Books Read June 2020

Francis Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden, p/b, London, Scholastic, 2015 (1911)

 

Burnett was English born but grew up and published in the USA. The Secret Garden was  not a great success at first but has become an absolute favourite throughout the C20th with many readers old and young after its slow start. Only in recent years has its appeal cooled as its sentimentality, although not maudling, certainly has a feel of an earlier era.  Harry Potter and the voluminous adventures in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid have taken over!  Nevertheless for those students who take up the challenge, especially girls, the unique charm and challenge of the story can still be compelling.

The heroine, English girl Mary Lennox’s early and very spoilt childhood in British India was radically altered early in her life following the death of her parents in a cholera pandemic. Sent to England to stay with her wealthy uncle in the vast Misselthwaite Manor House on the moor,  the arrogant and petulant child was in for a shock.  Her Uncle, Mr Craven, who was a hunchback was also grieving. He had lost his wife in childbirth and the shock turned him into a deep depressive. He handed over his son Colin, who survived the birth,  to the care of nurses and spent years of his life travelling in Europe. His son became a lonely and disagreeable child who managed to persuade himself that he would become a hunchback like his father and turned himself into an imperious and unpleasant invalid. Mr Craven treated his new ward with even less respect not even meeting her for some time and taking no care at all of her education or situation.

The secret garden was a walled garden much loved by Mr Craven’s wife, and no-one was permitted to enter it. The bored Mary discovered the garden aided by an old gardener retainer and the hero of the story, a fourteen year old local nature lover Dickon, a child with a natural love of the moor, of gardening and of the birds and animals of the moor.  Needless to say there was much work to be done not only with the garden but also the character and health of Mary and Colin. There is an old fashioned Christian, almost heathen, spirituality in this novel of adventure, healing and change.  Once begun it is still hard to put down.   4 stars 

Ferenc Máté: The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land: A Memoir,  p/b, London,  Flamingo, 1998 

The Hills of Tuscany

This account of a young couple who have travelled far and wide across the world, finally settling down in Montepulciano in Tuscany is a very special book for me. I read this book when my only experience of Tuscany was a one day stop in Florence on a Trafalgar tour. I was captivated when I read Máté’s account of the light, hills, food, climate,  trades,  art,  people and mood of Tuscany and I determined to return for more than one day. Since then Ann and I have visited Tuscany many times staying for weeks at a time. Montepulciano was a special place for me on one of those trips, and the steep walk up the main street to the piazza is to die for with its village shops, Etruscan ruins, interesting churches and the stunning view at the top.  The little Church of San Biago on its promontory outside the town walls looking over a vast expanse of forest, farmland and villages is breathtaking and I have returned to its silence more than once. It is amazing how many authors, art lovers and travellers turn to Tuscany and its villages for inspiration. This is a book to savour, taste, laugh about and be inspired.  5 stars and counting.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin Red Classics, 2008 (1914).

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs struck gold with his completely improbable yarn about Tarzan the forest dwelling wild strong man of the African jungle and his unlikely romance with Jane Porter. His success spawned another 26 or so Tarzan stories and a number of movie credits.  The writing shoots along at a galloping pace from start to finish and is pitched at about 10 -14 year olds with a bit of odd-ball science thrown in. Tarzan of the Apes is a Eurocentric, biologically confused, educationally impossible, sexist, racist, scientifically incorrect, in places saccharinely sweet, in others appallingly violent, romp through darkest Africa written by a man who never travelled to Africa. Nevertheless once started it is hard to put down and Burroughs even manages to keep us wondering in the final paragraph about whether Jane will  say yes or no to Tarzan’s proposal of marriage. What more can I say?  2 stars.

Julia Baird: Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain you when the World Goes Dark,  h/b, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2020 

There’s a touch of the Jordan Petersons  in Australian Julia Baird’s latest book..they both are inspired by underwater creatures, they both have practical and significant rules for life, both of their books are footnoted with extensive and precise accuracy, both have been through bouts of  very serious medical crises and both communicate an edgy Christian faith.

Julia Baird, glamorous co-anchor of ABC’s The Drum is a writer of no mean credentials including a Law Degree and Ph.D in History from Sydney University, Columnist and Senior Editor of New York’s Newsweek for ten years and author of several books including her recent highly regarded and meticulously researched Victoria The Queen. Somehow or other, whilst achieving these things she seems to have spent a large amount of her life either dancing or being underwater, as well as raising two children.

Phosphoresence is in some ways a response to the very dark places indeed she has been in following three separate and desperate bouts against an invasive but non-lethal cancer illness. In a nutshell the book is a call to us all to regarde! to pay attention in our lives and to seek awe in the ordinary and at the edge; to live kindly and deliberately This advice emerges strongly in two separate amazing letters, one each to her son and her daughter which repay reading again and again.

For the rest phosphoresce comes from cuttlefish with their three hearts, from silence, from long-standing friendships, forest bathing, massive storms, space and the beauty of the universe, celebrating the temporary, accepting imperfection, letting yourself go, finding your own voice, from freudenfreud instead of schadenfreude (being glad not sad about the success of others), from neurotic and loyal dogs, by “Ert” (a sense of purpose in life), by art and creativity, by savouring, by hope and by embracing doubt along with many other things too many to mention.

Along the way Baird introduces us to a host of poets, philosophers, writers, survivors, scientists, spacemen and women, business tycoons and novelists. All my favourites are here including Rilke, D H Lawrence, Helen Garner, Tim Winton and Simone Weil, but there are many others, poets especially,  I am looking forward to finding and reading more of the lesser known poets she quotes who provide an opening to phosphoresce through their liminal writing. 

The two final chapters focussing on the church (especially her own Sydney Anglican Church (albeit its edgy end) will repay careful reading. I was especially touched by her tribute to her close friend the late Bishop John McIntyre and his work in both Redfern and Gippsland. Baird encourages us to be less judgmental and more willing to shut up and listen to the hurts, needs and searching of those outside our comfortable churches. A member of General Synod during the ordination of women debate, Baird provides a thoughtful and challenging reflection on a defeat which clearly still rankles with many Sydney lay women.  

If  you can cope with one more book during your Covid lockdown I recommend this one. It will change the way you live!  5 stars

Rabin Alameddine: An Unnecessary Woman, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2014

Jordanian born to Lebanese Druze parents Rabin Alameddine grew up in both Beirut and Kuwait. At 17 he went to live in England and later moved to California and now splits his life between San Francisco and Beirut.  He holds degrees in Business and Engineering but works as a painter and writer. An Unnecessary Woman,  unusually for a male writer,  is the very personal and intimate story of a divorced and childless woman living in a dilapidated ground story flat in war-torn Beirut. Aeliya Saleh managed to keep her husband’s flat in Beirut after her husband left and she took up work managing a second hand bookshop from which she borrowed, stole or bought and then read a very substantial collection of books from a wide variety of  authors.

Through this job and her facility in English, French and Arabic Aeliya develops a hobby of translating literary classics and other texts, from French and English into Arabic. Over the course of her life she amasses some 31 of these hand written translations which she stores in boxes in a tiny backroom of her flat with no intention of publishing them  She also develops a keen interest in music with the help of a local Record Store owner and builds up a sizeable collection. Aeliya is a shy introvert who prefers the Beirut museum to the company of other women or men with the exception of a longstanding friendship with a sister-in-law Hannah. The narrative is told largely in the first person but occasionally drifts into third person commentary especially when it comes to literary criticism of authors and their good and bad books.

This novel is laced with a vast array of  literary and musical references and quotations  (about 280, roughly counting) which the reader will find either disconcerting, wonderful or very annoying and interruptive depending upon taste. Suffice to say that a sub-title of this book could be a survey of the early to late C20th European and American novel (with the deliberate omission of German novelists!). This novel is both humorous and at times quite serious and its dramatic conclusion explores the edges of the instability of mental strength in old age. 4 stars. (but I love books about books!)

Richard Foster:  Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of  Christian Faith, p/b, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2019 (1998)

Richard Foster’s book deserves its new  imprint. It is such an impressive piece of writing. In six amazing chapters he identifies six  significant streams of Christian faithfulness…contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational/sacramental traditions.

Each section has three heroes ..a figure from history, a figure from the Bible and a C20th example; The writing is incredibly gripping and not too academic with details left to very impressive footnotes. Some of the stories are heart-breaking including aspects of the life of the mother of John and Charles Wesley.  There is a richness in his writing which readers  will remember from Celebration of Discipline but there is also deep wisdom,  a compelling and helpful  Christian maturity and common sense and very powerful examples.

Foster carefully notes the strengths and the weaknesses of each tradition with thoughtful comment. The figures he chooses as examples for each tradition are sometimes well known like Bonhoeffer but also less known but so powerful like John Woolman. In addition there is a thirty page punchy history of the whole church; detailed pen-pictures of about 30 individuals for each tradition and an excellent index to match the extensive footnotes.

The key figures given detailed and careful treatment (with appropriate extensive bibliographies) include: St Anthony, the apostle John, Frank C. Laubach (the Contemplative tradtion); Phoebe Warrall Palmer, James, the Brother of Jesus, Bonhoeffer (the Holiness tradition); St Francis of Assissi, the Apostle Paul, William Joseph Seymour (the Charismatic tradition); John Woolman, the prophet Amos, Dorothy Day, (The Social Justice tradition); Augustine, the Apostle Peter, Billy Graham, (the Evangelical tradition); Susanna Annesley, Bezalel, Dag Hammarskjöld, (the Incarnational tradition). 

Although a demanding and challengingl read I could not put this book down and I would count it certainly in my top five Christian books that I have ever read and I have read one or two!   It is not particularly well-known which is a tragedy. It is a long time since I have read a book which so genuinely encouraged me in my personal faith in Christ and hope for the Church. 5 stars and counting.

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