Two weeks of school holidays. Four books from three different Australian writers. And a whole lot of housework pending to show for it. But it was fun getting into such a mess.
I started with The Spare Room by Helen Garner. This is a story about Helen (it isn't autobiographical) who prepares her spare room for friend Nicola, who is coming to the city to undergo three weeks of experimental treatment she believes will cure her advanced cancer. I've read some excellent reviews for this novel. And it is well written. Garner uses her words economically and creates believable characters in easy to picture settings.
Her powers of description are so good however that as it turns out, I didn't really enjoy the book. It's a hard subject. And the descriptions of this desperately ill woman with more emphasis on bodily fluids than I can manage (I'm the person who, when pregnant with our first child, prayed earnestly that I wouldn't give birth to a vomity baby!) and the hopelessness of the situation (it's not a Christian book - but to face death without the hope of eternal life found in Jesus is a desperately sad thing indeed) just made it all too bleak for me. In and of itself it's fine prose...but I was glad I hadn't saved it to take as holiday reading to the beach.
I moved onto Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir by Tim Winton. Ahhhh...Tim Winton - prize winning West Australian author. I love his earlier material. My favourite big novel of his is The Riders which I read compulsively quite some years ago over three big days and nights, interrupted only by needing to go to work and needing a few hours sleep to prevent my eyes from falling out of my head. I haven't enjoyed his more recent offerings - far too much information and far too much pushing of the boundaries for me, I'm afraid.
I referred to The Riders as a "big novel" because my absolute favourite YOU MUST READ THIS work by Tim Winton is his novella Blueback. This is the story of a mother and son who live on the coast and fight to protect their little piece of marine paradise from developers. Winton's powers of description take you to that bit of beach and that beach shack - and it is there that a very tender and beautiful story unfolds.
Land's Edge is like Blueback, except that while Blueback is fiction, Land's Edge is Tim Winton's own experience of coastal existence. He loves the coast. He lives for the coast. And he can describe it like none other. He captures the sting of the sand on your legs on a windy day, the smell of the ocean, eyes watering from the salt and the glare, the windswept vegetation, the peace and tranquility, the danger, the colours, the feelings evoked. It's all there. He captures it and bottles it on a page.
Land's Edge also taught me that if you want to remain standing in rough surf, it is better to stand side on rather than front on in crashing waves. I remembered that little piece of information after my first unceremonious dumping at the beach during the holidays...and was subsequently saved from further unplanned somersaults in the crashing foam!
Finally, feeling like possibly the last person in the world to read these books, I moved onto My Seventh Monsoon and No Ordinary View by Naomi Reed. Two great reads as she describes life as a cross-cultural worker in Nepal with her husband, both physios, and their family . There is much to love about these books. Early on in the first book she wrote,
We arrived back in Khammam in June with a renewed vision and purpose. We would use any opportunities that came our way to love and pray for people. Beyond that, we would rejoice in God and in the place where he had put us.
(My Seventh Monsoon, page 39)
This was the Reeds' fresh resolve after some really hard months in India, enroute to Nepal. If they couldn't do anything else for lack of language, cultural awareness, resources or real opportunity, they could do that. And that resolution to be content was evident throughout the remainder of My Seventh Monsoon and No Ordinary View. These books exemplify Christian contentment - the deep joy of being a child of God that runs at the foundation of all of life, irrespective of what life throws at you. It doesn't mean always being deliriously happy. It means being anchored. Their lives in Nepal were not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. But in seeking to serve God, honour Him and be content in and dependent upon Him, they thrived and their ministry to the people of Nepal bore fruit.
I read these two books while away at the beach. We stayed in Youth Hostel accommodation which is good but basic - definitely not what you would call fancy. Had I not been reading these books at the time, the fact that the drains in the bathroom (toilet and shower) that we were to use at the end of our verandah were blocked, smelly and out of action could have had me feeling very sorry for myself. But really this was nothing compared with the conditions in Nepal. I had access to another bathroom where there was running water - hot and cold - and good drainage! And we had electricity, refrigeration, good food and no threat of civil war.
Naomi Reed's amazing godliness and contentment in the face of all sorts of hardships and her capacity to see not an ordinary view but treasure around every corner is inspiring. It works because she has written with integrity. This isn't someone putting on a happy face or looking back with rose coloured glasses. It's real, authentic and growing faith in action. And these aren't the sort of books that might make you feel inadequate. There is genuine encouragement, in the true sense of that word, to press on to "use any opportunities that [come] our way to love and pray for people" and to "rejoice in God and in the place where He [has] put us."
And take a peek here for a great set of emails from 2009 between Naomi Reed, now back in Australia, and Rachel Connor, serving with her husband and family in Vanuatu.
That's it for holiday reading. I am slowly retrieving the chaos of the house and returning to term time routines. And I have made a start on A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his Letters by Don Carson. I don't think the title of this book, at least the first bit, is especially helpful. But the book itself is great.