Tag Archives: Books

Pharmacy; Canteen; CND; Pooh and Dorothy Day

So I have had an interesting few days doing what I don’t normally do….simply relaxing and allowing myself to be looked after. Over the last few days I have chilled out and enjoyed reading non-course related stuff aswell as a bit of quality modern art.

The first book I consumed was Now More Than Ever by Kate Hudson. It’s a history of CND and the peace movement. Now it’s not the best written book I ever read and heavily biased in favour of the Labour Party. However, it is an interesting read which makes an interesting point about the role Christians play(ed) in CND. At one point she says it was estimated that 23% of CND’s members were Christians. Whilst Quakers are primarily praised in the book, with references to their various peace camps it is clear that many different denominational backgrounds were present and active within the peace movement. CND Book

The second and best book I devoured was Dorothy Day by Deborah Kent. It was a facinating biography of a woman I highly regard. For me Dorothy Day gives a model of how one can be a lone parent, with a passion for social justice serving God. I do not presume I will ever get close to her model of servanthood, but I can seek to learn about her to find out about her faith. It is a book which was written, I think, with young people in mind. This means it is an easy to read book, but it equally contains a good story of faith and service. The language is not academic but it is still a stimulating book and one I would recommend.Dorothy Day.

I have also started reading a Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus. I have been greatly suprised by how much I am enjoying it. If you want to escape into a time past when innocence was more than a smoothie I can’t encourage you to read this book enough. Also and best of all, Piglet is the right colour.Pooh

Besides all the reading we made a trip into Newcastle and discovered a delightful cafe called Canteen Cafe and Bar. The review linked to says it’s expensive, but we managed to get a nice ickle deal on two meals for £8.95 which were very filling. I had a full roast within this deal. Can’t recommend the place enough. Most enchanting was the fact the menus are placed within the shells of childrens books. Ours was in a Rupert annual.

Finally it was off to the Baltic. Have to say at the moment they have the best collection of exhibitions I’ve seen there. Whilst the Pharmacy installation by Damian Hirst is facinating, it is lacking in a vital ingredient which both TOH and I were searching for….proper Calpol. The 6+ is included, but there is no box of proper wonder-drug there. You can find a box for your second generation anti-depressent of choice though. This and the Malcolm McLaren exhibition Shallow make the visit worthwhile. Note to the Tate Modern people here…Shallow actually shows how porn can be taken, subverted and made proper art. This was in stark contrast to the exhibition at the Modern we saw a few weeks ago.

The best exhibition at the Baltic at the moment is Parrworld by Martin Parr. Through photography and general tat he makes a wonderful exhibition relating to social and political history which is amusing, challenging and provoking aswell as nostalgic. Well worth a visit.

Reading recommendations

Yesterday I took some time to read Living it Out by Rachel and Sarah Hagger-Holt and finished reading the Reflective Disciple by Roger Walton. I’ve mentioned them both on the blog before, but only just finished reading them. For reasons which will be come clear I have a bit of a soft spot for both books. So expect a couple of reviews today that are aiming to be quite objective but may end up being a little subjective.

As regular readers will be aware I was one of the contributors to “Living it Out”. Living it OutMy contributions were related to giving my insight into coming out to your child and related to the whole coming out, but staying in saga of my resigning membership but staying an active part of my old church. It’s a book which has been compiled via networking, largely. Also wonderfully, and this is something I didn’t realise until I started reading it contains a series of ASBO Jesus cartoons.

The book is subtitled, “A survival guide for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians, and their friends, families and churches”. It is different to practically every other book I’ve come across on the subject for several reasons:
1) Whilst the age of the contributors is very mixed the majority of LGB people quoted are in their 20’s and 30’s.
2) The large spectrum of denominational and theological backgrounds the contributors came from. It covered experience from High Anglican to Charismatic Evangelical; Brethren; Baptist; CofE; Roman Catholic; Methodist; Salvation Army and United Reformed that I noted.
3) This is a book which really does do what it says on the cover. It is a practical handbook of other peoples experience which also lays out the range of choices to be made and possible consequences. It is neither a rehashing of the debates on the biblical text or a civil rights discourse. It really is a book about what real life is like for LGB Christians, their families and their straight allies.

The main topics covered include: self acceptance; coming out to parents/ children/ pastors/ churches; the challenges of a career in a church and civil partnershp planning issues. As such it’s a book I would urge chaplains, pastors, LGB Christians and there friends and family to have on their bookshelves ready to lend out as required.

In many ways “Living it Out” can be seen as an aid in supporting reflective discipleship amongst LGB Christians and their friends, families and churches. To adequately cover what Walton is doing with The Reflective DiscipleReflective Disciple is difficult. It is a book which jumps about alot, weaving a tapestry to give a picture of what contemporary discispleship may look like. The book is partly a critique of the (post)modern church in all it’s mixed economy forms. This critique is thougtful and contains acknowledgement of the good and bad aspects. It’s partly a call to engage in theological reflection and education based upon waking up and smelling the coffee about the real world outside the church. In terms of theological reflection Walton doesn’t actually use the “t” word, and explains why he doesn’t, even if this is what he is talking about. It’s also partly a vision of hope. Finally it is a call for a faithful but inclusive church which is involved in dialogue, learning from others both inside and outside the church for the long haul. When I say he talks of the church he focuses upon “individuals” and “the local church”; the growth of discipleship has to be on a micro level.

From a personal perspective I was really stuck by the description of the birth and development MANNAs and the church it grew out of on page 169/ 170. I know and love this ministry and church it is part of. Walton describes the church in the following way:
“This is not a traditional evangelical church but it is a growing, lively missionary community whose worship aswell as its lunch club is infused with energy. By taking some action to connect with the people of its natural sphere of life, the Christians of this church began to refelct on what mission means and found that it grew and developed.” – Not a bad place to call home these days 😀

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Basically, this is not a read once book. To get a real grasp on this stuff and use it to reorientate your thought and practice will require multiple readings and discussion with others. As an “academic” book, aswell as a popular one – it’s applied theology at it’s best – it is a bit pricey. But if you have some spare Amazon vouchers or whatever that you’re wondering what to do with after Christmas I would say it’s well getting hold of.

I know I’ve been a tad biased on both of these, but in their own way each makes refreshing, intelligent and in places challenging reading.

Softening attitudes and admiration

Ok, hands up those of us who remember floating around with a silly smile on our faces on the morning of 2nd of May 1997 and then over the next twelve years saw those smiles disolve into feelings of betrayal. I have to admit I was one of those and for me the key instigators of the betrayal were Peter Mandleson and the Blairs. So it was when I began reading Cherie Blair’s autobiography Speaking for Myself that I expected to be bombarded by spin and sentiment. The exact opposite is true and this is one of the most different and engaging auto-biographies or biographies I have ever read.

Whilst all memoirs are taking a position and trying to paint a particular picture this one is different from most. Yes there are clear ommissions, most noteably about the miners strike which becomes one short incidental paragraph but this is more personal than most. What is most striking and perhaps is reflected within the title is the lack of a ghost writer. Autobiographies are often noted for the emphasis on the sob story or the fortitude of the writer and often they give a clear insight into the writers early life and professional life but not their personal life. This though has the ring of a woman who just wants to tell it like it is / was and thank alot of people who wouldn’t normally get a look in, but have helped keep a bizarre world bearable. It is a book which gives a facinating into the beliefs of “average Catholics” who are devout in their faith but totally at home in the late modern world and the reality of their lives reflects this and the contrictions that then occur between “official doctrine” and day to day practice and attitudes.

It is a book which does not read like either a feminist tract or religious testimony but yet could be seen as both and more besides. Within the book Blair talks about the reality of balancing a busy life and being a working mum. She talks about the importance faith has in your decision making but equally how at times you decide to disregard the churches formal teaching because it is totally out of step with modern life. Within this she also talks about the way your faith directs your own beliefs and decision making processes but it does not lead you to condemn or comment upon others who make different choices. It is a book which talks about friendship but also about politicing. It is also a book which talks realistically about the demands being in the public eye puts on people. In short it is a book about real life and a real woman.

It also moves beyond Mandleson and gives insight into the mind of a New Labour supporter. It shows what the motivations were and how the complex beliefs in and against socialism work. It is a book which has made me more sympathetic to the architects position, although still not leading me to agree with much of it.

If I were to recommend one non-fiction book to read this year I think it would be this one. I’d also recommend you take a look at her website, which reflects what I would regard as the sensible face of feminism, although I am sure that you would never find the f word coming from her lips.

Sacrilege

Ok, so Winnie-The-Pooh is not quite a sacred text in the way the bible is, but it would come a very close second for many of us. Therefore, just like the bible, we can cope when it is used as the basis for teaching us principles of life (Pooh and the Philosophers by John Tyerman Williams, Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff or Winnie-The-Pooh on Success by Roger E. Allen and Stephen D. Allen). Also we are quite happy when study aids are provided like The Pooh Dictionary by A.R. Melrose. We might also have differences of opinion about the validity of certain translations (like the Disney version). Yet we do not expect the cannon to be changed or added to. Therefore however good it might be Return to Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus is sacrilege. That was certainly my first thought when I read though the Guardian Pass Notes this morning and was alerted to the new text.

Having looked through chapter one on the Penguin site I have to say that it does look like a well written book with some excellent illustrations, (I am really impressed with Mark Burgess work). However, as I say this cannot and must not become viewed as a cannonical work. The only true texts are those which came from the pen of A.A. Milne and were illustrated by E.H. Shepard.

That said I guess Benedictus is just doing to a higher standard what so many of us have done with our children down the years, returning to the wood with Pooh and his friends, making up new stories. I remember when Third Party was young we would sit in bed with our, (I can’t pretend they all belonged to her), collection of soft toy versions of the characters using the Winnie-The-Pooh quilt set she had as hundred acre wood and enact new tales. The most frequent ones I would make up for Third Party would involve Pooh and his friends saving Hundred Acre Wood from developers and particularly the new Sainsbury’s they wanted to build on there. As such Third Party was subjected to Pooh and the Honey Pots retold with the addition of lock ons and Swampy style antics. However, she was also taught to respect and love the original texts as a whole.

If this post has sounded a little negative about a book I shall undoubtably buy or request on my Christmas list don’t worry….I follow in the prophetic tradition started by Eeyore. As such I end on a negative from Eeyore’s Little Book of Gloom:

‘ “There is an invitation for you.”…
“Ah!” said Eeyore. “A mistake, no doubt, but still, I shall come.
Only don’t blame me if it rains………” ‘

A Classic!!!!

Been having the opportunity to do some deep reflection lately and enjoy some reading time on the train. Douglas Coupland has a new book out Generation A. Could go into a deep one on this; as it is I will highly recommend you to read it yourself…..one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
A few words to describe it: ironic, hilarious, moving, clever, engaging, wonderful, deep, theological, anthropological, insightful and entertaining.

Julie Walters and Cybernation

The holiday reading I enjoyed this weekend was the Julie Walters autobiography, “That’s Another Story” and “Cybernation” by Erica Blaney.

Cybernation is a childrens novel, but one of those which is equally appropriate for older children or adults. It’s set in a futuristic world where the Wayfarers have become seen as an inferior race to the Appaloosians. Within this world all is not as it first seems, with apparently deadly consequences. It is down to Solly (a Wayfarer) and Lalune (an Appaloosian) who are both best friends and two thirds of the fulfilment of a prophecy to save the day. Whilst it was a fast moving adventure the ending was somewhat disappointing, ending a little too abruptly.

The plot develops in a gripping way and has a feel which is both ancient and modern with its mix of references to both technology and nature. The treatment of the Wayfarers is reminicent of the Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Yet the stream of twenty first computer language which is intermingled brings this traditional theme up to date. There could have been more detail on what was happening to the adult Wayfarers throughout the book, but it seemed that might be the theme for a future book in the series. I am guessing that I am not the only older reader, with a knowledge of the camps who would have wanted reassurance or confirmation of what happened to the older Wayfarers.

I thought the way it was shown some Appaloosians were also victims and that the reality of the situation was far more complicated than initially envisaged was excellent. The glossaries were helpful, but would have been better at the beginning of the book than the end.

So all in all clearly an introductory book which was a good adventure but left you with more questions than answers. I am v. glad that I also got the second book in the series with my gift voucher for giving my opinions on post-grad training at the uni. If you are wondering what to buy for an avid male or female reader of the age of about 9 or above I recommend these as a bit of a stocking filler, night time or bit of holiday reading. For younger readers of about 6 onwards this would make an excellent thing to read them as a bed time story series.

As I said, the other book I read over the weekend was Julie Walters memoir “That’s Another Story”. It’s a book where she gives an account of a very ordinary but academically disappointing childhood and her subsequent path into a glittering acting career. She gives a series of anacdotes about her early family life, nursing career, first serious romance, acting career and success. The acting stories included odd references related to her more recent work aswell which was interesting.

Whilst there was alot of detail missing about her contemporary life, because she clearly wished to protect the privacy of her family, it was still facinating. It was also quite touching because there were points at which she acknowledged that not all the decisions she had made the wisest. This was a facinating and gentle autobiography which left you smiling and glad that she had made the decision to stay in Britain rather than moving full time to Hollywood when she had the opportunity.

Small Groups

Housegroups, cell groups, self-help groups, Christian Union groups, book groups, film societies, and so on…all of them are part of what Robert Wuthnow describes as part of the small group movment in his study “Sharing the Journey”. Whilst the 2000 interviews were conducted nearly two decades ago and the book itself was published 15 years ago it makes interesting reading and gives a facinating insight into the way social science becomes incorporated into popular applied theology books and practice. The undeniable echo of selected parts of this study is clear in many Christian books discussing the benefits of small groups and how they should operate. This is not suprising considering that few books have looked at the subject in the same depth as the 366 pages of analysis this book has, prior to moving on to the methodology. Whilst, as indicated, the book is looking at the small group movement as a whole it has an undeniable focus on those small groups which link in some way to the spiritual.

His central argument is that small groups are changing our understandings of community and redifining spirituality. The findings of the book are that the majority of small groups have existed for more than five years, although many members may be more recent and that these groups can be positive, particularly in the emotional benefits they generate. For the 40% of Americans who were members of these groups in the early 90’s these groups provided an environment where people met regularly and care and support were provided. Thus, he says they become “surrogate sources of intimacy and primary identity”. They are based, he argues, on storytelling, but it is not a communal story telling rather it is the telling and retelling of individual stories, which others listen to and offer affirmation or advice on. Some of us, particularly within churches, become socialised into these groups. They become central in both our quest for community and spirituality within a late modern society, he says. Yet he also argues they have problems and disadvantages: disagreements; they are uncomfortable places for the shy; they require a time commitment many find difficult, they can lead to people feeling they don’t fit in and give unrealistic expectations. They also, perhaps more distubingly, have the power he claims to “domesticate the sacred”, leading us into a superficial spirituality which is based more upon constructing our own version of the sacred within groups rather than actually moving toward a deeper spirituality. In short he can be seen as saying one danger of small groups is that they can give us spirituality lite.

The solution to these problems he concludes is to encourage people to be part of small groups but only within a wider framework of theological education.

This is the sort of sociology which makes my hair stand on end when I read it. On one hand I need to think about it academically but on the other it is the sort of sociology which demands engagement beyond the academy. This is the sort of study which makes me wish that more people in church outside of leadership positions, aswell as within them, would pick up sociology of religion or practical theology books occassionally and engage in a spot of reflexive practice. It’s one of those studies which makes you think about your own thinking and practice and ask the questions what do I do and why do I actually do it?

Reading Wuthnow I realise I was socialised into the small group culture from a young age. As a teenager I attended a youth group which met as a small group on both Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and mid-week I would attend the church prayer meeting. Moving onto into my twenties I joined a couple of societies including the Christian Union, and was also part of a housegroup. Into my thirties and I have not only done the housegroup thing periodically, but there has been the book group, an accountability group and Methsoc amongst others….and yes, certainly I have used some of them to try and find or extend community. That’s without even touching upon the online communities I am part of which may or maynot be defined as small groups.

Have they proved a help or hinderence? Have they built up my faith or fostered a dependency? Have they deepened my spirituality or provided me with spirituality lite? And finally have they provided me with the sense of community I have been looking for? Well the answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit of yes, a spot of no, and quite alot of grey stuff inbetween.

Some have helped me. The main ways have been through helping me develop and extend my friendship groups. Practically, some of them have provided me with support when I’ve needed it. Yes I think that some have helped build up my faith but some also did make me foster a certain dependency. They have challenged me sometimes but honestly I think they have not helped deepen my spirituality that much…theological education and one to one encounters with people have done that far more. As for the community thing I think sometimes they have met that need but often they have fostered unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.

One of the biggest mistakes I made this year, if not the biggest, was looking backwards at small group experiences and friendships I had back in Kent and longing to recreate them in Durham, with new people. In Kent it happened that I had a circle of 30 and 40 somethings from church and to a lesser extent work that I shared deeply with. I spent way too long this year searching for this, when it was quite simply not available. I kept thinking that if I found the right small group I would magically be able to (re)-create the relationships I had found so useful in Kent, but with new people. I thought community was to be found here. I ended up feeling dispirited and lonely when my search continually failed.

But then something changed. I accepted that I had to focus on the situation as it is now not as it was then. I had to look at the relationships I had formed in a different way, not searching for this elusive “community”. It turned out, I realised, that I had gotten to know a fair number of people this year. If I started to invite them out to dinner or to the pub occassionally I realised we wouldn’t have what small groups provide but we would have fun and start to develop the friendships more. Other people will not become friends in the conventional sense, there are just way too many professional networks in this city with their own inbuilt boundaries. Thus I won’t get that level of knowledge of some people I have gotten in some of the types of small groups I am used to, but I will get that level of interaction which comes through networking.

The net result of all this is that I actually have to take more responsibility for my own life and emotions. I have people around me to look out for me and offer me a kick up the backside if I need it but there is a healthy distance involved. There are no longer people around who feel they have the right to step in and allow me, to some extent, to abdicate responsibility for my own life when it all gets a little crazy. I have also been encouraged to take resposibility more for my own spiritual journeying, but in a way which has acted to resource me more. Within the groups I have found myself in this year I have been given tools to try out and use to build my relationship with God up rather than a flatback to assemble with others, whether it is actually what I need or not.

So my own conclusion is that Wuthnow is right, small groups do have their place but only if used in conjunction with other sources of theological education, recognising the potential weaknesses aswell as strengths they have. Also perhaps we need to stop focusing on our need for “community” and start focusing on our need for “God” in group and individual settings.

The Supernatural Effects of Vampire Chick Lit

I have realised that a spell is cast through good vampire chick lit which is wonderful. It has the power to banish, at least for a few hours, the following in teenage girls: channel surfing, a constant craving for food and repetition of the mantra “I’m bored”.

The Twilight series by Stephanie Myers had this power and so I am finding does the House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast.

I have to admit I took a risk in Waterstones, the sort of gamble which only comes from the desperation of wondering exactly what you are going to do with your teenager for the next few weeks. I also fess up to way the 3 for 2 stickers helped encourage me and so did the book cover which had that certain trashy yet elegant look, which teenage vampire chick lit appears to have.

Anyway after about 5 hours of sitting with Q radio on, and a noticeable lack of interruptions I knew I had chosen well. Yesterday Third Party literally devoured Marked in one sitting, and I note started Betrayed before bed. So if you know a teenage girl, particularly one who loved Twilight, who is complaining they are bored this holiday you could do worse than throwing them a copy of Moved.

A Bit of Bryson

If you are studying in Durham it is a bit hard to avoid the shadow of Bill Bryson. The man, I think, is present only occassionally in person but his spirit lurks frequently because he is “Chancellor and official head of the University”…as the relevant page on the uni website says. The library has come up with the idea of Bill Bryson bags to make a bit of cash and Waterstones has prominent displays of his books. So it is that this author enters your consciousness whether you intend him to or not…..and eventually it is inevitable I guess you will give in and read some of his stuff, including that book.

Yes, it’s happened to me. It started when friends….who knew about the Bryson thing discovered I’d never read any of his stuff. They supplied me with a couple of good quality 2nd hand copies of Neither here Nor there Travels in Europe and Shakespeare, which I used as train reading when I was doing my commuting to work earlier in the year. I have to say I was hooked as soon as I started going through the first travel-log. This was clearly a book for intelligent people who don’t take life too seriously and see it how it actually is. It was a book for those of us who will arrive in some places and gasp in wonder at the beauty of it, enthusing a bit too much because this place has got us hooked and yet will arrive in other places and say “don’t know what all the fuss is about, this is a bit of a shit hole….where should we go instead?” It’s a book for those of us who don’t treat art galleries like libaries but rather laugh at the funny stuff, and take the mickey out of the crap stuff and also out of the pretentious types around us sometimes.

Moving onto Shakespeare it’s cynical popularist history. Giving you lots some information you don’t know but telling you more why you can’t trust alot of stuff you thought you did know there is a refreshing honesty in the book. It spends most of the time saying actually we know bugger all about Shakespeare, apart from his plays which were brilliant, and anybody who says different is using a whole lot of conjuncture or is plain and simply making it up.

Anyway, having had the commute removed I have decided to try and keep up with the one or two chapters a day of non-academic reading….and have discovered the joys of keeping a book by the bedside. Anyway, so it is that I am currently making my way through that book , or rather the omnibus edition, The Complete Notes, which also includes Notes from a Big Country.

Now, for those of you who wonder why I keep referring to it as “that book” let me explain. In Durham it has an almost mythical status. To be honest I couldn’t understand until I started reading…and yes I did skip through to find the bit relating to Durham first. The first reason it has such a status around these parts relates to what he actually says about the place. Quotes include “I couldn’t believe that not once in twenty years had anyone said to me, “you’ve never been to Durham? Good God, man, you must go at once! Please-take my car”.” and so he enthuses in this vein.

However, the reasons I think he has got the reception he has in Durham goes beyond what he may have done for the local tourist industry. Within the book, I am discovering, he pretty much trashes Oxford and Cambridge….and there are some around this city for whom that would be relevant. Personally, I struggle with it as I absolutely adore Cambridge and the old fashioned, slightly worn at times, market. For me it’s all a bit different I guess as my failed attempt to study there was when I didn’t get the A Level grades I needed to take up my place at the poly…or whatever the correct term for the New University is. Thus I don’t have the chip on my shoulder many a rejected Oxbridge candidate appears to have.

Anyway I digress, back to Mr. Bryson and that book. I’m still working my way through, but it is a gem. It takes you around the country, to locations you might vaguely remember visiting yourself. Thus you find yourself comparing his experiences to your own. It’s a book which will make you laugh, affirm (as in the “too right” type comment) and want to go out exploring. It’s also, though, a book which is fun because it allows the worst aspects of regional rivalries to come out in you. I was almost sitting there cheering when he decided Norwich wasn’t worth heading off to after all and so he headed up to Nottinghamshire instead.

To conclude then, even if you are not in Durham, I would recommend you head to the nearest library or second hand book shop at once to obtain a copy of one of Bryson’s books….and if you English (oh, and even if you’re not) that book is definately worth getting hold of.

Dreams From My Father

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama was my train reading, to relax with, this weekend. It was originally published in 1995, way before he could realistically thought he might become president. As such it gives an interesting insight into how possibly the most powerful man in the world saw himself before the Washington experience.

Yes, it paints a picture of his life which was carefully crafted to show what he wanted people to see, but it also has a raw honesty many politicians never let us see.

It tells the story of one mans search for identity. A search about what it means to not fit into the “average” boxes. Ethnicity and class issues feature strongly, as does religion and the search for faith.

What I found most interesting were his pictures of diverse forms of family and single parenthood. Single parents, particularly single mothers become normalised in this book. They were a part of the story and for once part of the story not portrayed as heroic or broken. The narrative showed how / why the situation is not ideal but it also showed how it cannot be used as an excuse. Single mothers in this book, supported by those around them, not only help raise the president they are also community activists and career women.

It also shows a respect for older members of the community which is strong but not unquestioning.

Beyond all this it also quite simply a well written, good read. If you haven’t read it yet I would highly recommend.