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).
Yes, I realise this is rather too late for helping with your Christmas shopping. But think of it as an aid to early preparations for the next one. Following up Q’s astronomically popular board games review back in July 2011, we’ve taken on board (geddit?) a number of other TV alternatives in our repertoire and felt that an update was definitely required. So here it is: 11 games of varying degrees of difficulty, intensity and delight. Trying to grade them has caused not a little debate around the kitchen table, but it was clear that three games in particular came out on top in chez Meynell: FORBIDDEN ISLAND, PUERTO RICO and TICKET TO RIDE (Asia Maps edition).
But there are definitely other options for those who don’t like their games so overly complex or involved. Have fun. Read more
It is a rare gift indeed to be able to evoke the confusions, perceptions and wonder of childhood from the perspectives of adulthood. And it is a gift that Ian Cron clearly possesses. His recent memoir (self-deprecatingly subtitled ‘of sorts’), Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me, is a wonderful, life-affirming account of a deeply troubled and agonised family – but it is wonderful because it demonstrates hope in some very dark places indeed.
And for that reason alone, it is a book I would thoroughly recommend. Read more
One of the challenges of recent months has been to find ways to help our kids spend a little bit less time immersed in electronic entertainment – whether it be from the TV, internet, DS or Wii. As any parent will know, this is a constant, Sisyphean struggle. But one tactic we’ve come up with (having vainly and naïvely tried to impose some sort of daily time limit on such things) is to have a weekly electronics-free day (in our case, Thursdays) – this (theoretically at least!) includes the TV. The idea is to get on with reading, or creating something or generally doing something with us. Read more
It is one of the easiest things in the world: making a parent feel guilty. Well this one, at any rate. There’s always something one’s done wrong, or haven’t done, or overdone or underdone. And the myriad numbers of books that remind / correct / reevaluate / deconstruct parenting methods is overwhelming. I’m not sure where he got this from, but my boss Hugh was speaking on a parenting course at All Souls last month, and he mentioned that 75,000 books on parenting have been published in the last 10 years!! Yikes.
I’ve certainly not read that many. I’ve in fact only read a handful – but most of the time, my experience has been the same: a sense of guilty failure. And too often, I’m actually talking about those written from a Christian perspective.
So I picked up Nicky & Sila Lee’s with a small sense of foreboding. And I have to say I was slightly put off by the rather grandiose title (‘The’ Parenting Book??) & Nicky Gumbel’s somewhat overblown preface. But I suppose that’s all part of the marketing strategy. Still, once I started the book proper, I was gripped – throughout all 500 pages of it – and hugely encouraged. It was full of things that we could start doing or do differently – and every now and then, I found that we were sort of on the right lines already.
Why every parent should read it
There are a number of aspects of the book that make it so good:
- They are not afraid to acknowledge their own mistakes – nor to allow their 4 children (now all grown-up) to mention their own frustrations and regrets about how they were parented (as well as the joys). They come across as thoroughly human and down-to-earth. As does the whole book. This was very refreshing.
- They have gathered ideas and principles from a wide range of research, at the level of both popular pastoral books and some more in-depth psychological stuff (more often than not gleaned from newspaper articles – I would imagine their clippings files are bulging). But this is worn lightly – and nearly always relevant and to the point.
- They are not afraid to be counter-cultural, but at the same time, their advice is very wise and common sensical (drawing the best of traditional wisdom and integrating it with new discoveries and developments as well as their own experiences).
- Big picture principles are covered, as well as chapters addressing specific issues related to age groups. While the toddler and young children sections are no longer directly relevant to us, I certainly found myself looking back and thinking that it made sense, or wishing we’d read the book back when it would have been.
- Every principle is well explained and illustrated with practical examples. It is littered with personal experiences (of their own, of their own children and of people they have encountered along the way). These ground the book. Furthermore, each chapter ends with questions to reflect on – all the time encouraging a conscious and deliberate (but never heavy-handed) approach to parenting.
- They do attempt to engage with the challenges arising from single-parent families, or step-families – though my guess is that many struggling with these issues will find this more of a springboard to other resources than a comprehensive aid. The book concludes with a number of suggestions for reading and online help, however.
- The book is clearly coming from a Christian worldview perspective, as becomes increasingly evident towards the end. But again, it never feels heavy-handed nor pushy. This makes the book supremely lendable to anyone (which of course reflects the origins of the book: both their HTB Marriage and Parenting Courses are designed as entry points to Alpha). There could perhaps be more here – a comment I’ve heard more than once about the courses is that they are perhaps a bit too ‘Christian-lite’ – but in terms of what they are seeking to achieve, the balance struck seems perfectly reasonable to me, even if I might have done some of this slightly differently.
Aspects I was especially helped by
There are a number of gems in the book – I found myself underlining and copying various things out (not just because they will become useful as illustrations one day!), especially since we are on the cusp of teenagerdom in our family. I especially found helpful:
- the HALT acronym (p189) for dealing with tantrums and anger (especially in us as parents as much as in our children). Before reacting, HALT, and ask yourself if you or they are Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired? So often the child simply needs some food – or to get some sleep – or to talk. So lay off them! Or we need to delay our response while we catch our breath if we can.
- the Alarm Clock gag: for teenagers going out to parties, set an alarm clock for the deadline when they must be in and place outside your bedroom door. That way you can go to sleep in peace knowing you’ll be woken up if they don’t come back – and they have an incentive to get home on time!
- Some really good suggestions for how to talk with your children about sex, drugs and rock and roll – well, the first two anyway.
So the book is pretty comprehensive on the whole. Which I suppose means that it really does warrant its title after all. I know that I will be returning to it again and again.
This article does not make comfortable reading, by any stretch. In fact, it is horrific – because it is real. But it merely serves to illustrate, as if illustration were needed, that the human heart is deceitful above all things, and that education, background, charm and intelligence have never been accurate barometers of the morality of a life.
The problem with highlighting this is that it can merely serve to puff up the respectable who (rightly) say “I’m not like that”. Paedophilia is one of those crimes which makes us horrified and self-satisfied in almost equal measure. It is an easy tabloid target. But it is sickening nonetheless – and we should never be afraid to expose it (when there is good evidence). Too often people react as some did to Pat Cleary, the completely deceived wife of paedophile Roger Took. They don’t believe it, assuming they know the situation better. But destruction on this scale must never be smothered or whitewashed. It really is this bad. And as the policemen investigating Roger Took said, ‘this was not a job anyone with a small child found bearable’. As the father of youngish children, just reading this article was too much.
Most striking though is the sort of language such behaviour demands, despite the moral vacuum and constant calls for understanding so prevalent in our society. This is what Took’s stepdaughter and mother of one of Took’s most regular victims had to say:
The last year has been hell. My trust and view of the world has changed forever… I can no longer leave my children in the care of other people without feeling suspicious of them. What remaining innocence I had is lost. I feel that under the surface of the world there is evil.
There it is – that word the world seems so reluctant to use. EVIL. Evil is a reality. But this is the shock of the Christian gospel. It agrees. Evil is real – and evil is evil. But it is only the Christian gospel has the power both to recognise reality AND to redeem reality. And in the end, that is the only hope we have in the face of such depravity. How can the closed universe of the atheist possibly complain about such an action?
Just a few minutes after posting this, I was reminded of this typically pithy but shockingly apt line by Oscar Wilde from his play A Woman of No Importance and uttered by Lord Illingworth:
The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.
It is shocking because it is true even of you and me who might claim to be saints, and of Roger Took who is rejected as sinner. But again, it is only the gospel that enables us to hold to both extremes at the same time.
Here at All Souls, every 3 or 4 months or so, we plug a couple of books which we think are particularly helpful and relevant. This time around, because both authors are friends, we managed to get both of them to do a little video plug to use in the services. This was a great opportunity for them to explain why the wrote them and thereby encourage people to read them. Both videos are now on youtube – I’ve linked to them here so that the benefits can be felt further afield.
Click on the book images buy copies from Amazon.
Well – I enjoyed it… but not perhaps as much as some of Douglas Coupland’s others. I have my favourites – Girlfriend in a Coma, Hey Nostradamus and of course the one that got everything going, Generation X.
The book starts relatively (frustratingly?) slowly – and is set in territory that is all too familiar to Coupland fans. This is suburban mall-land, the seemingly endless, soulless sprawl of North American retail parks (incidentally, I once started counting all the different UK chains that have imperialist pretensions by claiming the world. There are simply LOADS, ranging from: Eyeworld, Leatherworld, Petworld, Kitchenworld, Craftworld not to mention PC world and Phone world – if you have any others, post them here!!). The sprawl, like most of the rest of Couplandland, is populated by the high school dropouts and middle-aged losers still enslaved to McJobs – as illustrated by the setting of this book: a store in the stationery megachain, Staples.
Roger has lost so much in life – marriage, child, direction and purpose. His frustrated spiral even puts his job at Staples at risk. He doesn’t want to be an ‘aisles associate’ (!) overseeing the tidiness of the ballpoint pen display for the rest of his life – he wants to write. So he writes – a diary which bizarrely he leaves lying in the staff room – that is asking for trouble, especially as he writes about colleagues. He seems to understand them though – and puts words into the mouth of Bethany, the store’s resident Goth. When she reads an entry in her own name, she decides to add her own and thus begins a very peculiar relationship, about which they agree never actually to talk. It is only carried out on paper (hence is akin to the ‘friendships’ enjoyed by the Facebook generation). From the start, there is a slightly unnerving sense of reality though. For while we are told that Bethany’s second entry is from the ‘real’ Bethany, we are never subsequently told who is actually talking – the real or the figment. The lines of reality are blurred from the start. This all points to the book’s central conceit: the meaning of the written word (presumably the reason for the setting in a stationery store) and its (in?)ability to describe reality. More on that in a mo. But like all Coupland’s heroes, these people are troubled – troubled about their lives, their relationships, and even about God. That is what makes them so intriguing (especially to someone trying to understand our culture) because they purport to be representatives of the (post)modern everyman and everywoman.
Here is Roger, right at the start:
ROGER: A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, Ann-Margaret, the cast members of Rent, Vaclav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s universal.
Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you are – the you who holds a job and feeds a family – the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the casket? (p1)
As ever in Coupland’s books, the Damocles sword of human mortality is ever present. However, as this next excerpt illustrates, that may well be preferable to the interminable drudgery of an aisles associate.
ROGER: The last while has been kind of rough and, yeah, I’m having trouble these days, but Joan [ex-wife] isn’t what you’d call a fountain of sympathy. I can make up all the excuses I want, but the fact is, I merely lie in my bed in the morning and don’t get out. Especially at this time of year. I ask you, why do we even bother having wakefulness? Dreams are way more interesting than real life, and in dreams you never have to get out of bed. For that matter, why does life bother going forward? No matter what organism you look at… an amoeba or an elk or whatever, it does everything it can to advance itself – it tries not to be killed, it tries to mate, it tries to not be eaten. What’s the nature of this divine computer program that drives everything to go forward? Why doesn’t DNA sometimes say to itself, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this survival shit. I think I’m going to pack it in. It ends here.’ (p187)
It is not just present circumstances or an unknown future that Roger yearns to escape. His searing, wry honesty gets to the heart of the matter: his own heart.
ROGER: It’s amazing how you can be a total shithead, and yet your soul still wants to hang out with you. Souls ought to have the legal right to bail once you cross certain behaviour thresholds: I draw the line at cheating at golf; I draw the line at theft over $100,000; I draw the line at bestiality. Imagine all the souls of the world, out on the sides of highways, all of them hitchhiking to try to find new places to live, all of them holding signs designed to lure you into selecting them as a passenger:
… I sing!
… I tell jokes.
… I know shiatsu.
… I know Katherine Hepburn.
I don’t deserve a soul, yet I still have one. I know because it hurts. (p22)
But Roger’s not alone – Bethany is similarly afflicted. Throughout her life, those closest to her have died – hence the Goth affectation and cosmetic obsession with death and the ‘dark side’. She eventually snaps out of that – but of course that doesn’t remove her core fears and anxieties.
BETHANY: Oh God, I’m sitting here and my inner voice won’t shut up. Do you ever get that? All you crave is silence, but instead you sit there and, against your wishes, nag yourself at full volume? Money! Loneliness! Failure! Sex! Body! Enemies! Regrets!
And everybody’s doing the same thing – friends, family, that lady at the gas station till, your favourite movie star – everybody’s skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me, and nobody knows how to shut it off. We’re a planet of selfish me-robots. I hate it. I try to turn it off. The only thing that works is if I try to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head, try to imagine what their inner nagging is. It cools my brain…
…God, I’m so sick of myself.
Oh Roger, I truly wish I’d had religion growing up, because believing in something might shut off my inner voice – and maybe also so that I could feel like I shared something with my family, a common vision. All I got from my family is death, divorce and desertion. Please come up with ideas to share with Zoë [Roger’s daughter]. She’ll probably hate you until she’s twenty-one, but after that she’ll thank you forever. You’re so lucky to have the chance to not screw somebody up. (p248)
I’m probably blinded by my own presumptions, but isn’t that getting rather close to a biblical analysis of human nature? Sure it doesn’t cross any theological t’s, but it achingly seems to illustrate the yearning to overcome the sinful nature. I was really knocked back when I read that bit.
Within this bizarre paper-bound relationship, Beth & Roger share their own private universe: through Roger’s attempt at a novel, Glove Pond. Beth has her own attempts at creative writing too, all featuring the life of pieces of toast! But Glove Pond is the focus – and it is excruciatingly, but wonderfully, bad! A narrative about a drunken loser novelist, Steve, and his hopeless actress wife, Gloria. Another couple comes to dinner (successful writer Kyle Falconcrest and his medic wife Brittany) but there is a simmering rivalry and tension between them all. Part of Roger & Beth’s fun is that the characters’ names correspond to other workers at Staples. In Glove Pond, Steve & Gloria are living empty lives, with everything masked by not particularly convincing façades. This is especially apparent when the conversations turn to their son. Does he exist or not?
Coupland is playing games with our minds at this point. He is writing a book about Roger who is writing a diary; and including excerpts from the novel that he is writing about a writer called Steve who peeks jealously at Kyle’s latest manuscript about a loser called Norm! Yikes. Trying to clarify what is going on there hurts the brain. But I think that is precisely the point. It is a vortex of meanings and references – so complex that one completely loses ones sense of place and reality. What on earth is going on here?! And yet, despite our confusion, there is a real poignancy even here – because the character Kyle does see what could really be going on with Steve & Gloria. They are lost souls, covering profound grief (like Roger himself in ‘real life’):
KYLE (in Glove Pond): What, he wondered, could have happened to two people to damage them so badly? What sort of event could warp them, or any of us, to the point where they became mere cartoons of the real and whole people they once were?
This world of personality smoke and mirrors is reflected by Bethany’s view of the world. So what if you can’t tell what’s real or not? What’s real anyway? The Goth thing for her was just a certain fashionable lifestyle statement , which she can easily be discarded when it doesn’t suit. Hence her comic approach to a complex medical ethical issue like cloning:
BETHANY: Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! one theory doesn’t exclude the other. (p7)
Bethany is no fool though – while her approach might be pretty idiosyncratic, her perceptions of the absurdities of modern life are acute:
BETHANY: But what was the universe thinking when it came up with Christmas? Hey, let’s wreck six weeks of the year with guilt and loneliness and unnecessary cheesy crap! And then let’s invent office superstores where they can take everyday stuff like pens and glossy printer paper and commit an emotional travesty by suggesting these items as gift ideas for loved ones! (p233)
Coupland has the last laugh though in the book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal!). I didn’t see it coming (but that’s probably because I’m a bit dense and read the book too quickly). But it certainly explains why so many of the book’s boundaries between ‘truth’ and fiction are so blurred, why the aches endured by so many of the characters were echoed or paralleled in their colleagues. Coupland thus even further distances the reader’s perception of reality. For who actually is Roger at all? We never really discover.
The book ended up being much more satisfying than I expected in the early pages – and throws up Coupland’s same old questions about truth, identity, hope and meaning, but in an innovative and provocative way. Still, this is Coupland’s 12th novel. I can’t help wondering whether or not he will ever find the answers he is looking for. If not, his characters will presumably have to endure their endless, and thus fruitless, search in the burb malls of North America. Heart-breaking when there are at least some answers out there, even if not all the answers.
[As a total aside, the aerial photo of Los Angeles above, comes from a revealing little essay about the american suburbs – click on the photo for more.]
This is a bit of silliness, but with a serious purpose. Having been asked to give a talk last weekend to some of the parents at church (while their kids played on bouncy castles etc) on Internet safety and tips, i’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking on the issue. The result is a new page on this blog called Web-Wise. On there i’ve included links to an mp3 of the original talk, some pointers to the opportunities and dangers of the internet (for too often, people are either too positive or too negative about the web), links to useful sites – and even some merchandise, especially produced for this project! So to find out what pandas, chatrooms and mousemats have to do with each other, then check it out!