Monday, February 25, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

This epic story is of Thomas Cromwell, who grew from an obscure poor background to be the most important person in King Henry VIII’s court. He orchestrated the annulment of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage so the King was free to marry Anne Boleyn.

Now you know I love long books and a good long involved story. But even for me, this one was too long and moved too slowly. I had to make myself read the first third until I got interested in what was happening.

It is set in a time of history which has interested me since learning about it in Year 8 and which most ‘anglos’ will have some knowledge: Tudor England, Henry and his 6 wives. It gives much more detail than most of us will be aware (although written as fiction). You meet other people of history along the way, such as Cranmer and Tyndale, which from a church history point of view is interesting. If you know nothing at all about this period of history, there is a good chance you will be quickly and permanently lost.

This is definitely not one for whom English is a second language. It is not easy to read. Her descriptions of events and people are subtle and you need to pay persistent attention to what is going on, let alone be able to follow an extensive list of characters, many of whom names change throughout as they are either bestowed with new titles or removed them by the king.

My knowledge of Cromwell is so limited I was not exactly sure what happened to him in the end, although considering the time and the probabilities, I was pretty sure he would be executed somewhere down the track. (This is a somewhat embarrassing admission since I suspect we may have covered this in Reformation Church History at Bible College). However, I was a bit disappointed to discover that I have to read on to find out, this is only the first in an intended trilogy. When I have some time and energy I may move on to Bring up the Bodies, but I won’t be rushing into it!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Compared to her...

Compared to her…, Sophie de Witt

I was delighted to receive this from a friend for Christmas, at the time it was proving rather elusive to find and purchase. Now, you can get it easily from The Good Book Company.

I read De Witt’s previous book One to One: A Discipleship Handbook and found it thoroughly useful (hence the series through it on in tandem), so I was eager to read her second offering. De Witt takes the bull by the horns in this book and tackles one of the major issues affecting women and where they find their value and worth, introducing us to a new disease – Compulsive Comparison Syndrome (CCS). I would like to meet a woman who does not struggle with this one!

You know the thoughts that run through your mind:
  • “How does she keep so fit?” or “At least I am in better shape than she is”
  • “How does she manage to work and look after her family so well?” or “I prepare healthy home-cooked meals, we don’t eat take-away like that”
  • “She knows her bible so much better than I do” or “I don’t struggle with that sin anymore”
Sound familiar? Whether it’s about money, husbands, children’s behaviour, jobs, appearance, achievements, education, organisational skills or Christian-ness, we spend our lives comparing up and comparing down. Figuring out where we fit on the big scale of comparison is constantly running around in our heads.

She spends the first half of the book identifying the symptoms of CCS, the triggers that can cause us to think that way and how it affects our relationship with God. She identifies the cause – that we have put ourselves at the centre of our lives rather than God, for in essence everything that drives CCS is sin causing us to look for meaning and blessing in idols rather than God.

In the final chapters she clearly identifies the solution. We must restore God to the centre of our lives. Instead of looking to the things of this world for to give us significance, satisfaction and security, we must keep turning back to God for all of these things. Then she gives time to think about how we live today, in this comparative, competitive world and all the struggles with CCS that we have.

She outlines healthy ways we can use comparison:
  • Comparing our lives with Christ (yet trusting in grace continuously because our performance does not affect God’s salvation),
  • With others, with both Christians and non-Christians
the solution to CCS is not simply to stop all comparisons. It's to find blessed contentment in Christ, and practice healthy comparison. How do we know the difference? By looking at what our comparison produces. If it’s praise to God, prayer for ourselves, and prayer and practical love for others, then it’s healthy. If it’s envy, or despair, or pride, or any other symptoms of CCS, then we’re allowing something other than Christ to be what we look to for blessing. (p78)
  • With myself
it’s useful to ask ourselves: Given the particular load God has given me to carry today, have I acted for Him in all the ways I could have done? How does my day compare with the day I could have had? (p84)

I have read this book through a couple of times, and each time have been struck by it. You can read it in a few hours, but you will keep thinking about it for a long time after. I was very aware of the need to pray and ask God for his forgiveness in my struggle with CCS, yet also was reminded of the hope that there is a way forward that honours God and seeks to live a life free of unhealthy comparison with others. It gave me tools to begin to think about how to change and set out on a life as a recovering –CCS sufferer, yet I remain wary of the risks of relapse!

For those who organise such things, this would be a great book to use for any group of women, from youth group age to the more mature, in small groups, in seminars and large groups, and in mentoring. It has a wide application for many people and I can see many women benefitting from this great little book.

Note: later comment referring to this book on When People and Big and God is Small review. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Les Misérables

When I was 10 we went to the UK and while in London we went to 3 stage shows. Two fade into insignificance in my mind, but one stood out – Les Misérables. I sat transfixed, on the edge of my seat for the entire 2 hours. When it was finished I was unable to speak, being so overwhelmed with the wonder of what I had just seen. My young mind did not grasp it all especially the more adult themes, but I knew it was a story of great power and about a man whose life was changed by a demonstration of the love of God.

Every time since that I have been in the same city as a stage production of Les Misérables, I have gone. So, I have seen it at least 4 times, and could sing every word of the soundtrack to you by heart.

So it was with excitement yet trepidation that we headed out to see the movie. Would it live up to expectation? Could it possibly be as good as I remembered (I had not seen it live for at least 10 years)? Could all the actors really sing?

Thankfully, the answer was ‘yes’. It was a fantastic rendition. In fact, because of what film can do – clearly tell the story, illustrate in more depth, show faces in much closer detail – it was better. The cast was excellent, their singing mostly superb and the film itself was visually fantastic. I understood the story much more clearly than from the stage production and it filled in details I had not previously grasped. 

I think having seen and recognised the value of the story of Les Mis at such a young age, it actually has left me permanently disappointed with most musicals ever since. In my experience, the majority of musicals have a silly story line. The music is good, granted, but the story is only held together by the music.

In contrast Les Mis is at its core a great story. It is the story of a man’s redemption when shown grace, and his decision to honour God as he tries to face the consequences of his past. At the same time, the music is wonderful. The songs make the show. It is a great gift to be able to write a stirring music score, with realistic words which themselves unfold the story and mostly to do so in rhyme.

As we sat in the theatre I was struck by how many truths of the gospel were being sung to so many unbelievers. It could be a great movie for starting gospel conversations. Where else at the movies do you hear about redemption, grace, the goodness of God and payment for sin? For so many who never hear these things spoken of, Les Mis could be a great place to begin.

However, pick your audience. I saw the stage production at the age of 10, but there is no way I would take my 10 year old to this movie. It is just too adult – the poverty, the filth, the prostitution and despair of the lower classes, let alone the revolution battle. They will have to wait for some time to see this one. Maybe the show will be on stage again sooner!

If it’s not clear yet though - we loved it. If you haven’t seen it - do.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ghost Child

Ghost Child, Caroline Overington

I have always been a fan of Caroline Overington’s writing: her reporting, her editorial columns and her book about life working in New York with young twins. I even emailed her once about a column she wrote and she sent back a lovely reply, so I grabbed this novel when I saw it on the library shelf.

It is set in the 1980’s in a housing estate in Melbourne where a young boy is found dead on his living room floor. The mother and her de-facto partner are both jailed for the murder, and the 3 siblings are fostered to carers, although it is clear that no-one really knows what happened. That is the basic facts that set up the story and it is established in a few brief pages.

What makes the body of the novel however is the next 20 years as told by a number of different people. Voices include:
- each of the siblings – Lauren, Harley and Hayley
- the detective senior sergeant on the case
- the different foster carers who took in each of the children
- the Anglican priest who conducted the service, and
- the doctors involved in the case.

The presentation of each character was believable, genuine and insightful. In each you could see the point of view of that person and what they had to see. You understood them. Each time you were caught up in someone’s point of view, which was often challenged later by someone else’s. It was excellent at showing the views, prejudices and beliefs that each of us might bring to such a situation.

A good book, which if you got into like I did will only take a day to read but will keep you pondering it for quite a bit longer. 

I will also now look out for some of her other novels.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Dr Megan Best

This recently published offering by Dr Megan Best offers Christians an excellent resource into the minefield that is the ethics surrounding the beginnings of life. Today we live in a world that enables us to choose when and when not to have babies, to decide whether to keep such babies in utero, to screen for potential disabilities and to create babies apart from the act of sex. We are used to such options, in fact most of the Western world has come to expect them as a right.

Yet how often do we stop and think through the ethics of it all? Many of us can testify that as Christians once you do stop and ask questions about contraception, abortion, genetic screening and IVF, you are met either with blank looks of “what is all the fuss about?” or at times, outright hostility from others at bringing ethics into the debate.

But we want to be informed. This book provides the information in one volume that many of us have been looking for for some time. Dr Best starts by clearly explaining the basics of reproduction and then how we would go about forming an ethic around it.  Her view is that life is created from the moment of fertilization (when the egg and sperm fuse).  As Christians, we choose to value any life that is made, no matter how it is made (whether in a woman’s body or in a laboratory), because it is a gift from God.  This therefore informs her ethic of how any life, whether in embryonic or adult form (or anywhere in between), should be preserved and protected.

From there she leads the reader step by step through the minefield that is modern medicine, technology and reproduction, with chapters addressing:
- contraception
- abortion
- screening procedures in pregnancy
- when abnormalities are detected in screening
- infertility
- miscarriage and stillbirth
- assisted reproductive technologies (IVF, surrogacy, etc)
- decisions regarding leftover embryos
- human embryo research and stem cells

Each chapter describes the science, medicine and technology involved and then draws it all together to form a Christian ethic about each.

The entire book is suffused with a grace and understanding of the choices women (and men) make and how they get there. She understands how the desire to have a child can be overwhelming, as can the grief associated with the loss of a child, or the change of expectations and the challenges of having a child with disabilities. She is pastorally sensitive and aware. Yet this is a book which is designed to provide information, and there are times where the information will be hard to read for those who have lived it, are living it or are supporting others through these life events.

It is medically detailed and scientifically thorough. Throughout there is additional information for medical professionals, which I think makes this book required reading for all Christians doctors, at least those involved with these stages of life. Having said that, it is very readable – I read it from cover to cover, even though it is obviously designed to be used more as a reference resource.

We will certainly be recommending this book to all couples at or entering this stage of life. We will be adding it to our marriage preparation book list.

There were a few specific things I was challenged by:

1. Abortion. This is a harrowing chapter. Abortion procedures are described in detail and she wisely warns readers at the beginning. What struck me most however were the statistics of abortion: 1 in 3 women in the UK, USA and Australia will have an abortion in their lifetime. What was clear what that there is little to no support for women as they make this decision. Even more so, I suspect that in our churches we are not caring for the women among us who have had abortions, because they are too terrified of being judged to voice their pain. How many women are being shut out from truly believing in God’s grace and that He forgives because of our lack of sensitivity and awareness?

2. Pregnancy screening for disability – what it involves and what it solves. We have watched a number of dear friends over the years get results from screening that shows their child will have a disability. What they are quickly shocked by is that the only cure for their child’s disability is to terminate the pregnancy, and that is the only solution proposed by medical staff.  They have to fight to keep their baby.  Dr Best argues that we are seeing a program of early eugenics in society, as people are choosing only to keep the healthy and the whole. She deals with the issues of disability well throughout the book, and touches on the impact this has for long-term services for the disabled. Parents with disabled children can witness that people are heartless enough to suggest that in choosing to have their child, they have placed a burden on society. What type of humans are we when we do not care for all members of society, especially those who are more vulnerable?
Consider…the decreasing tolerance for imperfections in our community. When did we decide that any of us were more perfect specimens? We are all of us damaged; it is just more noticeable in some than in others. And why is physical brokenness tolerated so poorly while moral brokenness is not just tolerated but chronicled, accepted and even celebrated in magazines and newspapers? (p461)

She finishes with some challenging words:
[while doing research for the book] What I found left me deeply unsettled as I realized the extent to which our society has decided to accommodate selfish adults at the expense of the children involved. We want ‘perfect’ children through genetic screening, freedom from inconvenient pregnancies, and the ability to override normal human biology when it suits us – all at the cost of embryonic and fetal human life. (p461)
This is a challenging book which raises numerous issues regarding reproduction today.  I am very glad Dr Best has done the work and the research, there are many of us who will benefit.

You can read the introductory first chapter on the Matthias Media website.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, P.D. James

I have tried a number of P.D. James novels (the Dalgliesh murder mystery series) over the years and never really been drawn in.  There always seem to be too many characters to get your head around and plots that are too complicated for the length of the book.

However, Death Comes to Pemberley is excellent. If you are a fan of and are familiar with Pride and Prejudice (either the book or the BBC production), this is for you. James has set this murder mystery at Pemberley Estate, 6 years after Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage. Captain Denney is found dead in the woods late one night with Captain Wickham weeping over his body, yet was he the killer?

This book gives Pride and Prejudice fans a chance to see how everyone’s lives might have turned out – are Darcy and Elizabeth happy? How many children did Jane and Bingley have? What happened to Mary and Kitty? It is a clever idea that has been very well executed. In a delightful twist, she even weaves characters from other Austen novels in at various points.

James even writes like Austen, both in style and turn of phrase, so it felt like a sequel, including treats like this (regarding Lade Catherine’s opinion of Elizabeth):
Lady Catherine was the essentially the same woman that she had always been, but now the shades of Pemberley were less polluted when Elizabeth took her daily exercise under the trees, and Lady Catherine became fonder of visiting Pemberley that either Darcy or Elizabeth were anxious to receive her. (Book 4, section 2)
If you are a Pride and Prejudice fan, this should not disappoint.

(I also read Children of Men by P.D. James: a futuristic view of mankind who have lost their ability to reproduce. Very 1984 in style, it is a disturbing and insightful look into what could happen in such a society. A good read.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Back into the swing of things

Here I am, back again for 2013.

We had a lovely school holidays. Christmas was fun, the holidays were relaxing, everyone got some rest and enjoyed time in the pool.

I surprised myself managing to be quite disconnected from email, blogs and facebook and thoroughly enjoyed the break from all three.

School has started with joy and ease for all involved and I come to pondering my time and how I will spend it for another year. More to come on that later.

But for now, I am glad to be back online.

There are lots of book reviews coming, and a few movie reviews too – so keep posted!