BOOK REVIEWS

STOCKI'S SUMMER READS 2021

Reads 21

So, I am getting ready for novel reading holidays. People suggest, now and again, that I am well read. I don't feel that I am. I read a book every 6 weeks at home. Slow. By the sea, however, I can get through a good few more. I'll in no way get through all of these but they are what I will be choosing from... unless one fo thee suggests another!

 

ALL THINGS MUST PASS AWAY - KENNETH WOMACK AND JASON KRUPPA

I have been looking forward to this since I heard about at late last year. Subtitled Harrison, Clapton and Other Assorted Love Songs it is about my favour era of music - 1968-1973. Womack and Kruppa look at Harrison's All Things Must Pass and Clapton's Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs and tell the Ballad of George and Eric. That the 50th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass comes out in a couple of weeks helps even more! This one is first up!

 

DOUGLAS STUART  - SHUGGIE BAIN

Booker winner, this one should probably have been read last summer but it won't go away in friend's recommendations. I am expecting as much heartache as beauty but when the two blend perfectly it doesn't get much better and that is what friends are saying.

 

ANDREW O'HAGAN - MAYFLIES

Of the most talked about this one caught my eye because it was about a friendship built on music getting rekindled years later. Music always attracts me. Album references etc. That both Colm Tóibin and Tracey Thorn endorse it fascinates too.

 

SUE DIVIN - GUARD YOUR HEART

A teenage love affair across the boundaries in post Agreement Northern Ireland, Tony Davidson tipped me off on this as Sue grew up in his congregation. She has a Masters in Peace and Conflict so I am drawn by that too. In the current Dig With It Shirley-Anne McMillan bigs it up as "absolutely charming"

 

LAUREN ST. JOHN - WAVE RIDERS

The wonderful, and missed every day, Lucia Quinney Mee introduced us to Lauren St. John way back when our girls were very young. That this one is dedicated to Lucia and that David, Rachel and Alice write in the back about organ donation draws me back. I gotta read this one in the place where  we miss her the very most. About surviving storms, it seems appropriate.

 

AMOR TOWLES - A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

I like my books pretty much et in my day and more often than not where I am. This one is set in 1922 Moscow but I am down to the back cover comment, "Can a life without luxury be the richest of all". Recommended at a recent Fitzroy walk by Sheila McNeill and Moyna McCullough, they are always worth listening to!

 

RICKIE LEE JONES - LAST CHANCE TEXACO

Noticed this just as I finished Tracey Thorn's My Rock N Roll Friend and thought it would be a great kind of follow up. I also love biographies that take me to albums I missed. Not sure that this one does as it seems to only go up to 1983 and Magazine. Still, you simply need to know more about Rickie Lee Jones!

 

SINÉAD O'CONNOR - REMEMBERINGS

I love Sinéad's voice and work. Her life though seems a little anarchic and at times sad. I have followed her down the years and wonder if the biography can tell me more than I fear I know. I am not sure I can pluck up the courage but it needs to be there!

 

KAZUO ISHIGURO  - KLARA AND THE SUN

The back cover says:

"Do you believe in the human heart?
I don't mean simply the organ, obviously.
I'm speaking in the poetic sense
The human heart. Do you think there
is such a thing? Something that makes
each of us special and individual."
 
I gotta read that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


DELIA OWENS - WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing is something else. After a slow thirty pages or so Delia Owens, in her debut novel at 70 years of age, charms us and grabs our attention. With the most beautiful of fictional characters and gorgeousness of geographical locations we find ourselves captives to a page turner.

That central character Kya is a mesmerising. Reese Witherspoon is making this into a film and Kya will be a brilliant part for someone to play. Owens draws us in as this child watches her mum leave, no longer able to live with her drunken dad. The brothers and sisters leave. Dad eventually too. A child left in a swamp like a female Tarzan, making friends with gulls, marsh, sand and sea. How can we not love Marsh Girl? She even eventually becomes a published expert in her field - or should we say swamp!

Marsh Girl is what the local townsfolk call her. White trash is how the good living exclude her. There is a theme of prejudice. The difference between the posture of the white and black churches is glaring. Near the end, there’s an insightful sentence that can be applied to all of our particular prejudices - “Did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her”. Challenging.

Alongside the almost pastoral coming of age story of Kya, we have running alongside it the murder mystery of a local Quarter back handsome hero, Chase. 

As we read we discover that Owens, who is a zoologist and has written non fiction about life in the Kalahari, is more at home in the telmatology of the swamplands of North Carolina and what it is to live an isolated life than she is at writing murder mysteries and, as the stories come together, court room dramas.

Owens’ grip is the zip and wonder of a young girl discovering herself on a boat through swampy inlets. Rejected by her entire family she flirts with two loves and again feels that they leave her. Love it seems is ever insecure. She can trust the birds.

Owens’ brilliance is her lyrical almost poetic prose that throws out quotable sentences like a Bob Dylan:

 

“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”

“She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have somebody else.”

“Here the bed loomed as the masterpiece, but the room didn’t look like love.”

“I guess somethings can’t be explained, only forgotten or not.”

“She feels the pulse of life, he thought, because there are no layers between her and the planet.”

“She closed her eyes at such easy acceptance. A deep pause in a lifetime of longing.”

 

As I have said there are quite a few things that just don’t ring true in the plot, particularly in the last third of the novel but you can still see why Reese Witherspoon is making it into a movie. It is a novel with everything and perhaps a script writer can repair the frays. 

Personally, I cannot wait for the film. I am so in love with Kya that I cannot wait to spend time with her again.. Whatever, Where The Crawdads Sing is a beauty of a summer read. 


SUSAN McKAY - NORTHERN PROTESTANTS ON SHIFTING GROUND

McKay

Twenty years after her her book Northern Protestants - An Unsettled People, Susan McKay has done it again. She has interviewed Protestants across age ranges, vocations and locations giving us a panoramic view of the inner thoughts, fears and hopes of a demographic often dangerously confined to lazy PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist).

This book around we are not in the early dawn of the Good Friday Agreement wondering. Northern Protestants On Shifting Ground has us up to date in the a post Brexit uncertainty that has a lot of Unionists worrying. If many of the almost 100 interviewed articulate the shifting ground of the Union, the accumulative effect of the book is that, across Northern Ireland, Protestant views on the union, Unionist politicians and even the possibility of a United Ireland is shifting seismically.

This seems to be a book full of Protestants who are less attached to the United Kingdom, who are despairing of Unionist politicians and who have lost the orange and green binary caricature that has portrayed Northern Ireland for the most of its century in existence. 

Now let me push back on myself. Of course not everyone Susan McKay interviewed were apathetic to the Union but even some of those who said that they did not want or could not see a United Ireland suggested that it need to be considered.

For as long as I can remember Northern Ireland voted as our parents voted. Politicians who have relied on that inheritance need to read On Shifting Ground, if they haven’t already read recent electoral polls!

The DUP don’t come out well. Particularly among under 40s it is obvious that the party’s social conservatism is out of touch. Having red, white and blue across the manifestos and posters will no longer catch the imagination of the old, unionist with a small U, block. They are far more interested in pragmatic politics like health and education and infrastructure… and of course there are abortion and LGBT issues.  

Sinn Fein needn’t take a back seat and smile. The memory of the military campaign and the deep deep pain of so many funerals is still palpable. As Noah, an American student, once said to Fr Martin Magill and I, when we asked what he had most learned in a short trip to Northern Ireland, “The more violence the more time it takes to heal.” That campaign might still be the biggest stumbling block to the United Ireland it hoped to bring about.

I am wrong to pick out one interview but let me be wrong. Debbie Watters director of Northern Ireland Alternatives and vice chair of the Policing Board says that she believes the Union is safe but also suggests that Unionists need to think about twenty years down the road. “People need to start changing their psyche.” 

Debbie takes us back to that need for pragmatism in the shifting ground. It is not a time for Unionists to bury their heads the sands of old ideologies. It is time to look up and around. 

The church too. The church and particularly my own Presbyterian denomination takes some heavy critique and charges of irrelevance. Once again we can ignore it, claim that we are theologically correct and cannot waver to the shifting sands of society. Personally, I think that that would be pastorally and missionally short sighted. In these shifting sands as psyche’s shift the Church is very much needed. We need to hear the critique too.

Northern Protestants On Shifting Grounds is a fascinatingly good read for anyone seeking out the current Protestant psyche. Thank you Susan McKay for the contribution. Is there a Catholic one?


TIM WINTON - THE SHEPHERD'S HUT

Shepherd's Hut

I have been a fan of Tim Winton for thirty years. 

A few pages into every novel I have asked myself why? They are often stories about bleak characters in bleak circumstances in bleak western Australian terrain.  

BUT… there is always little snippets of redemption. Like an Australian Flannery O’Connor - vivid, lyrical, earthy prose that are always God haunted. God is omnipresent.

And so The Shepherd’s Hut. Jaxie is a teenager that Winton describes as a ‘feral ratbag’. Taking off across the western Australian salt lands on foot without the equipment or experience needed we are gripped by this bad boy’s adventure. Place is like an extra character with Winton and never more so in this tall tale.

Eventually in this nowhere place Jaxie meets a nowhere man, Irish priest Fintan. We never know why he has been exiled out there but the two start the strangest of fractious relationships that eventually becomes a bond. 

The elderly educated Fintan is all words and song and books whereas Jaxie ain’t! In their strange conversations the spiritual is opened up. Religion. God. Prayer. Hope. Peace. Finding yourself an instrument of God.

As I said, utterly gripping with an almost wild west cowboy ending that I could not possibly spoil here. 

Back to why I love Tim Winton. His redemption is never simple testimony of sinner to saved. It is messy, realistic, incremental; ordinary broken humanity groping in a shadowy world for grace and peace and God… just a hem of the garment. Nobody does it better.


WINN COLLIERS - A BURNING IN MY BONES; The Authorised Biography of Eugene Peterson

A burning in my bones

Psychological relief. Page after page. Winn Collier’s biography on Eugene Peterson was like a retreat of soul healing for this near sixty year old minister.

For most of my 33 years ordained I have felt a little odd, eccentric, black sheep. I thought I was alone. That there was someone else out there like me was consoling in itself but that it happened to be Eugene Peterson made it utterly joyful. I was close to tearful during paragraphs.

Winn has done an amazing job with Eugene’s life. For those who somehow don’t know Eugene Peterson, he was a pastor, author and college Professor. He is perhaps most famous for his paraphrase/translation of the Bible that became known as The Message.

Winn Colliers was given permission by Eugene to trawl through his entire 86 years on the planet, with access to diaries and letters and whatever was available. He has somehow edited that to just over 300 pages and given a deep and wide story of a unique human being trying to follow God as best he could with all the grace gifted him.

Of course I was drawn to Peterson’s relationship with Bono though I feel that David Taylor’s short film about Bono and Eugene discussing The Psalms had given us a real feel for their friendship.

I was also delighted that included in the book was the story Eugene told the night he embarrassed me as his interviewer by not answering any of my questions in a sizeable tent full of people back in the 90s. Unable to get a word of Eugene, the main speaker at a Presbyterian Special Assembly, my friend David Montgomery rescued me from the piano stool and asked me to ask about the filling in reports for the New Church Development committee. Eugene lit up like a comedian. Read about that evening here - Surmising The Life Of Eugene Peterson

This was all good but it wasn’t what Eugene did as much as why he did it that most excited me. Winn tells us of a man who had no time for sectarianism among Christians, even suspicious of the evangelicalism label; he was more interested in the outworking of faith rather than the correctness of doctrine, quoting “Barth wasn’t indifferent to “getting it right” but his passion was in “getting it lived”; he saw the God-part of people and was short on judgementalism as a result; he saw holiness in his dad’s butcher’s shop and in the mountains and lakes of his childhood and later life Montana; he heard God speak in novels, even using novels to teach his theology; he always felt an outsider with no desire to join any broad movements; he loved the Scripture, not to debate as much as enter into and feel and learn and love.

I could go on and on. This is not your common or garden pastor and I needed to hear about him. I loved particularly an idea that he found in the works of Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz survived Communism in Poland by employing “Ketman” - “a stance of outer compliance but inner dissent”. “Ketman” could be my middle name over 40 years of ministry.

Another poet to give Eugene spiritual understanding or at least understanding of his own spiritual journey was Denise Levertov. Her picturing a dog following its nose caught the imagination of a man who grew up in love with dogs and animals and lakes and mountains. Winn writes, “His life and work had been more like tracing a scent than following a map”.

I have struggled my entire ministry with 5 year Church mission plans. I do not understand the language or idea. That doesn’t make me any less a visionary but my process echoes “tracing a scent” perfectly. I read the paragraph and my weirdo soul screamed ‘not mad’! At least the only one not mad!

No doubt the big talk about the book will be how Peterson wrestled with the LGBT debate. All of his sniffing scents and being a little suspicious of “some people who took themselves too seriously a were certain of ‘what God is doing’” led him to a place of pragmatic pastoral care that will no doubt ruffle many feathers. 

What Winn Collier has done is to give us the honesty and integrity of a life given over to follow and serve Jesus and to share the Scripture in word and pastoral care. It is the story of a human being consumed by something way bigger than himself or the mountains of his Montana childhood. It is the story of a man who had a “hunger for something radical - something so true that it burned in his bones.” 

I am thankful to have met Eugene Peterson, to know his work. My soul is leaping for joy at Eugene’s earthed, authentic sense of the transcendent. I am left yearning to sniff out the same holiness! Thank you Winn Collier for a wonderful biography. 


PATRICK MAGEE - WHERE GRIEVING BEGINS; A MEMOIR

MAgee

Patrick Magee writes in his concluding postscript to his honest and open memoir how a moment in the middle of his life changed it. That moment was one of two that defines his life, at least in public terms. 

With the first, this second one would mean nothing. The first is that Patrick Magee is the ‘Brighton Bomber’. He is the IRA man who blew up the Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party delegates were staying during their 1984 Conference. 

Five were killed, some were left disabled and many others injured in the blast. One of those who lost their lives was Conservative MP and Deputy Chief-Whip Anthony Berry. 

Magee’s life changing event was when Berry’s daughter Jo sought him out wanting to understand the motivation of the killer of her father. Brave decision. Challenging for the bomber. Those first few hours in a room with Jo Berry are what Magee describes as perhaps the most significant moment.

It certainly is in the book. If we divide the book into three. We get Magee’s formation personally and politically in family and his experiences of nationalist Belfast, his joining the IRA because he thought then and still thinks now that it was the only way to deal with British and Unionist oppressors. Then there was the experience of Long Kesh as a prisoner. 

We then get his volunteering to be part of IRA campaigns in England, that pivotal moment of the Brighton Bomb and then his time in prison where he starts work on a PhD on how fictional novels about The Troubles misrepresents the Republican narrative and the real reasons for their campaign.

I found all of this a little bit of a trudge. For me it was slow. That might be because of my own upbringing in very different circumstances to Magee’s. I will come back to it though. That might be more important than I found it enjoyable.

For me the third section was where it all came alive. At that meeting with Jo Berry. From then on we have the memoir of a man who becomes a friend of the woman whose father he had killed. The rest of the book is about making space for reconciliation and as someone interested in such things I was fascinated. 

Jo Berry’s courage, grace and generosity of spirit needs huge respect in all of this. She isn't soft writing about their dialogue in her Foreword.  As well as Jo Berry, Magee finds Harvey Thomas also blown up in the bomb reaching out to him. Thomas is motivated to forgive by his Christian faith. Elsewhere forgiveness is recognised a difficult word. 

All these questions fill the last third of the book as Magee and Berry continue their dialogue, find themselves in TV documentaries and speaking at various Universities and Peace platforms. We even find a couple of pages where Patrick and Jo speak at a 4 Corners festival event, though he calls the Festival after the name of that evening’s event - Listening To Our Enemies. More of that in another blog.

I found it all thought provoking and helpful in my own thinking. What was most challenging and most difficult is what is probably most needed.

Patrick Magee is called upon time after time to claim that the IRA military campaign is wrong. It will be a very difficult read if that is what you are looking for. Magee admits the apparent contradictions in himself - “My own conflict is that I stand over my actions and yet profoundly regret the hurt inflicted.”

As well as working tirelessly for peace, in these past 20 years, Patrick Magee has also been keen to be an apologist for the Republican campaign. This is the challenging part of the book. Yet, as we live through all our decade of centenaries and surmise how we might move forward with two very different stories, Magee might just highlight one of the keys to unlock a better future - “The last and perhaps greatest obstacle to a shared future is the battle of narrative.”

As a result of the engagement that both Jo Berry and Harvey Thomas has offered him, Magee has experienced the benefit of dialogue and contact. It has allowed him to humanise the other. I imagine it has been the kind of challenge to him as reading this book might be to many of the victims of the IRA. Narratives need shared. Understanding needs sought. Humanising each other’s other needs to result.

If you are interested in such then take on the challenge of this memoir.


JAN CARSON - THE LAST RESORT

Last Resort

Jan Carson has this County Antrim conversational literary style. You can almost hear the accent. It is so easy to read, so enjoyable. She is great at painting pictures of her characters. They are real. There’s honesty, humour and drama. You feel that you have met them. In their stories Jan leaves her deep thoughts.

The Last Resort is another beautiful read, more evidence that she is more than worthy of the awards and Radio 4 reads. 

The Last Resort was written in Lockdown. It is set in Ballycastle where I wish I was reading it but Covid restrictions meant that I had to make do with Belfast. We’ve all been static for so long hence the setting of a caravan park. 

My biggest critique would be that I am not sure about her research in Ballycastle. She doesn’t describe the town I know. It sounds more like Kellys and Portrush but she needed a cliff! 

The book is short. It is not unlike David Park’s short novel from last year A Run In The Park. Short stories of different lives drawn together in a common space interweave and throw out lessons of life.

Where Park’s book is about moving on, Carson’s is about lives that are stuck. In the stories all linked by the caravan, the cliff and the loss or theft of things we have an array of Northern Irish issues, The Troubles, Church, migrants, gender, dementia…

In keeping with the magic realism of Jan’s other writings the magic in her work arrives in the form of the child ghost Lynette. Blown up in her RUC father’s car at the caravan park decades earlier she reappears much the same way that Douglas Coupland’s Jared appears in Girlfriend in a Coma. Like a holy ghost Lynette seeks the letting go of the fears that keep our characters and our wee country static.

The Last Resort is my favourite of her books to date. I loved it so much that I would have loved more. It has me looking forward already to what the wonderfully gifted Ms Carson will do next. 


RICHARD OSMAN - THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB

ThursdayMurderClub_1200x1200

Richard Osman is all over the TV and seems like an all round good guy. Naturally funny and clever too. The idea that he could also be a novelist was not a leap of fiction. Nor that he would be good.

His debut novel Thursday Murder Club has been making the year’s shortlists and it is again easy to understand why. This is a beautifully easy read with great characters, lots of charm and humour and full of drama and twists.

Our main characters all live in Coopers Chase a rather high end Residential Home. Don’t get the idea though that this at all dottery  Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are feisty characters and what of course we should know but too easily forget have full lives of intrigue and wisdom and skill. 

Starting out as a wee club these guys find themselves, beyond their wildest dreams in some ways, up the their neck in not one but two murders in their very own neighbourhood and loads of historical secrets get turned over as they help and outwit the local police in the investigation. 

Osman does a lot for the rights of our societal elders. He highlights what they have on us - memories, experience, life. Under the smooth top layer of this yarn we have regrets, broken dreams, life long love, heartache and need for confession.

You would need to be a literary snob to read this and not be looking forward to the follow up, slated for later in 2021. So enjoyable. 


KERRI NÍ DOCHARTAIGH - THIN PLACES

Thin Places

Kerri ní Dochartaigh memoir Thin Places is the first book that I ever bought twice. I don’t Kindle much these days. I need the tactile feel of a book and pages easily turned back as well as forward. I Kindled Thin Places but it was so good that I had to have the book! I never read books twice. There isn’t the time but Thin Places is different. 

I was utterly captivated by the the first paragraphs of the prologue, where her soul is environmentally heightened to the wonder of a moth as she walks the edges of the Inishowen Peninsula where the wild Atlantic meets Lough Foyle. The scene is beautiful, as are the prose. This is gorgeously written.

Though this sharp awareness of environment continues throughout do not think for one moment that Thin Places is a light and pretty read. As well as the beautiful terrain of the north west and later the middle of Ireland, and other places scattered across Scotland and England, Kerri ní Dochartaigh is writing about the inner terrain of trauma and the Troubles. 

Thin Places is equally haunting as it is captivating. It is as harrowing a read in equal measure to the beautiful. Kerri experienced being burned out of one Derry/Doire/Londonderry housing estates because she wasn’t the right religion and then having to leave the other for the same reasons. She was from a mixed marriage! A late teens idyllic space in Ballykelly is cut short by the murder of her boyfriend.

Thin Places is the long scarred and scared story of how Kerri ran away from these events. It is a story of a lost soul who somehow eventually finds redemption. She returns to eyeball the festering trauma and finds herself in an Ireland whose peace project has been thrown again by Brexit. Kerri struggles but seeks out Thin Places of spaces and creation and her new love for the Irish language and eventually romantic love that helps her find her self. 

Thin Places is no tome but it has so much going on that it is difficult to do it justice. It is a deep soul trawler eeking out life wisdom from the darkness and whatever flickers of light.  Like Colum McCann’s Apeirogon there’s a lot of threads weaving the brilliance.

The Twelfth chapter of the book is entitled Hollowing, Hallowing. For me these two words are the crux of the entire piece. 

Kerri writes: “To hollow out is to remove the inside of something: to make an empty space in the middle of something else. Sometime there is space inside us but no matter how we want it, nothing grows there.”

And then: “When we hallow a place, we bless it and we make it holy. We sanctify and honour it; we consecrate and hold it as sacred. We keep its ways and we hold them close. We listen to the place and feel its reverberation in our bones.”

I am writing this review as I also write my Resurrection Sunday sermon. They are blending and blurring! Deep in the dark tomb on the side of a hill in Jerusalem all the badness lies. It needs hollowed out to bring the possibility of a new beginning. In the hallowed ground of resurrection where Jesus says “Mary” and Mary realises. The new life starts here.

In the various threads of Thin Places Kerri ní Dochartaigh touches on religion and at time the Christian faith. I think she would understand somehow my use of it on Easter Sunday. 

Now back to the Prologue…


JIM DEEDS: A LOOK OF LOVE

A Look Of Love

Jim Deeds has almost become 4 Corners Festival’s spiritual leader. Not only did he host our Night Prayers at the 2021 Festival but he often leads our Planning Group devotions. 

It was in these Planning Group devotions that I became aware of Jim’s love, knowledge and ability to open up the Gospels. In an attitude of silent prayer he would have us walking to Emmaus with Jesus, keeping us in the text and then bringing that text to the context of where we were as a festival and a city.

Jim is an artist. He is a fine singer and guitar player. He has published poetry. He is also a wood carver. Our house is adorned with his finely honed crosses. My girls wear a cross of his making around their necks.

I have always found artists to be a wonderful resource in the opening up the Biblical text. Artists look above, below and around the texts, throwing fascinating hues across them.

A Look Of Love is Jim’s fifth book and though there are some similarities to his previous four, particularly the poetry, this is a little different. 

What we get in these pages are something similar to what Jim does for us at the beginning of 4 Corners Festival planning meetings. They are not exactly commentaries on Biblical texts though they are all very heavily based on the text. 

Jim takes the familiar stories and then brings us into the text from a unique angle. It is to a certain degree fictional BUT never leaves the meaning of the original passage. As well as a deep passion for Jesus and his love, Jim is a man of the Holy Spirit and seems to me to be a conduit of the Spirit as he brings to life lessons within the texts.

So as I have used A Look Of Love to help me into Jesus’s stories I have been intrigued by Mary’s story of the cross, the Samaritan women’s memory, a post parable discussion about The Prodigal Son and two friends arguing over Zacchaeus. The biggest challenge of all is the chatter about how literally to take Jesus teaching about storing up treasure in Luke 12.

There is a theme running through - Jesus’ look of love. The posture of Jesus grace overwhelms these pages, the stories and poems. A Look Of Love is Jim Deeds opening up The Good News in imaginative ways. He does it so well.