Books read May 2022


Rod Dreher: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,  p/b, Sentinel, New York, 2018  

Rod Dreher
The Benedict Option

Rod Dreher was brought up in a strict Methodist home and went his own way until finding Christianity in his twenties. He was, for many years a member of the Roman Catholic Church and more recently he joined the Orthodox Church in the USA.  He has been an aggressive commentator, journalist and writer for many years with some strong opinions which have brought him into considerable controversy and some of which he has retreated from. 

I was interested to read this book initially because I have always been a fan of the C5th/C6th writing of Benedict.  Benedict formulated a Rule for monks who wished to join his monastery and whose gentle but powerful and practical theology has influenced many Christians to this day, and not just those in the Orthodox Church. His influence and ideas have spread well beyond the monastery walls to aid many followers in their life of walking with Christ.

I was therefore quite surprised to find that there is only one chapter in this book dealing with St Benedict (chapter 3) and that relates to the year 2000 re-opening of the St Benedict’s monastery in Norcia, Italy, which had been suppressed in 1810 by Napoleon.  The Prior of the re-opened monastery is a 65 year old American Father Cassian who reopened the monastery with six other monks in 2000. Since the book was written massive earthquakes have shattered both the monastery and the old church to which it was attached in Norcia but there are hopes of rebuilding.  For those who would like to deepen their knowledge of the Rule of St Benedict  I would warmly recommend Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, 1984 and reprinted many times since and still in print. It is a precious experience to read and I would count it in my top three Christian books I have ever read for helping me to draw closer to Christ.  

What we do have with Dreher’s  Benedict Option?  In brief this book seeks to find a way for conservative Christians to respond to the collapse of traditional Christian faith in mainstream American society. (He frequently refers to “The West” but his narrative and description largely refers to the USA, although there are some similarities with the collapse of conservative Christianity in Western Europe and in Australia and Canada.)

Dreher’s energetic ideas, packed with references to fellow travellers and writers, books and seminars revolve around an analysis of the demise of mainstream conservative American Christian culture, and how to re-energise it. He has chapters which include: a short history of the  conservative Christian collapse in America; political issues; the need for a recovery of ancient forms of worship and church order;  the idea of a Christian village; the challenges of Christian education in a negative school environment; the powerful impact of Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015,  and its impact on conservative Christians holding their jobs and livelihoods in American society; and two thoughtful and helpful chapters on Eros and the New Counter-Culture and on Man and the Machine. 

My initial disappointment about the content colours somewhat my view of this book but I think many would agree that Dreher’s work would have been better with strong editing, a slower pace and far fewer examples of discussions, books and conversation which come staccato like one after another. I keep having the feeling that Dreher is keen to show off his vast network of people and ideas.

A major weakness of the book in my view is that no attention at all is given to gay Christians who choose to remain celibate. In addition there is no discussion about ways in which conservative Christian churches might relate to gay members who wish to remain in the church. A chapter on mediating a response to deep differences of opinion within a church congregation would, I believe,  have significantly strengthened the appeal of this book.   3 stars. 

The book comes with a useful study guide and an excellent index. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night, London, Vintage, 2010 (1934).  

F Scott Fitzgerald

Insightful and beautifully written novel from the post-World War 1 late twenties world of rich and famous Americans spending substantial amounts of their money on the French Riviera. The key players are the world renowned psychiatric clinician Dr Dick Diver and his patient and later wife Nicole who brought exceptional wealth to their marriage.

As with Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, the lifestyle, wealth and passion for the good food and alcohol of the good life bring with it many challenges and many tragedies. The difference with this novel, I think, is that we really like the key characters and wish things could be different. The novel is in two parts with the dramatic strength raised to far greater heights in part two.

Raymond Chandler wrote of Fitzgerald’s prose that it’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite. I cannot do better than that. The prose carries you away and it is very hard to put the book down once started. The rhythm, characters and story line carry you along as if you are there in person and cannot escape.  This is a seriously top drawer novel.  5 stars

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn:  One Day in the Life ot Ivan Denisovich; Trans. H.T. Willett, Foreward, Alexis Klimoff, p/b, London, Vintage, 2003 (1962, in Russian)  

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago many years ago and was deeply scarred by its horror,   use of terror to persuade, the torture,  cannibalism, murder, exiled list of Humanists, attacks on the Russian Church, the irrelevance of innocence, the insanity of Stalin, the sheer horror of his regime, the destruction of Warsaw, the failure of the allies to negotiate meaningfully with Russia after World War 11 and much much more horror. How can humanity survive such terror and stupidity? 

And further,  once Solzhenitsyn was safely ensconced in the USA and equally depressed by the triviality of the concerns of the average American,  how powerfully he could write: “Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness: it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? and why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well….

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells the story of just one day of the fictional Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, in a Russian Gulag, the Stalinist labour camps to which millions of Russians were condemned for political deviation or for no reason at all.

Solzhenitsyn was no stranger to such a labour camp having spent four years hard labour in such a  camp and a further four years exiled in Southern Kazakhstan where he almost died from undiagnosed cancer.  Curiously the story details a relatively “happy” day for Shukhov but the “happiness” simply underlines the horror and brutality of the conditions under which the men worked, ate, froze to death in Arctic conditions and fought with each other for tiny morsels of food. Solzhenitsyn’s story, permitted to be published by Krushchev was never published in Russia. 

Solzhenitsyn survived attacks on his life and was eventually expelled from Soviet Russia and lived for some years in the USA.  His writings went a long way to dispelling the more charitable views about Stalin and Communism which followed from Russian support for the West in its struggle with Hitler’s Germany in World War 11. Solzenhitsyn eventually  returned to Russia in 1994.

This cleverly written story now seems to have a new life following Russia’s 2022 brutal and  indiscriminate military assault on the people of Ukraine.    5 stars.

Richard Rohr: The Universal Christ, p/b, London, SPCK, 2019  

Richard Rohr
The Universal Christ

Richard Rohr is an American Franciscan Catholic priest and founder of the Centre and School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque New Mexico.  He has written many books and has a high media profile especially in Australia,  due to his online writing and classes. He is currently in remission from cancer but has said publicly that he is ready for death. He has called The Universal Christ his “end of life book”. 

The Universal Christ is a high octane read! Rohr has an energetic almost frenetic writing style which pushes ahead at an alarming rate throwing ideas, Biblical quotations and thought starters at the reader from start to finish.  Rohr’s focus is on the positiveness, the joys, the goodness, and the power of the Christian Gospel and other world faiths especially Buddhism.  There is not much at all in this book about sin, evil or Satan. In this regard there is a strong similarity with the Creational Spirituality of former Dominican monk and now Anglican priest Matthew Fox, especially his powerful book Original Blessing (1983).

I believe there are two books contained in The Universal Christ.  The first book contains the establishment of Rohr’s thesis that there is a clear distinction between Jesus of the New Testament, a map for the time-bound and personal level of life (p.20) and the figure of Christ who is the blueprint for all time and space and life itself. (p.20) Such a thesis will be contested not just by Christians but I am sure by those of other faiths as well. Christians will have difficulty with a sentence like Jesus is a Third someone, not just God and not just man, but God and human together. (p.19).  It has been hard enough for Christians to attempt to explain the idea of the Trinity!  Jesus as Not just God and not just man, a third someone,  is not going to do the job I think. Similarly  World leaders of other faiths are not necessarily going to fall in line to install “Christ” as the unifying power behind the world’s great religions.

Universalism itself has never been far away from the thoughts of many theologians including John Hick, Karl Barth,  liberal Catholics  Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner and evangelicals like Clark H. Pinnock in his persuasive book A Wideness in God’s Mercy (1992).

Laying aside this energetic argument in the first three chapters, Rohr proceeds to fourteen memorable chapters which will challenge and at times upset many earnest Christian readers but will make them pause, reconsider, think again  and read again. Not all will agree with Rohr’s conclusions about such topics as the following:  original goodness; the best criticism of the bad is still the practice of the better; people formed by God’s love are indestructible; God is eternal discovery and eternal growth; anonymous Christians (Rahner); the full journey towards wholeness must include the negative experiences (Jung) .. we must listen to what is urging us;  God protects us into and through death; the risen Christ is leading us somewhere good and positive; life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful; invoked or not invoked, God is still present (Jung); great love and great suffering brings us back to God; we must love God through, in, with, and even because of this world; Christianity’s unique trump card is always and forever incarnation; doing is more important than saying; following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world; the only way out of deep sadness is to go with it and through it; if you are frightened into God it is never the true God that you meet; Even God has to use love and suffering to teach you all the lessons that really matter; God comes to you disguised as your life…and there are many more challenging ideas and themes.

This book comes with Two Practices called Beyond Mere Theology…telling is not training. The practices are Simply That you Are; and All Physical Reality as a Mirror. In addition there is an epitaph from Simone Weil, an Afterword entitled Love After Love and two appendices: 1. The Four World Views; 2. The Pattern of Spiritual Transformation. Finally there is a detailed bibliography. 4 stars.

Books read April 2022

Books read April 2022

Steven Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople 1453, h/b, London, Folio, 2013   

Historian Steve Runciman
The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Steven Runciman was one of Britain’s most outstanding C20th historians and certainly the leading  historian of the Byzantine Empire and the history of the Crusades. Runciman inherited wealth from his grandfather and so was able to lead the life of a free-lancing scholar after an outstanding career at Oxford where his strength in languages was extraordinary including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian. He did however hold down  several major roles both in the Second World War and in academia. He was an aesthete and a successful gambler with a strong interest in the occult. He died in 2003 aged 97 soon after a remarkable final journey to Mt Athos, flown in by helicopter!

His in depth histories of Crusades and the final Fall of Constantinople are marked by his more favourable understanding of both Islamic and Byzantine societies than previous scholars and had a significant impact on the way historians now understand Byzantine and Islamic history and the tensions between Western and Eastern European Christians.

The Collapse of Constantinople really began in 1204 when the fourth European crusade against Islam was launched.  Spurred on by  the Venetians the Crusaders entered Orthodox Christian Constantinople and sacked the city with most of its wealth and remarkable artwork finding its way to Venice and elsewhere in Europe. This tragedy markedly weakened the Byzantine Empire which gradually lost more and more ground to Islam including large parts of the Balkans, even laying siege to Vienna itself. By 1453  mighty Constantinople had been reduced to 4,983 available Greeks and slightly under 2000 foreigners ready to face a Turkish army of 80 000 fighting men.

On the water the Greeks were also hugely outnumbered. They had about 23 ships against 130 ships in Sultan Mehmet’s fleet. In addition the Hungarian engineer Orban created the largest cannon yet made for Sultan Mehmet. He had gone first to the Emperor Constatine X1 but his purse was empty and Orban found a better offer. Not one European power came to the Emperor’s aid with the exception of the famous Genoese soldier Giovanni Giustininani who brought with him seven hundred well armed soldiers and fought bravely.

The Emperor’s army fought bravely for seven weeks against these huge odds.  The Sultan’s army battered the walls by day and the Greeks repaired them by night. The Greeks more mobile tiny fleet had the better of the war on the water.  In the end it was a near thing. Some on the Sultan’s side thought that the city was impregnable and they should call off the siege but the Sultan called for one last massive assault. It was unsuccessful and a retreat was being considered when a tiny unimportant side gate in the city wall was left open and the Sultan’s army poured in, overwhelming and slaughtering the unprepared Greeks. The victory was complete and a horrific slaughter and rapine ensued.

Apart from a few far-flung outpost islands the Byzantine Empire was no longer. The Sultan now controlled the whole of the Balkan Peninsular and now the greatest prize of all, Constantinople.  In short time all but three of the Christian churches were converted to mosques and vast numbers of Orthodox Christians either fled elsewhere, changed their faith or were enslaved or murdered. Trebizon soon followed and other Orthodox strongholds followed.  Only Russia stood alone for the Orthodox faith. 

This is a gripping story told without sentimentality or partisanship by Runciman. Once this book gets hold of you it won’t let you go. Orthodox Christianity is gaining ground in the West today..its quiet spirituality seems to refresh after the wearying disputes between disagreeing Christian followers. Who could tell where the next stage of this story goes in our own troubled C21st. 5 stars.

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader, p/b, London, Profile Books, 2008  

Alan Bennett
The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett is a multi-talented actor, author, playwright and screenwriter who sprang to fame in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival along with the gloriously funny trio of Dudley Moore, Johnathan Miller and Peter Cook.  Equally well known is his true account of The Lady in the Van about a fifteen year stay of a woman originally unknown to him who parked her car in his driveway for fifteen years.  The story was made into a very popular movie.

The Uncommon Reader is a gem of a fantasy which has Queen Elizabeth 11 coming across an official mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and meeting a keen reader Norman from the kitchen staff who is strongly attracted to gay authors. Norman’s passion inspires the Queen to start reading which, in her normal role she has no time for.  Bennett manages to include sixty five authors in this section of the novel along with many humorous insights into both literature and the Queen’s activities.  He manages to do this in such a way that we find the Queen’s behaviour believable.

After Norman’s opponents in the Palace get rid of Norman the Queen begins to consider writing as well as reading and the novel concludes with a fascinating address by the Queen to all of her Privy Counsellors in which she extols the values of both reading and writing to her amazed councillors. 

This is a gentle and thought provoking humorous yarn by a master of the theatre and comedy. 

4 stars. 

Murray Seiffert:  Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land, h/b, Brunswick East,  Acorn Press, 2011

Dr Murray Seiffert & Gumbuli of Ngukkur

The late Dr Murray Seiffert, who died just twelve months ago, has written an extraordinary history of an Aboriginal young man from tiny Bickerton Island in Arnhem Land who for over thirty years was the priest and leader of the town of Ngukurr, a community which began as a mission station on the Roper River.

Murray and I were friends and colleagues for over fifty years sharing time at Ridley College, teaching in north central Victoria, fellow worshippers at St James Ivanhoe for 17 years and sharing in many co-family events. Murray was an outstanding sportsman, agricultural scientist, teacher, sociologist and theologian and godfather to our second son David. For five years Murray worked with his wife Marjory as the Academic Dean of Nungalinya College in Darwin, during which time he had many opportunities to talk with  Gumbuli and visit Ngukurr. 

Michael Gumbuli Wurramara was only the second Aboriginal man to be ordained priest in the Northern Territory. He was converted by missionaries from the Church Missionary Society working on Groote Island, a large island close to Bickerton Island, east of Darwin. Inevitably, Gumbuli’s story can only  be told by being combined with the larger story of the planting of the Christian Gospel in Arnhem Land.  Gumbuli was born in 1935 and it is not hard to remember that as late as 1930 mass atrocities against Aborigines on the Australian mainland were still occurring. There is a Gippsland connection with the founding of the Roper River Mission (later called Ngukurr). The Gippsland Aboriginal community provided a generous financial contribution to the cost of the boats used to transport the team from Groote Island including Gumbuli which established the original mission on the Roper River. 

Gumbuli’s remarkable forty two year marriage to Dixie Daniels, his quiet but strong leadership style, his courage to face the spiritual dangers of native ceremony, his extraordinary energy to be a priest/town leader/mechanic/ cattle station missionary/retreat leader/daily worship leader, and his own personal faith and commitment both to the Bible’s truth and to Anglican order is exceptional. He was well worthy of his Order of Australia in 2010.

There are many critical issues to be examined in this remarkable history and Gumbuli was in the middle of them. Not least is the creation of the Kriol (formerly Pidgin) Bible. Gumbuli not only spoke good English but was fluent in Kriol, Anindilyakwa and other tribal languages. His encouragement to create a complete Kriol Bible was essential to its final achievement. Other key issues included the ongoing tension between Christian faith and aboriginal ceremony/culture (including the sharp differences between Uniting Church and Anglican approaches to the validity of the  serpent creation story);  the tragedy of native polygamy; the many disputes over alcohol at Ngukurr; the early poverty of Government financial support; the difficulty of maintaining good staff; problems with the police; disastrous floods and droughts and many other challenges. 

One remarkable feature of the story of Australian aborigines accepting the Gospel is the impact of Festo Kivingeri, exceptional Ugandan evangelist and Christian spokesman during the reign of Idi Amin. He came to the Territory and made a powerful impact which Gumbuli and others were able to build upon. 

Murray Seiffert has managed in this book to make everything interesting and one reason, oddly,  is the outstanding documentation. There is barely a sentence recorded that is not footnoted for source. The result is, in my experience, an unparalleled honesty and accuracy in the account of events. Murray’s voice is not intruded on this text…we read the very words spoken by government officials, missionaries, nurses, bishops, and eye witnesses of events and other key figures. The reader does not have to stop and check these comments (although being me I did!), but the detail gave me confidence to know that I was reading exciting history from the hundreds of people actually involved.

Another feature of interest for people my age is the many references to amazing individuals and figures known to me personally or by reputation from my own lifetime! Thus we read of Bishops Clyde Woods, Richard Appleby, Ken Mason, Arthur Malcolm and Philip Freier, CMS stalwarts Barry and Margaret Butler, Gwen and Lance Tremlett, George Pearson, Joy and John Sandefur, Keith Cole, David Woodbridge, Sister Ednar Brooker and many others.

Who should read this remarkable book? Anyone like me who has only been to Alice Springs and Darwin and has only a feeble knowledge of the story of the coming of Christianity to Arnhem Land. It will make you cry and also make you thank God for faithful servants.  5 stars

Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, Ed. Douglas Cleverdon; Lithographs, Ceri Richards, h/b, London, Folio, 1972 (1954). 

Dylan Thomas
Under Milk Wood

C20th English/Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (he spoke no Welsh) carried this radio play around with him for some seven years before finally passing it on to his friend and publisher Douglas Cleverdon during Thomas’s preparation for his fourth recital tour to the USA. Thomas died in a New York hospital on the 9th November 1953 after falling into a coma. The radio play was broadcast by the B.B.C. on 25 January 1954 with Richard Burton taking the First Voice. The play was acclaimed as a master piece and was awarded the international Italia Prize as the finest radio work of the year. The first full-blown theatre production was staged at the Edinburgh Festival in August  1956 and subsequently in London, at the New Theatre, where it ran for seven months. 

The play describes the thoughts and desires of the townsfolk of the made up town of Llareggub based on the Welsh seaside village of Laugharne where Thomas lived from 1938 to 1940 and to which he returned in 1949.  Several of Laugharne’s well-known characters appear in Under Milk Wood especially the blind old sea captain “Captain Cat”.  Topographically the play is also based on the fishing town of Newquay with its steep street  running down to the harbour.  Thomas lived in Newquay with his wife Caitlin and his children from 1945.

The Radio Play beautifully and humorously portrays one complete day in Llareggub from the early morning dreaming of Captain Cat as he remembers his former girl friend Rosie Probert and his drowned fellow sailors Dancing Williams, Tom-Fred the donkeyman, Jonah Jarvis, Alfred Pomeroy Jones  and Curly Bevan all spring to life as first drowned down to fifth drowned. As Captain Cat wakes up many other voices of the village are heard, the draper, the cobbler, the dress maker, the sweet-shop keeper, Mrs Waldo, Miss Myfanwy Price, the Undertaker, Mr and Mrs Ogmore- Pritchard, Organ Morgan and 61 other voices including the school children and their teacher;  Rev Eli Jenkins and Bessie Bighead. Captain Cat hears them waking up and starting their day, the women gossiping around the town, the children bursting out from school with their bullying and teasing, the two Mrs Dai Bread, the men dreaming of school teacher Gossamer Beynon high heels, Polly Garter and her many lovers, the dreamy afternoon as the sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town…Captain Cat remembers Lazy early Rosie with the flaxen thatch, whom he shared with Tom-Fred the donkeyman and many another seaman…while The Reverend Eli Jenkins inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room tells only the truth in his Lifework—the Population, main industry etc etc finishing each day with his sunset poem:  We are not wholly bad or good

Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

and Thou, I know, wilt be the first,

To see our best side, not our worst…    and gradually,  First Voice proclaims: The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood….

There is sadness and joy in this play for voices; heaving life and fading memories, desires, lusts, burdens, failures, dreams and life ongoing in Llareggub.   I read this play as an old(er) man myself and contemplate life’s passing with all its promise and hopes, hurts and fears, triumphs and tragedies, and as I see one or another folk I have loved pass away.  Dylan Thomas loved life to the utmost and loved a drink too often to live a longer life. But he has given us some amazing poetry and this delightful and endearing radio play.  5 stars.

Tom Wolfe: Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p/b, London, Picador, 1990 (1976) 

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was a C20th  American journalist and novelist and a leader in the “New Journalism” of the sixties which intertwined literary techniques with news writing and journalism. Wolfe had an extraordinary gift for uncovering the minutest details of the American spirit from the sixties and into the new millennium. His book The Bonfire of the Vanities, chronicled the social class, greed, ambition and money hunger of America in the eighties and  made him a household name although the film of the novel bombed.

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine was Wolfe’s second novel and its various short stories demonstrate his exrtraordinary gifts of observation, detailed analysis, hard-earned knowledge of each subject, and his gloriously outrageous gifts of self-deprecating humour. The book’s title and first story describes a middle aged married New Yorker with children adding up his finances after a cocktail party he gave six weeks ago and resulting in  a series of cancelled cheques which have just come in the mail.  Clutter & Vine was the name of the florists to whom he owed $209.60 and Mauve Gloves & Madmen were the caterers to whom he owed $257.50.  He proceeds to tote up his $1000/month apartment in New York, his rented summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, his children’s school and college fees, his recent large dinner parties and much much more. The $ value looks small in 2022 money but the reader feels the pressure rising.

The third story, The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie, describes the experience of an American bomber pilot flying in VietNam towards the end of the war when American losses had begun to reach very high numbers. Whatever views the reader has towards the logic and horror of the war the story of the reality for this two man bomber team leaves one gasping for air. There is no humour in this section!

Another rather sad story covers the inside gen on the creation of commercial advertisements with sports superstars.  Equally troubling is  “The intelligent Coed’s Guide to America”, on how American undergrads responded to the likes of Günter Grass, Solzhenitsyn and Stalinism, Lionel Trilling, Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance” and much more. More humorous but in some ways still rather frightening is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” which throws clarifying light on what has recently occurred in the Trump era. Other topics include brief essays on violent crime, “pornoviolence”, teenage sexuality, Funky Chic on early eighties fashion, and “honks and wonks” on New York accents.   While these topics sound heavy and they are, Tom Wolfe manages to describe the action with humour, wisdom and a light touch.  There is so much good that comes out of America…there is also so much we could do without. 

I have never been a keen reader or student of sociology, but if you must go there, Tom Wolfe is the man to help you understand it, in America anyway.   4 stars.

Books read March 2022

Marion Kaminski:  Venice: Art and Architecture, Trans. Mark Cole & Eithne McCarthy, h/b, Konigswinter, Cologne, Könemann, 2005 

Venice is a unique European city. Although the Dutch also have their canals, they seem to be laid out in ordered patterns.  Venice is a crazy place full of twists and turns, mystery, hidden wonders and endless complexity.  It would take more than a year to unlock the artistic wonders of Venice and another year to follow through the remnants of Venice’s amazing history. Venice was  independent until 1866 (apart from a brief sojourn under Napoleon); she was queen of the seas, withstanding much more powerful opponents including being a major player in the sea battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Turks; surviving a series of horrific plagues; and regularly fighting off the rest of Italy often including the papacy.  Venice is full of intrigue, mystery, masks and above all extraordinary architecture and art. 

Marion Kaminski has masterfully found a sensible way through the art and architecture of this tantalizing and complex seemingly floating city. The illustrations in this Könemann collection are of the highest standards and the information is just enough, never too much but calling out the reader for all the things they missed when they visited Venice.  Murano, Torcello and Burano are beautifully covered and the reproduction of major art works is outstanding, including the Peggy Guggenheim collection.  Some of Palladio’s most amazing church architecture is in Venice alongside many other outstanding architects.

The reader finishes the book feeling that Venice deserves to feel hugely proud of what they achieved as a republic and still today as part of Italy…and yet massively huge tourist ships and pressure from hard working immigrants threaten the very lifeblood of Venice whose residents regularly flee elsewhere.

This treasury of art and architecture comes complete with excellent potted histories of events, useful maps, surprising articles about Venetian heroes including Vivaldi, Marco Polo and Giacomo Casanova, a glossary of architectural terms, biographies of major artists, analysis of Venetian architecture and an effective index.  5 stars.

Michael McGirr: Ideas to Save Your Life: Philosophy for Wisdom, Solace and Pleasure, h/b, Australia, Text Publishing, 2021 

Michael McGirr
Ideas to Save Your life

Michael McGirr joined the Jesuits immediately after finishing high school and trained with them for fourteen years before becoming a priest for seven years. He was an outstanding chaplain and teacher of English, Literature and Philosophy at St Kevin’s College  in Melbourne. After leaving the  priesthood he married, had children, became a widely regarded professional book reviewer of almost 1000 titles, had periods  of unemployment, published seven books and now works for a major international aid and development NGO.

 I met Michael once in mid-career at a seminar at  St Kevins when I was also teaching religion and literature in schools. I have been to many seminars and forgotten most but I have never forgotten meeting Michael McGirr. His extraordinary erudition, and a mind overflowing with dynamic and interesting ideas almost over powered the whole seminar room and left me gasping. 

Ideas to Save Your Life is ostensibly a book about twenty three or so philosophers from the ancients like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Horace and Epicurus through the Renaissance and beyond to Avicenna,  Montaigne, Spinoza, and  Margaret Cavendish to the “moderns” like Kierkegaard,  Thoreau, William James, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Wallace Stevens, Alan Turing and epiphenomonenal qualia,  Iris Murdoch,and Michel Foucault.  McGirr deals with these complex and powerful philosophers with a light and sympathetic touch, extracting their central ideas in an entertaining way which draws the reader in even when the going gets tough for which McGirr always gives warning.

McGirr notes that it is a mistake to think that philosophy has a narrow meaning. Philosophy is a dangerous sport for control freaks and people who need to know everything. It is a carnival of ideas, possibilities, suggestions, connections, history, and, above all, tricky questions. (p19).

If this is all the book was about it would be worth buying and reading, but even more interesting in some ways is  what in some ways becomes McGirr’s own life story;  his family,  experiences of teaching and learning, and adventures too numerous to mention here. Michael is, all at the same time, thoughtful, sensitive, very funny, searingly honest, challenging, and opinionated in a carefully negotiated way. He is always interesting in such a way that you must read on. 

After reading this book  I don’t think for a minute you will run off and read Spinoza. I do think you will stop, ponder, consider your own life and ideas, and want to go back and pick up on all the pencil marks you made on the book on the way through. 5 stars

Thomas Mann:  Tristan,  Translated H.T. Loewe-Porter, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin/Secker  &  Warburg,  1985 (1902) 

Thomas Mann

German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955)  wrote this little novella in 1902, one of the earliest of his works. It is set in a sanatorium, called the Einfried in the mountains of Central Europe. Thomas Mann lived for some time in a sanatorium in Davos Switzerland due to the illness of his wife and he had ample time to study the impact of such a place on those who were compelled or chose to be there. Several of his novels focus on the impact of such a place on patients. As with so many of Mann’s novels this novella focuses on the character of the artist, in this case, a writer.

Tristan, a title referencing the doomed medieval love affair between Tristan and Isolde, tells the story of the hapless author Detlev Spinell, author of a failed story about European culture and beauty. He  is staying at the sanatorium for the  purely personal reason of kickstarting  his writing career.  He falls seriously in love with the beautiful but rather fey and unwell Gabriele, the wife of successful, powerful and sexually unfaithful German business man Herr Klöterjahn.  The German stays long enough only to see his wife settled in and then returns home to his business and his young son. 

Spinell of course engineers to have plenty of time to conquer the heart of the listless Gabriele and is making some progress. In his foolish stupidity he writes a letter to Klöterjahn detailing with some force his impression of the man’s unpleasant personality and implying his unfitness to be the wife of the delightful Gabriele.  Klöterjahn returns in haste to demolish Spinell only to be interrupted by news of the grave seriousness of his wife’s illness. The hapless Spinell runs away in haste never to be heard of again. 

Mann’s major works delve deeply into the themes of beauty culture and passion. This first little novella is just the beginning of an outstandlingly successful writing career. (4 stars)

Thomas Mann: Tonio Kröger, Translated, H T Lowe-Porter, p/b, Ringwood, Penguin/Martin  Secker & Warburg, 1985 (1903). 

Thomas Mann, (1875-1955), Nobel Prize winning German novelist wrote this novelette in 1903. The theme of the novel is the “tragedy” or the “burden” of the artist, condemned not just to live life but to portray it, in this case as a writer.  There may well be some autobiographical components in this novelette. Thomas Mann spent his early life in the Baltic town of Lubeck, (Buddenbrooks in his novel about the Lubeck of his growing up).  Although eventually married with five children, Mann spent a large amount of his life, each morning till midday locked in his study working on his writing leaving his wife to the heavy hitting of bringing up their exceptionally talented five children.

This story of an unmarried writer Tonio Kröger and the burden he feels from having to think and write about life instead of just “living” it,  is very sensitively and passionately written. He describes early childhood school experiences of already focussing on inward thoughts and meanings instead of simply joining in with classmates and being part of the group. At a young age he became aware that he took the process of living much more thoughtfully and deeply than his rambunctious school mates. He had deep desires and thoughts and read widely early but his ideas and feelings made little sense to his classmates. 

Once Tonio Kröger left home he lead a free-wheeling freedom loving life making a living through his writing, exploring everything  that life had to offer with no boundaries to his passions. Achieving success but with few real friends he eventually takes a trip back to the region of his childhood to try to re-engage with what his life could have been really about but his few friends had long forgotten him and he found their life lost to him. The outpouring of his grief attached to the loneliness of the artist and his longing to be ‘common place” to his artist friend LIsabeta is some of the most powerful literature I have read for a very long time. 

Thomas Mann, even in translation, has the ability to grip his readers and keep them on tenterhooks. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this short novel.  (5 stars).

Books Read February 2022

David Talbot Rice:    Art of the Byzantine Era, p/b, London, Thames & Hudson, 1963  

David Talbot Rice
Art of the Byzantine Era

The study of Byzantine art and culture in situ is a demanding one requiring research in remote areas of the south Balkans, modern  Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey, Trebizon and especially the rock churches of ancient Cappodocia and Cicilia, the Peloponese peninsula in Southern Greece, the monastic communities in the mountains of northern Greece, Egypt, Ravenna, the tufa monuments and churches of ancient Armenia and Georgia and the ancient churches of Macedonia and Bulgaria, and the beautiful remaining Byzantine churches and monuments at Cefalu, Monreale and Palermo in Sicily.

David Talbot Rice was educated at Rugby, a friend of Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and other members of the “bright young things” who were later to be “found” in Brideshead Revisited. He was also an outstanding archaeologist and art critic, a founding lecturer of the Courtauld Institute in London and Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University for many years. He has published widely in the areas of Western and Eastern art contributed numerous articles to specialised journals. 

This book covers largely the period from the reign of Justinian 1 (527-565) to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The task of locating the stunning artwork of the Byzantine era was made much harder by the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders when much of the artistic glory of the capital was carted off to Venice, Spain, museums and places unknown. In addition many of the magnificently crafted Byzantine churches were converted into mosques under Islamic rule at various stages and many other fine churches were destroyed in wars of various periods. The standard procedure in converting churches to mosques was to cover up Christian artwork with white plaster. Repair and removal of the plaster, when possible, was difficult and resulted in much chipping of the original work.  Nevertheless much remains to be seen and studied today and this book contains 247 photographic plates, many in full colour. 

The result is an exciting journey through 1200 years of Christian artwork portraying the Christian story  in powerful and moving images of exceptional sophistication. The awesome figure of Christ the almighty staring down from beneath the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia of the cathedral in Cefalu Sicily is haunting and powerful, never to be forgotten. Equally entrancing are the personalities from the Christian story found in the midst of quite formal Byzantine artworks. These portray deep faith and an understanding of events happening to real people even in such a stylized art form. I found this accessible book deeply moving and spiritually encouraging. It is a Christian story that has been neglected.  5 stars.

Wayne Meeks: The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, p/b, New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 1983.   

Wayne Meeks
The First Urban Christians

C S Lewis wrote that for every new book you read, you should read two old ones. Meeks’ book is now 39 years old but he fact that it is still in print demonstrates the value and strength of his sociological and historical analysis of the “first urban Christians”.  From Jesus’ original  rural Galilean disciples and their converts, the Christian faith exploded mightily in the Roman towns and cities of Asia Minor. This explosion was largely due to the exploits, energy, argument and spiritual power of the Apostle Paul, converted by Jesus himself in a vision on the Emmaus Rd to Damascus, filled with a Jewish fire to destroy Christians!

Meeks has assembled a vast array of sociological tools to analyse how this amazing new religion flourished in the midst of and under the nose of the massive power of the Roman empire. Armed with a bibliography of well over 700 volumes of secondary research, the indefatigable Meeks has opened up for his readers, with exceptional care, science, Biblical analysis and historical data of all sorts, the world of First Century urban (Pauline) Christians. With impressive and not boring clarity (unusual in most sociological works I have studied!), Meeks uncovers topics such as :

  • The urban environment in which Paul and his fellow workers evangelised; 
  • The social level of the earliest Christian converts…wealth, security, employment etc;
  • The formation of Christian “ekklesia” compared with equivalent Roman voluntary associations, philosophical and rhetorical schools and the Jewish synagogues;
  • The peculiar language of “belonging” in the early churches eg  the elect, called to be saints, loved and known by God, beloved, children of God, adopted, believers, those ‘in Christ’, a family,  brothers and sisters, brotherly affection.
  • Issues of Governance in the early urban churches…dealing with conflict, letters and visits, the confusion in Corinth including leadership challenges, relationships with fellow workers and warrants for authority.
  • Rituals and how they developed especially baptism and The Lord’s Supper
  • Patterns of belief including the notion of “One God, One Lord, One Body; the place of apocalyptic and managing innovation; the reality of the crucified Messiah and the notion of resurrection; the question of evil and its reversal.

Meeks concludes his work with a brief summary of correlations…the early Pauline Christians believed in one God, creator of the universe and ultimate judge of all human actions, attributing titles and functions to the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus titles and functions that in the Jewish tradition were attributed only to God. This one God of the Christians is personal and active, demanding a high level of commitment. The Pauline view is eschatological leading to the final judgement of both humans and cosmic powers. Pauline Christians believe in Jesus the Messiah, son of God, crucified but raised from the dead, and exalted to reign with God in heaven. These believers from all strata and status in Roman society met regularly together maintaining their rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, stressing symbols of unity, equality and love. 

Reading this book gave me a strong sense of the purpose and clarity of meaning of Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament. It is a remarkable achievement well deserving of its continuing reprints.  5 stars

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice, Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter, Ringwood, Penguin/Martin Secker & Warburg, 1985 (1912)  

Thomas Mann
Death in Venice

German novelist and Nobel Prizewinner for his book The Magic Mountain, wrote this short novel in 1912.  The key character, Gustave von Aschenbach, highly regarded and serious author breaks his normal holiday routine and travels to Venice for the summer instead of his usual mountain retreat.  He is nearing the end of his career and not in strong health.  In the dining room of his hotel on his first night he is stunned by the natural beauty and bearing of a young German boy, also holidaying in Venice with his mother, governess and four sisters. Gustave becomes obsessed with this boy to the eventually of manically following him around Venice

Gustave never speaks to the boy Tadzio but the lad is aware of his interest and does not discourage him. At the same time in the heat of the sirocco scorching summer wind, cholera grips the city and the vast majority of tourists leave Venice. Denying reason, Gustave’s passion keeps him in Venice and his illness and intense passion lead to his death.  The short novel is gripping in its intensity of description not just of his passion for Tadzio but also the lavish description of the best  and the worst of early C20th Venice. 

Thomas Mann himself, although happily married with five impressive children, was on his own admission deeply attracted to beautiful young men.  A significant feature is the way Mann describes the passion of Gustave through the ancient antics of the Greek gods and goddesses. The novelette builds to a very dramatic conclusion and is impossible not to finish.  4 stars.


Paul McHugh,   The Mind Has Mountains: Reflections on Society and Psychiatry, h/b,  Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006 

The Mind Has Mountains
Paul McHugh

Paul McHugh is an outstanding American psychiatrist of the C20th and early C21st. Now in the nineties he was for many years the Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and later the Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus.

Mc Hugh was a spirited defender of a psychiatric methodology based on epidemiology, genetics and neuro-pharmacology as against the C20th explosion of nonmedical, fashionable and over simplified ideas about psychiatry and mental illnesses promoted by the so-called antipsychiatrists (p.4) including Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, Erving Goffmann and Michel Foucalt amongst others. A measure of the explosion of under researched and purely theoretical psychiatric disorders can be traced by the growth of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the official tome of the American Psychiatric Association. What began in 1968 as a psychiatric disease identification of 119 pages  became an explosion of 886 pages in the latest edition. Many of these identifications based on  descriptive appearance of individual cases have little basis in medical evidence and some are purely the inventions of their proponents. (p.51) One dangerous motivation for this sudden explosion of new ailments  is the extravagant retainers from pharmaceutical companies plugging their medications and the healthy returns from some insurance companies! 

McHugh’s book is a series of essays based on a wide range of topics including the demise of early C20th Freudian ideas (including the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety, and penis envy); the important work of Dr. Jerome Frank in helping patients master problems in their present life rather than searching for problems in early life conflicts; misunderstandings about the nature of depression; the imprisonment of Dr Kevorkian for murder;  the development of overvalued ideas in society (someone who has taken up an idea shared by others in his or her milieu or culture and transformed it into a ruling passion or “monomania”);  the importance of the work of Karl Jaspers in opposing Freudian nihilism and his fight against eugenics, fascism and racism in medicine; the scandal of “repressed memories”; the over-reach and oversimplification of PSTD cases for a false motivation; Multiple Personality Disorder as a socially constructed artifact; the cultic character of psycho-analysis and its continuation until “the money runs out”; the de-institutionalisaton of the severely mentally ill; the failures of contemporary bioethics and its rush to become a culture of death; William Osler’s contribution to modern medicine; Shakespeare and psychiatry; the development of the distinction between sex and gender and the accompanying explosion and under determined value of sex-change surgery; the ethical use of embyronic cells and psychiatric insights into terrorism. 

Not all will agree with every idea in McHugh’s analysis of a better path for psychiatry. On the other hand McHugh’s logic, common sense, clinical expertise and scientific sophistication based on factual cases will provide significant food for thought for anyone interested in mental health issues and the best way forward in dealing with them successfully.  Five stars. 

James Joyce,   The Dubliners, [The corrected text with an Explanatory Note by Robert Scholes and Photography by Dr. J. J. Clarke of the period between 1897 and 1904], h/b,  London, Folio, 2003 (1914) 

James Joyce
The Dubliners

A collection of fourteen short cameos and one extended narrative of the lives of ordinary Dubliners published in 1914. 

The first three are written in the first person and tell of (i) the death of a somewhat tiresome old man whose life and story had made a deep impact on a young boy. (ii) Two boys wagging school and being approached by a perverted old man (iii) a boy’s love for a girl in his street and his unsuccessful attempt to buy her a present at the market.

The other eleven stories are written in the third person and describe:

– a young woman torn between her love for family and town and a romance with a wandering sailor who wished to marry her.

– four well healed young men with a fast car and their escapades around town.

– a young man in a boarding house who gets the landlady’s daughter pregnant and is challenged by the mother as to his intentions.

` – a young man somewhat bored with his ordinary life catches up with an old friend who is single and has had good success in London as a journalist and is living the high life.

– a married man with children is in trouble at work and soothes his mind by pawning his watch and getting drunk with the boys. Coming home in a bad way,  his wife is at church and his tea is cold; he pays out on the children.

– a busy single matron takes her day off and goes to visit her married brother and his family.  – a lonely unmarried business man takes up a friendship with a married woman who is unhappy in her marriage.  When she wishes to go further he retreats and the woman turns to drink. 

– a group of political committee members get together for a drink after a hard day’s campaigning. 

–  a woman with a talented daughter is upset when her daughter is not paid appropriately for a series of concerts.

–  a group of faithful church goers try to rehabilitate a drunkard and try to sort out their religious differences in the process. 

The final somewhat longer narrative is entitled The Dead and describes a sumptuous annual dance and dinner but on my the Misses Morkans which they have hosted for over thirty years. The narrative focuses down on the thought processes of the regular speech maker, a deep thinking literary and caring man who sees their quiet world changing, key people dying and begins to ponder his own life and coming death. The narrative turns from trivial description of a host of characters to a powerful and deep private meditation.

Joyce had trouble publishing this work due to the strict moral standards of 1914 Britain.  A number of these characters reappear in his amazing Ulysses, the story of one day in the life of Dublin.   The Dubliners makes for thoughtful and entertaining reading. 5 stars. 

Colm Tóibín: The Magicianp/b, Sydney, Picador/Pan Macmillan, 2021 

Colm Tóibín
The Magician

Exceptional biography of distinguished C20th German writer Thomas Mann (wrote Magic Mountain/Death in Venice/Tristan/ Tonio Kröger/Doctor Faustus) amongst other novels. Tóibín is an exceptional Irish writer who has also written biographies of Henry James and Mary the mother of Jesus along with The Master and Brooklyn. 

This is a deeply researched novel written in a fictionalised style by Tóibín which takes the reader deeply into Thomas Mann’s innermost thoughts as well as describing intimate family and other conversations in precise detail.  The reader is guaranteed a reasonable sense of Tóibín’s accuracy by the list of over fifty major works of analyses of Mann’s life during the rise and fall of Hitler and the rise of Stalin on p. 435 of this work. Married into the wealthy Jewish Pringsheim family Thomas and his impressive wife Katia had six children whose upbringing was largely Katia’s responsibility as Mann spent pretty well every morning of his life in his study writing and thinking.  His brother Heinrich was also a writer but much more to the left and their fraught relationship was a major tension in his life.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann felt strongly about the need for a restored Germany after the Great War and was very late to recognise the vast danger of German fascism. Equally he was so involved in the creation of his novel Magic Mountain (for which he won the Nobel prize), that he was caught unawares by the rapid rise of the Third Reich and in the end had to leave behind his house in Munich and flee to Switzerland, then southern France, finally becoming a citizen of the USA. His first son Klaus and first daughter Erika played significant roles in the fight against Nazism and his at times  strained relationship with them is a key component of his story. Mann was also completely blind to the horror of the Nazi genocidal program and the magnitude of this racial destruction had to be spelt out to him while he was living comfortably in the USA and when it was far too late for him to use his considerable wealth and contacts to help Jewish refugees.

Alongside his writing, his wife,  his six child family and his fame Mann did not hide his erotic interest in beautiful  young men and Tóbín delicately describes Katia’s negotiation of these two sides of Mann’s nature carefully and elegantly. 

Ironically Mann, who was a European heroic ally for talking up the need for America to join the war against Hitler, became himself an enemy of the American people after the war due to his equivocal approach to the rise of Stalin and the division of Germany. He and his family were effectively encouraged to leave the USA and returned to 

Europe spending their final years in Switzerland. 

This beautifully written biographical novel is an absolute masterpiece. 5 stars and rising.

Bev Aisbett:  Panic Attacks: A Survivor’s Guide to Panic Attacks, p/b, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1996

A Survivor’s Guide to Panic Attacks

Bev Aisbett has written a very helpful introduction and overview to coping with and living with panic attacks, a phenomenon that makes simply living a misery for a vast number of sufferers around the world. Supported by Dr D Jeffries, Aisbett uses a helpful descriptive approach using clever line drawings and diagrams. Aisbett does not simplify or minimise the difficulty of dealing with panic attacks and underlines that professional help and often supportive medication is essential for full recovery.

 A strength of this book is a chapter on those living with sufferers of panic attacks. This chapter underlines the dangers of well-meaning advice such as “get over it” or “you look all right to me or simply  feelings of frustration, helplessness, or even anger. 

This is a positive and helpful book that will surprise and assist both sufferers and helpers.  5 stars. 

Books read December 2021

Andrew Graham-Dixon: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin,  2011 

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Caravaggio A Life Sacred and Profane

Late C16th/early C17th artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was quite late earning respect in the crowded art world of the C20th. A remarkable rehabilitation was achieved in 1951 with an extremely influential retrospective organised by the significant Italian art historian Roberto Longhi. In some respects Graham-Dixon notes, Caravaggio had to wait for fame for C20th film makers like   Pasolini and Scorsese to understand his startling vision of ordinary people in paintings. Especially in his religious paintings Caravaggio scandalized his Italian peers by using street people, whores and the poorest of the poor to as his models for some of the most momentous paintings of Biblical history. In addition his use of black backgrounds with only one source of light highlighting  just the central action, with no fluffy and irrelevant landscape behind in the painting was ground-breaking and radically altered painting styles from the C17th onwards.

Caravaggio’s life is breath-taking, scary, bitter-sweet, sad and enormously vibrant all at once. Although in Milan he was theoretically apprenticed to an artist to learn to paint, Caravaggio was effectively self-taught with a skill that at times seems miraculous and methodology unique in his age. Coming from relative poverty Caravaggio had to rely on wealthy supporters who had the contacts to gain him important commissions especially once he moved to Rome where churches like St Mary Maggiore hold some of his most famous paintings. 

But Caravaggio also had a quite separate life at night on the streets and in the bars and places of ill repute in Rome. Here his quick temper, pride and sense of his own right to be accepted resulted in many street battles with opponents equally talented with the sword and with dangerous friends.  The inevitable occurred and Caravaggio had to flee Rome after the death of an opponent in a street fight. His life then became one long attempt to restore his honour at the same time as escaping from would be enemies seeking revenge. Life on the run included a rural estate well away from Rome,  Naples,  Malta, Sicily and eventually an ill-fated attempt to return to Rome from Naples.  All this time Caravaggio continued to produce some of the most significant paintings in the whole of art history. 

So many myths have gathered around Caravaggio from the three C17th biographers Mancini, Baglioni and Bellori through to the ever-increasing array of modern writers who can see a best-selling story in this relatively brief but extraordinary life.  Graham-Dixon freely acknowledges his debts to writers ancient and modern but has the advantage of some recent careful research which for the first time has thrown light on the complex and until now hidden story of his life on the run.

This account is lavishly illustrated with all of Caravaggio’s major works and other folk of interest in his life. I found the book impossible to put down and feel a deep pang of sympathy and regret that a painter of such explosive talent should have his life cut down when who knows what else he could have produced.  5 stars and rising. 

Max Gawn,  Max Gawn Captain’s Diary,  with Konrad Marshall, p/b, Richmond, Hardie Grant  Books, 2021

Max Gawn Captain’s Diary

This is a book that could only be enjoyed by long-suffering supporters of the Melbourne Australian Rules Football club who have been waiting 57 years for another Melbourne Demons Premiership Cup.

Max Gawn is an experienced and effective media personality who has many fans including from other clubs through his wise, accessible and thoughtful commentary on football and life in general.  This book includes a game by game analysis of the 2021 season which was remarkable for the complexity of match times and places forced upon the AFL by the nation wide impact of COVID 19.

Without unnecessary boring detail Gawn manages to highlight events, players, flight complexities, matches interrupted by lightning, players and and coaches interactions and the tensions mounting into the Finals series.   Gawn is honest about his own doubts and challenges as Captain and the pressure of the leadership role.  The book highlights the complexities of an elite professional  club life with all the ups and downs, the need for teamwork combined with the drama of game selections, the injuries and the talented players who miss out in a team studded with outstanding players at the peak of their careers. 

As a supporter who was beginning to think that another premiership would not happen in his lifetime, you can imagine that I devoured this book in record time!  4 stars.

William Gaunt,   The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, h/b, London, Folio Society, 2017 

William Gaunt
The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy

C20th artist and art historian William Gaunt has produced an exceptionally thorough analysis of the C19th Pre-Raphaelite art movement. The movement commenced as an alternative to the Royal Academy for outstanding artists which this group regarded as out of touch, stuffy, upper class and too wedded to the “Grand manner’ of Italian art, of Raphael and the C16th and C17th. 

The original seven members of the “Brotherhood” were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, his brother William Michael Rosetti, James Collinson, Frederick George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. Their ideal female model was a beautiful young girl of eighteen, Lizzie Siddal whom Rosetti eventually married.  Friends and unofficial associates of the brotherhood were Ford Madox Brown, Walter Deverell, Arthur Hughes and Charles Alston Collins.  

The ideals and ideas to which they were dedicated were complex and varied but centred on the Romantic Spirit of the past and a focus on unsophisticated nature. Gaunt notes it was linked with Romantic Poetry, with the Arthurian legend,  with the Gothic and religious Revival, with the reactions against the Industrial Revolution; with Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, Pugin and Pusey, the anti-Victorian thinkers Ruskin and Carlyle, though with the Italian masters of the later Middle Ages, who provided its name, it had very little to do. They were all lacking resources except Rosetti and were living on the edge. 

The Fellowship fell apart almost as soon as it was created. Hunt had a passion for the East and for Jerusalem and conversion of the masses to the Christian faith through art. He spent most of his time in Jerusalem. Woolner sailed off to Australia to join the gold rush. Mlllais dabbled with the Pre-Raphaelite spirit but quickly returned to where the safe money was and after several stops and starts became Britain’s favourite artist of the late C19th and eventually the President of the Royal Academy just prior to his death. Italian/British Rosetti was quixotic, dominating and outlandish, with new passions constantly forming and his outrageous life style was too much for some. 

The second revival of the “Brotherhood” was sparked by the complex and wealthy Oxford art critic and polymath John Ruskin who poured money and influence into the group and brought others in. Key figures in the second Pre-Raphaelite phase were Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and Ford Madox Brown. All of these remarkably able and talented artists and craftsmen were to have a vast and lasting influence on the English Anglican Gothic Revival, on design craftmanship and furniture making, on philosophy for the common man and freedom in art. 

The complex and ever-changing history of this group is elegantly told by Gaunt and becomes a picture of changing Britain in the second half of the C19th and the early C20th. Undoubtedly the key figures are Rosetti and William Morris whose beautiful  wife Jane maintained a ménage à trois with Rosetti for two years in their joint home at Kelmscott,  but Gaunt also manages to keep us informed of the activities of Hunt, Millais, Burn-Jones and many other acolytes.

Having spent considerable time in the UK tracking down Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Morris’s Red House in Kent and the little church and eccentric house and burial place of William and Jane Morris at Kelmscott, I could not put this book down. The Folio edition is of course beautifully illustrated with many lavish full page coloured productions of relevant works of art. Five stars. 

Books read November 2021

Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern  Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Foreword, Rod Dreher, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway, 2020 (425pp.)

Carl Trueman
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

This is a demanding and challenging read covering some of the same ground as Charles Taylor, A Secular Age and Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Trueman’s  title uses the term expressive individualism and by this term Trueman means how we in the “West” have come to identify ourselves. He is referring to the chaos of identity politics (p25);and makes the point that ‘we are all expressive individuals now.’ Just as some choose to identify themselves by their sexual orientation, so the religious person chooses to be a Christian or a Muslim.. (or some other faith or orientation). 

Trueman describes the key ‘move’ of the modern self as, ‘…a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology –  we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’ – for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is.’  (p. 23)

As we attempt to stay afloat in our cultural soup – potently seasoned with more than a pinch of ‘cultural amnesia,’ ladled with large dollops of ‘expressive Individualism’; and crowned with powerful aromas which have been infused by the ‘sexual revolution’ (so-called) – Trueman argues that each one of us is confronted with a question of vital philosophical, theological; and therefore ethical urgency:  ‘Is happiness found in directing oneself outward or inward?…The answer I give speaks eloquently of what I consider the purpose of life and the meaning of happiness. In sum it is indicative of how I think of my self.’ (p.23)

Regarding the ‘revolution’;  and in anticipation of his far-reaching historical survey; Trueman adds:  

‘ The sexual revolution did not cause the sexual revolution, nor did technology such as the pill or the internet. Those things may have facilitated it, but its causes lie much deeper, in the changes in what it meant to be an authentic, fulfilled human self. And those changes stretch back well before the Swinging Sixties.’(p.23) 

Outline in brief

The format of the book consists firstly of a historical account of how such a cultural revolution has occurred in the West using in particular the rather arcane writings of Philip Rieff and the more accessible work of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.  In the simplest terms he suggests that Western civilization has advanced in four stages from practical man, through to religious man, economic man and into our current stage, psychological man (or, consumer/plastic man who can make or remake her personality at will.)

Trueman begins with three ruling ideas:

  1. The vast and unstoppable advance of technological invention.
  2. There is no golden age that was better than the present so stop pining for the past.
  3. When critiquing opponents, give their argument full weight. There is no value in refuting a straw man. 

Following chapters on reimagining the Self and reimagining our culture, Trueman moves to a more detailed analysis of the key historical players in this story of the progession to psychological man. These helpful chapters adumbrate the major impact made by, in order, Jean-Jaques Rousseau; The Romantic poets especially Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake; Nietsche, Marx and Darwin; Sigmund Freud and finally The New Left and the Politicization ofSex with a nod to Foucault and his epigones and incomprehensible imitators. There are further chapters on The triumph of the Erotic, The triumph of the Therapeutic and The triumph of the T (Trans). The book finishes with a Concluding Unscientific Prologue with some suggestions for a way forward for Christian believers. 

This book creates an understandable pathway through the current labyrinth of our dominant Western culture.  It is well worth the effort (5 stars)

Trueman Glossary

Some key questions discussed in this book include (p.102): How is the self to be understood; how ethical discourse operates; how tradition and history are valued; and how cultural elites understand the culture and purpose of art. 

Key terminology to be mastered when reading the book includes:

The social imaginarythe way people think about the world enabling a widely shared sense of legitimacy. 

‘Deathworks’  (Rieff) …an all out assault on something vital to the established culture. (cf Freud: culture is constituted by those things that it forbids). A deathwork, by contrast, represents an attack on established cultural art forms in a manner designed to undo the deeper moral structure of society.

Mimesis …having a given meaning

Poiesis ….meaning is constructed by the individual

Emotivism: to say that something is good is in reality merely to express a personal emotive preference…this leads to moral relativism. (McIntyre), p121. (Emotivism proves that the other side is wrong). The agreed rational basis for debate is gone. All that is left is emotional preference. (p377)

Sittlichkeit: The moral obligations I have to be a member of an ongoing community of which I am a part. (p62)

Key ideas of Trueman’s work include:

* Why is it important that  identity be publicly acknowledged?

* The importance and nature of the self.

* Pejorative racial or sexual epithets are not a trivial matter. (p55)

* The fact that identity recognition has moved from tolerance to equality (mere toleration would cause psychological harm). (p54)

* The power of elites in Western politics. (p54 fn)

* Satisfaction,  meaning and authenticity are now found by an inward turn, and the culture must be reconfigured to this end….I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety  and make me inauthentic. Traditional moral terms are now seen to be part of the problem and become deemed as hate speech. (p54)

the emergence of chronological snobbery  (p88)

* There is no universal criterion by which competing moral claims can be compared or assessed. (p161)

* The legalisation of the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of human life. (p.303)

* The assumption that the basic categories of modern identity politics are undeniable (p332)

The deliberate destruction and erasure of the past, not only its artifacts but also its practices producing cultural amnesia. (p337)

* The technical ability to manipulate biological realities (p35)

* Woke capitalism…the economic significance of pornography sits at least at $6 billion annually for the US economy. (p271)

* Enlightenment individualism has ceased to be a tool of human emancipation and is displaying increasingly oppressive aspects. (p274)

  • The goal of critical theory is to destabilize the dominant Western narrative of truth (p226) (, post colonialism, critical race theory, the sexualisation of children, the politicising of sex.(p267). 
  • *The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. (p268)

* The assumption that the basic categories of modern identity politics are undeniable (p330)

* For campus protestors, free speech is simply a licence to oppress others with hateful language and arguments. (p337)

* The teaching of history is now dominated universities by advocates of critical theory and thus preoccupied with categories of power and marginalisation. (p332)

* Increasing government encroachment on the private sphere, both of the family and of the mind. (P.239)

  • The notion that political freedom is sexual freedom and that shattering sexual norms is a vital part of transforming society are now intuitive cultural orthodoxies. (p249f)

Martin Boyd: The Cardboard Crown, Intro: Dorothy Green, [Part 1 of the Langton Quartet], 

p/b, Ringwood, Penguin, 1984 (1952)

Martin Boyd
The Cardboard Crown

Novelist Martin Boyd was a member of an early and distinguished Anglo-Australian family of artists, potters, musicians and architects and on his mother’s side, a long line of judges, barristers and Victoria’s first Chief Justice. He was born as a British citizen in Switzerland but at six months old was brought to Australia where he grew up and was educated at Trinity Grammar School in Kew Melbourne. He fought in the trenches in World War 1 as part of  the British army and later served as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps at a time when the British were losing fifty pilots in training a day. His disillusionment with the horrors of war lead him to be a ferocious critic in books and letters of political leaders including Lloyd George, Baldwin and Churchill as well as newspaper tycoons and archbishops. After the war he returned to Australia and lived for many years in Harkaway, near Berwick in south east Melbourne.   He spent the last thirty years of his life in Europe and died in Rome, aged 72. 

The Langton Quartet of novels is loosely based on the Boyd extended family history and told with whimsical humour, elegant aesthetics and fascinating glimpses of early Australian society especially in the pre-Gold rush era although these stories are not to be understood as literal truth in every detail. The ‘cardboard crown’ was a much fought over toy played with and highly valued by the extended family children and the narrative aptly describes the varying fortunes of the wearer of the crown, Hetty, in the narrative. The key figures in The Cardboard Crown are his grandmother Alice and grandfather Austin, loosely based on William Callander à Beckett, a barrister and member of The Legislative Council, an able and energetic man with some eccentricities and his wife Emma Mills, a very beautiful and accomplished woman who brought great wealth into the family.

The novel describes with sensitivity and humour the travails, adventures and passions of this couple as they peregrinated between England and Australia and their fortunes rose and fell with the foundation of the new colony.  The description of early Victorian expansion away from Melbourne is fascinating and the contrast with Boyd’s treatment of Alice’s aesthetic awakening in Paris, Rome, Florence and southern France is captivating aided by the frisson of romance. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel although piecing together the various family members was demanding. I now have a thirst to find the other three stories in the Langton Quartet. 5 stars.

 Beowulf,  Edited, Translated,  Introduction  and Notes,  Michael Swanton, p/b, Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press, 1994 (1978)  

Michale Swanton

Eighth century Anglo-Saxon poem concerning the feats of the Geatish champion Beowulf, otherwise unknown to history, who came to the aid of the ageing King of the Geats, Hrothgar whose dwelling was the hall of Heorot during the last decades of the fifth century. The kingdom of the Geats lay in the south of modern Sweden, just north of the Jutes, Angles and Danes that occupied what is now northern Denmark. The sole surviving text of Beowulf is found in a late C10th manuscript of the British Library. It was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton and the manuscript is part of a composite volume containing an additional three short prose works. Michael Swanton is Emeritus Professor in Medieval Studies at the University of Exeter.

Although there are clearly fantastic themes and images in this poem, many of the persons named are known to history through other sources. Beowulf and his group of mighty thanes came by boat to aid the ageing Hrothgar, king of the Geats. Hrothgar was in despair as his kingdom was being literally devoured by a powerful demon monster named Grendel, a notorious prowler of the borderlands, who held the the wastelands, swamp and fastness. (line 95, p.39). This creature came at night and devoured at will the sleeping men of the hall of Heorot. Beowulf won a major victory by defeating Grendel in mortal combat.

Beowulf followed this up with the further destruction of Grendel’s mother, a woman, a she monster (line 1255) who dwelt in a vast and deep swamp covered in slimy water. She also came to devour the men of Heorot and she also fell to the might of Beowulf after a further powerful struggle. Beowulf was crowned king after these feats following the death of Hrothgar and ruled the Geats valiantly and successfully for fifty years until a fire-breathing dragon appeared in the neighbourhood guarding a fabulous horde of golden jewels and partial to human flesh.

Once again Beowulf strove to battle and, with the aid of just one of his men, the brave Wiglaf, they managed to survive the fiery ordeal and slay the dragon. Nevertheless Beowulf sustained a mortal wound in the contest and died beside the weeping Wiglaf who berated his cowardly cohort who were afraid to enter the battle.  The poem finishes with the sorrowful burial of the mighty and beloved Beowulf. 

This fine edition with excellent introduction, maps, notes and a glossary of names makes for a relatively easy read although the various side stories that slip into the narrative can be confusing even with the helps.  The C8th Anglo-Saxon version sits side by side on each double page with a modern English translation so if one is keen enough a little Anglo-Saxon comes into the light with practice although I have to say it is a great deal more difficult than Chaucer’s English! 

Tolkien lovers will be fascinated by many of the themes emerging from Beowulf including the importance of the bestowal of rings of power, the importance of historic swords and blades,  the fearful fiends, dragons and monsters emerging from darkness as well as the commitment to Christian faith and trust in God which emerges in several places. 

Reading Beowulf we step back in time to a dark world in North Western Europe which suddenly springs to life and reality through the unknown poet’s skilful hand. Even in translation the power and tension emerges and excites the imagination. This is an exceptional gift that has come down to us saved from the ravages of time and obscurity.   5 stars

John O’Donohue: Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, h/b, London, Bantam,   1998

John O’Donohue
Anam Cara

John O’Donohue was an Irish Catholic priest who renounced his priesthood just two days prior to his unexpected death while he slept in January 2008. He was a multi-lingual writer who could speak and write in Celtic, English and German languages and no doubt make himself understood in several others. His doctoral thesis, written in German, was based on the philosophy of Hegel. 

Anam Cara is the Celtic term for “soul friend” and his book of the same name has become a popular spiritual text for many people around the world.  The books consists of reflections by the author on various significant Celtic themes including the mystery of friendship, a spirituality of the senses, the luminous nature of solitude, the value of work as a “poetics of growth”, the spirituality of ageing, and reflections on death as well as life after death. 

O’Donohue includes a number of blessings in this text including some ancient Celtic blessings as well as a number of blessings of a Celtic character but written by himself. In addition to insights from Celtic spirituality O’Donohue also references quotations from a vast number of ancient and recent philosophers, musicians,  poets, artists and writers too numerous to mention. They vary from Heidegger and James Joyce to Pablo Neruda, Kathlene Raine, Rodin, R S Thomas, Haydn, Nietzsche, Yeats, Paul Murray and many others.

There is much that is thought provoking in this work. It is not a book to be read in a day or two but rather a set of thoughts to be contemplated, thought through, discussed with others, and then read again.  A number of discussion and spiritual growth groups have been created around the world with Anam Cara as the basic starting point. O’Donohue’s reflections on what happens after we die are very forthright and quite precise and leave the reader wondering “how does John O’Donohue know this?”

I had a mixed reaction to this book.  I have read a several reflections on Celtic spirituality including Esther de Waal’s Selections from the Carmina Gadelica and Ray Simpson’s Celtic Daily LIght: A Spiritual Journey through the Year,  which was a compilation of Celtic reflections on Scripture. I suppose I came to Anam Cara thinking it would be a similar experience. John O’Donohue’s writing is quite different. Although he references many Gaelic ideas and traditions his reach is far wider and as noted above he references a very broad range of theological, philosophical and spiritual ideas. Many of these are helpful, some are provocative and others are an excellent basis for meditation. This is a book to inspire but also to challenge and I suspect in some places, to disagree with. 4 stars.

Books read October 2021

Greg Sheridan: Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2021 

Greg Sheridan

Greg Sheridan’s second book on Christianity follows up on his  2018 success with God is Good For You.  Christians is a book of two quitdifferent parts.  Part 1 contains a re-reading of the New Testament account of the life and activities of Jesus with a spirited defence of the historicity of the New Testament. Relying on recently published work by John Dickson, Is Jesus History? and Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eye Witnesses, along with other recent scholars, Sheridan argues a coherent and well documented defence of the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus life. 

Greg Sheridan: Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in our World

This defence includes a rebuttal of the mid-C20th liberal and rather tired theological narrative regarding the late dating and general unreliability of the New Testament documents. Part 1 also contains useful and energising chapters on the life of Mary, the doctrine of angels and the life of Paul the apostle whom Sheridan describes as  “Christ’s Lenin” in terms of his impact on the growth of Christianity.  What immediately comes across to the reader is Sheridan’s excitement about his faith, about the Bible and about the impact of Jesus on the lives of the people he writes about. 

Sheridan provides I believe a realistic case that disbelief in the story of Jesus cannot be based on historical data. The literary, archaeological and historical data is simply too strong. On the other hand Sheridan reminds readers that Christians must be clear about the limits of historical evidence. History certainly does not prove that Jesus was God and that he rose from the dead.

(p.15).  His conclusion is that It is reasonable to believe in God and reasonable not to believe in God.  At the same time Sheridan rightly takes aim at the idea, often supported in the daily media, that science has taken a stance against God. He concludes this is profoundly and extravagantly untrue. (p15).  In this introduction he concludes, I think rightly, that Most of the things we believe in life are reasonable but not proven. (p.15)

Sheridan spends some time on the fact that it is only the developed Western world (USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand) that has given up on Christianity. He notes that Christianity is an increasingly  powerful  influence on the lives of millions in Asia, including China,  South America and Africa and sadly proclaims that The West is a culture willing itself into amnesia and ignorance! (p.40). Noting that Australian culture has become more credulous about everything but Christianity (p.40), Sheridan quotes Chesterton’s observation that when you stop believing in Christianity you don’t believe in nothing, you believe in everything! (p203) In relation to the age old problem of evil and pain, Sheridan argues that Christian faith gives us a way of dealing with the pain that is an inevitable part of life. (p112).

Part 2 of this book is entitled “Christians and their New Worlds” and here Sheridan talks about “smuggling Christ into popular culture.”  (p.171) He covers writers who embed Christian faith in their work like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings alongside Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Dostoyevski amongst others. Sheridan also notes television productions like Jane the Virgin about American Latino Christian values and morality and the American cop show Blue Bloods which has a Catholic New York police chief as its hero.

The remainder of part 2 provides backgrounded accounts of some remarkable Australian Christians of many denominations who have literally changed the lives of thousands of others through their activities governed by their faith. These include missionaries, business leaders, politicians, army officers, Chinese Christian leaders, and one or two archbishops. 

This book is a substantial read and you have to stay with it.  Sheridan is a major public figure in Australian media and indeed world wide. His authority in the area of international relations is beyond dispute. For him to “come out” with his life long faith in Christ was a big step, I am sure, for him. But  this book is also impossible to put down due to Sheridan’s breezy and personal style.  He is excited about his faith and he calls us to be excited about ours.  5 stars!

Louis Stone: Jonah, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2013 (1911).  

English born but living in Australia from age 13 Louis Stone lived in Redfern and Waterloo in working class Sydney before qualifying as a school teacher and achieving some success as a writer, with Jonah being his major success.

Louis Stone

Louis Stone: Jonah

Jonah is a novel in two parts. Part One, entitled Larrikins All, describes street life in turn of the century inner-city Sydney in  working class suburbs where unskilled workers lived in run down housing with poverty close at hand and little for young men to do but lounge around the streets getting into trouble with street gangs, the police and alcohol. 

Jonah is the central character of the novel and the leader of The Push…the local group of toughs who ruled Botany Road and Cardigan Street. Jonah was a hunchback, deformed from birth but had the toughness and leadership skills to keep the group of twenty or so larrikins under control aided by his faithful and equally tough deputy known as Chook. Part 1 describes their aimless and poverty stricken lives mostly spent in part time jobs and pubs and looking for trouble on the streets at night as well as chasing girl friends. 

There is a vitality and mate ship in the description of their loyalty to each other, amidst poverty, hopelessness, danger and bravado.

Part Two, entitled The Sign of the Shoe, describes the attempt of both Jonah and Chook to raise themselves out of the poverty and violence and achieve something with their lives. In part this is due to the women in their lives but also the leadership skills that gave them authority in gangland also came to the fore when opportunity for work and girlfriends intruded on their consciousness. Jonah in particular rises to significant heights with his business acumen and determination but has to deal with the handicap of a feckless and lazy wife with no maternal instincts whatsoever.

The novel moves along at an engaging pace and the author manages to maintain our interest in characters that do not initially show much promise at all. Surprising twists and turns keep the reader on tip toe and make the novel hard to put down. This novel, written in 1911, still has much to say what really matters in a life lived in a worthwhile manner, whatever the circumstances.

5 stars. 

Sebastian Schütze,  Caravaggio: The  Complete Works, Trans. Karen  Williams, h/b, Cologne, Taschen, 2000

Sebastian Schütze: Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio revolutionised Western art in the C16th and early C17th.  His startling and powerful and very human representation of human portraits and events, many of religious religious themes for ecclesiastical patrons have the power to touch us even more today than when he began his work. Critic Roger Fry describes him as the first modern artist, the first artist to proceed not by evolution but by revolution. (p.314)as

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Schütze has five detailed chapters describing Caravaggio’s  early work in Lombardy, early and later work in Rome, his late oeuvre in southern Italy: Naples-Malta-Sicily and a final epilogue entitled Reflections and Refractions.  These chapters are complemented by richly presented full scale paintings including a number of fascinating enlargements demonstrating his ground-breaking naturalism. There follows a complete and detailed catalogue of all Caravaggio’s works with commentary, photographs and bibliography of each painting including autographs, copies and attributed works.

The art world was late in recognising the ground breaking importance of Caravaggio’s work and information about him is hard to find. The first major exhibition of his work was not held until 1951. He left no personal testimony about his work and no letters from him have ever surfaced.  In addition many modern biographers have focussed on details of his controversial personal life to the detriment of an understanding of his formidable contribution to naturalism in his painting.

In May 1606 the painter inflicted a mortal wound upon Ranuccio Tomassini in a fight and had to flee Rome to Naples, Malta, Syracuse, Messina, Palermo and back to Naples and finally dying in Porto Ercole in mysterious circumstances on his way to Rome to receive a pardon from the Pope. This book is not about these events but about the paintings. For this reason Schütze has focussed on Caravaggio’s early biographers for his analysis (Mancini, Baglione and Bellori)  rather than modern accounts based on very limited evidence of the reality of his personal life.

The energy, humanity and story in these paintings have been for me a long time passion. Ann and I tracked down Caravaggio’s work in churches and galleries in Rome, Malta and galleries around the world. In my view there is no one who communicates the passion, delicacy and power of human and divine stories and events better than Caravaggio. Schütze’s work and the excellent translation by Karen Williams have created a detailed and captivating analysis in a book which is itself a work of art.  5 stars.

Alison Weir: Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’, p/b, London, Jonathan Cape, 2011.  

Alison Weir

Alison Weir: Mary Boleyn.

Mary Boleyn was the elder sister of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry V111.  Information about Mary Boleyn is very scanty indeed and the result is that “historians” and other would be biographers and novelists have made up much of their own material to fill the gap not provided by the extant evidence.   The vast majority of Alison Weir’s footnotes in this study are made up of rebuttals of assertions made by a lengthy array of would be commentators who have made assertions that have no historical back up or a simply in error.  

Thus the slander that the young Mary Boleyn, in 1516  a lady in waiting to Mary Tudor, had a brief affair with King François of France dates from more than twenty years later. It was made by Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza, the Papal Nuncio in Paris, who wrote that the French king knew her here in France “per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte” (“for a very great whore, and infamous above all”).  This statement was of course aimed at further discrediting Henry V111’s decision to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to separate the English crown and nation from papal rule. 

Like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, the facts that are available show that Mary Boleyn was “more sinnned against than sinning”. Weir demonstrates that while it may well be true that Mary Boleyn was for a brief time the mistress of both Francois 1,  and later for a brief time maybe the mistress of Henry V111,  in both cases, if this is true, the young girl had little power to avoid both situations. Weir argues that both situations did occur and that probably Mary Boleyn’s youngest child Katherine was the result of her affair with Henry V111 although this again cannot be proven.

Mary Boleyn married twice for love and her son Henry Carey (Baron Hunsdon) rose in stature to become a favourite of Elizabeth 1, eventually buried with significant pomp and grandeur in an extraordinary tomb in Westminster Abbey.  She lived quietly and at times in some poverty and avoided the scandals which brought about the downfall of her more illustrious sister Anne. Although adhering fiercely only to known historical data this meticulous analysis, together with sumptuous photographs of paintings of the key players, make for compelling reading. The reader begins to feel immersed in the tumultuous reign of the Tudor monarchs. Five stars.


Brigitte HIntzen-Bohlen & Jürgen Sorges, Rome and the Vatican City: Art and Architecture, Trans. Peter Barton, Anthea Bell and Eileen Martin, h/b, Cologne, Könemann, 2005 

Exceptional presentation of the art and architecture of Rome from its earliest foundation to the present day. Outstanding analysis of the earliest architectural remains and beautifully illustrated presentation of every major building and interior masterpieces. There are about 1000 churches in Rome and obviously not all can be covered. The major churches are here with detailed photography and excellent analysis of their history. Jürgen Sorges’ helpful historical essays include brief histories of the Roman emperors and kings, gladiatorial combat and the persecution of Christians, the mythical origins of Rome,  Ancient wall coverings and murals, the Gods of the Roman pantheon, the legacy of Rome , the sack of Rome in 1527, the influence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Rome in the second millenium AD, the life and art of Caravaggio, the studios of the  Roman copyists, The Renaissance and the rebuilding of Rome, Mosaics,  the megalomania of the Roman emperors, the cult of Mithras, women in ancient Rome, Chariot racing in the Circus Maximus, the art of the Cosmati, the Bath culture of ancient Rome, early Christianity, the first antique collections of Rome, the Vatican State, the Swiss Guard, the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican gardens.   There are excepional appendices with detailed analysis of Roman architecture:Classical to Baroque, a masterful chronology of events/figures/buildings/art,  a helpful glossary of terms and details of the major figures of Rome’s colourful history. All of this is wrapped in the outstanding full colour quality of this fabulous Könemann series. The eternal city is a most complex place. This is the book to unravel it.  5 stars and rising.

Gillian Mears: Foal’s Bread, p/b, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2012

Gillian Mears

Gillian Mears landed a powerful and deeply moving novel of pre world war 2  rural Australian life in outback northern New South Wales, some sixteen years after her previous run of six well regarded and prize winning novels. I have read only one of her novels previously, The Mint Lawn, which was disturbing in its turn. I was  thoroughly captivated by this three generation story based around a sport I was completely unaware of …horse high jumping. This bizarre and dangerous sport that was popular in the Northern New South Wales/Southern Queensland region is brought to life in vivid and stimulating fashion in Mears’ emotionally charged writing.  The mysterious “foal’s bread” of the title appears to be a small separate piece of tissue which comes in the afterbirth of some foals and is highly regarded as an omen of good luck.

In a scene unfortunately too common in remote farming communities and families from my experience as a rural school principal, the startling commencement of the novel begins with a rush.   A young teenager gives birth after childhood incestual assault from ‘Uncle Nipper,  and bravely “boxing up” the child in a butter box, sets the baby free, Moses like, in a flowing creek, never to be seen alive again. This event sets the scene for a constant sense of threat throughout the novel. 

The young girl with the unlikely name of Noah is the strong-willed and powerful lead player amongst a cast of memorable country figures, not least of which is her eventual daughter Rainey. Their entwined lives, both triumphant and traumatic carry the weight of a novel which refuses to let the reader go, each passage forcing the reader anxiously on to the dénouement. The novel also bears witness to the cruel power of polio disease prior to the development of the oral polio vaccine. 

Images emerging from this novel will stay with me for some time I am sure. The evocation of the constant pressure of farming life, drought, flood, country town celebration and the silent Australian bush are all beautifully drawn my Mears.  A worthy prize winner in 2012.  5 stars.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, Trans. & Intro: John  Sturrock, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1921-2) 

In Search of Lost Time

Volume 4 of French author Marcel Proust’s seven volume In Search of Lost Time, finds the narrator coming to terms for the first time and with some surprise, with homosexuality. Part 1 of Volume 4 is summarized as “First appearance of the men-women, descendants of those inhabitants of Sodom who were spared by the fire from heaven.”  The Narrator is amazed to find that M. de Charlus,  the busy, arrogant, learned, well married, committed Christian, well born member of the Guermantes family was also overwhelmingly consumed by his love for attractive young men whom he pursues in this volume with unflagging energy. His partners include the doorman of the Guermantes household, Jupien but his main love interest is the violinist military man Morel who is happy to maintain the relationship on financial grounds while being dishonestly unfathful in his relationships.

Alongside this relationship narrative with some very humorous interludes, the Narrator travels once more for the summer to the tranquil fictional  beach resort of Balbec where he restablishes in a serious manner his relationship with the mysterious Albertine and in whose company the majority of the narrative is maintained in this volume.  Together they negotiate their, at times, shaky relationship and at the same time join in the Balbec version of ‘society’ which in this rural environment consists of a regular luncheon party headed  by Madame Verdurin, a salon which in Paris was well beneath the narrator’s class but in Balbec was satisfactory. The Verdurins had hired a property from the truly aristocratic Cambremers who had two dwellings in Balbec. Much of the humour of this volume comes from the tension between these two families and those who are enticed to dine in either of the homes. Key figures who emerge here are Dr Cottard with his arrogant medical authority, the violinist Morel, the Narrator’s friend Saint Loupe, and the indefatigable Brichot who is a walking encyclopedia of the derivation of every village, town and settlement in the whole of Europe. 

The very short final chapter 4 commences with the Narrator’s detemination to end his relationship with Albertine and ends with his declaration that “I absolutely must marry Albertine.’ (Much to the reader’s surprise.).

This edtion is part of the six volume collection published by Penguin in 2002 which contains an outstanding and invaluable set of detailed explanatory notes and a very helpful translator’s introduction.  I found this volume easier to read than the interminably trivial salon discussions of Volume 3.   4 stars. 



Graham A Cole: He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, h/b, Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2007  

GRAHAM COLE He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Graham Cole’s impressive book about the Holy Spirit is part of the American Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series.  Although Cole writes from an evangelical perspective he gives a generous account of writers coming from  Roman Catholic, liberal and even Islamic perspectives. This is not a book for beginners in theology. The language is sophisticated, Latin phrases are not always transliterated, the concepts are at times quite difficult, and Cole’s background in philosophy as well as theology means that his explanations of concepts and ideas use philosophical terminology (although usually with explanatory footnotes).

A reader used to reading theology will still find this work challenging and surprising. Long held ideas may well be shown to need further work. Cole is generous with his opponents and gives them a very fair hearing, but then goes on to show why he disagrees. A form of words that he uses more than once about various confident assertions of theologians and writers about the Holy Spirit is “How does [author’s name] know this? This all takes time and effort on the part of the reader and the footnotes are copious and detailed. 

After a demanding introduction Cole deals with:

  • the elusiveness of the Spirit … The Spirit and the Triune God including detailed discussion about the Filoque clause and interpretative ideas from Basil of Caesarea, Augustine and Richard of St Victor. (the Filioque clause from the Nicene Creed is that The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christianity believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only.) Cole suggests it should read: The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son!
  • Old Testament perspectives on the Ministry of the Spirit
  • The Spirit and Israel
  • The Spirit and the hope of Israel  (note: this makes 3 significant chapters on Old Testament material!)
  • New Testament perspectives on the Ministry of the Spirit
  • The Spirit, The Church, and the Hope of Glory
  • The Spirit and ideas about the ‘Deification’ of the Spirit
  • Implications for Christian belief and practice including “What is Jesus doing now?” and “The Individual believer and the Fullness of the Spirit”
  • Are all of the Gifts of the Spirit for Today?
  • Speaking in Tongues
  • The Spirit and Knowing God   and 
  • Discerning the Spirit: Implications for Belief and Practice.
  •   “The Magnificence of Divine Selflessness”  (which is a summary and pulling together of the whole book.)

The book comes with a very helpful theological glossary; Suggestions for further reading; and Scripture and General indexes.

Some ideas that impressed or challenged me:

p.23   There is no higher pursuit than the worship of God

p.24  A high view of Scripture requires a respectful hermeneutic

p.24  Scripture is to interpret Scripture, Scripture is not to be interpreted against Scripture, and the plain Scripture is to interpret the obscure Scripture.

p24 fn3 …At times, however, the conservative Christian appears to read the daily newspaper with more sophistication than the Scriptures.

p.25  It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word. [Bonhoeffer] 

p.33 Systematic theology requires (i) The narrative of Scripture must be given its due weight, and (ii) both the writer will need to write and the reader will need to read intentionally coram Deo (before God).

p.33  “If you are a theologian, you truly pray. if you truly pray, you are a theologian.”  (Evagrius Pontus).

p.33 “Christian theology begins, continues and ends with the inexhaustible mystery of God,” (Daniel L. Migliore).

p.33 “Any sound theology of the Holy Spirit..will be left with a certain remainder, a surplus unaccounted for, an area of mystery.”  (Richard B. Gaffin).

p.36 Theology must not be left unapplied.

p.41.  An evangelical —albeit controversially so—theologian. (re Clark H. Pinnock).

p. 44 The gracious  and merciful God is also the judge of his people.

p.45 God is to be believed and obeyed.  Moses is not Plato with a Hebrew voice.

p.45 “Theology states this [the greatness of God] by describing him as incomprehensible—not in the sense that logic is somehow different from what it is for us, so that we cannot follow the working of his mind at all, but in the sense that we can never understand him fully, just because he is infinite and we are finite. [J I Packer].

p.45  Upholding the mystery of God or the incomprehensibility of God should keep idolatry at bay….Calvin: “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of gods.” (Institutes)

p.46 The God of biblical depiction is untameable. There is no one like him.

p. 49  Barth argued that “The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from humanity.” Only God can make God known, and he does so in Jesus Christ.

p.50 God cannot be domesticated  and there are limits to our conceptualizing God.

p.50 “The Trinity can be stated in paradoxical and symbolic language, but it cannot be resolved into a rational system.” Donald Bloesch

p51  “Divine revelation does not completely erase God’s transcendant mystery, inasmuch as God the revealer transcends his own revelation. Carl F. H. Henry.

p52  Believing that God is mysterious in the sense of incomprehensible has a number of practical corollaries. At the attitudinal level, humility is the appropriate virtue. 

p.60 Immanuel Kant has nothing good to say about the concept of the Trinity. Writing at the height of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, he argued: “The doctrine of the Trinity, taking literally, has no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it; and it is even more clearly irrelevant if we realise it transcends all our concepts. “

p.61 “….it is the doctrine of the Trinity that makes the doctrine of God actually Christian. “  (Brevard Childs)

p.62 What a culture teaches its young is the true index of what it values.

p.64 Re the trinity: …the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. [B. B. Warfield].

p. 75 Love may characterize a pair as in a marriage of a man and a woman, but the fullest love requires a third. The perfection of love requires sharing with a third. Richard of St Victor.

p.79  Count Zinzendorf: ..understood the Trinity in familial categories: the Father as “our true Father,” the Spirit as “our true Mother,” and the Son as “our true Brother.”

 p.81 fn81 “There are undoubtedly mysteries about him which none of us understands. But we must recognize that this doesn’t mean we know nothing about him whatever or that none of our claims, whether literal or figurative, are true. [Feinberg]

p.105  In the Old Testament references to the Spirit, are these texts about the Holy Spirit per se or about God the Spirit in action?

p109. In relation to the Old Testament: there is a “necessity of a multi-level reading of Scripture” (Childs)….we need a willingness to work with both historical exegesis and Christian theological interpretation. 

p.111 There is no Biblical warrant for Calvin’s idea of common grace.

p113 Re translating “Ruach” as ‘wind/breath’ or ‘Spirit’ there is a need for modesty about our claims.

p.152. Re C1st Judaism. The problem is that C1st Judaism was such a variegated phenomenon. Rabbinic Judaism …was only one of the kinds of Judaism present at the time.

p.162 What is evident is that Jesus’ public ministry, whether as preacher, healer, or exorcist, is not to be understood without reference to the Spirit of God. 

p.163 There are no references to the Holy Spirit in any of the accounts of the Transfiguration.   5 stars

Janet Morley: The Heart’s Time: A Poem a day for Lent and Easter, p/b, London, SPCK, 2011  

Janet Morley
The Heart’s Time

Janet Morley is a freelance writer, speaker and workshop leader and has put together this excellent selection of poems about a range of themes surrounding Christian faith. While it is designed around the weeks leading to Easter the poems and commentary can be read with profit at any time of the year. Ann and I have just finished using this collection for our daily morning devotion together and have found it to be a  stimulating, thoughtful and helpful start to each day.

The poems range widely in terms of authorship with classic works by George Herbert, Augustine, Christina Rossetti, Milton and William Blake mixed up with Emily Dickinson, R. S. Thomas, Margaret Atwood, E. E. Cummings, Rowan Williams, Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney to name just a few. Not all the writers are “Bible believing Christians” but every poem throws out a genuine spiritual challenge and rich food for thought, especially when teased out by a skilled commentator. 

Morley has also included a significant number of lesser known poets and these works encourage the reader to explore some less familiar spiritual challenges.   Each poem comes with thoughtful commentary and analysis, not too technical but always helpful and there is a single question at the end of each day to ponder and think or write about. Each week has a different theme and these are: turning aside to the miracle; expressing our longings; struggle; being where we are; facing suffering and death; altered perspectives; holy week; and resurrection.

Poetry is not everyone’s cup of tea and if you’re not generally a reader of poetry can I suggest this book is an excellent way to begin and be surprised. If you have lived with poetry all your life these presentations will remind you of treasures you haven’t read for a while as well as opening up challenging devotional thoughts from a new perspective.

In her introduction Morley reminds us that Poetry makes us slow down, (p. ix) and she quotes Nicholas Albery: 

To know a poem

by heart

is to slow down

to the heart’s time.’

If you find and read this book I am sure you will find an antidote to the irritation and loneliness of lockdown. I warmly commend it. 

Chinua Achebe: No Longer At Ease; African Writers Series;  Illustrated, Bruce  Onobrakpeya, p/b, London, Heinemann, 1967 (1960)  

Chinua Achebe
No Longer At Ease

A powerful and deeply moving novel of a young Nigerian student, Obi Okonkwo, who gains an academic  scholarship to study in England, obtaining a first class honours degree in English Literature and then returns to NIgeria as a Government public servant, on a good salary. Obi’s family are deeply Christian and his scholarship to England was provided by the village of Umuofia who had formed a union with the aim of collecting money to send their brightest and best to study in England. 

Obi of course returns to his village of a changed man, with a sophisticated love of English Literature, a strong sense of his own status and entitlement, and little desire to follow the dreams and vision of the Umuofia Union or his strict Christian parents especially in the area of whom he should marry. Obi readily obtains a job with a reasonable salary but he has repayments to make to the Union and there are financial expectations from his family and friends as well as some hefty Government taxes. With little experience in having anything like a regular salary Obi spends his money at a pace that far outweighs his means and inevitable trouble ensues. In addition he is attracted to a girl from a tribe ostracized by his Umuofia family. 

In emerging cultures engaging in an attempt to participate in the seemingly endless wealth of the first world there is a desire to assist one’s friends and family and to demonstrate with material things that one has “arrived” and has succeeded. It is not so much greed as it is a sense of obligations. The short answer of course is that the globe has never been able to afford the extremities of first world greed and neither can its newest rivals like China sustain unlimited growth and power. Achebe does not write about Obi to condemn him but to demonstrate that this young graduate, unprepared for the cultural “Western” explosion occurring in Africa in the mid-C20th and lost between his family’s Christian values and his own search for love, simply loses his way. 

Achebe writes with unerring clarity and tension as Obi’s life, love and family begin to unravel. He sees it happening but seems powerless to stem the tide of moral, family and job pressures in a rapidly changing Nigerian society bravely celebrating its  independence from colonial rule. Chinua Achebe, who died 2013 aged 82 is widely regarded at Nigeria’s finest writer and his success lead to an avalanche of African authors creating a new literary tradition.  Achebe was a major critic of the way European writers have written about and misunderstood African life and reality. He took particular aim at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and his case was well supported by Palestinian author and polymath Edward W. Said amongst many others. Whatever one’s view of Conrad, after reading Achebe, you can never see Heart of Darkness in quite the same way as before. 

No Longer At Ease is a thought provoking and emotionally demanding read and for Australian readers, inevitably invokes thoughts of Aboriginal writers and artists making their way in a highly Westernised society but one which is becoming increasingly multi-cultural and open to a broad range of world views.  5 stars.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, p/b, London, Pan, 1983 (1979)  

Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Radical atheist, sometime member of Monty Python, author, playwright, Dr Who script editor and producer, bodyguard, chicken shed cleaner, an Apple Master computer buff, an environmental activist and stage revue director amongst several other jobs. He was six foot five, married with one child and died at just 49 years of age after a heart attack.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first of a five book “trilogy” of life in the Galactic world.

I have read very little science fiction but I have always been attracted by the notion of the meaning of life being 42! I enjoyed reading this fast moving comic/sad story which seems to see the various planets of the universe as sharing many of the problems known to us on planet Earth. 

The result is a fast-moving, spit second life changing romp through space with the unlikely otherwise unremarkable Arthur Dent from Earth whisked away from our planet as a hitch-hiker on a spaceship just seconds before the destruction of our troubled world by Vogons building a new galactic superhighway. With fellow earthsider Trillian, and Galactic explorers Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beelblebrox plus the depressed robot Marvin, they find their way after many near misses to the mythical foundation planet of the universe named Magrathea, ruled by two busy mice. With this introduction, I am sure you can’t wait to read the story! The truth is that Adams has a brilliantly amusing turn of phrase, the book is quite short and it is surprisingly hard to put down. 5 stars. 

Richard Prideaux.