Peter Frankopan: The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, p/b, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018
Peter Frankopan’s Major history of the world, The Silk Roads, was a massively popular analysis of the key events of world history seen from the East instead of, as usual, from a Western point of view. He has followed up with an update, published in 2018 which includes President Putin’s attacks on south eastern Ukraine, Brexit, the Trump administration in the USA and the rise and rise of China as the world’s greatest superpower.
Frankopan demonstrates with his normal detailed and many sourced analysis that traditional international norms no longer apply in an age when both the USA and Russia have been surpassed in growth and technical fire power by a swiftly emerging all powerful China. It is not too much to say that “the triumph of liberal democracy is on hold if not over” (p.243). To quote Henry Kissinger: A divided Atlantic would turn Europe into ‘an appendage of Eurasia’ forced to look not West but East to a China whose aim is to be the principal advisor to all humanity. (P.243) The change is particularly illustrated by the leaning of Silk Road states Turkey and India toward Russia rather than Europe and America.
This book makes disturbing reading especially now in the light of President Putin’s all out assault on Ukraine, America’s chaotic and shameful failure and withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s aggressive moves towards colonising the South China Sea as well as its consistent harassment of Taiwan. Although the election of the moderate Jo Biden as President of the USA has removed the chaos of the Trump administration for at least a term of office, it is difficult to read this book without feeling deep misgivings about the future of liberal democracy anywhere in the world. Don’t read this book if you want to sleep easy at night about the future. 5 stars.
Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, p/b, London, John Murray, 2021 (2016)
First novel by young Irish writer Lisa McInerney lets the reader into the underbelly of city life in current day Ireland. Based on the city of Cork the novel describes the drug, crime and prostitution scene in frank and lurid detail including prison life for offenders. There is a thread of black humour throughout the novel which keeps the reader engaged and in addition there are threads of well meaning but hopeless religious do-gooders who usually end up making things worse. There is a deal of bitterness and anger thrown at the efforts of the church in this novel.
The main thread of the novel is based around school dropout Ryan Cusack, his girlfriend Karine D’Arcy, and his alcoholic and sometimes violent father. There follows a trail of teenage sexual encounters, drug addled users, brutal crime bosses, beaten up prostitutes, failed families and dodgy religious organisations.
In the final chapter there is a faint glimmer of hope from a somewhat crazed source but the glimmer is very faint and untrustworthy. This is the sort of teenage warning literature that used to be given to high school English teachers when I began my teaching career fifty years ago. I presume the intention was to warn the Year 9’s off the bad life but in my experience the outcome was titillation and little else.
If one has the view that a key purpose of good literature is to uplift the reader and bring light and hope into even the darkest trauma, then this is not the novel to read. If the writer’s purpose is to display her handling of ironic and grim humour with plenty of sex thrown in then the writer has succeeded admirably.There is a genuine task for sociologists to detail the causes and motivations of the underground criminal drug world and the task is urgent. The creation of a fiction of unredeemed hopelessness where the only light is black humour seems to me to be a pointless exercise for the reader. There are so many more important things to be doing! 2 stars
Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, p/b, London, 4th Estate, 2020 (642 pages).
Craig Brown is an English author of 19 books, a critic and satirist. Untold numbers of books have been written about the Beatles. Brown himself cites 108 books about the Beatles that he sourced in writing The Beatles in Time. I am not a great fan of biographies or autobiographies especially sporting and musical biographies but this book is quite different.
Brown makes no attempt to chronicle the lives and music of the Beatles in a systematic and ordered manner. Rather he has written about snapshots of Beatles’ “events in time” of all sorts. These have occurred in many different countries, with many different people, about just some of the Beatles’ songs and focussing on the unusual and unlikely events that formed part of the Beatles experience…and there are many!
Some of these events are extremely funny especially the examples of fan mail; some are extremely sad; many show both the incredible impact many by the Beatles on the Rock world well beyond all their contemporaries with the possible exception of the Rolling Stones with whom they were close friends. Some of these events are morally outrageous; other events show the extreme gullibility of the Beatles in regard to the con men and users who wheedled their way into the lives of the Beatles for ulterior motives.
Never far away in this narrative is the impact of drugs in just about every situation in the book after the first two years. Brown makes no judgments in this account but rather seeks to tell the stories as accurately as he can. In several places he cites the radically different accounts of the same event that have been written by different authors.
This is a large book but very easy to read and hard to put down. If you haven’t read a book about the Beatles I can certainly recommend this one. It is a seriously interesting read. 5 stars
Niall Williams: History of the Rain: pb, London, Bloomsbury, 2015
Beautifully crafted narrative of four generations of the Swain family in the fictional town of Faha in Clare County Ireland. The narrative is told by Ruth Swain, who is confined to bed due to an undefined illness. Her father Vergil, a champion pole vaulter, war survivor, salmon fisherman, book collector and would be poet is the central figure in the narrative although attention is also paid to Ruth’s Great Grandfather and her Grandfather. The room in which Ruth is confined is an attic containing the numbered and named three thousand, nine hundred and fifty nine books accumulated by Vergil in his career and she sets herself the task of reading them all.
What Vergil is not good at is farming and the house and farm they live in gradually begins to disintegrate on his watch. The central power of the novel is both the incessant rain and swift flowing river which borders their home as well as the dry humour with which the narrative is written. The curious, humorous and beautifully written narrative engulfs the reader and makes the novel difficult to put down. There are passages of sublime descriptive power, moments of deep sadness, and plenty of straightforward humour, all of which draw the reader forward unrelentingly. Williams also manages to include an outline of the political ups and downs of Ireland through these four generations with humour and resignation.
Williams began his writing career as a non-fiction writer but has achieved significant success writing fiction with eight well regarded novels to his name to this point. I found this novel very engaging and will look for more of Williams’ books. Being a manic book collector myself I was fascinated with the titles Ruth commented on. This is a book to savour and I think to read again. 5 stars.
Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive, Trans. & Intro, Peter Collier, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2002 (1923).
The Fugitive is the sixth book of Proust’s laborious novel In Search of Lost Time. Here the Narrator continues the story of his strained relationship with Albertine. In Book V, The Prisoner, the Narrator has kept Albertine in his house with her consent. In order to keep her he showers her with expensive gifts and makes absurd promises to her. She is constantly watched by the Narrator so that she doesn’t stray and when she goes out it is only with individuals trusted by the Narrator. Of course Albertine easily gets around all these rules and Book V closes with the Narrator in despair and wanting to end the relationship.
Now in Book V1 we find that Albertine has left of her own accord and has begun to resume her former promiscuous lifestyle. The Narrator is horrified! Even though he had decided to separate from Albertine, her taking the initiative destroys him completely. A large part of Book V1 describes the Narrator’s distraught and somewhat depressing attempts to persuade Albertine to return to being “a prisoner”. Then, abruptly, the Narrator receives the message that Albertine has been killed in a horse riding accident. This tragedy throws the Narrator into a reverie of all that Albertine had meant to him and further tortures him with his dependent neurotic love for her. He embarks on an energetic mission to try to find out whether the stories of Albertine’s sexual encounters with women were in fact true by seeking out former close associates of Albertine and paying them to establish the truth. When he finds out that the stories are true he tries to excuse or deny them but also as the weeks past, his passion for Albertine begins to wane.
The final chapters of Book V1 describe the Narrator’s visit to Venice with his mother and the news which comes as they are returning home that his first love Gilberte has announced her engagement to his good friend Saint-Loup, now the wealthy Marquise de Saint-Loup. The story closes with the Narrator visiting Gilberte at her old home in Combray where they grew up together. Their friendship resumes but not at a romantic level. At the same time the Narrator learns that Saint-Loup is regularly unfaithful to Gilberte with other women and also other men.
We await the final dénouement of In Search of Lost Time, the longest novel ever written. Book V11 is entitled Finding Time Again.
Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eye Witnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Second Edition, Foreword Simon Gathercole, h/b, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2017
Richard Bauckham is a British theologian and New Testament scholar, a member of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Scotland, working from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of over thirty books as well as an extraordiary array of articles and book chapters.
This highly regarded book is definitely not for beginners in reading theology. Bauckham’s research is meticulously documented and no issue is left to chance. In a work of 615 pages plus indexes and bibliography the reader needs a fair degree of grit as well as some background in theological vocabulary and early church history. It is fair to say this is a book for scholars, clergy committed to the preaching and teaching of the historicity of the New Testament, and, dare I say it, deep thinking sceptics who consider the whole Christian story to be a fairytale.
In essence Bauckham challenges the standard Form Critical approach of much C20th theology. This movement was led by German theologians K. L. Schmidt, Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius. The movement held and defended the view that the New Testament Gospel accounts are late and based on individual units of transmission passed on anonymously in the communities of Roman occupied Judea and Asia Minor, which treated them more or less creatively. This German dominated theology was followed by Engish speaking theologians and led to a sceptical account of many of the miracle stories, healing narratives and resurrection events of the four Gospels in many Western countries. It is fair to say that the conservative response to this powerful movement was a long time in the making but began making inroads in the second half of the C20th including leadership from Australia’s own Dr Leon Morris.
Bauckham’s argument in a nutshell is that the Gospel stories can be verified by reliable eye witness accounts collected and distributed by trusted Christian leaders including the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus and a wide range of other followers of Jesus. He argues that these stories were taught orally by trusted early leaders in evolving Christian communities at a time when oral teaching was more highly regarded than written testimony. Only when the witnesses began to die in the last years of the first Christian century was the church galvanised into the writing of coordinated accounts of Jesus life and ministry. The Gospel of Mark, thought by most scholars to be the memories of Peter, was followed by Luke’s carefully researched account and the originally Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel. They based their outline on Mark and added additional teaching material of Jesus. Finally the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple John was written, quite different in content and approach from the first three Gospels. Bauckham argues that the Beloved disciple was not to be confused with the disciple John the son of Zebedee.
I believe this book will enliven and encourage preachers, Bible teachers and thoughtful lay people. It is a work of deep scholarship and it cannot ignored in any study of the four canonical Gospels. 5 stars