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I’ve finally had some time over the last few weeks to get back into reading.  For months I’ve been half-heartedly starting reading books then setting them aside to do the same with a different book.  Or I’ve been so tired and overwhelmed by stuff that I’ve just reverted to my tried and tested ‘comfort reads’.  It has therefore been an absolute joy to lose myself in a book where the story or the central thesis is unknown to me and is just awaiting discovery as I turn the pages.

So in the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading these books:

Thousand splendid suns

” A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini.  This was lent to me by a friend from work.  We’d been in a book group together and had read “The Kite Runner”, and this book is really in a similar vein.  I enjoyed it, and found I couldn’t escape from thinking that although it is a work of fiction (and subject to feeling a bit derived in places because of that, I felt) the experiences of the characters are not fiction for people who lived through those times in Afghanistan. 

 

TheRoad

The next book I read on holiday was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.  Oh my goodness, this is a breathtaking, terrifying, and traumatic book to read.  The Guardian’s reviewer said it better than I could, so check their review out.

 

 

 

 

 

Art for God's sake

I read “The Road” over 3 evenings, but found it so overwhelmingly bleak that I had to read something else more positive and hopeful before I finally went to sleep.  This little book, barely more than a pamphlet really, was the solution.  “Art for God’s Sake” by Philip Graham Ryken came to me by happenstance.  A friend had been looking in a second-hand bookshop, noticed this wee book and bought it thinking I might like it – I was touched by this in itself.  The book itself is great, thought-provoking, clear, and, for me, inspirational as I think about returning to some form of art practice in the autumn.

 

 

 

 

 

the price of water in finstere

” The Price of Water in Finistere” by Bodil Malmsten is another book that sort of came to me, although this time I actually purchased it myself.  A good while back, perhaps during one of the times I was off work ill for a while, I had been listening to Radio 4 and this book (although I never picked up the full title, I didn’t forget the name Finistere) was a serialised ‘book of the week’.  The parts of it which I heard were just fantastic, and I still hear the narrator’s voice as I read it now.  I’ve only just started this one, and am in love with it already.  It’s witty and cutting, and paints a picture of a particular part of France which I would now love to visit.

Each of these books has fed, and is feeding, me, mind and soul.  God bless writers everywhere!  Have you read any good books lately?  I’ve also been pondering how I’d feel about one of those e-book things, the Kindle etc.  I think I would miss the feel of pages, I’d miss the texture of a weighty cover or a beautiful binding.  Give me another 10 years, I’m the living definition of a late-adopter.

[kreativ+blogger+award.jpg]

How exciting!  Lucy has given me a blogging award (along with some of my other favourite bloggers too, I feel very privileged).  Here’s what I need to do in exchange:

  1. Post the award on your blog, and link to the person who gave you the award (done that, and please check out Lucy’s lovely blog)
  2. List seven things you love
  3. List seven blogs you love (just seven?)
  4. E-mail or comment on those blogs to let the people know you’ve given them the award

Seven things I love?

  1. My little family – husband and daughter, and the collection of special toys who play such an important part in our four year old’s life that they Had Better Never Get Lost
  2. Following Jesus (although, to be absolutely honest, there are also times when I grind my teeth with frustration at how this works out in my life)
  3. Our church and in particular our small group, not forgetting the friends, near and far, who are extended family and form our daughter’s God Squad (because we couldn’t choose between them when it came to thinking about godparents, they’re all so amazing and special to us)
  4. Painting, drawing, making. I do this in spurts of energy and then long periods elapse where it just gets sidelined…
  5. …but the compensation is I get to work somewhere I can enable children, adults, colleagues to be creative and that is often enough
  6. The sea.  It scares me but I love it.  Beautiful sandy beaches are great but I’ve almost always lived in proximity to the North Sea, and so it’s the wind-swept dunes and grey thundering waves that make my heart beat a little faster
  7. Books.  I love reading, and always have way too many on the go at once, so it takes me ages to get any one book finished unless I’m using it as a ‘comfort read’ when I’m feeling low or as a break from more challenging reads.  I confess I also love books as objects (our oversized living room bookcase is testament to that), and am trying hard not to be envious of one of my colleagues who is also a book-lover and collects first editions.  THAT would not be good for me.  Maybe one day I’ll go and visit her books. I mean her.

Seven blogs I love (Nb. Lucy’s already namechecked a couple of my favourites, so I’ll let them enjoy their awards from her and award seven completely different ones)

  1. I have to mention my husband’s blog (The State That I Am In). It’s a fantastic blog with a strong musical undercurrent. I would love it even if he wasn’t my husband, I promise!
  2. Fourth Space is the blog of one of our small group friends.  It’s so thought-provoking, lots of creative and analytical thinking and processing (for both blog author and blog reader).
  3. Have you checked out Coffee Shop Journal? It’s a really great read, reflections on life, faith and more, book reviews and thoughtful applications of lessons learned, and always written with grace and humility. 
  4. The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus is in many ways (for me) the perfect blog.  All pictures!!!  I don’t know how he comes up with these fresh, funny and often cutting images so frequently.  Man or machine?! No machine could be this creative and offer such a human and humane perspective on the world.
  5. Without Wax (I even love the name of this blog) is another thought-provoking look at the world through the eyes of Pete, a pastor at Cross Point Church in Tennessee.  He uses video clips and other resources really well, and has got a massive readership judging by the average number of comments each post seems to get.  It is also one of the blogs I read that reminds me that there is a cultural difference between our two countries, which I really enjoy being exposed to.
  6. New Life From Old is the blog of another small group friend.  He doesn’t post too often, but always has something worth checking out.  He’s a scientist and is rigorous in his examination of faith through this lens.  He’s really creative in how he works this out in his life and the world (although I don’t think he’d use that word about himself), and deserves massive respect for his engagement with difficult and controversial issues.
  7. Last but not least I’ve just got to mention Wish Jar,which is the blog of author, illustrator and guerilla artist Keri Smith.  I LOVE her work, and every time I read her blog I get exposed to something I’ve never come across before.

I hope you enjoy checking these guys out if you’ve not had a look before.  (By the way sorry about the weird mix of fonts and sizes, can’t seem to fix it today for some reason.  Hope it’s still readable)

Several years ago a friend lent me the book “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy (which, incidentally, I enjoyed) and when we later spoke about it one of us, I can’t remember which now, mistakenly called it “The Small Things of God”.  This slightly more whimsical title appealled to both of us immediately and, amidst laughter, the book was instantly renamed for evermore.

It’s still a phrase that comes to mind often, despite the fact that I’ve lost touch with that friend over the years.  (She lives in India now, I wonder if she ever remembers the book and our conversations about it?)

I was just looking at the blog of Without Wax and his reflections on “Celebrating Monotony”.  It strikes me that the small things of God are those mundane little blessings we overlook so easily.  I am seated in my warm kitchen, cup of tea at hand, almost brand new laptop beneath my fingertips, knowing that my daughter is sound asleep in her lovely bedroom down the hall, and my husband is blogging away on our pc upstairs.  It’s a Friday night in Scotland in January, nothing much going on, and I’m freshly thankful for that.  I wonder how many of the minute details of our lives, embroidered by God to communicate his love and care for us, pass us by without thought or thanks. 

(I read this back and consider that this is a very middle-class (yikes!) western-world kind of reflection.  I wonder what I would have said if I were a Christian living in poverty in a much harsher part of the world?)

I suppose the small things of God, the little blessings and graces he has furnished our world with to ease our passage through it, are in evidence everywhere.  It would be a wonderful thing if I could make my way through life bearing that in mind, with a thankful heart.

What are the small things of God in evidence in your life?

As is usual for his very thought-provoking blog, Fourth Space got me mulling over exactly how and why God loves me (of all people!).  And as is often the case when you start thinking about something (my previous post about autism being a case in point) it seems then to be EVERYWHERE you look.

So last night, feeling poorly, I was lying in bed clutching a hot water bottle to my aching tummy and trying not to move too much in case I was sick (this is called setting the scene…).  I was tired but not sleepy and had started to reread a book that I had found on my bookshelf from earlier last year.  It is called “Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott, and is basically a journal that she kept during her son’s first year.  It’s a compelling read, but I’d struggled with it the first time round because she was so painfully and brutally honest, some of which was too close to the bone for me to deal with during what had been a bit of a difficult patch.  This time round I’m loving it, and really relishing the honesty.  It feels raw, but healing too.

This was the bit that jumped out at me as I lay feeling lousy and fragile:

I’m trying to be extremely gentle and forgiving with myself today, having decided while I nursed Sam at dawn this morning that I’m probably just as good a mother as the next repressed, obsessive-compulsive paranoiac.

I think we’re all pretty crazy on this bus.  I’m not sure I know anyone who’s got all the dots on his or her dice.

But once an old woman at my church said the secret is that God loves us exactly the way we are and that he loves us too much to let us stay like this, and I’m just trying to trust that.

(“Operating Instructions” by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books 1993)

I’ve heard that view of God’s love before, and it does kind of encapsulate the complicated love that he has for us. 

It has proved helpful to me today.

Last week my work colleagues and I were privileged to receive some excellent training to give us an overview into autism as a spectrum.  It was provided by the Lothian Autistic Society and I can really recommend their training if anyone else is interested.

It was fascinating, at the start of the session, to hear across the full staff team that attended what experience and knowledge each of us had about autism.  I was fairly typical – I’ve worked at times with children who use our services who have autism (usually with Aspergers), I’ve sat in on a previous mini-training session when I was on placement as a student, I’ve read a couple of fantastic books.  And whilst none of my colleagues are approaching any kind of specialist knowledge, we all had a good broad base of understanding – but just didn’t feel like we did.

And that seems to be the funny thing about autism.  It seems so ‘other’ that we don’t feel comfortable with ourselves and our competence when we are with people who are placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Anyway, the training was outstanding and across the board I didn’t hear a single colleague (some of whom are normally default-setting-critical!) say it was any less than excellent and riveting.  What did I learn?  Essentially that autism is a brain difference, which results in the person with the condition responding to and interacting with the world in ways which are so different to us NTs (neurotypicals) it is really hard for us to understand the world from their point of view, and vice versa.

Simon Baron-Cohen (who, slightly bizarrely, is according to Wikipedia a cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen aka Ali G and Borat) is one of the pre-eminent scientists in the field of autism and has led the way with much of the current thinking about the condition, from what I can gather.  One of the most interesting aspects of autism is that it would appear to be the working out of an ‘extreme male brain’.  This has been identified as being because autism seems to arise from an extreme level of testosterone present in a child even before birth.  This is, presumably, why autism is so much more common among males than females.

This has brought autism into the news as it now appears quite possible for there soon to be a prenatal screening test for autism, following on from the publication of a ground-breaking study in the British Journal of Psychology (as it has been described by The Guardian amongst others).  And the big, controversial question which has now sparked a great deal of debate is “would a prenatal screening test for autism be a good thing?”.  The underlying assumption is that parents who discovered their unborn child had autism (although the test would not be able to place them on the autistic spectrum, just give a blunt identification of the condition) would be likely to choose to abort that child. 

I think that would be an understandable choice (I’ve not worked with autistic children who can’t communicate, as they tend not to be in mainstream settings like the one I work in, but have witnessed the enormous challenge and stress families can face when they have a child somewhere on the autistic spectrum).  But the assumption is that autism is something ‘bad’, undesirable in itself.  Most autistic people are physically healthy, and it is believed that in fact it is the more able autists who will suffer through their condition, simply because they are able to interact with the neurotypical world enough to perceive and struggle with their difference to the world at large.  It gets very complicated, and Professor Baron-Cohen articulates the thinking that needs to begin now:

If there was a prenatal test for autism, would this be desirable?  What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?  We should start debating this…Some researchers or drug companies might see this as an opportunity to develop a prenatal treatment.  There are drugs that block testosterone.  But whether we’d want to would be a different matter.

If you want to read more about autism I can thoroughly recommend “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome” by Luke Jackson, which he wrote when he was just 13 – it’s outstanding, insightful and very sweet.  The other book I read a few years back was “George and Sam” by Charlotte Moore, and it too is outstanding, very intelligently and (just as important) intelligibly written. 

I’d love to hear your own thoughts about this debate.

Came across this through Jamie’s blog.  Apparently a US organisation has come up with a list of that nation’s top 100 books, although it estimates that on average most adults have only read 6 on the list.  I find that last bit unlikely – there are loads of children’s classics there too, so a child could easily log up 6 through their school years.  Anyway, I’ve highlighted in bold the ones I’ve read (or read part of in a few cases – I’m a big cheater!).  I’ve also got a few of these books but never read them (I’ve highlighted them in italics) – and now feel inspired to get on with it.  How about you?  And do you think there are any glaring omissions from the list?

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (note – 3 big fat books!)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (note 7 big fat books!) –
of which actually I’ve only read the first
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell – but actually can’t remember if I finished…
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare – I’ve not read all, just some
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
8 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell (and it’s sequel)
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (all 5 books in the series)
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez – but I know I’ve still to finish it…
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert (read all of the Dune books …)
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons – I’m sure I’ve got this somewhere, I’ve meant to read it for a long time
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell – only got as far as buying it and admiring the cover
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad – I have a beautiful illustrated version, which I admit I bought for the pictures (well, I was studying illustration at the time, it was a valid thing to do…)
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo – looks good on the bookshelf, but dauntingly huge

I’ve been thinking over the last few days (well, in truth over the last three and a half years) about what it means for me to be a mother.  Before I go any further, I must say I love being a mum to my gorgeous, funny, clever little girl.  But it has also been a fairly devastating experience in some ways too, in terms of who I am and how I view myself.

The reason I’ve found myself thinking about it again is primarily through looking at motherhood again through the lens of others’ experiences.  A couple of friends who have become mums over the last 18 months have been having fairly difficult times, and I have related absolutely to what they’ve been going through.  And this has led to me coming across a book called ‘A Life’s Work’ by Rachel Cusk, which is basically a warts and all kind of book about motherhood.  But two things for me are making it stand out from the crowd:

  • it is not written in a chick-lit style, for poor baby-brained mums who can’t cope with polysyllabic words and complex sentence structure. 
  • it recognises, profoundly, how much of a violation of your sense of self motherhood can be. 

Let me explain why these are important to me.  I have devoured (almost literally) an inordinate number of books about parenthood since the moment I found out I was pregnant.  It’s kind of my default setting for getting to grips with an unfamiliar situation (unless the unfamiliar situation is also a bit boring, but that’s another story).  So I have read a LOT of books, varying from the practical manuals, the cheery guides, the ‘humorous autobiographical accounts’, the verging-on-misery-lit accounts of how it nearly went horribly wrong.  And whilst they were often helpful, entertaining and illuminating, they rarely went much beyond skin-deep.

The thing I struggled with most in the early days and weeks after my daughter was born was just how much of myself was lost.  I had never considered myself a selfish person but parenthood (and to be absolutely specific motherhood, because I don’t think it is the same for fathers) instantly demanded I set aside everything for the sake of this tiny helpless autocrat who now ruled our world.  Of course I had known that, practically, that would be the case, that I’d have to make do with little or no sleep for a good while, that I’d have to juggle looking after my baby with simple things like having a shower.  But it felt like much more than that, like part of me was just missing, the part which thought independently, which even moved independently (anyone who has finally got a crying baby to sleep in their arms, and then finds them self trapped in that position for the next couple of hours for fear of waking the baby – and their wrath – again will know exactly what I mean).  I knew who I was before, but who was I now?

Rachel Cusk touches on this in her introduction to ‘A Life’s Work’:

Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.  Another person has existed within her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness.  When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them.  To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.

This sums it up so well for me.  Yet some mums just seem to slip into that role as easily as they would change clothes, as if there is no division or sense of loss for them.  It certainly wasn’t what I’d expected, and it would have been nice to know that motherhood brings layer upon layer of changes and struggles, and they’re not all to do with lack of sleep or loss of a social life.

As time has gone by I’ve adjusted and got used to this new version of me.  I am much more aware of my failings, but perhaps that’s a good thing.  At least I can’t kid myself I’m any kind of angel.  More positively, I’ve also begun to get good at certain things.  I am much more impatient, but much more able to recognise when I need to practice patience and can now more easily make that choice.  I am discovering too that truth from Ecclesiastes 3:  there really is a time for everything.  I may feel sad about no longer doing the things I used to love doing (for example, I used to be really involved in youth work at our church, but now have a very limited involvement), but it’s both exciting and liberating to see that for now my focus needs to be closer to home. 

I don’t think being a mum is all I am, but ,since the day my daughter was born, it has underwritten all I am.   And I’m glad, because this means that I have the privilege of sharing my life with my daughter and my husband.  We are becoming the people we are meant to be, bit by bit, together.

August 2017
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