A dark year with little light, the world burning, blistering, politics swinging rightwards with a hate-filled agenda fueled by lies, an overloaded planet groaning in death throes, choked by an unsustainable ecological system, and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ forever sullying the television. Perhaps this is reflected in my reading for 2019, but my choices more likely occurred because I’ve been reviewing books for publications, or for work. I’ve largely given up on fiction and I haven’t tackled any substantial natural history monographs, but there has been some variety.
Highlights must include Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division, which gave extra colour and insight into a band I know well, and the biography of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, an artist with an unerring eye for abstract perfection. The book on Elizabethan miniatures, produced alongside the amazing exhibition at the NPG played to my pleasures, while Richard Rohr was much more of a surprise – begun with gritted teeth, having struggled with previous titles of his, the two books I read were both challenging and comforting.
Of course, much of my time was spent promoting my own book, ‘Stations of the Resurrection: from Easter to Pentecost’, which has been an exciting experience, shifting me from bookseller to author, reviewer to reviewed. Will there be more – possibly, if time allows. In the mean-time I shall read, and sell more books.
Recently Read 2019
RR 1. ‘The Black Album’, Hanif Kureshi, Faber, 9780571258154. In 1988/89, when Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published I was working in a large Birmingham bookshop, running the religious department. As the furore about Rushdie’s book kicked off I was visited by groups of young Asian men demanding that I took it off the shelves of the religious department. But, of course, the book wasn’t there – and I kept directing them to the fiction floor trying to get across that it was a novel. Eventually, I think, we had a couple of bomb threats and the book was sold from behind the counter. I was puzzled that so many people seemed not to recognise it as fiction. Then, when I read it, I was disappointed, it just didn’t seem to be a very good book. However, it wasn’t being burnt for the quality of its writing, but for a perceived attack on faith.
In 1995, when Kureshi’s ‘The Black Album’ was published, I had just started as manager of SPCK in Bristol. In the basement of the shop, under the pavement of Park Street, I found 4 copies of ‘The Satanic Verses’. Apparently, it had been used on a course in the Department of Religion at Bristol University and SPCK had supplied the students with the books. I’m not sure what happened to the books, at some point, over the 12 years I was there, they just disappeared.
‘The Black Album’ is set at the time of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and the burning of his book by certain religious or political groups. It concerns a student, Shahid and his conflicting relationships with both a putative fundamentalist revolutionary Muslim group and his liberal feminist college tutor. Shahid is pulled in both directions. He loves music, writing and exploring the world through books and albums, yet he is also aware of a need for inner peace, soul space, a spiritual dimension to his life which his visits to the mosque lay bare but don’t quite satisfy.
The sense that liberalism can’t cope with the jack boot of fundamentalism – any sort of fundamentalism, religious, political, racial, cultural – drives through with a needle of fear that really does feel quite apposite to our current world. I don’t remember the late 80’s as such a scary time as this, but then I guess the fall of the Berlin wall was just around the corner and the hope it released washed away some of the preceding nastiness. The way Shahid is pulled in two very different directions is both plausible and affecting. Neither the so-called white liberal elite nor the group of young radicals, just finding their cause and their way, come out on top. Both are seen to be closed in their minds, both don’t offer the whole answer to the meaning of either life or society. The conclusion is open-ended enough to feel realistic – there are no simple solutions to the complex and explosive issues explored and enough sympathy for both sides for them both to retain some credibility. But then, isn’t that a classic liberal position?
RR 2. ‘The Art of Advent’, Jane Williams, SPCK, 980281071692. A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany, with commentary, questions and a prayer. Good questions at the end of each reflection, short, pithy prayers, a fairly traditional collection of images – with a few pleasing surprises – and a longer, more detailed text than the previous Lenten volume by Sister Wendy Beckett, but something didn’t gel for me. I expected to be thoroughly stimulated by the book, however, it didn’t push me as hoped. Of course, it is an Advent title and therefore the main thrust of the commentary was to explore the incarnational themes that run through the season to Epiphany (and beyond). Yet it felt as if the images were only lightly used as hooks on which hang the theology, they weren’t adequately mined for their own spiritual revelations. Remember how Sister Wendy used to say that for those who didn’t know God, art was often the closest they would get to meeting the divine? Well, here was a good opportunity not quite taken to its fullest. I suspect the proof reader might have agreed with me as by the final few pages they seemed to have fallen asleep.
That said, I will go back to this book: some of the earliest and most contemporary images were astonishing and Jane Williams always has something valuable to say. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
Recently re-read 3. ‘The Hidden Treasure of Glaston’, Eleanore M. Jewett, Dennis Dobson Ltd. A children’s book from 1948, but one which makes few concessions to junior vocabulary. The story is about Glastonbury in the 1180’s and the finding of the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere. It concerns two boys – Hugh the lame son of disgraced Lord Hugh de Morville, one of the assassins of Thomas Becket – and Dickon an oblate at the Benedictine monastery. Hugh brings with him a small library as payment for his keep and becomes apprenticed to the armarian. Dickon spends most of his time outdoors. The two strike up a friendship that takes them deep underneath the vale of Avalon, brings them into contact with the mad hermit, Bleheris, Excalibur and, eventually, perhaps the Seynt Graal itself. The tale cracks along at pace, the characters grow as the pages are turned and the flavour, language and rhythm of monastic life is conveyed with pace and obvious love. This is the Glastonbury so many dream of, shimmering on the edges of otherworlds, of chivalry, romance and a time when the hand of the divine was discerned in the every day. I first read this book about 45 years ago and retained only the vaguest remembrance of the story, but it was a gentle pleasure to give it a second study.
RR 4. ‘A Strange Affair: Hannah More’s Poetic Landscape and the Gibbs’, National Trust, 9781912471027. This charming little collection of the pioneering social campaigner, poet, playwright and bluestocking Hannah More’s early verses is a sweet collection of whimsy that also draws together many North Somerset landscapes and people. We look out over the Tyntesfield and Belmont Estates and can see the very places where Hannah More walked and wrote her verses during the years when she was plighted to William Turner of Belmont. Here those texts are put into context, the tribulations that undercut their fey elegance enumerated and connections made between many characters and places that are familiar to us in other ways. Light reading but which whets the appetite for a dash of fulsome local history.
RR 5. ‘Peacock and Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny’, A.S. Byatt, Knopf, 9781101947470. I know nothing about and have no interest in fashion (other than, perhaps, vestments) so the name of Mariano Fortuny was fresh to me (although Fortuny was also a vestment designer for the Italian Church). However, I was cognizant with Morris and A.S. Byatt and this little book was a sumptuous read. In essence it is a discursive essay by Byatt packaged in a well-designed and generously illustrated pocket-sized hard back volume. Morris and Fortuny cross-over in time frame, design influence, attention to detail and inventiveness. Both explored ancient techniques for dying and colouring, bringing them into contemporary use, both turned nature, especially plant and bird-life into elaborate, complex and mesmerising designs. Morris’s setting was solidly English, Fortuny distinctly European, designing for Paris fashion houses and Wagner’s operas yet living in a Venetian palace. Both imbued the whole of their lives and their homes with their art, yet Morris was a designer who occasionally painted and Fortuny a painter who also designed. While Morris was fixated on one woman, Janey, his wife, who was also Rossetti’s lover and muse, Fortuny was devoted to wife Henriette yet took a great professional interest in other woman, creating gowns that beautifully and powerfully enhanced their femininity. There is something both redolent and simple about their designs, intricate and yet natural, well-observed but ornately patterned, overwhelming and comforting. Byatt’s appreciation for both is profound and her writing, which is at times allusive, dreamy also grounds both men in their domestic, contemporary and artistic settings, highlighting their achievements and celebrating the timeless, elegant mastery of their art.
RR 6. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, Gabriel García Márquez, Penguin, 9780141032436. Lush and sinuous, rambling, bibulous and overlaid with miasmas of magic slipping and slinking through realities, this is a wonderfully engrossing, engaging, entangled read. Orbiting a town, somewhere in Colombia, somewhere on the edges of liminality, here is a multi-generational, multi-headed, multi-limbed sweep through history from Francis Drake to commercial powered flight, peopled by the despots and harlots, patriarchs, matriarchs and meddlers of the Buendía family. This is not the sort of book where you get taken up with one particular character, rather the whole family becomes one body whose rise and fall flowers throughout, blossoming, fermenting, flourishing, frolicking, fornicating, floundering, fading. Flying carpets and red ants, virginal ascensions and priapic prowess, walking dead and miraculous butterflies all swoop and dive, filming the pages with moss and mess, fertility and insurrection, nature untamed and humanity unbound. It is a roiling boil of a read, opulent and gaudy, whispering and whipping with passion, cauterized by politics and war, jealousy and progress. Magic fades as technology, as political hegemony advances, but magic, like the weevils, termites and ants assaulting the family home, never truly disappears – crush it down on one side and it bubbles out of another, until it strips the life from the family and sends the whole town spinning out of enchantment and into oblivion.
RR 7. ‘Holy Habits’, Andrew Roberts, Malcolm Down Publishing, 9781910786154. This is a probing, thoughtful, practical, challenging, well-structured and enjoyable guide to discipleship. It is methodical, but then the author is a Methodist, it is grounded, it is extremely useful and I can see why BRF have tapped into the ten guiding habits of discipleship that Andrew Roberts has discerned to create a series of courses designed to help churches to grow.
The ten habits are: Biblical teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, giving, service, eating together, gladness and generosity, worship and the making of more disciples. Personally, I would have made breaking of bread and eating together one habit – I’m still not sure that he defines them sufficiently differently, but then of course many of these overlap with each other.
I have already made use of some of Roberts insights in sermons and may well encourage our congregations to explore the habits further through the accompanying small groups material – it should be a very fruitful experience.
RR 8. ‘Comrade Don Camillo and Don Camillo and the Devil’, Giovanni Guareschi, Companion Book Club. The Don Camillo stories are my ‘go to’ reading for when I need a pick-me-up. Especially the first collection in this volume – ‘Comrade Don Camillo’. Set in post-war Italy the main protagonists, Don Camillo and Peppone, were, during the conflict both active members of the partisan movement. Now Peppone is the communist mayor of their village where Don Camillo continues to be the parish priest. There is great brotherly love between the two of them, but also much enmity, with each scoring points off the other as they try to win more and more of the village over to their own faith.
‘Don Camillo and the Devil’ simply continues their village tussle, but ‘Comrade Don Camillo’ sees Peppone, who has become a Senator in the government, organise a trip for fellow comrades to Russia, to see the wondrous work that is being done there in building the Promised Land. However, through exploiting Peppone’s weaknesses Don Camillo inveigles his way onto the tour. By assuming the persona of a fellow comrade who mysteriously isn’t able to make the trip at the last minute, Don Camillo is free travel with the others on the State organised tour, finding that the Christian faith runs deep and strong under the surface of the enforced secularisation. With a tiny crucifix hidden inside a fountain pen (Christ’s arms rise up when it is extracted from the pen), his breviary masquerading as a volume of the works of Lenin and with bread and wine secreted among his luggage, Don Camillo is able to engage in a very busy covert ministry, while at the same time encouraging the Italian communist contingent to question their party allegiance.
Peppone and Don Camillo are both good men with some bad habits – putting party/faith before self, but too easily letting personal pride to cloud their judgment and affect their actions. Peppone has his wife – another staunch communist – as his support and critic, Don Camillo has the life-sized Christ behind the high altar of the village church to administer gentle correction and wise encouragement.
This is a wonderful series, perceptive, rooted in its time and culture, but quite apposite for many of us engaged in parish life.
RR 9. ‘The Prodigal Prophet’, Timothy Keller, Hodder, 9781473690509. I’ve read a fair number of books on Jonah. I’ve also read and was rather underwhelmed by a previous title by Timothy Keller. So I wasn’t expecting anything new and I wasn’t prepared to be find much of merit in ‘The Prodigal Prophet’. But there is plenty of good stuff in the book, despite an at times rather preachy and worthy tone. Keller had obviously read widely and spent much time with the text. As you may have guessed from the title, he draws interesting parallels between Jonah’s story and Jesus’s parable of the two sons – the prodigal son, subject of the book of his I didn’t at all enjoy. When it appears in paperback I may be tempted to buy a copy, as the Book of Jonah is immensely rich, despite its short length, and repays careful scrutiny and reappraisal from multiple angles.
RR 10. ‘W. Barns-Graham: a studio life’, Lynne Green, Lund Humphries, 9781848220959. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is the St Ives contemporary of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo that you probably didn’t know about. Like them, she was a modernist, but unlike them she lived into the twenty-first century and continued working right up to her death.
A Scot, educated at the Edinburgh School of Art, and with homes in both St Ives and Scotland, she was driven, determined and independent. Her art is a mixture of the abstract and the representational, but the greater proportion of it is non-representational and much of the representational contains strongly abstract elements. What struck me about her work is the harmony of the whole – every colour carefully chosen, every element expertly positioned. There is nothing fussy, or precious about her art – often it is experimental and daring – but it is pleasing to look at – it has a form which attracts, then draws the eye deeper, engaging the mind on a different level, making connections and disconnections, challenging, pushing, encouraging the viewer to question what they believe about what they are seeing.
Confirmed into the Anglican church in adulthood, Barns-Graham was a committed churchgoer through the middle period of her life, so it is not unexpected that among some of her paintings there are Christian references. More than that, her use of colour and form has a numinous edge that I find very appealing. It is not there in every work but shines through some of the series from the eighties and nineties.
Although very much part of the St Ives cadre of painters, she didn’t receive the attention or the adulation that came the way of Nicholson, Hepworth, et al, yet her art is of equal quality and she lived much longer, continuing to experiment, change, grow and work close to her death in 2004. Lynne Green’s book is almost an official text, with much input from the Barns-Graham Trust, but that only gives it extra depth, detail and access to some amazing paintings, drawings and prints. It is a sumptuous book and utterly absorbing but even without the biographical and analytical details the artworks stand up for themselves in the first rank of modernist British art.
RR 11. ‘Saints on Sunday’, Gail Ramshaw, Liturgical Press, 9780814645581. Gail Ramshaw is a liturgical scholar whose needle-sharp perceptiveness I first encountered in Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary, which remains foremost among the preaching resources I turn to for inspiration, challenge and a fresh perspective.
Saints on Sunday is likely to be just as treasured. In twenty-four chapters, with the aid of twenty-four eclectic saints, Ramshaw comprehensively ranges across all aspects of Sunday worship, teasing and testing everything we say and do, prodding us into a sustained evaluation of the how, why, when, with whom of liturgy.
What we are not offered are preacher-friendly pen-portraits of each saint. Instead, every figure is judiciously chosen to act as a hook to open-up diverse elements of worship, discerning through aspects of their lives and writings where our own liturgical activity might be re-examined and reinvigorated.
The initial chapter brings Justin Martyr’s second-century observation ‘Christians assemble on Sunday’ into the present. Now, as then, believers exist in a minority; Sundays themselves being replete with labour, shopping and sport. Justin and his companions were prepared to die for the right to set aside portions of the day of resurrection for corporate worship: are we losing a vital aspect of our Christian identity if we shift our main regular liturgy across the week?
Continuing through a rich spectrum of subjects, Ramshaw explores both theory and practice with gusto. Hymn translator Catherine Winkworth, for example, enables us to consider the limits of liturgical language, revisited later through Thomas Cranmer’s use, in his collects, of doublets – two nouns, adjectives or verbs, neither one complete without the other – God, in every tongue, always greater, more complex than the sum of the parts. Jerome is instructive on the myriad options we have for interpreting and understanding our lectionary readings: which translations do we choose? Why does it matter? How do we relate the Old Testament to the New? While Hildegard, theologian, mystic, pioneering natural scientist, offers a new relationship between humanity and creation, manifested in the ‘verdant integrity’ of the eucharistic feast.
The range of saints is broad and inclusive (John of Damascus shares space with such as Margaret Fell, Dorothy Day, Amy Carmichael, Brother Roger and Johannes Kepler) as are Ramshaw’s vivid, perspicacious comments, her dedication to the serious, boundary-shattering business of liturgy and her determination that worship must never atrophy into ritual caricature but should always be a pilgrimage heavenward bound.
RR 12. ‘Missy’, Beth Morrey, HarperCollins, Proof Copy, ISBN TBC. A debut novel, publisher was raving about it at recent BA meeting. I was not convinced: the characterisation and plot thin, the plot twist annoying and unnecessary and the constant talk of Brexit off-putting (I wanted something to read to escape from all that malarkey). On the other hand, the story of an older woman, now living on her own after many years of marriage with a partially estranged daughter and a son in Australia, trying to make her own friends, was, while a small thing, a realistic one. It zoned in on the daily battles of an ordinary life, nothing big and glamorous, rather the pain of aging and making life worthwhile.
RR 13. ‘Extraordinary Insects’, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, Mudlark, Proof Copy, ISBN TBC. A cracking good read – Sverdrup-Thygeson is a field, well woodland, scientist with a huge passion for her subject and she has written a highly accessible, fascinating romp through the lives, loves and deaths of the vast group of six legged arthropods we know as insects. Some amazing facts, gruesome stories and scary figures, especially with regard to extinction rates and the effect their loss with have on the planet and humanity, but also plenty of examples showing why insects are amazing and why we need them so much.
RR 14. ‘Were You There?’, Luke Powery, WJK, 9780664260309. Disappointing – I loved the idea, using a Spiritual a day to explore the daily readings for Lent. And it was good to read the songs. But the mediations were very thin gruel – no real unravelling of the songs or their context and only a very modest exposition of Scripture. Best thing about the book was the cover.
RR 15. ‘Norse Mythology’, Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury, 9781408891957. The stories of the Norse Gods retold in Gaiman’s effortless, popular, ebullient and highly-skilled style. He knows how to craft a good story and he knows his mythology, so this was a winning combination – great fun and an easy read.
RR 16. ‘No Win Race’, Derek A. Bardowell, Mudlark, 9780008305130. I read a book about sport. That, as anyone who knows me will testify, is both unusual and surprising. I don’t, to put it mildly, like sport. But this book is about much more than that. It uses sport as a lens through which it lays bare the bones, the nervous system, the blood flow of racism that runs through every layer, tier, structure and system in British society. Bardowell has important things to say – and many of us will not like what we hear but hear them we must if we are ever to grow beyond institutionalised, endemic racism.
I distrust, dislike and in some cases – football, rugby, boxing – positively detest and deplore sport. True I quite like cricket – mainly for its sophisticated, archaic ritualism, abstruse liturgy choreographed on grass – while I also play tennis and snooker. Yes, I can see beauty, skill and intelligence in a carefully timed cover drive, an exquisitely set up passing shot, a clearly calculated maxim break, but that’s like admiring the geometric structure of a cancer cell while ignoring the raging devastation it unleashes.
What I see in sport is nationalism, jingoism, tribalism, a legitimisation of violence, a rabid pack wishing to devour all ‘others’ – you are the opposition, we are going to thrash you, annihilate you, crush you. Sport sets up barriers, demonises those on the outside, creates the very conditions that allow this accursed Brexit canker to fester and flourish. Above all, sport is the lackey of evolutionary capitalism. It is predicated on competition – winners and losers – on getting above others, scrambling on top of their bodies to pluck the golden apples. Trying to be better than another person is just plain evil.
So, that’s where I’m coming from, and it is a very different place from Bardowell, who has a deep, inherited and constantly developing love for sport. It has played a massive part in his life – one which he is, in many ways, ambiguous about, but it matters greatly to him, so much so that he is constantly reassessing, testing, pushing sport to be better, brighter, more of what he feels it should be, less of what it might be stuck in.
Being black in Britain, born here following his parents responding to the post war call to the Commonwealth for help in rebuilding a battered nation, sport has been one key factor in helping him to define his identity. Sport has given him some of the tools with which he can work through the contradictions forced upon him by a deeply divided, ambiguous, often outright hostile society that cause him to constantly hold his blackness and Britishness in tension – a tension that if we were truly the open, accepting, tolerant nation we had long perceived ourselves to be, would not be necessary. Brexit, of course, has blown all this surface tolerance apart, exposing the underlying, deep and vicious divisions underneath, legitimising hatred and the demonization of any who do not conform to sterile stereotypes of patriotism and ‘decency’.
When I see sport I see a catalyst for intolerance. It forces you to choose a side, it institutionalises hierarchies based on dominance, on victory and defeat, it glamourises violence, it pursues division over togetherness. Supporting one team instead of another hot-wires superiority and inferiority into the very DNA of society. And Bardowell’s story is prey to the resulting racism. He tells it well, he doesn’t spare us from the hatred, the ignorance, the cruelty he suffered as a child, nor his own wrestling with his own sense of self, the stark choices offered him by society – be black OR British – the ways sport helped him to negotiate this assault on his identity.
However, there is much more to this book than anecdote about growing up in late twentieth century Britain. If it were just that then it would offer respite to those of us who are white and liberal, it would give us a chance to say ‘look how far we have come, see how much more grown up and accepting we are now’. No, this is not the case at all – and this is where Bardowell is truly unsettling. As a sportsman and sportswriter, he cares deeply about sport and he scrutinises it carefully. Time and again he finds a continuing arc of racism, of belittling and besmirching any who show an ‘otherness’, either by gender or what we term ‘race’. Hierarchies constantly show themselves resistant to change, paying lip-service to notions of equality, ostracising any who call out ingrained attitudes, demonising those who wish to stay to true to both their identity and their vocation, offering only binary options of conformity – be the noble savage or the oleaginous pot-boy. What’s true in sport is still discoverable in the rest of our society.
The necessarily prophetic cry of this book is harsh, piercing and vivid. It calls out the prejudices that infect us all. Despite the fearsome wrongs it spotlights in our culture it still glows with a positivity about the value of sport, as identity forming, character building, healing, as bringing people together with shared purpose and passion. That’s where, I think, I and the author will continue to differ, for in sport I see no hope whatsoever in creating the open, multi-faceted society we used to believe we already were.
RR 17. ‘Love Set Free’, Martin L. Smith, Canterbury Press, 9781848251007. A slight book in size, big in thought – six short, focussed and profound meditations on Christ’s Passion in the Fourth Gospel. Many new strands for me to think about and connections to make. Powerful reading for the Maundy Thursday Vigil.
RR 18. ‘How to Catch a Mole’, Marc Hamer, Harvill Secker, 9781878301245. There is more than a whiff of Ecclesiastes about How to Catch a Mole: the vanity of worldly hopes, the vacuity of possessions, the ever-changing, ephemeral realities of our lives and of life itself. At sixteen, his mother dead and father clearly wanting him gone, Hamer walked out one morning carrying nothing but a rucksack full of necessities, discarded as they outlived their usefulness. Sleeping under hedgerows, he embraced a journey reminiscent of John Clare’s peregrinations, attending to the ways of creation, growing to love solitude. Although later marrying, and becoming a gardener, it was solitariness that most nourished his spirit.
Mole-catching was a natural extension to professional gardening: it solved a problem and provided an income. Uneasiness at the death of fellow-creatures led him to research the most efficient, least painful methods of execution, tuning into the mole’s lifestyle and sharpening his already profound affinity with nature’s patterns and rhythms. After a lifetime of trapping, he found an injured mole writhing in the jaws; despatching it by hand and not machine exposed the undercurrent of hypocrisy he had long felt about his actions. In a moment as decisive as the morning he left home, he understood that the time for killing was over.
It was then that this distinctive, quietly revelatory, book was conceived, a somewhat unlikely interplay of Hamer’s easeful poetry and observations with accounts of both the specialist life of moles and his own biography. Skilfully woven with eloquent simplicity it offers a rich, sustained meditation on the task of apprehending the complex, delicate interconnectedness of life and land. Its pages have much to teach us concerning the art of ‘being earthed’ in the physical and spiritual ecology of our locality if we are to be truthfully present in the perpetual cycles of life, decay, death and regeneration.
RR 19. ‘Tudor and Jacobean Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, 9781855147669. Wonderful little pocket book with superb illustrations of the NPG’s collection. I adore the richness of colour and detail in these paintings, the unflinching gaze of the subject, the drama of stillness. I’m especially fond of the portrait of Sir Henry Unton, which unfolds all the main events of his life around the central figure, creating a biography in paint.
RR 20. ‘Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver’, Catharine MacLeod, National Portrait Gallery, 9781855147027. Essentially the catalogue, in full-length, hardback book form, of the recent, stunning exhibition of Hilliard and Oliver at the NPG. These Elizabethan miniatures are truly amazing, outstanding as both masterful portraits and precious jewels. When you think about the quality of the equipment they worked with, the basic nature of lenses, the crudeness of any artificial lighting, these paintings are quite astonishing. With brushes consisting of a single hair, with a drop of liquid silver, or red sealing wax, with golf leaf, or even tiny scintillas of gem stones they create the most perfect, glowing, vivid, likenesses, filled with secret signs and arcane imagery. Visitors to the exhibition were offered magnifying glasses to allow them to revel in the depth of detail – this book magnifies them to a much greater extent and offers the opportunity to marvel at the vivacity and masterfulness of one of the most productive periods in artistic history. The text adds much to the understanding of the value of thes eartefacts and the sheer genius of their production. I haven’t seen anything as artistically beautiful in years.
RR 21. ‘British Portrait Miniatures: The Cleveland Museum of Art’, Cory Korkow, Giles, 9781907804236. The Cleveland Museum has a cracking collection of British miniatures, including examples by many of the leading limners from the Tudor to early Victorian period. Miniatures were perhaps most popular, and affordable, in Georgian times, with key painters represented. The text gives biographies of each sitter, along with the history of the image, but the enlargements of the some of the details is astonishing – many of them look as finely wrought in full portrait size as they do at their original scale.
RR 22. ‘The Geometry of Love’, Margaret Visser, Viking, 9780670879199. To say that this is the description of a walk around the seventh century church of St Agnes, outside the city walls of Rome, is a major understatement because what Visser offers is a close unpacking of the layers and accretions of history, theology, politics, culture and society that created, developed, sustained, re-imagined and re-invented this ancient catacomb church, home to the grave and shrine of its patron saint.
RR 23. ‘Sacred Space: House of God, Gate of Heaven’, Ed. P & J North, Continuum, 9780826494771. Ostensibly about the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, this collection of essays explores the nature sacredness and specific places, of pilgrimage and holiness, of specificity of the Incarnation in time and place and much more. Walsingham provides an entry point into examining the place of the feminine in the sacred and whether Christians can legitimately hold particular places as sacred at all. The inclusion of Ann Morisy grounds the collection in value of sacred space in urban contexts as a place where God’s Spirit may flow outwards to serve and invigorate a whole community.
RR 24. ‘Church Buildings for People,’ (Grove Pastoral P137), Nigel Walter, Grove Booklets.
RR 25. ‘The Gate of Heaven: How Church Buildings Speak of God’, (Grove Spirituality S118), Nigel Walter, Grove Booklets. Architect Nigel Walter, in his two immensely useful Grove Booklets reminds us that careful attention to the stories of our buildings can teach us much about their constant development in relation to their communities, using this as the groundwork in our own discernment for what is required to keep them, and us, serving both God and neighbourhood effectively in the present and immediate future.
There are, Walter argues, numerous reasons why deeply prayed in space, set aside for the purpose of worship, is immensely valuable to a community. He reminds us that throughout the centuries churches have been the major public building in a locality, with a wide variety of uses. Exploring how the demarcation between sacred and secular was accelerated when the Victorians instituted the mass creation of church halls, he offers examples as to how it is possible, often desirable, to make our buildings flexible, open, adaptable, integral to community life, while also retaining a sacred heart cultivating a prayerful connection with both God and creation. In effect, he asks us to listen to our buildings as we would our friends, for in attending carefully to what they tell us we may learn much about them, ourselves, our neighbourhood and God.
RR 26. ‘Decoys of the Thousand Islands’, Jim Stewart and Larry Lunman, Boston Mills Press, 9781550460483. Duck decoys are a practical tool in wildfowl hunting. They can also be decorative. Examples dating back to the mid-1800s are almost entirely functional yet are still also distinctive and individual. Ducks have been a staple in the diet of the population living on the Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence since they were colonised, so it is unsurprising that each island and family created their own distinctive styles. The range of fowl carved is small, based around the species found locally, until the 1960s onwards when some of the retired fowlers realised the potential market for decorative decoys. I’ve had this book for years and flicked through it several times, but was totally enthralled when I sat down to read the biographies of the carvers and began to tease out the differences in their style. This is a deeply visual book and hard to explain, but the combination of form and function is quite mesmerising.
RR 27. ‘The Living Mountain’, Nan Shepherd, Canongate, 9780857861832. This is often lauded as being as great a piece of natural history writing as J.A. Baker’s ‘The Peregrine’. That’s debatable, Baker’s prose is more innovative, luscious, surprising, revealing. But ‘The Living Mountain’ is an immensely powerful, hearty, subtle, shimmering, sensual short text. Once you get past Robert Macfarlane’s breathy, overlong, introduction (bookended by Jeanette Winterson’s brief, elliptical, passionate paean to reading) and bite down on the 108 pages of Nan Shepherd’s own writing you are hooked right in to an elemental, cellular world of form and function, solitude and sinews, mountainous infinity and human fragility. Nan Shepherd lived all her days in the Cairngorms. Yet, if they were her world, they were also her gateway to a universe of geological, botanical, philosophical richness. Through the tiny details only visible to those who truly know their parish she becomes shaped into a seer, a visionary, an observer of vistas, a woman fully alive.
RR 28. ‘This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else’, Jon Savage, Faber, 9780571345373. Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division does exactly what it says, it lets the main protagonists, and those around them, speak. Savage’s editing is tight and pithy, he re-orders interviews to create a chronological whole, and even though this is a story that has been heard many times before, he gives it fresh impetus and insight. It is great to hear more from Rob Gretton, Martin Hannett and Annik Honoré – their influence (especially Hannett’s) is vital to understanding the band. Despite, or perhaps because, you know how it ends, the final chapters, the unravelling of Ian Curtis’s health leading to his suicide, are tough to read. Deborah Curtis, in ‘Touching from a Distance’ sharply delineates a difficult, immature husband who had long been fixated on pop stardom and an early death. Savage is more ambiguous, giving significant space to the lighter side of Curtis, his diffidence as well as his driven nature, his gentleness as well as his anger. Perhaps he is right, certainly he offers a still complex but more likeable character. But he also underscores the radical brilliance of the music, the inspirational dovetailing of every member of the band – including Gretton and Hannett – to create music that unwrapped the ennui of a generation, that was grounded in time and place yet transcended them, that was innovative and steely, dark and danceable, architectural and human. The Joy Division canon of fifty-odd songs have mostly stood the tests of time, both studio albums certainly have, their influence continues to weave through contemporary music. Savage has contributed hugely to our understanding of the band and while ‘This Searing Light…’ doesn’t reach the sublimity of his history of the Sex Pistols, ‘England’s Dreaming’, it will still become and essential piece of pop exposition.
RR 29. ‘The Orchid Hunter’, Leif Bersweden, Short Books, 9781780723341. An eighteen year-old lad sets off around the UK to find fifty-two species of British orchid in flower during his gap year. If you think this sounds like yawn inducing juvenilia then think again. It is a lovely book, personal, warm, human and cracking on the botany front. There is enough about Leif to make the story sing, but it is his descriptions of the orchids, their habits and their habitats that lift this from a small coming of age narrative into a vital, lively and learned introduction into the wonders of orchids and the precarious state of our flora.
Bersweden’s home turf of Salisbury was also my stamping ground in the early 1990s, which gave this book added resonance for me. Fifteen years apart we had been looking for the same orchids in the same places – I’ve got a list of orchids we saw in ’94: Early Purple, Green-winged, Burnt Tip on Clearbury Ring; Common Spotted and Greater Butterfly at Chickengrove Bottom (Martin Down); Marsh Orchids at Worth Matravers; Pyramidal, Fragrant, Bee and Frog on Cocky Down. We both seem to have spotted Purple Emperor butterflies in Bentley Wood, been transfixed by the variety of flora and fauna on Dancing Ledge, found sundews in the New Forest while being dive bombed by hawkers, chasers and skimmers. But then Bersweden has travelled further, wider and his knowledge of our orchids is far, far deeper.
This year our colony of Common Spotted Orchids, that are slowly making the Rectory lawns their home, reached over two-dozen plants. Every day I see them I marvel, but I marvel also that there are folk around who seem to take no notice when I point out orchids. There is something deeply mysterious, beautiful, bewitching about these plants – the spikes of flowers, the whorls of spotted leaves, the way they appear and disappear, that I find utterly entrancing. Bersweden does too – the bee orchid in the churchyard is every bit as marvellous as the blowsy exotics by the supermarket checkout and in the parochial can be found infinite wonder.
RR 30. ‘God’s Good Earth: Praise and Prayers for Creation’, Anne & Jeffery Rowthorn, Liturgical Press, 9780814644126. According to Anne and Jeffery Rowthorn, the declining state of our planet presents Christians with three major prophetic challenges. First, a calling back to the ecological basis of our faith: it is not simply that humans reflect the image of God but, in the words of John of Damascus, ‘the whole earth is an icon of the face of God’. Second, the need to recalibrate humanity’s relationship with every other element of creation, recalling how action in one area has multiple consequences elsewhere. Finally, the vital task of employing liturgical resources to encourage us in addressing the problems of this beautiful but suffering world. If, as they believe, ‘worship is the most powerful means the Holy Spirit uses to transform and equip Christians as they seek to live faithful lives, serving God and caring for God’s creation’, then liturgy can help us to acknowledge and live the deep truth that everything is connected.
‘God’s Good Earth’ is a carefully compiled and stylishly presented collection of fifty-two well-crafted liturgies divided into six sections extensively exploring aspects of our connectedness. These feature on the one hand the wonders of creation, its immense riches, complex needs and biodiversity, and on the other, prerequisites for a good society set against a backdrop of incalculable challenges to social and created orders alike − exploitation, money, violence, hunger, poverty, climate change and human migration. The concluding section embraces hopes for the future, transformation, healing, the replenishing of earth and nations.
Each liturgy follows a framework of prayers, Scripture, contemporary reflections, silent contemplation and song – often newly composed hymns to traditional metres. Wide-ranging reflections are drawn from thinkers such as Rachel Carson, Pope Francis, Thomas Berry, Thomas Merton and Jean Vanier, alongside the likes of Thor Heyerdahl, Alexander von Humboldt, Lao-Tzu and John Muir. Suggestions are offered for visual stimuli to accompany liturgies, which could be used to good effect throughout a year, perhaps beginning during creation season.
The result is a rich, perceptive resource which encourages individuals and congregations to engage deeply, prayerfully, wholeheartedly in the transformation of our relationships with creation, God and each other.
RR 31. ‘Nightingales in November’, Mike Dilger, Bloomsbury, 9781472915351. Mike Dilger is a likeable fellow whose passion for nature pours through every page of this journal. He knows his birds, is extremely knowledgeable and has found a highly engaging format for passing it on.
Taking twelve birds – a mix of residents, winter visitors and summer migrants – he has created a diary that explores what each is doing throughout a year. It is a great idea because it offers a bigger picture, showcasing the infinite variety, the subtle, precise adaptations and the interconnectedness of biodiversity. When Bewick Swans and Waxwings are heading southwards to the UK, escaping harsher northern conditions, Swallows, Nightingales and Cuckoos are crossing the heat of African terrains and indigenous Robins, Blue Tits and Tawny Owls are relying on their local knowledge to see them through the winter. Fish eating Puffins and Kingfishers will both be nesting underground during the summer, but with few other similarities – Puffins take several years to reach breeding maturity, only have one chick a season and spend much of the year at sea out of sight of land while Kingfishers are mostly dead within two years, will often have two broods in a summer and tend to stick to local territories when they can. Peregrines and Lapwings may crossover, with the wader becoming prey to the falcon, but otherwise their lives are very different, with the peripatetic Lapwings being reliant on their flocking habits for defence while the Peregrine focusses on individual skill.
There is much to be commended about this book – not only does it provide a clear, detailed overview of the life of each species but it also underscores the importance of a joined up process of conservation, one which connects countries, continents, and offers a more holistic vision of our care for creation.
However, I have a major caveat to this commendation. Dilger isn’t a naturally easy writer and he has been extremely badly served by his publisher. Both the copy-editing and the proofreading are appalling. The format of diary entries encourage repetition. The same facts are repeated over and again across entries reducing the power of the narrative and trust in Dilger’s voice, which is also clogged with cliché’s and needless duplication of words within sentences. A good editor, copy-editor and proofreader should have stripped out this clutter, pared back the text, probably losing 50 pages in the process resulting in a cleaner, leaner, more entertaining and authoritative text and my enjoyment of this multi-stranded, journal would have been infinitely heightened.
RR 32. ‘Haunted by Christ’, Richard Harries, SPCK, 9780281079339. Twenty writers – poets, novelists, playwrights – examined for the shade or shard of faith, more specifically, Christ, that infiltrates and influences their work. Although this is really a collection of twentieth-century writers, Harries begins with Dostoevsky, as you knew he would, of course he would – this is Richard Harries writing about writing, Dostoevsky was always going to be a key player. Back in the Thatcherite clouds of the 1980s, when I was a tentative student of theology at King’s College, London, stalking C corridor and trying out my first weskits, Richard Harries was Dean and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ were only ever a paragraph away in his sermons and lectures. He ends with the sublime Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead trilogy stands out as some of the best and most theologically literate writing of the twenty-first century.
Harries writes swift pen portraits of authors such as Hopkins and R.S. Thomas, Auden and Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, William Golding and Samuel Beckett, Flannery O’Connor, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Jennings and Graham Greene, zoning in on their struggles with faith. He found him especially illuminating on Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith and Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown, whose work, but their lives, I knew. Despite Dostoevsky being his own great love, he relies heavily on Rowan Williams, especially his magisterial ‘Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction’ and, indeed, Williams is a major influence throughout. However, Harries adds his own insights, prising open texts to reveal each writer’s struggle with Christ the man, Christ the crucified, Christ the God.
There is plenty to chew on here, much to discuss, and as ever Harries writes well, despite some repetition and a clutch of proofing errors that a close edit should have eradicated. Overall, I would recommend this book and I would read it again as a useful introduction into a key component of these writers’ lives and thought.
RR 33. ‘A Year of Grace’, David Hoyle, Canterbury Press, 9781786220332. David Hoyle writes well, he conveys an understated intimacy while speaking with confident authority, a confidence that comes from being aware of his own limitations. Essentially, he is offering an introduction to major theological themes via the turn of the liturgical year. The intention is a good one, reclaiming the liturgical seasons as a vital component of our theological formation, and it is carried off with style.
Once upon a time many authors were asked to write for a theoretical ‘intelligent reader’. This, I would say, is very much the audience here – perhaps the typical concept of a Cathedral congregation. Nothing wrong with that at all, I’m just using it as a place marker. It is a book I would be happy to offer to my congregations. By judiciously selecting the chapters it would make a good course in continuing Christian formation and, naturally, as David Hoyle is a renowned preacher, it has much to offer to those of us regularly creating sermons.
RR 34. ‘The Last Weynfeldt’, Martin Suter, No Exit Press, 9780857301000. I’ve not read any fiction for seven months, so it was good to have something to whip through while I was away at a conference. The blurb hooked me – art, auctions and intrigue. That the art was Swiss, a blank area for me, offered an opportunity to learn, not that the novel told me much, but it gave names and hints about certain artists that sent me scrabbling across the internet to find out more. At the centre of the book is an enigmatic painting by Felix Vallotton. Now, the only artistic Vallotton I knew was Annie, whose spare, evocative, accessible images grace the ‘Good News Bible’. Felix was a very different artist, also adept at the human form, but with a more fleshly palette.
So, we have an enigmatic painting, a rich, middle-aged Swiss art historian working for a major auction house and an unruly woman, using her wit and wiles in a struggle to survive. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, with gentle twists and turns along the way to a pleasing dénouement. Quietly written, cleanly translated and most enjoyable.
RR 35. ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’, Robin Sloan, Atlantic Books, 9781782391210. Oh, this was fun, fun fun! Bookshops! Fantasy! Dragons! Typography! Secret societies, code-breaking, Google head office, animatronic boobs, hackers, and books, books, books. Gripping, fast-paced and funny, I ripped through it with delight. A lovely, frothy romp, sweet and dandy with a satisfyingly cheery ending.
RR 36. ‘By Way of the Heart: The Seasons of Faith’, Mark Oakley, Canterbury Press, 9781786222046. Read ‘em and weep. A collection of almost perfectly formed sermons. Accessible, informative, challenging, language carefully chosen, Gospel message shining through, yet also unusual, detailed, full of interesting illustrations, lyricism, poignancy. Oakley recently won the Michael Ramsey theological writing prize for his last book ‘The Splash of Words’, which is worth the cover price for the first 39 pages of the introduction alone, explaining why poetry and faith are so deeply entwined (the rest is very good). Here the introduction is more self-deprecating – Oakley is embarrassed to see his sermons in print, the flimsiness of the fleeting word laid bare in printed permanency – and there is some repetition and over-light editing throughout the collection – but he neatly explains how he aims for language that provides clarity appropriate to the situation.
Each sermon is an exemplar of expansiveness within brevity, each offers a well-constructed doorway into deeper exploration of text or subject, given definition through his poetic sensibility and his artistic interests. Read ‘em and weep – the closing two almost did that, indeed the last lines of the final sermon may have caused a glistening in my eye (although, me being me, I then became a tad grumpy at being manipulated by liturgy which appeals to the emotions – and you know I believe that is untrustworthy). These are powerful potent, luminous sermons that will give many a preacher a pause to re-evaluate their own technique and many a reader much to ponder and savour.
RR 37. ‘The Compleat Angler’, Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton, Folio Society. Yep, its mainly about fishing, but not just that. Indeed, a case could be made for describing ‘The Compleat Angler’ as a minor spiritual classic. There is much about openness and awareness to God and nature in this book, a great deal that puts it in the realm of today’s ‘mindfulness’ fad. For this is a book about attention to detail, about observing, about slowing your pace to nature’s and so becoming in tune with your surroundings. Only then will you become a fulfilled fisher.
Opening with a trialogue between hunter, falconer and angler, where each espouses the qualities of their sport, a set-up to champion the primacy of angling, the narrative slides into the tutoring of a disciple – the former huntsman – by the master angler. There is much fishing lore in here, some very accurate piscatorial knowledge and a fair few myths, alongside descriptions of the most popular prey/bait for each time of the year. A large number of flies are mentioned and, of course, many of the names don’t correlate with those we use today, while some of the classifications are muddled. However, it would be an interesting exercise to discern which are still common and which still imitated by artificial fly makers. Indeed, that’s a whole different collection of expertise – how to tie effective flies – especially as, in this period all materials used are natural. Many cats, pigs and horses seemed to sacrifice prized whiskers and hair for this exercise.
More than a fishing guide, rather a journey into the heart of essence and existence, where companions are fellow anglers, rustic landladies and their milkmaid daughters alongside a basketful of poetry, including John Donne. Like the waters of the trout streams it praises so emphatically, ‘The Compleat Angler’ shines with a myriad of reflections, piercing the busyness of being with a meditative light, hooking the reader out of frenetic activity and reeling them onto more grounded banks.
RR 38. ‘What do we do with the Bible?’, Richard Rohr, SPCK, 9780281083213. Short, sharp, to the point while still expansive, open and challenging, this is a must read for anyone who takes, or who wants to take the Bible seriously but who is deterred by the prevailing hermeneutic of literalism and rationalism. Returning to the Early Church Fathers he reminds us that there are many viable ways to read the Bible – literally, historically, allegorically, morally, symbolically, archetypally and primordially. The Bible is a library that offers us so much more if break out of the straitjacket of the rational/literal/historical way we have been conditioned to approach it over the last few centuries.
Swiftly, trenchantly Rohr unravels the biases that each one of us comes to Scripture with. Let’s be clear – everyone who reads Scripture has a bias that develops from their background, culture, society, genetic make-up, education, etc., and that includes Jesus along with the writers, editors and compilers of the original texts as well as every translator, from the LXX to Tom Wright.
While unpacking the biases Jesus reads Scripture with, he also explores the ones Jesus finds in it that determine his own mission, especially those which favour the poor, the stranger, the outcast and the outsider. Any reading of the Bible we make that doesn’t prioritise this bias, is, he thinks, erroneous, because it is not Christ’s way, it is not truly Christian.
RR 39. ‘Holy Envy’, Barbara Brown Taylor, Canterbury Press, 9781786220790. Having been enthralled hearing Barbara Brown Taylor in conversation with David Hoyle in Bristol discussing this book (I sold many copies at this event), I thought I would give it a whirl. I’m very glad I did. Brown Taylor writes well (she is the author of many books, I look forward to reading more), she is open, exploratory, honest, non-judgmental and uncomfortably perceptive.
Moving from parish ministry to academia, she took to teaching a basic course in five major religions, comprising three weeks for each in which to open out the essentials to her mainly conservative Christian scholars at a North Eastern America liberal arts college. Three years would be too little, but three weeks is an almost impossible task, especially when the mindset of many students needs shifting from antipathy towards anything other than a specific brand of Christianity, into something approaching receptiveness to the dazzling variety of intimations of the Divine.
Brown Taylor leads the students beyond rote learning of dogma and ritual and immerses them in the relational aspects of each faith. She takes them to temples and synagogues, into homes and to ceremonies. In some places they have privileged access, everywhere they are met with courtesy and openness, sometimes they become involved in liturgies in surprising, intimate, challenging ways. The students glance through these slender windows onto heaven and glimpse other possibilities and pathways. Brown Taylor makes friends with respected practitioners of other faiths, she experiences holy envy – the ‘I wish my faith had that/did that/believed that’ moments which jump start a fresh, critical examination of her own Christian allegiance. Can these fifteen short weeks do the same for her students? Will the concrete walls of their rigidly defined denominational bias be broken open and the superabundant generosity of God break through?
RR 40. ‘Preaching with All Ages’, Ally Barrett, Canterbury Press, 9781786221711. I’m going to recommend this book frequently and often. It packs into 160 pages a great deal of sense and inspiration, along with some excellent practical sermon ideas. This is not a collection of resources, rather it is both a ‘how to’ book and an accessible theology of all-age preaching. A fair proportion of Ally Barrett’s theory and practical tips I already know and do, however it is extremely helpful to have it collated and clearly explained, visually as well as textually. Yes, she does use some of her own sermons as examples to aid exploring a specific subject or technique and, yes, they are often highly imaginative, and yes, I will be adapting some for my own use. My chief caveats – which, to be fair, she does try and address – relate to prep time and material costs. For those of us working in churches without audio visual tech, and who don’t charge expenses, all-age worship can work out pretty pricey, and to do it well often means longer preparation than a standard sermon. But then, shouldn’t all sermons be all-age, as they ought to offer something for all abilities, backgrounds, ages and stages?
RR 41. ‘God of Violence Yesterday: God of Love Today?’, Helen Paynter, BRF, 9780857466396. We need more books like this – short, sharp, to the point, but also clear, confident, open while tackling a difficult subject. Violence in the Bible is a problem, a sticking point for many who can’t square it with a God of love. Helen Paynter doesn’t claim to have all the answers, only to be asking the right questions and directing people to where solutions might be sought. She unpacks the different forms of violence in the Old Testament, allowing differing genres and types, some caricature, some mythical, some illustrative, much that is condemned by God and the prophets, so as to clear a way through. This is an ongoing task and not everything can be resolved. But by putting violence in literary perspective she takes away some of sting. For example – Samson’s Philistine, fox and lion massacring murderousness is not heroic. Rather it is extreme, unhinged, bad judgement meant to highlight that Samson was one in a line of bad Judges who’s selfish disregard for God’s laws turned the people to favour monarchy. This is very readable book that would make a great house group discussion and I think has a place in every church library.
RR 42. ‘The Words Between Us’, Erin Bartels, Revell, 9780800734923. I’ve sold many novels marketed as ‘Christian Fiction’ and, on the whole, they’ve just not appealed to me – I suspect Amish romances are not my scene, nor the violence of Ted Dekker thrillers. Revell are a Christian Fiction publisher, ‘The Words Between Us’, is a moral tale and there is an explicitly Christian character who takes the heroine to her church. But that, on the surface, is as far as the preachiness goes. Perhaps it is that light touch which enabled me to enjoy this story. It is set, substantially, in a bookshop, so that’s a plus for me. It involves poetry and classic literature – also pleasing. There is a woman trying to unravel her past, learn about truth and trust. There is also a smidge of romance, but we can’t have everything. The writing is smooth and accomplished, the characters breathe and live, mainly the heroine, Robin, and perhaps also her friend Sarah, and the tale slips by with pace and tension. It’s a pleasant read, spoilt, only by what seemed to be a rushed, maybe slightly frazzled, downbeat ending.
RR 43. ‘The Private Life of the Hare’, John Lewis-Stempel, Doubleday, 9780857524553. I met a hare last spring, while traversing the coombe that links our churches. Nosed out of her form by foraging Devonshire Reds, she froze before me, lean-limbed, amber-eyed, profoundly alert to life, danger, the awful imminence of death, like an anchorite bereft of walls. I twitched for my camera, looked up and she had fled upfield, away from cattle and cleric. For John Lewis-Stempel ‘the hare runs along the cusp of reality’; encountering one offers a glimpse into another world.
His compact collection of poetry, illustration, fact and myth scutters swiftly over the private lives of the three species endemic to the UK – brown hare, mountain hare and Irish hare – sketching in their morphology, ecology and behaviour. This allows space to dwell richly on the hare’s public life, on our enduring, contradictory fascination with this enigmatic lagomorph. Hares have inspired verse and recipes, they haunt the moon, they taunt the hunt, they elicit both awe and fear as favoured familiars of witches, and even lope through the misty hinterlands of trinitarian theology.
In a woodcut of 1496, Albrecht Dürer depicted three hares at the feet of the Holy Family, companions in persecution and flight. Concurrently, triskeles were being carved into our great churches, roundels consisting of three hares, interlinked by their ears, forever running in a circle, alluding to the fleetingly glimpsed relational nature of the Trinity and the eternal connectedness of all creation.
Lewis-Stempel concludes by outlining the contemporary situation for the UK’s hares: sixty percent of brown hares lost in the last sixty years, fifty percent of Irish hares in the last decade and forty-three percent of mountain hares since 1995. As his taut and timely essay celebrating this keynote species shows, if we lose them, we may well have stripped the countryside of its soul.
RR 44. ‘This?’, Susan Sayers, Kevin Mayhew, 9781838580216. A slim book with a big agenda – attempting to galvanise the Christians across all denominations, cultures and societies to become a significant force in addressing the ecological crisis. In six short meditations on God’s groundedness in creation she unpacks how and why it is a Gospel imperative for us to be agents for working in cooperation with our environment and not the destroyers of it. Each chapter ends with questions and actions – it is a course book and would make useful Advent or Lenten reading for a church community, and challenges us to live as Christ called us, to be less demanding and more giving.
Care for creation is one of the five marks of Anglican mission, having equal weight as telling God’s love, helping all grow in faith, responding to need through loving service and transforming the unjust structures of society. How can we participate in the building of God’s kingdom if we ignore any, or all, of these? Many ancient theologians and mystics – especially in the Orthodox tradition – see creation as the First Bible, revealing God, filled with God’s Spirit. Others would argue that in Eden God entrusted humanity with stewardship of this earth. Sayers makes a powerful case for Christians becoming a major force, in partnership with many others, in repenting our past dominance of the environment, in refreshing our attitudes and behaviours towards use of materials and the treatment of our fellow species, in renewing our will to be generous and to sit lightly on this earth. This is the Gospel, it is our duty and our joy.
RR 45. ‘The Universal Christ’, Richard Rohr, SPCK, 9780281978622. Wow, just wow. I’m not usually a fan of Richard Rohr, but a recent reading of his latest book ‘What do we do with the Bible?’ hit the spot and so I thought I’d give this a try. I can’t really offer a true review at the moment, I’ll have to go back and read it again and probably again. Matters just glimpsed on the edges of my vision are addressed full on. Rohr is both revolutionary and taking belief in, knowledge of, love of Christ, being in Christ, back to its source, back to Christ in creation, in us, in the eternal relationship with every element of existence. It is tough to explain, tougher to live out, but contains deep sense, maybe Aslan’s deeper magic. Of course, there will be critics who level charges of pantheism at Rohr – but he is talking about something so much more intrinsic than that. He’s not saying this is easy to understand or live, but he is drawing on Scripture, the Church Fathers and the great spiritual mystics throughout, pulling everything together into a vision for how we can be liberated in Christ from limiting worldviews, from overarching rationalism, from debilitating clericalism, from constricting materialism and unanchored spiritualism to be fully alive and fully engaged with God, each other and creation. Perhaps this is what Mark is saying when he concludes his Gospel without a resurrection appearance – because the resurrection, Christ alive in the world, is way too big for words: we are being gifted the possibility to be aspects of Christ, living as Christ, going beyond our own selves to be in Christ.
RR 46. ‘The Dog, The Wolf and God’, Folco Terzani, William Collins, 9780008325992. A fable of a dog – Dog – dumped by his Owner who meets a Wolf, then falls in with a small pack of wolves, embarking on the lupine version of the Camino, the journey of a life-time, the journey of life to the mythical Moon Mountain. A slight tale, evocatively illustrated throughout by Nicola Magrin’s mute toned watercolours, it has charm and warmth, even as the travellers reach colder, more wintry climes. Initially I was suspicious that this was an animals’ ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, and there are hints of that, with Dog having to sort out the trustworthy from the untrustworthy characters, learning to see beyond the sparkle, or the easy answers of distractions, discerning his own abilities, placing his trust in a higher power. Dog never uses the word ‘God’, none of the creatures do, but their oneness with their surroundings, their recognition of the inter-connectedness of all things, their ‘living in the present moment’ draws out a spiritual message that it is hard to miss. For Dog there is redemption, sacrifice and a new beginning.
RR 47. ‘A Thousand Paper Birds’, Tor Udall, Bloomsbury, 9781408878668. Origami, Kew Gardens and something obscure in the potting shed. The gardens are lovely and lovingly described, the origami induces papercuts, the tale of two women, two men and a child folds back into itself and then blows open in a spiral of falling leaves. There are many layers of grief in this debut novel as Jonah tries to come to terms with the death of Audrey, his wife, just as Audrey was trying to put her world back together after several miscarriages. On the surface it is a tale of domestic dysfunction, underneath it pulses with deeper heartbreak, love and loss. Initially compelling I found my attention wandering once the plot twist has been revealed before it trundled to a modestly satisfying ending. I’m not sure why I’m being so lukewarm as there was lots to like, interesting characters, clever ideas and a finely wrought setting. Certainly worth a read for anyone who loves a twist of melancholy in an arboreal landscape.
RR 48. ‘Joseph and the Three Gifts’, Brian Sibley, DLT, 9780232534160. Drawing on Scripture, legend and scholarship, this little book offers the Incarnation, from conception to resurrection, told by Archangel Gabriel looking at Joseph’s role in the story. It is gentle and thoughtful, creative and faithful, not pushing any line but giving a tale in the mould of the ‘Legend of the Fourth Wise Man’ that provides fresh angles and opportunities for reflection on the birth, life, death of Jesus and his impact on those around him. What did happen to those strange gifts given by the Magi to the parents of the infant Christ? What was Jesus like growing up? When did Joseph die? Sibley’s answers to these questions are imaginative but plausible, however he is clear that he is not usurping Scripture or replacing it, rather he is allowing Scripture to grow and blossom in us, showing us that we need to be creative with the texts, work at them much as carpenter Joseph would have done with and uncut block of wood, if we are to reveal the riches within.
RR 49. ‘Blotto, Twinks and the Intimate Revue’, Simon Brett, Constable, 9781472128270. Oh, the irony of reading this puffball of nonsense about chinless toffs foiling a dastardly socialist plot to force all the aristos down coal mines and gift their ancestral homes to unwashed hordes of Welsh miners, during election week. Obviously, this is set in the roaring twenties, when there were still active mines in Wales, telecommunication was new-fangled and the only skill a gentleman needed was with the cricket bat.
Mayhap this pastiche of Wodehouse with added revolvers was worth the perusal time of a few omnibus journeys, however, the over-egging of every available pudding was more than a tad wearing. I’m not sure I could cope with any more of it, yet this is just one of a burgeoning series. Dashed if the plot wasn’t a greasy plate of treacle pudding, with revue girls, fake policemen, pantomime villains, cunning disguises and oodles of claret. Humph, I’m stuck in the land of nursey food and ‘Tickey-tockey’. Oh well, as Reginald Gardiner used to say, ‘back to the asylum’.
RR 50. ‘Walk Humbly’, Samuel Wells, Canterbury Press, 9781786221506. Over the years I’ve had a very mixed relationship with the writings of Samuel Wells, beginning around 1999 when at theological college I had to read something, which may have been a dissertation, that he had written on Stanley Hauerwas. His text seemed to be opaque, the theology was dense (but also positively challenging) and I’m not very bright. It was not a good combination. However, since then I have read others of his books and have found them perceptive, fresh and energising. I’ve also met plenty of folk who think he is the best thing since Adam’s beard.
‘Walk Humbly’ is unputdownable. Except that you do have to keep putting it down to think through its implications. It is equally both radical and gentle – a book that challenges many of the ways we think, we live, much of how our beliefs are worked out in the daily round, and it focusses on being rather than doing, essence rather than existence. Take it seriously, take on board the consequences of acting upon it and it could be truly transformative. I’m going to have to read and re-read this book to savour it properly and to begin to grow in tune with it. I certainly want to share it with others (a cheaper paperback edition would be most useful) and feel that it is perfect for our congregations to explore together.
The chapter headings are short: Be Humble; Be Grateful; Be Your Own Size; Be Gentle; Be a Person of Praise; Be Faithful; Be One Body; Be a Blessing. The initial four chapters tear down some of the walls we create to give our lives enduring qualities – the attitudes and behaviours we have that we use to try and transform our existence into essence. The Incarnation, of course, is the opposite: God – pure essence – becoming existence. They remind us that we are dependent, we are insignificant, we are ignorant, but that’s how we are created. The last four chapters open our eyes to the beauty and wonder we are part of – in relationships, in creation, in the amazing, unsettling action of God-with-us.
RR 51. ‘Night’, Edna O’Brien, Faber, 9780571270293. Little beadlets of speech shimmer quickly, then drip, drip, drip down the page, losing their lustre as they slide from glory into gangrene, chasing the hope out of the cheeks of O’Brien’s frolicsome, fecund, feral narrator, a woman who has lived and lost, cracked and craved, given, taken, striven out of the Bog and circled back again. Her speech, her vivacity, her grasping for vitality comes in waves that mount and plume, receding a little further with each reminiscence, each flutter of memory, each twitch of her thigh, her tongue, her rubied lips. Discursive and cursing her biography surges beyond, around, through her words, full of climax and disillusion, connection and discontent. Slight in length yet panting with the energy of a writhing Sheela-na-gig, this little novel locks you onto its gaze and never lets go, however much you blush or stammer.
RR 52. ‘An Academic Question’, Barbara Pym, Virago, 9781844087235. First Barbara Pym I’ve read and I got it wrong – I picked her last book, which existed in two forms at her death, edited into one coherent text here, and it isn’t about clerical life, so isn’t representative of the novels which are much admired by the likes of Anne Tyler, Jilly Cooper and Kate Saunders. This is a slight tale about academic jealousies, imperfectly told, but with enough colour, vivacity and asperity to keep me reading. Some attitudes towards race and red brick universities which are very much ‘of its time’ (1970) are hard to stomach today. Not the best way to end my reading year, but ‘things’, as they say, ‘can only get bitter’.