Edna O’Brien: The Country Girls,  London, Penguin,  1968 (1960)

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, described by Phillip Roth in 2009  as the most gifted woman now writing in English,  caused a sensation in her home country when she wrote this somewhat racy book, the reaction to which  forced her to leave Ireland and move to England to write.  She became extremely popular extending The Country Girls to a trilogy of novels which were banned and sometimes burned in Ireland.  She went on to write other novels, plays and many short stories and still plays a major role in absentia in the development of modern Irish literature.

The Country Girls, is a happy/sad narrative based to a degree on her own repressed childhood and providing a window into the lives of poverty stricken children in both urban and country environments in Ireland. The novel also highlights the subjugation of many Irish mothers to their heavy drinking and often violent husbands and the significant need for societal change. In addition the novel highlights the rather cold and intrusive educational model provided in earlier years by Irish Catholic secondary girls’  and probably boys’ boarding schools.  O’Brien’s grim picture of Ireland is softened by many moments of high humour and droll commentary especially about the antics of sad and tragic older men who could be easily captivated by beautiful young Irish lasses.  O’Brien’s strength is in her captivating descriptive power and her whimsical humour.  I enjoyed reading this coming of age novel very much.  4 stars.

John Julius Norwich: France: A History From Gaul To De Gaulle, London, John Murray, 2018.

Historian and writer John Julius Norwich

John Julius Norwich is one of my absolutely favourite writers of history..along with A N Wilson, Paul Johnson, Hilary Mantel,  Alison Weir, Norman Davies, Kenneth Clark, Robin Lane Fox, Manning Clark and Michael Grant.  All of these writers manage to write with deep learning but also accessibly and in an exciting manner which draws the reader ever onwards, desperate to find out what happens next and proving unerringly that truth in history is always more interesting than fiction!

Norris has written at length on European history especially of Byzantium, Sicily,  Venice, the Popes, Shakespeare’s Kings, Mount Athos, the Mediterranean and England. France is, he says, definitely his last book which is sad but he has left a treasure trove of deep reading. HIs knowledge of France and especially Paris, is intimate since he spent much of his boyhood in Paris when his father was the British ambassador to Paris. This knowledge of “small things” adds personality to this narrative. 

In a book of just under 400 pages and covering two millennia there is a danger that the reader will get lost under the burden of a brief snapshot of successive kings, consorts, military leaders and philosophes. This is not the case. Key events and individuals are dealt with but in an amazingly relaxed and seemingly personal way. Occasionally one has to turn back to remind oneself of a particular person but the flow is energised and clear in spite of the cast canvass and significantly large cast of players.  Even the vast number of “Louises” is made clearer by the sobriquets used. At times a chart of royal relationships would have been useful but these are easily obtained elsewhere.  The Book is beautifully illustrated with very clear coloured plates and the index is superb. 

What surprised me was the seemingly endless tension between France and Britain. I was aware of course of the Norman conquest and the earlier wars for occupancy and title including Agincourt but the testy relationships in later years including right up to the close of the Second World War was all new to me. It was news to me also  that there was a  almost constant warfare throughout Europe throughout two thousand years of its history. One is aware of the 100 years war and the 30 years war but there was virtually never a time when war was absent in the whole of Europe. 

Norwich also manages to keep the reader abreast of the inevitable impact on  colonies overseas of European tensions especially in central and north America. In France the deep current of antagonism between the “Proletariat”, the church and the nobility also emerges with striking power throughout French history as was the constant and horrific persecution of the Huguenots. It was also surprising to read of the World War 11 tension between General de Gaulle and President Roosevelt/Winston Churchill and especially the fact that de Gaulle was not invited to the Yalta Conference on the post-war future of Europe.

For a dynamic overview with all the key characters drawn with intimate perspicuity and without overwhelming and undigestible detail, this is a wonderful read.  5 stars.

Alan T Kerr: Guided Journey: Some Experiences of a Lifetime, Gundaroo AU, Brolga Press, 1998.

Alan T Kerr, founder of Kerby Furniture and international Christian leader in Scripture Union, Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM), Church Missionary Society and Ridley College amongst a vast number of other involvements.

Alan Kerr could be arguably regarded as Australia’s most significant Christian layman of the C20th. Born in 1918 in Victoria, Alan suffered severely as a child from tuberculosis and partial deafness and his weakened constitution kept him out of school completely and caused him grave concerns frequently throughout his long life. Notwithstanding these two handicaps and the early death of his first wife, Alan lived an extraordinary life, creating what became Australia’s largest furniture making company (the Kerby group)  with factories in six states and over 800 employees (all from an 8 year old making wooden toothbrush holders to sell for pocket money!). Like most Australian furniture makers this company was eventually defeated by labour costs, flat packing and overseas imports. Taken over by Rank Industries it was eventually subsumed and sold off. 

In reality, despite his passion for management and industrial vision Alan Kerr’s first love was Christ and making Christ known to the world. Alan expressed this vision not by writing books or preaching sermons but by using his leadership, financial acumen,  business and entrepreneurial skills to create and/or lead some of the world’s largest evangelical organisations including Scripture Union International, the Church Missionary Society, The Council for the Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM) which lead him to make many hair-raising flights and journeys to Papua and New Guinea to places seldom visited by whites, Campaigners for Christ, Ridley College, The Billy Graham Organisation, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, St Andrews Hall Missionary College, building programs in two Anglican churches and a vast number of smaller Christian and Anglican organisations.  Until well into his seventies Alan was deeply involved (often for over thirty years) in more than 30 complex Christian organisations including sub-committees.  This on top of his stressful business career,  a family of three boys and their children and a passion for extensive travel and a love of musical and theatrical concerts as well as AFL grand finals and his beloved Bombers and his legendary hospitality, frequently opening his home for events and for holidays for overseas guests included John Stott on two occasions. 

To tell the truth Guided Journey is an exhausting book to read!  One wonders how any one person could achieve all of these things in one life. On the other hand it is also a searingly honest account of Alan’s life. He does not hide his anguish over aspects of his own personality, financial and business errors and events that could have been handled differently. Alan is his own greatest critic. Throughout this book his deep love of God shines through along with his commitment to Biblical studies and to building up the faith and work of others.  I worked with Alan for many years on the Council of Ridley College and also came to know him as a personal friend and mentor when we worshipped for many years in the same church, St James’ Ivanhoe in Victoria and sharing ministry with his son Marcus and his wife Barbara. Alan Kerr’s life was indeed a journey guided by God.   4 stars.

Daniel Hammet: Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meaning of Language, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

Daniel Hammet

Daniel Hammet is a high functioning autistic author, essayist and translator in many languages, born in England and now living in Paris.   His understanding and knowledge of a vast array of languages and the basis of language itself is formidable. 

 This book is initially hard work as Hammet’s description of his non-verbal childhood and his struggles in learning to read are painful and sometimes difficult to understand.  Nevertheless the final gain is worth the effort as we  travel with him in his journey of discovering his own voice and eventually his writing gifts and also share in some of his delight in language. 

Topics covered include teaching English in Lithuania; the amazing achievements in children’s learning pioneered by sociolinguist and ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath and lexicographer Erin McKean; Hammet’s discovery and personal friendship with Australian poet savant Les Murray; penetrating the almost lost language of the Nahuatl people of Mexico, descendants of the Aztecs; a mini-history of the development and understanding of Esperanto; the battle for the salvation of the Kikuyu language in colonial Kenya; The Icelandic “Person’s Names Committee” which regulates which personal names can be used and which guards the purity of the unique Icelandic language; the fight to save and reclaim the almost lost Manx language of the Isle of Man; The story of L”Academie Française and its remarkable English chairman Michael Edwards, the guardians of the purity of the French language; The remarkable novels and literary work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo group; the development of signing language for the deaf and the “threat” from cochlear implants; a mini-history of the translation of the Bible including the remarkable author and translator Erri De Luca, self taught in Hebrew, Swahili, Russian and Yiddish who has created unique and remarkable translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jerome, Augustine and Luther; the breakthrough in human communication created by the telephone; and an analysis of whether chatbots will ever be able to communicate humanly.  He thinks not!

Barbara Kingsolver:  The Poisonwood Bible, London, Faber & Faber, 2000 (1998 US)

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is an American writer with qualifications in Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and she is married to an ornithologist. For a short while she lived with her medical doctor parents who worked in public health in the formerly Belgian Congo. Kingsolver is at pains to point out that the parents in her novel are quite unlike her own parents!  She has a passion for the relationship of humans with their natural environment and for folk as far as possible producing their own food.  All of this comes together in this powerful invented story of a fundamentalist Baptist preacher, a decorated injured military man who takes his wife and five children (four of them teenagers including one seriously disabled child) to work for the Gospel in Belgian Congo in its last days prior to independence and in the chaotic years to follow. This mission was not authorised by any sending  organisation with the exception of a $50/month allowance which ended after independence when the family refused instructions to withdraw with dramatic and at many times tragic results. 

This book is notable in many ways.  For its keenly intense and subtle description of the equatorial African jungle, its wildlife, vegetation, droughts and endless rainfall; for its knowledgeable exploration of the lifestyle of subsistence Congolese remote village life; for its humorous treatment of the ups and downs of such a dramatic shift in living standards seen repeatedly through the eyes of youngish children and written at times very engagingly  with their spelling as well as calling into question the outlandish oversupply and overspending in America’s middle class; for its sensitive and finely drawn description of high functioning autism in some children; for its scarifying assault on inappropriate Christian mission work undertaken unofficially and without adequate training; for its acerbic criticism of the role of European and American self-serving political interference in the future of independent African nations; for its searing account of the temptations of greed and power for newly minted native political rulers (and their first world “supporters” for that matter; and finally for its celebration of the human spirit in its ability to overcome and survive the most horrific and chaotic circumstances.

Kingsolver references the poetry of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams to good effect and raises a curious tension between the at times ridiculousness and the strange necessity of some sort of religious sensitivity to life on our planet. Whilst at least one of the characters (Rachel) borders on caricature  the familial tensions, joys and sorrows of a family living under intense stress is delicately and sensitively drawn.   5 stars.

Heather Morris: The Tattooist of Auschwitz,  London, Echo, 2018.

Heather Morris is a New Zealander living in Australia and working in the Social Work Department at the Monash Medical Centre. This story is a work of historical fiction which, like all literary genres covers a wide array of literary works. Alison Weir and Hilary Mantel have published both exceptional histories and also other works of historical fiction but one is aware with both Weir and Mantel that there is a vast depth of recognised historical scholarship behind everything they write. This story is different again. Lale Solokov,  (born Ludwig Eisenburg) a Slovakian Jew living in Melbourne, was alive when he met Heather Morris and told her his life story.  On the other hand Morris is also deliberately writing a love story, prepared initially as a film script but now turned into a book.  As well the story is a glimpse of one of the worst atrocities in  history, the Nazi holocaust in central Europe in World War 11 in which over six million Jews, Romany Gypsies and disabled folk were murdered in the vilest manner conceivable. 

The result is a most remarkable love story; the real life love story of Ludwigh Eisenburg who changed his name to Solokov after the war, and Gisela Furhrmannova  (Gita Furman) whom he met in Auschwitz. The love story is told with tenderness and sensitivity and in such a  tantalising and tense way that almost forces the reader to keep on reading to find out what happens next. 

Holocaust experts such as those from the Birkenau/Auschwitz 11 Memorial Centre are unhappy about some of the detail of the narrative such as how many of the gas chamber buildings were actually blown up by Jewish sonderkommando rebels;  whether penicillin was even available any where at that time when Solokov obtained some to cure Gita; whether there was indeed a bus that Jews were pushed into at Auschwitz which was used as a gas chamber, and above all how did Morris get the wrong tattoo number for Gisella/Gita. In return Morris accepts that some of the story details were made up, for example Lale and Gita were not together when Auschwitz was emptied due to the Russian threat and some other details. On the other hand, in general the story is as Lale told her and other characters such as Cilka and Baretski were real people: Cilka sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia for being a Nazi conspirator and Baretski tried and sentenced in Frankfurt for war crimes in 1961, later committing suicide.

It is completely understandable that Solokov waited so long and after his wife’s death to tell his story.  In agreeing to be the tattooist Solokov was serving and working for the Nazis, inflicting the most hated symbol of all on the body of each prisoner as they arrived…the death symbol numbering the despised ones to be destroyed. As a fluent Russian speaker and a citizen of Slovakia then part of the Soviet Union Empire of Republics his part as a Nazi collaborator at Auschwitz, if it had become known, would have been a death sentence. It is also a story of determined survival, of trying from the moment of capture to find a way to keep alive and thinking. The number of positive stories to emerge from the horror of Auschwitz was tiny.  Here is one such story and I am glad I have read it.  5 stars.

Leigh Sales: Any Ordinary Day,  Melbourne AU, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2018

Leigh Sales ABC journalist, interviewer and writer

When I was a new principal at St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School I can remember going into a morning staff meeting and saying “when is there going to be an ordinary day at St Paul’s?” I realised before long that there never would be and when I helped to write the twenty year history of the school we called it No Ordinary Days.   Leigh Sales has done something similar with her title   Any Ordinary Day, because this is a large book full of anything but ordinary days. 

Leigh Sales is one of the most visible faces on Australian news television, daily anchoring the ABC’S 7.30 and having snared interviews with the Dalai Lama, Paul McCartney and James Comey, former Head of the US FBI.  She also worked as the ABC’S reporter in the US covering the New Orleans floods amongst other stories.  She regularly has to deal with stories of deep trauma in her daily news grind but this book contains a completely separate set of interviews and research with folk who have been involved in the most deeply tragic losses and events. Sales can be an emotional presenter and I have twice seen her weep tears on national television. She has also been through her own serious difficulties including near-death during the birth of her second child, the significant special needs of her first child and the breakdown of her twenty year marriage.

The reader of this book needs a deep well of compassion themselves because it is a study of exceptional tragedies in the lives of ordinary Australians whose losses when accumulated in this way can become almost overpowering even though her writing is calm, measured and carefully nuanced.  So here we are introduced to survivors or relatives of the Port Arthur massacre, the Lindt Café siege, Stuart Diver’s miraculous survival following the Thredbo landslide that killed many, James Scott’ remarkable survival of more than fifty days on Everest and many other Australian tragedies.  We are introduced to reporters, witnesses, prime ministers, coroners, counsellors, police officers and simply family friends and supporters who have been there for those in the trough of deep trauma. 

This is a book of careful and annotated research and notation with very careful notes and online references that can be followed up if required. It is also an extremely honest narrative with Sales admitting that journalists can and should have done much better at times in their dealings with trauma victims. Sales does not spare herself, revealing interactions and presentation of which she is still ashamed. Sales notes Psychologist and academic Dr Elana Newman’s comment that there is an historical avoidance of scholarship regarding trauma and journalism. (p104). She also explores why so many of us are uncomfortable  and emotionally incompetent in dealing with those who are suffering deeply, even when we are their closest friends. (P141).  

Useful topics in this research also include the sometimes contested introduction of “therapeutic jurisprudence” into the legal profession  (p-141- 146 which asks judges and lawyers to give consideration to the personal feelings of those caught up in the legal system instead of perhaps hiding behind legal impersonalise.  Sales also discusses the notion of “posttraumatic growth” pioneeered by American academics Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi. (p206ff). Interestingly Sales admits to being surprised by the discovery that many of these deeply traumatised  interviewees had been immeasurable helped and supported by their Christian faith. Sales is not herself a believer these days but willingly here acknowledges the fact that millions of people around the world are encouraged in their daily living by their religious commitment. 

I could not say this is a book to sit down, enjoy and savour…but as someone who is at times uneasy with emotion, I have to say this book challenged me to more alert to the needs of those around me who do suffer loss and more thankful for every moment of being alive …in both the good times and the tough times.    5 stars. 

Peter Adam: Esther: For Such A Time As This, (Reading the Bible Today Series, Editor Paul Barnett), Sydney South AU, Aquila Press, 2018.

Dr Peter Adam, systematic theologian, international Bible teacher,

Peter Adam is a formidable systematic theologian, an internationally acclaimed Bible teacher and preacher, for twenty years the Vicar of St Jude’s Carlton and still vicar emeritus. I have known Peter since we were still teenagers and we were both at Ridley as students in the 60’s, me studying Arts, and Peter Theology. We were at Ridley together again in the 70’s when he was my Church History tutor and we worked together again at Ridley in the 2000s when he was Principal and I was Chairman. Ann and I have maintained our friendship with Peter for just on fifty years so it is  with some trepidation that I review his most recent book Esther: For Such a Time as This.

This is the 24th publication of the  Reading the Bible Today Series and Peter’s third contribution having written on Hebrews and Ezra/Nehemiah.  The series is written by Australian theologians writing at “great depth without being too technical” as Dr Michael Youssef writes on the back cover. 

The Old Testament book of Esther is problematic in that it is the only Biblical book that does not contain the name of God and neither does it reference any standard Biblical themes like covenant,  atonement, torah, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic  or creation.  Furthermore it concerns Jewish families settled  in far away Susa in the Persian Empire, not returnees to Jerusalem or those still settled in Babylon. 

The story line is taut, graphic, easy to read and full of shocking power games, sexual intrigue and bitter persecution and it is has the “feel” of a Wisdom narrative and yet its royal Persian king is deeply rooted in history. Commentaries are not normally read straight through like a theological treatise but slowly with the text ruminating and tricky questions dealt with in extended essays. In this case however I found myself reading Peter’s book straight through in two days because it is exciting, readable (not verse by verse analysis), current and remarkably,  and I am still not sure how, Peter has managed to squeeze in just about a complete Biblical theology in a commentary on a book that does not mention “God”.  Not bad! He achieves this in part by having sections in each chapter on “reading Esther in the light of the Old Testament” and “reading Esther in the light of the Bible”. There is a wealth of Biblical thinking here to challenge, teach and strengthen the soul! 

Chapter 1 is helpful historical background. Throughout the book Peter has inserted material from Herodotus’s ancient and detailed history of the Persians and demonstrates the historical veracity of the biblical book of Esther. Chapter 2 reminds us that a verse is not a text .. a book is a text and we should read the Book of Esther first as a whole. Chapter 3 focusses on the materialism of King Xerxes and his kingdom and relates strongly to our oversupplied Western society. Chapter 4 is about Exile and we are reminded that all Christians today are in exile and we need to pay attention. Here I read that God uses sinners to achieve his good purposes. (p62). When you think about it, who else could he use?  Chapter 5 is about ethnic cleansing, evil and disproportionate rage and is very close to home. Chapter 6 is about persecution and courage and us..for a time such as this…each moment of our lives is an opportunity..courage is grace under pressure. I think this is the central thrust of this commentary. 

 Chapter 7 is about providence and Peter reminds us of Puritan John Flavell’s comment that sometimes providences, like Hebrew letters, must be read backwards. (p126)  Just to keep us off balance Peter throws in a challenging and demanding word from Sören Kierkegaard and even more from William Carey: we should expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.   Chapter 8 is about overturning, retribution and justice. Chapter 9 is about sorrow turned to joy but that persecution will always be there. Peter has us grappling with Neusner, Pascal and Calvin and reminds us that in the West our news outlets are silent about God and that persecution will only increase in coming years, as our societies claim to be tolerant, but will tolerate anything except Christianity. (p176) Peter takes us to the Book of Revelation to help us understand Esther and our own plight. The Commentary finishes with  a deeply challenging analysis of Reading the New Testament in the light of Esther. 

Study group questions, a list of Esther commentaries and related books and a further list of books referred to in the text make this a very useful commentary indeed.  A good red wine improves with age.  Dr Peter Adam just keeps getting more and more challenging and helpful.  5 stars for me.