The Year I Finished 70 Books

There are always many reasons for not writing enough. Writing is hard. Writing involves sweating your soul out of your fingertips.

Reading is one way of enriching your soul and feeding those muses. Reading gets the fingertips buzzing again. Writers need to read widely to understand how to write well, to learn what is being read by others and to find their niche in a busy market. This past year I tackled my own reading by challenging myself to see how many books I could complete, noting each one down as I finished it. The rules were fairly simple. I could already have begun the book, but needed to have finished it completely within 2019. This rules out books I only read a portion of to my son, or ones which are still ‘live’, but rules in books I had almost finished at the end of last year. Magazines, articles, essays, chapters of books didn’t count, no matter how erudite or obscure. Only completed volumes could be added to the list.

As I went through the year I found more questions arising and various patterns emerging in my reading. I have been working through a number of books at any given time, but wanted to vary the genres, authors and lengths. I kept long books for trips and read short chapter books to my son or read them myself. I worked on books for my research in my morning quiet time and easy reads in bed at night. I challenged myself to complete the New Testament in Greek, which I had begun a year before (this only counted as one book, but might easily have been 23) and allowed myself to count Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew as a book each. I included Molesworth (a four-volume book) as one. I included poetry, autobiography, devotional, fiction and academic works. For the first time, I actually read the Harry Potter canon, and found that I really enjoyed the series. I’m now working through the spin-offs. I read books by friends and those I’ve met at events, and books by people with completely different world-views to mine.

Today I finished three books, taking the total for 2019 to 70 completed volumes.

Of these, half were fiction, 29 were children’s books and 6 were poetry. I read 14 autobiographies and a couple more biographies, 28 books by Christian writers and 6 which were definitely academic or theological. The number of ‘live’ current reads is, I think, another 6-10. In all this, I am not aware that my ‘to be read’ pile has shrunk in any way.

I rated each book out of 10 for how much it impressed me, and 26 of those I finished scored a 10. The others varied a lot, but generally did very well.

Here are my 12 recommended reading highlights from 2019. Links take you to Amazon, but there are many alternative and very worthy sellers: I recommend buying from independent sellers wherever possible. See these links for reviews and information on each.

For Children:

Eye Can Write, written against the odds, challenges the reader on a number of levels. Jonathan Bryan is a poet, deep thinker and baker of cakes. He also lives with severe cerebral palsy and was thought not to be able to communicate at all.

I am amazed that Jonathan wrote this while only 12 years old.

I want to be as good a writer as he is one day.

 

 

 

Rooftoppers is #1 in ‘Home Improvement Roofing’ on the Big A, but that’s not all.

This page-turner has rich characters, a clever plot and amazing writing.

Great for children and those reading to them.

 

 

 

 

Wonder is worth reading before you watch the film adaptation: it is told beautifully and is a great way to get children (and adults) thinking about how we act when we encounter difference.

 

 

 

 

For People Needing Purpose:

Liz Carter has managed a great feat in producing this book: Catching Contentment is readable and full of empowering truths. Satisfaction is hard to come by, and Liz knows a thing or two about that. She shares her story and challenges and encourages us to look at what contentment really means and how we can experience it ourselves.

 

 

 

Lysa TerKeurst is another woman with a powerful testimony of huge disappointment and how to find strength to rebuild a life. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way may be a bestseller, but its popularity demonstrates how important this topic is for so many of us.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: I’ve not finished reading Image of the Invisible, but that is because the daily readings last until 6th January. So far it’s been excellent

I was drawn to Amy’s book because I like to be challenged when I have devotional readings and Amy has an intelligent, godly and articulate voice. She connects biblical truths intuitively with experiences many of us resonate with, and I highly recommend this book for future Advent readers.

 

 

For Those Who Love Wit:

Brian Bilston signed my copy of Diary of a Somebody when he came to Cambridge recently. I love his marvellous wit, original ideas and allusions to works of literature, films and music. His tweets made him famous through his clever poetry; this longer book is great fun and a super read whether or not you like poetry.

(But particularly if you do).

 

For Those Who Love a Well-Crafted Story:

 

Madeline Miller is both an academic and an astonishingly good writer. I felt drawn into her world of ancient Greek myth and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Circe. I would like to read her Song of Achilles before long. I aspire to be able to write as beautifully as Miller, and to be able to evoke the ancient mind and place so well.

 

 

 

 

Until this year I had only read the first in the Harry Potter series, but I wanted to read the set, especially now I have a child at high school.

I was spell-bound. The stories are full of adventure and the plotting is superb. The characters were mischievous and lovable and I enjoyed the names and the details. I found all of the books great in their own way, but Deathly Hallows brought everything together neatly and was the most satisfying for me, despite some scary moments.

 

For Theologians with too little time:

Peter Williams is the Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and a renowned New Testament scholar. This short and very readable book is a super look at the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, looking at details such as undesigned coincidences, outside sources, local knowledge and textual variant questions.

Williams makes a strong case and references his points well. A good book for pastors and biblical teachers, as well as discerning seekers.

 

 

Technically, I don’t know whether I have finished reading The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: A Visual Guide to N.T. Wright so I’ve not included it in the book count, but I have read over 80% of it at various times in preparing for my most recent lectures.

If you have time, read N.T. Wright. If you have read some of Tom Wright, but don’t have much time, read this too.

Very clever. Punchy text and illustrated with diagrams to help the visual learner.

 

The Bible Project Book: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books

This is an amazing resource, and works best in conjunction with the free videos on Youtube. I’ve not read all of Read Scripture: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books but as a biblical scholar I love what the team have done. Each book of the Bible gets a large spread and there are lots of details as well as overviews. The book is actually quite big, but it comes with a cover to slot into; it needs to be big to fit some of the many details in.

 

If you have written a book which I haven’t reviewed here, I may not have read it (or finished it) yet – send me an email or drop a comment below and I will read and review it as soon as I am able.

In 2020 I intend to progress further with my own writing projects and will continue to note down all the books I read as I go. I wonder how many books I’ll be able to complete in the coming decade?

Well, ideally I will need to focus more time and attention on my own writing: all being well at least one of those ought to have my name on the cover.

A very happy new year to you, and happy reading!

Mental Health and Tools from A to G

 

wmhd

Today I am marking World Mental Health Day by considering some important things I have learned over a number of years. Over time and with a lot of help and medication, I have acknowledged, accepted and come to accommodate the strange limits my mind puts on me.

Except when I don’t.

(Some days are better than others.)

Bad days are brain fog. Malfunctioning. Panic.

Bad days are forgettory days.

Bad days are dissolved dreams. The fear of fear.

Bad moments leaking into good days tie my words and emotions.

Bad days are full of can’ts and empty of most of the other stuff.

The world might have woken up with a bottle green sky and velcro pavements and nothing would feel alien; I would just be aware that – as usual – everything is odd again.

Then the frustration and the disappointment and the grief at so many little inadequacies and unfulfilled potential returns, so that even if the initial anxiety was inert, it is now tainted.

But.

But. This journey is a familiar place now; a commute I know well enough to recognise.

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I have learned to see that I am not alone, and not being ok at times is ok too. And, instead of letting the journey focus me on myself, my healing has involved looking outwards. How can I help others? What are other people’s stories? How can I be part of someone else’s solution?

Those around me almost all seem to be affected by hurting minds too, perhaps in different ways, and at different times. Caring people. Intelligent people. Wise people. Thoughtful people. Decent people. People carrying burdens they weren’t designed to have to carry alone.

The journey is always better when it is shared. Relief comes when you accept you are not sufficient to meet your own lack. When you can grieve this with others and release emotions as many times as you need to.

Talking helps. Honesty and truth will get you a long way.

Medication helps too.

Realistic targets help, and celebrating the wins.

Self-forgiveness and acceptance, and guts to keep on when you are blindly navigating territory you don’t want to be in.

The Mental Health Foundation has lots of good advice on their website.

 

Rollei Digital Camera

For me, the journey hasn’t always been as bleak as the first time I made it. Familiarity means you can find and practise using tools to equip you when your brain does not want to work. It is more than 25 years since I started facing down depression and anxiety, and if you are interested in knowing some of the tools which definitely work for me and may well for you or others too, here’s a start…

Autopilot and habit forming

I make a lot of lists and plans, and fall back on routines to get through busy times of the day. Plans help me to identify the most urgent and important tasks of the day and put my mental resources into these. At times when I cannot focus well for more than a minute or so, I know I have many tasks I can do around the house on autopilot.

Breaks

It has surprised me just how much my own condition has affected my concentration and mental stamina. If I know I have to be alert for a period of time, I’ll need to prepare exceptionally well and allow considerable recovery time afterwards. This has meant giving up full-time teaching and moving into part-time tutoring. This is not a problem though, as it is a job I love and which feeds into my passions.

I find that I need regular breaks on a daily and weekly basis, and when weekends fill up with activity I need to give myself a day during the week to recharge my mind. This often falls on a Wednesday, which is the day when my mind is usually least likely to be functioning.

Cups of tea or coffee

I make a point of having a quiet time every morning after the school run with a nice snack and a hot drink so I can pray and read and prepare emotionally for the day. When I don’t manage my quiet time I almost always regret it later in the day. I also make a point of noting what I did the day before in a diary, which helps stimulate my flagging memory, and to consider what the ‘best thing’ was that day.

Delegating

Although I would like the family to take on more of the chores, it is not simple to teach housework to or supervise tired children when I am mentally spent – this means the kids are not doing enough around the house, but it also gives me a deeper sense of purpose when chores are all I can manage. Even these can be too much some days. I have responsibilities in various forums and would love to be able to take on more roles in the children’s schools and at church, but experience has told me (many times) that I cannot do as much as I think I ought to be able to without burning so low on resources that I need excessive recovery time, and that it is ok to share the load with others.

Eating healthily

IMG_0877Three months ago I decided, rather suddenly, to stop eating chocolate for a period of time. My resolve was almost certainly connected to my expanding waistline. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself and inordinate amounts of salted caramel ice cream, I discovered that I had lost the desire for it.

This was proved when I visited Cadburyworld with the family during the summer; I just didn’t want any. I still have my free chocolate bars (and a lot I bought in case I change my mind), sitting on the shelf at home.

I now aim to cut out other offending junk food, one area at a time. The results are slow, but already I fit some of my clothes better.

Fitness

Having Faye has meant a good routine and discipline for walking twice a day for at least 20 minutes, and more often than not a lot more. Getting outdoors is good for my mind in lots of ways, but stretching the legs and the satisfaction of hitting more than 10,000 steps in a day is a real mood-lifter.

Good friends

My friends who don’t judge me, who accept me, listen and encourage me are utterly precious. I have found friends in different places and at different times who have helped walk with me in the darkest hours, and I am grateful to God for every one of them.

Friends who can distract with activity, or enrich with beauty, or enable with words.

Friends who see the me I want to be, not the me I think I am becoming.

Friends who can tell me, in the best possible way, that sometimes you need to stop, and return to something a little later, when you are ready.

Friday 500 -Almonds in October

vincent_van_gogh_-_almond_blossomAlmond Blossoms, Vincent Van Gogh

Rather a lot of us, it seems, have been born a chromosome short. In its place perhaps, an extra measure of arrogance. A superiority complex, some extra sense of entitlement and judgement. At least, that’s how I’m feeling about the society I live in, having watched ‘A World Without Down’s Syndrome?’ on Wednesday evening. It’s currently available here for a month if you’re allowed to watch BBC iPlayer. This programme really got my friends talking; it made many of them cry. I commend it strongly to you.

Sally Phillips, known widely for comic roles in the Bridget Jones films and sit-com Miranda has three sons, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. She has an easy humour and a natural sensitivity in approaching the subject of the new tests being introduced to identify DS babies at earlier stages of pregnancy. She interviewed people across the spectrum: those who designed the new tests, a mother who had terminated a pregnancy, a blogger campaigning for better sensitivity from NHS staff with parents, doctors in Iceland and America, an advice centre, Karen Gaffney (famous for her swimming accomplishments and TED talk) and others. Sally and her team really did their homework and made sure to put their case over as wisely as possible. They were not out to cause offence or to judge people, making it clear that terminations are a mother’s choice and that DS comes with many ups and downs.

What became apparent, which so many of us already suspected, was that there really is an obvious bias in our society and among many health professionals (and those giving advice to people with genuine questions) against promoting live births for DS babies. That Down’s Syndrome is in some way undesirable and ‘too difficult’.

You see, although the Guardian and others misunderstood Sally Phillips, it is not the tests themselves that are the real problem, and this is the point she wanted to make; it is what we as a society feel about ‘imperfect’ babies and the decisions we make as a society about this. If more screening means more information, the evidence shows it will also lead to more terminations.

What breaks my heart is that society needs these people too. We’d be far poorer without them. See Oliver Hellowell’s photographs here, for example, or DS artists’ work here.

 

I did not have the blessing of bringing any babies with Down’s Syndrome into the world, although my lovely friend Julie has, and she has started a support group for families in Suffolk. It’s people like Julie and Sally, seeing the picture better, who need to be heard loud and clear.

And it’s people like Olly, Jasmine, Tim Harris, Tommy Jessop, Madeline Stuart and so many others who remind us that we may not judge by the number of chromosomes we have. It was never our choice.

“I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.”
― Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco