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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