Every year, I think it’s going to be different, but every year January hits me like a ton of bricks. In retrospect, writing an Advent book was perhaps a trifle ambitious after the busy year I had, and resting in December wasn’t enough to restore me back to what is normal for me. So while everyone was jumping on their new resolutions and buzzing with activity, I took my lead from the wise and brave Abby Norman, and declared it ‘gentle January’. (I discovered that if you make it into a hashtag, then it becomes a ‘thing’, and that makes it easier to stick to. And also makes you look trendy without trying.)
I needed a lot more rest than I thought, so that meant very little writing, very little seeing people, lots of time alone. I always forget with M.E. that it always takes longer to recover than you think.
I was admitting to a friend that ‘gentle January’ might have to go on longer than January. She suggested ‘Fluffy February’, which made me smile. We’ll see…
The trip out of the house was fun this month, though – we went on a short break to Torquay to see the penguins. It’s always fun to see how much the boy has grown. I remember the days when he was smaller than a king penguin.
Here’s the latest recommendations of books, music, TV and articles – plus ideas for Lent:
- The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. This is an intimidating beast of a book – about 800 pages and the winner of a Pulitzer, which screams ‘worthy’ all over it. I feared it would be hard to read, but although the plot moves slowly, the writing flows easily, and I found it utterly engrossing. The premise is a teenage boy who is caught up in an explosion in a New York Art Gallery, and in the midst of the chaos, he steals a painting. It has the feeling of a Dickens novel – a cross between Oliver Twist and Great Expectations – the protagonist who undergoes tragedy and has to choose whether to follow his bad-influence friends or good protectors. The L.A. section is the hardest to read, and I almost gave up there. There is a writing adage – ‘show, don’t tell’, but part of me wishes she had just told that section in a few judicial chapters – it felt so drawn out and miserable. After that section, it picked up the pace again, and was wonderfully engrossing, but though it was well written, I found myself asking, “it’s good, but is it really Pulitzer-good?” I got the answer in the final sections of the book: there is a cinematic shoot-out scene that is incredible, and the section where he’s in the hotel describes a world of emotions that is psychologically brilliant. The ending was satisfying, and although it was a little weird when it turned into a more reflective (and absolutely fascinating) meditation on art right at the end, it didn’t jar too much. If you’re only going to read one recent Pulitzer-winner, get All the Light We Cannot See. But this is a very good second-choice, because it describes the inner world of the protagonist with such masterstrokes, and provides a brilliant meditation on the role of art in our lives. Highly recommended. Get it for $11.53 from Amazon.com, £7.49 from Amazon.co.uk or £8.58 from Wordery.com
- Shtum – Jem Lester. This novel, about a family’s struggle to get their severely autistic son into a school that would suit his needs, is at once devastating and charming. It’s an interesting quirky book, because although the subject matter is quite hard-going, there is humour and pathos throughout. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like the main character, but he grew on me, and the relationship between him and his Jewish father were hilarious. The book got better and better, and by the end I had shed a few tears and felt really attached to the characters. Read it for the interesting character development, the wry tone, the easy-readability, and the important discussion of providing for the needs of autistic children in the UK. Highly recommended. Pre-order it for $10.99 from Amazon.com, £7.99 from Amazon.co.uk or £11.56 from Wordery.com
- Looming Transitions – Amy Young. This is a self-help book with a Christian slant on how to navigate transitions well – and it is SO good. Although this is written primarily for Christian workers who are moving abroad (or back home after time abroad), I would want to make this gem of a book required reading for anyone who is moving job and home, because so many of the principles are universal. It could have been titled “Finishing Well”, because it focuses primarily on often-neglected endings rather than beginnings, and really helps with navigating those stressful months as you prepare to leave for somewhere new. I found the chapters on grief and working through the messy emotions especially helpful, but it was all really good stuff. There’s a real need for this kind of book, and I’ve never read anything that covers this topic so well. Amy Young is a brilliant and engaging Bible teacher, a highly-qualified counsellor, a wonderful writer, and has spent twenty years working abroad, so she is the perfect person to write this book. My advice? Get it before you move, so that you have time to absorb the good advice. This is one I will be gushing about and recommending to anyone who’s thinking of moving house or job and wants to finish well. Get it from $9.57 from Amazon.com, £7.28 from Amazon.co.uk or £7.26 from Wordery.com
- Overcoming Stress – Tim Cantopher. I was looking forward to this book, because I’d enjoyed his other one, Overcoming Depression. But I found myself with lots of question marks over this book. If he had just been talking about run-of-the-mill stress, then I would have been on board with his self-help, no-nonsense approach of how to avoid stressful situations and people, but towards the end of the book he mixed it in with more serious mental health issues, which is when I found it a bit reductionistic. It also contains the now-outdated theory that stress causes stomach ulcers, whereas recent research has shown that in fact bacteria is the cause. It’s good if read with a large pinch of salt, remembering that this is just one man’s opinion, and that others, both medics and counsellors, would not agree with all his assertions. Get it for $15.00 from Amazon.com, £10.99 from Amazon.co.uk or £8.99 from Wordery.com
- The Imitation of Christ – James Watkins. The subtitle is ‘Classic Devotions in Today’s language’ and it’s a great concept – taking the classic text on spirituality by Thomas à Kempis and arranging it into bitesize pieces, with slightly updated, more readable language. So many of the classics can seem completely inaccessible, and the way that it’s arrange in short sections makes it ideal for a devotion. It is written (following the original) as a dialogue between Christ and his disciple, and there’s a lot of applied Biblical wisdom there. I compared the two texts briefly (the original and this one), and he really seems to keep faithfully to the original rhythm and heart of the text, so it’s a very sensitively-crafted update. If you want to read this classic text, this is by far the easiest and most pleasurable way of doing it. Get it for $15.99 from Amazon.com, £11.14 from Amazon.co.uk or £8.98 from Wordery.com
LENT IDEAS – Lent begins Ash Wednesday, 11 Feb
- Follow Me – Daily Lent Guide for families. This has six stories in it, one for each week of Lent, and they build up to the Easter story. On each day of Lent there is a way either of creatively retelling the story (I love her ‘go for a wonder’ suggestions) or doing an activity that reflects the story. She suggests that it could either be done as a daily activity or you could combine the seven daily sessions into a once-a-week activity. I think this would be better because, without pictures, it’s hard to tell the same story over and over again. My boy loved the prayer and the fun fish activity, and it’s a great way to mark Lent as a family. Get it for £9.99 from Amazon.co.uk
- Malcolm Guite – Word in the Wilderness (a poem a day for Lent). If you’re looking for a Lent Devotional, I reckon this one will be good – I loved his Advent book. Get it for $15.99 from Amazon.com, £12.08 from Amazon.co.uk or £10.49 from Wordery.com
- Lent Course – Tara Owens does the BEST online courses, and she is an amazing spiritual director, writer and theologian. Check out her invitation to ‘go slow’ in Lent – it’s a course ‘for the harried, hurried and hungry for God’, and it looks brilliant. (Bursaries available if necessary).
- 30 Seconds Bible for Lent – I’m really excited to be part of this project, which has some big names (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell etc) and some really great Bible teachers known to me (e.g. Amy Young, Tara Owens, a certain Jon Marlow) – and ME! The idea is that every day in Lent you hear a summary of a Bible book, and why it’s good news in just 30 seconds, working through a book or two of the Bible each day. That means by the end of Lent you will have heard the summarised message of the entire Bible in just over an hour. Check out the trailer here (starting Monday Feb 8th) and follow along the series here
Also reading –
- Finding God in the Ruins – Matt Bays
- Bandersnatch – Erika Morrison
- Longing for More – Timothy Willard
- Forgotten Plague – really great documentary about M.E. by Ryan Prior. It features Whitney Dafoe, who is perhaps one of the most severely-affected patients out there. Though I have become familiar with his story, still I found myself in tears during that part of the movie. It has a really hopeful and positive message, and is well worth watching.
- Sherlock – I was very unimpressed by the premise of having a Sherlock in the original times (hasn’t that been done before?) But it was OH SO GOOD. It made me laugh a lot and was brilliantly crafted, so even though the feminists are justifiably upset by some of the patronising elements, it’s still very good.
- Endeavour – Enjoyed this latest series of the Inspector Morse prequel.
- Chuck – Whenever I need to be cheered up, I watch Chuck.
- The Good Wife – I am an addict. SO GOOD. I’m just about to start the third season. Kalinda! Peter!
- Light up the Dark – Gabrielle Aplin. Really loving her vibe. I found her via George Ezra on Spotify.
- One Direction’s latest album. The boy keeps singing ‘History’ which is a great song, but prompted me to respond by playing him the awesome song by Shakespeare’s Sister, You’re History. Which song would win in a battle? It’s a hard call…
- 60s hits – including Lily the Pink – The Scaffold. The boy loves this funny and absurd song and keeps singing all the verses. Where are those kinds of funny songs these days?
Campaigning against cuts to disability benefits
In the midst of feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, the government kept doing stupid things. I always have to weigh up what is worse for my physical and emotional health – expending my energy on some kind of campaigning (which may further wipe me out), or not doing anything but feeling stressed and silenced and powerless.
This month, it was overall better for my health to campaign, so I added my signature to an open letter from disability charities that called upon the government to resist the cut to ESA (the out-of-work benefit for people too ill to work). The Lords agreed with the disability charities, and voted against the government’s proposals. It remains to be seen whether this will ultimately be overruled by the government. It always helps to write to your MP, so please make your voice heard. I also gave an interview to Premier Christianity Magazine, saying just as Christians gathered in support of those on low income for the tax credits vote, I hope Christians will also support sick and disabled people over these proposed changes.
PIP is not an out-of-work benefit, but a small payment to help with the additional costs of being disabled, such as mobility aids, carers etc. Though the government recently introduced this payment, replacing DLA, they have now decided to change some of the guidelines. It’s an attempt to introduce cuts through the backdoor. Bizarrely, they claim that if a disabled person is using disability aids then they shouldn’t qualify for the benefit. Why? Because the person doesn’t really ‘need’ aids. It does seem as though the government is consistently portraying disability as a lifestyle choice. I wrote on Compassionate Britain a sample letter you could send to your MP. Although the official consultation deadline is over, any letters to your MP would be really valuable.
- Helpful (and shocking) introduction to the nightmarish medical situation that many ME patients find themselves in – Medically Unexplained Assumptions
- David Tuller continues his investigation into the controversial PACE trial – 68 questions for Dr White and his PACE trial colleagues
- Brilliant analysis by Julie Rehmeyer and David Tuller – Did the PACE trial really prove that Graded Exercise is safe?
- Great article by Andrew Gelman, a scientist who has only recently taken interest in M.E. news – about the #PACEtrial problems and how they reflect badly on the reputation of The Lancet
- Very helpful for any #MEcfs patients coerced into doing Graded Exercise Therapy – recent law change protects you
- Forgotten Plague released – check out this documentary
- Interesting preliminary study via Cort Johnson – Why walking and thinking is not a good combination for those with #MECFS
Over to you:
- What were you into in January?
I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer for her magnificent What I’m Into Linkup.
This post contains Amazon and Wordery affiliate links, which means if you click through to Amazon.co.uk Wordery.com or Amazon.com from this site and buy absolutely anything in the world, you help this site, at no extra cost to you. I received a free advanced copy of some of the books above in exchange for my honest review, which these all are.