BOOKS READ MARCH 2021

Rebecca McLaughlin: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest   Religion, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway, 2019

I have read many books on Christian apologetics but Rebecca McLaughlin has trumped them all with this incisive, delightfully and personally written, searingly honest exploration of some of the hardest questions the C21st constantly throws at Christianity. Many of McLaughlin’s responses will surprise and challenge readers. Unlike many writers we are treated to what appears to be an open book into her most personal thoughts about life, love and faith.  Here are the questions:

Aren’t we better off without religion?

Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?

How can you say there is only one faith?

Doesn’t religion hinder morality?

Doesn’t religion cause violence?

How can you take the Bible literally?

Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?

Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?

Isn’t Christianity homophobic?

Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?

How could a loving God allow so much suffering?

How could a loving God send people to hell?

I doubt whether any thoughtful Christian, active in the world and listening to Western media has not had to face up to each of these questions.  Here is a book to challenge and help. McLaughlin does not deny the truths and the force behind these questions. Nevertheless her respectful response meets the powerful critique supplied by Western thought leaders with equal and even more effective rebuttal. Her responses are based on up to date and well documented evidence and a disarming way of unpicking the seemingly irrefutable arguments of some of the finest faith deniers in the land.

Mclaughlin is same sex attracted yet happily married to a husband with three children. She holds a Cambridge doctorate in Renaissance literature and a degree in theology from Oak Hill College in the USA.  Her responses to the above questions engages with a wide range of sociological research documents, many international literary works recent and older, interaction with many current atheist philosophers, film and television presentations, an array of scientific thought leaders  and circumstances and individuals from her daily life and experience.

There is nothing simplistic about this presentation and it is not a book for young or inexperienced Christians. It could be a useful book for devotees of The Drum and other Western media outlets who appear to value any authority in the land apart from well thought out, highly qualified and articulate Christian leaders. It will not suit Christian leaders who simply deny the truths in these questions without working carefully through the issues involved from all sides.

Some thought tasters from McLaughlin include:

Too many churches enable a self-focussed Christianity that ignores New Testament ethics. (p.23)

For many the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major barrier to considering Christ. (p.33)most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western every day. (p.43)

To say that all religions are just two sides of the same truth coin reduces pluralism to a patronising posture by which we don’t respect others enough to take their beliefs seriously. (p.49)

The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth. (p.66)

If science is all we have, our sense of self is just an illusion – morality is no more than preference. (p.70)

Understanding more of science doesn’t make God smaller. It allows us to see His creative activity in more detail [experimental physicist Russell Cowburn). (p.100)

Paul does not say that the husband’s needs come first, or that women are less gifted in leadership than men, or that women should not work outside the home  (p.142)…the early church was majority female (p.144)

On Slavery: …the church must face its moral failures.

Mclaughlin has written a book which would make an ideal series of  weekly studies for a thoughtful parish. Her enthusiasm for life and her raw honesty is infective and challenging.  I warmly commend this book. 5 stars and rising

*********************************

Brenda Niall: Friends and Rivals: Four Great Australian Writers – Barbara Baynton, Ethel Turner, Nettie Palmer, Henry Handel Richardson, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2020  

BRENDA NIALL

Brenda Niall has written an engaging and informative analysis of the contribution of these four significant C20th Australian female writers. 

Ethel Turner’s output of children’s classics was formidable over more than thirty years and her Seven Little Australians, although little read today, remains an Australian classic. 

Henry Handel Richardson, penname of Ethel Florence Richardson, lived most of her life in London and was a retiring and exceptionally private person with a very interesting life story. I read The Getting of Wisdom in Year 12 English a long time ago and loved its mild satire of Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne and her detailed account of life for a teenage girl then.  Her blockbuster three volume The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is one of the outstanding classics of Australian literature and a powerful read.

Barbara Baynton is a name I was not aware of but her harsh realistic stories of the Australian bush made an impact in her day. Perhaps more interesting was her colourful and dramatic life story. She is certainly the most extroverted of the four writers.

Nettie Palmer was a successful poet and the leading Australian literary editor of her day and her impact on the growth of Australian literature was substantial indeed. Married to novelist Vance Palmer they made a formidable team and an interesting story. 

All of these writers were indeed friends at various levels and indeed rivals in the battle for recognition and success. Brenda Niall’s account is carefully documented and detailed and manages to keep  the reader constantly interested in the twists and turns of the life-times of the four women. The account is also an interesting insight into the challenges faced by Australian women in making an impact on a literary scene dominated by the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Niall has written many studies of Australian literary life including major biographies of pioneer artist Geogiana McCrae, The Boyd Family and Archbishop Mannix.

This biography maintains steady interest, continues to surprise and demonstrates the emerging maturity of Australian literature in the first half of the C20th.   4 stars.

Kon Karapanagiotidis: The Power of Hope OR, How Community,  Love & Compassion can Change our World,  h/b, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2018  

KON KARAPANAGIOTIDIS

Kon Karapanagiotidis has written a heart-rending, searingly honest, loquacious, no holds barred assault on Australia’s refugee policy and its destructive impact on many asylum seekers in Australlia.  He is the founder and CE0 of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which in his hands grew from nothing to a major centre in West Melbourne and then Footscray with 125 staff and over 1200 volunteers. 

The book is also a very personal analysis of his own life from a new Australian Greek boy growing up first in Mt Beauty and later in urban Melbourne at Thornbury HS, his impressive university career including a Law degree and his extraordinary life as a volunteer and activist and finally an entrepreneurial leader, a crusader for justice and a successful stand up comic.  Alongside his success Kon does not hide his very real difficulties with insecurity, over-eating and failure with women.  The Resource Centre commenced in 2001 and has had no Government funding from then till now.  The Centre relies completely on supporter funding and the generosity of time by volunteers. Its services include legal, financial, political and psychological aid, art and music, food support and in general a safe place of refuge. 

Kon’s  book also moves into self-improvement mode with chapters on embracing your fears, how to be a man, body image, travel and major chapters on male cruelty and mistreatment of women and how to change it.  

There is no room whatsoever in this book for any sympathy with Australian government leadership  of either colour although there is no direct attack on any individual politician and there is praise for the support of Malcolm Fraser.  Kon’s language is very direct and explicit in places and the life coaching tends to be repetitive at times.  These are minor quibbles. This is a story that needs to be told even though the reading of it can be somewhat overwhelming and at times repetitive. 

The book concludes with helpful lists of actions that could be taken by the reader. (1) Suggestions for volunteering (over 80 suggestions!); (2)  an interesting “one week of change” which could include: reviewing your super for ethics, sustainable shopping, becoming a grassroots patron of the Arts, eat less meat, become a volunteer, host a fundraiser and get your kids involved in giving back. (3) Making change in the workplace ..20 suggestions for improving gender balance, equity and diversity. (4) An interesting selection of suggested reading to follow up his book. 

This is a book to help us to ponder in what ways our treatment of refugees could be changed with greater assistance especially in their early days in Australia. We are a wealthy and richly blessed nation.  We could be doing this difficult task more humanely.   4 stars.

James Rebanks: English Pastoral: An Inheritance,  p/b, Penguin, Random House UK, 2020  

A remarkable account of farming in the latter half of the twentieth century and today in England, detailing the devastating impact of pesticides and overuse of fertilisers and ploughing. Late C20th agriculture has lead to the degrading of many farm soils and the loss of huge numbers of wildlife and flower and grass species throughout Britain and the USA.  James Rebanks is a third generation small farmer in the Lake District with an interest in seeking to maintain a balance between small farming and the wholesale selling up of small farms for huge large scale mechanised food production based on high powered fertiliser and ever increasing expenditure on machinery. 

He is no idealistic dreamer and recognises that the world cannot be fed without large scale commercial farming but he makes a very good case for the argument that the ever increasing drive for cheaper supermarket food across the world will in the end destroy us. The argument is driven not by agriculturists but by large corporate business and achieved with artificial techniques like river straightening, forest clearing,  pesticides and fertilisers which are not only degrading soils and forests across the globe but also destroying wild life and plant life at a horrifying rate.

Rebanks notes that farming is a matter of life and death. (p.99) …in the early C20th hunger was only a generation away for many families in Britain and around the world. My  grandparents had lived through food shortages and periodic high prices that were common in Britain …This scarcity can be seen in the small stature of the oldest people I knew, who often stood a foot or so shorter than their sons and grandsons. Rationing in wartime was a stark reminder that food could not be taken for granted, when feeding the country required importing 20 million tons of food a year and overseas supplies were vulnerable. So humanity needed food and business provided but at what future cost?  

Rebanks details the amazing achievement of Fritz Haber, who in 1909 worked out how to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to make it usable for plants. and his college Carl Bosch found a way apply this process industrially to make things sell. (p106). The result was ammonium nitrate fertiliser which transformed agriculture and society, enabling enormous population growth. Haber’s extraordinary ability was not always put to benign use.  His other legacies included turning in ammonium nitrate into war explosives and he also pioneered the development of poisonous chlorine gas for use int the trenches of World War ! and the pesticide gas Zyklon-B used later in Nazi death camps to kill millions of people (p107). Later on in 1939 Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller developed dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which could kill insects, fungi, bacteria  and eliminated typhus from large parts of Europe as well as eradicating malaria from the USA. 

Rachel Carson’s amazing 1962 book Silent Spring finally woke  the world up to the dangers ofpesticides, arguing for targeted use instead of the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems and forests around the world. Although DDT is now banned the rapid engulfing of the world’s forests and wild spaces goes on apace again driven insatiable big business and politics, not by wise eco-management.

In his final section Rebanks proposes some solutions to world degradation. They include ancient farming techniques replacing ploughing with a mix of crops and rotational ….animal grazing/fallow and returning hedgerows, natural rivers and swamps to their natural state. But he also calls for new ways of doing things including soil science and health studies, effective grazing practices, learning from ecologists about recreating habitats and natural processes (p.202)…to do this we have to opt out of the cheap food dogma that has driven farming and food policy for the past few decades…We can build a new English Pastoral: not a utopia, but somewhere  decent for us all….the modern world worships the idea of self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is a another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noisy age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue. (p.210)

Rebanks accepts the idealistic impossibility of his plea for a new world of farming…Farming for nature is a form of economic suicide!  (p.230), and he accepts that farming is a form of slavery”! (p.228). Yet his call to the world to wake up is real. I have to ignore my accounts in this bid for good food husbandry and hope the rest of the world comes to its senses someday soon. (p.231). He has a love/hate relationship with the plough. We can’t all be fed from pastoral systems. The plough, and the annual crops it makes possible—corn, wheat, barley, soy, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and rice—provide food for most human beings. But in the past thirty years we have learned that ploughing is ecologically disastrous.  (p239). Finally he suggests that farming is an exercise in humility (p.242) and that it takes a village to make a good farm work. (p.242)…I am tired  of absolutes and extremes and the angriness of this age. (p.269).

In this essay I have picked out the bones of Rebanks’ argument. The real strength of this book lies in his romantic and blissful descriptions of the recreation of wildlife, insects, plants, animals , creeks, rivers, trees and bogs that have come back to life on his little farm. His writing leads the reader on to yearn for a sweeter, more quiet, more beautiful, natural and peaceful age. This is a book to savour alongside consideration of the argument which may well determine the future of all of our lives in coming generations.  5 stars and rising

Farrukh Dhondy: Rumi: A New Translation of Selected Poems, p/b, New York, Arcade, 2013 

RUMI

Jalal-ad-din Rumi was a C13th spiritual master, teacher and poet. Born in Tajikistan he founded the Mawlawi Sufi order, a mystical spiritual brotherhood based on the teachings of Shamsuddin of Tabriz. Rumi’s major spiritual work was the Mathnawi, which for Sufi followers is often regarded as the “Koran in Persian”.  In addition Rumi wrote a set of lyric poems Divien-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a translation from which has excerpted and interpreted the poems and sayings in this collection. 

The Sufi tradition grew up in the C8th alongside Sunni and Shia Islam as a third way of understanding Islam. Sufism stresses the mystical and spiritual aspects of Islam and, as with the Qu’ran, Sufism interacts with both the Christian and Judaic faith traditions and even has significant links with Hindu concepts such as the essential philosophy of Advaita Vedanta faith found in the Hindu Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. as well as pre-Christian, Buddhist, Platonic and Aristotelian thought. In addition,  because the Islamic faith had conquered Persia in the C7th it was inevitable that Sufism would also be influenced by the ancient Persian state  faith of Zorastrianism. Jesus (‘Issah’ in Rumi’s texts) is a key person to be honoured and adored as the one who took away the sins of God’s people.

The Sufi mystic/spiritualist approach to Islam and other world faiths played down the role of the literal word of the Qu’ran and also the traditional essential journey to the Kaaba in Mecca. Sufism placed its stress on inward spiritual teaching including ecstatic experiences especially the wild and energetic Dervish order.  The result is a deeply thoughtful, experiential faith. Dhondy writes in his introduction that the essence of Sufi devotion is the spiritual awakening, the realization, the cleansing, the enlightenment, the oneness—the light. (p.xxiv). Sufism is happy to say that there are truths and epiphanies in other mystical religions.

 Ibin ‘Arabi, a Sufi mystic of the same century as Rumi wrote:

My heart has become capable of every form: it a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christians, and a temple for idols and the pilgrims to the Ka’ba and the tables of the Torah, and the book of the Qu’ran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camel take, that is my religion and faith. 

Rumi  was influenced by the C5th Al-Ghazali, and significantly by Ibin ‘Arabi quoted above who taught forty years prior to Rumi, before Rumi fell under the spell of Shamsuddin of Tabriz.

Rumi himself became a C20th cult figure alongside the likes of Kahlil Gibran. Quoted frequently by pop Queen Madonna in the C20th Rumi also played a major role in the teaching of wealthy New Age surgeon, writer and influencer Deepak Chopra.. 

FARRUKH DHONDY

Farrukh Dhondy,, an Indian of Parsi descent, whose great grandfather was a Persian scholar, does not read Persian. He has used the translations of several scholars of Rumi’s work and attempted to use his knowledge of Persian poetic rhythm to enable the form and metre of the original work to speak in today’s idiom. The result is a curious mix of modern and ancient forms of speech which at times appear to me to trivialise some important ideas. Nevertheless the book is a good start to Rumi’s thought inviting  a search for more scholarly translations. Rumi’s thoughts go deep and make you stop and think. A few brief examples must suffice here.

p22:  The Blasphemers:

You kept company, O Rumi, with blasphemers who

                              swore

                                      Their cursing

                                      God’s house

                                          meant

                            they hadn’t shut the door. 

p23: Fleas:

Don’t burn the blanket infested with a single flea

       Don’t turn away from the human who is as flawed as thee.

p33:   From  Science:

Issah caused the dead to

                    cast off their shrouds and rise

  by breathing into dust a living soul 

saying, ‘Rise, your faith has made thee whole!’

p63    From Light on Light:

Of flamboyance my love is now accused

My heart’s a drum, its beating is excused

By he who sent an Issah to the fight

To spread the vision of the light on light.

p.105     Issah and the Fools:

Issah the healer

   (To him all praise)

Had the Word from God

Which was able to raise

The dead and breathe

Life into a wraith

Not to crowd the planet

But to bring us to faith.

p. 105   The Pearl:

Death holds no terror for the one who can

See beyond this life’s short and fitful span

The knock of rocks, the churning ocean’s swell

Do not affect the pearl inside the shell. 

p.52      Final Ecstasy:

Reason cannot ever grasp

That final ecstasy

To bring a thinker to his God

  Is to make a blind man see. 

p.58   Experiment:

Try this experiment

and think of nought

  But only that

which creates all thought. 

p.88   He Listens

There are no rules of worship

He will hear

The voice of every heart

That is sincere.

p. 89 Wild Dog

Stop the wild dog’s bite with a muzzle

Love is the solution to that eternal puzzle

What is your destiny?  What is your duty?

Give way to love,  give way to beauty.

p. 91 Names

God taught the earthly Adam

To name all things although

He taught the angels only

What he wanted them to know.

I find much helpful truth in Rumi’s C13th words.   5 Stars!

Richard Prideaux

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Books read February 2021

Cassandra Pybus: Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, p/b,  Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020 

Cassandra Pybus

Cassandra Pybus is descended from Richard Pybus, who having ventured to Australia from England in 1829 was handed a large grant of land on North Bruny Island in Tasmania while Truganini was still living on the island. Cassandra recalls family stories of her great-grandfather talking about Truganni’s exploits on the island as a young girl visiting the Pybus estate looking for gifts of tea, sugar or damper. Cassandra has lived for over thirty five years on Bruny Island, close to the site of the family’s original land grant. This historical examination of the complex life of Truganini, “the last Tasmanian aborigine” is her attempt to do justice to a remarkable woman who lived through the planned destruction and removal  of the culture and life of the indigenous peoples of Van Diemen’s Land (thought to be at least 4000 prior to European occupation) by white settlers in the nineteenth century. 

It is a tale that is inextricably mixed and could not be told without also telling part of the story of  George Augustus Robinson, an emigrant builder from England who settled in Hobart. Robinson’s Christian faith led him to seek a resolution to the inevitable and destructive clash of cultures between the new invading settlers, convicts and sealers  and the ancient indigenous tribes of Van Diemen’s Land of which there were at least eight major nations all with different languages.  

Truganini, painting in British Museum

Image of Truganini painted by artist Thomas Bock, 1835, British Museum

Robinson’s personal journal edited by N J B Plomley, along with a host of other historical records is the major source of Pybus’s information about a large part of Truganini’s life. For twelve years Robinson, Truganini and other indigenous leaders worked closely together in an ultimately flawed attempt to unite the scattered tribal groups and find a sanctuary where they could live and hunt in peace. Robinson at first made almost superhuman efforts to trek through impenetrable forest and untracked wilderness to form friendships with various native groups. He learned to communicate and attempted to encourage them to join his “mission” with Truganini as one of his most faithful leaders and trackers (although she did not once appear in his journal!). Robinson’s initial idealistic vision became increasingly coercive and self-regarding as he vaingrloriously sought to be the hero who solved the “native problem”.

In the end it all came to nothing with inter-tribal warfare and governmental pressure to get the native inhabitants off the island and resettled in the Flinders Islands. This was a physically unsuitable location which broke the spirits and  hearts of the migratory tribal groups and which was poorly provisioned and supervised by inappropriate white leadership. The indigenous peoples died rapidly in numbers during Truganini’s lifetime, with some of the worst atrocities being the dismemberment of their bodies and skulls for profit and “scientific investigation”. 

This is a an unrelentingly grim read. It is a tale of atrocious murder, rape and imprisonment of indigenous peoples by escaped and freed convicts, rapacious sealers and incompetent white leadership. Many of the British leaders and the settlers/convicts regarded the natives, like the Tesmanian Tiger, as an irritation to be rounded up, hunted down and destroyed  or dispatched to somewhere else. Licentious and evil men including John Batman, the so-called founder of Melbourne, created havoc murdering the men and enslaving the women.  Athough there were many individuals in the Colony who did seek unity and a solution, the official line was determinedly the ridding of the indigenous tribes from the island. 

A major strength of this book is the timeline and biographies of key people  and their various names at the end of the book which helps to make sense of the mixed relationships and names and demonstrates the complexity of the tribal groups and interactions. My wife’s advice to read the biographies first was very wise and helpful!

Cassandra Pybus has written a sensitive and powerful book. She does not glorify Truganini’s behaviour including her four husbands and unashamed use of sexuality for favours and survival, On the contrary Truganini several times risked her own life in extreme physical danger including floods and illness to protect Robinson and keep his dream alive. The tale of Homo Sapiens is a mixed one of extraordinary achievement and progress alongside the appalling destruction of cultures and the natural environment. 

This early Tasmanian chapter joins a very long and sad list of internecine destruction of cultures. In our prosperous and largely happy and safe nation today, Pybus has given us much to think about.  Five stars. 

Norman Davies: Rising ’44: ‘The Battle for Warsaw’, p/b, London, Pan, 2004

Norman Davies

For a start this is a huge book.  Over 750 pages in quite small print in this paperback edition. Davies is perhaps the preeminent modern historian of Europe, and his many works including the exceptional History of Europe (1997) and The Isles (1999).  With his Polish wife and complete fluency in Polish Davies has written two histories of Poland in addition to this major work on the 1944 insurgent uprising against the Nazi assault on Warsaw.  

The 1944 Warsaw insurgent uprising against the Nazi occupation of Warsaw is not to be confused with the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising in which brave Jewish fighters whose people were being systematically slaughtered and deported to death camps attempted against hopeless odds to break out from the ghetto and fight their way to freedom. That horrific and tragic  story also needs to be told but Rising ’44 is the story of the underground Polish army led byTadeusz-Bór-Komorowski  (‘Bor’ was one of his wartime code names). 

On the face of it, the uprising was a doomed contest with half-starved insurgents with minimal weapons and ammunition pitted against the combined power of the German Wehrmacht war machine and the Gestapo Secret police. General ‘Boor” thought that the insurgents might survive for four days preparing the way for Russian forces under Generals Rokossovski from the east and Berling from the south to finish the job. In the end the the German military through everything against both allied armies and it appears (though not certain) that Stalin felt that it was more convenient for the German army to put paid to the Rising while the Russian effort focused on controlling the Balkan war.  As it turned out the brave insurgents maintained their stand for 63 days with virtually no allied assistance except one flawed air drop from the England.  Working from bombed out buildings in underground and fortified  bunkers and operating through the sewer system, the insurgents, many of them teenagers or younger, fought with extraordinary and bravery and initiative killing many more opponents than their own losses and controlling significant parts of the city. 

Davies uses a vast array of official documentation (much of it in Polish) along with “capsules” of private letters and stories of individuals, many of them heart-breaking but all of them supremely courageous. The book has three main sections: (i) Before the Rising with particular attention to the allied coalition (pathetically ineffectual and confused  in the case of Warsaw as it turned out) alongside the brutally savage and destructive German occupation as well as approaches from the Russians in the East and the beginnings of resistance. (ii) The Rising itself from outbreak to finale over 63 days).  (iii) After the Rising. This is perhaps the most heart breaking part of this story, with the Russians choosing (it seems) to stay out until the Wehrmacht had totally slaughtered and smashed the city (worse than Dresden!).  When the Soviets finally move in the real heart break begins with the Russian refusal to recognise the insurgents in any way. Treating them as “pro-German” and as thieves and  criminals they murdered many, deported the rest to death camps and for almost forty years denied there ever was an uprising!

This is not a feel-good book about the great allied victory in World War 11. Apart from anything else, the little known story that without the courage and sheer weight of numbers of the Soviets the war would never have  been one by the “allies”. Alongside this is the duplicity and complexity of Stalin himself and the inability to clearly understand many of his decisions and directions. In addition the divided “official Polish government” sequestered in London, combined with the British War cabinet preoccupation with war theatres other than Poland meant that British assistance was minimal, too late and confused.

It is only in the last twenty years that the Polish insurgents have been recognised for their extraordinary courage and achievement with monuments in a rebuilt Warsaw and the true story finally allowed to be heard. Davies’ achievement in this book  is heroic in itself! Five stars and rising. 

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BOOKS READ JANUARY 2021 (Curiously after retiring, this month I have only read two books! hmm

BOOKS READ JANUARY 2021

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse – Five or The Chidren’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, p/b, London, Vintage, 2000 (1969).

Kurt Vonnegut

Cult anti-war novel made into an equally off beat film centring on the carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden by the British and US military over several days in February/March1945. Vonnegut fought with the US army in Europe and was captured and imprisoned in Dresden. The American POW’s were saved by retreating with their captors to the large underground meat abattoir beneath the huge meatworks.  Most of the rest of the city was completely destroyed by the fire-storms created by the carpet bombings.

Vonnegut tells his story of the destruction of Dresden through the eyes of the fictional Billy Pilgrim, a gentle assistant chaplain captured by the Germans alongside many other American soldiers and shipped by crowded train to a POW camp in Dresden, where their home prison meat works was called Slaughterhouse Number Five. 

Vonnegut’s style is easy to read, full of black cynical humour about American society, military leaders, serving US soldiers and interspersed with factual information about aspects of the last days of WW!1. Billy Pilgrim has been damaged psychologically by his capture and imprisonment, especially the lengthy train journey to Dresden and a later aircraft crash. He passes in and out of a fantasy involving memories of his civilian life as an optometrist and his marriage to the overweight Valencia Merbel,  his time in slaughterhouse five and after the bombing, and his interstellar life, having been captured by aliens from the far away planet  of Tralfamadore along with pawn filmstar Montana Wildhack where they perform and mate in a transparent earth vacuum cocoon as a visitor attraction daily for millions of Tralfamadorians who come to watch.

If all of this sounds totally ridiculous and silly it is saved by Vonnegut’s laconic humour, his icy barbs about the futility of much of American society and the sheer hopeless tragedy of human warfare.  4 stars.

Richard Surman: Cathedral Cats, h/b, London, HarperCollinsReligious, 1993

Richard Surman

I am an unashamed cathedralophile and can sort of cope with cats although I dislike their taste for birds. Richard Surman is a world travelled photographer who has contributed photographs to many books from the USA to Greece and Britain.  This beautifully illustrated book links photographs and stories about cats and  cathedrals from many of England’s major cathedrals and their cats. The cathedrals include Bristol, Canterbury, Carlisle, Christ Church Oxford, Coventry, Ely, Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, Peterborough, St Albans, St Davids in Wales, St Paul’s, Salisbury, Truro, Wells, Westminster, Winchester, Worcester, and York. Some of these cats have had very adventurous lives indeed and others are just beautifully playful and domesticated. Surman takes the opportunity to comment on key features of many of the cathedrals which make them essential to the development and life of English history and architecture. A book to stay away from if your England tour was spoiled by “another bloody cathedral”! But a book to treasure if these places of faith and blessing continually amaze.   4 stars. 

 

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Books read December 2020

BOOKS READ DECEMBER 2020

Alex Miller: Max, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2020

Max is a complete departure for Alex Miller. It is hard core research into the early life of the hard to find holocaust survivor Moses (“Max) Blatt who was a close friend of Miller’s early in his life and a major encourager of Miller’s writing career and understanding of literature. Max’s early life was difficult to unravel because he was a Jewish underground leader of two organisations in Poland working to oppose the Nazi take over of central Europe. He was tortured early in his career and finally released, severely injured. Recovering in Switzerland Max returned to Poland and continued his anti-Nazism activities at great risk to his life. Eventually he had to flee Poland via Shanghai and made it as a refugee to Australia where he met Miller through friends of Miller’s first wife.  To his own personal and deep distress Max left behind in Poland both his parents and his first wife Hanna who all perished in the Nazi onslaught on Warsaw. 

These sorrows left a permanent mark on Max because of the guilt he felt magnified by the criticism of his own brother Martin whom he had assisted to escape to Palestine. For thirty years he had no contact but eventually made contact with Martin and his family through three visits to Israel. None of this was known to Miller who had to learn German and follow a lonely and complex path of international research to track down Max’s family in Israel some years after Max’s death. In this process he was supported by some impressive holocaust researchers and scholars as well as the extensive and meticulous research he undertook himself.

Nevertheless this story is not just a survey of the evidence for Max Blatt’s life. All the skills, beauty, depth and power of the Alex Miller we have come to love is still on show in this book.  Ideas and sentences which struck me include:

p112: One lifetime is not long enough to forget

p.129: irony defeats zealotry  and   leaving open the triumph of human folly.

p.129: whether the Jews belonged to the East or to the West

p.130: reconciliation with the sadness of existence

p.134  Judaism In Wroclaw was a practice not a religion.

p.142  humkind insists on repeating its mistakes

p.152 good and evil reside within humanity in an uneasy state of potential

p.170 the irrational capacity for faith

p.171 Even if we don’t believe in a God let us behave as if there is one.

p.175 ..their dreams were lost

p194: Max rejected utterly the business of making some people more valued than others.

p.194  For that generation the holocaust was still going on

p.218 the death of dreams…it is better to dream and struggle than to live in the freedom of which we once dreamed.

p.236 Noone’s life can be fully restored

p239 The facts are not everything: “there is a spiritual dimension to our lives”

p239 Without the certainty of death there is no death (of a loved one).

Alex Miller is now 84. He may not have another book in him ..but who knows. I for one hope for one more!  5 stars. 







Graham A. Cole: Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Six  Crucial Questions,
p/b, Nottingham, Apollos/Oak Hill Annual School of Theology, 2007. 

Dr Graham Cole is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield Illinois and a former Principal of Ridley College Melbourne. This book arose out of an annual School of Theology at Oak Hill School of Theology in London.

I have read many books on The Holy Spirit but none as clear and concise as this one. Cole is renowned for his speed reading technique and there is clear evidence of this from the wide variety of resources quoted in this book. Apart from substantial Biblical references Cole has clearly read widely in many theological areas and not just those of an evangelical persuasion.

The six critical questions are all on biblical texts involving the Holy Spirit. In order they are:

 What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit ? 

How may we resist the Holy Spirit?

Ought we to pray to the Holy Spirit?

How do we quench the Holy Spirit?

How do we grieve the Holy Spirit?

How does the Holy Spirit fill us?

Cole’s responses to these questions with a pattern of: (i) theological reflections from earlier scholars (including both Calvinistic and Arminian portions); (ii) theological reflections from recent scholars; (iii) Analysis of the Biblical text? and (iv) a theological reflection of his own.  All quotations are carefully bibliographed and there is a helpful theological mini dictionary at the end of the book as well as an index of all Biblical quotations.  Cole’s writing is clear, concise and he is not afraid to challenge some of the ‘holy cows’ of both Calvinist and Arminian writers of the past. If you have never read a book about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith this is the place to start. It is clear, helpful, balanced and thoroughly researched.  5 stars. 

Kenneth Clark: The Nude, h/b, London, The Folio  Society,  1990. 

Kenneth Clark, who died in 1983 was a doyen of commentators on art in the twentieth century alongside Ernst Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner. Clark was director of the National Art Gallery in London playing a key role in preserving and hiding works of art during the blitz. He was also Slade Professor of Art at Oxford for three years. His public reputation was based on his television presentations about art and art history including the substantial ten week program Civilization which also became a popular book, also published by Folio and elsewhere. Lampooned by the radical left and his own sybaritic politician son for his aristocratic lifestyle and classical approach to art,  Clark remains nevertheless an acute and learned commentator on art, art history and culture. 

The Nude in the Folio edition is a beautifully designed and illustrated study with an array of high quality pictorial presentations of works of art and a commentary that can be easily understood even by an artistic layman like myself.  The coverage  of Western art moves from Greek art from the C7th B.C. to the modern period finishing with sculptor Henry Moore. There is no attempt to address classical Egyptian, Iranian, Indian or East Asian art and no reference to the Southern hemisphere at all which is a pity given Clark’s significant personal influence on Russell Drysdale. 

Clark’s analysis tiptoes around the line between beauty and reality in the artistic study of the human body  as against deliberately erotic painting and sculpture. One does wonder what Clark would have said about Klimt’s work in this area!  A key issue in the analysis is the impact of Christian thinking and culture on nudity in art which was profound at least until the end of the C17th. Clark’s treatment of artistic portrayals of the crucifixion was particularly enlightening.    My one criticism of the book, a problem perhaps inevitable, is that many works of art are described but without visuals, which at times makes the argument difficult to follow without taking the time to follow up and find the works discussed on line. This edition includes an Introduction by Charles Saumarez Smith, very substantial detailed notes on many related issues, a list of works cited and a detailed index.  I doubt there is yet a better study on “The Nude” in Art History to date. 5 stars and rising. 

William Beckford: Vathek: An Arabian Tale, in Shorter Novels of the Eighteenth Century, (including Doctor Johnson: The History of Rasselas and Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto ), h/b, London & Toronto, E.P. Dent & Sons/Everyman’s Library, 1930. 

William Beckford (1760-1844) was at one time reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in England,  having inherited a sum to the current value of £125 million which included a cotton farm in America with 300 slaves. Beckford used his wealth to purchase a vast art and ceramics collection, travelling the world and spending much time in Europe, as well as building the vast Fonthill Manor and a Tower (only the Tower survives).  

He wrote this novel in French being inspired by Horace  Walpole’s Gothic The Castle of Otranto. Beckford’s novel is a mixture ofGothic horror and Arabian tales of powerful leaders, supernatural beings and happenings and a curious mix of the moral and the racy. The central character Vathek is a powerful caliph with the power of an evil eye to dominate his people and an even more powerful and evil wife.  The character of Vathek is loosely based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 227-232 AH in the Islamic calendar. He had a vast thirst for knowledge, was a patron of scholars and artists and a strong leader.

In the short novel Vathek seeks more and more power and is quite ruthless with many of his attendants and advisors, murdering them at will. His desire was a tower to “reach up to heaven” and went that seemed impossible he began to travel. He survived some difficult situations with supernatural beings and eventually reached the caliphate of Fakreddin, a devout and a fair leader of his people. Vathek falls in love with Fakreddin’s exquisite daughter and she with him, forsaking her childhood sweetheart to whom she had been betrothed. Together they travel to seek the seat of all power overcoming all pbstacles until the come to the gates of Eblis the seat of ultimate evil, the Arabic equivalent of Hell where they doomed for eternity. The short novel ends with a paragraph endorsing the moral life and forsaking evil. The Everyman’s edition comes with very detailed notes of all the characters, legends and forces mentioned and sourced from ancient Arabian and Pre-Islamic sources including elements from The Arabian Nights. 

There is food for thought in this mélange of images and dreams and I quite enjoyed reading it as a cautionary tale of foolish ambition and uncontrolled sensual desire for power and conquest. 4 stars

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BOOKS READ NOVEMBER 2020

Alex Miller:  The Passage of Love, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin,  2017 

Alex Miller

I  am totally hooked on Alex Miller and have just reread the autobiographical The Passage of Love after first reading it two years ago.  Our book club is reading it again as background for Miller’s most recent book Max, which focuses on the true life narrative of Max Blatt, a Polish/Jewish refugee who came to Australia fleeing Nazism. In The Passage of Love, Max Blatt becomes Martin Bloch, who with his wife Birte befriend Miller and his then wife Lena and who encourage Miller with his studies and his desire to be a writer. 

Reading Miller a second time, one has the luxury of following up references instead of hurrying on to find out “what happened”!. There is also time to savour the extraordinary quality of his prose which in my view, has made Miller the most important Australian novelist since Patrick White.  Paragraphs such as Every one of us betrays something. Everyone who is compelled to search for meaning and purpose in his life is forced by circumstance to betray his finest hopes. We all founder in our struggle to find our way. Our way to our own truth. Success in the end is to survive these repeated failures. (p.358). 

The novel is based around Miller’s relationship with four women: The note-taking woman in the women’s prison book club where he occasionally gave talks; Wendy, his Communist fellow cleaner at his second job after arriving broke in Melbourne (True love is a bucket of shit; sex is great; love stinks; get over it! Lena Soren, his demanding, intense and very needy first wife; and Ann, who became his lover in France after Lena had left him for the second time.

On the second reading I am stunned by the vast array of literary, artistic, and historical references which Miller quotes as he wrestles  with the task of educating himself after leaving school and family  early in England, working as a ringer in Outback Australia and then turning himself inside out by gaining a school certificate and engaging in a university Arts degree. The list is vast: Kazantzakis/ Brendan Behan/Henri de Monfried/John Berger/Georg Lukáks/Voltaire/J.H. Hayes/Hilary Mantel/Marguerite Yourcenar/Tolstoy/Francis Bacon/Thomas Mann/Goethe/Burns/Scott/The Glasgow Poets/Keats/Camus/Charlotte Bronte/Hemingway/Jeanne Mareau (French actress)/Max Beckman/Karl Liebknacht/George Eyre Todd/Giacometti/Aldous Huxley/Naipaul/Mailer/Pia Francesco Mola/Ferdinand Schevill/Machiavelli/Rilke/John Sell Cottman…just to name a few!

Miller finds ways to take us places in our mind we’ve never been before, eg His love for Lena was real, but he didn’t know if it was necessary. (p.222) and on the same page: Friendship was essential — the remains of the sacred in a broken world.  Or consider the profoundly simple: facts were not enough for reality. (p.270).  On writing autobiography: memory and imagination become indistinguishable (p.284)or: being careful of our possessions is being trapped by them…my parents risked nothing and lost their dreams. (p.385) Or try:  And he understood in that moment that the passage of love was not to be known any more than was the passage of death. (p 183) …For Lena had described in her painting not the essence but the passage of love. (p.582)

As with all Miller’s writing this is a novel which extends the boundaries of your mind, makes you wish you were somewhere else (the Araluen Valley, Paris, probably not Canberra!) and lifts your vision of life’s potential to a higher plane.  Once again 5 stars!

Review of A N Wilson: The Book of the People: How To Read the Bible, 

p/b, London, Atlantic, 2015







A N Wilson has written over 45 books of biography, popular history and fiction and is an occasional newspaper columnist in Britain. He has been in and out of Christianity and when out wrote some withering assaults on the negative value of religion. His depressing account of God’s Funeral [London, Abacus 2009] is salutary reading for all Christians and his early books on Jesus and Paul are challenging assaults on the historicity of both. In this current book he seems to be embarrassed by both these last two earlier efforts especially his book on Jesus. 

Nevertheless Wilson has never been able to shake off the Holy Spirit and he wrote significant biographies of Christian leaders including C S Lewis, Tolstoy, Dante and Milton amongst others. In recent years Wilson has returned to the Christian faith, in one of his accounts, due to the simple joy and commitment he found in the Easter parade of his local Anglican church!

One result of this new found commitment to the authenticity of the Gospel story and the reality of God is this cleverly titled book, The Book of the People,   sub-titled “How to read the Bible”. In part the book is a retelling of the work of a lifelong university colleague and friend, he calls “L” , a university colleague he caught up with intermittently as she was writing a book about Christianity but who suffered a breakdown and never completed the task. This makes for a challenging style because we are never quite sure if is Wilson or “L” who is speaking. 

In the bulk of the book Wilson writes demanding chapters on the Genesis narrative, the prophets, Job and the Psalms and focuses on the notion of “mythic truth” (my interpretation) rather than searching for a historical and literal foundation. Drawing on the insights of Erich Auerbach’s amazing  Mimesis, the American poet Wallace Stevens, and the literary approach of Northrop Frye to the Old Testament, Wilson weaves a pattern of analysis which invites readers to look once again and with care to the meaning of the Old Testament text.  Parts of these chapters will certainly offend those committed to a more literal understanding of the Old Testament narrative, nevertheless, as always, his interpretation has many spiritual lessons to teach us and will help many  C21st sceptics and doubters to see the value of the  Old Testament in a new and exciting way. 

The final chapter on the New Testament is radically different from the rest of the book. Here, with some initial diffidence, as if he cannot believe he is writing it, Wilson writes a stunning analysis of the arguments for the historicity of the Gospel accounts, using insights from the poet George Herbert as well as Austin Farrer and  Richard Bauckham in particular. In addition he interacts in detail with interpretations of the  prints of William Blake. Wilson’sf insistence on the historicity of both the crucifixion and the resurrection is startlingly the reverse to his ahistorical approach to the Old Testament.

This is not a book to give to a young Christian but it might help a seeker who is widely read. I think the final chapter in particular will give pause to the prevailing dismissiveness of the Bible in  the current Western press and intellectual leadership. Wilson has learned a deep truth about himself and about God and to write about it publicly must have been a great surprise to many. I gve this book four and a half stars. 

A N WILSON biographer, historian,

Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, in Everyman’s Library: Shorter Novels: Eighteenth Century, h/b, London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1930 (1764)

Horace Walpole was an English man of letters and parliamentarian and the brother of William Walpole, regarded as Britain’s first ‘Prime Minister’. Horace Walpole also created the eccentric and fantasmagorical  neo-Gothic house Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, West London, which still stands.  The Castle of Otranto is indeed a Gothic tale, perhaps the first, with knights in shining armour and beautiful damsel’s seeking refuge from dastardly, lustful and powerful lords. Manfred, unlawful Prince of Otranto is the wily and scheming villain. Hippolita his doting, demure but foolish wife, and Mathilda his beautiful but doomed daughter.  The poverty stricken Theodore, actually the true Prince of Otranto, is the hero who wins the heart of Mathilda but fails to overcome her evil grasping father. The story is filled with supernatural appearances, fearful human parts appearing on castle walls, awe-full groaning and other unearthly events It is a cross between the Knights of the Round Table and the adventures of Robin Hood. Thankfully the story is short!   A popular novel of the mid C18th but not likely to have much of a re-run in the C21st.  2 stars.

Richard Prideaux

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BOOKS READ OCTOBER 2020

Andrew O’Hagan: Mayflies, p/b, London, Faber, 2020  

ANDREW O’HAGAN

Glasgow born Andrew O’Hagan has won applause in Britain and the United States for his thoughtful, engaging and edgy writing. Mayflies is a book about male friendships in two parts. Part 1 is the story of a group of Scottish teenagers, close friends post-school/waiting for university/work and a riotous weekend in Manchester made up of friendship, anti-Thatcher anger,  alcohol fuelled folly, the search for female ecstasy and rock’n’roll with The Smiths and Morrisey in full flight. This section is demanding for anyone not familiar with Scottish/British slang and humour, 80’s rock and young men freed from parents and living as if there was to be no tomorrow. The writing is very funny, always edgy and with a bit of the feel of Nick Hornby and High Fidelity on steroids. The two key figures are Tully Dawson and James the narrator, saved from a life of working class labour by his intellect and a gifted and caring English teacher Mrs O’Connor.

The second part is thirty years later and the both the boys are successful in their working lives and in steady relationships when Tully goes down with a terminal cancer illness and little likelihood of survival. This section is a powerful defence of the case for euthanasia, at that stage only available with difficulty from Switzerland. The language radically alters here but the friendship humour of the past frequently re-surfaces. The writing is  sensitive, deep, emotionally demanding and quite compelling.

Whilst the two sections link together somewhat awkwardly at times the novel is a powerful ode to friendship and the big questions of life.   The ending is unforgettable. 5 stars.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone, Edited, Introduction & Notes, John Sutherland, p/b, Oxford, OUP, 2008 (1868).  

WILKIE COLLINS

The Moonstone was first published in serialized form by Collins’ friend and mentor Charles Dickens who later came to dislike the novel for some of its themes and even possibly out of jealousy with Collins creating a large following from interest in the serial and its outcome. The story is a “whodunnit” on a massive scale with many complex themes interwoven into the narrative and characters. The basic story line is that of the life of a celebrated diamond, found in India and stolen by the British military officer and taken to England and the narrative follows the mysterious “career” of the diamond through several owners.

 Although the “Moonstone” is a fictional gem there are similarities with the faboulou Koh-i-nor diamond which was stolen from India during the British Raj and eventually given to Queen Victoria and now resides in the Royal Collection in London despite India’s pleas for its return. The Koh-i-nor is the world’s largest and most expensive diamond, uninsurable for that reason. It has now been cut and set in the British royal crown.

Of course, The Moonstone is far more than a whodunnit.  There are major themes running throughout the narrative including the controversial opium trade and the use of opium in Britain, the idea of mesmerising, parapsychology and mind control, and indeed the whole nature of sensationalising crime and lurid criminal stories that came with the expansion of a national press which occurred in Britain in the second half of the C19th. 

There are some memorable characters in the novel including the faithful retainer Beveridge with his extreme commitment to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe, the lovelorn but doomed Rosetta Spears and her fascination with quicksand,  the outrageously diligent and indestructible Bible tract pusher Clack, the famous detective and rose grower Sergeant Cuff, the everbusy lawyer Mr Bruff and his unforgettable lad Gooseberry, the odious charlatan welldoer Godfrey Ablewhite  and the mysterious medical man and opium addict Ezra Jennings. Many of these characters become narrators in various parts of the narrative so the reader is left to put together the events of the crime. This methodology can become tedious at times but by and large the reader is held entranced and keen to read on in spite of the substantial length of the novel, some 466 pages in this paperback edition.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel even with its lengthy serialised style and host of different narrators.  5 stars.

Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative,p/b, USA, Harper/Basic Books, 1981  

ROBERT ALTER

Robert Alter has been for many years the Professor of Hebrew at the University of California at Berkeley and has recently published a completely new English translation of the Hebrew Bible in three volumes, as well as publishing studies in modern Hebrew and Western literature.   The Art of Biblical Narrative created a revolution in Biblical studies on publication, with its appeal to readers to read the text as it has come down to us. The alternative rather of research into the excavation of other ancient Neat Eastern archaeological finds and texts and language links or the chasing down of the various documentary sources which were at some time in the formed the basis of the Hebrew text we now have.  The nature of those documentary sources and excavators insights are of course  legitimate studies in their own right but so is the interpretation of the text as we have it. This is the real strength of Alter’s approach.

Alter adopts a strong literary, rather than hermeneutical  approach to the Biblical text and uses his deep knowledge of the Hebrew text and translation to demonstrate links between sections of the narrative that previous source criticism might have separated, for example the intrusion of the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 which appears abruptly in the middle of the Joseph narrative.  One reason such a literary approach is unusual is because of the unique regard the Biblical text is held in both Jewish and Christian religious traditions as the unitary source of divinely revealed truth. Alter solves this problem by suggesting that the Biblical text can be most profitably regarded as “historicized fiction” or “prose fiction”. Whilst these terms may scandalise the devout believer in the inspiration of the Bible Alter points out that “history” writing itself has in common with fiction a series of imaginative constructs which the historian must create as accurately as possible,  given that no historian was ever actually present when the events they record actually occurred. Alter owns a debt to Erich Auerbach’s towering literature survey Mimesis as one of the first critics to show that the cryptic conciseness of biblical narrative is a reflection of profound art not primitiveness, [p.17].  

Alter pays particular attention to thought represented as quoted monologue [p.68]. For example in the David stories God makes himself known through oracles and prophets such as Nathan. In fact Alter can say that spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible. [p.70] God called the world into being with words, [p.70] and later, language translates itself into history. [p.112]. There is a tension between narration and dialogue. Alter calls it the inescapable tension between human freedom and a divine historical plan, [p113]  and again…every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom. [p115]. There is indeed a tension between election and moral character seen particularly in the David stories. [p.117].  Alter challenges us to look to the literary techniques of narration, dialogue, repetition, the art of reticence, composite artistry and the intersection of incompatibles, helping us to see a high theological purpose in the Biblical authors.

One startling and unexpected  impact of Alter’s work is his frequent comparisons of Biblical literature with many other literary approaches including Balzac, Proust, Grass, James, Woolf, Mann, Flaubert, Fielding, Trevelyan, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Joyce, Stein, Boccaccio, Kafka, Cervantes, Ford Madox Ford, Homer, Diderot, Dickens, Film montage, Marvel, Rabelais, Sterne, Eliot, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Buber, Rosenzweig, Post-Cubist painting, and Rabbinic sources.  No doubt I missed some!

I very much regret that it has taken me forty years to read this book. I often wondered what the fuss was about. Now I know that my reading of Biblical literature will never be the same…the Hebrew text has been opened up to me in very new ways.   5 stars.

Eds. Goddio, Franck and Masson-Berghoff, Aurélia: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, The British Museum BP Exhibition, London, Thames &  Hudson/British Museum, 2016.

FRANK GODDIO

Franck Goddio is President of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology [IEASM] and this amazing book of the exhibition at the British Museum is a startling photographic record or a reclaimed underwater city brought to the surface over the past twenty years and now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in several museums in Alexandria.

Many things are amazing here. First is the finding of the ancient cities of Thonis/Heracleion, Naukratis and Canopus, originally located at the north-western edge of the Nile Delta as it meets the Mediterranean and built during the first millennium B.C. At some point in the C2nd B.C. this land of lakes and islands suffered some sort of catastrophic event  (earthquake or tidal wave) which combined with rising sea levels and liquefaction caused by the weight of the massive temples and buildings established over the area, resulted in the submergence of the majority of the land into the waters of Abukir Bay. A much smaller community including some Byzantine Christian  buildings remained on the central island until the  C8th A.D. A civilisation was buried here including massive temple structures, statues of gods and men, over seventy ships, sphinxes, works of art and everyday utensils and furniture of daily life.  Over the centuries all of this was covered by tons of layers of sand, and mud hardened to rock. Although these cities were vaguely known to exist through literary references including Herodotus, very little was actually known of their reality.

The second amazing thing was the sheer complexity and sophistication of the underwater archaeological work carried out by the ISEAM team. After the initial discoveries, massive amounts of heavy duty mud, rock and slime had to be carefully removed before the painstaking work of preparing each find for bringing to the surface. This book’s extraordinary photography shows the herculean task of removing the overlay in action and also the encrusted state of the original objects which look at first just like jagged rocks but after cleaning and care turn into the most amazing statues, faces, precious jewellery and massive objects like the sphinxes. A strength of the book is the impressive underwater coloured photography showing the original state of the objects, as well as the ingenious methods of getting the massive structures to the surface and then the supremely beautiful finished products now on display in museums.

The third amazing thing for me was the exceptional interaction between the Greek and Egyptian civilisations in the C1st millennium B.C. Thonis/Heraklion is one city, not two as always thought. Heraklion is the Greek name.  Temples were built in honour of the gods of both societies and there was a remarkable interaction of trade, religious beliefs, art and science. The Greek Ptolemaic rulers who followed Alexander the Great’s welcome in Egypt were far more accepted in Egypt than their former Persian overlords. This  unique commixture of cultures lasted for centuries before buckling under Roman control. 

As one would expect from a British Museum publication, the attention to detail in this 272 page book of the exhibition is massive and requires staying power. it is a cultural adventure well worth taking and a tribute to the ingenuity of bygone civilisations as well as C21st technological brilliance and artistic skills of display.  5 stars.


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Marcel Proust

Volume 2 of In Search Of Lost Time…In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

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BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2020

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,  Trans. with Introduction and Notes, James Grieve, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (orig.1919)

In Volume 2 of Proust’s epic seven volume In Search of Lost Time, our narrator leaves childhood behind and is a teenager in love with every pretty girl who comes his way. The two key relationships are with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette and takes place in Combray. The he second is the elusive Albertine and takes place at a seaside holiday resort Balbec where the narrator’s escort is his grandmother. 

The complexities, embarrassments and misunderstandings of young love are all in play here and at the writing is engaging and provocative with the narrator’s gauche mistakes and overweening self-congratulation both entrancing and amazing the reader.  Along with “young girls in flower” we are introduced to some of the narrator’s male friends including the elegant Robert de Saint Loupe, the Jewish uptight and scheming genius Bloch, the landscape painter Elstir, and the writer Bergotte who appears to be a combination of Anatole France and John Ruskin.

Alongside the narrative of the narrator’s search for young love comes much deeply thoughtful commentary on art, literature, architecture, politics, sailing, philosophy and much else besides. At these points the reader can be distracted as Proust happily reverts from the first person to the third and as a “commentator on all the above themes” appears to be an unknown source of knowledge of artists and other ideas that appear to be well beyond even  the precocious and highly intelligent seventeen something year old narrator, ( Proust never reveals the age of his protagonist, enabling him the freedom to have things both ways!) This unresolved tension is a challenge for the reader who has to decide whether he is reading a love story or a lecture.

There are memorable thoughts and ideas on many of these pages and the reader is compelled to reflect on the vagaries of love of course, as well as changing life circumstances, life and death, common-sense and common kindness and self-knowledge. The honesty of “yawning all the way through the composition of a masterpiece (p.389); the recognition of complete egoism on p431; the discovery that Wisdom cannot be inherited, one must recover it for oneself on p.443; the realisation that we are inescapably alone in the world (p485) and finally and sadly, the conclusion that the best of things was not up to much! in resigning us to death. ((p.525).  We may or may not agree with Proust on these things but his powerful writing forces us to examine the questions. 

James Grieve’s translation is elegant, clear and very readable and his introduction and notes are first class. This is my second volume of Proust’s masterpiece and I am looking forward at the moment to the next volume.  5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,  London, Fourth Estate, 2001. 

GERALDINE BROOKS
YEAR OF WONDERS Geraldine Brooks’ first fictional novel

Australian born, now living in the USA, Geraldine Brooks has worked as a foreign correspondent around the world including six years in Islamic nations.  Year of Wonders was her first fictional novel and became an international success followed by many other impressive novels including Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord. 

The Novel is based around the 1665-66 bubonic plague outbreak in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The Anglican rector the Revd William Mompesson persuaded the whole village to lock themselves away from the rest of England with food and other requirements left at the edge of the village courtesy of the Earl of Chatsworth. This was an act of extraordinary generosity on behalf of the village and the death toll was vast.  When you drive in Derbyshire today you can still see the sign to Eyam, called “the plague village’.

Brooks has fictionalised many of the historic characters in her novel and introduced completely fictional characters and events in telling a gruelling narrative of the drawn out plague and its horrendous death-toll.  Anna Frith emerges as a patient, forgiving, and rather startling heroine and carries the story line of the novel, somehow managing to avoid the plague herself while supporting many others. The parallel with Camus’ famous novel The Plague is strong in the sense that, in both novels, the priest, while having some redeeming features, ends up badly (Paneloux in The Plague and Mompellion in Year of Wonders. 

Brooks’ historical research is impressive delving into lead mining in the area, C17th knowledge of witchcraft, herbal remedies and prevailing theological views of both Anglicans and non-Conformists.  It was an interesting novel to read during the Covid19 crisis here in Victoria and around the world. Although our scientific knowledge has been extended in giant steps since the C17th the world can still be brought to its knees by natural forces at present outside our ability to control. One potential weakness of the book in my view was the rather artificially contrived conclusion to 

Brooks is an amazing story-teller and this novel leaves a deep imprint on the mind.  5  stars.

Gustave Klimt Paintings and Drawings
Gustave Klimt
Tobias G. Natter, Editor of Taschen Book Gustave Klimt

Ed. Tobias G. Natter: Gustav Klimt: Drawings and  Paintings, Cologne, Taschen, 2012  

Mysterious and controversial Austrian artist Gustav Klimt comes to life in this gorgeously illustrated Taschen book which contains high quality presentations of nearly all of Klimt’s paintings and drawings.  Never married, Klimt fathered fourteen children from various lovers, had a long standing deep friendship with fashion designer Emilie Flöge,  moved through the classical mode to the avant-garde and became perhaps Austria’s finest artist along with his protege Egon Schiele. 

Klimt’s “golden period “ paintings including the The Kiss and his portrait of Vienna society lady Adele Bloch-Bauer stolen by the Nazis from the Altmann family and celebrated in the film Stealing Klimt, have been sold for some of the highest prices in the higher echelons of the art world.

Klimt’s portrait prortrayals of women range from the intensely accurate to the wildly erotic and aroused both outrage and esteem in equal quantities.  His landscapes with a strong impressionist influence are mesmerising and irresistable. Klimt was a secretive person in relation to  his own philosophy and central ideas but his paintings and drawings highlight the glory, fragility and  ultimately the tragedy of life from the hopes of new life to his unremitting and searing portrayals of old age and depression. 

Natter’s editorship includes essays from many thoughtful artists and critics, many  photographs of Klimt’s artistic and personal life, and a detailed biography and bibliography. As with all Taschen books, this book is itself an impressive work of art.  5 stars Tobias G Natter

Natasha Moore, with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh,   For the Love of God + – : How the Church is BETTER + WORSE than you ever imagined, p/b, Sydney, Centre For Public Christianity, 2019  (2020 Winner,  Australian Christian Book of the Year). 

Natasha Moore authored For The Love of God together with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh. This book won the award for the best religious book of 2020

This is one of the most tiring and uncomfortable, yet rewarding books I have ever read! But don’t let me put you off having a crack. It is tiring and uncomfortable because in several chapters the writer describes in withering detail some of the church’s most evil and shameful events and movements.  It is rewarding because of its stories of the impact of some exceptional Christian individuals, movements and historical impacts.

As for the worst of the church, we are all aware of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Papal indulgences, witch hunting,  wars of religion and child abuse in the modern church. We may be less familiar with the horrendous auto-da-fé and the abuses of the Jubilee year in the C14th. What we are probably not ready for is the relentless and detailed description of these horrors perpetrated and authorised by the church. This book never at any stage seeks to minimise these horrors. The writers do however reduce the scandal by detailed analysis which shows that millions more folk were killed and maimed by world wars, violent regimes and governments that regularly murdered and tortured their own people. The “religious wars” chapter is particularly enlightening to non-historians in showing that the issues were largely about territory and influence and that Catholics and Protestants fought as much together against foes as against each other.

As for the best of the church the book is demanding because the defence of the good achieved by the church has been based on actual live interviews with extensive quotations from some of the most influential and sharply minded philosophers, writers, theologians and researchers operating across the world’s cultural scene and major universities today. These include Karen Armstrong, Markus Brockmuehl, John Harris, David Bentley Hart, Edwin Judge, Marilynne Robinson, Rodney Stark, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Nicholas Wolterstorff and many more too numerous to name. All of these folk write carefully and thoughtfully. You cannot take shortcuts through their contributions. 

There are powerful and honest insights and stories about the Christian heroes of massive social change including the Knights Hospitaller, William Wilberforce,  

Luther, Tyndale, Bonhoeffer, the amazing  William Carey and his friends in Serampore India, Father Damien of the Molokai leprosy centre in Hawaii, Lord Shaftesbury, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King and many others.  In addition the role of Christian faith in relation to the “invention of charity”, the “invention of  humility”, the genesis of human rights, the importance of the “image of God” and the notion of a just war all receive careful and thoughtful analysis.

The appendices include a good section of Jesus’ words from the New Testament, a full  list of interviewees and a detailed index. I can see why this book won the 2020 award. It is brave, honest, deeply challenging and in the end powerfully encouraging. There is a film and a video series if you prefer! This book would be marvellous for a thinking Parish study group but not for faint hearts. 5 stars

Clive James: Collected Poems, 1958 – 2015: London, Picador, 2016  

Clive James
Collected Poems of Clive James

Clive James was a remarkable polymath, with varying degrees of fluency in seven languages..English, Italian, Japanese, Russian, French, German and Spanish.  His erudition and vast reading across the Western intellectual tradition and his skills in literary criticism, classical literature, poetry and literature review were substantial and included, late in life, a well regarded translation from the Italian of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. 

James’ professional interests included expertise in fields as varied as bike and formula 1 racing, music, drama, comedy and television and radio production and presentation. His television and radio interviews and analysis of culture were often extraordinarily funny. 

 Born in Australia, he lived most of his time in Britain but regularly visited Australia. He has degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge universities. James was a heavy drinker and smoker for much of his long life.

Collected Poems was assembled by himself and does not include a number of his longer poems. The poetry is varied, engaging and often complex with literary, classical and other allusions abounding. Luckily for the reader this collection contains detailed notes at the rear with  many explanations of his more scholarly and obscure references.

  His themes vary widely and he has an interest in interested people including many fellow poets.  He writes about Johnny Weissmuller, James Joyce, P.G. Burnam, Egon Friedell, Arthur Stace (the “eternity “ man, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. Poets he wrote about include Philip Larkin, Auden, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Donne, Shelley, Robert Lowell, R S Thomas, e.e.Cummings, Les Murray, Byron, Yeats, Ian Hamilton, Peter Porter, Whitman, amongst others.

Overriding themes in James’ poetry include a variety of Australian people and scenes , beautiful women and a large number of poems about his own impending death including remorse about his failure to live a more healthy life as well as remorse about relationships. I enjoyed reading these poems and gaining some understanding of the life, fears and skill of this man’s very full and long life. 4 stars.

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BOOKS READ AUGUST 2020

Heather Rose: Bruny, p/b, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2019

HEATHER ROSE

New novel by prize-winning Tasmanian author Heather Rose who did well with The Museum of Modern Love in 2017. Bruny is  set on Bruny Island  in South east Tasmania in a future time not far from the present. The plot involves the political tangle and controversial manoeuvring by various parties  involved in a $2 billion joint national and state venture to build a bridge between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island, taking the place of the small ferry system currently operating. Heather Rose’s style mixes thinly veiled satire with enough sense of down to earth reality that makes the unlikely plot at least worth consideration if not believable

The key player, Astrid Coleman is a former Tasmanian of a powerful political family, now living in New York and working as a trouble shooter for the United Nations as well as covertly for the CIA. Coleman is persuaded by her father, JC, who happens to be the Premier of Tasmania, to return to Tasmania and do damage control after a terrorist attack damaged half the bridge at near completion stage.  The Premier wanted a quick fix in time for the next election and needed his daughter  on hand.  A controversial new law had just been passed allowing a significant force of Chinese labour to assist with the rebuild along with Australian workmen and the State had used Chinese belt and road money to help finance the scheme.

The novel has a vast array of involved participants including political figures on the left and right, greenies and nimbys, engineers, the bridge designer, the site foreman, anti bridge pressure groups of various types,  a Buddhist religious centre, Chinese heavy weight politicians, ASIO agents and other key operatives for various pressure groups.  The plot is tangled and a list up front of some of the key participants would have made reading easier to follow. Many issues of current Australian life style and policy  as well as political division are on display and the serious issue of Chinese investment in large tracts of Australian land and significant Australian business operations is at the centre of the book’s argument. Coleman herself is an interesting character..highly trained, disappointed in love, torn between New York and home at the same time as delivering on a highly paid commitment  but coming up against personal values and ideals that could be trashed by her efforts. 

For me this novel started very slowly and with some fairly banal overviews of the Australian political scene which seem to come from an unseen author rather than any of the characters. The plot does take hold however and builds a credible head of steam. The climactic final events build to a  powerful and thought provoking crescendo  but then the novelist seems to have had trouble wrapping things up and the story line wanders along at a very gentle pace it would seem for not much reason and too much repetition.  Like all taut thrillers some of the helpful coincidental events in the closing stages were unlikely and weakened one’s faith in the narrative. 3 stars.

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight, p/b, London, Vintage, 2019  

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Michael Ondaatje came to everyone’s attention through the dramatic film version of his fourth novel  The English Patient.  Ondaatje is Sri Lankan born and living in Canada and has written novels, a large amount of poetry and a non-fiction work on editing film. His eighth novel, Warlight, is a masterfully constructed puzzle based around the twilight world of post world war 2 intelligence.  The story line is held together by Nathaniel, the youngest child of two British intelligence agents who basically left their children to the care of boarding schools and assorted characters of varying character including the faithful but mysterious Moth and the greyhound faker Darter.

Whist their parents maintained their secret and dangerous lives mostly in still violent and confused postwar Europe, Nathaniel and Rachel had to bring themselves up rather rapidly in this arcane and sometimes violent gathering of virtual strangers who regularly appeared in their home.   The other two key characters are the hard to know Balzac loving mother Rose Wiliams  (code name Viola amongst others) and the equally mysterious thatcher, broadcasting naturalist, cathedral climber and intelligence agent Marsh Felon The intelligence agent Father is written out of the novel very early at work somewhere in Asia.

This is less a “spy” adventure story but rather a story of children in search of parenting  (and in search of their parents)  whose characters were formed by a motley collection of adults on the edge of society whom their mother had organised to keep tabs on her children. There is humour, grave danger, and intriguing character portraits here a plenty. 

Ondaatje writes with a learned delicacy and as one reviewer commented, writing that is “rare and beautiful” and gently guides the reader through a mysterious half-lit world of underground London and the rank confusion that inevitably followed a bombed and impoverished post war city.  

Ondaatje’s historical and  war research is deep and meticulous as shown by his acknowledgements at the end of the novel. There are literary references to Thomas Hardy, Lorca, A E Housman, Kilvert’s amazing rural diary and a host of other writers less known to me but these references are not intrusive and a simply part of the flow of consciousness that surrounds and finally consumes the reader as we struggle to put all the pieces together. Even so there are surprises. I really enjoyed this novel. I learned much about immediate postwar London and its underbelly and about the sort of people who make useful intelligent agents. Above all I felt at all times that I was in the hands of a master story-teller. I now want to read all Ondaatje’s other books!  5 stars.

Lou Klepac: Russell Drysdale: 1912-1981, h/b, Revised Edition,  London, Murdoch, 2009 (1983)   

LOU KLEPAK

RUSSELL DRYSDALE

 

Born in England but from childhood living and growing up in Australia Russell Drysdale is arguably the first Australian artist to bring Australian art to the world (with a little help from Kenneth Clark who organised Drysdale’s first London exhibition).  In my limited experience of reading about artists Drysdale is rare in not starting off his painting career starving in a garrett or relying on wealthy patrons. Drysdale’s grandfather and father had sugar interests in Queensland and owned a large farming property at Boxwood Park, north of Albury. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar where his exceptional skill in drawing was quickly recognized. He initially intended to join the family business but was encouraged to consider being an artist and joined the fledgling art school in Melbourne run by George Bell, who became a lifelong friend and supporter.

Lou Klepac, an art historian, has produced a detailed and well documented account of Drysdale’s complex life and character and this large scale second edition contains 170 high quality full page colour reproductions of Drysdale’s paintings and a large number of drawings as well as many helpful photographs. Drysdale did not produce a vast number of paintings and the majority of his works are in private hands including his most famous works such as The Cricketers, West Wyalong, Old Larsen and Man with a Galah and many others. Handicapped by major defective sight in one eye Drysdale was unable to enlist in WW11 and continued to paint including many wartime studies of soldiers on leave in lonely railway stations.

Drysdale travelled widely from an early age in Europe, USA and many times across and around Australia.  In Europe he was influenced by the French modernists and was caught up in the art culture wars of Australia in the 1950s and 60’s where  gallery administrators and many of the public struggled with the question what makes a “picture”. Drysdale did not paint easily or quickly. He had periods of not painting at all, sometimes lasting over two years and he was his own greatest critic, destroying and painting over many of his own paintings.  He held only 11 major exhibitions and one retrospective and was always struggling to meet deadlines and create the required number of paintings. He loved to talk and discuss with friends and family and developed a passion for Australian geology, the outback and its people, vast expanses and wild life.    

This book dramatically illustrates the extraordinary gift of Drysdale’s ability to interpret the beauty, trauma, humour, ancient lineage and terrifying mystery and yet joy of the Australian outback, its peoples ,and especially its indigenous community and their ageing locations surrounding the very limited edges of civilisation.  The art is bewitching and engulfing and repays careful study. Perspective, colour, loneliness, and staunch courage and determination appear in painting after painting.  Looking at Drysdale’s work is a spiritual experience although he was not a religious man. His personal life was tragic losing both his much loved but troubled son and his wife of longstanding to suicide but he recovered to be happily married again to the widow of a good friend. 

I am glad to have “got to know” this reticent but exceptionally talented man who paved the way for so many to follow. 5 stars.  

John G. Niehardt: Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition, p/b, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2014 (1932)   

Black Elk Speaks: Revised Edition.

Portrait of Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1863 – 1950), 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

John G Neihardt

American poet, philosopher, historian, journalist,and religious visionary John G. Neihardt was born in 1881 at the end of white American settlement of the Western plains. As his writing career developed he became deeply involved in the story of the gradual resettlement of the native plains Indians into ever decreasingly sized reservations and the concomitant assault on their populations, languages, freedom and spiritual beliefs.  In the course of his research , he came to form a deep relationship with Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1860-1950),  who as a young boy was an observer at the battle of Little Big Horn (General Custer’s last stand),  was second cousin to indomitable Sioux/Lakota war leader Crazy Horse and present and fought at the massacre of women and children at Wounded Knee. As a young boy Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) was swept up by a powerful spiritual vision which transformed his life with its calling to him to lead his nation into a period of intense struggle, opposition and challenge. 

Black Elk had never told anyone of this vision, inside or outside of his own people but sensed a similar visionary spirit in Niehardt after the two met.  In an intense period of four weeks and after an “initiatory ceremony” for Niehardt, marking him as a faithful holy man and friend to the Oglala, he communicated his life story to Niehardt. The story  included the complex uninterpreted vision and both the vision and the life story were carefully transcribed in shorthand by Niehardt’s wife Enid and eventually put into writing by NIehardt as “Black Elk Speaks” published in 1932. One curious factor linking the two men is that Niehardt was brought up as a committed Protestant Christian believer and Black Elk himself converted to Roman Catholicism in later life. These factors do not significantly influence the narrative although there are occasional hints linking Black Elk’s vision of the sixth grandfather with the Messiah.

A major interpretive challenge of the original published version of Black Elk Speaks is that Niehardt already had a deeply researched knowledge of the Oglala Lakota spiritual understanding. When the shorthand transcript is compared with NIehardt’s final version it is clear that Niehardt has “filled in some gaps” with his own spiritual understanding and substantial poetic gifts. It is sometimes difficult to determine which is Black Elk writing and which is Niehardt. This was made crystal clear by the publication in 1984 of Enid’s original transcript by Raymond DeMaillie which was called The Sixth Grandfather, omitting all NIehardt’s additions. 

This new 2014 edition of Black Elk Speaks solves this problem by the inclusion of an introductory essay by Harvard historian of Native American, Philip J. Deloria and a set of detailed footnotes by Raymond DeMaillie which clearly shows Niehardt’s additions by footnotes to the original transcript and also clears up some of Niehardt’s mistranslations of Lakota words. 

A further aid to understanding Black Elk’s vision in this version is the inclusion of 30 full colour plates of drawings by Lakota artist Standing Bear, a close friend of Black Elk which were in the original text and are now held in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri. In addition there is a helpful list of translations of Lakota words used in the text. 

 Two further useful essays are included in this volume: Lori Utecht, Director of the Niehardt Centre has written a useful essay describing the depth of NIehardt’s knowledge of and research into the literature of the settlement of the Western plains. Alexei N. Petrie has contributed an essay on Niehardt’s extensive work beyond Black Elk and his numerous academic awards and honours which help us to understand the depth of his contribution to American social history including his work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At a time when the USA is in turmoil over its race relationships with its Black population it is sad to read these accounts of the Indian wars and the gradual subjugation of proud plains Indian civilizations. These essays also give us pause in Australia as we read more carefully into the records and history of our own occupation of Native Australian territory.   I found this story to be deeply moving with images that remain in the mind long after reading.  5 stars.                                                                                                        

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BOOKS READ JULY 2020

Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in   Disaster, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2010

US Activist journalist, historian and writer has written extensively on feminism, landscape, art and politics. The middle of a Covid19 pandemic is a perfect time to read and consider this book which is about the human response to disasters of various kinds. The worst natural disasters in recent years have been in Asia— the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean,  the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2008 earthquake in China and the typhoon in Burma. Language, distance and culture prohibited her detailed access to these events and the 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred after this book was published. Today the whole world is engulfed by the Corona virus with just over half a million deaths so far and rising rapidly.  Although there have been more deaths in other disasters (4 million in the 2008 China earthquake), this virus shows no sign of fading away and here in Victoria major new shutdowns are occurring as I write. 

Rebecca Solnit’s book deals with five major C20-21st disasters namely the 1906 San Francisco earthquake;  the Halifax explosion of 1917 (World War 1 ship with 300000 tons of explosives on board collided with a Norwegian ship in Halifax harbour); the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; the Twin Towers collapse and fire of September 11 2001 and the New Orleans hurricane and flood of August 29 2005 which destroyed an area of 90 000 square miles.  In addition she provides evidence from other examples including the London Blitz, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the Nicaragua eathquake and the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Solnit’s central thesis, reported over and over, with detailed references, interviews and historical analysis, is that individuals in the event itself  and soon to arrive helpers and volunteers,  made more impact on the recovery and saving process, at least in the initial two weeks of a disaster than any “official” support from government, military, medical, local government or other agencies. She further  proposes that the “official” help, when it came was often overly focussed on the “elites”, on business interests and on the white middle class leaving the majority under-supported and indeed not infrequently attacked by the very military and other forces sent to help them. 

The problem with “official” help is that it takes a while to wind up, it comes from many different sources, the different systems don’t easily communicate  between each other and their approach can be very heavy handed. Private individuals and groups who come to help tend to jump straight in and start saving folk and doing stuff. The New Orleans hurricane disaster especially paints a bleak picture of racism, brutality, and murder by vigilante groups  and neglect of the black population together with huge delays in rebuilding with many residents never returning. 

This thesis will of course  be challenged by an alternative analysis from the side of Government etc but Solnit has amassed an impressive barrage of data mainly based on a vast array of different sources. In our own situation in Victoria and New South Wales in 2019/20 we have certainly seen a felt anger at the slowness of Government reaction in relation to bushfires in the December/January period and the subsequent clean up. On the other hand Australia has been well-served by its official responses to the Corona virus pandemic although as I write Victoria  has just been placed on a severe lockdown after a spike in folk demonstrating symptoms of the virus.

This book would be better with much tighter editing,  less philosophy about William James’s moral equivalents and Hobbesian “save the best and leave the rest” philosophy, and Solnit postulating on the question what is a civil society? It is tiring to read and quite horrific and dispiriting in parts but the power of individuals to show courage and shine through in a crisis is impressive indeed. Solnit frequently makes mention of Christian motivation in many of the helping initiatives that took place with each crisis.  If you are interested in, or worried about the future of our vulnerable little planet, this book will challenge you with a hundred ideas, you won’t easily forget it and it will leave you with a sense of hope.  4 stars. 

Jennifer Rosner: The Yellow Bird Sings, p/b, London, Picador, 2020  

Jennifer Rosner

Debut World War 11/Jewish survival novel by American writer Jennifer Rosner. The narrative centres on the close relationship between Polish mother Róża and her daughter Shira who become threatened and homeless after the murder of Róża’s husband during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The family is musically talented and music and necessary silence become central themes throughout the novel. There are many twists, escapes and desperate situations and the characters and scenes are strongly sketched and carry a weight of feeling. The terror, trauma and bitter hatred toward the Jews in 1940’s central Europe is portrayed with a haunting realism. There is only a certain number of times one can read this story of mid-century war and racial hatred including the uncertain behaviour of the Russian liberating army in 1945, but the musical lifeline and the unique bond between mother and daughter maintain interest to the ;happy/sad ending.  4 stars

Reg MacDonald: The Boy From Brunswick: Leonard French – A Biography

Reg MacDonald:  The Boy From Brunswick: Leonard French, A BiographyKew, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018. [Includes a detailed chronology, exhibition lists, biographical data and selected articles and reviews as well as a detailed index.]

Leonard French rose from obscurity and poverty in working class Brunswick to become Australia’s foremost artist of his day in the 1960s and early 1970s.  in a crowded field of Australian artists, both figurative and abstract, French put Australia well and truly on the world art landscape. 

Reg MacDonald, journalist, newspaper managing editor, treasurer of the Bendigo Art Gallery and former press secretary to Prime Ministers John Gorton and William McMahon, has researched and written an outstanding biography. His book of over 500 pages is based on meticulous research from his friendship with French himself, French’s talented children who provided many private photos and an extensive bibliography of Australian art and C20th history. The Book itself contains a large number of high quality coloured prints of the vast majority of French’s massive oeuvre.

Len French, who died in January 2017  was not a tall man but he was a towering figure in every other way. Leaving home in Brunswick at a young age he was engaged as a sign writer and his artistic career was on the way. These vast advertising signs were painted on buildings all over Melbourne on a very large scale indeed and this extensive and demanding training created in Len a unique style. Nearly all of his major painting works were on a massive scale and often in a series of five to twenty canvasses (more often than not masonite) and using, at least in the early days, Dulux enamel paint. These major works adorned the walls of  many large gallery openings and many of the major postwar Australian  institutional buildings including The Australian National Art Gallery and Monash University.       

Len was not university trained but read and travelled widely including a  poverty stricken year of study in England, Ireland and Holland,  and  a year  on scholarship at Yale University. He  immersed himself especially in the Homeric sagas and ancient Greek and Minoan civilisation but was also a vociferous collector of Primitive Art especially from the Melanesian culture but also Mayan civilisation at the same time devouring writers as varied as Dostoevsky, James Joyce , Marquez  and William Faulkner.

In character, Leonard French was always his own man, chauvinistic, strongly opinionated not to say garrulous, impatient of upper class foibles, a heavy drinker and smoker, but generous to folk in need and prepared to hold to his artistic vision whatever the cost to himself. He had impressive children from three wives, all of whom selflessly supported his larger than life career and lifestyle. Painting was his overwhelming obsession and only then was he really happy. 

Leonard French’s career took a massive turn in 1963 when, with little experience in that form, he was selected to create the extraordinary glass ceiling for the new Victorian National Art Gallery. The largest glass ceiling in the world, it was six years in the making and was produced at the same time as French constructed sixteen glass windows for the new National Library of Australia in Canberra.  These two installations “took over” French’s career and he went on to create more than twelve major glass window installations including La Trobe University, and churches at Macedon, Mt Eliza, Haileybury College and the Chapel at Gippsland Grammar. French’s first love was painting and it frustrated him that he spent so much time on glass installations which of course was a major income source.

It is a curious thing that Leonard French, who has given such spiritual encouragement to so many through his magnificent Anglican church windows, was not himself a believer in Christ. Leonard French was just himself, take it or leave it. I imagine the discussion with Our Lord is still going on now! 5 stars and rising.

Don A. Carson: The Difficult Doctrine of the  Love of God, p/b,  Leicester, IVP, 2000

This little book carries  a very large argument about the nature of the love of God which, on the surface, might seem to be a relatively simple matter. The reality of course, is that there is nothing really simple about God at all. Christian faith, in one sense,  is a matter of simple trust and faith in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and one with the Holy Spirit. That statement leads us straight to the doctrine of the Trinity which we all know to be complicated. But what is complicated about the love of God?

Carson sees it this way: first the love of God can be easily distorted because it is love as defined in the Old and New Testaments..the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It is not love as defined by The Beatles ( All you need is love! ); or Tina Turner (What’s love got to do with it..a second hand emotion); or even Louis Armstrong (What the World Needs now is love, sweet love) sung at many funerals these days. Carson notes that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. (p.11) Second the “love of God” in the Judaeo-Christian sense has been replaced for many in atheistic West by “the love of a god/any god/any principle that is thought worthwhile (p.14f). and thirdly, “the love of God” commonly pushed as “the only love that matters” seldom takes into account the existence of evil, surprisingly since the C21st followed a C20th which saw two world wars, multiple major wars, genocide in Russia, Cambodia, The Balkans, China, Nazi Europe and Rwanda, mass starvation and corruption at the highest levels in many nations (p.16)

As far as Christian believers go, surely the love of God is a simple matter. Well, Carson reminds us that The Father has a unique love for the Son and the Spirit; that God’s providential love for the whole of creation is different from his particular love of the elect; and thirdly God’s love in the Scriptures is often tied to obedience on the part of his people. (pp17-27)

In other chapters Carson discusses the different Greek words for love; the relationship between God’s love and his sovereignty, transcendence and his impassibility. All quite difficult enough issues. Finally Carson comes to the ultimate question of the relationship between God’s love and God’s wrath, equally spoken about in the Bible but seldom heard in C21st conversation today.

This is a challenging book for thinking Christians. It is not for young Christians but a mature Bible Study group would gain from it as would preachers called to preach on the love of God. My only criticism is that Carson does not make any reference to the question of Hell. In short, another excellent and concise discussion from one the finest theologians going around.   4 stars.

Hilary Mantel: The Mirror & The Light, h/b, London, 4th Estate, 2020

Volume 3 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy tracing the life of  English Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, was eight years in the making but does not disappoint. The story of a penniless blacksmith’s boy from Putney who escaped a brutal father to become a soldier of fortune in Italy and returned to England to serve Cardinal Wolsey and rose to become Henry V111’S most trusted advisor, a peer of the realm, knight of the garter, Lord Chancellor and Earl of Essex is impossible to put down. I read Wolf Hall in one stretch, late into the night. Bring Up the Bodies was equally engrossing two years later and it seemed the third volume would never come. Now Mantel has delivered in spades.

Whilst a few characters are invented, the narrative is very true to the historical data and reveals a multi-faceted character whose legal, military and business acumen made a permanent impact on the history of England and whose Protestant sympathies were central to the establishment of the Church of England. Mantel’s style is unique, writing much of the story in the third person as “he thinks”, “he says” which leads the reader after a while to believe they are inside Thomas’s head. 

At times the writing is mesmeric, not to say Proustian in intensity…Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. {p249]. I sense a third Pulitzer Prize coming very soon!

As far as church history goes, although this is not a formal referenced text book, a student would do well to read carefully to get a feel for how fragile the beginnings of Protestantism in England really were and what courage and faith Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Cranmer, Barnes and many more  demonstrated in the midst of perilous opposition. 

In the end Thomas Cromwell went to the tower after his involvement in the disastrous marriage 4th marriage of Henry V111 to the German princess Anne of Cleves. He was executed at Tyburn and his head stuck on a pole in the street. A violent end to a man with a violent boyhood. But what a life in between. 

This is the sort of novel you separate from with great regret, wishing it could continue forever.  5 stars and rising.

Sam Binnie: The World of Wolf Hall, p/b, London, 4th Estate, 2019.    

A brief reading guide to the characters, history and background to Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies. Designed with  literature students in view and with  questions for bookclubs.

Notes on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Sam Binnie

Gilles Néret: Renoir: Painter of Happiness, Trans. Josephine Bacon,  Cologne, Taschen, 2017 

France has spawned a great many famous painters but perhaps none more so than Pierre Auguste Renoir whose long life (1841 -1919) spanned the Impressionist era and made a mark on the emerging abstract artists Matisse and Picasso.  This large scale Taschen edition of his work, which includes both his painting and the ten sculptures Renoir produced with the aid of sculptor Richard Guino, is a lavishly illustrated feast of beauty.  Landscape, Paris, social life and amazing portraits of both men, women and children are all included in this 440 page masterpiece of a book. 

The narrative tells of Renoir’s early life as a porcelain artist; living in poverty; his interactions and friendships with the Parisian artistic community of writers and artists including Zola, Manet, Degas, Duret and the Impressionist new vanguard of Monet, Pisarro, Cézanne, Diaz, Courbet and many others; his fight to get his paintings into the Salon, the Impressionist’s own exhibitions; his many muses, mistresses and models, the frequent and hurtful public criticisms of his works,   his eventual success with high paying clients, his journeys to Algeria, Spain and Italy, his family life with his beloved  Aline and their children, and his later years in Cagnes in Provence including his battle with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. The vast majority of the over 600  paintings represented are full or half page with exceptionally hight quality of colour production and the current location of each is detailed where known,

It is Renoir’s passion for painting young children and the female form both clothed and unclothed which brings  him perhaps to the forefront of portrait painters in the tradition of Rembrandt. Giles Néret delicately traces the various changes in Renoir’s style through the years including his doubts and the difficult decision to “leave” the Impressionists. The English translation is satisfactory but awkward in parts which is a minor irritation. The production values are extremely high and the book includes a detailed life chronology, many beautifully produced family photographs, and a detailed index of works represented.  This is a book to be treasured and loved and a privileged insight into this painter of joy, erotic passion and beauty. 5 stars.

Gillies Néret

Richard Prideaux

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