Faithfully cynical

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I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.


*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.

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Book review: Soonchild by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Alexis Deacon)

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Russell Hoban’s Soonchild was an impulse purchase I made a few years ago when a bookstore had a sale on. Deacon’s artwork intrigued me, plus the book’s spine creaked when I opened it. Unfortunately, my first and second reading of the book left me unsatisfied, and so the novel was relegated to a shelf until last Halloween when, in a fit of boredom, I decided to read it again.

My feeling was that I’d “missed” something that turned Sixteen-Face John’s story from the merely curious to the charming. I’m still not sure what element it was, but that Halloween reading changed the way I experienced Hoban’s story. Maybe a part of it was that I stopped expecting something from the fable and just enjoyed it. In that enjoyment, I found a surprising depth of meaning.

Billed as a young adult novel, but more fable-ish than anything else, Soonchild tells the story of Sixteen-Face John’s search for the world songs to coax his unborn child from her mother’s womb. The journey takes Sixteen-Face John (so called because he has sixteen faces with which to be afraid) deep into the north’s world, and into himself. Along the way he faces dangerous foes, of which fear proves to be the biggest one.

It’s hard to classify the story. It’s funny, wise, wry, sarcastic, cautionary and clever in turn. Alexis Deacon’s illustrations really bring it to life, sparse and extravagant as the story demands, helping you follow the barnacle-goose children over the ledge of fiction, fantasy, fable, phantasm and faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Soonchild
Author: Russell Hoban (who passed away in 2011), illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Publisher: Walker Books, 2012.
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.76/5)
The best feature of the book: Its surprising spiritual depth; its wry turns.
The worst feature of the book: It can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: You’ll be tempted to think of it as a children’s book – it really isn’t. It’s surprisingly gory.
You’ll like this if… You like fables and reading books like chewing good food.

The enduring mystery of secondhand bookstores

 

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Buying books is great, period. The ruffle of new pages and fresh ink. The creak of an untested spine. The velvety texture of untouched paper. The intrigue of an undiscovered world only hinted at in the blurb on the back. The hush of the store, usually an oasis of calm in a sea of shopping centre din. The weight and feel of a book about to become your own.

If buying new books is an adventure, then buying old ones is a mystery. The dusty air and narrow corridors of your typical secondhand bookshop lend itself well to an atmosphere of the unknown, the puzzling and the uncanny. Books, once new, now curl and rustle with age. Their smell sours. Their covers are tarnished with dirt, their once glossy titles pitted and scratched. Their pages are dog-eared, sometimes scribbled on, often thickened with the spill of some unidentifiable liquid. Names and dates adore title pages. The book’s spine has been cracked, once, twice; pages threaten to spill out and seek solitary solace.

The books themselves can be any and often every genre; a secondhand bookshop does not discriminate. Bestsellers share shelf space with obscure titles. Westerns and YA lit regard each other uneasily from across the room. Classics leer at Danielle Steeles. The surplus Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer novels prove that even as forgiving a market as the book market has its limits.

Yet the books themselves aren’t the end of the mystery. Their histories are an intrigue on their own. Where, one wonders of the Afrikaans poetry volume warped with green-tinted water, did you sit before you came to my shaky little bookcase? And you, William Golding volume, practically unopened and probably never read – who were you an unwanted Christmas present from?

Sometimes the books will share some of their secrets, yet these only deepen the mystery rather than resolving them. Old letters, cards, newspaper clippings, donation slips, brochures, even photographs will often tumble from an old book’s pages. Proving, perhaps, that readers are an inventive sort: anything can be used as a bookmark. Some of the secrets shared are lively. A book about prayer hinted at a woman’s early history, from her beginnings as an eager student enthusiastically involved in church activities, to her stint in the military and her marriage (dutifully reported in the local paper, the clip laminated and saved).

Other secrets are not as happy. I remember a book lovingly inscribed to a husband. It was filled with various birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and other romantic notes. In one, the wife thanks him for an exercise machine he bought her. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, with hearts dotting her i’s. Where are these spouses now, that such a large chunk of their relationship could be abandoned in the annals of a secondhand bookshop?

Not inappropriately, secondhand bookshops are filled with a thousand stories. The march of old children’s novels and academic textbooks tell their tales of growing up, the fantasies changing from knighthood and solving mysteries to more practical subjects like computer engineering and mathematics. The diet and exercise books are always either over or underused. Recipe books often come splattered with a sampling of the recipes they contain, their spines beholden to a family’s favourites. There are gardening books for all seasons; history books too historic; outdated travel guides to other places: Europe and Asia and the Cape. Foreign languages languish without someone to keep learning them. And the religious section – filled with shelves and shelves of daily devotionals, old hymnals falling apart at the seams, their songs now unsung, and small inspirational hardcovers that, if their sheer number is any indication, failed to inspire.

People may wonder how I could spend hours browsing a used bookstore. It smells funny, they may say, and they’d be right. It’s too dirty, they may point out, and I wouldn’t argue. But while my hands become sticky with the grit of books who’ve lived real lives before I met them, I’m also thinking about the person (“M de Jager”) who donated their entire Anne Rice collection to our SPCA’s charity bookshop. The novels are old, unglamorous paperbacks with yellowing pages and thick, outdated typeset almost as cheesy as their content. What, I wonder, happened between this person and Anne Rice’s vampires? Was the breakup sudden, or was it a long time coming? What replaced these books, if anything?

But as I turn Interview with the Vampire over in my hands, most of all I wonder this: where oh where will I find space for all these books in my house? It remains the deepest mystery of all.

 

Book review: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

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I feel kind of proud of myself that I got around to reading a bestseller while it’s still a bestseller and not years after the fact. I’m not going to lie, the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as protagonist Tom Hazard in the film adaptation prioritised this book’s position in the “to read” pile. His production company was confident enough about the novel that they bought the film rights before it was even published, so it had that to commend it.

And what do you know, it really is a good book. I was a tad ambivalent about Haig after Reasons to Stay Alive (still don’t know why, don’t @ me), but How To Stop Time was such an effortlessly good read that it’s almost criminal. For all its depth of character and theme, Haig keeps it simple, poignant and promising, and I won’t lie, there were some wet eyes near the end.

How to Stop Time follows the story of Tom Hazard, a man who suffers from a rare condition which causes him to age more slowly than other people. The love of his life has been dead for centuries, and the only thing that keeps him going is his search for his daughter Marion, who has the same condition he has. The book jumps between the present and the past, sketching in the details of his life and the historical people he’s met, and the loneliness of being lost in time.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2017).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.14/5)
The best feature of the book: Haig has a talent for keeping his protagonist very human despite his odd condition.
The worst feature of the book: I’m tempted to say “more historical detail” but that probably would have slowed it down.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. The novel has fantasy elements but it’s not fantasy. It’s thrilling but hardly a thriller. If you like “the pain and beauty of life” kinds of stories, you’ll love this.

Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

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Mention of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive kept flitting across my Twitter timeline, so I picked it up to read earlier this year. It’s a memoir of sorts of the author’s struggle with anxiety and depression over the years. But it’s also a letter to his younger self, to the “present tense” of his darkest mental health years (and anyone who has ever had depression and/or anxiety as their present tense). It’s a quick read, human and empathetic, and I don’t regret reading it.

I found a lot to relate to. At one point he describes depression this way:

Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, and intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of acid that is experience.

I especially like that last bit, because depression is a lot like being pickled in your own brain juice, unable to escape. Still, I wasn’t mad about the book as a whole. Perhaps it’s because my depressive episodes are generally sans anxiety. But there’s a deeper disconnect there, one that I can’t quite put my finger on. I like his writing, so it’s not that. He seems like an okay dude, so it’s not that either. I don’t know why (which is super annoying), but there’s a barrier between this book and my whole-hearted approval when by all accounts I should have loved it.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Reasons to Stay Alive
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2015).
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.18/5)
The best feature of the book: It offers an honest, hopeful look at mental health issues.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the glib, although I think maybe that’s just Haig’s writing style.
Trigger warnings: It speaks frankly about depression and anxiety.
You’ll like this if… You’re into memoirs or have ever struggled with mental health.