Category: book reviews

The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds is a powerful, moving and poetic account of one young American’s experience as a solder in Iraq and his subsequent psychological breakdown.

The story is beautifully told, the language is exquisite and the power of the emotions conveyed is compelling.  I was enthralled reading this.

Powers details the gruesome brutality of conflict and the developing relationship of two young privates unable to cope with what they have seen, experienced, been part of, done.

The main character’s subsequent struggles are sparingly but effectively conveyed.  Powers’ authentic voice is maintained throughout the narrative.

I highly recommend this book to you.

Lonesome Dove

I have just finished reading Lonesome Dove.  It is an amazing story, beautifully crafted, vividly detailed.  It explores the beauty and brutality of life and the kindness and cruelty of the people who inhabit it.

Set in the American West, following a group of cowboys herding from Texas to Montana, Larry McMurtry skillfully rotates perspective among the characters as the tale unfolds.  It is brilliantly done.

It is the fatalism of the novel which impacted me most though.  The regular deaths, the cruel treatment of key characters, the fears and failings of ordinary and extraordinary people.  Woodrow Call, a natural leader of men who gives his life over to doing right, is challenged at the last that he has never been right.  It unsettles him and the  futility of his own life is joined to the hopelessness of so many others.  He is unable to do the single most important thing he has ever needed to do.

It is this sense of futility that resounds so deeply at the moment.  The sense that nothing really matters, nothing you do makes any real difference.  The sense that we count for nothing.  That our lives have no meaning.  That we have failed.

It seems to me that this fear is a common human experience.  Yet we struggle to face it.  It is too hard.

But it’s there.  Unchanging.  Unrelenting.  Is there any purpose or meaning to our lives?  For all we achieve, have we ultimately failed?

We need to engage in this conversation, to recognise and understand the fears that haunt so many people.  Christians have hope and purpose.  Life is not futile.  We have a different narrative to tell.

overcoming addiction

I’ve just read a couple of books telling the stories of two men encountering Jesus in the midst of drug addiction.

One Step Beyond: One Man's Journey from Near Death to New LifeOne Step Beyond is the story of Gram Seed, a man from Middlesbrough who was written off by his family as his life spiralled out of control.  He was involved in shoplifting, football hooliganism and violence, alcoholism and drug addiction.  Two Christians got to know him when he was living on a bench and went to find him in hospital when he wasn’t there one night.  Gram was in a coma and the doctors were wanting to switch off the life support machine when the Christians found him.  He had been in a coma for six days but opened his eyes after they prayed.

Once an Addict is the story of Barry Woodward.  Brought up in Manchester, Barry drifted away from a good familyOnce an Addict: The Fascinating True Story of One Man's Escape from the Murky Drugs Underworld into drug dealing and heroin addiction.  It seems a surprisingly simple journey with stunning repercussions.  In and out of prison and different relationships he becomes an isolated figure, haunted by the vicious voices he hears everywhere he goes.  And then one day he meets a friendly man on a bus, a man who invites him to a church meeting the next time they meet.

Both men come to know Jesus in powerful encounters.  Their lives are transformed and now they both have thriving Christian ministries.  Both books are amazing reads.

I am drawn to stories like this of course – I spend a lot of my time with people who have overcome, or are overcoming, addictions to drugs or alcohol.  We do what we can, but what these men’s stories make clear is that only Jesus can truly transform lives in this way.  And Christians have a vital role in making Jesus known.  It may be by spending time with people in great need (as Christians did with Gram Seed) or it may be inviting someone you have only just met to a church meeting or alpha course (as Christians did with Barry Woodward) but we can all play a part in making Jesus known.

I highly recommend these books to you.  You will be challenged and amazed!

Wolf Hall

I am spending a lot of my time this summer reading.  Without doubt, the best book I have read so far is Wolf Hall.  It was recommended to me by a friend and the critical acclaim it has received is astonishing.  It was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who rose to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom of Henry VIII.

It’s a period of history that I know very little about and which wouldn’t, in the normal course of events, interest me very much.  As is quite often the way though, having been gripped by the story I have found it popping up in surprising places.  A visit to The Dungeons on holiday provided a couple of graphic illustrations of torture described rather matter of factly in the book.

And even though I have never read very much about the Tudors, many of the names are familiar.  That’s because behind the story of the rise of Cromwell is the story of the move away from Rome and the Roman Catholic church.

The story of Luther and Tyndale, of Wolsey and More, of ordinary people dying in extraordinary ways for a faith they held to be true.  On both sides.

As a young boy Cromwell witnessed an old lady being burned at the stake for denying that the bread and wine really were the body and blood of Jesus.  Being burned for the kind of religious freedom that we take for granted.

But it seems to me that the tide has turned again.  Not just against any particular denomination or religion but against all religion.  The punishments may have changed, but has the state once again hardened towards people of faith?  And if it has, does the story of Thomas Cromwell give us some clues as to what the future holds for us?

The Jews and the nation of Israel.  I don’t know about you but most of my conversations about modern Israel have been in the context of theology – particularly eschatology.  What does the bible tell us about the Jewish nation in the end times?  This week I realised that I have never considered the issues thoroughly enough. 

Because this week I have been confronted with a Palestinian perspective.

I have just read Mornings in Jenin – a really powerful, passionate debut novel by Susan Abulhawa that tells the story of the conflict through six decades of a Palestinian family’s history.  It stands alongside Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns for its impact.  It is simply stunning.

And suddenly the issues are not abstract becasue they involve real people’s experiences, tragic and horrific and unjust experiences.  The suffering of tens of thousands of people and the brutality of the settlements and the refugee camps.  The forced removal of people from a way of life they had known and loved for hundreds of years.

Abulhawa, herself the daughter of Palestinian refugees, writes with a truly authentic voice.  Of Jerusalem her heroine says, “It sparks an inherent sense of familiarity in me – that doubtless, irrefutable Palestinian certainty that I belong to this land.  It possesses me, no matter who conquers it, because its soil is the keeper of my roots, of the bones of my ancestors.  Because it knows the private lust that flamed the beds of all my foremothers.  Because I am the natural seed of its passionate, tempestuous past.  I am a daughter of the land, and Jerusalem reassures me of this inalienable title, far more than the yellowed property deeds, the Ottoman land registries, the iron keys to our stolen homes, or UN resolutions and decrees of superpowers could ever do.”

Then Abulhawa employs a stunning literary device – she quotes actual news reports and historical works to demonstrate the force of her case.  And having detailed the graphic horror of the slaughter of refugees in their camps in 1982 she simply asks the question, “How does an Israeli soldier, a Jewish man, watch a refugee camp being transformed into an abattoir?”

It is a question without answer. 

I’m not suddenly pro-Palestinian and I’m certainly not anti-Semitic.  I simply abhor violence in all its forms and whoever its perpetrator is.  What has changed this week is my perspective of this conflict.  The anonymous news on my TV screen has become personalised and I am changed because of it. 

I highly recommend this book to you.

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