Tag Archives: reading

Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

Book review: Our Child of Two Worlds, Stephen Cox

Spoiler warning! This a book review which includes some details about the plot, so do read the novel first if you’d prefer not to know what happens. 

Stephen Cox’s new book Our Child of Two Worlds is a sequel to his previous novel, Our Child of the Stars (which I previously discussed on this blog). It explores the implications of Molly and Gene’s decision to make Cory, the child of the titles, part of their family. They turn out to have less control over the situation than they imagine: when the other side of Cory’s family arrives for their distant planet, decisions Gene and Molly were struggling with are actually out of their hands.

Image of the book cover and details of the social media blast, 31st March-3rd April, which includes posts by @booksandlovelythings, @geekdads, Red Train Blog, Scrapping & Playing/ @annarella, For Winter Nights/ @wetdarkandwild, Blue Book Balloon/ @bluebookballoon, Brigid Fox and Buddha/ @bookgeekrelng

There are a handful of other characters who explore the themes of the book alongside Cory: besides Molly and Gene, I was especially interested in Molly’s sister, who faces her own very difficult decisions, and Elsa, another child Gene and Molly end up adopting. It’s absolutely consistent with their characters that they go on welcoming more people and trying to support everyone; but as Cory needs more support – as his alien powers develop and seem to be out of control – the more complex situation also becomes more dangerous. 

This book left me thinking about what decisions you get to make. In the end, and after worrying about what to do, Gene and Molly don’t get to decide whether or not to travel with Cory to an alien world – the purples, Cory’s people, don’t offer to take the whole family. Cory must travel alone and everyone has to make the best of it. On the other hand, there are a lot of decisions they have been able to make along the way: how to respond to Cory’s arrival in the first book, how to handle Cory’s development and changing needs, and how to look after other children (baby Fleur and teenage Elsa, and others in the wider family/community) as well. 

Cory also gets to make some decisions, but often not from a position of having good information. Lacking almost all contact with others of his own kind, he doesn’t know much about his own powers, his own health, or what help he can expect and when. He’s also too young to think some things through well – something which can be tricky to portray in fiction, where a character’s decisions are carefully considered from outside even if they are made to see unconsidered inside the narrative, but which comes over convincingly here. Some of the adults are also very aware of Cory’s youth; his powers, although often a plot point, aren’t in the end treated as a handy magical MacGuffin by the people around him. That makes a refreshing change from some other superhero genre stories, where powers are regarded mainly as a useful tool and care for their possessor often comes second.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. If I have hesitations, they’re not just about the story: I read the last part of it, which includes violence in space, at the time of the start of the war in Ukraine, which made those sections more difficult to read than they would usually be. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you enjoy stories about family, trying to stay together when things are difficult, and finding new ways to make connections, you’ll probably enjoy both of these books – it may be best to start with Our Child of the Stars and then pick up Our Child of Two Worlds.

Story and situation

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can control in a reader’s experience. Word choice, sentence length, paragraph structure, chapters… and writers and publishers together, or writers who self-publish, can control layout, paper quality, cover art. These are all important. They are also only part of a reader’s experience. When this is discussed, there’s often a focus on things about the reader – some within the reader’s control, and some not. Does the reader have personal experience of things described in the book? Does the reader’s mood accord with the mood of the book? Does the reader have time and space to read attentively, or are they skimming or distracted? Writers try to guess things about readers (like which words they know and what kind of story they want to read) and readers try to use clues like covers and blurbs and reviews to pick writers who relate appropriately to their expectations – sometimes wanting comfort and sometimes wanting challenge.

But another things readers or media consumers do is to put different texts in dialogue. Sometimes this is very considered – for example, last year I went on holiday to Whitstable, and I went in Harbour Books and asked for novels set locally, and read two very different stories, both set in the same town, in relatively quick succession. Sometimes it’s even controlled by an editorial hand, as when poems are collected in an anthology or essays in an edited collection, or suggested by an publisher, as when books are placed in a series. Sometimes it’s an accident. This can happen with fiction, and it can happen when some of the texts are factual, too. 

Does the news count as a text for this purpose? On the one hand, it obviously isn’t like reading a novel or watching a film, and rolling 24-hour news coverage is different even from a journalistic nonfiction book. On the other hand, sometimes it arrives in similar ways. Last night, instead of putting the news on, we watched The King’s Man – but we watched it on the same TV, and whatever its other pros and cons as a film the way I thought about it was undoubtedly affected by the world context. Sometimes creators see this sort of thing coming and make changes, more or less successfully, to account for it. A Spiderman film had the twin towers removed after September 11th; one theory about the weird plot of Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was that it had a storyline about a pandemic removed. The parallels between The King’s Man and the situation in Ukraine probably aren’t strong enough to justify such a reaction, even if it hadn’t been released before the recent events – and much of what it uses and plays with is real history anyway – but sitting on my sofa last night, it was impossible to avoid making the comparisons.

This seems inevitable. I don’t think this specific effect did The King’s Man, a movie which swings wildly between the tragic, the comic, and an uncertain tragi-comedy, any favours, but as often as it causes problems it can be a positive and enlightening experience. In January I read Darryl Cunningham’s Supercrash, a graphic novel which investigates politics and financial structures. I had that freshly in my mind as stories about inflation and the rising cost of living were getting traction on news agendas, and it helped me to think more widely about the implications of what was being reported and ask questions (usually ones I can’t answer) about why things are the way they are.

That being so, I have no moral to draw out of these musings except to keep on reflecting on how particular combinations might be affecting my responses to any given piece of media. Would I have like The King’s Man better in a different time? Possibly. Would I have appreciated Supercrash less if it hadn’t seemed relevant? Probably. Will I try and create stories which respond to the world around me? Probably. Will I be able to write something which speaks to the moment in which it is published? Probably not!

Have you had the experience of media/situation pairings which worked especially well or especially badly?

Two excellent books for Black History Month

I don’t normally do ‘months’ and Black History Month in the UK isn’t until October and reading books isn’t enough… but I happen to have read a couple of excellent books on Black history lately, and it’s Black History Month in the USA and Canada, and Quakers celebrate festivals all year round, so I’m going to do this anyway. 

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga is a richly detailed account of Black history as it relates to the British state. It took me two weekends to read and I had a break in the middle, because it’s emotionally intense at a times as well as a long read. I wouldn’t call the text dense, exactly, because it’s always clearly written, but there’s a lot, simply because there is a lot to say on these subjects. I haven’t read either the illustrated or teenage versions or watched the TV show, but hopefully those make the material accessible to more people. 

Overall, I found Black and British helped to tie together many different strands, often of history where I knew a little bit or had read something before. One example would be Black Tudors – I had read Miranda Kaufmann’s book on Black history in the Tudor period, and Olusoga’s work helped to put that into context for me. Another example is the ‘struggle for Africa’ – I knew that European countries had colonised much of Africa, but I knew more about the later effects than the original process, and in the context of the whole sweep of Black and British it became obvious how relatively recently that colonisation took place. Olusoga’s book also does really useful work in revealing things which might be relevant to the political situation today, including addressing different manifestations of racism in different parts of British society over time, and I’d highly recommend this as a background to anyone wanting to understand some of the more complex interactions of race and class in Britain.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall (illustrated by Hugo Martinez) is a graphic – novel? I feel my genre vocabulary failing here; a book which uses sequential art to tell a true story – which combines the story of Hall’s research, including her encounters with racism in the process, with the stories of slave revolts which she researched. I really appreciated the way Hall wove together the different elements of the story, so that as a reader I was clear which parts were fact and what was imagination, but she was free to imagine and fill in the gaps when necessary. I was really engaged by the process – I felt a surge of anger when she was shut out of an archive which might have revealed some of the lost material. I see that Lloyd’s Bank, one of the archives mentioned in the book, now has a section about enslavement on the history page of their website, but it’s worded in a distancing sort of way. I hope they have now allowed Hall and other researchers access to check for records which might be useful.

As well as the racism and reluctance to face up to history which Hall encounters in her research, she also uncovers the sexist assumptions made by both enslavers and historians of the slave trade. The book details several slave revolts in which women, often women not even named in the historical record, were leaders in resisting and were punished accordingly. Sometimes it seems that even people who were in a position to see it happening directly failed to understand the agency women had and the active roles they took, unable to believe that women would handle weapons or organise co-ordinated attacks. I found this a really important counter to the dominant narrative about the antislavery movement, which tends to centre white British men (many of them Quakers – see the Lloyd’s page linked above for some examples – which means that as a member of the Quaker community I hear it especially often). 

As Banseka Kayembe said in the article I linked at this beginning of this post, “a true commitment to anti-racism can’t be about just yourself or reading a couple of books – it’s got to be about the collective power of all of us.” Hopefully these books leave us better equipped to focus on that.

#OcTBR report

This Twitter challenge asks you to take your To Be Read pile (in my case, shelf and ebook collection) and read as much of it as possible in October. I started the month with 33 books on my physical To Read shelf, and 4 on my Kindle. (And lots in my to-obtain shelf on Goodreads and my samples folder on the Kindle, but we won’t talk about those.) I read 28 books during the month – all 4 from my Kindle, 22 from my physical to-read shelf, one from the circulating library I belong to, and one which came out during the month. I now have one book on my Kindle (newly bought, the thing I’m now reading there), and 25 books on my physical to-read shelf, because of course I didn’t stop buying books or going to the library or accepting books my wife has read and recommended. 6 of them are books which were there at the beginning of October.

Before: my to-read shelf on 1st October 2021.
After: my to-read shelf on 31st October 2021. Books to the left of the yellow sunscreen bottle arrived after the beginning of October.

I read 16 fiction books, including 10 graphic novels and manga volumes. I read 11 non-fiction books, including 1 graphic novel. Those covered neuroscience, history, religion, LGBTQ+ topics, poetry, politics, and nature writing. The oldest book was first published in 1911 (although I read a recent reprint), and the newest was published this year.

I also did not finish some books. I had two books about Derrida on my to-read shelf which I had brought home from the office mid-pandemic, but I accepted that I am not actually going to read them at this time and moved them. I started the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, but I found it too bitty to follow without first knowing much more about her, so I stopped.

I can’t pick a favourite, but here are highlights in four categories.

Most fun graphic novel: Ms Marvel Team-UpEnjoyable superhero stories – I’m not a big fan of Spiderman but he wasn’t too annoying in this story (I see other reviewers on Goodreads called him out of character, and that’s also a plausible reading), and the Captain Marvel team-up was good.

New discovery in a novel: No Surrender. I made this category ‘new discovery’ because I couldn’t pick ‘best’ – I read a bunch of novels across very different genres and Gods Behaving Badly, Jane Unlimited, Sistersong, and Jacob’s Room are all excellent in very different ways. But I hadn’t read a Suffragette novel which was actually written during the campaign before, and it made for a very interesting read. 

Best academic book: Kenyan, Christian, QueerAgain, this was a difficult pick, and Empire of Guns is a very close second. Kenyan, Christian, Queer has a lot to offer both in terms of new content and good methodology, though, and I recommend it to anyone interested in LGBTQ+ experience, understanding Kenyan culture, or questions about fieldwork in religious studies.

Best popular nonfiction book: On the Red Hill. I really enjoyed the way that nature writing, historical and cultural exploration, and personal stories came together in this book. It was especially interesting as a follow-up to A Little Gay History of Wales, which I read earlier this year, and Queer As Fact’s episode on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners – all tend to add nuance to the image of cities as accepting and rural life as rejecting LGBTQ+ people. 

Overall, I managed to do a lot of reading in October. I read more graphic novels than usual and fewer academic books, partly because I was doing a lot of teaching and partly because my wife reads graphic novels and then lends them to me. I read books from about 12 sources – four different library systems, Amazon, big bookshops, little bookshops, secondhand bookshops, bookstalls at museums.  I was well above my personal average (I usually read about 16 books a month). I don’t know whether I’ll keep it up next month, because November is NaNoWriMo – see next post! – but it was a pleasant challenge.

The Voice of the Book?

On the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have sometimes been talking about the voice of the book – what do we want it to sound like? What tone should the book take, and how is that created? Sometimes we talk about a singular voice, and at other times we recognise that many voices will be present in the final result – the committee and the yearly meeting, and the individual or corporate authors of sources we use for extracts (and not just written ones, but the creators of images and music and videos we use as well). In order to explore the question of voice in books of discipline, I went looking for some examples, and in this blog post I want to offer close readings of three passages, all from Quaker books – all passages from sections on Yearly Meetings – but which have markedly different voices. Close reading is as much of an art as writing, and you may not agree with my conclusions if you hear different resonances in the passages I discuss. I have chosen three passages from sources which are available online so you can go and read more for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Please share them!

The first passage is from the 1806 “Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia”. Like most books of discipline of the period, it is divided into chapters which are then arranged alphabetically. The chapter on Yearly Meeting is short, with only a few extracts from previous minutes laying out different aspects of the process. The first paragraph reads:

It appears by the records, that our first yearly meeting was held at Burlington in New Jersey the thirty-first day of the Sixth Month, 1681, O.S. for the provinces of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; that in 1685, it was agreed to be held alternately at Burlington and Philadelphia; that in 1755 the time of holding it was changed to the Ninth Month; that in 1760 it was concluded to be held at the same time at Philadelphia only; and that in 1798, the time of holding it was altered to the third Second-day in the Fourth Month, as it now is; the yearly meeting of ministers and elders to be on the seventh day of the week preceding; and both to begin at the tenth hour.

Some of the features which first stand out to a modern reader are the fashions of the time – for example, the use of semi-colons to make sections, almost a list, where modern writers would be more likely to use full stops and create more but shorter sentences, is an obvious aspect of the writing here but may have as much to do with the expectations of the time as a deliberate choice creating the voice of the book. However, the decision to use Quaker-style dates (“Sixth Month” rather than July, and so on – to avoid using pagan names) is a very deliberate one and would have been knowingly at odds with surrounding society. 

The voice of the book is also created by the decisions about content. What did the creators of this book think their readers wanted to know? About history, obviously. About dates and changing practices, about which it’s necessary to give some level of detail. About what’s done now – after this passage, the reader of 1806 knows to expect Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to begin at 10 o’clock on the the third Second-day in the Fourth Month (that is, the third Monday in April). Readers who do not know what Yearly Meeting is or what it does, however, would be very little better off after reading this passage than they were before – it’s a meeting which happens yearly, and has for a long time, but what do people do at this meeting and why? The book assumes readers already know this. The voice of this book is of an insider speaking to an insider – “our first yearly meeting”. It is pedantic, recording details most people would be unlikely to remember, and perhaps designed to remind rather than to teach. It does not rhapsodies or relate personal experience at all, but sets down facts without comment, even though that leaves many questions unanswered about the whys as well as the hows.

Here, by way of a contrast, is the beginning of the chapter on Yearly Meeting from Australia Yearly Meeting’s “Handbook of Quaker Practice and Procedure in Australia” (seventh edition, 2020)

In the previous chapter, consideration was given to the first meaning of Yearly Meeting, the organisation of the whole body of Quakers in Australia, denoted by AYM. Now this chapter is about the other meaning, the annual gathering of Australian Quakers, denoted by YM. One purpose of Yearly Meeting is the reaching of decisions on AYM policy and conduct. Other reasons for Yearly Meeting are the enriching of fellowship between Friends, mutual support in spiritual growth and the discussion of current issues. 

Yearly Meeting is usually held for seven to eight days in January, and is hosted by each Regional Meeting in rotation. A Summer School (6.3.4) is held in association with Yearly Meeting.

There’s no shortage of technical language here but it is handled differently, with a specific effort made to explain most of the terms used (‘regional meeting’ was also covered elsewhere). The voice of this book is more didactic, explaining the purpose of this chapter (“about the other meaning”) as well as the purposes of the Yearly Meeting itself. Unlike the voice of this blog post, which uses words like ‘didactic’ even though I had to use Google to check my spelling, the voice of this book seems to be trying to use plain language even when talking about more emotionally laden elements – “enriching of fellowship between Friends” is a flowery as it gets. However, that turn of phrase is noticeable for its use of a standard play on words; in a book which usually refers to the group as ‘Quakers’ (in this passage, for example, it’s a “gathering of Australian Quakers”), the switch back to the older ‘Friends’ implies the ordinary sense of ‘friends’ as well. “Fellowship between friends” is almost a tautology – if you don’t have fellowship with your friends, are they really your friends? – but the capital letter opens the dual meeting “fellowship between Quakers/fellowship between friends” and makes it worth saying. Note that the use of the phrase ‘Australian Quakers’ also means there are no pronouns here – the group are named rather than being designated as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The resulting impression is more removed than the discussion of ‘our yearly meeting’ in the previous example, but perhaps easier to follow for readers who do not consider themselves part of the group. (Including me: I am a Quaker, but not a member of Australia or Philadelphia Yearly Meetings.)

Finally, here’s the first paragraph from the chapter on Yearly Meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1994 Quaker faith & practice. This is the start of a lengthy section which brings in both history and commentary.

Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.

There is a good deal of detail here, but rather than simply reporting facts the voice of the book is working to persuade us. It gives several examples (assuming that these are known to us already – “we may think” – and of course readers already know about the letter from Balby… if you don’t, here’s a brief introduction) before arguing that in fact none of these was the first Yearly Meeting. Both the issues of continuity and representativeness are raised as characteristics of a Yearly Meeting which will count as such – while the reader drowns in dates much as in the 1806 Philadelphia example, and is assumed to be an insider, a lot more information is given (like details about locations and attendees), and it is possible to infer some things about the purpose of the meetings from the way in which some examples are judged to be ‘in’ the series and others not. The people are called ‘Friends’ throughout and the arguing voice, the reader, and previous generations of Friends are all included in the decision to be made: “we have traditionally chosen”. The method of presenting facts in support of multiple possible interpretations, especially done so quickly in a single passage, is reminiscent of an academic project such as an essay. The vocabulary is extensive, background knowledge is assumed (‘pestilence’ presumably refers to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1665, for example), and only some technical terms are explained (‘publick’ is glossed with the more familiar, although still technical, term ‘ministering’).

I’m not sure that I want the voice of our future book to copy any of these. I hope, though, that a careful reading of three examples shows something of the range of what is possible – even without adding a diagram or a video – and how the details of choices add up to create an overall impression. There are the issues of vocabulary – ‘we’ and ‘our’, ‘Quakers’ and ‘Friends’, ‘ministers and elders’. There is the question of sentence length and style – how many subclauses is the reader expected to be able to follow, for example? And these issues cannot be separated from the issues of content and audience. In order to decide what the voice of the book should be like, we as a Revision Committee will be thinking about questions like: who is reading this book and what do they want to find out? Are they knowledgeable Quakers who want to double-check a date? Australian Quakers or strange people on the internet who want to analyse language use by Australian Quakers? People who have been to yearly meeting before, or people who are considering whether it’s worth giving up a week’s holiday to go for the first time?

Book review: The Faithful Spy

Note: I was sent a free copy of this book for review by Speakeasy

The Faithful Spy is a graphic novel which tells the true story – or at least, selected highlights of the true story – of German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The format makes it an accessible read, and the content contains some hopeful notes, although ultimately Bonhoeffer and his group do not succeed in killing Hitler. (Spoilers – which are a matter of historical fact, fairly widely know, and I give here because I think in this case knowing the ending enhances appreciation of the storytelling – they made three attempts, and most of the conspirators including Bonhoeffer were executed for it, some of them very shortly before the end of war.) As well as travelling to the UK, the USA, and other countries around Europe and choosing to return to Germany, Bonhoeffer spends a considerable amount of time in prison. 

The Library of Congress Catalogue codes on the end-paper of this volume all list it as ‘juvenile literature’. On the one hand, I agree that the illustrated format, straightforward story telling style, and important historical content make this suitable reading for some teenagers. On the other hand, I have two objections. First, I worry that some readers without a reasonable historical background might not be able to grasp the context of this story (which centres Christians rather than Jews, for example – a sensible choice for a book about the life of Bonhoeffer, a somewhat problematic choice if it’s your first introduction to the story of the Shoah). Secondly, that such a label might mean some adult readers who would benefit from it, might miss it. 

Readers of all ages might, rightly, be disturbed by some of the content. There are no graphic deaths, but there are details of assassination attempts and prison conditions, and torture, war, poverty, and death are a constant background. The insights into Hitler’s rise to power are important and need to be read and remembered – but this isn’t a cheerful book or one to escape into if current politics is getting you down. It might be one to study if you are thinking about ways to channel your anger.

So who would benefit from reading this book?

  • People who already know a fair amount about the Second World War and want to fill in more details or get a different perspective. ‘Assassinate Hitler’ has become an almost proverbial option – would you or wouldn’t you? how would it affect the timeline? – and here is the story of a man who was involved in several attempts to do just that, and who grappled in a serious and informed way with the moral implications of such an action.
  • People who study theology and want to think about the ways in which a life shapes someone’s theological ideas. In particular, Hendrix shares a very clear narrative about the ways in which Bonhoeffer was influenced by the Roman Catholic and American Black churches, and about the ways in which he struggled to fit ethical principles to complex realities. 
  • People who are looking at a dangerous political situation and considering when and how to act. Before the famous ending, there are a lot of other steps Bonhoeffer and his friends try out. They find ways to help Jews out of Germany. They build theological arguments which counter the allegedly Christian positions being taken by the German churches under Nazi orders. They form a revolutionary theological school in a remote place where they can teach alternative ideas. They enlist the help of Christians outside Germany. They build communications networks, search for allies, and draw inspiration from other, more or less comparable, movements. 

Overall, I was impressed with the research and story-telling in this book. Direct quotes from historical sources are clearly marked, and despite some simplifications I’d happily recommend this to a student wanting a quick overview to get started with Bonhoeffer’s work as well as to casual readers. Well worth picking up, with no easy answers but a thoughtful and accessible engagement with important questions.

Last Day of 2019

It’s the last day of 2019, the last day of the year and (depending on your counting system, possibly) the last day of the decade. I haven’t been blogging as regularly over the last few months – my energy has been taken up elsewhere – but it seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of the year, the last ten years, and some thoughts about what’s coming in 2020. I’m going to split my review into four themes: reading, writing, teaching, and personal.

Reading

In the last decade, I’ve read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but what I read has shifted over that time. It was probably about ten years ago that I got a kindle for the first time, and that opened up two worlds for me: downloading fanfiction from AO3 (rather than reading it on my laptop), and buying cheap ebooks from Amazon. The latter especially has been a big shift in the publishing market and probably affects the next section, too, because when it’s easier to self-publish or to run a small press, because it’s easier to create and sell ebook-only editions, it becomes possible to cater to niche audiences (like people who want to read LGBTQ+ romances) in a way which was previously… well, which was previously happening mainly in fanfic.

I’ve also made extensive use of libraries, second-hand bookshops, and new bookshops throughout that time. The horrified book-shop running friend who almost refused to speak to me after seeing my ebook reader can relax: as far as I can tell, being able to read in more ways just means I read even more, it doesn’t mean I’m buying fewer physical books.

In 2014, I had a bookshelf full of ought-to-read-that books which I hadn’t had time for, and to encourage me to get through them I started tracking my to-read and read numbers. In 2017 I moved my record keeping into the public domain on Goodreads. These two things mean that I can now offer you a graph of my reading habits and a link to find out what all those books were. Mainly due to taking twelve weeks of study leave (see also the next section), I have read 257 books this year.

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Graph of number of books read, by month, since 2014, with an average line and some notes about events during that time.

Writing

Some writing which I began long ago came to fruition in 2019 as two of my books were published. Telling the Truth about God, based on my earlier academic book British Quakers and Religious Language, which in turned was based on my PhD thesis, came out in 2019 and we held a book launch at CLC in Birmingham.

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With the bookshop manager at CLC at the launch of ‘Telling the Truth about God’.

I also began January 2019 asking questions about this novel manuscript I’d accidentally written in some spare time. (No, really, I had a gap between other books and wanted to maintain a writing habit… it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, just the first time I’ve had something good enough to show other people at the end.) Manifold Press picked it up and it was published in the summer of 2019: Between Boat and Shore. In a genre which clearly exists, and seems extensive for those in it, but is small enough that people outside laugh and think I’m joking when I call it a genre, this is probably one of those things which wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

My main writing project in 2019, and the reason for my study leave, has been my next academic book – currently called Theology from Listening and due with my editor in January 2020. (One reason why I haven’t been blogging so much!)

Next year’s writing projects include a novel which I don’t really have spare time for, another Quaker Quicks book based on this year’s research, and who knows what else. Hopefully some blog posts and poems! I’m reducing my hours at Woodbrooke a bit to make room for more writing, so there will definitely be something. If you want to watch this space for news, why not sign up to get blog posts by email? (There’s a form in the sidebar on the right.)

Teaching

I did various forms of teaching in 2019. (Back in 2009 I was watching lots of my graduating classmates going into secondary school teaching and promising myself I’d never teach at all… universities and adult education are very different to schools! I’m still sure I couldn’t cope with that, and massive respect to everyone who does teach in schools.) I ‘m now co-supervising more research students, which is always interesting and one of my favourite jobs, and have been glad to be involved in various conferences, events for researchers, and academic processes like PhD vivas.

Five courses I taught for Woodbrooke stand out as highlights of 2019. Early in the year I co-taught a course called ‘The Changing Shape of Eldership and Oversight’ with Zélie Gross. We looked at the ways Quaker communities can provide spiritual and practical pastoral support, exploring a range of options and how things are changing in general. Some of this is about the wider changes in the Quaker community – more smaller meetings, for example – and some about changes in society as a whole – like the fact that there are fewer people retiring with time and energy to spare for voluntary work.

Directly relevant to this blog, Gil Skidmore and I ran a course called ‘Spiritual Blogging’. We looked at the Quaker tradition of spiritual journals and how that might relate to modern ways of communicating. We identified some differences but also lots of interesting similarities and cross-cutting themes, like issues around editing your life, choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.  Ben Wood and I collaborated on a course called ‘Truth is What Works’, in which Ben brought a whole load of interesting philosophy and we spent time as a group playing with those ideas.

I taught a full online course on my own for the first time. In ‘Multiple Religious Belonging’, course participants explored their many complex experiences of religion and read (or watched videos) about different perspectives of, and opinions on, situations where one person might be participating in more than one religious tradition or community. And right at the end of the year, Jon Martin and I worked together on a course called ‘Speaking to That of God’, which was about finding new audiences and building Quaker presences online. This is something that I’ve worked on in various ways over the years, but usually for myself and my own purposes – to network with people, to get new perspectives, to form different communities within the wider Quaker world, to learn, to share ideas and practice writing – rather than on behalf of a meeting. I learned a lot from our participants and their questions, and sharpened up some of my own thoughts about what is or isn’t possible or desirable online.

In 2020 I’ll be continuing to work on some of these topics – search Woodbrooke’s online brochure or order a paper copy if you’re interested.

Personal

Outside work, I continued to settle in to living in Birmingham. I visited Belfast twice to spend time with my partner, who’s studying there, and she came to Birmingham several times as well. We went on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with my parents, and had a good time including seeing puffins and stone circles.

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By the shore of an Irish lake, my parents pose for my partner’s camera – she’s standing with her back to me while I take a picture of the photographer at work. 😀

Having resigned at the end of 2018 after volunteering with GirlgudingUK for over a decade, because of their partnership with the armed forces, and stepped back from some other tasks, I started 2019 without much by way of voluntary work. During the year, the Book of Discipline Revision Committee started our work, and I got involved with the Society of Authors including starting a local branch. I kept up my allotment, having some successes (tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, broad beans, a couple of good squashes), and some failures (lettuce seeds that never germinated, leeks which… went weird?, some seedlings I thought I’d sown which turned out to be weeds!).

In 2020, my main aim is to let things in my life happen as they happen. I want to enjoy the opportunities I have – some funding to keep writing, an exciting holiday, a big work trip, potential new directions for my research, and all the usual hopes allotment holders have in spring – and I’m not setting big or dramatic goals. I’m aware that’s the opposite of what I want to see in the world (governments setting ambitious targets for fossil fuel reduction, electoral reform, a welcoming rather than a hostile environment, etc.), but I also need to give myself some space. The last few months have been very crowded with stuff, and seeds (mostly metaphorical but also literal!) which have been planted need time to grow.

Reading: January

During January, I read 20 books. You can find the details of all of them on my Goodreads account, but I thought it might be interesting to share some general observations about them. Later in the year, as I get further into my research project, I might write more detailed reviews of my reading as a way to share my research, but for January something broader seems in order.

Four books were related to my research work on liberal Quaker theology. Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly and Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order actually have a lot in common – one newer and one older, one more convergent and one firmly in the conservative tradition, but both explorations of Quaker practice and its underlying theology. The Promise of Paradox is more generally Christian, while also having clear Quaker roots, and God the Trickster? is at once both a typical liberal Quaker anthology (the anthology format is characteristic of the need to incorporate a range of views), but at the same time unapologetically only represents one strand of Quaker experience.

I read nine novels and one graphic novel. Some of these had been sitting on my shelf or my reading list for a while – I bought Black Panther #1 and read it almost straight away, but it had been on my ‘to obtain’ list for two years. Others were suggested to me – I owned a copy of Decline and Fall anyway, and re-read it after maybe fifteen years to discuss it with a book club. (Interesting that I’d kept it, actually, since I rarely re-read things and tend to pass novels on after a year or two.) One, All the Conspirators, was a good read but had been sent to me by mistake when I tried to order another book by Isherwood!

I also read six non-fiction books not directly related to my research. Ireland: a Short History is probably heavier than most people require as holiday preparation, but was very readable for a textbook and certainly succeeded in filling me in on the background. Living a Feminist Life had been on my reading list for a while and had lots of helpful insights, while Queer City, which I’d also been thinking of reading for some time, turned out not to be worth it at all. I made up for that disappointment with a different and excellent biography, Scanty Particulars: the Life of Dr James Barry.

There are other ways to divide up books, of course. There’s author identity, for example: of those 20 books, 9 were by women, 10 by men, and one an anthology. As far as I know, none of the authors were trans (although gender complexity is a major feature of the biography of James Barry). I think that all but three of the authors were white. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge all but three of the authors were straight.

Or there’s format: I read five of the books on my Kindle, and the rest on paper (14 paperbacks and one hardback). Two, a graphic novel and a history through old photographs, were heavily illustrated, while the rest were mainly text.

Or method of obtaining them: one through a book club/circulating library, four from Woodbrooke’s library, three from the Library of Birmingham, one from the University of Birmingham library, three picked up in second-hand shops, one ordered second-hand online, and one sent by accident when I ordered something else. Apart from the five Kindle books, only the graphic novel was purchased new, for which I should probably apologise to my author friends. 🙂

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!