Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Welcome to Ridley's Reading Rooms

This is the first in what I'm thinking will be a monthly feature where I share with you my reading highs and lows of the past month.  It won't be everything I've read (over three hours today reading up on the laws of defamation....I will spare you the details) but certainly it'll be a brief review of the stuff I choose to read....If you have any thoughts or feedback on any of the books, I'd love to hear from you.

So I kicked January off by reading one of the books I got for Christmas.

The Testament of Mary is a first person narrative by Mary, mother of Jesus, and her reflections and recollections in the time that she lived following the death of her son.

The novella is irritatingly scattered with well-known scenes from the New Testament.  Toibin seems keen to avoid filling in the blanks of the life of Christ as witnessed just by Mary - even to the point that Mary exits the kitchen when her sons group of 'misfits' gather together, so that she has nothing to say about the early disciples except that she finds them foolish and cruel.

The strongest 'retelling' by Mary is of the events she attends or witnesses in person - such as the wedding at Cana and the meeting with Lazarus who has been raised from the dead.  Here Toibin looks at the 'miracle' of resurrection from a more practical point of view - what must it be like to have died and returned?  Mary's empathy for Lazarus, her descriptions of him, alone and utterly isolated, as well as her confusion about what has happened are eloquently expressed.  Less successful are the scenes where Mary is being 'told' about miracles such as Jesus walking on water.

On the one hand recollecting familiar New Testament events is in keeping with the actual Gospels themselves as each one tells parts of the same story from a slightly different point of view.   On the other hand, the hinted at and darker political story of Mary being held half prisoner and milked for her recollections is far more interesting and not fully explored.

Ultimately the book failed for me because I was not convinced by Mary.  At times I felt she was closer to Mandy Cohen from The Life of Brian than a mother dealing with firstly outliving her son and then with having to live in fear for her own life because of his status as a prophet and the son of god.

My second read of the month was also a Christmas present from a friend.

The Power of Now is a book about spiritual enlightenment and how we can achieve it for ourselves.  Tolle tells in the preface how he experienced his own dark night of the soul in which he felt he could 'no  longer live with himself'. In that moment of darkness there was a flash of logic for him - who was the 'I' that could no longer live with 'him'?  Was he in fact therefore made up of two selves?  Having had his mind thus twisted into this very zen conundrum he set about understanding the 'self' beneath the 'self'....Still with me?  Excellent...on we go.

Tolle suggests that we are in fact made up of two parts - 'mind' and 'being'.  'Mind' is the noise, the endless chatter that you hear in your head. Tolle believes we allow 'mind' to dominate and that this domination of 'mind' over 'being' is the seat of all unhappiness, suffering and pain in our lives. Tolle points out that we can only live in the present, in the 'now', but the chatter in our heads is mostly about the past or the future, places we cannot physically 'be'. He recommends we listen to the 'noise', find the silence underneath it and thus inhabit the 'now'.

January is typically the month for detox and that reaches into the area of the soul as much as the stomach. Which isn't to say The Power of Now doesn't have a value.  Tolle makes a lot of sense, even if he sometimes feels a bit repetitive.  The plethora of books on the subject of mindfulness available at any good bookshop today suggests we are living in society that is overworked, overwhelmed and in need of some spiritual solace.  You could do a lot worse than reading The Power of Now if any of those thoughts feel familiar to you, though I would recommend the orange version 'Practicing the Power of Now'.  It's the same material just packaged in a more succinct, user friendly way.

Stargazing was my charity shop find of the month!  It is the memoir of an arts student who dropped out of college in 1973 to become a relief lighthouse keeper for six months. It is a beautiful book which tells the story of lighthouse keeping, captured just before lighthouses became fully automated.

It is the story of a most diverse group of men (all lighthouse keepers were men...) living a very peculiar, routine and quite solitary life.  Lighthouses were always manned by three people at any one time so the men didn't live alone, but someone needed to be awake and to tend to the light throughout the night - the hardest and most solitary shift being the 'Rembrandt' night watch which began at 2am and ran through to morning.

Hill captures the characters of the men that he spent time with on a number of lighthouses around the coast of Scotland and in particular captures the spirit of storytelling that seems to be the unifying characteristic of all the light house keepers.

Whilst Hill ultimately returns to art school the time working on the lighthouses provides him with the space and solitude in which he is able to develop into himself through learning and living in a world in which routine and discipline are central tenets.  Hill's experience is a Romantic one and the book left me with an absolute nostalgia for peopled lighthouses and a craving to go live in one for a while...

So it felt serendipitous when my second charity book shop find of the month Lighthousekeeping turned out to also be set on a lighthouse, Cape Wrath, off the Scottish coastline.

Our hero Silver is orphaned at 10 (in 1979 literally just before the lights stopped being manned!) and sent to live with the lighthouse keeper Pew as an apprentice.

The story is a wonderful Winterson work of magical realism and so it complemented perfectly the factual book I'd been reading just before.  It revisited tales about the Stevenson family - engineers who had lighthouse building and design in their blood since the first lighthouses were built.  It included stories about Robert Louis Stevenson and the way in which lighthouses had played a part in his early life, potentially influencing the stories he wrote.

Through stories about the very Victorian character of the Reverend Babel Dark, who was born on the very day the lighthouse at Cape Wrath was completed, and his connections with RL Stevenson, Darwin, and Molly O'Rourke Silver experiences love and loss whilst trying to figure out what her own story might be.

For Winterson 'lighthousekeeping' as a profession is a euphemism for storytelling - which fits beautifully with Hill's description of 'real' lighthouse keepers as compulsive storytellers.  Through reading Lighthousekeeping I'm reminded what a great author Winterson is and am keen to read much, much more (I mean everything) that she's written.

So that was January at the Reading Rooms.  The coming month is likely to feature some (but almost certainly not all) of the following books.......

I hope you pop back for some more tea and book chat next month.  Happy reading y'all! xxx

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