In which I wrap up November

(1) Things which I have read.
You’d almost not know that I was on holiday for a week that I only read three books… but I did do a lot of wandering around ancient temples and napping. Also, one of these books was nearly 700 pages and took some thinking about.

That book was Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, a behemoth of a book about survelliance and resistance which made my head spin in a really good way. It took my brain some work to keep up with it. I simultaneously loved it, and agreed with the nice Guardian reviewer who thought it could have used a bit of cutting and tightening (even if I can’t work out where). Either way, I’m grateful for Harkaway and his brain.

I moved on from Harkaway to Cornwell-under-a-pseudonym-Senior, John Le Carré and The Mission Song, which I’ve had for a while because a spy story about the West’s ejit-witted engagement in African politics seemed like my kind of jam. I enjoyed it a lot, and the thoughts on translation and immigration are fascinating, but I would classify it as a minor post-Wall Le Carré.

Finally I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, which was my purchase after Ishiguro won the Nobel and was London Book Club’s November choice. I loved it. I think Ishiguro is an author I’ve grown into: I remember reading Remains of the Day and Once Were Orphans in my early twenties and liking them, but missing something. Never Let Me Go was the first I really grasped at, and then The Blind Giant impressed me enormously and has really stayed with me. I’m now in a ‘want to read everything he’s ever written’ place because I love how he writes about perspective and memory and history. The two I’ve read about Japan and the war – this, and A Pale View of Hills are both fascinating about a country that seems to struggle to deal with its twentieth century history.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Let’s embrace two completely contrasting films: The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Paddington 2. Yes. Those were my November choices. Killing of a Sacred Deer was maybe one of the weirdest films I have ever seen and yet I am really really glad I saw it even if ‘enjoyed’ is not quite the word. I’m pretty sure that Colin Farrell should work with Yorgos Lanthimos on the regular, because he does some of his very best (non-In Bruges) work with him.

Then Paddington 2. Which is like being actually hugged by Paddington. People keep asking me if it’s as good as the first one, which, no it’s not, but really – what is? It’s delightful and charming and not at all sappy. There’s a hot air balloon and steam trains and Brendan Gleeson. Honestly, what more do you want. Other than to be literally hugged by Paddington.

(3) Things which I wrote
I made the foolish mistake of going on a tour visit to a floating visit in Phnom Penh. I hated it. And myself.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I got to go to Angkor Wat, which was truly impressive. But I liked the Angkor Thom complex even more.

(5) In the pile for Decemnber
I’m currenly reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I am savouring and think – so far – is completely brilliant. At 70 pages in, I think it’s also the most accessible. I have a very large TBR pile, and I’m working out what to take home for Christmas reading. Maybe The Loney and a few others in a solid pile in the bottom of the suitcase. I’m also hoping for Emily Wilson’s Odyssey translation for Christmas (HINTPARENTHINT). In the cinema I will obviously be going to see Star Wars and sobbing into a large pile of tissues, and probaby Pitch Perfect 3 even though I assume they are on a sliding decline.

in which I misplace my money, my anger, and whatever good sense I thought I had in the beginning.

I’m sitting in a restaurant on a river that flows into the Tonle Sap lake eating pringles and drinking coke and I’m cross. I just opted not to pay $5 for a trip in a little boat into a mango grove in favour of waiting here for an hour. I didn’t bring my book – kindle – because it said it was going to rain, and IMO, the less damp tech the better. Hence the pringles and coke.

It is actually raining.

The ‘on’ is literal, by the way: the restaurant is on stilts in the river. I’m in the village of Kompong Pluck, one of Cambodia’s floating villages. I came with an outfit called Bluebird tours (not that they’re any better or any worse than any other tour company offering these trips). And yes, I should have known better.

There are about 28 people on my particular boat. We’re one boat of about umpteen billion, it feels like, but even without exaggeration the numbers must be heading well past 50. The village is home to around 800 families who live off the lake and make their living off the lake: from fishing and from tourism. In front of me, alongside the restaurant is a crocodile pen full of small crocs. Somewhere in another universe those crocs are a part of a revenge narrative against the tourists who come here. Especially for the ones who right now are climbing on the roof of their pen taking photos of them. There’s at least one tourist per family. Imagine if each family had a crocodile…

And yes, I should have known better.

A sizeable chunk of my group are cross because the tour company didn’t say it would be an extra $5 for the small boat through the mangoes. Some paid it and went anyway, rather than sit around. I nearly did. As giving the people my custom goes I’m not sure if boat trips or globally recognised food stuff comes out ahead. I’m dry and not hungry, though. And I’ve enabled my cross-ness about the whole trip to be funneled into self-righteousness and cross-ness about the extra charge.

And yes, I should have known better.

It’s an ‘eco-tourism project’ they say. Well that’s as may be. I have no idea what the money goes towards and far be it for me to decry villagers making money off the bajillion people who want to come and see how they live. If capitalism’s going to capitalise, you might as well try and get a bit. But I’m not sure how 50+ boats churning gasoline bringing around 1000 people a day (with their tours often giving them their own plastic water bottles) is eco. I might have felt better doing it solo, except, no I wouldn’t, I’d have had the same experience in the village plus paying a tuk-tuk driver $20. More people would have benefitted from my poor decision-making, I suppose.

I felt my desire to see something different and take some photos and allowed it to let me conveniently overlooked everything I know about how to visit people and places well. It’s like Pub Street, the heaving heart of Siem Reap’s tourism, but in people’s homes. I’m not saying there couldn’t be a way to enable people see these villages well. But this isn’t it.

I didn’t think it would be picturesque, I didn’t even really kid myself that $20 to an eco-tourism project would change a corner of the world, but I also didn’t think about how much I would hate the experience and myself for putting me through it.

Over here the past few years I’ve had the privilege of seeing places off the tourist tracks, or on the shadier side of the tracks. Of meeting the people who live their lives in these places, listening to them, learning from them, often being fed and watered by them. The difference between that joy and this is a chasm. It’s a bit like looking into the abyss, only it’s just you looking back.

So I’m cross with the tour company, cross with the system, cross with everyone else on this damn boat. But mostly, I’m cross with me.

And yes, I should have known better. Asked more questions. Chosen differently. Next time I get the choice, I promise…

In which I wrap up October

(1) Things which I have read.
1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson. Her first. Cold and crystal, but never tipping over the edge into bleak. It feels slighter than the trio that have followed, but definitely marks out a voice.
2. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter. I both enjoyed and didn’t enjoy this. It was easy to read and both language and form were poetic, but it didn’t feel like there was a lot to it beyond that. It’s not proved memorable.
3. We were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nahisi Coates. The very opposite of unmemorable. The essays in this collection weren’t new to me – it turns out I have actually been reading Coates for that long, but it was nice to revisit the earlier ones in particular and to read his reflections of the eight years of Obama’s presidency and his own writing career. A collection worth keeping.
4. The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso. London Book Club’s book last month, this was a surprising treat. I picked it up when it was on the Bailey’s longlist, and I think it was better than at least one of the shortlisted books last year. It’s the story of two old ladies living in Constantia in Cape Town: one white, one black. It’s very sharply observed, without being cruel, and quite funny at times. Would definitely recommend.
5. Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer. I’ve been reading the Southern Reach trilogy off and on over the last 18 months, and it ended with a bit of a whimper of weird. The first, Annihilation, was super-tight and super-creepy.This was definitely not the former and lapsed from the second as it either tried or didn’t try (I’m really not clear which) to resolve things.
6. My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent. What should you do on a Sunday afternoon? You should read the latest critical darling, a novel about incest and abuse on the Northern California coast. That I read it in an afternoon tells you what you need to know about it’s readability. That I described it as ‘Twilight for Grownups’ on twitter tells you what you need to know I think about its quality. I’m glad I got it out of the library. Some of the descriptions – particularly of the landscape – are beautiful (I would like to spend time in Mendocino, but with less horrible people), but in terms of the story, it’s a bit like Holden Caulfield grew up and wrote a novel he thought was transgressive and unphoney. And like Holden Caulfield, I want to slap it with a wet fish and tell it to grow up.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
1. Goodbye Christopher Robin. I knew that the Winnie the Pooh books had a dark back story, but now I am personally traumatised and feeling guilty for loving the story so much. Domnhall Gleeson is particularly great as AA Milne, and I personally found the depiction of his friendship with EH Shepherd a highlight – especially the moment with the balloons.
2. Blade Runner 2049. I was deeply sceptical of this when it was announced, and only marginally less so after falling in love with Denis Villenueve’s Arrival last year. I really really enjoyed 2049 though: it’s bigger and messier than Blade Runner but still rich and oh-so-beautiful. And one of the films in which Ryan Gosling truly works.
3. Death of Stalin. Walks a beautiful tightrope between outrageously funny and outraged that grown men could be so nonsensically self-involved and casual with so many people’s lives. There were moments when my cinema audience didn’t know if it was ok to laugh. And oh, it was so good to see Simon Russell Beale be truly great on a cinema screen.
4. The Party. As I left the cinema, I heard a guy say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Poor pumpkin. I quite like a film that is shorter than my commute to and from the cinema (cineworld thinks only people living in the Docklands like certain kinds of film – no, busters, we all just schlep their to not miss them!) I also quite like a film that is sharp, funny, equally cruel and yet sympathetic to everyone – even the asshat banker. It knows exactly what it wanted to do and did it.
5. Thor Ragnarock. “I tried to start a revolution but I didn’t print enough pamphlets.” From everyone’s new favourite Rock monster, to Valkyrie, to Loki and Thor doing their best Crowley and Aziriphale on the streets of New York, newest Thor is a technicolour delight. I missed Jane and Darcy, because I love them, but without really missing them at all. Also, there’s a spot of Sam Neill and that is never a bad.
6. Follies. To the National Theatre to see the much-raved about Follies production and I am here to rave about it. I’d never seen it before, so I didn’t know it, and the story does pack a punch done well – and oh do Imelda Staunton and Philip Quast in particular do it well. Too Many Mornings fair broke my heart.
7. Dreamers Ever Leave You. The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada took over a warehouse in the docklands and put on a performance that lasted all of 45 minutes, but was utterly different and compelling. It had three ‘stages’ (floor mats) and the smallish audience could just wander around the space while the performance happened. It was fascinating. Some people just sat and watched a stage, some moved slowly between them, some (me) – fuelled by FOMO – moved around fairly a lot. You could take photos and short films, and a lot of people did, but never in a way that was intrusive or that seemed to be taking away from them watching the dancers. And the dancers, oh my. You try standing a foot away from Frankie Hayward or Ryoichi Hirano while they dance. It’s incredible to be that close and see what they do and how intense it is. I could have stayed for all three of that evenings shows and each each stage once through. But I think the point was in the having to leave and being left as you and the dancers moved between them.

(3) Things which I wrote
Just this, on memory, truth and identity in Blade Runner

(4) A photo from the month gone by
A few, actually, from Dreamers Ever Leave You.

(5) In the pile for November
I’m packing for a trip – work and holiday- so I’m still working out what to take on dead tree to go with the kindle. I am planning to read The Brothers Karamazov, finally, and potentially re-read In the Light of What we Know. An Artist of the Floating World is our book club pick: getting our Ishiguro on after his Nobel win. The new Nick Harkaway novel, Gnomon, comes out early in the month, and I’m a huge fan so I’ll be reading that too. Beyond that… who knows.

In which I muse on memory in Blade Runner 2049

maybe one day you’ll be a real boy…

(Warning, includes spoilery discussion of Blade Runner 2049)

I was sitting in the London Review of Books’ cafe at the weekend (recommended), reading the latest edition of the Paris Review. It includes a conversation between Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis about the way they identify and write their stories. It was very engaging, and my attention was caught by this comment from Gladwell at the very end:

Much of what all of us believe is not true. I don’t mean that in the gross macro way. I mean it in a very, very micro way – that when someone tells you a story about something that happened to them or that they observed, many of the details are likely to be erroneous… Its not that people are lying to you, it’s just that much of what’s in our heads is not accurate.

Factually, what he’s saying is correct: people remember and recount things in ways that are objectively not 100% true. Historians learn this in their historian nappy-wearing days, being taught to critique sources for bias. However, Gladwell seems to be saying that journalists need to learn this and correct for it, to avoid errors. What he doesn’t seem to be questioning is the idea that you can correct for it and that you can get to objective truth.

insert loud wah-aah noise here

Yeah. No.
Funnily enough, I incline towards a belief in the existence of objective truth (I am a Christian after all), I just also incline away from the belief that humans can fully access it. Limited perspective and a lack of omniscience would appear to rule it out. I mean, you can try to correct for your own and other people’s bias, and as a historian and journalist, and in an attempt to be a decent human you probably should. But you can’t get out of subjectivity entirely. And while at times, deliberate manipulation is often at play in the muddying of the waters, so – as Gladwell points out – is subjective, limited memory.

And memory becomes reality, because it is what we are told, come to believe and know happened. And what we tell others, who weave it into their versions of the world.

This struck me, I think, because the previous night I’d trotted off to the cinema to see Blade Runner 2049, in which a memory plays a starring thematic role. K has a recurring memory of being a small boy, treasuring and hiding a wooden horse. In the course of events he comes to learn that this memory is a memory that was ‘born, not made’ – born, as in stemming from a real, live moment, rather than created in an imaginarium and implanted into his programming. When he discovers, late in the film, that while it is a felt memory, not a made one, it is not his, it comes as a punch in the gut – to him and (if you’re like me) to the viewer.

One of the concerns of the Blade Runner films is what makes a human human, as opposed to a replicant. One of the plot points of 2049 is the existence of two matching DNA records, ostensibly of a boy who lives and a girl who dies – but ultimately, it turns out, of a girl who lives and a boy who never did.

However, here’s my thesis: by K possessing and owning the memory, recognising and feeling its ‘realness’ in his being and identity, the boy who never lived does. K becomes a ‘real boy’, humanity incarnated out of his memory.

The character of Anna is clearly a messianic figure (best discussion of this I’ve read so far: Alissa Wilkinson at Vox), and the memory comes from her. Both in the sense that it is her memory, but also into the sense that she is the person who gives him the understanding of its truth in the moment that changes him so dramatically that his his baseline is miles off. Whatever else Anna does or becomes in the world of Blade Runner (and I do not want more sequels), she has given K the gift of being able to know his true humanity. Call it grace, if you like.

in which I wrap up September

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
A long weekend in Cornwall this month = quality reading time. I got on the train armed with the then very new John Le Carré, A Legacy of Spies and then got off the other end with it finished and handed it straight over to my father. It got left behind with my mother, because the family that reads together has something to talk about over Sunday dinner. I really enjoyed it, by the way: kind of a spy ghost archaeology. Peter Guillem has long been my sneaky fave of the Smiley books, so his central role was a treat for me. I went straight to my dad’s shelves and grabbed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for a re-read. It is still great, btw.

I also read:
* Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf. My first Woolf. It pays to put aside a chunk of time to read this, I found, so that you can get into the style. I enjoyed it fine, but it didn’t make me want to read more Woolf really, beause it feels so self-involved. I can easily imagine it having rocked my world if I’d read it in my late teens or early twenties.
* Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life – Phileena Heuertz. This month’s reflective book. I enjoyed it fine, but it didn’t quite give me what I wanted. I wanted something that would give me more on the hows of contemplative practice, what this gave me was something of the whys of its relevance to modern life and Christianity – which I’m already on board with.
* Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue. Tennis and imperialism in post-modern fiction? Sounds like my jam, no? And to some extent it was. I think it suffered though from the fact that I wanted so much to be blown away by it, and it didn’t quite do that. It was an inteteresting way to explore Spanish imperialism, though, and I warmed up to it more and more as I went on.
* Crosstalk – Connie Willis. September’s London Book Club choice turned out to be fluffy sci-fi chick lit. It was fun to read, but not a lot to talk about. I wished it had properly been about the technology that kicked off its plot, but it wasn’t so… Holiday reading, for sure.
* Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck. I enjoyed Erpenbeck’s End of Days earlier this year, but I really really enjoyed this. A beautiful look at a century of turbulence and trauma, that hides yet cracks open pain through an almost mythical kind of story of a place.
* The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss. I’d forgotten I had this, but it was really nice to revisit a little bit of the world of the Kingkiller Chronicles
* The Auschwitz Violin – Maria Àngels Anglada. In the month of reading through a lot of the slimmer books on my shelf, I finally read this (I’ve had it for about five years). I enjoyed the way that it took a look at the trauma of the holocaust through a particular lens, and I thought it worked really well at exploring how art and engaging in a craft can hold reality at bay for a little for a little while. I’m also grateful that it knew exactly how long it needed to be and didn’t overstretch that.
* Never Mind – Edward St Aubyn. Another finally – I’ve had this for a couple of years now, waiting for me to get myself to the Patrick Melrose series. One of the blurbs referenced A Dance to the Music of Time (which I love) but this was much nastier: both the characters and the author’s dispassionate exposure of their nastiness. I enjoyed it very much, and promptly went out and bought the rest – in a one volume edition which makes a mockery of the fact that individually they are perfet commute size.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Two cinema outings this month: one good, one very very good.
The first was Wind River, which I enjoyed more in watching than I think it probably deserves, as a film about missing Native American women focused thorugh a white man… It was definitely a good intro to an issue if you’re social-justice-ly blind, and made me feel very very cold, but could have been so much more.
On the subject of so much more, God’s Own Country is so much more than the sum of its synopsis: “a romantic drama in which a young man struggling with both his sexuality and the challenges of running the family sheep and cattle farm falls in love with Romanian migrant worker engaged for the lambing season” (courtesy of the BBFC). This film is So Yorkshire that it hurts. It’s bleak, beautiful, real and hopeful all at the same time, and in its ending completely and delightfully upended my expectations. It made me very happy.

(3) Things which I wrote
Public writing was not a thing that happened this month.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
Home is where this beach is.

 

(5) In the pile for October
I’m writing this in October, so I’ve already seen one of the things I’m waiting for, Blade Runner 2049. I’m also screamingly excited to see The Death of Stalin and Follies at the National Theatre.
In the book pile are the new Ta-Nehisi Coates collection, We were eight years in power and at least the next Patrick Melrose novel. I’m not quite sure what else I’m feeling up for reading right now… I want to re-read In the Light of What We Know but I’m saving it for a trip I’m going on in November.

In which I wrap up August

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
What does one do in August when there’s decent weather but lie in a hammock and read? And when it’s damp, but lie on the sofa and read?

  1. The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks. This month’s book club choice, it was nothing like I was expecting and I really enjoyed it. It’s creepy and disturbing, but also quite innocent and naive, and really atmospheric. It’s also a great book club option because there’s lots to talk about.
  2. In the Shelter: finding a home in the world – Pádraig Ó’Tuama. Beautiful, reflective, philosophic, wise. This one I’ll return to a lot.
  3. The Rise and Fall of DODO – Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. Shorter than the last few Stephenson solos, but retains the ‘wrapping up at high speed’ tendency. I enjoyed it immensely, because it was great fun and easy to read, and I love fat books that get you to fall into their world – but it is a ‘miniature’ in Stephenson cannon.
  4. In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri. An interconnected suite of essays about learning Italian and moving to Italy, with the Italian (by Lahiri) and the translation into English side by side. It works really well and is really insightful – and it was nice to realise how much Italian I can still remember, even though it’s been 12 years since I spent the summer in Bologna learning Italian.
  5. Who thought this was a good idea? – Alyssa Mastromonaco. This book is aimed at girls and young women between about 15–25, and it’s a great book for them about how to adult and be bold and ambitious in the career you build. I didn’t need the ‘things you need to know’ stuff, but I had a ball with the stories of the Obama White House.
  6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. The latest Greek-myth novel of the summer, and absolutely the best. There is, it turns out, a reason why this is on the Booker longlist and the others are not. It’s a really clever update of Antigone for the age of the “War on Terror” and a great novel about immigration, assilimation, and radicalisation. I loved it and it gave me book hangover for a couple of days.
  7. Exit West – Mohsin Hamid. I followed the Shamsie with this, also on the Book longlist – and also about immigration, but in a very different way. The doors give it a magical realism, and the atmosphere is almost dreamlike at times. The fact that you never meet a ‘native’ in the countries that Saeed and Nadia end up in means you only experience refugee-migration through the eyes of the refugees, which is very effective.
  8. All Tomorrow’s Parties – William Gibson. This was a re-read – of what was my first Gibson, back when I had no clue at all what was going on and what I was getting myself into. It was really nice going back having read Virtual Light and Idoru. The whole trilogy are getting on for 15–20 years old, and they’re still astute.

 

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
I went to see Dunkirk again, this time in 70mm Imax, which is literally immense. I got neck ache from craning around the screen, but it was so worth it. I also saw Detroit, which really left me cold with the brutality (the scene with the church choir in the end worked, but was too late). The performances were all great (especially John Boyega), but the sense of ‘same-old-same-old’ that the film brings out about race in America provides no catharsis or conviction of complicitly.

On bank holiday Monday I traipsed off to the only cineworld in London showing A Ghost Story in the middle of the day. It was astonishing and beautiful. It went somewhere I absolutely did not expect and completely worked. It’s a gem and worth the effort of finding in a cinema.

 

(3) Things which I wrote
* A short review of Tish Harrison Warren’s book *Ordinary Liturgies*
* A short piece on rest, with the help of Terrence Malick films.

 

(4) A photo from the month gone by
I got to dog sit for a day while my parents went to a wedding, so Bess and I went for a walk on the common.

 

(5) In the pile for September
I’m in the middle of Mrs Dalloway, which is my first Virginia Woolf. London Book Club are reading Connie Willis’ Crosstalk so I’ve been to order than into the library. I also ordered in Jeff Vandermeer’s Acceptance, so I can creep myself the heck out one more time in the Southern Reach trilogy. I have a very large TBR pile that includes The End We Start From (Megan Hunter), The Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck) and White Tears (Hari Kunzru). Also the new Le Carré Smiley novel comes out, and I shall be reading that on a long weekend in Cornwall.

in which I think about tiredness, with the aid of Terrence Malick

I want to come back to something I touched on in writing about The Liturgy of the Ordinary – time and rest, and the desire to take more time to rest. I was at a reflective day recently, one that was exploring balance and stress, and the person leading the session commnted that, ‘Exhaustion is the norm in the west.’

It was probably the thought that has stuck with me most, after the day.

It reminded me of a line in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, which I had recently been to see for I am one of the still standing Malick fans:

Faye: [voice over] We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss.

Song to Song is a story, essentially, about a young woman discovering that life is not just a series of moments and experiences. It’s flighty and disjointed – but so is Faye (Rooney Mara), who is the centre of the piece. She can say, ‘Slower, it’s a love story’ about a song, but not about her own life. Until the end of the film, which suggests she has found the importance of that slowness. I really liked Song to Song, far more than I did Knight of Cups, Malick’s previous, which I appreciated but found hard work – but which shares themes with Song to Song, particularly a meditation on the shallows and depths of feeling and experience and how they distract or ground a life.

Della: You don’t want love, you want a love experience

However, I am not, nor will I ever be, a middle-aged man in the grip of a mid-life crisis, and so while I found Knight of Cups illuminating, I didn’t find it existentially relevant. I have, however, been a twenty-something young woman just trying to work it out, and Song to Song connected with me. For I am a busy person who tends to be doing, even if that doing is reading, and tens to seek out experiences – particularly in cultural activities – that provoke my emotions or help my brain understand and articulate my feelings (including Terrence Malick films). I am rarely still, body and brain, especially when I’m in London.

But what is it to not-live from moment to moment? And what is rest?

I’ve been musing on the second question a lot, over the last few months, as I had to do a piece of work that looked at Leviticus 25 and the idea of the year of jubilee. When I started, I just thought: man if only I could have a year off work and busyness that would be great. For a start, I’d catch up on all of my unread books.

The end of Song to Song suggests that the alternative way of life involves home and relationship: BV (Ryan Gosling’s character) going back home to his family, and Faye making a peace with hers and following him.

Faye: Mercy was just a word. I never thought I needed it. Not as much as other people do.

And it involves a reconnection with manual work and land: BV’s labour is as valuable as his earlier musical creativity, while the fields at the end of the film are agricultural, not meadow.

The more time I’ve spent working with the idea of jubilee, the more I’ve realised that the rest of reading my large TBR pile and maybe getting to go on an extended trip isn’t the rest that it’s about. And the more time I spend moving from diary entry to diary entry, and even book to book without stopping to breathe the more I wonder if that is what my down-time is primarily for. Tiredness and dissatisfaction still niggle.

If the jubilee year was about having time to put back together things that have been separated: people from their families, their homes, their identity as free people, God – then some of my down-time needs to be about this too. It doesn’t seem particularly restful. It’s certainly not leisurely.  But it requires resting from busy-work things (and busy-leisure things, today) to have the time to give to these things. And like with many things, the pain might just just be worth it.

In which I (finally) write about ‘liturgy of the ordinary’

On the first Monday in July I sat at my desk, and looked at my diary and to do list to plan out my week, and I spotted something weird. There was blank space in my diary. I blinked. And then I spent about half an hour remember what my job looked like what when there was space to do more than engage with the urgent, important, and the incoming email.

All this is by way of explaining why I’m writing about a book I read in February in August. It’s been a very good few months, I just haven’t the hugest amount of time for sitting and processing. I’ve been reading (a lot) for breathing space, but I’ve not spent time bringing the subconscious brain stuff to the conscious level by writing about it. I just found a half-written blog post about Wonder Woman in my files…

Anyway I read Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary back in February, and (spoiler) I really really liked it. It looks at elements of the traditional church liturgy through the lens of every day activities like teeth-brushing, cooking and eating, fighting and making up, and getting stuck in traffic in order to explore what it means to live faithfully in the here and now.

I want to do the big work of the kingdom, but I have to live it out in the small tasks before me – the missio Dei in the daily grind.

It’s a real-world meditation on many of the ideas in James KA Smith’s recent books on cultural liturgies (which, if you didn’t know, I think are great) and I found it helpful, as a person who trades in big ideas and bookishness and sometimes casually flies by the mundane or skips them entirely in busy periods (oh the dishes in the sink some weeks). I’ve been trying to do better this year at not doing that. I started getting up half an hour earlier in May, using that time to water the plants and sit with my coffee for a little bit of quiet time while my brain wakes up, and I have great plans to spend more of my not at work or erranding time not running around doing quite so much. I’m tired of being Little Miss ‘Oh I can’t make that, because I booked something in six months ago’ all the time.

This book helped provoke and settle some of that in me, even if it’s still shaking out in practice.

There were two chapters I particularly liked. Eating Leftovers: word, sacrament and overlooked nourishment, and Sitting in Traffic: liturgical time and an unhurried God. Given that I like food and am fascinated by time, this is perhaps not surprising. But they’re related too.

In the food chapter, she talks (amng other things) about relearning to want slow, healthy food rather than the immediate kick (taste and energy) of something speedy (in her case, ramen, in mine, usually cheese toasties), and about how not paying attention to our food and its sources – which is easier to do when living at speed – leads to injustice. It connected with me in part because we’ve been doing a lot on this topic at work and in part because I love to cook but do it less and less when I’m running around doing more and more other things.

Which brings us to time. What is it? How dos it work? Is it a straight line? Isn’t it? how does God see it? Chronology is helpful, because it creates sense, a narrative, or a rhythm – but also unhelpful because it seems to demand clear patterns of cause-and-effect and divides time into blocks that are used up. I am the worst for wishing time away. To the weekend, the next time I’m seeing certain friends, the next holiday. For someone who likes sitting on the sofa reading an awful lot, I have a strong need to be moving. If I’m trying to get from a to b and there’s something in the way, be it a traffic jam or a delay on a train, I’ll always choose going around it in order to keep moving, even if it would take less time to stay still and wait for the blockage to clear.

The reality is that time is a stream we are swept into. Time is a gift from God, a means of worship. I need the church to remind me of reality: time is not a commodity that I control, manage or consume.”

This line made me laugh, because I occasionally get cranky in church if the service feels like it’s lagging. But the shape of the church service will not be rushed. Harrison Warren talks about how the fact that the Christian faith centres around a long-term ultimate hope demands patience – and hopefully forms it in us. I wish it would hurry up forming in me.

(Sorry, too obvious a line to resist)

I had my garden redone over the winter, putting in big planters because I wanted to be able to grow things beyond my small pots and the occasional grow bag. I’ve gotten into gardening this year, and it’s really winding me down. I either water the plants in the morning before heading for the station, or first thing when I get in from work in the evening. It’s soothing, opening the back doors onto the patio and unwinding the hose. I love spotting how the plants are growing: are there sweet peas to pick, do the mangetout need training to their stakes – and how do I stop the little green worm bug things from living in my cabbages? I ate a lot of broad beans earlier in the summer. I discovered that the potatoes I’d planted (and whose type I’d forgotten) made the best baked chips. If you follow me on instagram, you’ll have experienced the take over of the corner of my garden by triffid-tomatoes. They’re green now, turning red, and I’m continually checking them for eating-ness or blight. If I spot the latter, I’m making a vat of green tomato chutney STAT.

The whole process is giving me an experience of food and time that I haven’t had since I took my Brownie gardener badge. It turns out that there’s nothing better than eating food that’s you’ve watched and waited for, and there a no amount of broad beans that I will not eat rather than waste things that I have invested money, time and garden space in. And the whole experience gives me a great deal of joy. Even fighting the green bugs off the cabbages.

In which I wrap up July

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
The season of Novels Inspired by Greek Myths continued. First up was Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, based on the stories of the Oresteia. I liked the middle section (primarily the story of Orestes) best, because it was the bit that Tóibín seemed to be trying to invest least with hefty poetic meaning. Then I (finally) got around to Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, which I enjoyed much more than I was expecting – but is definitely still a light holiday read. Next was Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, a variation on the Illiad, which bears reading out loud to oneself. Finally, I read Bright Air Black by David Vann, a telling of the Medea story. This was gloriously bonkers, and definitely my favourite of the Greek Myth Novels so far. All the others try and bring the world of the Greek myths closer by drawing out human similarities, but Vann embraces the difference and the weird, and so the novel works better than the others – even though it is harder work.

I also read End of Days for Jenny Erpenbeck, for book club, which I really enjoyed. I like the way the story slips from variation to variation, and the tone and atmosphere have stayed with me. I do like reading books that focus on the ideas and the feel they evoke as much or more than the story – as long as they are not monumentlaly pretentious, and this wasn’t.

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
* Baby Driver – I really liked Edgar Wright’s latest. I think you really have to go with the idea Ansel Elgort has charisma, and I’m almost mad at myself for how much I buy into it. At times I thought Kevin Spacey was playing it too close to parody while everyone else was playing it straight, and it broke the fourth wall a bit for me. But apart from that, I totally rolled with the car chases and the soundtrack.
* Song to Song – In complete contrast, Terence Malick’s latest, which I really liked. I think I liked it more than Knight of Cups, and given that about five people liked that, I’m definitely in a minority here. But while I couldn’t really emotionally engage with Knight of Cups’ male mid-life crisis, I could with Song to Song’s questions about what it is to really experience life.
* Dunkirk – Sweet baby zeus, theis film is great. I really was not expecting it to be so great, and it’s not a perfect account of Dunkirk, but I really really love the way it trusts you to identify with people because they’re people. Everyone’s talking about how Tom Hardy can act with about a third of his face, but more people should be talking about how Kenneth Branagh can convey hope and make you cry with a twitch of his lips (and mayyyyybe a little help from Nimrod.
* The Big Sick – This was totally charming. I was charmed. It was quirky without being sickening, and hello, Holly Hunter is a great Rom-Com-Mom.

I saw Angels in America at the National Theatre, which was really enjoyable, though I’m not convinced it actually needs angels. I could see what Kushner was getting at – but for me it didn’t fly, and I don’t think it needed it to get where it was going – at least, it doesn’t now. Maybe that is a sign of how things have changed.

(3) Things which I wrote
Hahaha, nope. I have a couple of pieces lurking in the back of my brain.

(4) A photo from the month gone by
A very nice gin and tonic from a pub in Putney that does 2-for–1 G&Ts on Thursdays. Would recommend.

(5) In the pile for July
I’m currently reading The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks and In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Pádraig Ó’Tuama, both of which I am very much enjoying in very different ways. The TBR pile includes Neal Stephenson and Nicola Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, Jhumper Lahiri’s In Other Words and Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industries.

in which I wrap up June

Half the year is gone, I don’t quite know where…

(1) Things which I have read and enjoyed.
June was a good reading month. I finally finished off two collections that I’ve been working through for a while, The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, both of which are immense and kinda visionary. If you want to be thinking about the way the world is, you should read both.

Also on the list:
* The Dark Circle by Linda Grant, which was a Bailey’s Prize nominee and which I enjoyed a surprisingly large amount. I didn’t expect a social-history-novel about TB and class in the 50s to work for me, but it really really did.
* The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which I hadn’t read for years but wanted to re-read as the TV series started up. It was a very important book for me, and I’m delighted that it still holds up. I recognise different things about it now, though, and the impact it has on my as a 36 year old woman is different than the impact it had on me at 17.
* The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid was this month’s London Book Club book, and it was nice to have a little slip of a book. I really liked the style of it and the way the gaps or blanks in the story being told asked you to use your imagination.
* Release by Patrick Ness, which was as much of a joy as usual. I don’t think either of his last two quite live up to More Than This, but then that was remarkable. In this case, I’m not quite sure how well the two stories interconnect, but I really like the primary story – which feels very real to me.
* The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes. I am Team All These Novels Based on Classical Myths Are A Great Thing, and Colm Toibin’s latest is in my TBR pile. In this one, Haynes looks at the Oedipus story through Jocasta (mother-wife) and Iseme (daughter-sister) – and for me, the Ismene story was the strongest. What I really liked, though, was the way Haynes has felt free to carry on myth-making with these characters and create a new variation on the tale. At one point I went, ‘Wait, but that’s not what happens!’ and then I lolled, because it’s A MYTH, FOLKS.
* The First Day by Phil Harrison, which was leant to me by a friend I stayed with in Belfast who knows the author. It’s a first novel, and I liked it but didn’t adore it. The mood and tone have stayed with me and it’s got a clear voice – I found myself reading it in a northern Irish accent. At the same time, it’s about Ideas (which I am pro) but it does more expressing of the ideas than it does embodying of the ideas in the characters and story. If it had been much longer than its 300 pages, I probably would have laid it aside, but fortunately it wasn’t.

 

(2) Things which I have watched and enjoyed
Three cinematic goodies this month: Wonder Woman, My Cousin Rachel and Gifted.
I had a ball watching Wonder Woman and I really like the theology/philosophy that underpins its closing – though I could have lived without the Final Inspirational Words of Steve Trevor.
Gifted was utterly charming, which was nice because it could have been tooth-rotting garbage. The perfomances were great, the story was allowed to be a little bit complex, and none of it overstayed its welcome.
My Cousin Rachel has stayed with me – in its frustrations and its genius, which are the same thing. I had the same reaction to the book – a strong cry of Just tell me if she did it!!!. Clearly my need for emotional satisfaction and neatly tied up ends has a possibly stronger pull than my intellectual delight in the fact that neither the story nor this film will give you that answer. It’s very cleverly done.

 

(3) Things which I wrote
I wrote a short review of Justin Thacker’s book *Global Poverty: A Theological Guide.* Spoiler, I liked it.
I also wrote short piece trying to untangle my thoughts about Ted Chiang’s short story, *’Hell is the absence of God.’* It involved re-reading the end of The Last Battle and dragging my copy of The Great Divorce of the shelves (finally). Further (non C. S. Lewis) recommended reading on ideas of heaven and hell desired.

Finally, over at the day job, we (finally) released a collection of essays called Made in the Image of God, which is about the relationship of the imago dei to the ways we think about and do aid and development work.

 

(4) A photo from the month gone by

Giant’s Causeway, while on a work trip to Northern Ireland.

 

(5) In the pile for July
I’ve just started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s End of Days for our next book club. Then I’m on to Toibin’s House of Names and Xan Brooks’ The Clocks in this House all tell Different Times before digging into the large numbers of unread books on my shelves. I’m hoping to snag a copy of the new Arundhati Roy, as well, courtesy of a friend.

The Proms kick off halfway through the month, and while I’m not promming with a season pass this year, I’m going a whole bunch, so there will be much reading in queues again, I hope. Plus, this month brings Nicola Benedetti, the Rach 2, Monteverdi’s Vespers and and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Can you feel the absence of something you don’t believe exists?

Over the past few months I’ve been slowly reading Stories of Your Lives and Others by Ted Chiang (it’s the collection that contains the story that became Arrival). Today, I reached Hell is the Absence of God, a story about a world in which the existence of God is established fact and the question that humans face is whether or not they’re going to express devotion – not belief. It’s the story of a man who is not devout, whose devout wife dies and whose soul ascends in to heaven, and who is struggling to work out how he can possibly get to heaven to be reunited with her when he has no inclination to become devout.

The best stories make you think and feel. Ted Chiang’s short stories seem to make me think and then feel – and often the feeling is of a punch to the solar plexus leaving me breathless. This was the sucker punch in Hell is the Absence of God:

For most of it inhabitants, Hell is not that different from Earth; its principal punishment is the regret of not having loved God enough when alive, and for many that’s easily endured. For Neil, however, Hell bears no resemblence whatsoever to the mortal plane…. Just as seeing Heaven’s light gave him an awareness of God’s presence in all things in in the mortal plane, so it has made him aware of God’s absence in all things in Hell. Everything Neil sees, hears, or touches causes him distress, and unlike in the mortal plane is pain is not a form of God’s love, but a consequence of His absence.

My brain went into something of a tailspin. I was flying along quite nicely, reading a story and then BAM, the story unexpectedly hit a bundle of my assumptions about heaven and hell. And now here’s me spinning around feeling a little out of control.

Somehow, in some way, through some combination of teaching and reading over the course of my life and the way that met the reality of conversations with people that ended up in the awkward, ’So, do you think I’m going to burn in hell then?’ place I seem to have established some things in my thoughts for myself about heaven and hell.
* Heaven isn’t a space bubble or land in the clouds.
* I’m fairly solid on the new heaven and the new earth and the belief that in the new creation God’s dwelling place will be among the people (aka, Revelation 21).
* I really do not, seriously, have strongly formed ideas about the nature of hell.
* In general, I don’t think I think it’s a physical space, and I’m not sure about the possibility of flames if there’s not a physical space, but beyond that…

If I was pushed I would probably have said that hell was being apart from God for all eternity – and that, if I was honest, I don’t quite know what the last call is for making a decision about God and Jesus (in the story, Neil ‘decides’ – effectively – before he dies). However, I realised today that I have absolutely zero idea what that might be like.

As a child, I had all of The Chronicles of Narnia on tape. These are stories I’ve known as long as I’ve known the Bible, stories that shaped me before I understood that they were related to the Christian story that I was learning at church or in doing my ‘bible time’ with my mum. I remember – though I don’t remember how old I was – a moment when I consciously worked out what the Aslan stuff in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was all about. As a small, The Last Battle was my favourite. It was the tape that stretched first. In particular, I loved the final battle, the end of Narnia and then the new Narnia and the return of all of my very favourite characters, together, in the garden.

I first heard The Last Battle when I was five or six years old. That means that the end of The Last Battle has been shaping my understanding of death and the experience of entering heaven since before my understanding of Christianity went any further than the acceptance of the idea that there was a heaven (good, God there) and a hell (bad, God not there – maybe flamey, but my childhood church was not hung up on flames).

This is the section in which Aslan returns and is dealing with all those who are inside the stable: first with Tirian (who worships), and then with the group of dwarfs who have support

“Aslan,” said Lucy through her tears, “could you – will you – do something for these poor Dwarfs?”
“Dearest,” said Aslan, “I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the Dwarfs and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!”

“You see, ” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The others who don’t enter the ‘heaven’ of Aslan’s country, as Narnia comes to an end, look into Aslan’s face and then disappear into his shadow. The narrator explicitly says, “The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.”

The story moves on, and the dwarfs are left where they are, experiencing the world inside the shed as the inside of a shed. What happens to them as everyone else goes ‘further up and further in’ is unclear. But they don’t experience not recognising Aslan as a lack. They don’t believe he’s more than a fairy story. The present they find themselves in is unpleasant, but to them, pretty much everything in their recent life is unpleasant, so really – what’s new? And those who stream into the dark – they’ve looked into Aslan’s face and rejected him, and C.S. Lewis refused to speculate even in fiction on the experience of that.

Chiang puts forward an idea that made me catch my breath: that eternal separation from God once you grasp the reality of God hurts in a way beyond human experience. The move for Neil isn’t from a state of unbelief to belief – it’s one from lack of devotion to devotion – but it is a fundamental change in a human’s relationship with God, at the point of their death.

The books you read as a child shape the way you see the world: what you think is possible, what you think is true. And The Last Battle seems to me to have had a part in shaping what I think eternal separation from God feels like – either it’s a blank, that I don’t really meditate upon, or it isn’t much different from how you’ve lived the rest of your life. The latter is what Chiang puts forward as as the reality of hell in the world of his story for nearly everyone who ends up there. They weren’t devout, they didn’t experience the light of God before they died, and so, hell is business as usual. They’re dwarfs. But in Neil, Chiang has given me someone who experiences the light – or looks into the face of Aslan – and goes to hell, where hell is not disappearing into the darkness and authorial oblivion. And that is a whole lot more of an unnerving proposition to face.

In which I review Global Poverty: a Theological Guide

Things I have recently finished reading for work – a new Global Poverty: a Theological Guide by Justin Thacker.

A disclaimer, as I embark on a short review: I work for one of the organisations whose theological work is crititqued in the book and we come out of it pretty well, so… either I’m predisposed to like the book because it likes my organisation and its work, or I’m predisposed to like the book because the theology of the organisation I work for and the theology of the author are generally in sync.

Thacker divides the book into five sections: creation – fall – Israel – redemption – consummation. His aim is to provide a thorough acount with multiple perspectives on poverty, but rather neatly, it also shares a structure with a now-common way that a number of scholars (Tom Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, Chris Wright, among them) break down the narrative structure of the Bible. Given my organisation’s work, the shared space between Thacker’s book and Chris Wright’s work (The Mission of God, most notably), will provide me some nice room to explore overlapping ideas in the future, and that, for me, is always fun.

Within these five sections, Thacker explores a number of key ideas:

  • In Creation, what it means to bear the image of God (individually, and corporately as a part of a collective humanity), emphasising human agency, dignity and relationality. These essential elements of flourishing are what, fundamentally, we’re looking to encourage when we deal with poverty.
  • In Fall, what sin is and how the existence of sin (individual and systematic) contributes to global poverty. Of critical importance, the fact that sin exists within and damages relationships, breaking the shalom that is the mark of the flourishing community and the kingdom of God.
  • In Israel, the purpose of Israel and the paradigm it provides for the church. Thacker argues that the key to ‘learning’ from Israel, in engaging with poverty, is to ask ‘What does it mean to be a holistic blessing?’ – that is, to be engaged in the business of political (socio-economical) and spiritual liberation within a community of God’s people in which the distinction beween ‘mine and yours’ breaks down. In the process he points out that much of the Old Testament’s teaching, law and prophecy command the powerful, not the poor, demanding that those who have the power to make a difference in the world take responsiblity for making a difference.
  • In Redemption, the nature of the gospel and salvation, followed by an assessment of a number of secular theories and contemporary theologies of development in the light of this understanding. So we look at modernisation theory, dependency theory, human rights and capabilities approaches, and then at Catholic Social Teaching, Liberation Theology, Pentecostal theologys, Christian Aid and Tearfund.
  • In Consummation, the nature of Christianity’s ultimate hope and what this means for how we think about, talk about, and try and tackle poverty. In particular, Thacker is concerned with the reality of the statement that the ‘poor will be with you always’ and the establishment of a sounder, stronger motivation for working for justice and to challenge poverty.

To cut a long story (and a potentially long blog post) short, I really like this book. I think it’s fundamentally sound and incredibly sensible, both in what it says and how it says it. The book’s not radical – well, unless being essentially right is radical, which on this subject it may be. It doesn’t get hyperbolic in support of things it is arguing for or judgemental about the things it is arguing against. I think the Fall section is incredibly helpful in unpacking the concept of sin and particularly systematic sin and our relationship with it and I think the Consummation section is incredibly encouraging for those of us working to articulate and support a biblically sound narrative for tackling poverty that is motivating and sustaining without accidentally making everybody think they can be a superhero. And finally, the writing is such that it’s really easy to read, which is something I cannot appreciate highly enough.