I have had a wonderful November. This final month of Autumn has been a blaze of glory and warmth. Last Saturday lunchtime, the sky was blue, and the sun not just bright but warm. I stripped off my winter coat, then my scarf, and finally my jumper. “It’s like my birthday,” the boy said, meaning summertime, and we played baby cats, then space travellers, and ate our picnic lunch outside. It was a warm day stolen from the height of Spring and sneaked into the end of November, and I treasured the rare chance to be outside.
My husband hosted a weekend-long Art Festival at church, and exhibited his work for the first time! And sold two pieces! (I feel like I need more capital letters and exclamation marks for those last two sentences). I’m excited by this for a number of reasons. The church, especially the evangelical church, has a habit of being suspicious of artists, who are so often on the fringes of the churches. I loved that as a church we could be a host to Christians who were artists (and not necessarily ‘Christian-artists’), and that the quality of work was so high. Whenever we create something of beauty, I believe that gives honour to God, and in turn points us towards the Creator of beauty.
On the Friday there was a classy private viewing of the exhibition; on Saturday morning an art workshop for children, introducing them to professional art techniques; on Saturday afternoon an art masterclass, and then in the evening Jon gave a lecture called The Real Da Vinci Code, interpreting some of the great artworks of the Renaissance.
If you had told us even a year ago that Jon would be a ‘professional’ artist, and an expert on art history, we would have been very surprised. I love that after even so many years we are discovering new talents to celebrate in one another, (my writing was a similar surprise to us both), as our lives bend and shift together.
It was our annual trip out to the opera this week! Glyndebourne on Tour came to our local theatre with their production of Verdi’s La Traviata. Opera is my favourite thing in the world, and this was a really good one. With opera, I wait for the moment when, in the audience, I am so transported by the music that my eyes well with the overflow of joy. This time, it happened in the first twenty minutes. Turns out that La Traviata is basically the plot of Moulin Rouge – courtesan falls in love with an earnest boy, then circumstances collude to pull them apart, with the Courtesan (Nicole Kidman) pretending she doesn’t love Earnest Boy (Ewan McGregor), and then dying of consumption. It’s a good job Verdi’s dead, or he’d be suing Baz Luhrman for plagiarism.
This experience just went to prove how the magic of opera is superior to musicals: the courtesan spent the last half an hour dying – but oh-so-beautifully. I didn’t want her to stop singing. Irina Dubrovskaya is a singer to look out for in the future – she gave an outstanding performance as Violetta.
Books (Contain Amazon affiliate links)
- When St Francis Saved The Church – Jon M. Sweeney
I decided that I didn’t know enough about the great Christian saints of the past, and so I braced myself for an informative, but dry, academic read, as so many biographies are. I was delighted to discover that not only was it informative, blowing apart the internal picture I had of St Francis as a cloistered monk who spent all his time with animals instead of people, but it was witty, lively and felt like a real page-turner.
Rather than a strictly chronological structure, it highlights several aspects of his unique ministry: his emphasis on people and friendship; embracing the other; his value of poverty; a distinctive spirituality; a love for creation and animals; and embracing death.
The real strength of this book is that the author makes all of the issues that St Francis dealt with sound so current, so it has a prophetic edge. I found it fascinating, for example, to see how many similarities there are between the current Pope and the original St Francis, and why it was so revolutionary for a Pope to name himself after St Francis. The picture that Jon Sweeney paints of St Francis is a fascinating one: a feminist, a subversive and anti-establishment pioneer, a mystic, a medieval troubadour, a popular and charismatic figure, a true disciple of Christ. At times, he does almost slip into gushing about Pope Francis, but as even Time Magazine has become a fan of the Pope, he is to be forgiven for this enthusiasm. By the end of the book I felt as though I knew St Francis, and would have liked to have had him as a friend. I kept on underlining quotes from this book: it is extremely tweetable, with countless pithy insights about St Francis and the church. It is not didactic or sentimental, but is sympathetic to a Christian worldview, and as such is suitable for people of all faiths or none.
This is a book I keep talking about, and I am recommending this to everyone I know as a really fascinating book, not just for busting the myths of the saint, and reclaiming St Francis as a renegade revolutionary, but also for drawing the parallels between then and now in such a readable way.
Some favourite quotes:
“‘Okay, so [this book] is history. But it’s also about how well-meaning Christians almost killed the faith eight hundred years ago.’”
“We may think of saints as aloof or mostly alone with God, but not this one. He became a saint through friendship.”
“He saw the ‘sacred’ in everyone and everything.”
“For Francis there were no ‘others’.”
“Francis has never been Rome’s favourite religious leader. Indeed, he was a threat to the power of the Church.”
- Journal of a solitude – May Sarton
Writer-friends have raved about this book, so I was looking forward to reading this book, but by the end, I felt like I didn’t know what the fuss was about. More of a journal than a memoir, it is a record of a year in the life of an ageing poet, who lives alone, and talks about the discipline of the writing life. There are fascinating and occasionally brilliant insights on writing and literature, and some interesting thoughts on feminism and depression, but these were buried amongst the trivia of daily gardening, and a list of passing characters who were never mentioned, and then never mentioned again. It felt at times like the confusion of picking up a stranger’s diary, with all the irrelevant trivia still kept in – the focus was often lacking for me. But there is no doubt that she is a fine writer, and even with these quibbles I was wanting to finish the book, so I’d say it’s worth reading, but if you are looking for a book on the writing life, I prefer When Women Were Birds, or Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. (It’s possibly more enjoyable if you like gardening). Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- Live Dead (28 Days of Living the Book of Acts with Iranian Believers) – Shawn Smucker.
This is a devotional with a difference – each day follows a chapter from the book of Acts,and has a verse from that chapter, along with a true testimony of an Iranian Christian. As well as the stories, they have a photo of the person whose story it is, and a short note at the end of how their story ties into the chapter in Acts, and how it can make a difference to your life.
I was half-fearful that this would be a depressing read, because of the stories I had read in the news about pastors persecuted in Iran, but I was surprised by how full of hope it was. I found it to be a genuinely inspiring and uplifting, full of stories of courage and God’s goodness in dark places. Shawn Smucker is such a talented storyteller, and he faithfully conveys the drama and voice of each individual testimony, so I didn’t want to stop reading. This is a gem of a book – helps you to pray for Iran by rooting it in people’s stories, informs and encourages you about the realities of the persecuted church, and has practical insights for living out. It would be great to read for a month as a devotional, or as a book group together. Get it on Kindle from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- All the days and nights – Niven Govinden.
This is one that will stay with me, not so much for the plot or characters, but for the sheer quality of the writing. Why it hasn’t been nominated for a Booker Prize or similar is beyond me.
The two main characters are a world-class artist, and her muse, who happens to be her husband, who has spent his life being her model, sitting for hours in stillness while she paints. The story opens out with the fact that he has left the house, without saying goodbye, yet the artist intuitively knows that he will not return.
The narrative voice is arresting and unusual, and I would compare it to somewhere between Virginia Woolf, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, and John Williams’ Stoner. I found the ending a bit mysterious, but other than that, it is the kind of book that you read when you want some real literature, when you want to immerse yourself in beauty. It is a fascinating exploration of the life of the artist and the relationship to one’s muse, and as a backdrop, the changing landscape of America in the 1930s, Hypnotic, exquisitely, memorably written – one to indulge in when you crave writing as a work of art. Out in hardback, but cheaper on Kindle. Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- The Urchin – Edith Unnerstad
There are some times that I just want to hug the Internet. I had a craving for a childhood story, that I just barely remembered from childhood – a character who had a brother called Lars, and a sister who had big clogs, and they lived in some Scandinavian country. From that hazy description, the wonderful Rebecka correctly identified it as the Pip-Larrson family books by Edith Unnerstad. I went on World of Rare books and quickly snapped up an out of print edition of The Urchin, and haven’t looked back. The Urchin is about family life in a family of seven children, from the point of view of the second youngest child, a boy aged five. Edith Unnerstad once said her novels were about ‘childhood’, and for me, she captures perfectly the fearlessness and confusion of childhood, through these witty stories.
My boy was hooked from the first page, and the beautiful line drawings throughout really enhance the story, rather than distracting from it. It makes drama out of the ordinary things of life, (a five-year-old boy going on his first trip alone to the bakers, to buy a coarse spiced rye loaf for his Mum), and the imagination and misunderstandings that children have as they make sense of the world. My little boy will sit for half an hour as I read him a ten-page chapter, and he loves every word. These are cosy, funny, intelligent children’s stories at their best, and I am delighted to be sharing it with another generation. Buy The Urchin and also Little O (which is the sequel, told by his younger sister) from places like Abe books or World of Rare books to snap up a second-hand version – they’re well worth it.
- One Direction – Four. This is my guilty pleasure this month – listening to this on Spotify. I normally despise boy bands, but I seem to have a soft spot for the band I refer to as the ‘kiddies’, and musically the tunes are amazing. Lyrically, there are some depressingly patriarchal moments (‘everybody wants to steal my girl…she belongs to me’) and a flirtation with rape culture (“Waking up / Beside you / I’m a loaded gun / I can’t contain this anymore…I’ve got no control”), but if you sing ‘la la la’ and try not to think about it too much then it’s a fab album. Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour. Wanted to see what all the fuss was about. This is not a great album, but it is a good one, and I’m enjoying listening to it on Spotify. Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- Meghan Trainor’s All about the Bass has been in my head for a month now, not helped by the spoof Thanksgiving version of the song, All about the Baste…
TV – in X Factor I’m liking Lauren and Fleur. Still watching Gotham, which is growing yet darker, so I’m evening it out by watching Parent Trap with Haley Mills, and episodes and episodes of Gilmore Girls.
On the blog – highlights include magnificent God and Suffering stories from Trystan Owain Hughes, Marvia Davidson and Simon Guillebaud, a theology of play, and St Francis of Assisi kicking my butt in time for Christmas.
Over to you:
What have you been into this month?
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Inspired by (but leaving it too late to link up with) Leigh Kramer’s monthly What I’m Into.