Sabbatical Reading

When you have three months off work there is more opportunity for reading without falling asleep after the first page. I wondered whether I should read lots of theology because the Lord knows I have plenty of those gathering dust on my shelves but some wise person on Twitter said ‘Read fiction – you’re on sabbatical!’ so I took him at his word. And let’s not forget there is often tons of theology in fiction anyway. So here is my list of reading for the past twelve weeks. (The ones I can remember anyway.)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. Missionary goes to evangelise aliens. 4 stars.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. 17th century Amsterdam, homosexuality, sugar and miniature things. 3 stars.

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. Time travel, humour, easy to read and loads more in the series. 4 stars.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. Children run away and hide in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Angels, Michelangelo and a fierce girl. 4 stars.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C Wrede. Another children’s book with dragons. Another fierce girl but she let the feminist side down by doing the dragon’s dishes. Good fun though. 3 stars.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. Fact not fiction but really interesting if you love gore. Never look at a fly in the same way again. 4 stars.

The Comforter by Margaret Hart. Written by a friend and interesting journey through counselling and spirituality and sexuality. 4 stars.

Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox. Sex , bishops, feminists in the C of E. Wonderful romp. 5 stars.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  13th century, young woman holed up in church, world keeps interfering. 5 stars.

A Brush with Death by Elizabeth J Duncan. Wales, love and amateur sleuths. More in series. 3 stars.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Marnie Riches. Amsterdam, Cambridge, secrets, fast-paced thriller. 4 stars.

Runaway by Peter May. Glasgow, London in swinging sixties, crime, putting things right. 4 stars.

The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle. Florence, Boboli Gardens, honeymoon killer, art history, stalker and murder. 4 stars.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Required reading for anyone who works in a hospital. Anyone. Not just doctors. 5 stars.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A single parent, fabby children, haunted house, racism in the deep south, a trial. 5 stars.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.  1st in fantasy series, touch of T H White, bastard son, Wit and Skilling mind games, thrilling ending. 5 stars

Missing by Karin Alvtegen. Scandi crime, homeless woman, serial killer, enlists young boy to help so became slightly unbelievable, fast pace. 3 stars.

And a host of art books too many to mention.

So what good books have you read lately?

Our Book Group begged a break while I was away so they could read what they liked but I now have a few good suggestions for when I get back. Always open for more suggestions although this is my unread bookcase so I’ve plenty to keep me going. (Two deep on most shelves!)

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A Century of Wisdom

books and coffeeDuring Lent I usually give up reading fiction for something a little more theological. It forces me to read something I might easily put aside for the latest bloodthirsty thriller. If left to my own devices I will willingly buy ‘religious’ books but never seem to get time to read them. My ‘unread’ bookcase attests to this. And I hardly ever read during the day except on my holiday. One day I will diary in some readings days and actually stick to it.

On the subject of bloodthirsty thrillers, one of the joys of the clergy conference is the conversations which happen in the Stag Bar. It was there that I discovered how much I had in common with Canon Malcolm Round, which is not something one might have expected. We both share a love of fictional thrillers, the more gory the better. He introduced me to Tess Gerritsen and I introduced him to Phil Rickman’s Merrily series.

But back to my Lent reading this year. I have just finished the first book I read which although not overtly ‘religious’ was certainly spiritual. It is A Century of Wisdom – Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (The World’s Oldest *Living Holocaust Survivor) by Caroline Stoessinger. The book was a real surprise and not what I was expecting at all. I imagined it would be about her life in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she was imprisoned with her son Rafi. In fact there is very little about her time there because Alice never wished to dwell on that, but instead lived life in the moment, always looking forward. Her optimism and strength is an inspiration, especially when you read that she loved people, loved everybody, was so full of joy. How can someone who spent years in hunger and in the worst of conditions be so positive?

*Alice died on 23 February 2014 at the age of 110, after the book was written.

Alice was a concert pianist in Prague before the war and reckons that it was her musical ability which saved her life and her son’s in Theresiendstadt. She was recruited to play in the orchestra there for the Nazis and in propaganda films they made. She lost her parents, and husband in Treblinka and Auschwitz. Before the war she moved in circles of well-known artists and writers: Kafka, Rilke, and Mahler.

After the war she found that she couldn’t continue to live in Prague because of anti-Semitism and moved to Israel and then later in life to London. When she was 99 her beloved son died. She played the piano every day, taught music to make a living, and loved to receive visitors every day.

Some of Alice’s sayings give us a hint of the personality which made her so unique:

A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.

Only when we are old do we realize the beauty of life.

Complaining does not help. It only makes everyone feel bad.

Laughter is wonderful. It makes you and everyone else feel happy.

School is only the beginning. We can learn all our lives.

Stay informed. Technology is wonderful.

My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.

I am richer than the world’s richest people, because I am a musician.

I love people. I am interested in the lives of others.

No one can rob your mind. I admire the Jewish people because of their extraordinary commitment to high education. Education of the children is the most important family value.

We do not need things. Friends are precious.

When I die I can have a good feeling. I have done my best – I believe I lived my life the right way.

In which Ruth is really disappointed with a new book

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from someone at Radio Scotland asking if I’d like to review a book for them and then appear on a show with Richard Holloway to discuss it. Bit of a no brainer, really. Free book. Chat to +Richard. What’s not to like? Especially as the book is called Archbishop by Michele Guinness, set in the future when the first female Archbishop heads up the CofE. Wow! Sign me up now!

The book arrived some time later and was the size of a small country, or a coffee table at least. And none of your big print rubbish either. This woman has written a novel to beat all big novels. So I took it on Retreat with me and settled down in my reclining chair in my cosy wee room and… promptly fell asleep. This happens on retreat, I’m told, until you’ve caught up with all the lost sleep you’ve suffered since the last holiday. Sometimes you read absolutely nothing at all but sleep for 4 days! In my case, it lasted about 24 hours before I managed to keep my eyes open for more than a page or two. That was when the anger kicked in.  My wrath kept me awake, oh yes. For this book was not what I expected at all. Your dream of the first woman Archbishop? Strong, witty, self-deprecating, feminist, liberal, charitable, pastoral … you see I’m describing myself here.  Joke! Well that was not to be this Archbishop, oh no.

The following review contains spoilers to the story so don’t read if you don’t want to know that she resigns in the end. Oops! Sorry!

The book is set in 2020 although there are flashbacks as we discover, bit by bit, Vicky Burnham-Woods’ journey to priesthood and up the slippery ecclesiastical ladder. Her predecessor is found dead in a hotel bedroom with a pair of ladies’ underwear, not his wife’s. Oh dear! Stereotype Number 1 (and so it went on). Then the Committee for Appointments can’t find a suitable replacement and put her name forward as the wild card. Men are against her. Women are against her. Her family are none too chuffed either. In fact, the only person she seemed to really get on with was the Queen in a most unbelievable storyline ever. (Yes, it was the current Queen but in her nineties and still going strong.)

She is a conservative evangelical who is anti-gay and understanding of the huge number of priests in Africa (now by far the largest part of the Anglican Alliance) who will struggle with a woman in authority over her. She immediately tells them she won’t ever do that. Throughout the book lines of Scripture pop up ‘as if highlighted in yellow’ or the Bible falls open at just a perfect verse from time to time to guide her.

She is outspoken and is a great supporter of the church offering social justice and she spends a lot of time fighting the Prime Minister and government over this issue. As a result the Govt passes a law to end religious proselyting and the church almost has to go underground. Of course, this makes it more popular. Vicky calls a Strike and really it all got so unbelievable that I cringed.

Then there is the relationship she has with her husband, Tom the Consultant. She takes on the job of Archbishop aware that it will mean more time away from her lovely handsome husband but promises to make time for him. Yeh right. If she couldn’t do it as Bishop, it ain’t ever gonna happen when she’s up on the next rung. Then yes, you guessed it, he has an affair. Then yes, you guessed it again, she nearly does – until a verse from Scripture flashes at her just at the right moment. Forgive, forgive. Resignation on moral grounds. What a heroine! Oh and we mustn’t forget the cancer thrown in to make her weak and vulnerable.

You’ve guessed I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her. I didn’t like the kind of priest she was. I didn’t agree with her theology. I thought the story was a bit Mills and Boon. There were far too many caricatures of CofE clergy: the jealous and caustic Anglo-Catholic; etc. I’m afraid I just kept thinking what a very different (and best-seller) this book could have been in the hands of Susan Howatch, Joanna Trollope, or Catherine Fox.

Mind you, it will sell. Twitter tells me so already how many clergy have purchased signed copies last week presumably because it was on sale near where Synod took place. And perhaps some will love it. It was Michele Guinness’ first work of fiction. I won’t be looking for the next one.


PS Oh you want to know how the radio interview went with Richard HOlloway? Awful, thanks for asking. Just awful. Nerves got the better of me, my mind went blank, I stuttered and stammered and couldn’t remember a thing about it. God bless the dear Editor Carol who managed to salvage enough for it to be okay and for me to not feel quite so sick. So why am I still waking at 2am with the perfect and witty reply to +Richard’s questions? Bah.

The Last Runaway

I am a huge fan of the books of Tracy Chevalier (she of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame). The thing I love most about them is that I learn about history in the context of a novel. And not just history, but some aspect of history that I knew nothing about. I have loved them all.

Thanks to Son #2 he gave me her latest ‘The last Runaway’ for my birthday recently and what a treat it is. So what did I learn in this book? I learned about the history of quilt making and the different designs; I learned about the first Quakers in America; and I learned about the underground Railroad which helped escaping slaves.

The story sees Honor setting sail from Bristol in 1850 with her sister Grace to a new life in America. Honor’s heart has been broken and she decides to accompany her sister who is going to get married and perhaps to find some adventure and a break with her old life. Honor and her sister are Quakers who live simply and traditionally. Sadly on the journey Grace dies and Honor has to carry on her own. She ends up in Ohio staying with her sister’s intended husband and his family. Ohio is a very different place from England and it takes time for Honor to settle.

The Quaker community oppose slavery in principle but they aren’t always prepared to break the law and help the runaway slaves from the south who pass through on their way to Canada and freedom. Honor struggles to find her place in the community especially when she is found to be helping feed and shelter passing slaves.

In her letters home we learn about Honor’s struggles with a new land and new ways of living. She talks about her quilting and how different the designs are in America. And we hear about the underground which assists the passage of slaves to freedom.

There are lots of strong women in this book which of course I loved. The characters were believable and the description was evocative as ever. 5 stars from me.

Leaving Church

When I was first ordained someone gave me a book of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons. I put them aside on a bookshelf meaning to read them some time but those early days of new ministry were awfully busy. Reading was way down on my list of priorities. I had had years of reading at University and Theological College… I wanted to be DOING.

Perhaps a couple of years later I heard someone raving about Barbara Brown Taylor, so I dug out the book and had a wee glimpse. Oh what a treat. What joys lay therein. These were sermons to dream over, to ponder, to come back to time and time again. And yes, I will confess to having pinched the odd idea from her.

A couple of years ago I heard that she had left the American Episcopal Church and my heart sank. What on earth had driven her to leave a successful ministry and go into teaching? She who was an icon for all women clergy in parish ministry. She whose preaching was so grounded in the people she served. She whose gift for storytelling and making connections was such an inspiration to the rest of us?

Leaving Church is the book that tells that story. I read it over two days with a pencil by my side marking phrases, paragraphs, whole pages to ponder again and share with my literary journal later. It is the book that you want all your busy, frazzled clergy friends to read before its too late. Passages like this:

I was not doing so well on the inside either.  In spite of my best intentions, I had dug myself back into the same hole that I had left All Saints’ to escape. My tiredness was so deep that it had seeped into my bones. I was out more nights than I was home. No matter how many new day planners I bought, none of them told when I had done enough. If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin.  As soon as I managed to convince myself that these were not cardinal sins, one of them would result in an oversight that caused a parishioner’s meltdown… (p98)

…Behind my heroic image of myself I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of those who did not try as hard as I did, and my huge appetite for approval. I saw the forgiving faces of my family, left behind every holiday for the past fifteen years, while I went to conduct services for other people and their families.  (p102)

In the end BBT ends up in a good place. She seems happy finding new ways of being creative with God teaching spirituality to young people.  Those of us who may not have such opportunities need to do something first before we end up disillusioned and very, very tired.

As my network of support seems to mainly come from social media like Facebook and Twitter these days, perhaps the church needs to look at ways of peer support in this area. As more clergy leave the church we need to ask why? BBT goes a long way to answering honestly some of those questions.

Leaving Church

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter – A book review

Picked this book up in the local Oxfam shop because I thought I’d heard about it. (Now not sure that I had.)

The book begins on a dark and stormy night when a doctor delivers his own twins. His son, born first, is fine and healthy but his daughter has Downs Syndrome. In a panic he asks his nurse to take the girl away to an institution and tells his wife there is only one child. (Somehow, conveniently,  she had passed out for the delivery.) Of course when the nurse takes the baby to the institution she finds out it is a terrible place and decides to bring up the girl herself. So far so good.

But from then on the book slows down to a crawl and although the writing is good, I’m not sure the research was. I just kept thinking that this would be so much better in Jodi Picoult’s hands as she covers these ethical dilemmas so much better. However, I did keep reading to the end just to see how it would pan out.  One of the problems for me was that I just didn’t really like any of the characters and the ending felt a little contrived.

It would appear that some people out there love this book so perhaps you need to make up your own mind. I’d give it 3 stars.

God Collar

So what have I been reading on my Kindle lately, I hear you cry. Well, thank you for asking, but this week I spent a few hours in various waiting rooms for which the Kindle was surely made. In and out, clothes off and on, and each time I just chucked the Kindle in my bag and there it was at the exact same page when I came back to it.

The book that I finally finished was one which I’ve been reading off and on for a wee while. It was God Collar by Marcus Brigstocke, based on his Edinburgh Festival and West End show of the same name. The premise of the book is that Marcus’ best friend died a few years ago and left a ‘God-shaped hole’ which he tries to explore. The book explores various faiths and pokes holes in them. However he isn’t always kind to the atheists and agnostics either. Yes, the book is funny as you’d expect from a comedian. But it is also a bit rambling in bits too. And I’m guessing that if you’re an atheist you’d enjoy it more than I did. I did enjoy some of it and some of the comments were scathing but true. But Brigstocke falls into the same trap that most atheists do in telling us he can’t believe in God because of x and y. And of course, if he actually listened to most Christians today he’d find that they don’t believe in x and y either.

Not sure if I’d recommend it. I suppose if you are interested in what keeps many people from church, then this will explain much. And it is funny in bits. But somehow I came away feeling just a little bit disappointed that he hadn’t met some of my friends.

The Revelations by Alex Preston

I have just finished the most marvellous book called The Revelations. Can’t think for the life of me where I saw it reviewed but it might have been the Church Times. Anyway I’ve read it for the last three days and it has been a while since I found a book that made me want to read and read until I finished it.

The story is of four university friends who start going to The Course (an Alpha-style movement) to find the meaning of life. Quickly they become enthralled with it and the charismatic priest who runs it. At times they do share some hesitations about the teachings of The Course (no sex before marriage, anti-gay) but manage to stifle it. When they are asked to become course leaders for a new intake of people, they are nervous but excited. However, behind the happy smiles and beautiful people lie dark secrets and desires. As The Course progresses things start to unravel and when it comes to the Weekend Retreat where the Holy Spirit is guaranteed to visit and all are expected to speak in tongues, the darkness takes over.

I loved the characters in this book and could empathise with their doubts. The author made it all seem so real and believable which is rather alarming really. But if anyone is suspicious of Alpha then this will confirm your worst fears. Of course, the author never calls it Alpha but it is so close that I’m sure there will be noises from the Evangelicals about this novel. He quite clearly is not a fan. It is quite a dark book but an interesting critique of the church.

The Secrets of Pain

I’ve just finished (on my Kindle, in case you’re interested) the 11th book in the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman: The Secrets of Pain. It seems to have been a long wait for this latest one in the series to come out because Mr Rickman also writes other books as well and one must assume he was busy doing just that. But I’m afraid I was a little disappointed with this latest offering, although I see all the reviews on Amazon are excellent so perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

As the blurb says about Merrily Watkins:

Merrily Watkins, parish priest, single mother, exorcist, works for the Diocese of Hereford in a remote village on the border of England and Wales. Like many men and women doing an essentially medieval job in an increasingly secular society, she’s never certain how much she can permit herself to believe. It doesn’t help that she sometimes has to work with psychiatrists and the police. Or that her employer, the Church of England, is far from free of prejudice, sexism, greed and corruption. Or that Merrily’s teenage daughter is more interested in paganism than the priesthood. No wonder she smokes. No wonder she occasionally lapses into language hard to find in the Bible.

And indeed, that has been the main reason for me reading and enjoying the series. However, my criticism of The Secrets of Pain would be that there just wasn’t enough of Merrily in this book. Oh she was there, flitting about reading Julian of Norwich and managing to be out and about the hills on Maundy Thursday evening. I mean, come on! What parish priest has time to gad about the countryside on Maundy Thursday? In fact, she seems to be most laid back priest I’ve ever encountered in Holy Week but perhaps the CofE does things a little differently.

There was plenty of Lol, her boyfriend, and Jane, her daughter. And the other faves were in there too:  Gomer and Ethel the cat, Frannie Bliss et al. In fact this book seemed to be more about the love life of the police than anything remotely priestly. (Not that I object to reading about someone’s love life, you understand, but at my age frankly I’d rather read about the machinations of the church.)

The plot involves countryside politics, fox hunting, ley lines, Roman history and Mithraic rituals, cock fighting, the SAS and ex-soldiers gone bad.  It was more crime than supernatural which I missed.

Actually it was a good story and I raced through it in a couple of days, so don’t let what I’ve said above put you off. (And it did just cost me 99p for the Kindle version when it isn’t even out in paperback yet.)  I just felt that it could have done with more Merrily and less of her unbelievably stupid daughter Jane. More church next time, please, Mr Rickman.