What I read in my summer holidays

This week thousands of schoolchildren are starting a new year armed with summer projects about what they did in their holidays. Not wanting to be left out, I thought I would share my holiday reading! I hope one or more of these will tickle your fancy.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years before I finally picked it up. Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize with it a few years ago, and it’s a compelling read – I read it in one sitting. It’s the story of a man in his 60s who has his steady, comfortable life thrown upside down by a revelation about an event from his 20s. I found myself thinking about how we construct our own past and the stories we tell about ourselves. How much of our own thinking would be open to question if new facts emerged? What and whom have I left behind from my past? A really interesting and provocative book, which ties up its various mysteries very quickly – I had to re-read the last few pages several times to understand the conclusion.

Dethroning Mammon by Justin Welby
How does someone as busy as the Archbishop of Canterbury find time to write a book? Putting that question aside, I am grateful for his 2017 Lent book on money. We are blessed with an Archbishop who is an excellent communicator and who handles the Bible well. He encourages his readers to think of money as a person – he dubs it Mammon – and challenges us to work through the ways it can become an idol for Christians. It’s another short book but a very helpful one – well worth engaging with prayerfully during a period such as Lent (but you don’t need to wait until then).

A New Day by Emma Scrivener
The subtitle of this excellent book is Moving on from hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair. Emma Scrivener is a vicar’s wife and a survivor of anorexia, who describes her fight against the disease in her unforgettable first book A New Name. A New Day is partly an account of her next steps, but more importantly it provides a toolkit for thinking through all sorts of mental illnesses from eating disorders to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and addiction. It’s a brilliant resource to dip into and it will stay on my bookshelf ready for when I need it – not a time I am looking forward to. It’s vital that anyone with an interest in pastoral work thinks through issues of mental health, and particularly conditions with which you are less familiar. There is very little Christian literature about eating disorders; Emma Scrivener is blazing a very important trail here. I should declare an interest: I went to theological college with Emma and her husband Greg.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
I read Kingsolver’s brilliant novel Flight Behaviour earlier this year, having read her bestseller The Poisonwood Bible several years ago. Pigs in Heaven dates back to the early 1990s but the writing is as luminous and distinctive as both the others. Like a lot of good fiction, it introduces a subject I would never have thought about: what happens when a Native American child is adopted by a white mother. The USA has laws designed to protect Native American tribal identity and culture, and to prevent irregular adoptions outside the tribes. Through the eyes of single mum Taylor and her daughter Turtle unfolds a story which becomes part road trip, part intergenerational family saga, with a little Thelma and Louise thrown in. If you’ve never read any Barbara Kingsolver, you definitely should.

The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine
Ruth Rendell’s alias Barbara Vine is always worth a read. This book tackles the early-20th-century taboos around childbirth outside wedlock and homosexuality. It exposes a world where choices were very limited and the negative social and legal consequences of your decisions could last your whole life. Vine constructs a story within a story; her present-day framing narrative is less satisfying than the ‘lost’ novel at the centre. The thing that has stayed with me is the grubbiness and fear connected to being an outsider between the wars, whether you had become pregnant without being married or you were gay. She also paints a picture of a woman who grows bitter through the choices she has made; again this made me think about the stories we tell about ourselves and how we can become victims of a negative narrative of our own making.

 

Mark Wallace, 03/09/2018