BOOK REVIEWS

MARILYNNE ROBINSON - GILEAD

Gilead

Since I discovered Gilead in the summer of 2009 its writer Marilynne Robinson seems to have been everywhere. That even includes Fitzroy where I got to greet welcome her to the book launch of my predecessor Rev Dr Ken Newell’s memoir Captured By A Vision.

Friends have published Doctorates, Masters thesis and other academic papers on her writing. She has become a strong voice in the public conversation of today’s fragmented and fractious America. She is intelligent and articulate. Even more exciting is that at the core of all she thinks, says and more importantly writes is a theological core.

Some might think that the story of a dynasty of minsters might fit too obviously into my reading schedule but quite the reverse.  I try to avoid anything that smacks of my job for my holiday reading. It is a holiday! 

For me to read about ministers in our Ballycastle hideaway, the writing would need to be something special!  Well Marilynne Robinson is something special.  When Bryan Appleyard’s back cover endorsement calls her “one of the greatest living novelists” he is not exaggerating. Pulitzer and Orange prizes (for Gilead and the follow up Home respectively) back up his assessment.  

Robinson writes with poetic prose that captures stunning images and with deep insight into the intricacies of the human psyche. More than that she goes to deep soul and asks her questions of love, forgiveness, loyalty, sin and redemption from a specifically Christian context, leaning at times on the Calvinistic; portraying all of that in its better hues!

The book is written in the form of a very, very long letter from an ageing minister to a very young son of a second late marriage, to a much younger woman, but ends up as the journaling of a tough relationship between the narrator Rev James Ames and Jack Boughton his best mate another minister’s son.  

In the midst of his wider life story and this more specific scenario you get a liberal sprinkling of spiritual nuggets that reveals that theological interest that I mentioned earlier.

At one point she writes, through old Rev. Ames, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”  It is the attention that Robinson gives that planet that brings a new vitality, indeed transcendence to things that become too familiar, losing their sacredness. Robinson’s intrigue and fascination with the human being is obvious in everything she does

For me work did sneak in. Gilead elevated the familiar in our church liturgy and sacraments. She described baptism as “sacredness under my hand”. There's the preciousness of the human being again. 

Even more, the benediction. For too long that had become like the credits scrolling at the end of a movie. You didn’t even need to stay until the end. Many new churches have jettisoned it as a result. Ms Robinson gives it back all of its potency - “it was an honour to bless him.”  That privilege of blessing each other has become a vital part of our Sunday in Fitzroy. 

In the end the words, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see,” sum it up.  Gilead refocused my eyes and strengthened the ardour of my willingness. It was a joy to read and its benefits go on.


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... JEANINE CUMMINS' NOVEL AMERICAN DIRT

American Dirt

American Dirt is the most gripping read that you could ever imagine. From the first chapter where our main characters Lydia and Luca cower in a bathroom while their sixteen closes family members get brutally mowed down by gun fire in their yard we are on a danger filled drama for 450 pages that is not easy to put down. 

Lydia’s husband Sebastian was a journalist who exposed Javier a king pin in a drug cartel. Lydia and Luca immediately go on the run feeling that Javier’s cartel can track them down at any stage.

We therefore find ourselves in the shoes of a middle class woman and son who are not the kind of people we consider as migrants. Cummins is attempting to put middle class judgemental America into this migrant tale. We follow them through road blocks and after the meet two Honduran teenagers, also on the run from the rape of drug cartels, we travel with them on the notorious La Bestia, the train that migrants ride on the roof of in their dream to escape.

Cummins is a great writer and has the ability to write this fast moving drama and then scatter it with these tender and angry paragraphs of emotions. Her father died just as she started writing and grief runs through it. Hope is also found in some scarily broken places. She has also a poetic flair for setting the geographical scenes.

What I love as much as the surprise of being able to see our middle class selves in a migrants life is how she humanises the bad guys. Javier is a friend of hers, whom she really likes, before she discovers he is the brutal menacing leader of a drug cartel who threatens her life. She empathetically grieves with him at one stage in the book. 

Then there is what I am looking for in any art. Light from all quarters as the reformed theologians call it. The Gospel According To… as I have called it. American Dirt has lots of the spiritual. There is plenty of praying going on throughout. It seems to most of these migrants and those who take care of them, many of them in religious groups, as familiar as breathing.

Then there are my three top soul insights.

The first one is when Lydia and Luca seek refuge from an old friend of Lydia’s husband Carlos. Along with his wife Meredith he is now involved in an independent evangelical Church. 

When they find Carlos in that church, their dilemma is that the the next part of the journey through Mexico will be swarming with drug cartels. They will be blocking all the roads making Lydia and Luca very vulnerable to Javier’s drug buddies who she knows are after them. 

Carlos believes he has a way through. There is a Mission Team from Indiana at the church. On their way back to their flight home in Mexico City Carlos plans that they smuggle Lydia and Luca through the roadblocks in their minibus. 

Meredith is aghast. How can he think of putting the lives of this Mission Team in jeopardy? It would be too dangerous. Carlos’s question is a cutting one for those of us who, like I do every year, go on Mission Trips to LEDC (Less Economically Developed Countries):

 

“They just want to make pancakes and take selfies with skinny brown kids.”

 

Wow! There has been a lot of consideration in Christian Mission over the last 20 years about such mission teams. It has produced books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts. Jeanine Cummins’ provocation here needs thought about.

Later in the book Lydia and Luca, by this time accompanied by the Honduran teenagers Soledad and Rebeca, come across another follower of Jesus who was not about the pancakes or selfies. 

They have climbed back off La Bestia train and are trying to get into a nearby town. A car pulls up and the man says he is a doctor and has a clinic. Lydia is by this stage ultra suspicious and is not sure whether to trust the man. Eventually Soledad who is least trusting of all asks:

 

“And why do you want to help us anyway?

The man touches the gold crucifix around his neck. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’

Lydia automatically blesses herself. ‘A stranger and you welcomed me’. She completes the Scripture, passing the water to Rebeca…

 

I loved this. The hairs on the back of my soul stood up. The authentic positives of following Jesus recognised in a modern novel. I am not sure where Jeanine’s Biblical worldview comes from but I wonder was this a genuine line that she heard while she researched the book among those from churches helping Migrants on the border.

There is one other insightful in the book that tugged at me.  They are about to meet the coyote that will see them safe across the border and through the dangerous desert to Tuscon. Lydia is worrying about the coyote’s trustworthiness, Giving him all her money. Once the money is handed over what incentives will he have left? Will he just leave them for dead? What choice does she have?

 

“So, Lydia is worried about all these things, and yet, she has a new understanding about the futility of worry. The worst will either happen or not happen, and there’s no worry that will make a difference in either direction.”

 

I was immediately hearing Jesus trying to share this in the Sermon on the Mount, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

I was also acutely aware that all the things I worry about, even in trying to navigate the borderland desert of a pandemic, are minor worries compared to what the majority of the rest of the world have to deal with… and seem to deal with with dignity, more trust and less fuss than those of us who are spoiled and feel entitled.

Which bring me back to what Cummins set out to do. She not only puts us middle class entitled on the La Bestia journey in Mexico to see the migrant crisis from a very different perspective but she reflects it back on us and the lives we live in our comfortable world, to see that in a different perspective too. 

It’s brilliant!


COLUM MCCANN - APEIROGON

Apeirogon

The crucial quotation in Colum McCann’s Booker Prize nominated Apeirogon is actually from Rumi - “Out beyond the ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there”.

In many ways that is what McCann does in this novel that is very much based on true stories but given fictional tweaks to bring it more alive. What he wants to bring alive are the feelings in the heart beyond the right and wrong. This is a novel made up of personal stories and though it is impossible to not brush up against the politics, it is not about the rights and wrongs of the Israeli/Palestine conflict.

It is about the hurt and the loss of young lives. It is about fathers who have to come to terms with that. It is about two men who forge their grief into a weapon for peace making. 

Two fathers, one Palestinian, Bassam Aramin and the other Israeli, Rami Elhanan find each other. 

Bassam’s ten year old daughter Abir is killed by a rubber bullet outside school, having just bought some sweets, “the lost expensive sweets in the world”. Rami’s fourteen year old daughter Smadar is blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber shopping for the new school year, wearing a Blondie t-shirt and listening to Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares To You in her headphones. 

The book is about these four people. McCann brings Abir and Smadar alive. It is an amazing tribute to two girls who could easily have been just more statistics. Which of course is the point. The human suffering. The futile loss.

Even more so Bassam and Rami. These are ordinary men who’s accident of birth threw them into having to live through dehumanisation, injustice, inequality and deep deep pain of the heart. Yet, Bassam is a Palestinian who studies the holocaust. Rami is an Israeli who is against Israeli occupation. They now spend their lives telling their stories in schools, monasteries and to international groups. The hope is that the telling and listening to stories changes things. “Language was the sharpest weapon” They live and hope to lead others to Rumi’s field beyond right and wrong.

Rami and Bassam

I am reading another book on Palestine called The Other Side of The Wall by a Palestinian Presbyterian minister from Bethlehem called Munther Isaac  who in an early section explains how this piece of middle eastern land has been used as a battle ground for almost every Empires and nation of the world for centuries. It might seem a parochial story but in fact we are almost all complicit. It effects us all. 

This is what Colum McCann’s genius conjures. The story of two men and their young murdered daughters almost detonates outwards and he shows us our complicity. Birds migrating through the middle east to side references to philosophers, psychologist, weapons designers and peace makers amongst so many others are woven into 10001 little chapters, based on 1001 Arabian Nights that Rami used to read Smadar before bed. It is a book of such a width and depth of ambition that only McCann at his best could conjure it.

Of course as I read I am thinking Belfast. Northern Ireland. McCann talks about this weird side taking where loyalists fly the Israeli flag and Republicans the Palestinian one. Bassam even gets to Belfast for a Conference, while studying in Bradford, and goes for an evening walk ending up in the Holylands of South Belfast where my Fitzroy congregation is located (I wonder if this bit is fact or fiction… I hope against hope). 

For me the power of the telling of a story and then equally importantly  listening to another’s story is the key. There were lines that resonated with me for the work I do on the edges of peace making in Northern Ireland:

 

“In Palestine we say ignorance is a terrible acquaintance. We have no idea what the other is like. That where the madness lies”

“The lives poisoned with narrowness.What it might mean to understand the history of another.”

“My enemy was that: my enemy. He could have no pain. He could have no feelings.”

“He no longer wanted to fight. The greatest jihad, he said, was the ability to talk.”

“The hero makes a friend of his enemy.“

“… it’s a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy any more, he just can’t be.”

“…anything which creates emotional ties between human beings inevitably counteracts war.”

 

Emotions. Feelings. They are so important. They are more important than right and wrong or flags or borders or walls or all the things that caused the horrible unjust deaths of Abir and Smadar and the grief their parents have gone through ever since. They take you to Rumi’s field, a field that I would call  the Kingdom Of God.

The first time Colum McCann heard Bassam and Rami he was moved emotionally. Deeply. The brilliance of Apeirogon is how he makes you feel as you read their stories. As the meaning of the title, he has given the infinite sides of Israel/Palestine, the world beyond and our own hearts, souls and minds. 

It is an astonishing book. I am not an avid reader outside of holiday times. As a result I never feel that I have the decadent joy to read a book twice. There are too many others on the shelf waiting. Apeirogon though is different. I am going to go through it again his autumn and winter. Slowly. Meditatively. Like a secular devotion alongs side my spiritual ones. 


DAVID MITCHELL - UTOPIA AVENUE

Utopia Avenue

Twenty years ago I had an idea of a novel set in the heady days of 1967 to 1969 about a young songwriter who made it to the cover of Rolling Stone and then retired from rock music. The wy would be the essence of the book. Roisin Ingle even suggested that it was an intriguing idea when she reviewed my book Walk On in the Weekend Arts Supplement (peak of my writing career!)

I set it at that late 60s time for a few reasons (some I will keep to myself in case someday…) but one of them was that he would interact with my favourite artists of the day. 

A chapter that I did write a draft of had my rock star on the beach at Ballycastle with Paul McCartney and the Beatle asking him what that piece of land was across the sea - the Mull of Kintyre! I had imagined another scene where he would drive through the Glens of Antrim with Joni Mitchell. Imagine Joni in Murlough Bay!

David Mitchell does this very thing in his eighth novel Utopia Avenue and he does it so very well. Oh they don’t come to County Antrim but are instead located in London, the Bag O Nails and Soho clubs and The Troubadour and Laurel Canyon in LA and the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

It would be hard to avoid the famous in those locations between 1967 and 1968. My favourite meeting is in the Chelsea Hotel where the keyboardist and singer and songwriter Elf gets in a lift with Leonard Cohen and doesn’t recognise him or his charm! The roof top party later in the night with Janis Joplin and a teenage Jackson Browne is a treat! 

Mitchell’s 60s setting is of course a fascinating time. 1967 and the flower power All You Need is Love generation think they are literally on Utopia Avenue and then 1968 sees riots on the streets, Martin Luther King’s assassination and drugs taking hold. David Bowie can’t seem to get a hit record! It is the summit of hope before the avalanche.

So, to the fiction. Canadian music mogul Levon contrives to create a band for the times. They start gigging and writing and recording and begin to happen. We travel with the band, not only in their tour van but in their personal journeys. They have personal tragedy, broken relationships and mental health issues. There are drugs too. We negotiate the psychedelic mid 60s terrain with them, wishing them to the top. 

Mitchell resists the meteoric rise story and as a result he makes rock musicians more ordinary than the iconic celebratory environment we often find them, both his fictional ones and the actual ones. Will they make it to the top is never guaranteed and I won’t be telling you here. It intrigues throughout. 

I particularly loved bumping into Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne be it ever so fleetingly in the pages of a novel.

It is worrying that most of my year I read rock biographies and that this summer when I read novels I have included Utopia Avenue and Daisy Jones & The Six, two fictional rock biographies! Open yourself up a little Stockman!

Anyway, it was difficult not to compare and contrast. Of course David Mitchell is a lauded literary figure of our times and Utopian Avenue is a Booker Prize nomination and Taylor Jenkins Reid is a poppier novelist. Daisy Jones & The Six has a summer cover saying read me as a beach book.

However, though I will agree that Mitchell is an important writer and I loved Utopian Avenue, Daisy & the Six were more believable as an actual band than Utopia Avenue. Mitchell characters were more developed and the 60s scene much better set than Taylor’s 70s but I can actually imagine hearing the Daisy & The Six album and I am not hearing what Utopia Avenue actually sound like. I might prefer an Elf Holloway solo record!

In the end I am so glad I read both. I have learned that Mitchell seems to like a little time travel and a little fantasy throw into the realism of his novels and some of poltergeisty mumbo jumbo was a little much for me. I also found a couple of major moments a little predictable. 

Overall though it needs to be declared that Mitchell is good. I did love the band members, wanted them to succeed in music and flourish in life. The characters are a whole lot more memorable to me than Daisy Jones & The Six. 

The time period is fascinating too. The summit of hope of 67 and the avalanche in 68. The music around Utopia Avenue is iconic. Mitchell brings the era alive. 

I would get back to writing my own, though Utopia Avenue will now always have it looking a little bit shoddy!


DAISY JONES & THE SIX - TAYLOR JENKINS REID

Daisy Jones

I remember watching Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac at the Odyssey in Belfast back in 2003. Lovers in the early 70s we all basked in the wonder of their break up drama in the songs of Rumours. That was over a quarter of a century before that December night in Belfast but there still seemed some sexual tensions going on as they skirted and flirted one another. The eye contact was a documentary all itself. 

What is going on, I surmised? What was Buckingham’s wife thinking as she watched this night after night, I wondered?

Daisy Jones and the Six is a book caught up in the sexual tension of two people who front a band with one of them happily married. I wouldn’t have needed to have watched interviews with author Taylor Jenkins Reid (though I did!) to know that this was based on Rumours making Fleetwood Mac. 

Early on I was seeing Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt, perhaps Joni Mitchell and The Eagles but once the band start recording their iconic Aurora record I thought I was reading another angle on wonderful book The Making Of Rumours by Ken Caillatt with Steven Steifel.

It does make for a fascinated read. Much poppier in its writing than David Mitchell’s more literary rock band book Utopia Avenue which means it never has to compete. How I have enjoyed both!

Taylor Jenkins Reid (a name like that and you have to write novels) throws all kinds of fascinating nuances into this mean story line. There was more drama to Fleetwood Mac than Nicks and Buckingham!!

The female characters are fascinating all showing strength in different ways. That the whole darn community of the book seem held together by the story arcing stay at home mum never suggests that that is a woman’s place but none-the-less gives power to such a choice. 

I love that every single character has their strengths and their flaws revealed. A confession of our weakness is a strength to over coming our chinks. Leonard Cohen right again, “there is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in”. 

There is that the tension going on too. Temptation, fame, wealth and what is real human fulfilment and that rarest of successes - peace of mind.

As you read though you want to hear the songs, see the cover and the tour bus, How would this all actually sound and look. Well, Reese Witherspoon is making it into a TV series so it will come even more alive than it does in the book.

I have been looking at Daisy Jones & The Six on the shop shelf for some months and so finally opening it, I so wanted to like it. Like it I did! It is a page turner speedy summer staycation ride.

 


THE LIFE & MUSIC OF RANDY NEWMAN - DAVID & CAROLINE STAFFORD

Newman book

Randy Newman is a prickly character. I have never been a massive fan. Deacon Blue covering Sail Away though and Nina Simone’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today told me that there was songwriting brilliance there and that I needed to excavate. The Songs Of Randy Newman where he redid 3 volumes of his catalogue with just him and the piano showed me why he is held in esteem but left my subjective jury still out.

Reading The Life & Music of Randy Newman gave me a real opportunity for evidence to demand a verdict. At a Scripture Camp in Avoca in 2010 Sam Cromie articulated the best way to read rock biographies. He was reading one about Tm Waits and as he put it, “the best way is to listen to albums as you read about them”. Exactly how I like to do it I thought.

That is not always possible. The recent Elton John memoir Me that I love every much didn’t spend enough page son the accrual records. David & Caroline Stafford on the other hand almost write for Sam and I. I do not always like their style or humour but they are very strong in their running through of every song on every record. That’s the kind of music biography I like!

So… do I like Randy any more? Well, as the book began I was very uncertain. There is something about Newman’s acerbic style that makes you think that he was the boy in school who would cut you down in front of others. You do wonder how his sarcasm, syncs and irony ever sold any records in an America not renowned for such humour.

Then of course that cynicism attacks that which is most precious to me - faith. God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) is particularly skewed theology for me. Yet, as the pages turned I came to appreciate that he was keeping God and faith in the conversation. I wasn’t so sure that he was so much against God as unsure. 

Then of course there is his social and political comment about racism that I came to love. Even Short People when he took that irony to the very edge makes a statement that is as relevant of not more so in a post George Floyd time as it was the he wrote it. Sail Away

I was particularly drawn to the albums that somehow I missed in the 80s. How did I not get Trouble In Paradise or Land Of Dream that had Mark Knopfler on it. His critique of unaccountable American capitalism is right on the money (I had it typed before I saw the pun!)

It took an entire biography, maybe an entire career but I now get the seeming curmudgeon who writes for Disney! His critique of unaccountable American capitalism is right on the money. I am a fan. At last! Thank you David and Caroline!


WHAT I AM READING THIS SUMMER AND WHY?

Summer Books 20

Here are the books I have stashed for holiday reading... I hope to read as many of thee as I can get through... 

 

COLUM MCCANN - APEIROGON

I think it was Bono who said that the Irish don’t go to the moon but we are great writers. Colum McCann is another great Irish writer. I would suggest one of the best novelists alive today.

Hs new book will be my project of the summer reading. I mean by that, that it will be the biggest challenge and deepest read. 

McCann has taken the stories of two men, one Palestinian and one Israeli and told their stories. Actually he has told the stories of their murdered daughters through them. There are true stories but McCann has embellished the stories with some fiction in order to tell share the feelings of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict rather than just the facts and politics. 

Grieving the loss of daughters is a part of the book too and as I have friends who recently lost their precious daughter I am interested in that aspect.

I don’t read work books on holiday but this perhaps will be a little work as I think it will fire my imagination about our own conflict here in Northern Ireland and how I attempt to contribute to the reconciliation we need.

 

TAYLOR JENKINS REID - DAISY JONES & THE SIX

I have wanted to read this one for a while. I don’t expect this one to be the project that Apeirogon will be. I am imagining an enjoyable romp through 70s rock music. More like a light fun summer read. I think.

 

GLENN PATTERSON - WHERE ARE WE NOW

Glenn Patterson knows Belfast so well and also what it is like to be my age. I have enjoyed all his novels which have given insight to various historical scenarios in belfast but this one is contemporary which excited me.

 

DAVID & CAROLINE STAFFORD - THE LIFE & MUSIC OF RANDY NEWMAN

I have already started this one. I have blogged before about how I use rock biographies as a way to escape from work. A friend taught me how to do this. Read the book with the records by your side. This one is perfect for that. Detailed accounts of every song and album.

 

DAVID PARK - A RUN IN THE PARK

I have read most of David Park’s work. I think he might be Northern Ireland best novelist just now. This is a shorter read but I am sure it will be a fascinating mingling of characters. 

 

WENDY ERSKINE - SWEET HOME

I have heard rave reviews of these short stories set in Belfast. I think Jan Carson has been championing Wendy for a while. My love Northern Irish novelists tells with three in this selection by them and one from Colum McCann from Dublin. 

 

KENNETH WOMACK - SOLID STATE

I have read most books about The Beatles and this one is about my very favourite album, Abbey Road. A must read between a couple of novels.


BRONAGH LAWSON - BELFAST: CITY OF LIGHT

Bronagh City Of Lights

Bronagh Lawson’s book Belfast; City Of Lights captivated me. Bronagh is first and foremost an artist. I love the way artists think. They see around the corner, over the top, underneath. They have fanciful thoughts that leave you wondering. 

In the book Bronagh writes, “The artist has a unique role to disrupt thinking and make space for something other”. She shares how getting out of her work on development programmes across Belfast frontlines and into an artist’s studio on her own gave her a new opportunity to figure out “a fresh way of depicting the peculiarity that is Northern Ireland”. 

That is what she has done. This is not the work of a writer as much as an artist. It needs to be read as that. It is an intrigue. It is mysterious. It is at times whimsical. Yet it is plugged into the issues of the Belfast day. 

The very idea of visiting every church in Belfast. Add to that that she struggled even hearing the word “God” when she started out. Why would she put herself through it? Then to discover that for Bronagh these churches became healing places. Places of love, forgiveness and light. You can understand my intrigue!

As well as the objective task of visiting churches Bronagh catalogues her own subjective journey from her work in trauma and reconciliation to a spiritual healing and liberation. That liberation is far from orthodox. Few sermons are quoted and Jesus doesn’t get too many mentions. 

It is the feeling that Bronagh experiences from the energy of Christian community, their worship and the years of spiritual discipline in the lives of those in the pew beside or in front or behind her. It is very much the Gospel According To Bronagh Lawson. I can hear so many of my peers critiquing, questioning and putting Bronagh right… but I don’t think that is the point of the book, not the posture Bronagh brings to it and certainly not the way to get the most from it.

The way Bronagh’s revelation happens in her church visits fascinated me. Occasionally, I was in the very same room at the same time that she describes and her feelings were almost the polar opposite of mine. Though that leads me to suggest that Bronagh is more than a little ecclesiologically and theologically innocent and naive it also has me searching my own soul to be convicted at my own tainting with preconceptions and prejudices. Though she is unaware of the layers of church history and creed I am too hung up on them to benefit as I should?

Bronagh raises many issues inside and outside the walls of churches. Issues that have rippled out into my surmising. Many might find their way onto this blog. That we need to update our sectarianism is maybe the first I will write! Bronagh's approach certainly blurs the traditional lines between Catholic and Protestant. 

In the end the book is a wonderful advertisement for church. Bronagh basically challenges all her anti-church peers with the suggestion that Belfast is a city full of light in churches that could be used as a resource to counteract all the darkness we have experienced and still live through. Her own testimony is that you don’t even have to get “converted” to benefit! Just go, sit and revel in the light that emanates from people of faith. 

It is also a challenge… and should be an inspiration… for those of us within the church. It is fascinating to see how a visitor sees us and indeed what they might be looking for… and see… and feel. There are tips here we could pick up on. 

If we come to the book with the same open mindedness that Bronagh comes to our churches then there is much here to ponder and surmise. When Bronagh told one minister, as she she shook her hand at the door, what she was doing the minister thanked her. So do I. This will be resource for me. I will caress and collide with Bronagh’s findings in as helpful a way as I can and maybe look at the visitor a little differently at a Sunday service!


MIKEL JOLLETT - HOLLYWOOD PARK (and the accompanying album by THE AIRBORNE TOXIC EVENT)

Hollywood Park

This is an astonishing memoir by an astonishingly gifted writer who has lived an astonishing life. 

Mikel Jollett. Taken from his parents in the Californian Synanon Cult and raised pretty much as an orphan, escaping with his mentally unstable mother, living with her alcoholic step fathers, childhood poverty that meant raising and killing rabbits for food, finding love and worth from his father a former alcoholic and prisoner, discovering education and graduating from Stanford, becoming a journalist and interviewing his heroes David Bowie and Robert Smith before finally becoming the frontman with acclaimed indie band The Airborne Toxic Event.

Around that story Jollett writes about his inner being, the pain, the void and the masks he had to wear. It is a mature human being self critiquing, being honest with his numbness and inability to love.

Jollett also seems intent in writing a near tribute to his father, a man who grew up with flaws but who gave him encouragement and love. There is almost a sense that the two men grew psychologically together. His dad’s loss at the end of the book is as heavy on Jollett as the orphan ways of the cult he grew up in. 

All of this is written in the most lyrical of ways. Words and music has been the key to Jollett’s redemption, discovering books, then his ability to write, his job as a rock journalist to his desire to write a novel but ending up writing songs. He is gifted with words. 

His ability to set you into houses and onto street and into classrooms onto beaches. His memory is so vivid and his genius at finding images and words. He writes in the voice of a child, then an adolescent, then a man. 

As I glance across a book that you can tell that I loved I am drawn to passages where he expresses grief, mental illness, emptiness inside as well as the elation of winning mile races, writing songs and the euphoria of being on a stage and relating to a crowd that understands.

It is a book that looks deep into the brokenness of humanity and journeys with a human being who has traversed the worst of that brokenness and found at least some repair in the love and purpose of his life in his mid 40s. 

Hollywood Park is an achievement as a memoir as is the life it catalogues. Jollett is a fresh talent in the world of books. He has of course been an acclaimed songwriter for a decade and there is a record to go with the book. 

The Airborne Toxic Event are west coast indie working in the discipline of melancholy with edgy guitars, noisy feedback, Springsteen-esque passion and beguiling hooks. Jollett commands it all with a strong voice and lyrics that lace the feelings that the music evokes. The accompanying record Hollywood Park might be the band’s most fulfilled work to date. It will be up there on Album of the Year lists. 

Did I say astonishing.


DYLAN JONES - THE WITCHITA LINEMAN

Witchita Lineman

An entire book on one single song. I was suspicious. I am, however, a Jimmy Webb fan and this is a Jimmy Webb song. Not my favourite. That has always been By The Time I Get To Phoenix but it was worth a try.

And it was worth the try. Oh, I did spin d too many pages in the Oklahoma panhandle gazing down long long straight roads with telegraph poles the only thing above flat but Jones fills a book well and not much of it was wasted.

There were biographies of both Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell and a real sense of the American music moment that Witchita Lineman arrived in. The stars. The session players. The inustry. Los Angeles. Campbell’s guitar prowess as well as his vocal abilities are well documented. How many songs did that man play on? I hadn’t realised that he was a bigger feeling act than The Beatles in 1968.

The Jimmy Webb stuff is obviously my favourite and Jones’ time with Webb in a Sea Food restaurant on Long Island is wonderful stuff, giving clues to the writing of this song and others as well as his relationship with Glen Campbell and much more. I found this more insightful even than Webb’s own book A Cake In The Rain.

Of course most of all there is the song. Oh my does Dylan Jones make you fall in love with that song. It wasn’t really finished but that made it. It’s lonesomeness. The spaciousness. The morse code coda. And that amazing refrain: “And I need you more than want you and I want you for all time.”

Now, I was not not a fan of The Wichita Lineman but having spent three weeks reading about it and singing that refrain over and over. How did I miss its wonder? 

Most of all, I couldn’t help but remember a journey across Colorado and Kansas in 1993. We had been driving in the Rockies and the desert. Fascinating scenery. When me and my mates, Dave and Dave, were leaving Denver we were told to prepare for boredom. We thought that driving through the flatness of the prairies would be another fascinating scene.

After six hours on a straight highway, a few miles per hour above the speed limit, on cruise control and me and the two Dave’s were bored out of our heads, seeking solace in Shawn Colvin’s new record of the time Fat City. We saw those telegraph wires. Why oh why were we not on to the The Wichita Lineman. It would have been perfect. The song almost is.