F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ is a tragic story about a Gloria and Anthony, who meet and marry in Edwardian America (is there such a thing? I mean, I know Edward wasn’t an American monarch… Let’s call it ‘America-in-the-1910s’). The pair are wealthy, leisurely, self obsessed and the centre of the New York social scene.

Scott has written the story in three parts, taking us first through Gloria and Anthony’s courtship, then their marriage and then their… let’s call it… ‘settling-down’. I expected a clear tragic arc through the parts: things looking up in the first part, realities of life hitting in the second and then a plunge down into darkness in the third. But it was a little more nuanced than that. Which, of course, made it all the more tragic to read.

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Knowing also about the incredibly difficult relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald also made it a tragic read. My impulse at every moment was to read this story as autobiographical, and even though the plot doesn’t line up neatly with the events of their lives, I would bet all the money that Scott used events and truths about their own relationship to create these two incredibly self-destructive characters.

The book was long and sometimes hard work to get through, but whenever I felt like giving up I would stumble across beautifully poetic passages. The quote I remember clearest was Anthony discovering ‘privilege’ through his military service – an interesting take on it from a rich white man:

The world was divided primarily into those two classifications.

It occurred to him that all strongly accentuated classes, such as the military, divided men into two kinds: their own kind — and those without. To the clergyman there were clergy and laity, to the Catholic there were Catholics and non-Catholics, to the negro there were blacks and whites, to the prisoner there were the imprisoned and the free, and to the sick man there were the sick and the well… So, without thinking of it once in his lifetime, he had been a civilian, a layman, a non-Catholic, a Gentile, white, free, and well…

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ made me thankful for contemporary mental health care. And also for the good support Matt and I have had through our marriage, all the marriage courses we have done to help us communicate well and not be mean to each other. Ugh – it was painful to read about so many little quirks in their relationship escalating into poisonous habits. But still worth it for those beautiful passages embedded throughout. I’m glad I persevered to the end.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer: ‘The Princess of the Chalet School’

I am being honest about what I’m reading here: the next book in the pile was a lightweight paperback for very young readers, originally published in 1927, set in a Swiss boarding school run by a bunch of devoted Catholics, and the third installment in a series of sixty-two similar novels. Wow. It was exactly like what you are imagining. My friend lent me this book promising a very light and wholesome read – and a window into her childhood. She devoured these as a kid while the rest of us were reading our way through Goosebumps  and The Babysitter’s Club.

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Yeah. There isn’t much to say about this book, except that is was definitely very sweet and wholesome and light and easy to read. There was a kidnapping (spoilers), but my friend assures me that this is a standard plot device for the author: there is either a kidnapping, a natural disaster or a student lost in the Alps in any given book in this series.

The one exceptional thing about this book was, like A Vicarage Family, the Chalet School reminded me of what it felt like to be a child who is mocked, patronised or unfairly treated by a regular adult – not an evil adult, just an adult who is not very thoughtful. It was a good reminder of how kids can see the world, and a reminder to not be a jerk to young people.

Rachel Held Evans: ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’

‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ was another book out of the borrowed pile, and another non-fiction one. After one of many chats about being both a woman and a Christian, a friend of mine suggested reading Rachel Held Evans for a perspective on the issue, so (eventually) off I went.

I enjoyed this book so much.The premise was fascinating – one woman living out the female-specific commands in the bible as literally as possible for a year. The writing was engaging and her actual experiences were at turns profound and hilarious.

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I appreciated Rachel’s methodology. Firstly, rather than tackling all commandments all at once for 365 days, she broke them down into twelve categories and lived them out month at a time: this sounded wise not just for her sanity, but also for helping me to process it all.

Secondly, she included many interviews and reflections from women who think quite differently to her: I didn’t personally agree with all of her interpretation as she reflected on ‘biblical womanhood’ – nor those of everyone she interviewed – but I liked the way these different voices made room for me to both disagree with her and stay engaged in her story.

Thirdly, between chapters she included twelve short devotions on women in the bible, which was a nice counterpoint to the laws and exhortations she was living out. I’m very glad she included these reflections, so we could hear the stories of women in the bible among the story of Rachel’s year.

The highest point was her month of living out Proverbs 31, celebrating ‘women of valour’. I think I will come back to that idea again and again. It is a marvelous thing to  celebrate the valour of other women.

The another high point for me was this succinct explanation of the care and thoughtfulness we need to put into interpreting the bible:

For those of us who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something and we all have the tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are we reading with the prejudices of judgement and power, self-interest and greed?

If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to liberate and honor women, you will find them…

…This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does the text say? but what am I looking for?

Yes! I think I fist-pumped when I read this. We are always – subconsciously or intentionally – wrestling with interpretation as we read the bible. We should always be pausing to ask ‘what am I looking for’?

And at this point I really wish Rachel had gone on to talk about coming to the bible first and foremost looking to know Jesus, and his sacrificial, redemptive, far-reaching, all powerful love. We should be concerned most of all about Jesus and his love for us, before we come with any other agendas about our gender, or whatever else we are hung up on. I am convinced that focusing on him, above our own personal agendas, goes some way to helping us avoid self-interested interpretations of the text.

Sadly Rachel didn’t quite land there. But even if she didn’t say it, this is the message I have taken away from her book: the attitude we bring to interpreting the bible absolutely shapes the way we read it, and so the best attitude I can have is one that is centred more on Jesus than on myself. I know in reality that reading the bible is not as simple as that, but examining my attitude like this is definitely a start!

Noel Streatfeild: ‘A Vicarage Family’

‘A Vicarage Family’ was the second book of the year and also came out of the pile of borrowed books. I was excited to read this one. I had heard about Noel Streatfeild… from You’ve Got Mail (as I have already mentioned, this is a classic film!):

Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theatre Shoes and Dancing Shoes. I’d start with Ballet Shoes first; it’s my favorite. Although Skating Shoes is completely wonderful—but it’s out of print.

Well, this was my first ever Streatfeild book, her autobiography of her late childhood and teenage years living in a vicarage in an English village. A good start I think, to get to know the author.

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The character subbing in for Noel is called Vicky, and she is fiesty. And living in Edwardian England. In a vicarage. As a middle child. None of these things are true of my childhood. At the beginning of the story her life seemed so remote and foreign and different. But as I kept reading I started recognising my own memories in her story. Vicky has countless moments of angst and anxiety around being misunderstood or unfairly treated: these opened a wellspring of memories about my own worries around being unfairly punished at school or at home, or those moments where I felt caught between two versions of the truth. Those memories of sitting in my room and promising that when I was an adult I would never make those assumptions about children, never dish out that punishment without making sure I knew the full story, never use sarcasm.

Those were difficult moments as a kid. I’d forgotten those memories and Noel brought them flooding back. I am so thankful because I work with children now. ‘A Vicarage Family’ has helped to grow my empathy for these kids, it’s given me a desire to understand the details of their world a little better.

…she caught her foot and fell, spraining her ankle. The pain was excruciating.

Victoria let out a howl. Miss French opened her door. Since the beginning of the term she had been looking for an occasion to make friends with Victoria. But now she thought of nothing but the noise Victoria was making. In a voice that seemed to have ice in it, she said:

‘What is the meaning of this noise, Victoria?’

Victoria was swinging to and fro holding her ankle.

‘It’s my ankle. I think I’ve sprained it.’

Miss French’s voice was more icy than ever.

‘That may be. But a sprained ankle scarcely seems an excuse for raising your voice.’

Victoria never forgot those words. Years later in London, during the Second World War, she was in a house which the third of a stick of bombs was clearly likely to hit. Actually it just missed, but caused a lot of damage. When the dust, rubble and broken glass had settled Victoria heard herself say quietly: ‘You may nearly have been killed by a bomb, Victoria, but that hardly seems an excuse for raising your voice.’

Susan Cain: ‘Quiet’

The first book I read this year was not fiction. Not because I was avoiding fiction! Of course not. It’s because I had a small pile of books borrowed from friends, which had accumulated while we moved house. Now that I was starting to feel settled in a new home, it was time to start working through these books I’d borrowed.

A friend recommended this book to me because I was confused about how to define introversion. I find it easier to think when I can talk out loud, but I get exhausted quickly when I hang out with lots of people. Am I an introvert? What does it mean to be an introvert? Is there even one clear definition?

‘Quiet’ is an exploration of introversion that goes deep and stretches wide. Susan Cain has collected pretty much every scientific study, historical milestone and self help movement that is remotely connected to introversion. Her book ties it all together to tell an incredible story about what introversion actually is, and what potential contributions introverts could make if they lived and worked with people who understood them.

The whole story is held together through an adventure of field trips and interviews. Susan takes us from place to place in her search to understand introverts. We visit offices and shops, a church and a university, psychologists’ clinics and self help seminars, families and schools, in the past and the present. The whole trip left me feeling pretty well informed about what an introvert is, and why introverts are cool.

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Susan Cain has a website all about this stuff. You can even take a quick text to see if Susan Cain would pick you as an introvert. I am apparently an ‘ambivert’. No wonder I was confused.

A season for reading

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

That’s a quote from the classic film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ and it regularly runs through my head.

I watched that film in the cinema with my parents as a 12 year old and I remember that quote. It was shocking! I heard it as ‘children read differently to, more meaningfully than, better than adults’ and I thought ‘No way.’

No way. How could that be? We were taught to read as part of growing up. How could a kid do such a grown up thing, like reading, in a superior way to an adult?

Well, unsurprisingly, Nora Ephron was right in all her screenwriting brilliance. It’s exactly how life has panned out for me. I devoured books as a kid and a teenager, and I can tell you about so many books that have shaped my outlook on life, my identity. And then I finished school, I had to read piles of textbooks and journal articles for uni, and suddenly I stopped reading fiction. I had forgotten how to lose myself in a book! And then when I tried to start reading again, well, it was enjoyable enough, but very few books – especially fiction books – have stayed with me in the same way they did when I was young.

This year I began properly working four days a week. I’ve had extra time up my sleeve for housework, for visiting family and friends, and for reading. It’s my season for reading. And I know that these books will never become a part of my identity in the way that my reading as a child did, but I’d like to try and remember it at least! I’m going to record and review this year’s fiction reading here. Maybe some reflecting will help these books to become more of my identity after all.

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Baptism Class

This is how Baptism Class went down today with my 12 year old pupil Josiah:

“OK, Josiah. John 1:1-18. You can read.”

Before the world began, there was the Word. Wait, what? What does it mean, the Word? Is that God?”

“Keep reading, Josiah.”

“The Word was with God. OK. The Word isn’t God.”

“Keep reading, Josiah.

“The Word was with God, and the Word was God. What??”

“Yep, the Word was with God and the Word was God. Keep reading.”

“He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through him. Wait, through God?”

“Well, through the Word.”

“How can a Word be a him? A word is a not a person.”

“Keep reading, Josiah!”

“Nothing was made without him. Him as in God, right?”

“Him as in the Word.”

“But how can a word be a person?!”

“Keep reading, Josiah!!”

“In him there was life. That life was light for the people of the world. The Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overpowered the Light.There was a man named John who was sent by God. He came to tell people about the Light. Through him all people could hear about the Light and believe. John was not the Light, but he came to tell people about the Light. The true Light was coming into the world. The true Light gives light to all. The Word was in the word. Wait, in the world.

“You’re doing great.”

“The Word was in the world. The world was made through him, but the world did not know him. He came to the world that was his own. But his own people did not accept him. But some people did accept him. They believed in him. To them he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in the human way. They were not born because of the desire or wish of some man. They were born of God.”

“Good job, keep going.”

“The Word became a man and lived among us. We saw his glory—the glory that belongs to the only Son of the Father. The Word was full of grace and truth. John told about him. Wait, him? The word is a him?”

“Yes, Josiah, the Word became a man and lived among us. Have you worked out who it is yet?”

“Ummmm…”

“Keep reading.”

“He said, “This is the One I was talking about. I said, ‘The One who comes after me is greater than I am. He was living before me.’” The Word was full of grace and truth. From him we all received more and more blessings. The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Oh!! The Jesus! The Word is Jesus!”

“Yes! Good job. Nearly there, keep reading.”

“No man has ever seen God. But God the only Son is very close to the Father. And the Son has shown us what God is like.”

“Yay!”

“So did God kind of put the Word into Mary’s womb?”

“You can read the beginning of Luke in your own time.”

And that is John 1:1-18 with commentary from a year 6 kid (International Children’s Bible). He asks very good questions!