Monday, July 31, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Considering the fan base in this house, it was pretty certain we were going to read this autobiography of Bruce Springsteen’s.

Born to Run chronicles the 65+ years of Springsteen’s life to date, starting with his rather odd childhood in Freehold, New Jersey. Born as many were in that neighbourhood, to a mix of Irish and Italian blood and seeped in Catholicism; he had a completely overprotective and controlling grandmother, a mother who had to give way, and a complicated relationship with his mentally unwell, alcohol laden and distant father. It was a working class life, with real poverty and grind, yet joy and happiness at times as well.

Inspired by Elvis and the Beatles; he wanted to play guitar and be in a band from very early on.
“…we’d been born at exactly the right moment. We were teenagers in the sixties, when rock and radio had their golden age, when the best pop music was also the most popular, when a new language was being formed and spoken to young people all across the world, when it remained an alien dialect to most parents, when it defined a community of souls wrapped in the ecstasy and confusions of their time but connected in a blood brotherhoods by the disciples; voice of their local deejay” (p429)
By his mid-teens he was doing exactly that. Self-taught, unable to read music, but persistent in learning, practicing and copying, he would play for hours and hours to perfect a song. A succession of band groups followed, with him ending up lead singer.
“I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working”, it’s called PLAYING … It’s a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night” (p186)
He charts the formation of various bands and their members, including the definitive E Street Band. Numerous songs are explained along the way including the classics Born to Run, Born in the USA and the Ghost of Tom Joad. I would often go back and listen to the songs again to hear what he was explaining. Sadly for me (!), there’s no explanation of who Wendy is in Born to Run, but what was interesting was how both that song and Born in the USA were defining songs of his career and led to super-stardom:
“Onstage, this music swept over my audience with joyful abandon. We had hit after hit and in 1985, along with Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and the stars of disco, I was a bona fide mainstream radio “superstar”… Born in the USA changed my life, gave me my largest audience, forced me to think harder about the way I presented my music, and set me briefly at the centre of the pop world.” (p317)
Each album is chronicled and enabled me to appreciate the overarching theme developed for each. I came late to the fan club, not until The Rising album, released after September 11, and I enjoyed reading the story behind that and the later albums. Telling the story of people’s lives was often the impetus for songs, and many reflect on working class realities, the American way of life, struggles for war veterans and race inequality.

He is honest about his relationship with band members and management, including his missteps and idiosyncrasies. He honestly chronicles his first brief marriage and his failings in it. After this it becomes patently clear that his wife Patti is his true partner, confidante and love:
“We could fight, surprise, disappoint, raise up, bring down, withhold, surrender, hurt, heal, fight again, love, refit, then go at it one more time. We were both broken in a lot of ways but we hoped, with work, our broken pieces might fit together in a way that would create something workable, wonderful. They did.” (p372)
He speaks with love and affection for each of his three children and the way they have made their way in the world, creating names for themselves in their own area (his daughter is a champion show jumper).
“Making life fills you with humility, balls, arrogance, a mighty manliness, confidence, terror, joy, dread, love, and sense of calm and reckless adventure. Isn’t anything possible now? … The endorphin high of birth will fade, but its trace remains with you forever, its fingerprints indelible proof of love’s presence and daily grandeur… Whatever the morrow brings, these things, these people, will be with you always” (p368-9)
In the final chapters, he grieves the loss of band members, including saxophonist Clarence Clemons. He opens up about episodes of depression, both in his thirties and, more debilitating, in his sixties. He attributes years of speaking to his doctor as the heart of the book.

Too often, autobiographies are written too early (eg most political and showbusiness tomes). Here, you are glad he has waited to this age (67) to write the book, and took seven years doing so. His writing is poetic and lyrical at times, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the number of great lyrics he’s written over the years. Even so, it was more descriptive, overflowing with emotion, and had more insight and self-analysis than I was expecting. The most poignant and returned-to theme throughout is his relationship with his father, it overrides the book, his music and clearly his life:
“We honour our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship. I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry.” (p503)
This is not just the story of a rock and roll life, although as that it’s a good read. But it’s much more – the analysis of a life through the lens of the people that raise us, the opportunities that we are both given and that we take, and the chance we have to write a new script for ourselves and those who come after us. A very enjoyable and informative read.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Liveship Traders

The Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb

This second trilogy by Robin Hobb was very different to the Farseer Trilogy, for while set in the same world, it’s located in completely different lands. There's no overlap with the Farseer Trilogy, except for hints that this takes place after those events. To me it felt more like what I expect classical ‘fantasy’ to be, a much more different world with less links to our own. Based around the community of traders at Bingtown, we learn that a Liveship is quickened (essentially comes to life), when the 3rd generation of its owners has died. The ownership of a Liveship is a remarkable privilege, bringing the opportunity of great wealth to a family, but also comes at great cost with debt owed to its makers upriver (the Wild River folk) until that is realised.

Althea Vestrit’s family awaits the quickening of their ship Vivacia. Althea has grown up on her father’s ship and assumes Vivacia will one day be hers. Her family is making other plans, with the brother in law due to inherit. At the same time, pirate Kennit desires to be king of the pirate isles, controlling the trade and slave ships in the region, and what better way to do it than by acquiring his own liveship?

This series grew on me. I struggled with the first half of the first book and then I got drawn in. There's  an extensive list of characters, who early on seem unconnected but of course, you come to see how they all intertwine. You start to see the threads of plots as Hobb weaves them together and how they come to overlap. Hints along the way suggest where things must be heading, but she gives away the story so carefully that you feel you are figuring out the links yourself, where in fact, it’s just when she has clearly planned to reveal them.

While I was very happy to recommend the Farseer Trilogy to Mr 14 and did indeed get one of his friends hooked on it, this one I pause to recommend to the same age. There is more swearing and romance as well as general and some sexual violence.  But those are my hesitations, others may not have them.

I have now moved on again to the third trilogy – The Tawny Man, which picks up about a decade after The Farseer Trilogy ends, again with Fitz – yeah!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birds and Bees by the Book

Birds and Bees by the Book, Patricia Weerakoon

How do you answer your children’s questions about sex, gender and why various families are different? Do you struggle to come up with a succinct, age-appropriate answer and find yourself going “uhhh, uuuum…”.

What about when your primary-schooler says: “My friend has two mummies” or “There was a boy at school, but now he has a girl’s name and uses the girls’ toilets”?

What about the more straightforward question: “How did the baby get there?” Or when your daughter asks, “Why does my brother have a penis, when do I grow one?”

Thankfully, there is a new resource available to help parents: Patricia Weerakoon’s series “Birds and Bees by the Book”. I spent a week with Miss 9 and Miss 12 reading these six, small, readable books aimed at 7-10 year olds, and have also gathered the opinions of a few friends. Here are some of our thoughts:

Me and my family. A lovely book describing families in all their variations. It starts with God’s design for marriage beginning with Adam and Eve, and while many families have a mum, dad and kids; many don’t, including step-families, adoption, fostering, extended and gay families. Each is simply explained with the overarching theme that God loves you and your family; and that if you love Jesus you’re also part of God’s family.

Me and my body. About our unique bodies, how they're all different and all made by God. Kids are encouraged to protect and care for their bodies because they’re special. This one jumps around a bit and the logic doesn’t seem as obvious, including comments about cyberbullying, being careful about wanting to look older than you are, and knowing the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad touch’. It’s got a slightly more negative, warning feel to it than the others, but the topics covered are helpful and needed.

Me and my brain. A helpful perspective and one often missing in sex education. By describing how a brain can be healthy or unhealthy because of what we feed it, she paves the way for children to desire healthy brains that grow strong. With an instructive explanation of how the brain works, including both thinking and feeling; and how they are still growing, my girls laughed in understanding that yes, their brains just want to have fun and not think about consequences!

Learning about sex. The message is that sex is good, for marriage and for when you’re older. Using the term ‘sexual activity’ draws the helpful distinction that sex is more than intercourse. Weerakoon highlights that only adults are ready for sexual love; but as a kid, you love lots of people with friendship or family love. I loved the explanation of how you need to change to be ready to be married: your body needs to develop, you brain needs to grow, and you need to be able to care for and look after another person. There are also instructive comments on what to do if someone touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, if you see pictures online, and if you like touching yourself.

On a minor note, I was surprised by the statement that that all children come out through their mother’s vagina. These days with so many born by caesarean, it seems odd not to include it as an option.

Learning about gender. Carefully and appropriately addresses gender issues, including how boys and girls are different; but they don’t have to act in stereotypical ways. Introducing both intersex and transgender concepts, overall there's a clear encouragement to be kind and love others, no matter who they are or how they feel about themselves.

Learning about pornography. Explains pornography as ‘pictures and videos that are bad for you and unhealthy for your brain’, expanding that to include people without clothes, hurting each other or having sexual activity. This is a slightly oversimplified description, but it probably works within the context and for the age group. Again, using the idea of the thinking brain and the feeling brain, kids are encouraged to use both when deciding what is healthy for them and what isn’t, and how to respond when they see pornography.

One of the great strengths of this whole series is that it's grounded in God's love for us. God has made us and we can be part of his family. There’s a strong message to follow Jesus’ example and love each other, never bullying or teasing, but always caring for others, even if they are different. These probably are the key messages for this age group (and all of us!)

I did have a few hesitations.
  1. Each book finished with a page saying “Feeling confused? Why not talk with the adult reading this book with you”. It’s a helpful way to flag the need to check with your child, but it's a bit patronising. It also reduces the power of the book’s message,  almost assuming kids will still be confused at the end. And what about for the child who is reading it on their own? It might have been preferable to suggest speaking to an adult if you have any questions without assuming someone was reading the book aloud.
  2. There seemed to be a slight disconnect between the language and illustrations (which are  younger), and the material and concepts presented (which are a bit older); especially the gender and pornography books, which I can imagine parents waiting for a while to read. The illustrations are lovely and cover a range of ethnic groups, but I did wonder if they would appeal more to younger readers.
Of course, this is not the only resource out there on the topic and hopefully by age 7, conversations have already begun about bodies and sex. If they haven’t, I highly recommend starting with God Made Your Body (age 2-4) and How God Makes Babies (age 6-9). After that, this series is a great option to fill in more details for the 7-10 age group. Note this series does not address the changes of puberty at all – for that you need to go to Growing Up by the Book or other material (eg. What’s the Big Deal?).

As with all Weerakoon’s books (eg. The Best Sex for Life, Growing Up By the Book, she doesn’t shy away from tricky topics, and provides up-to-date, age-appropriate information, while still bringing us back to the truths of God’s love and salvation in Christ. With her wealth of experience, you can be confident much thought and knowledge has gone into them. Overall, this is a series I would happily recommend to anyone with kids in aged 7-10 (and even a bit older, if it’s taken you a while to broach these topics!).

(Copies of books provided by Growing Faith)