Monday, August 22, 2022

Mini fiction reviews

Time and Time Again, Ben Elton

I do appreciate Ben Elton’s writing. He and Lionel Shriver are the authors that get me thinking the most. Hugh Stanton, talented ex-soldier is challenged to consider - if you were going to go back in time to change history where would you go? What if you could go back to 1914, could you change the course of the 20th century? And if you did, would it actually be for the better? 

It’s a great premise, and a powerful one because it’s written with the arrogance of a 21st century mindset that assumes that we know more, and would have done things better. Elton challenges the reader to ask - how much damage could result, all the while trying to make improvements.

Meltdown, Ben Elton

Like all Ben Elton’s writing, it is very relevant when written, so this one published in 2009 is all about the Global Financial Crisis. Jimmy has lived the highlife for 20 years as a financial trader and he and Monica live in luxury with their kids and lots of paid help. Their friends all have high paid jobs in the industry and they help each other out with tips and investments. But what happens to them all when it all comes crashing down? A book about what’s really important when you lose everything that you thought mattered. Funny and insightful, as per Elton’s usual fare.

You Be Mother, Meg Mason

Having enjoyed other writing of Mason’s, I was eager for this one and was not disappointed. Abi, a poor uni student in the UK, has a fling with Stu, an exuberant Australian on exchange. When she discovers she’s pregnant, they decide to make a go of it in Australia. She heads out with 4-week-old Jude and turns up to discover Stu is pretty useless, his parents are unhelpful, and she is stuck in a flat in Cremorne (Sydney) in the heat of summer. On an outing, she comes across Phil, a recently widowed mother of four adult children. They connect over books, but also discover that they share similar griefs. Abi is clearly in dire need of support, and Phil seems to enjoy a project. But neither are being completely honest about their challenges, and soon Phil’s family starts to interject. I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, but also the reminders of some very familiar parts of Sydney.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, Lionel Shriver 

After years of constant solitary exercise, 60-year-old Serenata, has finally had to stop with an injured knee that now requires a replacement. Struggling to adjust to the change to her previously active life, she is somewhat surprised when her usually sedate husband Remington declares at age 62 that he is going to do a marathon. She struggles to support him, but he is determined. As his exercise regime becomes more and extreme and hers becomes more limited, it strains their relationship as they struggle to find common ground. There is a comparison to ultra exercising as a form of religion, like a cult. In fact, Shriver also deals religion a fair serve with their daughter being a recent convert to Christianity. 

Having considered the vast range of social issues and perspectives that Shriver tears down in her novels, it does raise the question of whether she is positive about anything at all. Having said, I do appreciate her dry commentary on many aspects of modern life.


Monday, August 8, 2022

Fight, Flight and Faith

Fight, Flight and Faith, Nikki Florence Thompson (Ark House Press, 2020)

I heard this book recommended on the Counsel Culture podcast and ordered it online sight unseen, after hearing Nikki speak about her experience of anxiety.

It was somewhat of a surprise when the book arrived and discovered that I knew several of the people who had endorsed it. Then, on starting to read it, I realised I knew who she was from many years ago, and part of the story she shared was one I was personally very familiar with.

Nikki has written a moving and poignant story of her struggle with anxiety over the last 20+ years, which developed after the accidental death of her older brother when she was 19.

This is not a theological exposition of anxiety, nor it is a treatment manual. Rather, this is a personal story that graciously invites the reader into her life and experience. We are allowed to see her journey in all its ups and downs, and in so doing, to witness her pain, challenges, and joys over the years. Her honesty is raw and open, as she shares her struggles through different seasons of grief, relationships, and fertility issues, and how anxiety continued to rear its head in various ways. Each time her own faith was stretched and matured.

The early part of the book is anchored around her brother Greg. It starts with early stories of their family and gives the background of a loving, stable home, with an older brother that Nikki adored and who had already matured beyond his years in his own faith. Their upper teenage years were the same as my own* - part of a robust, loving youth and young adults group that were on fire for Jesus in the 1990s. A time of coming to faith, of being challenged to wonder what it meant to live for Jesus, and a time of being surrounded with other young friends who were all asking the same questions. Many from those years have gone on to serve Christ in wonderfully various ways around the world. But as Nikki notes, they were the early days of heady faith, still absolutely real and true, yet not really tested by the trials of life to come: 
“I do not mean to say my faith then was not real. I believe with all my heart that it was. But it was also just the beginning. In the beginning my faith was a pure, secure space. Genuine, but tender. Grounded, but on untrodden ground. True, but untested. Encircling, but also enclosed. In the beginning my faith was safe. But, in many ways I didn't realise yet, it was also very, very small.” (p. 21)
Her retelling of the times prior to and after the accident were personally very moving to read and quickly recalled my own recollections of those years. For any reader, this will be a powerfully sad and moving story, I just found it additionally so because of the personal connection.

Nikki is honest about how anxiety started in those early months of grief, and how it impacted her.
“The truth was, anxiety didn't sit outside my relationship with God, as I suppose I expected or wanted it to. It came in there too. Anxiety … made me second-guess everything, until even my own faith felt uneasy… Was God the father in the Prodigal story, with his arms out stretched waiting to welcome me home again from the long distance I've travelled, or a disappointed parent, wagging his finger at me while I hung my head in shame? If I knew he was the first, I often felt he was the second." (p. 153)
Anxiety remained a recurring element over the years, and one she has learnt to manage through medication, good counselling and mental health care, as well as strong family and friend support, and a faith that God is with her through it all.
“The fact that anxiety is in the Bible is proof that it exists. Further, it is proof that God understands. (p. xviii)
“This isn’t a story about overcoming. But it is one about coming closer and drawing near. It is a story of becoming aware of a widened, expanded faith…This, then, is a book for anyone who shares a similar but particularly strong should voice in their ear; for anyone who thinks they ought to be better. (p. xix)
This book is beautifully written. Nikki has a PhD in Literature, and it shows. Her phrasing is wonderful, the way she weaves words together adds to the richness of the whole story. So, while it is a sad story at points and I was moved to tears, it is also delightful to read and laden with creative expression. I really appreciated how she has gently woven the story of others into her own, most notably the support of her husband Mike, but also her parents, friends, and her health care professionals (e.g., the Wise Woman and the Wise Man).

This is highly recommended reading. As I said, it’s a story of anxiety, not a “how to manage it” guide. But those who live with anxiety and those who support them will likely find much here that helps them to sort through the platitudes that some have, and instead to help them rest in their Heavenly Father’s care, despite the challenges that he allows them to face:
“I like to think anxiety taught me to accept my humanity – to be humble and realistic in my humanness in this now-and-not-yet space – and to expand to see the Father’s embodied compassion and divinity, not as something I need to stretch to touch, but as always wrapped around me, coming down to meet me. Anxiety has opened my faith-eyes to see him more clearly.” (p.218)

*I was also a friend of Greg’s. Not on the “inner circle” as it were, but more part of the main group.