The Reader on the 6.27

The Reader on the 6.27
The Reader on the 6.27
by Jean Paul Didierlaurent

Available at Amazon

Each morning, on the 6.27 train,  Guylain Vignolles reads aloud rescued fragments extracted from standard paperbacks with ‘passionate dedication’:

‘The tree oozed a thick resin through the gashes streaking its trunk, fat tears of sap that beaded on the surface of the bark and then seeped slowly downwards.’

Starting work reluctantly at 7.00am, Guylain ironically operates The Zerstor Funfhundert, a greyish green metal beast (loathingly named ‘The Thing’) which ‘crushes, flattens, pounds, squishes, tears, chops, lacerates, shreds, mixes, kneads and boils’…books.  All day long.  It is the leftovers that Guylain reads to his fellow commuters both to their delight and their indignation.

One day, he discovers a mislaid memory stick and Julie ‘bursts’ into his life through the pages of her diary.

Eventually, through sheer determination and the detective work of his legless friend Guiseppi, the two are movingly united.  The book is a simple, delightful, romance which, according to the Sunday Times, ‘champions the power of literature.’

It is worth reading because it is hugely enjoyable but there are subtleties that make it more than just a bestselling French novel.

Jean Paul Didierlaurent draws some distinctive and vivid characters.

Lucien Brunner, Guylain’s ‘chuntering’ colleague is an ‘idiot beyond redemption’, ‘a serpent of the worst kind, a cobra ready to strike at the tiniest blunder.’  Delighting in the destruction of the written word, he is described as an ‘executioner’.  Guylain hates him.  Their boss, Felix Kowalski, is ‘a little god keeping watch over his dominion’ another whose verbal capacities extend only to torrents of abuse.  ‘He barked, yelled, bellowed, cursed and roared but he had never been able to talk in a normal voice.’  Yvon Grimbert, by contrast, is an alexandrine loving soul-mate whose food is literature and black tea drunk by the thermos full.

Guiseppi Carminetti, Guylain’s predecessor, lost his legs to the ‘Thing’ in a ‘shambolic incidence’ of ‘gross negligence’.  Guiseppi researches shopping malls in Paris to help Guylain to find Julie and Guylain visits Guiseppi weekly to help him with the housework and to aid him in his search for ‘Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days’, the published reincarnation of his lost limbs.

While the writer seems to have no particular religious interest, his language is nevertheless peppered with biblicisms.  References to Armageddon, hell, redemption, theology, snakes, beasts, high priests of the temple and cleansing liberally inhabit the prose.

Julie’s diary is beautifully descriptive and poignantly honest, but aspects of the translation grate.  References to ‘hissy fits’, ‘newbies’  and overuse of the words ‘exhumed’ and ‘exude’ make me wish I had a better grasp of written French.

Despite the love story which crowns this work being something you might find in a highly unlikely fairy story, the final chapter brought tears to my eyes.  The Reader on the 6.27 left me, like the commuters, with ‘the contented look of an infant that has drunk its fill of milk.’  Isn’t that the power of a good writing?

Advertisements

And So I Began To Read

And So I Began To Read
And So I Began to Read…
Books that have influenced me
by Faith Cook

Available from Ten Of Those

What are you reading at the moment?  Do you remember the title?  Can you name the author?  Occasionally, we speak about a book we are reading without being able to recall even these basic details.  Why is this?  Perhaps we read mostly for recreation while our minds ponder life’s banalities.  We all know what it is to read a whole page without having processed a single word.  Let’s be honest.  When we read like this, we know we are wasting our time.

Faith Cook is not one to waste her reading time.  Books have been a source of comfort, rebuke and delight to her since her childhood in China where reading matter was scarce and choice limited.  A missionary childhood taught her to prize books highly.  In her recently published book, And So I Began to Read, she shares with us some of the treasures that have most influenced her over the years and in so doing encourages the reader to reflect on his or her own reading experience and to pick up or dust off some forgotten titles.

One of the most interesting features of this short, readable and personal book (she is more commonly known for her work as a Christian biographer) is her account of her own spiritual relationship with reading.  In 1951, Christian missionaries were decisively thrown out of China following the Communist takeover of the country and Cook’s family moved to Malaysia sending their daughter to a boarding school in North Wales.  During these formative years of Christian growth she imbibed a legalism which forbade certain pastimes and stressed rules ‘to such an extent that even the reading of  a daily newspaper troubled [her] conscience.’  Shunning Dickens and novels altogether Cook describes how she learnt self-righteously to frown upon secular reading.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that all the works mentioned in this book are written by Christians and only one of the influential texts is a novel.

Starting in 1957 with her discovery of the work of Jonathan Edwards, Cook begins to walk and talk us through her library.

John Bunyan

“Cry to God that he would inflame thy will…with the things of the other world.” John Bunyan

On the topics of suffering and prayer Cook is nourished and comforted by Baxter, Bonar, Boston, Brooks, Bunyan, Spurgeon and Gurnall.  With a heart for those who may not want to tackle the dense wording of such writers, she helpfully suggests contemporary authors whose writing on similar themes may be more accessible to the modern reader.

Poetry, hymns and letters are also amongst the literature that sustained her over the years, Newton, Cowper and Samuel Rutherford being particular favourites.  These  ‘turned my thoughts away from my own troubles to the griefs and pain that the Saviour suffered for his people, putting my own in perspective.’    Through reading, Cook was self-medicating in her own suffering with the balm of others’ sanctified wisdom.  Books were to her ‘an unfailing source of strength and consolation’.  They accompany her like a reassuring and kindly guide as she journeys through the painful years of her husband’s reduced mental health and another move from Shepshed to Hull.

Reading presents the temptation of escapism but Cook assumes a responsible and structured approach to her reading time, aided by her husband’s rich supply of Puritan titles, in particular, Richard Baxter’s ‘The Saint’s Everlasting Rest’ which, ‘chimed with her own thinking at this time’.  As the Lord kindly provides reading matter for His pupil, she in turn diligently copies out long passages into a notebook, often memorising them by heart, embracing rather than running from the ‘quaint’ and ‘inaccessible’ language.  Her reading stirs a yearning for heaven and fires her desire to serve her Master in the ante chamber that is this life.  I wonder, does my reading do the same?

Cook describes movingly how the Lord often ministered to her ‘by means of a book’, especially in times of backsliding or luke warmth reminding us how tenderly ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep is well able to seek out any of his flock that are wandering in a wilderness.’

Samuel Rutherford

“Rutherford is beyond all praise of men.”  C.H.Spurgeon

The final section of the book describes how the author began to write.  Longing to share discovered gems with friends, she set about translating Samuel Rutherford’s seemingly impenetrable prose into more accessible rhyme, an endeavour which was enthusiastically received by the Banner of Truth Trust and launched her writing career.

Jesus tells us that we reap what we sow.  Faith Cook extends that principle to the world of reading inviting us to choose our next book wisely, with our gaze on eternity, aware that the time is short.  She teaches us, as Bunyan taught her, to see life as ‘a pilgrimage from this world of sin and suffering to the Celestial City.’  I am left asking myself whether my reading choices encourage or detract from this view.

 

A Mind for God – James Emery White

A Mind for God
A Mind for God
by James Emery White

Available at Amazon

You don’t have to be a scholar to be interested in the life of the mind.  In fact, if you’re a Christian, it’s important that you are.  According to the apostle Paul, the believer, whatever his calling, is to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’ (2 Cor 10:5).

Our mothers advised us to think before speaking.  Sometimes, we remember to do this but what about thinking Christianly before speaking?  According to Bertrand Russell, ‘Most Christians would rather die thank think; in fact they do.’ This is simply not true but it’s a challenge to the Bridget Joneses amongst us to pay heed not just to the murky areas of our thought life, but also to the muddled ones.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the need to think Christianly with legitimate fears of becoming puffed up with knowledge, it is also crucial to ask oneself, ‘Am I ensnared by the thinking of the current culture without even realising it?’  This is a particularly important question to ask if you:

  • watch TV
  • scroll through Facebook
  • tweet
  • read the news
  • know anybody who’s not a Christian.

I assume that is most of us.  Even if you are not someone who exposes himself regularly to the external influences of the day, we all know that the mind can play tricks on us, perhaps more than ever when we spend time alone.

If you are interested in reading more on the subject, at just over 100 pages, James Emery White’s little book is a great place to start.

The book is particularly appealing for two main reasons.

First, because it is short!  With only seven chapters and two useful appendices (recommended reading and resources) it can be read and absorbed in a few hours but stand you in good stead for many years when returning the ‘volleys against faith [that] come from every quarter and at every age’.

In his engaging and personal introduction, White cites Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in which he points out that lots of Christians consider humble ignorance a nobler quality than a cultivated mind.  If ‘homo sapiens’ means ‘thinking being’, then surely to be fully human is to think.

White then gently leads us through concepts like Moral Relativism (‘what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me’); Autonomous Individualism (‘our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority’); Narcissistic Hedonism (‘I, me, mine’ – the toddler in us all) and Reductive  Naturalism (‘life is accidental’).  Having done so, he invites us to ask ourselves whether we are actually harbouring any of these world-views without acknowledging it.

Secondly, the book motivates us to read books.  Describing our library as our ‘armoury’, he calls the reader to exercise his mind through reading as we exercise the body through going to the gym.  We don’t get fit, either physically or mentally, if we don’t make it a priority.

“As iron rusts when not used, 
and water gets foul from standing or turns to ice when exposed
to cold, so the intellect degenerates without exercise.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Starting with the Bible, White gives us a framework for what to read to develop a mind for Christ and encourages us to take the time to do it.

I once asked a busy housemaster of a prestigious boys prep school how he managed to read so many books.

‘It’s important to me,’ was his simple reply.

Is it important to you?

 

A Naturalist’s Narrative

DurrellsMy Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell

Available at Amazon

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’.  To mark the event,  ITV has adapted The Corfu Trilogy (of which this book is the first part) for television.  ‘The Durrells’ provides delicious Sunday night escapism and has resurrected an interest in the story.  Spurred on by Edith Shaeffer, my husband and I have started reading it to each other.

At the end of 2015, in anticipation of the anniversary, Simon Barnes wrote in The Independent:

 

‘Joy is at the heart of everything that Durrell wrote, but most especially it is at the heart of My Family and Other Animals. Here is a book that celebrates the wild world more thoroughly and more vividly than anything else ever written. It is at the same time funny and deeply serious; and it is a poor person who believes that humour compromises seriousness. It has reached people and moved them to laughter and other emotions, all [of] them deep, powerful and packed with meaning. It has been a set book for exams and it has taught the joys of reading along with all the other joys. The book tells us that we humans are not complete alone: that without the wild world we are less than ourselves.’

‘My Family and Other Animals’ is perhaps Gerald Durrell’s most well-known book.  Many of us will remember having read it at school.  Few, I suspect, at that time in their lives, will have appreciated the exquisite quality of Durrell’s narrative.  Each sentence is so finely sculpted that an aspiring writer would do well to learn from his style.

Take, for example, the opening sentence of the first chapter:

‘July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.’

Metaphor, simile, personification and at least two adjectives to describe the main noun!  However irregular Durrell’s education, he seems to have turned out alright in the literary department.

Durrells 4

Or let’s take a look at some of his descriptions of the animals he adopted.  Achilles the tortoise, for example, is ‘an intelligent and loveable beast, possessed of a peculiar sense of humour.’  At the sight of wild strawberries the reptile becomes ‘positively hysterical…lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny shoe-button eyes’.  More charming still is the description of how, if you were lying out sunbathing, Achilles would approach you, ‘pause, survey you thoughtfully, and then choose a portion of your anatomy on which to practise mountaineering.’

Friends made on the island of Corfu where the family lived for a time during ‘Gerry’s’ childhood, and in the five years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, are described with comparable detail and memorability.  Such attention to minutiae testifies to the author’s delight in the natural world around him.  He notices everything.  He sees what we, in our rush and bustle, overlook too easily.  He observes, though without realising it, what God has put there for us all to enjoy: ‘wine red roses’, ‘chameleon like crab spiders’, ‘carpenter bees, (whatever they are) like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzag[ing] among the flowers, growling fatly and busily.’

I am reminded of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies’ poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

‘Stand and stare’ is what Durrell excels at and in re-reading his book I am delighted by his vividness of detail in describing humanity and nature.  Though it was not his intention, Durrell’s narrative puts me in mind of the Author of authors who first created ‘every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.’ (Genesis 1:21)

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.’ (Psalm 104:24)

The natural world is not all that Durrell observes, however.  Humour plays a big part in both the book and the TV series.  Banal family conversations are mischievously recalled and noted down with irreverence.

Durrells 2

‘That’s the trouble with this family,’ said Larry (Gerald’s eldest brother) bitterly; ‘no give and take, no consideration for others.’

You don’t have much consideration for others,’ said Margo. (his sister)

‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’

‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother.  ‘I never did anything of the sort!’

‘Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.

‘Larry’ is Lawrence Durrell who first encouraged his youngest brother to write and was himself a successful writer, most notable for ‘The Alexandria Quartet’.

The TV version does not pretend to be very faithful to the original text but the photography is wonderfully evocative and the casting delightful which together make for enjoyable evening’s viewing.  And if the series gets people reading the book once again and appreciating the natural world around them, then it’s done a good job.

 

Creative Ideas for Enriching Everyday Life

41pKrEoDrZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Hidden Art of Homemaking
by Edith Shaeffer

Available from  Amazon.co.uk

A vicar was heard to comment to his wife who was industriously de-cluttering their home after a chaotic move, that she should ‘make do and mend’ rather than throwing things out.  She had recently read Marie Kondo’s successful publication ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ and was trying to follow William Morris’ advice to ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’  Edith Shaeffer, were she still alive (she died in 2013), would have them combine their instincts in the interests of marital harmony and creative expression.  The Hidden Art of Homemaking would have shown them how to do this.

Edith Shaeffer was the wife of the better known Francis Shaeffer, the American evangelical Christian theologian, philosopher and pastor most famous for his writing and his foundation of the L’Abri community in Switzerland in 1955,  a community offering the opportunity for enquiring individuals to seek philosophical and religious answers to life’s questions.

Schaeffer-Edith

His wife, the daughter of missionaries in China, was evangelical as well as stylish.   Petite, beautifully dressed and redolent with Chanel No 5, she combined wholehearted support of her husband’s ministry and commitment to the gospel with a passion for sharing her love of music, art and literature, not least with her children.

In this short, readable and quirkily illustrated book, Shaeffer defines ‘Homemaking’ as an art form encouraging women called to this vocation to pursue their daily tasks with creativity and individuality.

Perhaps too dated in style and content for some modern readers, the book nevertheless carries a timeless message.  It is not a waste of man’s time to be creative.

‘It is not a waste to pursue artistic or scientific pursuits in creativity, because this is what man was made to be able to do.  He was made in the image of a Creator, and given the capacity to create – on a finite level of course, needing to use the materials already created- but he is still the creature of a Creator.’

Since we have been made in God’s image, Shaeffer explains, we not only can be, but are made to be creative. In fact, she suggests that Christians have a duty to be creative because of their Paternity.  It is far from being an irrelevance to a devout life.

‘What I call “Hidden Art” should be more important to one who knows and admits that he is made in God’s image, than to those who do not.’

If ‘Hidden Art’ is the art which is found in the minor areas of life, then everyday opportunities come alive with possibility.  Do we recognise the importance of living artistically as we make beds, prepare meals, paint walls, plant violas, play music to our children, read to our children, clothe our children?  Sensitivity to beauty should increase as we walk with the Lord, not dry up.

All these pursuits can be enjoyed as worship and without regard to success.

‘There is a God who is there, and who is personal, and who accepts music as praise to Himself, as worship, when given to Him in this sincere way – without being strained through the “strainer” of human acceptance.’

The writer devotes chapters to Music, Painting, Interior Decoration, Gardening, Flower Arranging, Food, Writing, Drama and Clothing to name a few and ends with an interesting take on ‘Environment’.  This is not, as I was expecting, a chapter on recycling cereal boxes but on the challenging concept that we create an environment around ourselves by the way we live.

‘We are an environment, each one of us.  We are an environment for the other people with whom we live, the people with whom we work, the people with whom we communicate.  And in this sense we do not choose an art form and create something in that form; we are an art form.’

Emily Freeman is saying something similar in ‘A Million Little Ways’ but the particular strength of Shaeffer’s book is that she reminds the bible-believing conservative Christian of the value of beauty without for a second denying the ‘first importance’ of sharing the message of the cleansing blood of Christ in whom true Beauty is found.

 

 

A Million Little Ways

a million little ways  A Million Little Ways
by Emily P. Freeman

Sometimes a book wakes you up.  This was my experience reading Emily P. Freeman’s ‘A Million Little Ways’ subtitled, ‘Uncover the art you were made to live’.  It’s a book that touches a longing that’s hidden inside many but which can easily die at the hands of cynicism or mid-life fatigue.

Uncover the art you were made to live?  The child inside says, ‘I want to do that!’ and the adult replies ‘You’ll fail.  You won’t  manage it.  Give up.  You don’t  have the discipline or the talent or the courage’.  But as you read this book, you may find, as I did, that your heart lifts just a little bit.  Maybe I could get the paintbrush out again after all.

In her early chapter entitled ‘Desire’, Freeman put words to a feeling I’ve had countless times and am sure is shared by other Christians, particularly women:

I tend to assume if it’s something I really want, then it isn’t something I should be allowed to have.  Am I just being selfish? Greedy? Crazy?

Doesn’t that resonate?  If I’m drawn to play the piano or arrange flowers or redecorate the kitchen, aren’t I just wasting my time which could be better spent doing something more obviously servant-like?  Yes, scripture reminds us of the deceitfulness of our hearts (Jer 17:9), but Freeman dares to suggest a challenge which, rightly understood, we need to hear:

If we continue to live as though our hearts are desperately wicked, we have tragically misunderstood the work of Christ.

She invites the reader, as God does, to move with the rhythm of His Holy Spirit so that ‘maybe we don’t have to be so suspicious of desire’.

Pursuing desire is only toxic when we demand our desires be satisfied on our terms and in our timing.  As recipients of the new heart of the Spirit, our deepest desire, when honestly realised, will always lead us to God [who has] left room for creativity, innovation, and personality.  He left room in his creation for desire.

The reader is encouraged to ‘explore with abandon those things that make you come alive’ trusting that we’ll never be truly satisfied by reaching after secondary things.

There are frank sections dealing with discouragement as an artist; how to respond to the critic without and within and knowing how to recognise the pernicious drive of self-glorification but always with the balancing and biblical reminder that ‘You are God’s art’ (cf Eph 2:10) made in His image and being remade in the likeness of Christ.

Freeman recognises artistic possibility in countless ways.  It’s not just painters and writers and musicians that make art. Roadsweepers and mothers and bankers too can live out with  wholeheartedness and thankfulness the person God has made them to be to the Father’s greater glory.

I haven’t written any reviews for a couple of months.  I started telling myself that there wasn’t any point.  Everyone writes a blog these days.  ‘Vanity publishing’ I think it’s called.  Who wants to be accused of being vain?  There’s the point.   I am not to write for the opinion of any reader out there, nor because I’m any good at it, nor because it’s not yet been done, but because it’s what I have to offer; it’s me and not to share it with you really would be selfish.  So what if someone else has already written a better review.  As Freeman rather unflatteringly puts it, ‘Being a mess doesn’t disqualify you from having an influence.  And it doesn’t make you any less of a poem.’

In her last chapter ‘Create’, we read:

‘You are an image bearer and that is not about you becoming famous or important or promoted but about you becoming more fully yourself for the glory of God.  And when you are fully yourself, everyone benefits.’

If this subject touches your heart too; if you’re struggling away with your own insistent instinct towards creativity,  I would encourage you to read this affirming and honest book and to make your art too.

Because He Loves Me

51r9pfxl22bl-_sx327_bo1204203200_

Because He Loves Me
How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life

by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick

Available from Ten of Those

What motivates a person to serve God?  This is the question that biblical counsellor and author Elyse Fitzpatrick asks in this devotional and biblically thorough book about Christian transformation.

I recently finished the first in the series of C. J. Sansom’s thrilling Shardlake novels, Dissolution, in which the murderer, Brother Edwig, Bursar of Scarnsea Monastery, loses his life falling from a high balcony clinging to the bags of gold he believes will purchase forgiveness from God for the heinous sexual sins of his past.

0330450794

Wikipedia informs me that ‘In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” which may reduce either or both of the penance required after a sin has been forgiven, or after death, the time to be spent in Purgatory.’

The Bible asserts that Christ has already taken the complete punishment deserved for the believer’s sins (1 Peter 3:18) and yet, in effect, Fitzpatrick suggests we can sometimes serve Christ out of a penitential attitude of legalistic fear rather than offering what she calls ‘gospelised obedience’.  In other words, we have forgotten something.  We have forgotten Jesus.  We have forgotten that He loves us and are suffering from ‘Identity Amnesia’ spending our days ‘scratching around for glory’ here on earth instead of gratefully loving others as we have been loved.

I thank God that he used this book to draw me  back to Himself.  I ‘hadn’t felt his absence because [I was] so preoccupied with living for him’.  (p18).  I was ‘hiding in the shadows, focusing on performance, fearing his wrath’ (p24) just like brother Edwig cowering in his monk’s habit instead of rejoicing in Christ’s robes of righteousness.

Fitzpatrick reminds us ‘The purpose of our life is to reveal to others how wonderful [Jesus] is and to glorify and enjoy him eternally’ (p56).  This means that we don’t have to prove ourselves or impress others and we certainly do not have to appease God with our efforts.  Jesus’ blood has already done this.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who suffers from ‘performancism’.  It is a deeply encouraging and challenging read; and if you’re looking for a little relaxation, the Shardlake series isn’t bad either.