I was recently speaking at the UCCF staff conference which was a real privilege and joy – and in one of the talks, I gave some tips on reading books, and a number asked for them to be reproduced (as they weren’t on the handout). So I will now oblige here (such is Q’s generosity of spirit). Read more
It wasn’t a plan particularly, but then that’s part of the joy of books – I never have a plan for what I’m going to sink my teeth into next. It is usually just a matter of wanting something different from the one before.
But a couple of books recently have done that self-referential thing: they’re books about books (a bit like U2’s recent self-referential album, I suppose). And it got me thinking about the other books I’ve loved that have done this. Read more
As ever slow on the uptake, but I finally got round to reading Azar Nafisi’s beautifully written 2004 book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a rich, highly thoughtful and thought-provoking memoir from an Iranian English literature professor about her life and students (in particular the small but diverse group of women in her reading group). She meditates deeply on her culture, on their favourite authors and their books, on the simple wonders of reading. She makes extraordinary, unexpected connections – which aid understanding of both the literature and life in Tehran.
Rachel Kelly is spot on: “But in the end, depression doesn’t follow rules: it is a devil that comes in many guises.” (Black Rainbow, p231) So there is a sense in which her experiences of depression (two highly debilitating and bewildering attacks and the subsequent need to manage it) will inevitably be unique. But her new Black Rainbow is remarkable: for it is no misery memoir but an act of generosity. In making herself vulnerable through talking so openly about facing and working through deeply personal pains, she has offered nothing less than a gift of grace. For in the midst of the bleak, black, barrenness of depression, she has found a path through. For those of us perhaps further back along the road, this is a germ of hope.
Work on my book on suspicion, spies, conspiracies and the like continues apace (hence minimal blog posting) – but I’m wondering if some of you can help me a little bit. I’m currently working on some of the conspiracy theories that float around Christianity and the church. Perhaps the most notorious is the one popularised by Dan Brown in his Da Vinci Code. It’s been a while since reading it, but I wonder if any Dan Brown aficionados might check that I’ve done justice to the conspiracy that his heroes Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu expose. I’ve tried to summarise it as succinctly as possible, but if you can think of any aspects that I’ve overlooked, I would be hugely grateful if you could suggest them in the comments. Read more
Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
The months immediately after the close of the Second World War were confusing. One minute the Allies had been dropping bombs on Germany (as Col Lewis Morgan, the protagonist in Rhidian Brook‘s The Aftermath, points out, more bombs fell on Hamburg in one weekend than fell on the London in the entire war), the next they were dropping lifeline supplies in the Berlin Airlift of ’48-’49. The disorientation this must have brought for ordinary Germans is articulated by some so-called ferals (kids living in the ruins of the city): Read more
I’d heard good things of this book: Rowan Williams’ surprisingly readable appreciation of CS Lewis’ Narnia, The Lion’s World. It seemed appropriate to move on to this having relished Francis Spufford’s recreation of his childhood delight in Narnia. And there are loads of good things about it for he is simply seeking to be an exegete of Lewis’ creativity. I especially appreciated this comment on how the whole experiment works (and thus why it is inappropriate to squeeze details too much into an allegorical mould).
For me, though, the standout of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is the chapter entitled The Island. For it is here that he waxes lyrical about Narnia. It is not just because he chimes with the countless numbers who loved C S Lewis’ books (despite the likes of Philip Pullman and Polly Toynbee). It is the fact that he grasps something of their theological wonder (which will come as no surprise perhaps to those who have enjoyed his Unapologetic). Read more
One of the most poignant aspects of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is his having to come to terms with his younger (by 3 years) sister’s desperate, chronic illness. She eventually died at 22, as a result of some well-timed medical breakthroughs – but it inevitably took its toll on the whole family. It drove the young Francis even further into books. And to very regular bus journeys to the local public library. Read more
Having considered the importance of stories and fiction in general, Spufford in The Child That Books Built now works through the different stages of growing up, moving from the simplest picture books onto fairy tales. Much psychologising about their significance has been indulged in over the last century or so, and Spufford weaves a careful threat through it all. The crucial thing is to understand why stories resonate:
‘Only those voices from without are effective,’ wrote the critic Kenneth Burke in 1950, ‘which speak in the language of a voice within.’ (p52)
Francis Spufford has gained a bit of a following for his recent Unapologetic – a quirky defence of Christianity which various bloggers have picked up on (I’ve only dipped into it but will read it fully soon and perhaps blog). But he has one of the most surprising and unique literary voices around. I was fascinated by his Red Plenty last year (an extraordinary account, part fiction/part history, of the heyday of Soviet Optimism in the 1950s) and have now just finished his simply sublime The Child that Books Built (Faber, 2002).