BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2019

Allan Bullock (Editor): The Marshall Cavendish Learning System: History, London WI, Marshall Cavendish Books, 1969

Historian Sir Alan Bullock
example of Marshall Cavendish learning system books.

This self-help learning system is astonishing for the vast amount of material put together with impressive academic credentials and accuracy but in a very readable manner and in a relatively short compass.  I have been long interested in the origin and rise of civilisations and the first two books in this outstanding series are particularly helpful. A key feature is the pictorial illustration of key eras and personalities. 

Title H1-  Cradles of Civilisation deals with the civilisations of  Sumer and Akkad; the Indus civilisation of north west India around Harappa; the rise of the Assyrian Nation; the Hittite Empire; the ancient empires of Egypt; the vast Persian Empire, and the later Ptolemaic empires of Egypt closing with Cleopatra’s failure to seduce Octavian and the conquering of Egypt by Rome.

Title H2 – Asia:The Dawn of History, deals with the creation of the  mysterious and ancient temples of South East Asia including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the “menace of the invading T’ai. This is followed by an account of the amalgamation of the earliest Chinese territories of Han, Wei, Chu, Chi and Yen under the banner of Ying Cheng, prince of Ch’in, from whence comes the name ‘China’. It becomes clear how much  Confucius’ influence is so significant for much of Chinese history in spite of the burning of his books and others by Li Ssu and the murder of the K’ung scholars under the Chi’n dynasty. These atrocities were made worse when the Chi’n dynasty itself fell under the power of Liu Pang’s peasant army who also burned the royal library—the only surviving complete collection of China’s ancient classics. 

This history is followed by the account of the youthful Chandragupta Maurya a one time supporter of Alexander the Great’s invasion who eventually led an army from northern India to conquer the Macedonian Seleucus Nicator’s  army and effectively become the first Indian leader to unite the various tribes of northern and central/south India. With the advice of his brahman advisor Kautilya  he ruled an increasing area of India from his capital Pataliputra in northern India. The narrative also deals with the development of India’s ancient faiths based on the influence of three amazing teachers Mahavira who developed Jainism, Gosala maskariputra who founded the Ajivikas movement and of course Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The narrative then turns to India’s cultural conquest of South East Asia, and in particular the spread of Buddhism and the tension between developments in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism throughout South East Asia, including the magnificent Borubudur temple in central Java,  leaving Hinduism to a tiny remnant in Bali. In the late C13th the situation was altered again as South East Asia reeled under the Mongol attack from northern China and a new powerful influence arrived across the Indian Ocean —Islam which eventually controlled the Malayan Peninsula and all of the East Indies except Bali. The final two chapters deal with the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties prior to the invincible power of the final Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan and the golden age of his grandson Kublai Khan who ruled as Emperor of China for 35 years becoming the dynastic leader of the Yuan dynasty, and known to amazed Europeans through the writings of Venetian trader Marco Polo who lived in the Khan’s court from 1275-1292. After Kublai Khan’s death the vast Mongol empire which stretched from China to Europe could not be held together in spite of the fierce power of Timur the lame (Tamerlane) who waged brutal  destruction over all until his death in 1405.The Golden Horde, Persia, the Mamelukes and new Chinese dynasties arose to claim their own place under the sun.

Whilst I am sure all of this can be found online these days it is handy to have such a beautifully illustrated and professionally written accounts in two small books totalling 128 pages still available cheaply on line second hand!  5 stars.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019 (1983).

Alice Walker

Complex rambling novel in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots, looking at the life of post-emancipation black Africans especially in relation to the treatment of women and their fight for equality, education and standing. Written in the compressed language of everyday black Americans the essence of the novel is the different paths taken and eventual reunion of two sisters, Nettie and Celie, Celie as a young girl was repeatedly raped by a man she called Pa who turned out not to be Pa.  Pushed into an unhappy and servile marriage her life is turned around by an unlikely black female jazz singer Shugg who inspires her and also teachers her how to make genuine love.

Nettie is a determinedly self-educated woman protected early at home by Celie and who, by a complex set of circumstances ends up as a missionary in Africa. This enables Walker to describe and unpick the damage done to post-colonial Africans by the Western money grabbing “developmental” destruction of native vegetation, wild life and food sources, destroying much of the livelihood and lifestyle of many native Africans creating what is in effect a new kind of slavery. The narrative also underscores the complexity and hardships of Christian missionary work..a theme revisited in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Although there is some reconciliation in the conclusion, this narrative tells a harrowing tale of thoughtless and cruel white behaviour towards blacks in general as well as the environment and the equally cruel treatment of black women by their often uncaring and misogynist partners.    A powerful and harrowing novel which continues to make a big impact even after nearly half a century.  5 stars.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne: The Essayes Or Morall, Politike and Militarie of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Knight: The Second Book, translated from the French by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [1580 in Middle French; Florio’s English translation 1603]

Unlike the first book of Montaigne’s essays published at the same time, this second book is absolutely dominated by the towering chapter 12, An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde, which extends to 202 pages, well over half the book. Sebonde was a  C15th Catalan scholar, teacher of medicine and philosophy and a Professor of Theology at Toulouse. Sebonde’s major work had been given to Montaigne’s father by Peter Bunel who had been staying with him on his estate. Bunel was himself an outstanding scholar and linguist from Toulouse and expert in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. 

Sebonde’s book was written in Spanish and Montaigne’s father asked his son Michel to translate it for him into French.  Montaigne was clearly deeply influenced by Sebonde’s ideas and hence his remarkable essay and “apologie” of Raymond Sebonde. His essay/book ranges widely, commencing with the new bangles of Luther’s ideas which he saw were to shake the foundation of our ancient beleefe (p121), and this budding disease would easily turn to an execrable Atheisme. Seybonde wrote his book to establish and verifie all the articles of Christian religion against Atheists. (p122). 

Montaigne takes off from this starting point and commences a major examination and defence of the Christian faith. I was not expecting this because one of my criticisms of Book 1 of Montaigne’s Essays ( published at the same time and reviewed in this blog in August 2019) was that in spite of his vast collection of classical quotations from Greek and Latin authors and occasionally Augustine, there was virtually no reference to the Bible whatsoever. 

Here on the contrary we have a stirring theological/philosophical defence of the Christian faith including debates with Plato (p.128); about the immortality of the soul; about faith in Christ and the grace of God (p131); about Augustine (p133); about the nature of Heaven (p136); about natural theology at considerable length; about human sinfulness and vulnerability (p144); about procreation and marriage including some naughty bits (p164);  about the scope and genius of God’s natural creation; about wisdom (p178); against Stoicism; about human weakness and sickness; an aside about the evils of lawyers (p194); about the mystery of God (God is better known by our not knowing! (p195); about wonder above reason; about the long search to know we know nothing (p192); about the confusions and contradictions of the classical philosophers and the extremities of doubt (p199); about the probability of the reality of faith (p203); about Paul in Athens (p211); about the contradictions of Greek scientific ideas (p213); about our transformed heavenly bodies (p217); about the confusions of the classical account of the gods..(behold and read in Plato the gibberish of the gods, p249); about divine justice (p260); about the limitations of human reason (p275); about the “new found” learning of Copernicus (p281); about the absurdities of non-Christian cultures including Islam; about the dangers of the “changing English religion” ie the Reformation (p292); about the conflicting “faiths” produced by various philosophies..this section with a lengthy debt to Lucretius; and finally about the fleeting passing of time and the changing of all things.

In addition to this substantial book within a book Montaigne continues to entertain with provocative and thoughtful essays on subjects as trivial and as serious as human inconsistency, drunkenness, weird cultural customs, conscience, exercise, honours, children, much about warfare especially Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, books and authors (chapter 10..very interesting for book lovers like me), cruelty (Montaigne hates cruelty in war), death, desire, glory, presumption, telling lies, idleness, sickness, virtue, Siamese twins, anger, in defence of Seneca and Plutarch, good women and good men, and a finally a bitter and tumultuous tirade against the incompetence and gross errors and practices of the medical profession of his day. (for which he apologises to the Lady of Estissac to whom he had dedicated both Books 1 and 2. 

Some quotations from Book 2 which struck me as singular or of their time.

p63   Aristotle on loving others above self: profit is not so much to be esteemed or loved as honesty

p67  that which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion, can never be attained by force and constraint.

p77  Re children and marriage…and ill hath their father brought them up, if he cannot hope, these coming to yeares of discretion, they shall have no more wit, reason, and sufficiencie, than his wife, considering the weakness of their sexe.

p90  I am not greatly affected to new books, because ancient Authors are in my judgement more full and pithy..

p104  Virtue provoked adds much to itself (Epanimandas);  to do well, where there was both peril and opposition, was the peculiar office of a man of virtue. (Metullus);  virtue rejecteth facilitie to be her companion.

p112  Against Stoicism: they are sharp-wittie subtilties, and without substance, about which Philosophy doth often busie itself.

p120  Knowledge is without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament: Those who despise it declare evidently their sottishness..

p123  On Christianity: …Christians wrong themselves much, in that they ground their beleefe upon humane reasons, which is conceived but by faith, and by a particular inspiration of God.

p127  On Christian warfare: Our religion was ordained to root out vices, but it shrowdeth, fostrethand provoketh them. 

p132  To an Atheist all writings make for Atheism.

p178  Health I say, which is the goodliest and richest present, nature can impart unto us.

p181 ..onely humility and submission is able to make a perfect honest man.

p195  Augustine: God is better knowen by our not knowing him. 

p199  On philosophy: If we can know nothing, we cannot be certain that we know nothing.

p208 On wisdom: …it must not be thought strange if men desparing of the goale have yet taken pleasure in the chase of it.

p210  Plato…for the benefit of men, it is often necessary to deceive them…

p210  What greater vanitie can there be, than to goe about by our proportions and conjectures to guesse at God? And to governe both him and the world according to our capacitie and laws?

p211  On God:  …an incomprehensible power…

p226  On multiple universes: ..Now, if there be divers worlds, as Democritus, Epicurus, and well neere all Philosophy hath thought, what know wee, whether the principles and the rules of this one concerne or touch likewise the others?

p227 Mansiphanes said…that nothing is certaine, but uncertainty.

p240  Have I not seen this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an ænigmaticall poesie?….Plato is but a loose poet. 

p297  Metrocles somewhat indiscreetly, as he was disputing in his Schole, in presence of his Auditorie let a fart, for shame whereof he afterwards kept his house, and could not be drawen abroad, untill such time as Crates went to visit him, who to his perswasions and reason, adding the example of his liberty, began to fart a vie with him, and to remove this scruple from his conscience…

p330  Pliny: This onely is sure, that there is nothing sure; and nothing more miserable, and yet more arrogant than man.

p343  Our glory is the testimony of our conscience.

p400  Vespasian: ..an Emperour should die standing upright.

p481  Homer..the first and last of poets.

Montaigne’s C15th language is hard work at times but becomes easier with familiarity. There is amazing triviality alongside impressive classical and historical analysis and much philosophical, moral and religious argument to think about. At times tedious, at others outrageous, nearly always thought provoking. It is worth the effort.  4 stars for me. 

Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth, London, Pocket Books, 2005 (1931).

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck (née Sydenstricker),  was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Good Earth, her second novel, published in 1931, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal and was made into a major MGM movie in 1937 although its Hollywood romantic ending makes a travesty of the novel.  She was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and lived most of her childhood in China becoming fluent in Chinese and English.  After graduating in the USA in 1914 she married agricultural economist John Lossing Buck and they returned immediately to China living in the impoverished community of Nanhsuchou. By the time of her death in 1973 she had published over seventy books.

The Good Earth, is the chronicle of humble but very determined and money wise rural farmer Wang Lung and his lifelong relationship with the land and its crops, set in the early C20th prior to Mao’s cultural revolution.  It is an epic and very personal journey of success and disaster,  drought causing famines, floods and locust ruined crops,  marriages and families, children and grand-children, his relationship to his gods, His outlaw relatives, starvation and begging, wealth and poverty and the impact of wealth on simple family life in a village setting.  The key players are his first wife O-lan, his second wife Lotus, his three sons and two daughters and his extended family. The narrative is told largely from within Wang Lung’s personal and private thoughts and words. The novel has an almost musical compelling harmony and progression of highs and lows, echoing and perhaps explaining the initial introductory opening of a quotation from Proust’s imaginary musical composer Vinteuil. I could not put this book down. It is a compelling read, 5 stars.

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