In which Ruth ponders 10 books

books and coffeeFollowing Father Kirstin’s example, here are the 10 books I was asked to pick quickly that have stayed with me. It is a meme on Facebook just now and has turned out to be such fun and a welcome break from ice-buckets and Scottish politics. For those of you not on Facebook you might want to join in so please do below. We were told not to think about it too hard so these literally are the first ten which came to mind, and why. Since then I have read all my friends’ lists and could add a thousand more.

  1. Skallagrigg by William Horwood. This book was introduced to me by a friend Sheena Liddell who recommended it highly. It was such an unusual book and held me horrified and intrigued. I couldn’t put it down and have since recommended it to loads of folk. I then went on to read his Duncton Wood series which were spiritual and mole-ish and lovely.
  2. The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. Not long after I started going to church I asked my priest if there was such a place as hell and this is the book he told me to go and read. I can still remember it vividly and often do the same to my little flock when they ask.
  3. Perfume by Patrick Suskind. This was a recommendation by a work colleague Mike Nicholson, now an author himself. He said the writing was incredibly descriptive and he wasn’t wrong. That first page! The smells! And how dark it was. Delicious. Not everyone agrees with me and I’ve done it in two book groups where folk hated it.
  4. Some Day I’ll Find You by HA Williams. This one came up in a conversation with a Roman Catholic monk who couldn’t believe that I hadn’t already read it. After I did, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t on our reading list in theological college. An autobiography that was honest and so easy to read. I loved it.
  5. Alan Ecclestone by Tim Gorringe. Was this on my reading list at theological college or did I find it on my own? I don’t remember but I do remember reading it at a summer school and underlining just about every line and shouting ‘Yes! I want to be a priest like that!’ I failed miserably but he is still a hero. And then, of course, that led me on to read Kenneth Leach and why didn’t I list any of his books in my top 10 which I also adored, and now count him as a friend.
  6. Crosstitch by Diana Gabaldon. Who told me to read this one? Sheena? Sally? I know we all read them at the same time. Magic, Scotland, Highlands, Culloden, and the beloved Jamie. A great series to begin with but I did go off them when it all went to the USA. But that first one will always be the best. (Now called Outlander in some parts of the world and about to be a TV series and I can’t wait.)
  7. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I think this was suggested by a friend Irene Hutchison and introduced me to women of Arthur’s court. Love powerful women in a book and there is a whole series. Not sure how many I’ve read and still have some in my unread pile.
  8. The Once and Future King by TH White. Now funnily enough, this came up in a conversation with Bishop Michael Hare-Duke when he spoke to me on a retreat about the unicorn (don’t ask me why) and love but the unicorn got me interested.  Merlin, Arthur again and unicorns. What’s not to like?
  9. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I read this many, many years ago and fell in love with the story about how the author wrote the story. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve given it to and they all love it as well. You never look at cathedrals in the same way again.
  10. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. There were so many that I could have chosen by this children’s author but I think War Horse is my favourite. I went through a period of reading children’s books just a few years ago and was enchanted to find such good stuff in that genre: Madeline l’Engle (via Mother Kimberly); Mallory Blackman (via Louise Daly); and a host of others. 

So that was my quick ten books. Since then I’ve been reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Miss Garnet’s Angel, Take This Bread by Sara Miles, Anne Lamott’s books, Nadia Bolz-Weber, The Owl That Called My Name, Birdsong, Pat Barker’s trilogy, Kate Atkinson, and of course all my lovely Phil Rickman and other clerical crime ones. OK I’d better stop there.  I could go on and on and on. I now have a bookcase jammed full of unread books and a Kindle packed with classics and bargains and other recommendations and just not enough time to read them all. I think it was last year that I made a resolution to try and get through the year without buying any more books and just read the ones I had. I think I lasted until May and it was hell.

The delightful thing about this has been reading other friends’ lists. Some familiar, some unknown but loads more to add the wishlist. I’m so glad to have booky friends.

In which Ruth finally gets to see War Horse

WarHorseI read the book War Horse some years ago, long before it became so famous. That was during me ‘children’s book’ phase. I spent many months thoroughly enjoying some old books of mine and some current bestsellers. Michael Murpurgo became a firm favourite and I’m still picking them up in charity shops. You may not know that I also have an interest in WW1 and so War Horse was an emotional and enjoyable book to read.

Then I saw a programme on TV about the stage play. I saw how the horses were going to be put together and played. It was something I’d never seen in my life before and looked absolutely incredible. I knew then that I wanted to go and see it on stage as soon as I could.

The National Theatre have been playing it in the west end for some time now and I was planning on how to get down to see it, when my baby bought me tickets last Christmas (yes, over a year ago!) for when it came to Edinburgh. Best seats too – second front row of the stalls.

Would it be an exaggeration to say I’ve been excited for a year now? Well, obviously not every waking minute but whenever mention was made of War Horse my heart would go clippety-clop. Friends have been to see it, of course, and have waxed lyrical. “Oh you’ll love it, Ruth!” they cry. And so I have waited and waited and on Friday my time had come.  Then you worry. What if I don’t like it as much as everyone else? What if it doesn’t work for me? Silly billy.

(NOTE the following contains spoilers of the story and production!)

It was the most wonderful piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Standing ovation theatre, in fact. I’m not one who usually cries at films or books but there is something about the theatre which has been known to make me well up. (I think that’s the could-have-been actress in me! I’ve been known to sob and gasp as the curtain goes up, for heaven’s sake.) In War Horse it was the sight of the very first glimpse of Joey as a foal which got me hunting for the hankie. But do bear in mind that I’ve not been well this week, had lost my voice and was really meant to be in my bed. However, I went through two cloth hankies throughout the evening, sobbing quietly to myself. It was the horses wot dun it. They were just so … glorious… majestic… breathtaking. I’d been told that very quickly you don’t notice the puppeteers. That wasn’t war horse puppetstrue for us, but it didn’t make it any less beautiful. What the puppeteers did, their focus was exquisite.  Never for one moment did their attention stray from their job, be it breathing, flicking a tail, stamping a foot or twitching an ear. I could have watched that all night long. I want to see it again now!

Am I gushing? Yes, I fear I am. Of course the story itself is what first drew me to it and that is beautifully done. There are a few changes but they don’t detract from the book really. I think the National Theatre did it extremely well and I loved the use of fences and poles to mark out areas on stage. The torn piece of the artist’s notebook which became the partial backdrop was a stroke of genius and well used. The gun shots scared the living daylights out of me each time – even when I knew it was coming – but perhaps that was because we were so close to the front. The continual smoke did catch our throats but I guess it was to allow people to get off and on stage without being noticed and I can see it was really effective during the war scenes. Big howls from me and others when Joey got stuck in the barbed wire. Oh my goodness, how heart rending was that? A horse screaming was gut-wrenching.

For my son it was less about the story and more about the horses – and the goose! I could see that the mechanics of it were what grabbed him. For me it was all of it. The birds soaring out above our heads, the horses, the lighter moments of the goose, Albert’s mother… och it was all wonderful. I’m gushing again!

And then it was over. And the cast came on. And we leapt to our feet with all those around us. I’ve never done that before. The cast looked genuinely touched too.

Just go and see it. Ok?

Oh you have?  Tell me what you thought.

Books what I have read

Ever since I re-read the Chronicles of Narnia this Lent, I have been enjoying reading some children’s books. There is something about their directness, their sense of mystery and magic that really makes them rather special.  (In fact, this morning I was reminiscing about The Velveteen Rabbit and our need to be ‘real’ at the Feast of All Saints.) We had a first meeting of our new Book Group this week and it got me thinking to when I started reading. I always had my nose in a book as a child and when my mum sent me to my room for some misdemeanour it was never really the punishment she thought, for I was quite happy to curl up in the old brown leather armchair and escape into another world. Like most children of my generation my first books were by Enid Blyton. Oh how I wished I could go to boarding school like the twins at Mallory Towers. My friend Valerie and I spent all our pocket money on disguises in the joke shop on Forrest Road so that we too could solve crimes like the Secret Seven, although quite how we thought anybody would be fooled by a rather pathetic acrylic beard beats me. Then there were the Famous Five and lashings of custard and apple pie from complete strangers in those oh so innocent times. (I could always relate to George.)

As a teenager I progressed to whatever my mum was reading which was Georgette Heyer and then Daphne du Maurier. At an all girl’s school we were starved of male attention so any romance was lived out on the pages of bodice rippers. Mum had a series of classics from the Reader’s Digest and I worked my way through the greats like Pride and Prejudice, The Woman in White, and Jane Eyre. I remember a series of books about Catherine someone which I thought were quite racy and we passed them round the classroom, desperate to find out what happened after she was kidnapped by that handsome but loathsome pirate. Then there were the Mandingo books set during the time of slavery in the deep south which opened our eyes to another world – and a bit of steamy sex, although I imagine it was all fairly tame really.

But it wasn’t all girly stuff that caught my imagination. James Bond was my real hero and they could be found at any Sale of Work in a dusty church hall for a few pennies. Soon I had collected them all and my best friend Joey and I would trot along to the Playhouse almost every Saturday afternoon for a double bill of 007 (one of which was nearly always Thunderball, and as a result I know the script almost off by heart).  Alistair McLean’s adventure novels came next and I discovered the joys of the whodunnit with Agatha Christie.

From then on I became a voracious reader – anything and everything would do. Until recently, if I started a book I always finished it – no matter how bad it was. Those days are gone now. Life is too short and the charity shop too convenient to waste time on reading something that doesn’t grab me. Funnily enough, apart from using the library as a teenager I’ve never really got into that. I love having my own book, even if secondhand, to go back to or lend. (As a result my accountant still queries how much I’ve spent on books in a year!)

But back to children’s books. Lately I’ve read Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker on the recommendation, and given to me by J & L at St Mark’s. It tells the story of Julilly and her friend Liza who escape slavery on a Mississippi plantation and travel on the ‘underground’ railway which helps escaped slaves reach Canada. Now I never knew that there was no slavery in Canada and that some of those spiritual songs that spoke of a promised land were not talking about heaven but about the real country where slaves were free. A good history book couched in a great escape story.

Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo (who is rapidly becoming my favourite children’s author) is a kind of modern Robinson Crusoe story for young people. Michael’s parents decide to take him out of school for a year to sail round the world. The inevitable storm washes Michael up on an island in the Pacific where he struggles to survive on his own. With no food or water he curls up to die but when he wakes there is a plate beside him of fish and fruit and fresh water. He is not alone… A great read or read aloud book.

One of the girls at church has suggested that I might like the Twilight series so, against my better judgement it has to be said, I am now the proud owner of the first book on my Kindle. But more of that another day…

What have I been reading?

Surrounded, as I have been this week, by death I picked up a copy of Sum (Forty tales from the afterlives) by David Eagleman. What a joy it is. It is a slim book packed full of short stories about heaven, hell and the afterlife. Some are lingering still, some I didn’t quite ‘get’, and others require a second or third reading. There were echoes of CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce and all those jokes which begin ‘a man died and went to heaven…’

Imagine that in the afterlife you relive all your experiences but this time with the events reshuffled in a completely new order where they are all grouped together. So you take all your pain at once (27 hours of it) but then you are agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. 18 months in queues, one year reading books, two years of boredom, two weeks wondering what happens when you die, three weeks realising you are wrong…

Imagine that when you arrive in the afterlife you discover that God is a huge fan of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley because finally he has met someone who understands him…

Imagine that death is a dream – someone else’s dream in which you play a part along with other actors. In between scenes you all stand around backstage and hope that the next dream will involve a restaurant and you can get a free meal out of it…

Imagine that God is a married couple and humans created in their own image, although on certain nights when they’re feeling liberal, each creates a member of the opposite sex, just to see what it’s like…

The author is a neuroscientist and writer and this book is just packed full of bizarre, funny and strange stories that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.

After the joy of our last Book Group book The War of Jenkins’ Ear by Michael Morpurgo, which was recommended by the Church Times, I read War Horse by the same author. Ever since I read the Chronicles of Narnia and a couple of books by Madeleine l’Engle I have really been into children’s books. The War Horse tells the story, from the horse’s point of view, of Joey from colt to farmhorse to the battlefields in France. All along the way there are people who love him and others who abuse him, and you’ll need your hankies at the end. It tells of the futility of war in an exceptional way and of love and loyalty. This book is not just for children and I’d love to see the play which has received rave reviews.