The Year in Reading – 2021

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. My previous attempts are linked here.

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I have a litany of reasons to give for the paltry return of fourteen books completed this year, as big a drop as could be from the twenty-three I put way with consummate ease last year, chief of which was the welcome disruption L brought to our lives this year and all that came with it. The chief effect of that was a a significant number of unread books, all the free time I had in the latter part of the year being eighty minutes each day on the bus to and from work on work days. The vast majority were thus audiobooks, the experience of which I tried to improve by taking copious notes in Notion. Of the lot, a few stood out for various reasons. I plan on re-reading a few in hard copy in the near future, real life permitting. So here goes:

  • A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik: An exercise in exploring so-called Big Liberalism, this was one that I started reading o the cusp of the new year. At times it tried to paint an overly idealistic picture but then I suppose a book defending an idea would look at how it should be not how it actually works in practice. Certainly one I need to re-read in hard copy with time and engage the ideas.
  • The Status Game – Will Storr: Sometimes you read a book whose ideas are so foundational that you come away wondering how you never saw that before. This was one of such for me, the central thesis being that all human systems trade/play in status – whether our currency is virtue, dominance or something else.
  • The Bomber Mafia – Malcolm Gladwell: Another one which prompted much thinking for me , almost akin to an existential crisis of sorts, being the solidly mid-career professional I am who sometimes wonders what direction by future should take.

Fall-ish

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We woke up to a grey, watery mist rolling in the other day, a state of affairs which had me wondering for a few seconds if I had somehow ended up in good old Blighty. That was before the heft of air weighed down by 26-degree heat hit me in the face as I made my way to the bus stop. By the time we rolled into work, everything was shrouded in a thick, soupy, fog with visibility all but gone. It had all boiled away by 10 am though, with things returning to the way they always were: bone dry, warm with clear skies. Fog was not something I expected to encounter out here, although the roadsigns which show a 15km/hr speed limit in fog should have been a clue.

Back in Blighty, S. is now up to two jumpers for the evening and has given up the battle against the radiator. Out here, it definitely feels different, with the high heat of summer now giving way to a more breezy, cooler fall of sorts. Whilst there are no deciduous trees to turn their leaves into a mosaic of brilliant golds and browns, the date palms seem to be shedding their fruit onto the walking paths more frequently than I recall. Nature is certainly winning the battle of the wills with the grounds people who battle gamely to clean up whatever falls, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.

Cooler evenings have meant that my evening walks now start earlier, which in turn has enabled me to return to an hour or so of reading before bedtime. The first fruit of that was finally completing Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale, a detail-heavy depiction of life in Ethiopia from the early 20th century to the beginnings of the 21st as told through the lens of her grandmother’s eyes. Intersecting as it does with a lot of the history of modern Ethiopia, it sheds a personal, intimate light on things like the Italian occupation, the deposing of Emperor Selassie, the civil war and the famine of the early eighties.

Between finishing the book and coming across a picture posted by a friend on Instagram, I have been thinking about our personal histories and how we curate them. This brought to mind the3six5 project, a web-based project which ran from 2010 to 2012. It featured a daily slice of life, written on the day by a different person and inspired a number of local versions, including our very own Nigerian one. I also enjoy images curated by the Bumpkin Files account, although it has a decidedly Black British slant.

Today’s concerts, #EndSARS protests and life under lockdowns are yesterday’s famines, civil wars and momentous election victories. If we’re not curating our personal histories, I wonder what lost personal perspective on today’s events we might rue when we’re old and grey and little Aoife asks what it was like to live in these times.

2020 Reading: #1 – The Practice of The Presence of God

The Practice of The Presence of God (In Modern English) by Brother Lawrence (Author) and Marshall Davis (Translator)

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A classic which dates back to the late 1600s, this is a book that regularly makes it on to lists of great devotional books. This (newish) translation is by Marshall Davis, who has form for this sort of reimagining. Between this year being my year of delving deeper and plenty of time thanks to COVID-19, I finally got round to reading this!  to read has ended up on my pile for years. The central characters are a French lay brother, born Nicholas Herman but better known as Brother Lawrence, and Father Joseph de Beaufort, the vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris. A perhaps unlikely friendship given their different stations in life, we have it to thank for the letters and conversations recorded here.

A key theme is developing a practice for the presence of God in one’s life, through the mundane and the spiritual, particularly apt given Brother Lawrence served in the kitchen of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. The difficulties of going from normal life to a state of authentic union are not shirked. Rather, several times in the book Brother Lawrence refers to the need for ‘faithfulness in the dry seasons of the spiritual life’, ‘make[ing] a special effort’ and using the will to constrain wandering thoughts.

The path described here is not merely hard, disciplined work though, a love for God, instigated by Him, must be the reason why we go through the process and practice so that ‘after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty’. Elsewhere, ‘All kinds of spiritual disciplines, if they are void of God cannot remove a single sin from our lives.’

My favourite quote:

The spiritual life is neither an art nor a science. To arrive at union with God all one needs is a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, do nothing but for His sake, and to love Him only

Certainly one to come back to again and again.
Rating 5/5

3 Day Quote Challenge – 2

Image Source

Not all who wander are lost

For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,  it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.

For me it speaks of hope, a reminder that despite times and seasons in which life conspires to rock my faith and unresolved questions bubble to the surface, I am not lost. Just wondering, pondering and finding my way home in the end.

The Year in Reading

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

Nine Fridays of Summer

aberdeen summer

For the first time in a very long time,  I have four day work weeks to look forward to. The theory behind getting these nine Fridays off is that they have been earned by working an extra thirty minutes each work day. How productive those extra minutes have been remains to be seen, but I suspect their value to our employer lies more in promoting a sense of being cared for in us than anything more tangible. The first of these was spent down south, catching up with friends and reacquainting myself with Stratford and the Olympic park.

Being a creature of routine has its perks – one wakes up, does the needful and shows up at work to deal with whatever is thrown one’s way that day – but without the requirement to go into work, I suddenly have the hassle of trying to find stuff to do. The big rocks are in place already – a trip to London to catch Erwin McManus and Carl Lentz amongst others at the Hillsong Conference Europe is all planned up and good to go, as is an extended weekend in Vienna in August. It is what to do with the rest of these summer Fridays that is the problem. Of course summers in Scotland have a reputation for being wet and windy with dry, sunny spells the exception.

Doing a lot of traveling comes to mind as something to do, particularly given getting to know the West Coast of Scotland is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  Besides the time spent in train stations and airport waiting areas this requires, it is also likely to require a significant outlay in cash. A lot needs to be worked out from a logistical perspective to make this happen but I suspect the dividends – pretty interesting pictures and pretend travelouges – might make this a compelling option.

Another option is to spend the time catching up on all that reading I’ve failed dismally at this year. In addition to the books I have on the go, Teju Cole has an eagerly anticipated collection of essays out in August which I am sure I would be keen to read. Laziness though is the greatest obstacle to this objective, one will have to see how this pans out.

I have toyed with the idea of spending my Fridays cranking out a podcast about nothing especially important. The working title for this – which is likely to only be a spoken version of the things I whine about on here – is A Bloke’s Life. Although I do have a penchant for waffling on things of interest only to me, I also happen to know a number of interesting gentlemen who – logistics permitting – I might be able to convince to come on such a show. Don’t hold your breaths on this one though. What is more likely is a return to the online radio station I’ve previously appeared on.

Movies appear to be the easiest, safest option, particularly as I still have a stash of discounted Cineworld tickets to hand, and the beach cinema is less than 10 minutes away from my house by foot. The significantly reduced movie time since May does  lend its support to this argument, not least because a rash of movies are due out in the next few weeks.

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Star Trek Beyond – which I managed to see after a couple of hours at work – was the first of these, after habit had drawn me into work for a couple of hours first. Simon Pegg’s performances in these Star Trek movies have always intrigued me – given his attempts at affecting a ‘Scottish’ accent, and his English heritage. To his credit, he manages to throw enough Scottish colloquialisms in to make his parody recognisable. My ears have however not evolved enough to be able to say definitively that he has it nailed down. I suppose the nod to Scotland on the big screen – spot on or not – has to be celebrated and accepted?

#61 – The February Wrap – Of Life, and Steady Habits

#61-whatwerepeatedlydo-@allielefevere

What has quickly become apparent – as this year of living earnestly evolves – is that far from being the wild, giddy, excited life I half expected when my thoughts began to initially crystallise, it is one that is lived in increments; steady habits being the under-girding behaviours which hold everything together. That sense – of slow, steady if ponderous, progress – is one that has been consistently underlined and reinforced all year; by the book I am currently reading (Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life),  the ongoing series at Passion City on Habits and various conversations, the last of which occurred over the weekend with the older guy friend/ mentor O.  The general gist of the book and the series is that change is only possible if there is an overarching vision of the future that frames the daily actions that we take, providing an incentive that keeps us plugging away at them.

Discipline without direction equals drudgery, Whitney says; Giglio’s line is that who we become is all about the habits that we create and the habits that we curate.

I made steady progress in January but fell off the wagon massively in February, distracted by pressures at work and all. March though is an opportunity to get back on track, repeat the February habit as well as the March one and take it from there. Roll on the steady habits, shall we say?

Currently Listening to: When the Rain Comes – Third Day (from the 2003 Grammy Award winning album Come Together)

The Writer Is….

…Neither saint nor Tzadik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner who has somewhat sharper awareness and uses slightly more precise language to describe inconceivable reality of our world. He doesn’t invent a single feeling or thought – all of them existed long before him… He’s here, at our side, buried up to his neck in mud and filth.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir, Etgar Keret