Monday, July 27, 2020

Victoria: The Queen

Victoria: The Queen Julia Baird

After dipping my toe into the historical fiction Victoria by Daisy Goodwin, I was keen to read more about her. So I turned to Julia Baird’s detailed biography.

It was a great read. Baird writes clearly and engagingly, covering large amounts of content, but making it eminently readable. 

I was pleased to have read the Goodwin one first, as I was covering familiar ground for the first few chapters. This enabled comparison between the accounts, but also meant I was familiar with the people present in the young Queen’s life.

This is a solid read and a large book that covers her whole life in detail (although for those that are alarmed by the size of the book, almost half is notes and references). Apparently it’s a challenge to research Victoria for although she wrote thousands of pages of journals and letters over the course of her life, her children and others severely edited them, sanitising much of the content.
"Beatrice, Victoria’s daughter… had been charged with the unfortunate task of editing the queen’s voluminous diaries. She did this over ten years, writing them out in her own hand into blue copybooks and burning the originals, in one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century."
So, it’s hard to be sure of the facts. Baird has spend hours in document research, and tries to draw conclusions about facets of Victoria’s life that have been ignored by others, most notably her later very close friendship with John Brown.

Victoria is a fascinating character study. In a time where women where viewed as the property of husbands, could not vote and were rarely considered having opinions worth hearing, Victoria became Queen at 18 and ruled an empire for 64 years. As Baird notes:
"When Victoria was born, food was cooked in open fireplaces, horses carried messages, half of the population was illiterate and a narrow band of property owners were the only ones with political power. By the end of her life in 1901, people travelled by subway, telegraphs shot messages across oceans, education was compulsory, and women had some basic rights."
Her great love was Albert, although she was only married to him for just only 21 years (he died in his mid 40s). Over that time they had nine children. Baird does bring her own interpretive note here at a number of points. One I found unnecessary was that “In the most conventional of senses, Victoria has procured herself a wife. [The Prime Minister Lord] Melbourne was her intellectual companion and Albert was her object of desire.” For many years, it seems that Albert essentially functioned as king, which makes some sense considering the years she would have spent pregnant and recovering from childbirth. Yet, Baird also observes that she ceded much to Albert, losing much of her own strength over those years, which really only rallied when she was again on her own:
“She had forgotten her own colossal strength. It lay dormant for years as she worshipped and relied on her ailing, driven husband.”
This is not only an account of Victoria and those closest to her, woven throughout are the events of the time, how they impacted England and the world, and other notable people living during the same period. She worked with ten prime ministers, some very well and some very cantankerously. Her children went on to marry into many of the royal houses of Europe. There were moments of great progress and triumph, as well as wars where many lives were lost. This is really a telling of the history of England in the 19th century, through the lens of the monarch.

Well worth reading, especially, if like me, you know very little about Victoria and her time.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport

(This is a longish review - feel free to skip to the bold parts to see the main outline) 

In this interesting and thought-provoking book, Newport makes a case for digital minimalism:
"A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else."
Part 1 outlines the philosophical underpinnings of digital minimalism, argues why it’s the right solution, and what a digital declutter would look like.

He starts by considering the uneven playing field we are now on with technology, as tech companies use two forces to encourage behavioural addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval.
"We’ve been engaging in a lopsided arms race in which the technologies encroaching on our autonomy were preying with increasing precision on deep-seated vulnerabilities in our brains, while we still naïvely believed that we were just fiddling with fun gifts handed down from the nerd gods."
He notes the issue is control:
"current unease with new technologies is not really about whether or not they’re useful. It’s instead about autonomy. We signed up for the services and bought these devices for minor reasons… And then found ourselves, years later, increasingly dominated by their influence, allowing them to control more and more of how we spend our time, how we feel and how we behave."
Digital minimalism is based on three core principles:
  1. Clutter is costly 
  2. Optimisation is important 
  3. Intentionality is satisfying 
His proposal is a digital declutter: a 30-day break from the optional technologies in your life, clarifying that it’s optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life. During that time, explore other pursuits and interests that you enjoy and find meaningful. At the end, you consider which technology to reintroduce, asking three questions as you do so:
  1. Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? 
  2. Then, is this technology the best way to support this value? 
  3. Then, how am I going to use this technology going forward to maximise its value and minimise its harm? 
(I am still in the middle of my 30 day break from Facebook and Instagram, and have thoroughly enjoyed it)

Part 2 provides a framework for adopting a sustainable digital minimalism lifestyle if you decide it’s right for you, with many practical suggestions. He has four particular practices you might consider:

1. Spending time alone. He notes that many operate in a state of solitude deprivation: where you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.

In avoiding solitude, he observes “you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.”

Some practices he suggests here are leaving your phone at home (or at least tucked away and hard to get out), go for long walks (on your own, no music or headphones), and to write things down (journaling thoughts, etc).

2. Avoid all low quality communication, and instead prioritise actual conversation.

Suggestions here are: don’t click ‘like’ or make online comments ever, manage texting within set times, and set conversation hours. Here is where you start to think about the principles rather than the suggested practice. I couldn’t make a set time for conversation work - it doesn’t account for other people’s availability, but I already schedule phone calls with friends in advance via text. Or, I meet a friend for a walk, enabling purposeful time together. I don’t have text threads with no purpose, although with teenagers I can see how they might benefit from limiting texting to more purposeful conversation.

3. Reclaim leisure, being purposeful with how you spend your extra time. He has three ideas here:
  1. prioritise demanding activity over passive consumption 
  2. use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world 
  3. seek activities that require real world, structured, social interactions. (While he explored clubs and gyms, my mind naturally and immediately went to Christian communities) 
Suggestions include: fix or build something every week, schedule your low quality leisure, join something, make leisure plans for the week and the seasons.

4. Join the attention resistance. This is where he got more practical in taming tech use. Practical ideas included: deleting social media from your phone, reducing apps and websites (turning them off as standard), managing social media access with precision, embracing slow media (eg read the newspaper rather than nonstop headlines), and dumbing down your smartphone (or actually changing to a dumb phone).

With lots of these, I felt these options were simplified, so while a helpful starting point, there were numerous other ways you could make it work for you.

I have several reflections. 

There are helpful insights into what we have lost in the hours wasted with low value online experiences, whether its flicking through social media, scrolling news sites, binge watching Netflix, or texting in never ending but empty streams of conversations. Ironically, as he points out, no one who spends hours a day on Facebook would ever have the time to develop something like Facebook.

He’s identified a middle-class first-world problem: having enough free time to waste online. But even more than that, it seemed even more elite. How much of this is a problem for those who can afford iPhones, have time to spare and waste, have time and money when not online to devote to leisure pursuits, and who aren’t encumbered by the burden of long working hours and family life. We may bemoan the hours wasted online, but do we stop and give thanks to God that we have the time, money and privilege to have the option to do so (even if we need to reconsider how we use it)?

The author is a tenured college professor and it felt like it. That’s not to dismiss his wisdom, but to see it’s place. He uses the thinking of Thoreau, the practices of Benjamin Franklin and the choice of solitude by Abraham Lincoln as entry points to consider our practices today. Some suggestions reflected a lifestyle with great flexibility, and a fair amount of free time. He can go for long walks daily to encourage solitude, he can decide when he is available for conversations and limit himself to those hours, and can invest in leisure projects.

I assumed he must be single, because there was no consideration of what digital minimalism might look like in a family setting. No thoughts about how to consider these things with a partner or with children who are also navigating the online space, or making such decisions in a household with differing ideas and values in this area. Many recommendations struck me as suiting someone with few ties and much flexibility. (Yet the acknowledgements thank his wife and three children).

I found myself wondering, what does the digital minimalism look like for the Christian? I guess it depends on its purpose. If you step back from online pursuits to fill your life with woodwork and long walks, you are still not really fulfilling God’s call to love him and your neighbour (although you may be happier and less stressed). There could be great value in digital minimalism if you turn to further glorify God, to serve others, and to consider the state of your own heart. One risk of the clutter of a busy online life is we cannot focus on God and how he calls us to live. Newport does suggest that humans are made for more than this empty online life. I agree, we were made for so much more: a deep and abiding relationship with our creator and the people he has made. Any change to our digital lives that fosters that is well worth considering.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Fredrik Backman

I have discovered a wonderful writer recently, Fredrik Backman, a Swedish author and blogger. 

First was Beartown, set in a rural town in Sweden, where ice hockey reigns supreme. Everything in town revolved around it: the junior teams right up to the A-team, the sponsors, the board, the coaches and all the supporters. Backman spends the first third of the book setting the scene and does so marvellously. You meet the players of the junior team, their parents, the coaches, discover some backstory and how the town operates. For those that have seen it, the parallels with Friday Night Lights was striking. There is a slow relentless build to something major happening, and one night after a team win, it does. Once a crime is reported, the town splits. Do you protect the team and the players, do you close ranks and protect the club, or do believe the victim and what they have said? Do you bully others into seeing things your way, or perhaps do you figure out what it means to stand up for someone else? A totally compelling read with great insight into communities, the complexities of relationships, people, and how they act, for better and for worse. He has wonderful comments on teenage friendships, parents and the love they have for their children (excusing all manner of things), and how an obsession with sport can create and destroy community. 

The follow up to Beartown is Us Against You. I won’t give detailed information, because you definitely need to read Beartown first, and this immediately follows those events with the same people. The same themes are continued and expanded, and we how much is influenced by the choices that difference people make. A local politician is playing a dangerous game, causing division and conflict, all to orchestrate his own ends. At the same time, the hockey club is struggling, the team is divided, and people’s private lives are brutally exposed for others to excoriate. What is it that brings a town together and what can tear it apart? Just as compelling and insightful as Beartown

Then A Man Called Ove. Amusing, sad, and very relatable. Ove is 59, and he lives his life with order and structure, he does things right and knows what should be done. In his mind, the world is full of people who do things lazily, wrongly or carelessly, and it is his job to fix it, or at least complain about it. To those who cross his path, he seems a cranky curmudgeon. Yet, perhaps there is more to Ove than meets the eye. As one neighbour starts to reach out, Ove’s walls are slowly breached, as he is forced to continually help people in need. As the details of his childhood are revealed as well as more about the one person in the world who truly understands him, we start to understand him a little more. While I often will cry in a movie, there are few books that make me teary. The Book Thief was one, and this was another. Beautiful. 

The next two were still strong, but not my favourites. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, tells of 7 year old Elsa and her granny, an eccentric lady who enchants Elsa with her extended fairytales. It becomes apparent to Elsa that the tales aren’t all made up as she gets to know the stories of the people around her. Personally, I found the fairytales distracting, but they were needed to explain the people around Elsa. Britt-Marie Was Here follows a women in Elsa’s block later on. Britt-Marie has spent her life caring for her husband and cleaning, never having any interests of her own. When she is forced to take care of herself and moves to a small backwater called Borg, she discovers she is not only capable, but can find new friends and a sense of purpose. 

Reflecting on these last three I think Backman has real insights into people who might be considered to have various personality disorders, or mental health challenges. He is compassionate and considered, which acknowledging issues. 

 I eagerly await Backman’s new release in 2020.

Monday, July 6, 2020

American Dirt

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins

This absolutely compelling book is heartbreaking and yet hopeful. I wanted to take my time over it, but couldn’t put it down.

Lydia and her husband Sebastián have lived with eight year old son, Luca, in their hometown of Acapulco their whole lives. But, it has changed in recent years with the rise of a new cartel ruler, La Lechuza, who rules the city.

Sebastián has been targeted as a journalist, and in one afternoon 16 family members have been murdered at a BBQ at her mother’s house, but astonishingly Lydia and Luca are overlooked. Their lives remain in danger, but this man controls the whole region, so where do they go? The police will not act, or may turn her over. No one can be trusted.

So, with few belongings and their life savings in her pocket, they flee the city. She knows they will never be safe in Mexico with the extent of his reach, so they plan their route to el norte to the “Estados Unidos”. (You may also benefit from having Google Maps open at points to chart their course, and occasionally Google Translate to see what some words mean.) They will be pushed to their limits, and tested in ways they never knew possible.
“Trauma waits for stillness. Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.”
“So much has happened that each hour of this journey feels like a year, but there’s something more that that. It’s the bond of trauma, the bond of sharing an indescribably experience together. Whatever happens, no one else in their lives will ever fully comprehend the ordeal of this pilgrimage, the characters they’ve met, the fear that travels with them, the grief and fatigue that eat at them.”
There’s no question this is hard reading. They meet up with two teenage girls along the way, and everything that you would imagine happening to them while they are on the run does. None of the violence is explicitly detailed, but you can imagine the horror of their experience. You are fully exposed to the sinfulness of humanity, yet there are moments when the kindness of others comes through. Churches, pastors and loving people along their route provide safe haven. Some men will protect them. It’s a pretty damning view of Mexico; Cummins notes at the end, in 2017 it was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist. The nationwide murder rate was the highest on record and most are unsolved, because the cartels operate with impunity. It’s remarkably sobering, and seems an almost unsolvable problem.

As a pastor warns them along the way:
"If it’s possible for you to turn back, do so now…If there is any other place for you to go, to stay away from these trains, to stay away for el norte, go there now…This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you. And your journey will grow even more treacherous from here….Some of you will fall from the trains. Many will be maimed or injured. Many will die. Many, many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked or ransomed. Some of you will be lucky enough to survive all of that and make it as far as Estados Unidos only to experience the privilege of dying alone in the desert behind the sun, abandoned by a corrupt coyote, or shot by a narco who doesn’t like the look of you. Every single one of you will be robbed. Every one. If you make it to el norte, you will arrive penniless, that’s a guarantee."
An excellent, challenging and gripping book about what being a migrant on the run might look like.