Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Long Fall


The Long Fall
No 3 in "The Hawk & The Dove" series
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, March 2015

This review has been a long time in coming because of the very nature of this quite remarkable book. This is one continuous narrative rather than a collection of short stories as the previous volumes were, and considering it is a slim volume of 224 pages, it packs a devastatingly powerful emotional and spiritual punch.When I first read it, I was rendered speechless, quite literally, and rather unnerved; I have had to read it through a second time, much more slowly, and ponder and pray over what I have read and how it has affected me.

"The Long Fall" is the third in the wonderful "The Hawk & The Dove" series. Life at the monastery continues in its predictable routine, following the seasons of the year and the liturgical pattern of the Church until Abbot Peregrine is stricken down by a severe stroke. His faithful cell attendant, our dear Brother Tom, is utterly devastated, grief-stricken and has no idea how to cope with the abbot's physical incapacity or his own sadness and feeling of inadequacy. He begs to be allowed to do farm work instead and labours like a man possessed in his attempt to blot out what has happened, until the Infirmarians, Brothers John and Michael, take him aside and open his eyes to what is going on and what he needs to be doing to support and help Peregrine.

 How do we cope with an unexpected and  profound change in our intellectual or physical abilities, whether as the persons affected, those caring for us physically, or those who are closest to us? Denial, stunned shock, rage, depression, avoidance, bargaining, understanding and finally acceptance are stages that both Abbot Peregrine and Brother Tom have to work through before they are reconciled and together, with the help of the Infirmary staff and Brother Theodore, they all work to restore the Abbot to meaningful speech and movement.  Can we or should we expect, hope or ask for death? Should we ever ask another to help put an end to our suffering, no matter how great or whatever the circumstances? Why do we suffer and what is its purpose? These are all things the Abbot and Tom discuss before Peregrine is stricken down once more and dies.

The spiritual, mental, physical and emotional effects of suffering, dying, death and grief are covered incredibly well in a short narrative and this has to be the best depiction of the classic Elisabeth Kubler-Ross academic pathway of the stages of grief ever to be portrayed in a novel, let alone in one which manages to be a remarkable, touching and eye-opening book.

Penelope Wilcock's background as a hospice chaplain shines through in her compassionate and tender look at something most of us try to avoid thinking about. Being encouraged to examine our own beliefs and to study those of our individual religious traditions regarding these topics is important in an  increasingly unchurched society where religious beliefs in the value and nature of suffering are often not understood or even acknowledged; although I may not entirely agree with everything said, this is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, heartbreaking yet uplifting and important books I have read, and I have learned so much from it.

Not only has Brother Tom been enlightened and supported by the end of the book; the reader has too. Thank you, Penelope, for writing this story. It cannot have been easy to do so.









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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dubuque's Forgotten Cemetery





Dubuque’s Forgotten Cemetery:
Excavating a Nineteenth-Century Burial Ground in a Twenty-First-Century City
By Robin M. Lillie and Jennifer E. Mack
University of Iowa Press, March 2015


This has been a timely read, considering the re-interment of King Richard III of England at Leicester Cathedral this week. All that pomp, pageantry, splendour, with enormous crowds to witness the re-burial proceedings for a king - but what about the humble, the ordinary, who have been long forgotten until a chance discovery brings their deaths back into public view once more?

People in Dubuque, Iowa, knew there had been a Catholic cemetery long ago, but everyone believed that virtually all the burials had been re-sited in the new graveyard in the late 1800s, and that perhaps only a few might remain  on the original site. The land was about to be developed; a contingency plan had been made to deal appropriately with any bodies that might be found in the course of the development, but what nobody expected - least of all the person who bought the land - was that there would be lots and lots of people still buried there. Iowa has a robust policy for dealing with human remains, both modern and historic, and in this case, the State Archaeology service was heavily involved right from the very beginning - which was just as well.

What was anticipated to take only a month ended up taking years and uncovering almost a thousand graves, as well as opening a complex and costly legal minefield. Despite all the problems, this turned out to be a remarkable opportunity which allowed archaeologists  to use the scientific examination and testing of buried human remains and their grave goods to identify at least some people and to use newspapers and census/religious records to help build up a truly fascinating picture of the health, wealth, life and death of people in multi-cultural Dubuque during the settler period of the 1800s. Many of the deceased had appalling dental problems and must have been in great pain as many of them show signs of having active dental abscesses at the time of their death.

 I found the section dealing with the religious medals - some very unusual indeed - and rosaries buried with the dead particularly fascinating. Several bodies had been buried wearing their rosaries around their necks, which is currently a fashion decried by modern Catholics, but obviously was just as acceptable then as the more mainstream custom of having rosary beads wrapped round the deceased person's hands. The medals depict saints whose specific devotions reveal the geographical origins of some of the settlers as from areas within France, Italy and Germany. It is truly staggering how much information the archaeologists have been able to retrieve from what they unearthed yet there are still many mysteries, such as the purpose and meaning of the silver-plated  dish resembling a paten which was buried with a child, a ten-sided plate buried with a woman and the presence in a grave of a pair of large scissors.

An excellent and highly readable book, detailed yet clearly written, well-illustrated and which shows the puzzles, triumphs and detailed detective work that is involved in archaeology, ending with the respectful re-burial of the dead and a discussion of the function of cemeteries as sacred space and their appropriate management over time.









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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bless Me, Father


Bless Me, Father
By Neil Boyd
Published by Open Road Media, 
24th March 2015


It is nice to see this classic book back in print, thanks to Open Road Media. First published in 1977 in the UK, this is the first of five books featuring the exploits and mishaps of Father Neil Boyd, a newly-ordained RC priest, when he starts his ministry under the tutelage of the formidable Father Duddleswell in the London parish of St Jude's. Thrown in at the deep end, he learns to deal with organising a Sicilian family wedding, persuading Fr Duddleswell to agree  to take part in a clerical swimming competition as well as protecting the seal of the confessional with a pair of scissors, teaching would-be converts and very much more.

We meet a whole host of memorable characters, including Mrs Pring, the kind-hearted housekeeper who lives in a state of almost permanent sniping warfare with Fr Duddleswell, the truly terrifying Mother Superior of the local convent, the local doctor who likes a tipple and the rascally neighbour Billy Buzzle, who is always looking to for a way to annoy or outsmart Fr Duddleswell

Set in the pre-Vatican 2 days of the 1950s, when the services were in Latin and life in general was very different, it is not in the least bit politically correct and reduced me to fits of laughter in several places. The clergy are shown as human, fallible, wily, gullible, prone to bad temper and occasional outburst of swearing, just like the rest of us.  It's a pleasant and memorable read.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Gods of the Morning





Gods of the Morning
A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year
By John Lister-Kaye
Published by Canongate Books
March 5th, 2015


This is the story of a year in the Scottish Highlands, at an idyllic place called Aigas, as told by the eminent naturalist and author, John Lister-Kaye. He may primarily be a naturalist, but there is a good deal of the poet-philosopher in Mr Lister-Kaye and he does not shy away from looking at how man's interaction with the environment can be less than successful or indeed catastrophic in some cases. His Field Studies centre studies all aspects of flora and fauna in the area and he combines extensive scientific knowledge with a warm appreciation for his subject and an obvious desire to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm in the reader.

I certainly feel he succeeds in this. His love for the  area and every aspect of its wildlife shines through in every sentence, and he does not just describe the more appealing and marketable denizens such as golden eagles; I was delighted to find an incredible chapter about spiders, for instance!   Even the small events, such as a bird flying into a glass window and dying can reveal all sorts of natural history information; the fact that it was a blackcap was sad, but then it transpires that he had not heard any blackcaps singing for several weeks, yet they were still obviously in the area prior to migrating. What makes them stop singing before they fly away for the winter? He writes about owls, the delights and hardships of owning dogs, tracking animals, filming wildlife, cooking and eating swans whose corpses he found, fox-watching, how wildlife fares in the harsh winter months, wildfires, raptors, gamekeepers, butterflies and so much more.

Some of my favourite parts are when he discusses incredible migratory feats by birds, how leaves change colour and then fall and the remarkable ability of his local wood mice to navigate the area around his home, recounted with humour and a degree of delightful amazement. He tries not to interfere with nature, no matter how red in tooth and claw it may be,  yet he found he could not leave a stranded Whooper swan to perish and made sure to take some corn every day for it to eat  until it regained strength to fly off again.

A book which is worth reading and re-reading.





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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sad News




                                      The amazing, incredible Terry Pratchett has died.


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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Authentic Amish Cookbook


The Authentic Amish Cookbook
Compiled by Norman and Marlena Miller
Published by Harvest House, 1st March 2015


This book will be a welcome addition for anyone who collects cookbooks or who is interested in the Amish food culture.  In keeping with the plain and simple lifestyle of the Amish, this recipe book is simply laid out and presented. Its simplicity has presumably contributed to its production costs as this is an inexpensive yet surprisingly comprehensive book compared to many other Amish cookbooks I have seen.

I liked seeing the words (and music!) for popular hymns, both English  and German, interspersed throughout the book as well as the quotations. Each chapter opens with a simple yet effective black and white photograph; many of the recipes have attributions to the contributors and there is a useful notes section to add your own recipes or annotations.  

Some recipes in the main body of the book, such as the Potato Salad, serve huge numbers - this one makes 5 quarts - and are ideal for catering for pot-lucks, church meals etc and there is also a special section for catering for large numbers of people, as well as a specific chapter on canning and freezing, a chapter with miscellaneous recipes such as dandelion jelly, honey butter, beef or venison jerky, Play-Doh and finger paints and a few pages of "Inspirational Gems for Mothers" which may sound a little twee but are actually very practical and useful. For those with specific dietary needs, a section entitled Health Food Recipes provides healthy alternatives to the main recipes, using carob, honey and whole grains.

I would add for the UK or European reader, that there are recipes which are sadly going to be a bit difficult to make due to the specific American nature of some of the processed ingredients, although you can always look upon it as a perfect opportunity to experiment until you find an appropriate substitute ingredient - I still cannot find anything which approximates well to Cool Whip!



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Monday, March 02, 2015

The Wounds Of God



The Wounds of God
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, 20th Feb 2015



We meet our old favourite characters from The Hawk and The Dove and learn much more about their lives and past histories in this marvellous sequel, as well as making the acquaintance of some new friends too.

 In this book, Melissa is much older, and we are immediately thrown into seeing how she deals with the tragic suffering and death of her friend Maggie and how she coped with that whilst wishing she still had her mother with her. She reminisces about her childhood, which was indeed rather spartan due to the family's relative poverty, but filled with love, laughter and family experiences of the sort which provide a whole lifetime of good memories and acting as a counterbalance to the unfairness that a sensitive child like Melissa can experience in a school setting where religious musings and thought were strongly discouraged if not actively punished. This book gives us more stories told by her mother, stories which continue to sustain and teach Melissa.


Brother Thomas is in deep disgrace when he is told he must accompany Father Abbot to a monastic conference chaired by Prior William, one of the most sinister and ungodly monks one can imagine. William is a man who delights in posturing and self-serving, taking pains to  persecute, humiliate and put down others, all in order to enhance his own self-importance in a disturbingly passive-aggressive manner....

 The conference is a lively one, (and I never, ever thought I would find someone who would write about theological concepts of justice, mercy and grace, while referencing in the Athanasian Creed in a novel!) and  I found myself heartily cheering on our dear Brother Tom when he leaps to Abbot Peregrine's defence. It was particularly nice to read about Abbot Peregrine's delightfully ebullient, erudite French equivalent, Pere Guillaume, who sees the great good in Brother Tom immediately, yet it is not long before Brother Tom is in trouble again, falling head over heels in love and leaving the abbey, only to realise at what cost, and making a painful return to monastic life.

It is enlightening, too, to see how hard the role of abbot is. He is responsible for the physical, spiritual and mental well-being of all the monks and novices at the abbey; he must make sure that each is given a role or task which is beneficial for his spiritual growth even if it is not always obviously best suited to his strengths and talents. The story of Brother Cormac and his stint of work in the kitchen with the fiery Brother Andrew is a case in point, but by the end of the book, we see how wise Father Abbot has been in these placements.

Steadfast loyalty, love, courage, friendship, repentance and spiritual growth are the deep, deep themes in this deeply moving and thought-provoking collection of stories which are definitely more aimed at adults and middle/older teens this time.  This book gives the open-minded reader some tender, loving, heartbreakingly raw and honest insights into the monastic life, what it costs the monk, even his family as well as the whole monastic community  before he reaches his heart's true home and the fullness of God's peace, which is the goal of each and every one of them.

I wept openly at several points and rejoiced at others, and I still find it hard to believe that these are only fictional characters, so deft and skillful are Penelope Wilcock's  portraits of these monks and their monastic struggles.

A wonderful read.


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Trauma Junkie


Trauma Junkie
By Janice Hudson
Published by Firefly Books, 2010


This is an updated and expanded version of a book which was originally published in 2001 and just as the title says, describes the working life of an Emergency Flight Nurse.

Just about the only thing Janice did not experience was treating a shark attack victim (a rival medical flight team got that experience), but she saw and treated just about everything else: burns, car crashes, cot death, truck crashes, drug-related shootings, overdoses, kids with meningitis, earthquake injuries, hit and run injuries, heart attacks, drownings and jet ski/motorboat injuries, to name but a few. 

Not only that,  but her work has put her in situations where her own safety has been at grave risk, being more or less trapped in  car wrecks as firefighters struggle to extricate the injured people she is helping, having to be winched  up to a helicopter as part of a cliff-rescue as well as being on the helicopter when there was a duck strike to the engine and when fire warning lights came on in mid-flight. 

She's crammed more adrenaline -fuelled incidents in her working life than the collected population of the average small town, and this fascinating book is the result. Lots of detail, but not too much, which is always a hard tightrope to walk for a medical writer, this book  filled me with whole-hearted admiration for the work these amazing crews do, day in, day out.


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