Books

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Hello. Apologies for the delay. The blog had a critical error or something which I have sorted out myself without having to phone Bill Gates. This is good because he is very busy controlling all the 80-year-olds who have had the vaccination. This must be a full-time job if you think about it. I know trying to keep Aged Parent under any kind of control is very time-consuming. Especially at the moment. The lift has broken down. “Well, they will keep putting fat people in it and they insist on bringing their wheelchairs.” She is getting quite a lot of stir craziness and last week took a taxi to Asda again without telling anyone. She came back to a place full of carers who were panting slightly because they had been running around trying to find her and trying to keep the rising levels of panic under control. She was, of course, completely unrepentant.

Right. So, as promised, my favourite books of last year. I think you would be expecting some magnificent and in-depth list because of all the extra free time I have had. (Spoiler alert. I have had NO extra free time and I know I am not alone in this). It was not a vintage year for books for me. This is not a reflection on the books. It is a reflection on me. I have been almost permanently distracted, with a poor attention span and a lot of perfectly sound books have just got on my nerves. I think I have spent a fortune on books as well this year – only to be three chapters in and suddenly think. “Blimey, this is annoying” and chuck it onto the Ziffit pile. Many of these books are not new but they are mostly new to me. I have re-read a couple of old favourites. I make no apology for re-reading a few Barbara Pyms when the going got really tough but these are the standouts.

The Thursday Murder Club. This was the publishing sensation of 2020 and for good reason, I think. It is part of the “Cosy” murder mystery genre and although it wasn’t that cosy – there are quite a few bodies – it was really enjoyable. Cometh the hour – Cometh the book. Lovely characters. A sympathetic study of old age (If you have the dosh) and written by Richard Osman who may well be the cleverest, nicest man on the planet. Apparently, Mr Osman has film rights and there is lots of interest around – possibly from someone with the words Spiel and berg in their name. I think it is crying out for a decent treatment. I just hope the characters are played by older people – not Lily James and Idris Elba on walking frames.

I also enjoyed The Windsor Knot in which her Majesty the Queen (yes that one) solves murders. It is a lovely read and the Queen is sympathetically and believably drawn. I enjoyed it more than The Crown, some of it felt more believable (apart from the murder bit) Philip, in particular, is well written and the bond between them is touching and you understand what binds them together. I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction. On a negative note, the murder solving is a bit rubbish and I can always do without a high heeled, kick-ass assistant but I loved the book and I love Queenie. So there you are.

Favourite book of the year was Amor Towles A Gentleman in Moscow. During the Russian Revolution, an aristocrat is sentenced to life imprisonment in the Metropole hotel. He has to leave his luxurious suite and is taken to a small room to live out the rest of his days. Count Alexander Rostov, though is resourceful and determined and he carves out a life for himself full of friendship and love and his life takes in unexpected twists and turns. It must have been quite daunting to write a novel in 95% of the action takes place in one building but he sorts that brilliantly. it only feels claustrophobic when it is meant to. Sometimes he is in danger but you are rooting for him all the time. This is also ready for a film treatment and I have decided that he should be played by Ralph Fiennes. (see above). Please also feel free to look at “Rules of Civility” by the same author. Set in a depression-era New York – the characters, the story and the setting are all outstanding.

I have a couple of Christian type books to finish on. However, I have to say that I have struggled with this this year. Some of my fondest memories were reading books like Improving Your Serve by Charles Swindoll, What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey, Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald and Father Heart of God by Floyd McClung. And that’s to name a few. I just can’t find anything like these books. There’s a lot of stuff hectoring me about how I should reduce time on social media (you think?) or telling me about Christian mindfulness, but nothing that made me cry on the bus as the Yancy did. It could be me obviously or maybe I am looking in the wrong places. I very much enjoyed Equality is Biblical by Pen Wilcock. It’s scholarly but very readable. A lot of things I have taken for granted were challenged but also it is a warm and encouraging read.

I also enjoyed Miss What Does Imcomprehensible Mean? by Fran Hill. It’s not a “Christian” book – it’s about a teacher who is a Christian. It’s funny and touching and I never want to be a teacher. I don’t think I could take the pace. Honourable mentions to Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel (bit long for me though sorry) and Broken Harbour by Tana French. Next year I hope to read a few more 40s and 50s murder mysteries because I like ’em and find more Christian books that aren’t helping me to lose weight. Any recommendations gratefully received.

The Trust Deficit

Happy New Year! I don’t know about you but seeing the New Year in was a very low key affair round here. I was dozing off by 10.30 and the telly wasn’t helping. The choice was an old Bond, Graham Norton making me confused about what day it was because he is usually on the telly on Fridays or Jools Holland. Jools Holland was particularly depressing because of the lack of an audience and, although that meant that we were spared the spectacle of boozed-up newsreaders dancing to “Baggy Trousers”, it did mean that the party atmosphere was less impressive than it could have been. So, we watched a film on Netflix, opened a bottle of fizz and dozed off a bit. All very appropriate in the circumstances I think.

Here in the Uk, we are all very excited by the appearance of a vaccine and it is this appearance that is helping us all to ignore the overwhelming DEVASTATION that Coronavirus is wreaking here at the moment. I am sorry but I am going to a be a bit (a) political and (b) old fashioned in this blog and so, if you are not happy with that, you can leave but please come back next week when I will be looking at my favourite books of 2020.

I read something about Boris Johnson this week that gave me more pause for thought than maybe it should have, Someone who works on the floor of a TV studio said that when Boris Johnson arrived, he looked smart and every hair was in place. However, before he went on camera – he looked in a mirror and deliberately messed his hair up. And I wondered what it is that he thinks he is selling to the British people. A mate? Someone you can have a laugh with? A buffoon? And really, I think we would rather have a leader. If I was going to define a leader in this case, it would be someone who was better than me. Someone I looked up to. And, I have some problems with our current government in that area.

If Christmas had been in March this year (bear with me – it gets clearer) I don’t think that there would have been the huge discussions around whether people were going to stick to the rules or not. In the main, people would have stayed with it I think until the Barnard Castle event. If, when the Prime Minister’s special advisor was found cheating the rules, he had sacked him or at least told him off – I think we would have gone with it but all we were met with was silence and a shrug. Polls show that, since that moment, we have maybe thought that this government does not have our best interests at heart. This was followed by incidents with Pritti Patel (Breaking the Ministerial Code and bullying) Gavin Williamson (Incompetence) and Robert Jenrick (Building up a long list of people who have financially benefitted from his decisions). In the olden days, these people would have been dismissed – because what has been done just isn’t right. Now, I’m not foolish enough to say that previous governments were whiter than white but, in the main, when you got caught out, you put your hands up and said – it’s a fair cop and someone had to go. Not anymore. The trouble is, when you are seen to side with bullies or dishonesty or even incompetence, then people start to ask themselves what it is what you DO stand for exactly and can they trust you to make the big decisions about them and their families. Polls are showing that support for the government and Johnson, in particular, is falling sharply. In the olden days, that would be neither here not there. Governments come and go. But tomorrow parents are being asked to trust this government and send their children to school – even though – no-one can provide them with any convincing evidence that it is safe – for pupils, teachers or their families.

So far, the government’s reaction to this has been to try and paint teachers as workshy, troublemakers who fancy a few more weeks off. In fact, everyone with even slightly functional eyes in their heads knows that teachers are at the toughest forefront of all tough forefronts possible at the moment and we are not being fooled by that. The other way to deal with the schools’ problem appears to be to do last-minute handbrake turns in policy that do not encourage faith in The Plan. No-one is saying this is an easy time. No-one is expecting faultless government. What we have a right to expect though is a level of integrity or failing that, a teeny tiny bit of integrity.

I think, if I had children, I might not be sending them to school tomorrow because I am not convinced it is safe – for children, teachers or the population at large. Basically, it’s because I don’t believe them and that’s a shame

And on the fourth day…

…a lot of people gave up on the idea of Christmas altogether.

It is the fourth Sunday of Advent (she proclaimed with a lot more certainty than she actually felt) and I gave up on the lovely idea of lighting my Advent candle on the balcony for reasons of not drowning and have brought them indoors.

And so this is Christmas (nearly) as John and Yoko so memorably droned and what have you done?

Well, we’ve stayed in a lot. If you live in the UK, the news about Christmas isn’t good. If you live in the South East of England, the whole thing is worse than you ever expected. I’m a Tier Two kind of girl myself but am very aware of the pressure of living elsewhere at the moment. Although (digression) I live quite close to Cornwall which is Tier One and apparently full of people enjoying pints of cider on the sunny uplands while rosy-cheeked purveyors of non-essential goods are raking the money in like it is the end of the rainbow. Unfortunately, though they have spent the last few days bailing out their kitchens and evacuating entire towns and the Eden Project because the heavens insist on opening – full on – all the time. However, because they are (a) Tier One and (b) Not London, it seems they are not deserving of our fair Cabinet’s time and attention.

I spend more time on Instagram than is strictly necessary for survival and I do follow a lot of Christian type people. On hearing the news that Christmas is going to be severely curtailed I saw a lot of people putting up advice along the lines of – “Christmas isn’t canceled – Christmas is about Jesus.” and “Remember – Christmas is always like this in Syria.” or something of that ilk.

But, I think it is important to say that there is a process. Extreme disappointment and upset is a natural and authentic reaction and you have to own that before you get all jiggy with faith. The Bible is full of people having a good lament. If something is rubbish – it’s rubbish and you have to go along with that first. You may be mad at whoever you think has caused what is happening at Christmas be it the virus, God, or incompetent, last minute, always putting their rich mates first, government and you have to accept that you are mad and sad and sometimes dangerous to know. And, I think it’s only after you do that that you can begin to find comfort.

Comfort, oh comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem,

Isaiah 40

If you think about it, to need comfort, you must feel sad first. God is big enough to both understand it and, when you feel ready, help you move through it. So feel free to have snotty cries and, when you are ready, move on to be comforted. And, annoying as it is, Christmas is bigger than the Argos Toy catalogue and turkey with your loved ones who never loved you because of the quality of your gravy anyway. And, almost more annoying, a lot of people do have it a lot worse at Christmas. Crisis doesn’t provide Christmas dinners just to get out from under the general horror of a Christmas Day that develops when Nana has had one too many Advocaarts. (Why is everyone in my family nodding sagely as they read this?) They provide it because it is needed. So, in the middle of this Festival of Incompetence, if you feel you can help someone less fortunate than yourself and have the wherewithal to do so then I would recommend it as a way to aid your healing process. Even if it is just sending them the few bob you were going to spend on booze and After Eights.

So, in what is, for many people, the saddest of Christmases, can I send you the compliments of the season. In or out of faith, I am convinved of the love of God towards us – and that the height and depth of it cannot be overcome. In our house we are about to enter into competitive lot drawing to see who gets to tell Aged Parent it will be the briefest of visits this year – if indeed it happens at all. We went up to see her at weekend and we are not sure what had gone on but she was saying “They better not start with me because I am feeling lippy today!” We have no idea but she seemed happy enough so we have left it.

Adventish

Welcome one, welcome all to a continuation of my meander through Advent. I am playing catch up but better late than never (or “better never late” as the old lady that HOH used to give a lift to church would say. The whole arrangement was a challenge to his grace levels I seem to remember). Anyway, digressing.

First of all, a couple of Christmassy books. (Or Advent if you are a hardline religious maniac and prefer things to have their correct title). As I am a woman on the edge and struggling to catch up at the moment, HOH is actually reading the Nick Page – Christmas, Tradition, Truth, and Total Baubles. If you have read any Nick Page, you probably know exactly what to expect. HOH says it’s really funny. He is a terrific writer. But, HOH would like it pointed out that there is lots of studious thought and research here, resulting in lots of interesting facts and things that make you say – “well I never knew that”. This I know because HOH keeps reading bits out – usually when I am trying to read something else. Among the ideas he tackles are: Christmas was a pagan festival that Christians pinched (not so fast, Buster), Joseph was an old man and Santa Claus was invented by Coca-Cola. He also looks into the background of various Christmas Carols. I am warning you though, I will have no truck with any criticism of Hark The Herald Angels Sing. HOH recommends the book wholeheartedly. It’s especially good apparently when your brain is still a bit Covid foggy and you can dip in and out of it.

The book I am reading is “Into the Heart of Advent” by Penelope Wilcock. Full disclosure. I am a big fan of Penelope’s writing and would call her a chum. This is a format she has used before, where Jesus appears to the writer and, over a series of conversations, they address the problems and the pluses of Christmas. Jesus appears as a normal-ish man and it may be significant that not everyone else can see him. The conversations are short, affectionate, and usually accompanied by a cup of tea and a log fire. Again there is a lot of research and thought here and again it is lightly presented, managing to make it both accessible and challenging. It has made me feel good about who Jesus is and who he thinks I am.

Last full week at work this week. (A bit of a cheek really – can’t remember my last full week at work) so quite a lot to get done. I still have a couple of presents to buy although we have deliberately drawn our horns in this year. It doesn’t seem appropriate to run up and down aisles like Supermarket Sweep this year does it? Aged Parent would like it to be known that she did not sign up to a reduced Christmas List, except when it comes to buying for other people. Yesterday, she tried to fob us off with the tinniest Selection Box you have ever seen which she had won at the Bingo. “That’ll do for the kids for Christmas.” I was patient. I was kind. I begged to disagree. We came to an arrangement.

I am persevering with my Advent candles. Tonight is week three. Is it supposed to be pink on week three? I’m rubbish at this sort of thing. Let’s pretend I am a Puritan or something. I certainly am not in touch enough with the proper Christian calendar to know why today’s candle should be pink (or not) I have to say, the weather isn’t helping much. It keeps blowing them out. Anyone would think that God wasn’t that bothered about Advent Candles one way or the other. (Digressing again. Do you remember when Advent Calendars just had tiny pictures of robins and holly behind the windows? Then, on Christmas Day, there was a bigger photo of the Nativity scene. That was before all advent calendars had to have a full-size jar of Creme De Mer, a bottle of gin, or a tiger cub behind the windows. At the risk of sounding like someone in Dad’s Army – I think we were happier with it before).

Anyway, talking about light and Christmas (yes we were). Yesterday, on our restorative walk we turned a corner to be greeted by a low slung sun which was so bright and overpowering, that we couldn’t look at it. (My photo doesn’t really do it justice). I was thinking that Jesus had said that he was the world’s light but often – to our eyes, it isn’t always an overpowering, “everything is going to be fine”, kind of light. Sometimes it feels like it is a candle – struggling on a windy balcony because life is crowding in so much that you really have to screw your eyes up to see it. But keep your eyes on it. The Light is still there and the more we pay attention to it, the more we find we can see it.

Well Lit

Hello All. Welcome back. I am much better thanks for asking. I still occasionally find myself a little wanting on the breathing side but, there is a suspicion around here that less breathing means less talking and there are those who are not averse to that.

Anyway, the last few entries have been Martha Covid this and Martha Covid that so it’s probably time we started talking about something else. So how are you? All well I hope. Be careful out there. I was back at work today and there was a general discussion about whether we would trust the vaccine. Just to let you know that I would push over Aged Parent to get it. (Don’t worry – she would push me back – really hard) In fact, I am rolling my sleeve up as I write this. Apparently, there is a strong possibility that the vaccine has a microchip in it that will begin to control our minds when it has been injected in. I don’t know about that but I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t have liked to be the person whose job it was to put individual little microchips into individual vials of vaccine. Fiddly or what?

Aged Parent is doing ok I think. She went for a mystery scan last week. No-one seemed to know that she was going or why but an ambulance turned up apparently, spirited her away, and returned her an hour later. She was quite happy though. “I was looked after by a lovely young man with long plaits in his hair. ” (We think it was probably braided) “He kept asking if I wanted a drink or a wee which was helpful.” We await the results – if she did actually go to Derriford and has not been inducted into some kind of vaccine death cult. You never know.

We are creeping slowly towards Christmas. The Decs are up. I keep forgetting to put my advent candles on the balcony. The idea was to put one up on the first Sunday, one up the second, etc, and the candles would be different heights if you get my meaning. It’s not going well. It is definitely not going to give out the desired effect if I keep forgetting to light them. Pah!

I had a quick look at Christmas telly to see if it will be worth splashing out on a Radio Times but it’s not looking good. There’s a little bit of a hoo-ha isn’t there because the Vicar Of Dibley will have a Black Lives Matter thing going on and that is too political or something. A couple of things. The first thing is that I LOVED the Vicar of Dibley and was beyond happy when they gave her the happy ending she deserved. I’m just not sure that they shouldn’t have left it there. I had to make my eyes go all blurry on the fundraising thing she did for Covid so I didn’t have to watch it. It looked like it had taken about twenty minutes to write. (Just to confirm that Dawn French is, obviously beyond reproach though). Also, I heard a story on the radio about a black, middle-class mother telling us about when she had to have “the talk” with her children. In some ways, the talk wasn’t too profound. It was – always keep your receipt and, if the self-service asks if you want a receipt, always say yes. That’s not a talk I’ve ever had to give my kids but this mum knows that her black children are much more likely than mine to be stopped and accused of shoplifting and they always need to be in a position to prove their innocence. And, I think, if that is the state we are in, I don’t think I can complain much about a political Vicar of Dibley.

I am waiting for my Advent book to arrive (I know, like I said, miles behind) and in the meantime, I am reading Ang at Tracing Rainbows who is hosting Advent at Home on her blog as usual. I have been known to join in but cannot, in all conscience, sign up when I can’t even remember to light a candle on the balcony but there is good stuff to read there. There is a theme developing around Advent I think, which is more than ever, a light shining in the darkness and the Light being Hope. I mean, that has always been the theme of Advent but lots of us are feeling it very keenly this year. In all this, it’s very easy to forget that Light did come (in the end) and nothing was ever the same. Sometimes that is difficult to imagine happening in the midst of darkness but lots about the Nativity and Christmas doesn’t fit how we would imagine it happening. That doesn’t make it any less real. More real if anything.

What came into existence was Life,
    and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
    the darkness couldn’t put it out. (John 1)