Books read November 2019

BOOKS READ NOVEMBER 2019

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility, London, Sceptre, 2012 (2011).

Amor Towles (2018)

Graduate in English from Yale and Stamford Amor Towles was born and bred in Manhattan and was an investment professional for twenty years before turning his hand to writing with this, his first novel, Rules of Civility. The title comes from the transcription by a young George Washington 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. These rules were based on C16th French Jesuit document and Washington’s transcription is word for word from Francis Hawkins’ English translation of 1640. Clearly the rules served him well in his future career. 

Towles’ novel is written from the perspective of one year (1938) in the life of a young American girl  Kate Kontent  of Russian extraction,  making her way in “the greatest city on earth”. The novel is classy, sharp, witty, humorous, tragic in parts, down to earth, clever, disarming, engaging and very difficult to put down. Even though the subject matter is, in one sense, somewhat trivial…the life of one person in one year…Towles manages to hang on to his reader for the next episode. One reason is the sheer mystery surrounding the second mainstay character of the novel, the somewhat Gatsbyish Tinker Grey and his alter ego artist brother Hank and Kate’s mercurial friend Eva.  Towles treats us to the swankiest and the grooviest and also the worst  of 1938 New York and for those lucky enough to have spent time there, the novel can bring back many memories of amazing buildings and soul encouraging music. 

I found this novel trivial/boring and at the same time emotionally convincing enough to want to read to the end.   4 stars. 

Matthew Keale: English Passengers, Camberwell, Penguin, 2001 (2000)

Engaging and lively story of early C19th Manx sailors and the early  history of Van Diemen’s Land focussing on the skills of smugglers, C19th horrific views about craniology and the superiority of the English,  the British  treatment of convicts, the massacre of the indigenous population,  the dangers of the Australian bush and the vagaries of sailing from merry England to primitive Australia. Kneale’s characters are fictional but based on genuine historical figures especially the Tasmanian sections.  The vast collection of characters is constantly reintroduced as the narrative  proceeds so it is not a book that can be put down for a moment, the reader needing to keep close tabs on who was who.  

Kneale’s style is horrifyingly explosive in dealing with the extermination of Tasmania’s indigenous population and its treatment of convicts. This difficult material is neutralised to a degree by the sanguine humour of the Manx sean Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, who, whilst no Puritan, is the reader’s favourite hero in the narrative and the person we most want to prosper even if he is defrauding the very efficient Britsh Empire Customs service. The other key figure is the part aboriginal Peevay who carries the weight of both indigenous survival as well as hopes of integration.  There are many other unforgettable characters including the fundamentally flawed Anglican preacher the Revd Geoffrey Wilson who has decided that the Garden of Eden is to be found in Van Diemen’s Land.  Much more formidably flawed is the doctor and would be craniologist Dr Thomas Potter who can well be regarded as the novel’s chief villain. 

This novel deserves a wider audience than it gets. It’s author himself is a formidable traveller, having scaled mountains from Ethiopia to New Guinea.  5 stars but requires commitment and concentration!

Eleanor Atkinson: Greyfriars Bobby, p/b, Ringwood, Puffin,1994

Eleanor Atkinson

American journalist, teacher and writer Eleanor Atkinson wrote this exquisitely charming and endearing story of the faithful highland terrier Bobby who spent most of his life in the Edinburgh cemetery keeping guard on the grave of his old shepherd friend Auld Jock who had died of old age. The story is written for adults and much of it in highland slang for which thankfully, there is a glossary at the back of the book. Remarkably Atkinson never visited Scotland, which is difficult to believe given that her deep knowledge of Edinburght’s streets and nineteeth century geography and that of the surrounding region is acute and detailed. Although somewhat sentimental to the modern ear the novel still tugs at the heartstrings. One comes to believe in Bobby as a genuine person and there is a genuine degree of tension in the many scrapes he gets into. A beautifully written account of a special little ‘imaginary’ dog.  4 stars.

Peter Corney: The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross, self-published, Peter corney.com, 2019

I read The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross with great interest. The book began with a series of studies for a series of seminars for preachers based on 1 Corinthians 13 to which Peter has added some very useful chapters containing observations on the exercise of power and authority in contemporary culture. It certainly covers a set of ideas that have been central to my own interests over the years. I note especially the side-lining of Christian faith through scientific reductionism, the cultural captivity of the church, the media/atheist sidelining of Christian faith from public discourse, the clear handling of the misunderstood doctrine of penal substitution and the dangers of radical individualism. Each chapter has some very useful questions and throughout there are excellent suggestions for further reading.

I can see how useful the studies from 1 Corinthians would be for a group of preachers to work through. I am not so sure about the further application of the booklet into say a parish study group. In a conservative parish it would be welcomed and tertiary trained church members would gain by a discussion of the arguments. A liberal catholic or ‘nothing’ parish  would struggle with some of the sophisticated wordiness of the concepts even though the writer has successfully avoided philosophical jargon. The purpose of the book is to find a way forward to return the Cross to a central position in Christian preaching. Preachers who read it I think will find many lines of approach that will be useful and effective. 

The only other comment I would make is that the media/public anger against Christianity in general rather than the Cross in particular,  is not dealt with directly (I know you can’t do everything in one booklet). I think a tone I missed in this book was an admission that the Church should acknowledge more directly its deep errors, both past and present and find a way to nevertheless validate the central claims of Christ especially the doctrine of atonement which is the central teaching of the Christian faith.  I suppose an example is Natasha Moore’s recent on line article “Religion Poisons Everything” .   To deal with the current societal  anger about  such folk I think preachers need to find a cutting edge of raw honesty to go with the excellent theology explained in this book  This is a minor criticism. Peter Corney has eloquently and clearly given a clarion call for a return to the heart of the Christian Gospel in preaching and I applaud his acheivement.  5 stars.

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