Books Read April 2003

Flavius Josephus: The Antiquities of the Jews, Trans. from Greek, by William Whiston, h/b, USA, Hendrickson, 1987 (1736).  

Josephus was a child of a significant priestly Jewish family and grew up in the turmoil of Roman occupation of Israel. Born in A.D. 37 and dying near the end of the C1st A.D. Josephus was a key military leader in Israel’s fateful war of independence from the Roman war machine which resulted eventually in the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70A.D.  In spite of the horrific defeat, slaughter and surrender, the captured Josephus managed to become directly acquainted with and gained the favour of the Roman leader Vespasian. When Vespasian eventually became emperor in A.D. 69 Josephus was officially freed and eventually was able to return to Rome with Titus, Vespasian’s son and future Emperor.  Josephus settled in Rome as a client of the emperor on an imperial pension, eventually gaining the rights of a Roman citizen and adopting the emperor’s family name, Flavius. From this point on he began his literary endeavours.  

Josephus’ Antiquities is a monster read, 514 pages printed in small print with two columns on each page! This work tells the history of the people of Israel, commencing with extracts from the Book of Genesis. Josephus then takes the reader through the Old Testament narrative of the history of Israel from  God’s covenant with Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the period of the judges and first kings including David and leading the reader to the destruction of the first temple and the Israelite sojourn in Babylon, their release under the Persians and the challenges they faced with occupation from in turn the Egyptians, the Seleucids, and finally the Romans. Josephus does not deal with the wars and destruction of Jerusalem in The Antiquities as he had covered this period in a previous book, The Wars of the Jews, or, The Destruction of Jerusalem. 

The reader obtains regular detailed additional footnoted commentaries on various events from the translator, William Whiston who was himself not just a scholar of the Greek language, but a mathematician, philosopher and theological scholar of some note. Readers need to make up their own mind about the veracity and value of Whiston’s additional comments! An additional historian often quoted helpfully in his footnotes is Dean Humphrey Prideaux who wrote in 1845 a well regarded 2 volume  History of the Jews and Neighbouring Nations and the Connection between the Old and New Testaments!  

In spite of the size of Josephus’ work I think thoughtful Christian readers will enjoy The Antiquities of the Jews. Its story of the faithfulness of Jewish believers  through two millennia to 70 A.D.and, three hundred years after Whiston’s translation, we in our generation still see the Jews today, after another two millennia of trauma,  fighting to stay alive on the same piece of dirt in the State of Israel.  In addition there are occasional references to figures from our New Testament including Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, James the Brother of Jesus and of course Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I can honestly say I enjoyed reading The Antiquities of the Jews.  5 stars.

 Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind, p/b, New York, Avon Books, 1964 (1936)  

Powerful narrative of a three-way love triangle set in the context of the C19th  American Civil War over the abolition of the Slave Trade and the rights of black Americans.   Scarlet O’Hara, the spoilt first child of a wealthy Irish American Coffee planter in Georgia, is thwarted in love when her first love Ashley Wilkes announces his engagement to his cousin, the ever sweet and adoring Melanie. Made into a memorable film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh Gone with the Wind one of the old time great love stories.

At a vast garden party just before the war at which the engagement is announced Scarlet has a violent and losing fight in a library  with Ashley which happens to have been seen by the suave Rhett Butler who also has his eye on Scarlet. The civil war changes the lives of every Southern State in the South East as Scarlet’s house Tara is taken over by Yankees and she flees to family in Atlanta where both Scarlet and Melanie found initial security while Ashley went to the war. Rhett Butler manages to inveigle himself into Scarlet’s life so the love triangle continues against the background of horrifying accounts of the four year progress of the Civil War.

This extremely lengthy novel was enjoyed by our club members although not all were able to finish the 1024 pages in my paperback edition. Mitchell paints a too glossy account of the happy lives of black African slaves but her analysis of the horrors of the war and the impact on the Southern States is powerful and accurate.  5 stars. 

Review of Jane Austen: Shorter Works, Intro, Richard Church; Decorations, Joan Hassal:  

h/b, London, The Folio Society, 1975 ( writing from 1787-1817) 

Jane Austen I am sure will always remain in my list of favourite authors and although six acclaimed novels is a considerable achievement indeed, one always hopes for more. From the age of 11 Austen was writing Juvenalia, and even in these fragments the gift of future genius can be seen emerging. 

Her adult writing can be said to have begun with the incomplete The Watsons (1803) and the epistolary Lady Susan (1805).  All of Austen’s delicate shades of meaning, deft and witty conversation and surprising twists that force the reader to continue reading are already found in these works.  Her last work Sanditon written in 1817(only one chapter completed) has recently been reproduced as a major television series. The dedicated lover of anything Jane Austen will be unable to put these varied pieces down. Austen’s ability to commit the reader to find out “how things will work out” forces the reader to keep on keeping on. Austen even created a very humorous if not always accurate history of England with a particular leaning towards Catholicism as well as Mary Queen of Scots. Her complete minor novels: Lesley Castle/Evelyn/Frederick and Elfrida/Jack and Alice/Edgar and Emma/Henry and Eliza/ and The Three Sisters, all offer Austen gems, humour, surprise and wonder. This is a collection to savour and remind ourselves that for character, wit, sangfroid and style she still has no equal…even after 236 years!

Ed. Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata:  Josephus, The Bible and History, h/b, Detroit, Wayne  State University Press, 1989 

This book is a series of essays connected with the extraordinary and controversial life and writings of Flavius Josephus, who lived in the First Century A.D.  Josephus’  extensive writings [The Antiquities of the Jews, The Wars of the Jews, Against Apion, The Life of Flavius Josephus and An Extract of Josephus’ Discourse to the Greeks,]are, apart from the Old Testament the major source of our knowledge of the history of the Jews from the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (B.C.E 175-163) to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 and the fall of Masada in A.D. 73. There is no comparable source for determining the setting of late inter-testamental and New Testament Times, so Josephus’ work is absolutely critical for our understanding of Judaism in the period of Jesus’ life and death and the period of the writing of the New Testament. 

In addition Josephus is also a most important source of our knowledge of the biblical canon and text, since our earliest complete manuscripts of the Bible, at least in the Hebrew, are a millenium later.  In addition Josephus is indispensable for our understanding of the political, social, economic, and religious background of the rise of Christianity and of the other sects of the era, as well as of Jewry and the Diaspora.

Josephus is also our most important literary guide to the geography, topography, and monuments of Palestine so that modern day archeologists are as reliant on Josephus as they are on their spades and other techniques. Further than this Josephus is most important as a historian of the Graeco-Roman Republic and on the first century of the Roman Empire. 

These essays provide detailed analysis of and criticism of Josephus’ writings written by major C20 historians and Jewish scholars. A brief summary of the issues discussed in these essays follows:

Sid Z. Leiman writes about Josephus and the Canon of the Old Testament. Josephus’ canon corresponds very closely with the twenty four book canon of the Jewish Talmud which was being put together at the start of  the third century Common Era, commencing at first with the Mishnah.  

Louis Feldman’s essay is a comparison between Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews  and the late C2nd Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo   One of the interesting results of this comparison is that Josephus is clearly writing to the Greek speaking community of Judea and the Roman Empire as a recommendation of the Jewish faith. Feldman notes that Josephus’ Antiquities [history] of the Jews omits such embarassing episodes as Jacob’s cunning in tricking Laban out of his good sheep flocks, the Judah-Tamar rape episode, Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian, Miriam’s leprosy, Moses’ angry striking of the rock to obtain water, the story of the brazen serpent held up to cure those bitten by serpents, the building of the golden calf, and his creation of the story of Moses as a General employed by the Egyptians against the Ethiopians.

Eugene Ulrich’s study on Josephus’ text for the Books of Samuel demonstrates clearly that Josephus’ work was very largely based on the Greek text of the Old Testament as his source, rather than the Hebrew text at least in relation to the Books of Samuel.

André Pelletier discusses the importance of Josephus’ use of the term Septuagint for the Greek version of the Old Testament and the validity of the so-called Letter of Aristeas.

Isaiah M. Gafni writes about Josephus’ description of the Hasmonean uprising and demonstrates that Josephus is totally reliant on the Book of 1 Maccabees until the portion devoted to Simon, where Josephus clearly uses a different source. He also suggests that Josephus did not hesitate to invent facts for the purpose of making his text more interesting to his Greek audience.

Joseph Sievers writes about Josephus’ useful treatment of significant female figures in the Hasmonean Dynasty about whom we would otherwise know very little. 

Ben Zion Wacholder demonstrates Josephus’ use of the pagan historian Nicholas of Damascus, as did Strabo and Socrates.  He was a tutor for the children of Antony and Cleopatra, became a friend of Augustus and was Herod’s chief advisor. Josephus particularly relied on Nicholas for chapters 13 -17 of Antiquities. 

Günther Baumbach discusses Josphesus’ writing about the Sadducees, concluding that his few references to the Sadducees at least prompts the question as to whether prejudice played a role.

Clemens Thoma writes about The High Priesthood in the Judgment of Josephus, an area that Josephus knew well from his own status as an aristocratic chief priest  theologian and ambitious politician. This background explains Josephus’ deep interest in the rituals, cult proceedings and functions of the Jewish priesthood in this work on the Antiquities.

Valentin Nikiprowetzky deals with Josephus’ treatment of the Revolutionary Parties and the notion of the “zealous” or “jealous” state of mind which lead these leaders to oppose the Romans as enemies of God, an approach which Josephus himself did not approve of. 

Shimon Applebaum writes about Josephus and the Economic Causes of the Jewish War.

Heinz Kreissig offers A Marxist View of Josephus’ Account of the Jewish War.

Zeev Safrai writes a Description of the Land of Israel in Josephus’ works. As noted earlier much of this material has no parallel elsewhere so the reliability of this material is difficult to test.

Benjamin Mazar discusses Josephus in the light of Archaeological Excavations in Jerusalem and questions whether the 7th Book of The Wars of the Jews” which contains the story of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Masada story were not written by someone else.

The final essay by Louis H. Feldman is entitled A Selective Critical Bibliography of Josephus. This monumental and exacting analysis runs to 120 pages and contains a forbidding analysis of academic work relating to Josephus, written with clarity and care and indicating areas for further study. 

Feldman and Hata’s achievement in putting these essays together has provided scholars interested in Josephus with every possible guidance and further exploration.  It is an impressive volume indeed.    5 stars. 

Virginia  Axline:  Dibs: In Search of Self, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1975 (1964)  

Dibs: In Search of Self Is a psychological study of a young child [Dibs is a made up name] of exceptional intelligence who was badly misunderstood by his parents but through careful psychological therapy was able to live a profoundly rich and significant life.  

The story is told word for word by the therapist Axline from recordings made during the therapy sessions.  Although initially this description of their relationship can be unsettling and a little boring the impact of the therapy on the child leads the reader forward with increasing interest.  It is a story that many misunderstood children, whether or not of high intelligence, will relate to in terms of their relationship with their own parents.  

Dibs: In Search of Self was set for many years in the senior years of Victorian secondary schools but although I had heard about the book it was never set in my years at school so I have read it for the first time now in 2023. Now, sixty years on the novel still leaves a powerful effect on the reader and is a reminder to parents to think carefully about how they respond to their children. It is also probably a book which helped a lot of students to understand some of their own parents reactions to them in the home.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and as an ageing and increasingly grumpy old man I found some tips for myself that I am sure will help me in the challenging years ahead!   5 stars. 

Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, p/b, London, Arrow Books, 1992 (1944).  

Beautifully written and delightfully engaging book written by American Betty Smith in 1944  (1896-1972) and never out of print since. Smith tells the story of an Irish-American family living in poverty in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City populated in the early C20th by European immigrants seeking a new life. The story tells the coming of age of Francie Nolan. Her Irish born family,  brother Neely,  mother Katie who scrubbed floors for a living, and their father Johnny who was an occasional night club singer and a drunk lived happily in a small rented house and got by. There is nothing romanticised in this narrative…all the ups and downs of family/street/school life are described without embellishment or over dramatics. Katie has strict standards in spite of their humble existence and Francie, ten years older than Neely,  has the additional support of Katie’s unmarried sister Sissy, who is far more street-wise and keeps an eye out for Francie.

The story creates an accurate and detailed account of Edwardian life from a poor child’s point of view with all its creativity and bustling New York action eventually leaning towards the first world war. The tree which grows in Brooklyn is a cut down tree with roots growing deep from a street grating and surviving and even flowering. It is an image of Francie, facing a tough life and still getting by and even thriving but it is told without sentimentality and exaggeration. It is hard to put describe the pull of this book for the reader.  The writing is taut, realistic, clever, real, and compelling. It is the sort of book you are sorry when it is finished and I for one, do not find many books like that these days.  5 stars and rising. 

Books read March 2023

Review of Harper Lee: To Kill a Mocking-Bird, p/b, London, Mandarin, 1992 (1960)  

I must be one of the few readers of my age not to have read To Kill a Mocking-Bird before now. During my teaching years in the seventies and eighties it was set for Years 10, 11 English in just about every school going around but it never made any of my secondary school lists.  It was also of course, made into a fine movie with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch, the town’s lawyer, and I have never forgotten that image of the quietly calm Atticus sitting in his rocking chair on the verandah of their house and answering the most difficult questions with quiet detachment.

The novel’s story is told in the voice of Scout Finch (Jean Louise Finch) and her much loved older brother Jem.  From the movie I have  always imagined the story as a courthouse drama but soon realised realised it was more a coming of age story for Scout and Jem Finch who had lost their mother when Scout was just two years old. Set in a fictional Southern American town of Maycomb we read about their school and family life, the mysterious Boo Radley who never emerged from the house next door, their fussy Aunt Alexandra who came to live with them to teach them manners, and the rich and varied characters of Maycomb. Mocking birds were regarded as beautiful song birds, not to be killed by thoughtless shooters for fun.

The drama of the novel is certainly centred on the trial of a young negro boy named Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping the daughter of Mr Robert Ewell, a wasted and morally corrupt drunk and incestuous alcoholic whose children run wild and have to shift for themselves. The court room scene is high drama indeed and the subsequent impacts on the parties involved are brutal and horrific, in spite of a degree of redemption in the conclusion.  In some ways the story could be that of a thousand stories in southern American black and white relations but in many other ways the story is much more.  Here we see a young girl of a good family wrestling with growing up in America and trying to forge a way to live in such a divided and hypocritical society.

I am amazed that Harper Lee wrote no other novels for the rest of her life apart from one story which is really an earlier version of To Kill a Mocking Bird. The novel has humour, history, high tension and horror. It is easy to read and hard to put down. It is still relevant in the C21st.   Five stars. 

Review of Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, p/b,London,  Vintage, 2004 

Children’s author Mark Haddon has written an outstanding narrative for children and adults about a fifteen year old high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome child named Christopher Boone. Christopher not only has to deal with his Asperger’s, he also has to deal with his separated parents, neither of whom can cope with the demands of his precisely self-ordered life. Christopher is highly intelligent, with an acute memory and with a vast array of knowledge about all sorts of scientific, geographic and literary information. Although he attends a special school Christopher has a fine mathematical ability enabling him to complete his A level mathematics tests (three of them) with Honours. For children with a mathematical bent, this story is also complete with a wide range of demanding mathematical puzzles and mathematical problems to be solved. 

Haddon tells Christopher’s story from his own viewpoint so the reader gets an Asperger’s view of growing up in a world in which he sees things quite differently from other children of his age. His adventures with adults both helpful and unhelpful and his determination to sort out his life for himself  along with his pet rat Toby, make for exciting and at times very funny reading as well as some very sad experiences. Haddon is a multi-talented artist as well as a writer and has himself worked with Asperger’s Syndrome children and adults. He describes himself as a hard-edged atheist and there is certainly a strong rejection of any suggestion of the existence of God in this narrative.   5 stars.

Review of Josephus: The Life of Flavius Josephus, 93 C.E., (Greek), Trans. William Whiston, h/b, USA, Hendrickson, 1987 (1736)  

Josephus’ brief account (36 pages) of his life begins with his family history including his priestly father Matthias and his brother, also called Matthias. He was well educated and notes his early interest in Jewish history and philosophy and especially his early interest in the major Jewish sects including the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes as well as his following for a time of a solitary prophet Banus.  Josephus finally joined the Pharisees.

 At age 26 he made a fateful journey to Rome which included a shipwreck in which many died but some including Josephus were able to swim to another ship and were saved. Josephus’ purpose in going to Rome was to defend some of his fellow priests who had been sent to Rome for trial. Through a friendship with a Roman actor Aliturius who was a friend of the Emperor Nero, Josephus also became known to Poppea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero and through her entreaties was able to gain the release of his priestly friends. 

 Josephus returned to Israel profoundly impressed by the power of the Roman Empire and came home strongly opposed to the Jewish revolt. On his return however he was unable to restrain Jewish rebellion and assumed a command in Galilee where he fortified a number of cities against future Roman attack. At the same time he was opposed by one John of Gischala  who hated and distrusted him. The rest of this “life” relates his rise to power in Galilee and his internal ‘war’ with John of Gischala and his mercenaries in Tiberias who were determined to destroy him.

Josephus survived both his problems with John of Gischala and also the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews ( a story he tells elsewhere in The Wars of the Jews.)He concludes 

his narrative  with a brief account of his post war life which remarkably included becoming a Roman citizen, the gift of an apartment in the Emperor Vespasian’s house, and a pension for life! (which he spent writing his Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews  as well as other works. ) He divorced his first wife who had born him three sons and remarried a highly regarded Cretan Jewess  who gave him another two sons. After the death of Vespasian Josephus continued to to receive support from both the Emperor Titus and later the Emperor Domitian in spite of ccusations from Jewish survivors that he was of ill repute. It is fair to say that Josephus’ contribution to our understanding of the social, political and religious background of the New Testament era cannot be over emphasized. Although he is not completely unbiased, he remains a remarkable and reliable historian.  4 stars

William Whiston. Translator of the Works of Josephus from Greek into English

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2005 (1929): 

Hemingway’s early semi-autobiographical novel covering his brutal experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War 1 is a demanding and powerful read.  There is somehow always a hovering sense of tragedy throughout and not far away in this novel.  I first read this story when I was quite young and found Hemingway’s style somehow rushed and clipped. It was nowhere near my top ten list.  Reading it today in one hit after fifty years,  I found the novel had a driving power to hold my interest and impossible to put down, especially as I could not recall the ending from my first reading.

Hemingway achieves a powerful account of the folly and cruelty of war at the same time as a tender and entrancing love story. Hemingway manages the stoic and hopeless courage of soldiers, the agony of cold, wet and wintery conditions and the grim camaraderie of soldiers who had lost comrades and knew their own time could come anytime, any where. At the same time he manages to detail the softest and most loving relationship between Henry and Catherine that stays in the mind long after the novel has finished. 

This is no swash-buckling hero story but real time war-time life with its horror and futility and its grasping for love under extreme circumstances. 5 stars.

Books read February 2023

Wei-Han Kuan: Foundations of Anglican Evangelicalism in Victoria: Four Elements for Continuity 1847 -1937,  Eugene, Wipe & Stock, 2019

The Revd Dr Wei-Han Kuan is the State Director of the Church Missionary Society in Victoria, having served previously as a priest in the parishes of All Souls Ferntree Gully and St Alfred’s Blackburn North. This fascinating study of the early beginnings of Evangelicalism in Victoria was Wei-Han’s Doctoral Thesis which he obtained through the Australian College of Theology. Doctoral theses do not always make exciting reading due to the strict requirements and detail required by supervision. This book is an exception because, at least for someone as old as me, many of the characters and leaders referred to are known to me personally or are revered as Christian figures of significant character and indeed fame.

The settlement of white Australia coincided with deep divisions within the English Church of England caused by the development in the 1830s  of the Tractarian Oxford movement which placed significant emphasis on matters of church liturgy and ritual, high end choral music and a reaching out to Roman Catholicism especially in relation to the manual acts associated with the Eucharist. Opposing the Tractarians were the traditional prayer book low churchmen and a rising tide of energised Evangelicals, intent on mission to the far corners of the world with the good news of God’s atoning love. The early days of Christian faith in Victoria are also inevitably tied in with the gold rush and the rapid growth of Melbourne due to the gold fever, money and people from all nations who poured into the southern most mainland Australian State. 

A key issue of this story is the contested character of Victoria’s first Bishop, the evangelical Revd Charles Perry appointed in 1847 from England by William Grant Boughton, the first and only Bishop of Australia! Khan notes that  Bishop James Grant, in his chapter in the Diocese of Melbourne’s official sesquicentenary history, described Perry as having a “reputation as a narrow minded bigot in matters of churchmanship.” (p.115) Similarly historians Manning Clark and Alan Shaw characterise Perry as a militant low churchman and a sectarian. Kuan challenges this view of Perry in a detailed study, noting that Perry’s exceptional drive and energy created a powerful  church and evangelical movement in rapidly growing Victoria, especially in Gippsland and Bendigo but he also accommodated and was willing to appoint a number of non evangelical clergy. 

Kuan moves on to describe the impact of Bishops Moorehouse  (strong parish development) and Field Flowers Goe (cathedral builder) and Henry Lowther Clarke. At the same time, in spite of some very strong evangelical parishes, Evangelicals tended to focus less on parish life and more on mission and conversions at home and abroad, open air preaching, Societies like the Church Missionary Society, MBI , League of Youth, CSSM, CEBS, Keswick style conventions at Upwey and later Belgrave Heights, visiting preachers like Spurgeon, George Grubb and Dr Howard Guiness, University missions and eventually the founding of  Ridley College. Kuan notes that the large number of Evangelical leaders who gave their lives and talents to overseas mission, weakened the strength of evangelical parishes in this early period of Victorian Christian growth. 

Individual leaders in this story are too numerous to mention here but note must be made of the generosity of the Griffiths Family of tea business fame who originally bankrolled almost every evangelical cause. In addition the exceptional impact of the ministry of Canon C H Nash in so many lives and parishes and his fall out with Lowther Clarke is a key factor in this story. Will Dr Kuan venture to write part 2 of this story from 1937 to 2023? We must wait and see.

5 stars. 

Alathea Fitzalan Howard: The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, Forward, Isabella Naylor-Leyland;Ed. Celestria Noel, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020. 

Exceptional excerpts from the diary of Alathea Fitzalan Howard who was the elder daughter of the second and last Viscount Fitszalan, and of Joyce Langdale, who later became Countess Fitzwilliam. She was born at Norfolk House, Sheffield on 23 November 1923. Had she been a boy she would have succeeded as Duke of Norfolk, since her father’s first cousin Bernard, the 16th duke, had only daughters….she would have been Earl Marshall, and, as such, played a major role in state occasions after 1975, when he died. Her mother, Joyce,  was from an old Catholic family and was separated from her husband and moved between Houghton, her family home in Yorkshire, and London.  

At the beginning of World War 11 Alathea was sent to live with her rather staid, old fashioned paternal grandfather and maiden aunt Magdalen at Cumberland Lodge, on the Windsor Estate, her mother visiting rarely. Her Father, wounded in the First World War,  was ill-equipped  to deal with a teenager, and spent most of his time in London, and came to Cumberland Lodge at weekends. Old Lord Fitzalan, a widower, was a distinguished elder statesman and leading Roman Catholic layman. Cumberland Lodge had been loaned to him for his lifetime as a grace-and-favour house by King George V in 1924. His family home, Derwent Hall in Derbyshire, was compulsorily purchased in 1939 and drowned for the creation of Ladybower reservoir, serving Sheffield. 

Throughout her life Alathea had kept a daily diary and this was continued throughout the war years when she lived on the Windsor Estate just a bicycle ride away from Windsor Castle where the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret had been sent for safe-keeping during the war. The result was that a close friendship sprang up between Alathea and the two princesses resulting in their spending much time together over the five years of the war, sharing in dancing and drawing classes,  pantomimes, balls and games often staying over at the Castle and sharing meals with the princesses and on many occasions with the King and Queen. 

Alathea carefully recorded all these events in her diary and in addition her personal comments about the character, dress and behaviour of the young princesses, and the King and Queen!  In addition her diary contained regular updates on the progress of the war and its aftermath.  All of this makes for intriguing reading today especially given the carefully guarded access of journalists and other writers to the personal lives of royalty at that time.  Some of Alathea’s comments are extremely personal, not to say bitchy!  At the same time the reader gets a delightful sense of the happy early life of the royal couple and their children in spite of the horror of the war years including significant German attacks on the Windsor Estate itself including several deaths.  The diary has been carefully edited by Celestria Noel so that only significant paragraphs are included and each one has significant interest. Alethea herself would have been completely lost without  the friendship of the princesses as her war-time home was formal, barren, cold and friendless. I found this diary account totally engrossing and it provides a unique birds eye view of the upper classes at home in the midst of the chaos of war. 5 stars.

William Paul Young: The Shack: In collaboration with Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, p/b, Los Angeles, Windblown Media, 2007.  

Unusual approach to understanding the Trinity from William Paul Young, Canadian writer now living in Washington D.C., married with six children.  Young’s parents were Christian missionaries in New Guinea. Young originally wrote the story for his six children and was persuaded to publish by his two collaborators noted above. The novel was well received on publication and is certainly a different look at the Trinity.

The novel centres on the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips (Mack), a Midwest farm boy whose Church attending  father was also a drunkard and wife beater who left a bitter mark on Mack. After walking away from his father Mack was eventually happily married to Nan and they had six children. On a camping trip Mack’s youngest daughter Missy is abducted and murdered by a sociopath and the horror of this event traumatises Mack who blames himself for not being alert to protect the youngest member of his family.  Police eventually locate the shack where evidence proved  the child was murdered but there was no sign of the body. 

Gradually the horror and sadness of this event takes its toll on Mack and a grim sadness engulfs him, making him deeply moody and unable to relate easily to his world, his family or his church. At this time he receives a written message, unsigned with no stamp, from God inviting him to the Shack, the very place where the murder occurred.  Mack makes this journey alone and instead of a ramshackle murder scene he finds himself in a beautiful environment, confronted with the three persons of the Trinity who engage him on a weekend journey of discovery about the God he is so angry with. The result is an unusual theological dialogue and series of events which enable Mack to see God as Trinity through radically new eyes.  The result is an entertaining, unusual, insightful and challenging theological discussion focussing largely on the problem of evil and its ramifications in human life and God’s seeming inability to do much about the horror of many events in life on earth. 

Young’s theology takes particular aim at a Christianity based on laws, judgment, rules, requirements and responsibilities.  He replaces these rubrics with living with God in expectancy in any situation, finding a way to trust in God in the midst of no matter what trauma occurs in one’s life. Towards the end of the novel this denouement extends to folk of all faiths and none and seems eventually to lead to the salvation of all although this is not a major theme. 

There are many interesting and thought provoking ideas in Young’s novel which repay deep thinking. Some of his key ideas include: Jesus: “I’m not a Christian!” (p182); Those who love God come from all faiths and none. (p.182); Faith does not grow in the house of certainty. (p.189); True love never forces (p.190); Pearls are made by pain (p.177); religion, politics and economics have ravaged humanity. (p.179); On p.112 it is implied that the members of the Trinity have different powers.  On p.129 God makes use of fractals and on p172 God makes use of time dimension coupling. On p. 148 we have a circle of relationship…man from dust, she from man, every male since birthed through woman. 

This is a novel which invites reflection and self/church examination. I enjoyed reading this book and found it both challenging and helpful in my faith journey.  4 stars.

Review of John Carey: 100 Poets – A Little Anthology, p/b, New Haven and  London, Yale University Press, 2002. 

John Carey is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.  For addicts like myself who have spent a lifetime of studying, collecting, reading and thinking about poetry this is a book to savour, pause over and be thankful that there are inspired voices throughout history who have been able to put thoughts and ideas in such extraordinary and compelling ways.

This collection takes the reader from Homer, Sappho and Virgil right up to Les Murray’s brave final verses in 2019. All the poetic heroes are here but also distinctive and beautiful words from writers I have never read or heard of.  Carey does not overwhelm the reader with screeds of poetic theory or whole of life stories but provides just enough enticement and background to make the reader pause for thought. Older readers of this book, if they are anything like me, will find themselves going back to book shelves and reminding themselves of long unread poetry which once set them thinking in a totally new idiom and direction.  Younger readers who like poetry will simply be amazed by the flexibility, wisdom and fluidity of the human mind and the unique impact good poetry can have on our sensitivity, mood, dreams and hopes.

The depth of Carey’s literary knowledge is impressive indeed and has encouraged me to locate his A Little History of Poetry, purchase of which I suspect is not far away!  5 stars.


Books read January 2023

Jane Austen: Persuasion, Intro, Richard Church; Wood-Engravings, Joan Hassall, h/b,  London, the Folio Society, 1975 (1815). 

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last of seven impressive novels, written as she was succumbing to an unknown illness (perhaps leukemia?).  The novel has a vast array of characters which take some keeping up with but all of Austen’s genius of expression, elegance, sensitivity and complex emotional intrigue and anxiety are on show.  There is something of the fineness of expression, minute differentiation of emotion, understanding and wisdom that keeps Austen’s writing at the head of the class.

 Mr Eliot, a distant relative and the inevitable villain hides his character very effectively for some time and so well that the reader wonders whether he will ever be defeated by the sailer hero Captain Wentworth. The Captain is the more diffident for having been rejected by the heroine Anne Eliot, having been persuaded  against the marriage at an earlier stage of the novel by an older family confidante, Lady Russell. 

After the happy reuniting of the couple at the end of the the novel, Austen has the heroine saying You should not have suspected me now; the case was so different. If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty…. We are left with an uncertainty of the degree to which one should allow ourselves to be moved by persuasion!

I, like many others, am an unashamed Austen fan. The complex array of characters in this novel is demanding but still one is left with sadness at the thought that no further novels from this amazingly gifted writer will ever come.   5 stars. 

Review of Emily Wilson: Seneca – A Life, h/b, London, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2014  

Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and has written previously on Tragedy from Sophocles to Milton and on the life of Sophocles. 

Her venture into the life of the Stoic philosopher Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Younger), is a masterpiece of exceptional scholarship which also manages at the same time to be a real page turner. Born in Corduba in  Roman Spain in c.5 B.C. Seneca was a sickly child and after five years at home spent some ten years of his life in Roman Alexandria in Egypt, overcoming significant lung disease problems which would challenge him for the whole of his long life.  

Seneca eventually came to Rome in 31 CE at a time when the ruling Emperor Tiberius had lost interest in public life and become paranoid and antisocial almost to the point of madness. He had  gone off to live a life of allegedly constant sex orgies on the Isle of Capri leaving the empire to be ruled by the Senate in a state of terrified uncertainty. This reign of terror continued under the Emperors Caligula and Claudius. Early in Claudius’ reign the married Seneca was banished to Corsica on the doubtful grounds of adultery but was eventually brought back by Claudius’ new wife Agrippina, the former wife of Tiberias to be the tutor of her son by Tiberias. This child was the young Nero. 

Upon the death of the Emperor Claudius, Nero, engineered by Agrippina, became Emperor and Seneca one of his most trusted advisers, his speech writer and even served for part of a year as consul, the highest political office in Rome.  Nero poured great wealth and properties on Seneca. Along with Burras, a trusted friend, they were the power behind Nero’s throne for five years with Seneca’s skills in public relations superb. 

In this period Seneca obtained enormous wealth both in money and property (over three hundred million sestercii), a very large number indeed. Seneca began to rival even Cicero for his wisdom and skill. Daily self-examination, meditative practices, the literature of self-scrutiny matched the sort of interior self-evaluation we see today in Virginia Woolf, Proust and Joyce, argues Emily Wilson. (p.107) In addition his output of satire, violent tragedies, metaphysical theory and moral and political  discussions was enormous although not all has survived. Seneca wrote deeply and powerfully within the Stoic tradition.

In due time as Nero became more and more sure of himself he found less demanding advisers and became increasingly erratic and fickle and dangerous in his  behaviours. Seneca could see the dangers and tried to withdraw from public life and give back to Nero much of his immense wealth. Nero refused his offer and Seneca sensed coming danger.  He solved this problem by “being everywhere and nowhere”. He travelling widely within his own properties, never long in any one place. At the same time he reduced his diet to an absolute minimum to avoid poisoning opportunities. Seneca used this time to produce some of his most famous writing much of which has survived and includes some of the key tenets of  Stoicism

Seneca deserves his reputation as a truly impressive, influential and wise man. He was not the perfect wise philosopher; he was not always consistent; he was not always kind to his wives; but he did try very hard to live up to his Stoic philosophy and to help others. Christian theologians in the early centuries tried very hard to fit Seneca’s philosophy into a type of Christian living (except Augustine, who would have none of him!) There is a possibility that Seneca met Paul the Apostle on Paul’s journeys. Certainly Seneca’s brother Novatus had been appointed as the Roman magistrate  or proconsul in charge of Achaea  and appears in Acts making a decision to throw out complaints made by Jewish opponents of Paul. (Acts 18:12-16)

Emily Wilson has a very helpful epilogue in this book in which she tracks the ways in which Seneca’s philosophy has been both popular and unpopular in various  periods of European history.  He made a huge impact in the writing of Montaigne’s Essays.    This is a wonderful book especially if reading the whole of Seneca’s extant writing is a step too far which it certainly is for me.  

Many of Seneca’s aphorisms have stood the test of time. Attached are a selection of Seneca’s aphorisms discussed in Wilson’s Seneca: A Life.

leisure without study is death; it’s burial for a living man.

– it would be better if some parents never gave birth.

– everyone is the source of their own success.

– only virtue is essential for happiness

-vices tempt you by the rewards they offer.

– While I stood high, my fear was endless; I was even frightened of my own sword. How good it is, to stand in no-one’s way, to eat your dinner safely, lying on the ground.

– Even a sick lion can bite!

– Among the rest of our troubles, this one is the worst of all, that we even change our vices…our problem is that our choices are not just bad but fickle. …we abandon the things we tried to obtain, we search out the things we’ve abandoned, in a state of constant oscillation between desire and regret.

– There’s no easy path from earth to the stars.

how despicable humans are, unless we rise above the human!

– We must reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of death.

– We’re all saved for death.

– He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware.

– Continuous writing makes one depressed and exhausted; continuous reading makes one lax and weak.

– show me a person who isn’t a slave.

– It is not the writer’s job to teach, but that of the reader himself.

– the main part of progress is wanting to progress.

– I have sold myself to no-one; I have no master’s name.”

– What we all do, every day, is begin to die.

– the best comfort is to keep one’s memories intact.

– from the end of one desire springs up another. 

– “The greatest proof of an evil mind is fluctuation, and constant wavering between the pretence of virtue and the love of vice.

– one’s life should match one’s teaching.

– nobody is ever changed by precepts..either you teach somebody who already knows how to behave well, or else you teach somebody who does not know, and precepts will never be enough to change him.

– Just because philosophy can’t cure everything, doesn’t mean it can’t cure anything.

– Virtue is aroused by a touch or a shock.

– Everything belongs to other people; only time belongs to us.

– money never makes one rich; enough is never too little.   5 stars and rising.

Christopher Marlowe: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Ed. & Intro., J. B. Steane, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1969 (in Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays.)  

Christopher Marlowe (born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare), wrote five major plays as well as a translation of Ovid’s Amores, the lengthy Hero and Leander and many other poems, in addition to his five major plays. Traditionally Marlowe has been regarded as a hothead and an atheist but this summation is based on very little information about his life. We know only that there was a street fight after which Marlowe was arrested and bound over to keep the peace, and that he performed some services for the Government of the day in Europe; and that a week or so before he died he was summoned to report to the Council. His death is well known since the Coroner’s Report has been researched.  After a quiet meal and afternoon in a private home with four friends a dispute arose about the reckoning. Marlowe was said to have suddenly attacked one of them and in the ensuing struggle killed his opponent in self defence. 

As regards religion, on the basis of a written statement by one Richard Baines two days after Marlowe’s death, Marlowe is said to have been an atheist, and one utterly scorning God and his ministers. Similarly one Richard Chomley, charged with atheism, argued in his defence that Marlowe is able to show more sound reasons for atheism that any divine in England is able to give to prove Christianity. Likewise the playwright Thomas Kyd, under arrest for atheism, also made accusations regarding atheism against Marlowe! The fact remains that the predominant themes of both Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine are thoroughly Christian in their content, and as J B Steane, the editor of this volume remarks, neither of them are readily conceivable as the work of an atheist in the modern sense of the word.  (p.16). Let readers enjoy Doctor Faustus and make up their own minds regarding his view of God!

The origin of the Doctor Faustus story is based on a C15th story about a scholar and magician Johann Faust, born in 1488, who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil to gain magical powers and spent his life wandering through his German homeland until his death in 1587. The first story of his life, translated into English in 1502 was titled The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor Faustus. 

The extraordinary German polymath Goethe wrote a demanding two volume account of Doctor Faustus simply called Faust. He began Faust in 1773 and continued to work on it sporadically, not completing the work until a year before his death in 1832!  Equally demanding is the German  writer Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus written in the United States in 1947. Mann linked his version of Faustus with his constant theme of the character and role of the artist especially in relation to the Nazi regime and further elaborated on the Faustus theme in The Genesis of Dr Faustus in 1949. At least four major movies of the Doctor Faustus theme have been created. 

The Faust story and theme is traumatic in the extreme.  Twenty four years seems a long time to have power and lust fulfilled but as the time draws near for Mephistopheles to have his  way so does Faust’s fear grow and his desire to recant.  Marlowe’s Faust is doomed for eternity whereas Goethe’s version has a happier ending. 5 stars.

Books read December 2022

John Julius Norwich: The Popes: A History, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2011  

Church Historian John Julius Norwich has written an outstanding three volume study of the Byzantine era as well as a major two volume study of the Normans in Sicily alongside many other studies of European history. His study of the Popes is a massive achievement. While detailed information of the earliest period of Christian history is harder to find, Norwich plots a clear and helpful path through the complexity and challenges of emerging Christian faith in the Roman Empire as well as the tension between Constantinople and Rome for superiority and power. Constantine’s decision to embrace the Christian faith and the subsequent theological disputes are well covered as well as the chaos caused in Europe by the collapse of the Roman Empire. From Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) onwards every significant pope and antipope is given individual attention.

For the Christian reader much of this story makes for terrifying reading. Nepotism, greed, gross immorality and pride dominated the mind of most of those who were appointed by the largely Italian cardinals. Since the popes had temporal as well as spiritual powers they became “kings” of their own fiefs negotiating and fighting for their rights alongside the powerful Italian states including Venice, Genoa, Ravenna, Sicily, Bologna and many others. Even more intrusive were the regular armies from Austria, France, Spain and Germany, not to forget Napoleon,  who regularly invaded the Italian Peninsula in search of wealth, power and influence. The Pope became a political power (although with limited military strength) up against the Holy Roman Emperor from Charlemagne onwards, the Various kings of France and Spain and not forgetting the Normans who took over Sicily. On a regular basis Rome was sacked and brought to the ground with the Pope retreating to Avignon in France or to Bologne or some other bolt hole.

Somehow through all of this destructive chaos papal authority of some sort continued eventually facing the upheaval of the Reformation and the development of the Counter Reformation. It is at this point that some genuine spirituality emerged from the Catholic revolution created to rebuff Protestantism alongside the extension of Catholic faith overseas as new continents were discovered.   Meanwhile in Europe warfare between nations and powers continued from the C15th to the C21st with the Papacy playing various roles and eventually losing their temporal power to European nationhood with their “statehood” limited to the Vatican City. Norwich deals well with the C20th popes good and bad and his analysis concludes with a study of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict V1) The C20th failure of Pope Pius X11[1939-58] to speak for, defend and protect the Jewish community is a standing tragedy and horror in this story. 

Although this story is complex Norwich’s style is hard to put down. It leaves the Christian reader with much to think about and is a reminder that political leaders who claim to speak for the Christian Gospel are rare, face significant challenges and need much courage and prayer.   5 stars.

Alex Miller: A Brief Affair, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin  

Alex Miller is in my top five authors of all time. He is now 85 and I did not think we would see a new novel from him but here it is. A Brief Affair is vintage Miller with his central themes of the Australian bush, love/family/marriage, the alienation and failure of soul in education especially in Victoria.  Above all Miller  has the courageous willingness to dig deep and give meaning to the well springs of human thriving in our short stay on this planet.

His central character, Fran, forty two years old, is happily married with two children but yet seeking meaning and Spirit in her life and work. She lives between country and a daily lengthy commute to the city.. an increasingly popular yet challenging life for those who love the bush but for various reasons need to work in the city. We only have one life on this planet and whether rich or poor Miller suggests we need to have good reasons to get up in the morning and truly “be”. 

In my view Miller is the true heir of Patrick White in the ability of both men to “see into the life of things” and write powerfully and insightfully about both the banalities and the deep and sometimes dry spirituality of the Australian emptiness. The human experience would be a poorer place without Alex Miller to nudge us into a genuine search for meaning and truth each time we get up in the morning.  5 stars. 

Geraldine Brooks: Horse, h/b, Sydney, Hachette, 2022  

Outstanding horse racing and art history novel based around the mid-C19th American race horse Lexington, arguably the greatest race horse of all time and certainly the most celebrated and important breeding horse in the history of racing. The key figures, horse industry operators Robert Aitcheson Alexander, Richard Ten Broeck, Cassius Marcellus Clay and his wife Mary Jane and her daughter Mary Barr Clay, William Johnson, Harry Lewis, Willa Viley, Elisha Warfield Jr and John Benjamin Pryor and artists Thomas J. Scott and Edward Troy are all historical figures.  The New York art collector and Gallery owner Martha Jackson is also a genuine person.

Geraldine Brooks has woven a fictional story around this amazing horse and its owners and trainers  based around Jarret, a young negro groomer and trainer.  The fictional relationship between the boy and his horse is powerful and mesmerising. 

The narrative jumps between the C19th and the C21st as Jess a fictional Australian scientist and her close friend Theo, Nigerian-American art historian piece together what became of Lexington’s skeleton and the paintings Thomas J. Scott made of the great horse. Inevitably the narrative is tangled up with the horrific events surrounding the American Civil War as well as the trauma of race relations in America in both the C19th and the C21st. 

The result is a novel which requires attention, close reading and either a good vocabulary or an iPhone handy for some unfamiliar language. Whilst the chapter jumps between centuries was initially annoying the sheer magnetic power of the novel soon takes over.  5 stars. 

Michael Reeves: Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith, p/b, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2012  

What a delight to find an intelligible, easy to read and deeply Scriptural account of the doctrine of the Trinity. Michael Reeves, a theological advisor for the English Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) has written a book about the Trinity I found hard to put down. In five clearly written chapters Reeves asks the question What was God doing before Creation? and then spends three chapters dealing with the themes of Creation, Salvation and the The Christian Life. The final chapter discusses the uniqueness of the Christian understanding of God.

Reeves has a light touch but manages to cover a vast amount of ground. It is not a “how to” book for Christians. Rather it is a love story about one God in three persons. Reeves demonstrates that the Trinity is the vital oxygen of the Christian life and joy. It is understandable because the triune God has revealed himself to us. We do not need theologians five hundred years after Christ to explain the Trinity. The Apostle Paul understood clearly that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:11).The Trinity is not a mystery, it is a spiritual truth emerging from the New Testament. 

Reeves explains the meaning and joy of the doctrine of the Trinity with clarity, humour and a wealth of very readable historical data and more particularly with the help of numerous key figures in the history of Christian faith. Along the way he includes a helpful critique of Islamic theology about the nature of God, the challenge of Gnosticism, the problem of evil and its explanation, Pelagianism, as well as insights into musical harmony, mathematics and atheism.

Reeves pays particular attention to the Puritans especially Jonathan Edwards’ writings but also references Tolkien, Luther, Calvin and Hitchins amongst many others.  He is a critic of Schleiermacher and who made the Trinity “a mere appendix to the Christian faith” and is also a critic of Adolf von Harnack who dismissed the Trinity altogether.  

Delighting in the Trinity is an enjoyable read. I know of no other book on the Trinity that could be said to be “enjoyable”!  5 stars.

Books Read November 2022


  Don Marquis, Archy’s Life of Mehitabel, h/b, London, Faber & Faber Ltd., 1986 (1933)

Don Marquis was an American novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist for The Evening Sun newspaper in New York.  Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the alley cat were two characters who appeared regularly in Marquis’s newspaper column from 1916 onwards over many years. The  brief stories were first put into book form as Archy and Mehitabel in 1927.  In 1933 Marquis published further adventures in Archy’s Life of Mehitabel  with Archy Does His Part following in 1935.  There has also been a musical version and a Broadway musical. 

Archy the Cockroach manages to crawl into Don Marquis’ typewriter and strike most of the letters but cannot manage capitals, full stops or commas. He and Mehitabel have many adventures and Archy makes more sense of the world than most humans which, I suspect, is why his thoughts are still in press today and have been since 1916. 

“mehitabel’s parlour story”, printed below is chapter 33 of Archy’s Life of Mehitabel.

boss did you

hear about the two drunks

who were riding in

a ford or something

equally comic

and the ford or

whatever it was nearly

went off the

road one of

the drunks poked the 

other and said thickly

they always talk thickly in

these stories

anyway he said hey look

out how youre driving

youll have us in

the ditch in a minute if

you don’t look out

why said the second

drunk who was drunker

i thought you 

were driving I got

that from Mehitabel the

cat its the first parlour

story ive ever heard 

her tell and ive known

her for five or six

years now


5 stars and rising! 

Margaret Attwood: The Handmaid’s Tale, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2010 (1986)  

Prolific Canadian author Margaret Attwood has achieved permanent fame with this noir science fictional story set at the end of the C20th in an America shattered by internal wars, a series of cataclysmic earthquakes and the dominance of a weird pseudo-Christian sect. The narrator Offred, once happily married with a child and a good job now has only one function…to breed successfully, and create a successful society of perfectly formed dominant women. Men are peripheral in this new world occupied in fighting enemy states or guarding the exacting morals of a society in which the free sexual behaviour of the C20th has been abolished and an extremely strict order of “morality” prevails….or does it?  Beneath the appearance of strict order there is still a subset of the old sexual mores and the freedom of former C20th life…if you have the power or knowledge to find it! For me this narrative is quite frightening as many C21st world states are dominated by brutal regimes which deny basic human freedoms and even the “land of the free” has shown itself vulnerable to take over by corrupt and dominant forces. In Victoria, Australia, as free thought and speech from Kindergarten upwards is increasingly controlled, Attwood’s novel is worth a second read as a warning for the future.  5 stars.

Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Trans. Lowell Blair, p/b, New York, Bantam Books, 1963 (1831)  

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was arguably France’s greatest literary figure producing a vast array of novels, works of non-fiction, poetry and plays. He was also a talented artist and a major political force in France. Upon the rise of Napoleon he fled to Guernsey and did not return until Napoleon was deposed. 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of his earliest novels, written in 1821. It’s key characters are the deformed, one eyed hunchback Quasimodo who lives freely in a cell in Notre Dame Cathedral;  La Esmeralda, beautiful dancer, stolen and brought up by Gypsies but finally, if briefly returned to her mother; Djali, Esmeralda’s faithful and trained goat;  Pierre Gringoire, philosopher, playwright and platonic “husband” of La Esmeralda; Dom Claude Frollo, brilliant scholar and priest, neurotically in love with La Esmeralda and hated by her; and Captain Phoebus her gallant but unfaithful lover.

The novel is set in C15th Paris but written in historical perspective by Hugo. The grim realities of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, cruelty, rapacious and brutal leadership, fear of witchcraft and the drunken power of the rabble in mediaeval Paris are regularly on display. Hugo brilliantly captures the tortured and confused lives of these formidable individuals as they strive for the love of La Esmeralda. There is wisdom, humour, pathos and philosophy in Hugo’s Hunchback  but above all it is a rollicking story with the reader’s support clearly on the side of the naive and hapless La Esmeralda.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s amazing Phantom of the Opera score sets the right sense of passion and drama for this novel although the plot line of Phantom has little in common with Hugo’s novel.  American Lowell Blair’s translation is outstanding.   5 stars.

Review of Tony Rinaudo, the Forest Underground, h/b, Melbourne, ISCAST, 2021 

Winner of the 2022 Australian Christian Book of the Year, Tony Rinaudo’s extraordinary life and achievements brings real hope to the world’s climbing temperature crisis. Rinaudo was born of Italian parents in Myrtleford and grew up with a passion for the environment and especially for trees. He grew up hating the bulldozing of indigenous native bushland in Australia and was determined to pursue farming reform based on the philosophy of James Sholto Douglas who had written about the integration of trees, crops and livestock in ecological balance in 1976 in his book Forest Farming. 

Rinaudo’s upbringing, schooling and university life were profoundly Christian and he became strongly committed to the idea of working overseas to make a difference to land degradation and the human suffering it unleashes.  At university through the Evangelical Union Rinaudo met Liz Fearon who was also strongly drawn to missional evangelism and meeting physical needs for those suffering in Africa particularly.  The book tells the story of their passion to study and work together  which resulted in them spending nineteen years in Niger, working in agriculture with the Sudan Interior Mission. 

Tree planting to redeem degraded soil had become an international passion by the time the Rinaudos arrived in Niger but throughout the world millions of trees planted across the world failed to survive and protagonists were losing hope. In Niger vast areas of land had become degraded, most of the trees had been cut down for firewood and crops for food were failing with disastrous famines increasing. Rinaudo found in his area that only four trees per hectare were left and the land was becoming a dust bowl. After two and half years of mounting frustration Rinaudo felt like a failure.

 On a seed planting exercise, while checking his land rover tyre pressure on a vast plain denuded of trees he came across a small “bush with leaves” and had his moment of inspiration when he realised the “bush” was actually a dormant tree that had been cut down. He writes “I was surrounded by trees. I was standing on a subterranean forest.” (p107).  

In the coming weeks after this discovery the aid project  FMNR was born. “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” eventually has become a major world wide effective phenomenon based on local people living their normal lives and not on international aid. This is a story of extraordinary courage, faith and hope in the midst of appalling conditions, with an an ongoing saga which is rejuvenating landscapes across the world. It is the story of one very humble man whose impact on land use across the world has, I believe, no equal. This book is a must read for anyone who cares about survival of our planet.   5 stars and rising!

Review of Tom Holland: Dominion: The Making of the Western World, p/b, London, Abacus, 2019  

This is a rare and exciting book! Tom Holland writes with insight, adventure and extraordinary erudition.  In an age when the West has turned its back on the Christian faith, Holland makes a very strong case that the Western world from the first century onwards owes its very existence and life to the spread of Christianity.  Holland begins with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome but very quickly the reader is drawn into the profound impact that Jesus of Nazareth, his followers and especially the apostle Paul created  in transforming the Greco-Roman Empire over a period of five centuries.  

This is not dull church history for theological students! In each chapter Holland begins with a gripping event which immediately engages the reader…we really want to know the outcome of this little story and in the process we find ourselves learning deeply about the remarkable transformation of a Roman Empire into a Christian society. There are three major divisions in this extensive book. Holland divides his story between Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas. Each has its own bibliography which can be annoying  when the reader is looking for a reference outside of its “section”.  

A reader of this review will be already thinking this is a big read and it is..525 pages plus extensive references.  But this book is never boring. Each story we know is important.  Chapter headings include Athens, Jerusalem, Mission, Belief, Charity, Heaven, Exodus, Conversion, Revolution, Persecution, Flesh, Apocalypse, Reformation, Cosmos, Spirit, Enlightenment, Religion, Science, Shadow, Love, and Woke!  There is no boring chapter I can guarantee it. 

All the heroes and the villains of Western history are on show here and Holland does not spare the horror and chaos alongside the glimmers of hope which shine through in remarkable  , often unsung individuals. Bob Dylan, Tolkien, Quakers, tyrants and Popes, no-one is left out. In the end, Holland proves his case. As Christians flee the West in droves today and millions in Asia and Africa embrace Christ, the West still demonstrates its Christian cultural heritage which it cannot shake off. The richest nations of the world have created a world-weary wealthy monopoly and are burning out, while a whole new Christian third world is rising powerfully.

Tom Holland, talking about his own faith in a recent New Statesman interview says In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.  If you are looking for a good read this Summer, Dominion is the book. 

Books Read October 2002



Ben F. Meyer: The Aims of Jesus: Intro N.T. Wright, p/b, Eugene, Pickwick Publications: Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2002 (1977). 

N T Wright regards American Catholic Ben Meyer’s book on the aims of Jesus as one of the best books written about Jesus in the last thirty years.  Mayer, who died in 1995, was a remarkable theologian and linguist who could write confidently in German, French,  Hebrew and Greek as well as English. Meyer’s theological thinking and method  has been particularly influenced by Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan especially his book Method in Theology.   The title of Meyer’s  book is interesting as it focusses on Jesus himself and endeavours to clarify Jesus’ purpose by exploring his actions and words from the Gospels in particular Matthew and Mark.Meyer’s book is in two sections, the first being hermeneutical issues and his attack on Enlightenment rationalism; the second and much   larger section is his study of the aims of Jesus.

Part 1 of the book provides a helpful analysis of the research on the Gospels since the Enlightenment.  Meyer is strongly critical of the rationalist Enlightenment C18th and C19th attack on the Gospel narratives found originally in Reimarus, followed by Strauss, Holtzmann, Feuerbach, and Wrede.  Albert Schweitzer created a spirited attack on the German theology of his time but his own treatment of Jesus’ aim and purpose fell into the same anti-historical trap. German theology in the C20th continued the Continental sceptical view of the life of Christ and made deep inroads into British theology especially the work of Rudolf Bultmann and his influential book Jesus Christ and Mythology. Bultmanngave little credibility to the authenticity and historicity of the life of Jesus and comes under heavy fire by Meyer.  Meyer’s robust, vigorous  and carefully documented and explained demolition of two centuries of liberal criticism is well grounded and persuasive, preparing the way for a far more sympathetic understanding of the teaching of Jesus In Part 11. 

Meyer’s work focusses on three major areas.  The historicity of John the Baptist and Jesus’ relationship with him; Jesus own public public proclamation and teaching including the historicity of the miracles; and Jesus private and esoteric teaching of his close disciples. This material is treated with clarity, energy, common sense and careful technical support. (There are over 70  pages of detailed notes defending his key ideas but these need not necessarily distract the reader!) What is required when reading Meyer is a Bible because his frequent references especially to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark give the reader a jolt when read in the light of Meyer’s careful analysis.  Although parts of this book are heavy going I believe that a thinking Christian whose faith has been battered by the scepticism of much theological analysis of Jesus’ life and work will be strongly encouraged by Meyer’s book.  I warmly recommend it.

Roman Catholic theologian and philospher Bernard Lonergan.

Sarah Baume: spill simmer falter wither: p/b, London, Windmill,2015  

Engaging and powerful debut novel by young Irish writer Sarah Baume concerning the relationship between an old friendless man and his much loved dog One Eye. Out without a lead on a beach One Eye sinks his teeth into a beach walker’s pet dog and rather than face the wrath of the dog catcher the old man and his dog load up the car and take off for places unknown. The narrative describes their footloose activities and adventures in their cosy loaded up car and the relationship builds a life of its own which mesmerises the reader and makes for a heart-warming but also sad adventure. 

The writing is assured, detailed and clever almost forcing the reader to take these two most unlikely characters seriously and also beautifully and artistically drawing a picture of the changing seasons of Ireland which account for the title of the novel. This is heart warming novel of two lost individuals, a man and his dog, who find meaning and understanding simply by being together.  What begins as a sad and dreary picture of old age and meaninglessness becomes a friendship and adventure which the reader cannot put down. I was not at this book club discussion but I believe our book club members found this story perplexing and for some, unsatisfactory. 

Review of Anne Griffin: When All is Said: Five Toasts, Five People, One Lifetime, p/b, London,  Hodder & Stougton, 2019

Debut novel from Irish writer Anne Griffin tells the story of a self made 84 year old Irish farmer whose determination to succeed brings him wealth, a happy marriage and a very strong sense of personal satisfaction. The story of the key elements of the people in his life is told in the form of five “written” toasts as he knocks back five of his favourite whiskeys in a hotel of whichhe owns slightly more than a half share.

The five toasts are for his much loved older brother Tony, who died in his twenties  due to consumption;  his still born daughter Molly who constantly “appears” to him in his dreaming; his wife’s sister Noreen who has severe brain damage; his only son Kevin, who is married with children and is a successful newspaper man in the USA; and finally his beloved wife Sadie who died two years earlier.  These stories are told with compassion and self knowledge and hold the reader’s interest very powerfully. The conclusion to the narrative is a surprise.  4 stars.

Gideon Haigh: The Night was a Bright Moonlight and I Could See a Man Quite Plain: An  Edwardian Cricket Murder, p/b, Sydney, Scribner, 2022 

Australian Gideon Haigh has written over forty books, mostly about cricket. This book is a true story of some events in the life of George Vernon, the son of highly regarded English Rugby player and cricketer George Frederick Vernon who had represented England in both sports towards the end of the C19th. Young George Vernon lost both his parents while still quite young and was cared for by his Aunt Helen and her wealthy retired husband Ernest Rhodes. 

At age 15 George Vernon began adult life on a British training ship and henceforth led a checkered and rather rootless life which included time in Africa, Canada and Australia.  He became what was known in the day as a “remittance man”,  a young man who received a monthly remittance from a wealthy family member, usually wasted the money quickly on booze and spent the rest of the month scratching around for work and a drink and waiting for his next remittance.

In Australia he had landed a job as second in command of the Doondi Cattle Station in Queensland’s Darling Downs, in those days an eight hour drive from Brisbane. While the boss was away at another cattle station a murder occurred at Doondi Cattle Station and George Vernon was arrested as the main suspect. The true story describes the trial and later events surrounding the murder which have several twists and turns. An interesting yarn.   4 stars.

Books read September 2022

Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture, p/b, London,   Faber & Faber, 2015 (2008)

Sebastian Barry

Beautifully written complex story of a 100 year old  Irish woman Roseanne, committed for many years to the Roscommon Regional Mental  Asylum in Ireland.  Since the Asylum is about to be demolished to make way for a new and smaller establishment a psychiatrist, Dr Grene has been employed to determine whether some of the patients would be better off outside of the failing asylum. Roseanne has been secretly writing her own life story and hiding her work under loose floorboards in her room whenever anyone comes her way. The novel works consecutively throughout with reflections from Roseanne and then from Dr Grene, a regular visitor to Roseanne, which has surprising and complex results.  

At the same time the story covers obliquely the C20th ups and downs of Irish history including the extraordinary reach and power of Roman Catholicism at many levels in Irish society. Sebastian Barry is the current Laureate of Ireland and writes with surety and subtlety, leading the reader gasping for air but at the same time unable to do without the next instalment. Readers need to have a good memory for names and occasionally need to go back to remind themselves who is who. A powerful, unsettling but finally rewarding read.   5 stars. 

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 7: Finding Time Again,  Trans., Intro., and Notes, Ian Patterson, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1927) 

Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time Volume 7 Finding Time Again

The final volume of Proust’s seven volume odyssey begins with the Narrator living quietly at Tansonville, the home of his former girlfriend Gilberte, now the  wealthy wife of the unfaithful and frequently missing Robert de Saint-Loupe, the Narrator’s close friend.  Here the Narrator has the opportunity to read the Journal of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, a pastiche of literary conversations, bad mouthings and competitive rivalry written between 1850 and 1870.  The Narrator finds himself questioning his own aptitude for literature and wondering whether, after all literature may not be the fine and wonderful thing he thought it to be. The question of whether or not the Narrator should himself write a book keeps returning throughout Volume 7 especially between pages 219 and 223 and later reappears from p280 onwards where he occasionally refers to “my book” during extended passages of literary examination. As the novel draws to an end the possibility of a book begins to fade away. 

This peaceful time of remembrance is rudely interrupted by the advent of World War 1 and the impact of this war on the Narrator and on Paris, Saint-Loup and everything else dominates the central section of Volume 7. During this period the Narrator spends two periods of unsucccessful cures in a sanatorium, loses his friend Robert de Sainte-Loupe to death in warfare, experiences the horror of the German assault and the bombing  of Paris, unexpectedly runs into the Baron de Charlus who continues on his wayward path running a sado-mashochistic brothel in Paris, and in addition the Narrator devotes a considerable  amount of time to a meditation on love in all its various manifestations.

The third section of Volume 7 finds the Narrator in old age, at yet another soirée at the hotel of the Guermantes after a twenty year period of absence.   Being asked to wait in the library whilst a musical item concludes, the Narrator falls into a deep  and extensive reverie about ageing, lost time and finding time again.  When he finally enters the salon, he at first thinks every person is in fancy dress since they all look so ridiculously old. Reluctantly realising this is his own condition also,  the Narrator ruminates on the post-war changes to the Faubourg Saint Germain and to his former friends and colleagues from whom he has been separated for a long period. The Narrator initially does not even recognise his former lover Gilberte.  The novel simply drifts away to a gentle conclusion as he ponders these changes to his life.

It has taken me over two years to complete a reading of the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. A former headmistress colleague of mine encouraged me to read it many years ago and I have now completed the task. She of course had been able to read it in French which would have been a massive advantage. My university French was nowhere near the task. Am I glad to have read Proust’s major work? Yes, there are observations,  even in translation, of deep beauty and powerful thought.

 Is the novel uplifting and life changing?  No! On his own admission the Narrator is extremely self-centred, spoilt, neurotic, obsessive and at times overly pleased with himself.  Now this may be  the very point of Proust’s work. If this is the case, I don’t think we need seven volumes to elucidate the problem.  Of course my feeble brain has been inadequate to the task of assessing the strength of Proust’s philosophical digressions so I will yield to greater minds an assessment of the value of his  deep meanderings on life and the human condition. The Narrator leaves the reader to judge the moral behaviour of his vast cast of characters. I believe the finest writers are able to point a way out of the moral quagmires of life and Proust’s inability to do this is a negative for me.   4 stars.

Ellen Gunderson Traylor: Mark, p/b, Wheaton, Tyndale House, 1989 

Ellen Gunderson Traylor

Well put together “possible life” of John Mark, probable author of the first Gospel, cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)  and son of Mary, a wealthy Jewish landowner in Jerusalem (Acts12:12).  Mark appears frequently in the New Testament, working with Peter, Paul (after an earlier bust up), Timothy and Barnabas. Mark is generally regarded as the person who fled from the scene naked during the scuffle over Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

Traylor has manufactured a life story for Mark which incorporates effectively the story of the origin of the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem and the subsequent spread of the Christian Gospel to Asia Minor, north Africa, Cyprus and Greece.  The story covers Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem and his arrest, trial, execution and resurrection in the sight of various witnesses. The narrative moves on to the scenes at Pentecost in Jerusalem, the formation of the early church and the gradual expansion of the new belief in spite of vicious persecution by both Jewish leaders like Saul as well as the tragic impact of brutality practised against the Christian faith by the Roman State. Truly the Christian faith was born within the crucilble of hellish opposition and egregious cruelty.

Traylor’s understanding of the historical background of C1st Christian beginnings is detailed and historically accurate. She does not sugar coat the strengths and weaknesses of the early church leaders and their gains as well as their stumbles. In particular this book demonstrates how, under the direction of key witnesses, the early Christian Church exploded into existence by word of mouth and strong leadership in spite of vicious and heart-breaking persecution.

Reading this book provides a surprising amount of information about John Mark’s activities and his important, and perhaps little understood role in the growth of early Christianity. Although some of “Mark’s” appearances at certain events in the Jesus story are unlikely Traylor has nevertheless given us an accurate history of the events surrounding the establishment of earliest Christianity.  This book is very helpful in understanding the birth of one of the world’s most influential faiths. The “feel” of this book is that it is aimed at a young audience nevertheless the historicity of Traylor’s account is accurate and I believe the book would surprise adult readers when they realize how little they really know about these “well known” events.   5 stars. 

The Fables of Aesop with Designs on Wood by Thomas Bewick, Intro: Michael Marqusee,  p/b, Paddington, Two Continents Publishing Group, 1975 reprint of the 1818 Edition printed by E. Walter, Newcastle, for T. Berwick;

Lysippus’ statue of Aesop;  

Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) *oil on canvas, *38 x 29 cm *1827

Scholars are divided about whether there ever was an “Aesop”.  Ancient traditions have his birth place at Cotieum in Phrygia Major in 572 BC.  Many of the absurd fictions concerning Aesop were invented by a C14th Greek Monk Planudes who lived in Constantinople. Plato’s Phaedo mentions Aesop (60 c; 61b) and early tradition has Aesop  as a shepherd boy who rose from being a slave to great eminence, living in the service of Xanthus in the island of Samos, and afterwards at Athens. Aesop is also mentioned in Herodotus.  A statue allegedly of Aesop by Lysippus, Greek sculptor (C370-300 BCE) is held in the Villa Albani in Rome. Aesop is also mentioned in Aristophanes as well as the Roman poets Ennius and Horace and the writings of Plutarch. In spite of all this, The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1997) notes that Aesop is probably a legendary figure. (p.9).  This collection of fables acknowledges that the stories contained in this edition have been gathered from sources far and wide and they are not and cannot be precisely dated. Only a very small number explicitly refer to Aesop.

Thomas Bewick, (1753-1828),  was an outstanding English wood engraver whose major work was the outstanding two volume work of British Birds. Bewick also engraved The History of Quadrupeds and Gay’s Fables as The Fables of Aesop, which he also annotated with clear and helpful analysis of the meaning and purpose of each fable. This Paddington version is an exact reprint of the 1818 edtion.  There are 180 fables in this impressive collection and each one has a short, wise and to the point analysis by Bewick himself. The book includes an introduction by Michael Marqusee, The Preface Dedicaory ‘To the Youth of the British Isles’ written byBewick himself, and an introduction outlining a ‘history’ of Aesop as well as comments about the source of other fables. 

Although some of Bewick’s reflections can get a bit tedious after 180 fables, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book if only because a number of these fables are well remembered from my own childhood reading.   5 stars.

Antony Beevor: Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003  

Antony Beevor
Berlin: The Downfall 1945

English historian and former serving officer in the British 11th Hussars, is arguably  England’s most well known and competent historian of the Second World War.  This demanding read tells the chilling story of just five months in the ferocious cataclysm of World War 11…the fall of Berlin to the Allies and the end of the Second World War in Europe. This is not a story for soft hearts. On the contrary it is a tale of seemingly unending horror, of mass rape, of the murder of millions of lives,  of the senseless destruction of homes, cities, historical architecture, and of the folly of human pride, perversity, greed and the simple desire for power and rule.

Beevor is amazingly even handed in his treatment of the final stages of this destructive whirlwind which convulsed Europe. The race to Berlin was the seminal goal of the Allies at the start of 

2005 but it was by no means a certain question. Germany may have been defeated in north Africa, Asia, Stalingrad and in the air but on the ground in Germany her vast armies were still strong and well maintained.  So begins a titanic conflict as the United States and British military move relentlessly towards Berlin from the West and the immense Russian armies surround Berlin from the north, east and south. 

Beevor handles the complexity with dexterity and makes the story clear even for folk like myself who have never looked closely at the detailed planning, communication, feeding and political complexity of three ferocious war machines … Russia, the Western allies and Germany. Well crafted maps, four sets of excellent photographs, and clear explanations of each situation enable the reader to feel both the immensity and the shock horror of C20th destructive warfare.

In between the unending battles, Beevor analyses through real life examples, the strengths and weaknesses of generals, the plight of innocent victims, the assumption that mass rape in war is to be expected, the jealousy of individual leaders, the weaknesses and strengths of Stalin, Churchill and Eisenhower, the tension between military, secret police and counter intelligence leaders, and the crushing destruction of thousands of innocent lives.  Beevor provides excellent analysis of the mysteries behind Hitler’s final days and the chilling destructiveness and power of Stalin. 

In the age of Putin, this book is important to read to remind ourselves that there can be no winners in a world war.   5 stars.

Books read August 2022

Peter Frankopan: The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World, p/b, London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018  

The New Silk Roads: The Present and the Future of the World
Peter Frankopan

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)  

Lisa McInerney
The Glorious Heresies

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).  

One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

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  

Niall Williams
History of the Rain

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).   

Marcel Proust
The Fugitive

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
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

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