Salad Days

Salad

You are what you eat.  Or so we are told.

Today, I want to suggest that we are what we read.

In a former life when I taught English to feral boys,  I told them that to eat a variety of nutritious foods was good for their health and to read a range of well-written books was good for their minds.   Eat junk – get spotty.  Read junk – get …flabby, mentally flabby.

My own reading this summer has not got off to a good start.  Like a good and thrifty housewife I determined to read some of the books that I’ve bought at some point but not yet read before going out to buy anything new.  Alexander McCall Smith’s ’44 Scotland Street’, the first in the series, and Lyndsey Davis’ ‘The Silver Pigs’ about a Roman detective called Falco, accompanied me on a week away near Chichester.  I didn’t spend very much time reading the Bible as often happens when away on family holidays and with little else available to read,  I chewed my way through these two books like a grumpy child who quickly realises he is not enjoying his meal but knows he must eat up or there’ll be no pudding.

My husband, on the other hand, nearing the end of a second reading of ‘Middlemarch’, has been deeply moved, wholly absorbed and stimulated to lots of Christian thought, self-reflection and engaging conversation.  I need to choose with a bit more care what I read for the remainder of the holiday.  Eating up what’s in the cupboards may be economical financially, but if it’s not good for you, throw it away.

Because He Loves Me

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

A Very English Family Saga

The Cazalet Chronicles
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
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Elizabeth Jane Howard who died early last year aged 90 is a writer whose work I first came across as a teenager when my father gave me ‘A Beautiful Visit’, her first novel, published in 1950.  I never read it despite its prize winning status.  (It won the John Llewllyn Rhys memorial prize).  The intellectual snobbery of youth meant that I quickly assumed the condescending attitude of her critics who described her as a writer of ‘women’s novels.’  They might just as well have said ‘magazines’.  As an aspiring English Literature student I was looking for the higher brow.

It was not until twenty years later that I came across her again when her Cazalet Chronicles were republished after the event of her death.  Looking for an ‘easy’ read I came across Volume One, The Light Years, began reading and was pleasurably gripped by the novel and its four successors (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) for the next few months.  Howard combines pure story-telling brilliance with an enviable elegance of style.

Jane, as she was known, was born in London in March 1923.  Now recognised as an acclaimed novelist in her own right, she was formerly referred to purely as Kingsley Amis‘ wife or Martin Amis‘ stepmother.  Margaret Drabble famously omitted her from the 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, a slight which she took with commendable equilibrium.  Married three times, she sadly described herself as a ‘tart for affection’ having had a troubled relationship with her mother, re-enacted with her own daughter Nicola by the Naturalist Peter Scott, her first husband.

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Marriage to Peter Scott, Naval Officer and Naturalist in 1942

Perhaps the appeal of the novels for me lies in their Englishness.  A large family country house in Sussex, a kindly matriarch and her ageing husband ‘The Brig’,  three brothers and their spinster sister, troubled marriages, growing children, boarding school angst, coming of age, unrequited love and the onset of war.   The details of upper middle class England are minutely observed alongside the repressed emotions of its inhabitants.  These books are a delight.  There is a time for everything under the sun and there is a time for reading for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story.

Her work doesn’t come into the category of improving reading, there being no Victorian moral didacticism nor any particular heroic protagonist to emulate.  Instead, we are introduced to an array of humanely portrayed, utterly credible characters crafted lovingly with failings and idiosyncrasies, insecurities and foibles with which the reader is only too able to relate.  Getting to know their personalities and what drives them, seeing their motives and their regrets is an education in patience, compassion and human understanding.

Her autobiography ‘Slipstream’ if read after this family saga reveals how much of her own life she drew upon for her Cazalet novels.  It is an ‘achingly honest’ portrayal of her life, her marriages, her mistakes and her writing.  Writing was clearly a form of therapy for her alongside the formal psychotherapy she received in her later years.

Fascinatingly, Janet Watts in her Guardian obituary of 2 January 2014 writes:

Jane once admitted that writing was the most “frightening” thing she did, and that she did not enjoy it.  “I find it much too anxious a business”, she said.  She once tried to give it up altogether.  But she couldn’t.

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It is terribly moving to see how frankly she faces up to the ‘mess’ she made of her life.  With three failed marriages, an abandoned daughter and a string of affairs one can see why she might have felt this way.  However, with such a legacy of literary work, a final reconciliation with Nicola, her daughter and a long life ‘full of years’ she has also left a valued mark on the landscape of English fiction and is to be admired for her courage, her perseverance and her insights into the English psyche.

A Memorable Voice

Elizabeth is Missing
by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is missingAmerican pastor and author Ben Reaoch recently wrote an article on the subject of  spiritual amnesia saying that ‘the way the human memory works (and doesn’t work) is a mysterious thing.’  He describes how his grandmother died in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Emma Healey’s novel, Elizabeth is Missing, was also inspired by her own grandmothers one of whom suffered from dementia.  She approaches the subject through the character of the elderly Maud, who is self-confessedly ‘a bit forgetful’.  Convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing she valiantly attempts to solve the mystery while  simultaneously experiencing increasing memory malfunction.

Maud’s carer Carla, her daughter Helen, Elizabeth’s offensive son, Peter and even the police fail to take her concern seriously.  Or so it seems to Maud.  There never was a more unreliable narrator and yet one whose own internal dialogue is strangely eloquent.  “My left side feels suddenly chilly where she was sitting against it.  A current of cold water in a warm sea’.  Details are minutely observed as are her lucid recollections of the past. Continue reading