Saturday, 4 March 2017

Thrifty Book Haul March 2017

I had an urge for some retail therapy this morning and not wanting to waste too much money, I decided to take a trip to the charity shops.  Gorgeous wakes up early like me and is the only one that will tolerate going anywhere near a charity shop, even the babies moan at me if I go into one, so I took him along with me.

I managed to find everyone something without wasting too much money.


















The bag of little girl’s toys and the bag of balls cost 99p each, prompting Gorgeous to sing "Balls! Balls! Balls! Balls!" until I asked him to stop.  The acrylic paints were for Little Lady and cost £2, when I checked the Wilko website, I realised they cost that much anyway.

The two little dishes are to use for soap trays.  Both I and Little Lady have been using Shea Moisture Black Soap and the bars of soap are quite big and can get a little messy.  Normal soap trays are too small, so these will contain larger bars of soap.  Both together cost £2.

The two toiletry bags were £2 for both, the large one is a really good size to store stationary or make-up, but in the end I put small toys in it for the girls to play with when we go to my mum’s house 

The little kid’s books were 2 for 99p, with the Hungry Caterpillar for Baby.  The little green notebook was 50p and has dots inside.  It's perfect for a dots and boxes game I like to play with the boys, otherwise I will use it for taking rough notes.















I was looking for some engrossing fiction to get lost in, but the shelves full of chick-lit and supermarket thrillers didn't really appeal.  In the end, I picked three books which cost £5 altogether.  I really, really like the look of all three alhamdulillah.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Divine Reality: God, Islam and The Mirage of Atheism By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

The writer begins with sharing his own journey to Islam and the drivers that motivated him to search for truth. He describes the greatest of these as being the contemplation of death. This serves as a background for how the author came to grapple with this question and also a disclosure of any bias on his part.

The book outlines a definition of atheism, the different types of atheism and what the reasons for these to emerge could be. The writer cites historical examples showing that atheism has always existed in some form or other since the earliest days of Islam and that Islamic scholars have responded to it articulately and with confidence, something that we should retain today in the face of modern challenges to faith. There is a brief history of the rise of atheism in recent years including its growth in Muslim countries and Muslim populations in the Western world.

The writer then breaks down the implications of not believing in God, including the loss of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel and the loss of meaning for our struggles, pain and sacrifices. In contrast there is the hope that faith brings and the reminder from the Quran that those who do not believe in God will feel hopeless:

“Certainly no one despairs of God’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve.”

The book explores fundamental questions like “what is our purpose?”, “what is true happiness?” and “where are we going?” underpinned with logical reasoning, examples to illustrate the writers thinking and including different viewpoints. The writer uses these questions to show that atheism cannot provide satisfactory answers to the big questions in life and because of this cannot lead to the peace and happiness that we seek through trying to answer these questions.

The book then explore the oft-presented argument that you can live a good life as an atheist and while accepting that you can, it cites research evidence of relationships between religion and greater charitable giving, greater levels of volunteering, lower risk of depression, drug abuse, fewer suicide attempts and greater wellbeing.

The writer takes to task naturalist and Darwinist thinking, challenging the belief that everything we do and believe in is geared to increase our chances of survival. He asserts that our existence is not just based on our will to survive, but to find the truth, giving examples of all of the dangerous things we are willing to do to get to it (like explore space or climb a mountain).

The book looks at the argument for the existence of God as opposed to the evidence for the absence of a Creator giving evidence from psychological, sociological and anthropological sources. It also suggests that belief is intuitive, citing the concept of “fitrah” or the innate disposition within each of us to recognise God. This departure is interesting, because the author has to step aside from rational arguments for the existence of God and consider something that is so hard to prove, so easy to reject when arguing about these things, but still so impossible to dismiss on a personal level. It’s that part of us that speaks to us when we look at the beauty of nature and the world around us and tells us that there is something greater than us and that everything that is happening to us is not just random. Tzortzis quotes Al-Ghazali to explain this point quite beautifully:

Al-Ghazali argues that the fitrah is a means that people use to acquire the truth of God’s existence and that He is entitled to our worship. He also maintained that knowledge of God is something “every human being has in the depths of his consciousness.” 

I enjoyed the books forays into descriptions of planets, energy forces and the laws of physics and how they prove some kind of intelligent design as well as the chapter on the divine authorship of the Quran. The latter cites a variety of Islamic and academic scholars. The chapter entitled the Messenger of God (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) is also fascinating in its mention of his teachings, character and impact, but also the things he predicted would come in the future.

One thing I really liked about this book was that it doesn’t dismiss any alternative views out of hand as books written from one religious viewpoint can do. It has the courage to outline all of the alternative views and voices and then follow a line of logic that takes us to why belief in the Divine is the one that makes the most sense.

The book is well structured and aims to be logical as it reasons its way through interlinked elements of atheism. The writer unpacks the arguments in a systematic way. This subject can be a complex and extremely abstract area, difficult to get your head around, cloaked in academic language and sometimes just chasing its tail in circles. This book breaks down the different parts to think about when addressing or trying to understand atheism and provides examples to illustrate what the reasoning looks like. At the same time there were some parts of the book where the reasoning followed through to a conclusion quite effortlessly and there were other parts where the author took the argument to a conclusion in favour of theism rather than atheism, but it did not feel as conclusive. I think that this is because for some of the issues looked at, logic and reason can only take us so far and there is a point at which you have to come down on one side of the argument or other based on what you believe. 

The Divine Reality does not shy away from covering extensive research, multiple areas of study and complex arguments. There were parts of the book that required deeper thinking, re-reading or for me to take a step away and mull over them. This was not for me a book to be devoured in one sitting, but one that took careful reading and some clear thinking space to get through. Even being peripherally aware of the current debates around atheism and the history between the writer and atheist Richard Dawkins, the book introduced me to a very wide range of concepts I was unaware of (such as the “the hard problem of consciousness”).

One of the things in the book that had a powerful impact on me, was a quote from a different writer altogether:

“On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” ~ Richard Dawkins

I found this quote stopped in my tracks. It is so full of hopelessness and so depressing, especially in contrast to the books description of how empowering and uplifting the Islamic belief in a Creator can be.

The writer explains that he wrote the book to assist Muslim’s in having clarity for themselves and when engaging others, particularly at a time when atheism is increasing both in Muslim countries and non-Muslim. Particularly he notes there is an aggressive push to promote atheist ideology on university campuses. This book will serve as an accessible, useful tool in discussing faith and answering the very difficult questions we find ourselves faced with from people both critical of faith and those interested in it.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This book is often used as a GCSE study text although I seemed to have skipped it at school (I think we studied Z for Zachariah instead, which is also very good). I spotted this in a shelf full of sci-fi books at a local charity shop and it was the first one I picked up.

Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie, a young man with learning difficulties, who despite the challenges of life has a sweet and gentle nature. He is selected for an experiment at his local university that aims to enhance intelligence, an experiment initially tested on a mouse called Algernon with great success. As the experiment takes effect, we find Charlie’s intelligence and understanding expand and deepen to outstrip everyone around him. When the mouse starts to behave erratically and fade, Charlie as to question what that means for him.

The book is written in the form of a diary which Charlie is asked to keep as a measure of his progress. The author deftly takes us on a journey through Charlie’s words, portraying innocence, hope, Charlie’s excitement and awakening and then his dawning realisation that the people around him are not always what they have seemed to the child-like version of himself. Throughout Keyes creates the doubts and insecurities that plague Charlie whether his IQ is low or high.

This is not the sci-fi of space ships, aliens or killer robots. This is the kind of book that looks deep into the human psyche and nature and explores the effect of intelligence on the way the world treats you, the way you see it and your relationships. Charlie is lonely and alienated from those around him both when he can barely read or write and when he is considered a genius.

The book was originally written in 1959 and feels very much of its time, with mentions of dance halls and a Strato-jet. But it also shines a spotlight on the treatment of people who were categorised as “retarded” at the time, whether in the community or in hospitals. I recently had a long conversation with a colleague at work who used to manage care homes for people with learning difficulties. She described how at the start of her career she would find people left with no games or radio or any other kind of activity to keep them occupied. They would share communal shower areas and rows of toilets without doors (shared between male and female residents). Most devastatingly, anyone with challenging behaviour that might bite had their teeth removed, the youngest person she saw this done to was 23 years old. So the descriptions of the hospital where “retarded” young men are sent is quite upsetting.

A deeply moving, heart-breaking little book.



Sunday, 29 January 2017

Bargain Book Haul for January 2017

I am missing the boot sales we get to go to in summer, so made a trip to the charity shop to pick up some books for myself and the boys. Someone had given away shelves of sci-fi classics and I picked a few. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes has been on my reading list for ages and it's the first one I started with. I am really enjoying it.

The yellow book is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood who is one of my favourite writers, occasionally her books get too surreal for me, but this is a collection of short stories so should be digestible enough even for my short attention span.

The Gifts of Imperfection is by Brene Brown who was made famous by her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability. That got me interested enough to want to try the book.

The rest are also self-help books which I have a weakness for. The Barefoot Doctor's Handbook for the Urban Warrior is probably not I would have picked up, except that I opened it to take a look and came across the following:

"Death
As a warrior, you're already dead"


Something about that resonated so deeply with me and I have always had a longing to be a braver more fearless soul, so I decided to take this book home too.

The paints are part of a little paint set stored in a lovely yellow tin. I really wanted to keep it, but in the end I gave it to Little Lady who will make good use of it.




Friday, 24 June 2016

The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey

I came across some rave reviews for this book online, so decided to treat myself to it. I am a big fan of any kind of post-apocalyptic literature. I love the creation of a possible future world, whether positive or negative and the various scenarios played out in the new world and how humanity deals with them.

Zombie books I am less keen on. There seems to be a lot of the samey shuffling around, groaning and eating people and I don’t have much of a stomach for gore. Occasionally there is something different, like World War Z (detailed and intelligent) or Warm Bodies (funny and not too bogged down by endless boring zombie chases). I would put The Girl with All the Gifts into that something different category.

The Girl with All the Gifts
 is set in a future world which has been overrun and destroyed by a virus that causes people to turn into zombies (or “hungries”). Melanie is a very intelligent little girl that lives on an army base somewhere in England. Every day she is taken from a locked room, strapped to a wheelchair with a gun pointed at her head and taken to a classroom to join other children strapped in wheelchairs. They are taught about the world by various teachers including her favourite Miss Justineau. It is difficult to give an idea of what the book is about without giving too much away and spoiling the suspense. Certainly when I ordered the book, I knew every little and on reading it I enjoyed the story unfolding layer by layer.

It takes the book some time to reveal why the children are kept in this way and what the purpose of the base is. Throughout this part of the book we get to know Melanie – her genius level intelligence, coupled with ignorance about the world outside the base and her innocent questioning of what is going on around her.

Whereas the first part of the book cranks up the tension with its slow reveal and fascinating premise, the second part of the book changes gear. It is faster in pace, but I was somewhat less engrossed as the trajectory of the next part of the story felt a little bit more like familiar ground. Towards the last third, the book slows down and the intrigue and revelations start rolling again. I found myself hooked at the end again and reading the last part of the book when I was supposed to be getting ready for work so that I could find some resolution for the characters and the situation they find themselves in.

This book is elevated from the usual groaning and gore of this genre by its beautiful writing – we get to see the world from the perspective of someone who has only read about trees, butterflies and birds and then gets to see them for the first time with completely fresh eyes. The novel also does something else which zombie books don’t tend to do, which is to explore the human condition and relationships: guilt, despair, hope and the love between Melanie and her beloved Miss Justineau.

The book makes an intelligent and believable attempt at including the science around the Zombies and what has happened to Melanie and the other children like her without getting bogged down by it too much. I liked also that the book is set in England including locations in London which are certainly given a complete, rather terrifying, makeover for the future. The glimpses into the near past and how the government reacted to the virus are haunting and the hints about what might have happened to them are haunting and one of the things that stayed with me at the end of the book.

This was probably one of the best books I have read this year. I think the writer takes a genre that can be treated quite superficially with a focus on gore and gives it heart and depth through the journey that Melanie is taken on. Rather than a simple blood-fest it becomes a thoughtful commentary on love, humanity and evil, still with lots of gross bits of course.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Behind Picket Fences by Hend Hegazi

Hend Hegazi’s second book is a departure from her debut novel in many ways. Her first novel focussed on a significant issue and how the characters affected dealt with the fallout of it. We act as witnesses to the protagonist’s journey and desire resolution for her. In her second book, we are invited into the kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms of a host of characters living in one street. Hegazi creates their lives and their problems in front of us and takes us along with them as their lives are changed over a period of time.

Behind Picket Fences is the story of four couples and their very different lives: Faris and Sidra are the affluent young couple struggling with childlessness. Porter and Summer are the company executive and the bohemian artist dealing with her anxiety and feelings of being not being listened to. Hasan and May are a loving Muslim couple dealing with the impact of illness on their own and their children’s lives. Morgan and Mariam are the loving couple with small children whose financial problems begin to threaten their marriage. Each struggles with their own problems behind closed doors, appearing happy and successful to the outside world. 

Hegazi manages you to make you care about each of the characters and what happens to them. She lays bare their inner thoughts and creates interactions between the couples that feel truthful. The first thing I noticed about this book is how the writer’s writing style has matured and improved from her first novel. The prose flows over the pages, but most of all the conversation feels so natural and true to life. 

Whereas the first book made a point of how the protagonist relied on her faith to get through the trauma of what she suffers, in this book faith comes up in more subtle ways, for both the Muslims and non-Muslims. We see the need for faith in difficult times, but also the questioning of faith and the finding of faith when life feels unbearable.

We witness some of the characters change and evolve and I think Hegazi achieved this in a realistic way. We see the impact of the young stay at home mum finding work both on her husband and herself and how this affects their seemingly perfect marriage. The break down of the marriage is painful to witness and the conversations and inner dialogue of the characters at different points is believable and uncomfortably like watching someone you know self-destruct.

Key to the story arcs in this novel is how lack of honest communication can destroy our relationships or nurture them – whether through feeling unappreciated, through feeling outside of your comfort zone in your marriage or whether this is through hiding the pain that you feel. 

We come to care about the characters and hope that things will work out for them, when they don’t, Hegazi portrays this to devastating affect. When I read this book, never in a million years did I think I would feel so much for the characters that I literally cried at one point. The book ends as with real life without all of the characters stories tied up in into neat happy endings, we are left wanting to know more about where their journeys will take them. 

I didn’t think I would enjoy this book as it is not the type of book that I usually pick up, but I found it immensely readable and also very relatable. I also liked Hegazi’s gentle portrayal of a Muslim family, real and likeable without feeling preachy. I think everyone will be able to relate to some of the characters in this book or identify with their experiences on some level.  

You can buy the book on Amazon here, learn more about her writing here and on her Facebook page here.


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Sun Shall Soon Shine by Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare

When I was approached by the author, Adejoke Ajibade- Bakare to review her book of poetry, I was a little nonplussed. I love books, especially straightforward and fast paced prose, but poetry is another matter. I am never sure if I am missing something, a metaphor of some kind or an allusion to some deeper truth that the poet is revealing. I rarely read poetry, although I do love the poetry of the Sufi Abdullah Shah Qadri, Maya Angelou, Grace Nichols and the great Pakistani poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, but I did not feel qualified to comment. Then I came to the conclusion that I don’t have to judge the structure or technique of the poems, but I can describe how it makes me feel and what it evokes for me. 

The book opens with a poem about a poor mother whose children are hungry, one line stood out: “Necks extended, a plea to the steel pot”, as the children look to the empty pot for food. This poem reminded me a little Maya Angelou’s style of writing and set the tone of the book for me. 

The book is split into five sections, along broad themes, the first “Womb Tales” is around the theme of women and motherhood. I enjoyed these lines from the poem Aye (meaning Life): 

Up and about 
The adogan 
Cracking sparks of fire 
As the ogi dances 
To the rhythms set by blind hands 


I really liked the use of Yoruba words, I love that at the bottom of each page, there is an explanation of each word that is not in English. The poem gives a glimpse into a busy morning on a normal day, the poem gives a sense of a life that is not easy (“battered feet”, “blind hands”), but at the same time gives a feeling of energy and busyness (“Splish splosh into the amo”, “Cracking sparks of fire”, “busy hands”). 

The poems in this section talk of pregnancy, birth, motherhood, and loss alluding to miscarriage. There is a loving and benign father figure that appears through some of them. Often the tone is melancholy occasionally there is a glimmer of hope. In reflection of the private nature of these themes, the poems are often not clear, but allude to events in a subtle way. 

In the section called Childhood Dreams, the tone changes to a more upbeat one. “My Emmanuel” stands out with its lovely description of a young man: 

Strong arms 
Fast legs 
Broad smile 
Grinning ear to ear 
A handshake 
To show gratitude 
A hug 
To show love 
 


The sentences are short, clear and full of energy. The kind of poem I would love to dedicate to a beloved son. 

The section called Woes of a Nation again feels different: with more wide-ranging themes such as patriotism (Woes of a Nation: “And is there for all to celebrate, The celebration of Nigeria Anew.”), these poems have a lyrical, epic feel. Some of the poems are inspired by national tragedies such as a plane crash or the kidnapping of young boys and girls by Boko Haram, making them feel quite poignant. Others mention the land and earth, war and poverty: 

A scenery of fear, poverty and destruction 
Earth shattering sounds 
Hitting hard, sinking deep 
Like hot rocks 
Splashing blood
 

The last lines (from the poem “Aleppo”) make a powerful impression and invoke strong images. Many others, remind us that we should not lose hope in Allah (SWT) and that tomorrow is a new day full of hope. My favourite poem in this section was Arise Naija, for the way it ends with a call to the people to rise and claim their land. 

The poems in the part called Soul Talk are about self-reflection and self-love. They are spiritual in nature and touch on the relationship with Allah (SWT), many of them try to inspire and motivate us to use out limited time well. Some of them spoke more deeply to me than others, I suspect this will be largely a result of where the reader is in their own journey and what resonates. 

The last section, Life’s Palaver, speaks of how we get caught up in everyday troubles, of work and missed opportunity: 

Sooner I should I have come 
Much sooner, I should have come 
The fish waits not for the fisherman 
The fisherman that is yet to come 
(From the Fisherman) 
 


Some of the poems describe the hustle and bustle of every day life (The Alms Seeker, Far Gosford Street, the Street that Never Sleeps), with descriptions of noisy traffic and the smell of food from restaurants, most often the narrator watching it all go by. A number of the poems in this section are about children and childhood (Golden Child, The Prince and the Pauper, Lost Time Not Found). These touch on the way children are affected by poverty or parents that are too busy for them. 

I had my reservations, but I came to enjoy reading the poetry in the concise and accessible book, I enjoyed getting a flavour of Nigerian life and I was moved by the tributes to the people of the country who have been beset by tragedy.