words, assimilate them without very much effort, and sometimes that can make me feel as if I am only skimming the surface of the plot. The complexity of the HDM books, and the detailed plot and characterisation has meant I’ve been reading in a much more focused way, something I have really enjoyed.
The trilogy, and Philip Pullman himself has come under a lot of criticism due to the portrayal of the church that is a key theme throughout the stories. Reading them through, I can see the point of those who would label them as anti-God. In the books, The Authority (Pullman’s characterisation of God) is a repressive, hidden, vengeful creation who would seek to destroy anyone who thinks differently or challenge his ill-gotten superiority. The church is the machinery used to enforce this domination and control.
I havent been overly worried, reading the stories though, because anyone who has ever encountered God (and here I’m talking about the real thing, not the one in the story), will know that He is nothing like the one portrayed in the story. Again and again as I have read the passages and descriptions through I have found myself thinking, “I’m so glad He’s not like that”. I can’t see how the stories would promote or advertise athiesm, because all that comes accross, in my opinion, is a cloudy, doubt-filled, guessing at what is right and wrong, it’s all quite hopeless, and I can’t see how that would be attractive to anyone.
I haven’t got to the end of the story yet, and I know the part where Lyra (one of the main characters) kills god is approaching. I am interested to see whether this changes the way i feel about the stories and the themes within them!
Above all, the books I have read over the last two weeks or so have made me think that I never want to just see things in black and white. I love the way that in fantasy stories, the normal paradigms of rule and logic are stretched, and anything can happen. I think God is like that too – he thinks and acts outside the box, always waiting to surprise us. So they have reminded me to keep an open mind.
Coming up, I have Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ series (which involves 12 and a half books so should keep me going a while), as well as ‘Shadowmancer’ and ‘Tersias’ by GP Taylor. Last year I tried to read 100 books, but I think I only made it to about 85, maybe 2008 will be the year when I finally make triple figures!!