BOOKS READ DECEMBER 2019

William Styron: Sophie’s Choice, p/b, London, Vintage, 2000 (1979)

This is an epic, perhaps overlong novel in many parts.  In the first instance it is a novel about the unsuccessful and almost humorous search to lose his virginity by a 22 year old impecunious literature student and would be writer from Virginia, but living in New York. These sections throughout the book are tedious, dismal, voyeuristic,  unnecessarily specific and coarse as well as being exhausting to read. 

In the second instance it is a tale of an ultimately doomed love affair between the  beautiful and exotic Polish holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowksa and highly intelligent but fundamentally flawed and paranoid schizophrenic New Yorker Nathan Landau. This account is frightening, instructive and attention gripping and provides the emotional centre of the novel.

Thirdly, through sometimes awkwardly introduced through flash backs from Sophie, the novel is a compelling reminder of the ferocious determination of pathologically minded Nazi leaders to completely exterminate the European Jewish community as well as their vast pogroms against Slavic peoples, Russians, the Polish nation and any one weak or ill or old and unfit for work in the nations conquered by soldiers fo the third reich.  Although this section has been criticised for treating the holocaust as a general statement of the evil deeply inherent in humanity and playing down antisemitism by Christians, as well as implying that Southern American slavery was relatively not such a bad thing at all.,   it nevertheless provides a horrific reminder of the horror and genocide of the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Sophie’s choice was to decide which of her children was to be murdered immediately on arrival at Auschwitz. Styron admits that this section is autobiographical of his time in Brooklyn when he met a holocaust survivor. This is a horrifying scene, magnified with exceptional emotional power by Meryl Streep in the film version.

Fourthly Styron provides us with a running commentary throughout the novel of the style and importance of a vast array of C19th and C20th American and European writers and poets and their characteristics and strengths. This preoccupation with styles of writing quickly begins to feel like a manual of how to write the great American novel. Many of the writers he mentions are little known today and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Styron is showing off his grasp of the last two centuries of American and European literature.

Putting all these components together results in an uneasy mix in my view. The reader needs a strong sense of determination to see this novel through. Having said this, once read, there are many shattering and frightening and powerful images which will remain in the reader’s consciousness for a long time indeed. 3 stars.

Lord Michele de Montaigne, Knight,  The Essayes or Moral, Politike and Militarie Dicourses: The Third Book, h/b, Folio, London,  2006 (1588).

MONTAIGNE

The third and final book of  Lord Montaigne, C16th  French Knight, “one of the gentlemen In Ordinary of the French King Henry”, philosopher and arguably the world’s first essayist, was written eight years after his  first two books and written at a time when Montaigne seems very aware of his increasing age…it seemeth, custom alloweth old age more liberty to babbel,and indiscretion to talke of its selfe.  The essays in this book are much longer than those in Books 1 and 2 with the exception of An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde in Book 2 which is very long indeed. Nevertheless the contents of the thirteen essays still stray well beyond their the topics of their titles. It seems possible to detect a deeper sense of self-analysis in this last book and a degree of defensiveness about the way Montaigne conducted his public life prior to retiring to his private estate to read and write.

The topics are as varied and vibrant as the first two books with perhaps fewer military chapters and towards the end, fewer quotations from Greek and Latin ancient philosophers and writers. There are chapters on profit and honesty, repenting, commerces or societies which includes interesting comments on poetry and books and  diversions in conversation.  An amazing fifth chapter entitled Upon Some Verses in Virgil, begins with a lively interaction with early Greek and Roman philosophers but eventually leads to an outrageous and lengthy discussion of sexuality which is frequently R-rated and would certainly outrage C20th feminists although more likely to be  appreciated by the morality of the C21st.  This highlight is followed by discussions about coaches, greatness, conferring and conferences, vanity, the writing of wills, and of the lame or cripple, of human character, nature and appearance.

 The final chapter, entitled “Of Experience”  is the most personal and private one of all which includes  diatribes against several professions including lawyers, doctors, against having too many books! against judges, against having an oversupply of  laws, against ignorance and lack of curiosity, against self-conceit, and in favour of learning, goodwill and boldness. There are  excruciating details of Montaigne’s habits, health, diet, toilet habits, illnesses, and an analysis of positive and negative attitudes to death.  Bloom, who rates Montaigne at the highest level in his Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, (2002) writes about this chapter: I cannot think of another essay, in the tradition that reaches from Montaigne to Freud, that so profoundly searches out the metaphysics of self, and that so persuasively urges us to accept necessity. (0.45)

Throughout the whole of Book 3   Montaigne’s hero and mentor is Socrates with Plato a poor second who suffers by comparison with Socrates whom Montaigne calls “the wisest man that ever was”.

I found it a huge challenge to read the three quite large books which make up Montaigne’s Essays especially in the 1603 English translation of John Florio which is effectively Shakespearian English. On the other hand there is impressive wisdom and insight in Montaigne which I am glad I have been able to ponder. I think he deserves his place in the higher echelons of Bloom’s list of 100 geniuses although the extraordinary length and minute detail of Montaigne’s self-analysis of his own character I think we could have had less of. 

Regarding the wisdom and clear thinking of Montaigne I attach some examples below:

p13: When an urgent circumstance, or any violent and unexpected accident, induceth a Prince for the necessitie of his estate, or as they say for state matters, to breake his worde and faith, or otherwise to forceth him out of his ordinary duty, he is to ascribe that necessity unto a lash of God’s rod: It is no vice, for hee hath quit his reason, unto a reason more publike, and more powerfull,but surely ’tis ill fortune….We cannot doe every thing, nor bee in every place. When all is done, thus and thus, must wee often, as unto our lat Anker and sole refuge, resigne the protection of our vessell unto the onely conduct of heaven.  [i.e.  in the end God rules!]

p.19:  To write books without learning, is it not to make a wall without stone or such like thing

p.22:   That is an exquisite life, which even in his owne private keepeth it selfe in awe and order. 

p.27:  On repentance: Surely there can be no perfect health; where the disease is not perfectly removed. Were repentance put in the scale of ballance, it would weigh downe sinne.  I finde no humour so easie to counterfeited as Devotion: If one conforme not his life and conditions to it, her essence is abstruse and concealed, her appearance gentle and stately…repentance doth not properly concern what is not in our power; sorrow doth. 

p.37:  Montaigne is no great  fan of poetry but prefers it to those medling with Rhetoricke, with Law, and with Logicke, and such like trash, so vaine and unprofitable for their use….Poesie is a study fit for their purpose: being a wanton, ammusing, subtill, disguised, and pratling Arte; all in delight, all in shew, like to themselves.

p39:  The company of faire, and society of honest women is likewise a sweet commerce for me. 

p.42: On books: I enjoy them, as a miser does his gold; to know, that I may enjoy them when I list; my minde is settled and satisfied with the right of possession.  I never travel without bookes, nor in peace nor in warre.. and p. 44: Bookes have and containe divers pleasing qualities to those that can duly choose them. But no good without paines; no Roses without prickles.

p44.  On wealth:  A great fortune is a great bondage (Seneca)….

p. 48. On death: It belongeth to one only, Socrates, to accost and entertaine death with an undaunted ordinary visage, to become familiar and play with it. He seekers for no comfort out of the thing itselfe. To die seemeth unto him a naturall and indifferent accident…and p. 50, quoting Zeno: No evil is honourable; death is; therefore death is no evil. 

p.60:  On old age: Seeing it is the mindes priviledge to renew and recover itself in old age, I earnestly advise it to do it.

p.62.   On confession: Every one is wary in the confession; we should be as heedy in action….Why doth no man confesse his faults? Because hee is yet in them.  [Seneca]

p.65 On sex:   Goddesse, thou rule’s the nature of all things,

Without thee nothing into this light springs

Nothing is lovely, nothing pleasure brings.       [Lucretius}

p139:  Montaigne writes at length in chapter 6 against the damage done by Western hegemony to the colonised world…amazingly C21st imagery and foresight writing in the C15th.

p. 233:   We are so farre enough from being honest according to God: For, wee cannot be such according to our selves. Humane wisedome could never reach the duties, or attaine the devoires it had prescribed unto it selfe….I am so distasted and out of liking with the world, wherein I live and frequent: but well I know, I should have small reason to complaine, the world were distasting and out of liking with me, since I am so with it.

p.234:  Plato saith, that “who escapes untainted and cleaner-handed from managing of the world; escapeth by some wonder.

p250:  He that lives not somewhat to others, liveth little to himselfe.. He that is friend to himself, know, he is friend to all.  [Seneca]

p255:  The more we amplifie our neede and possession, the more we engage our selves to the crosses of fortune and adversities. 

p.258:  We must not run headlong after our affections and private interests.

p.278  a man were better bend towards doubt, than encline towards certaintie, in matter of difficult triall and dangerous belief.  [Augustine]

p. 284: On learning: We neede not much learning to live at ease. And Socrates teacheth us, that we have both it, and the way to finde and make use of it, within us….We have neede of little learning to have a good minde [Seneca]

p. 290:  There can be no worse estate of things  be imagined, than where wickednesse commeth to be lawfull…there is nothing more deceiptfull to shew, than corrupt religion, when the power of Heaven is made a pretence and cloake for wickednesse. 

p293  Hee is of most power, that himself in his owne power. [Seneca]

p. 299: Philosophy teacheth us, ever to have death before our eyes, to fore-see and consider it before it come.  If we have not known how to live, it is injustice to teach us how to die.

p304  on himself:  …here I have but gathered a nosegay of strange floures, and have put nothing of mine unto it, but the thred to bind them…p323: ..I study myself more than any other subject..

p367:  The glorious masterpiece of man, is, to live to the purpose.

p.371: on life: A fooles life is all pleasant, all fearfull, all fond of future [Seneca] …according as the the possession of life is more short, I must endevour to make it more profound and full. 

p. 376  Montaigne’s final word: The best and most commendable lives, and pleasing men are (in my conceit) those which with order are fitted, and with decorum are ranged to the common mould and humane model: but without wonder or extravagancy. Now hath old age need to be handled more tenderly. Let us recommend it unto that God, who is the protector of health, and fountaine of all wisedome: but blithe and social. Montaigne closes with a quote from Horace, Ode. 31:17

Apollo graunt, enjoy health I may

That I have got, and with sound minde, I pray:

Nor that I may with shame spend my old yeares,

Nor wanting musicke to delight mine eares. 


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Books read November 2019

BOOKS READ NOVEMBER 2019

Amor Towles: Rules of Civility, London, Sceptre, 2012 (2011).

Amor Towles (2018)

Graduate in English from Yale and Stamford Amor Towles was born and bred in Manhattan and was an investment professional for twenty years before turning his hand to writing with this, his first novel, Rules of Civility. The title comes from the transcription by a young George Washington 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. These rules were based on C16th French Jesuit document and Washington’s transcription is word for word from Francis Hawkins’ English translation of 1640. Clearly the rules served him well in his future career. 

Towles’ novel is written from the perspective of one year (1938) in the life of a young American girl  Kate Kontent  of Russian extraction,  making her way in “the greatest city on earth”. The novel is classy, sharp, witty, humorous, tragic in parts, down to earth, clever, disarming, engaging and very difficult to put down. Even though the subject matter is, in one sense, somewhat trivial…the life of one person in one year…Towles manages to hang on to his reader for the next episode. One reason is the sheer mystery surrounding the second mainstay character of the novel, the somewhat Gatsbyish Tinker Grey and his alter ego artist brother Hank and Kate’s mercurial friend Eva.  Towles treats us to the swankiest and the grooviest and also the worst  of 1938 New York and for those lucky enough to have spent time there, the novel can bring back many memories of amazing buildings and soul encouraging music. 

I found this novel trivial/boring and at the same time emotionally convincing enough to want to read to the end.   4 stars. 

Matthew Keale: English Passengers, Camberwell, Penguin, 2001 (2000)

Engaging and lively story of early C19th Manx sailors and the early  history of Van Diemen’s Land focussing on the skills of smugglers, C19th horrific views about craniology and the superiority of the English,  the British  treatment of convicts, the massacre of the indigenous population,  the dangers of the Australian bush and the vagaries of sailing from merry England to primitive Australia. Kneale’s characters are fictional but based on genuine historical figures especially the Tasmanian sections.  The vast collection of characters is constantly reintroduced as the narrative  proceeds so it is not a book that can be put down for a moment, the reader needing to keep close tabs on who was who.  

Kneale’s style is horrifyingly explosive in dealing with the extermination of Tasmania’s indigenous population and its treatment of convicts. This difficult material is neutralised to a degree by the sanguine humour of the Manx sean Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, who, whilst no Puritan, is the reader’s favourite hero in the narrative and the person we most want to prosper even if he is defrauding the very efficient Britsh Empire Customs service. The other key figure is the part aboriginal Peevay who carries the weight of both indigenous survival as well as hopes of integration.  There are many other unforgettable characters including the fundamentally flawed Anglican preacher the Revd Geoffrey Wilson who has decided that the Garden of Eden is to be found in Van Diemen’s Land.  Much more formidably flawed is the doctor and would be craniologist Dr Thomas Potter who can well be regarded as the novel’s chief villain. 

This novel deserves a wider audience than it gets. It’s author himself is a formidable traveller, having scaled mountains from Ethiopia to New Guinea.  5 stars but requires commitment and concentration!

Eleanor Atkinson: Greyfriars Bobby, p/b, Ringwood, Puffin,1994

Eleanor Atkinson

American journalist, teacher and writer Eleanor Atkinson wrote this exquisitely charming and endearing story of the faithful highland terrier Bobby who spent most of his life in the Edinburgh cemetery keeping guard on the grave of his old shepherd friend Auld Jock who had died of old age. The story is written for adults and much of it in highland slang for which thankfully, there is a glossary at the back of the book. Remarkably Atkinson never visited Scotland, which is difficult to believe given that her deep knowledge of Edinburght’s streets and nineteeth century geography and that of the surrounding region is acute and detailed. Although somewhat sentimental to the modern ear the novel still tugs at the heartstrings. One comes to believe in Bobby as a genuine person and there is a genuine degree of tension in the many scrapes he gets into. A beautifully written account of a special little ‘imaginary’ dog.  4 stars.

Peter Corney: The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross, self-published, Peter corney.com, 2019

I read The Gospel and the Centrality of the Cross with great interest. The book began with a series of studies for a series of seminars for preachers based on 1 Corinthians 13 to which Peter has added some very useful chapters containing observations on the exercise of power and authority in contemporary culture. It certainly covers a set of ideas that have been central to my own interests over the years. I note especially the side-lining of Christian faith through scientific reductionism, the cultural captivity of the church, the media/atheist sidelining of Christian faith from public discourse, the clear handling of the misunderstood doctrine of penal substitution and the dangers of radical individualism. Each chapter has some very useful questions and throughout there are excellent suggestions for further reading.

I can see how useful the studies from 1 Corinthians would be for a group of preachers to work through. I am not so sure about the further application of the booklet into say a parish study group. In a conservative parish it would be welcomed and tertiary trained church members would gain by a discussion of the arguments. A liberal catholic or ‘nothing’ parish  would struggle with some of the sophisticated wordiness of the concepts even though the writer has successfully avoided philosophical jargon. The purpose of the book is to find a way forward to return the Cross to a central position in Christian preaching. Preachers who read it I think will find many lines of approach that will be useful and effective. 

The only other comment I would make is that the media/public anger against Christianity in general rather than the Cross in particular,  is not dealt with directly (I know you can’t do everything in one booklet). I think a tone I missed in this book was an admission that the Church should acknowledge more directly its deep errors, both past and present and find a way to nevertheless validate the central claims of Christ especially the doctrine of atonement which is the central teaching of the Christian faith.  I suppose an example is Natasha Moore’s recent on line article “Religion Poisons Everything” .   To deal with the current societal  anger about  such folk I think preachers need to find a cutting edge of raw honesty to go with the excellent theology explained in this book  This is a minor criticism. Peter Corney has eloquently and clearly given a clarion call for a return to the heart of the Christian Gospel in preaching and I applaud his acheivement.  5 stars.

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Books read October 2019

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, translated by Jamie McKendrick, introduction by Simon Mawer, Illustrated by Laura Carlin, London, The Folio Society, 2014 [In Italian, 1962; McKendrick translation, Penguin 2007]

Italian Jewish  author and literary editor Giorgio Bassani won the Viareggio prize with this first novel which was also made into a major movie.  Partly autobiographical, the narrative deals with the lives of Jews living in Ferrara as Mussolini’s Fascist grip on Italy tightened and Hitler’s expansionist policy in Europe in the Czech Republic and Poland rapidly gained ground. Bassani himself was imprisoned under Mussolini and later married and lived in Florence and Rome under an assumed name until the end of the war. Bassani’s other claim to fame was his publishing of Giuseppi Tomasode Lampedusa”s novel Il Gattopardo, (The Leopard) in 1958.

The novel is a beautifully written and consuming tale of unrequited love with Giorgio falling in love with the beautiful but cold, enigmatic and deceptive Micòl, the daughter of an aristocratic Sephardic Jewish family the Finzi-Continis. The story proceeds under the ever darkening clouds of the restrictive Fascist Jewish restrictive freedom rules which eventually expanded to a full -scale pogrom which engulfed  the whole Finzi-Continis family, arrested and dispatched to a German concentration camp, never to return. Much of the action of the novel centres around the aristocratic house and extraordinary gardens of the Finzi-Continis which includes a tennis court that becomes a focal point of the novel’s life. 

Novelist  Simon Mawer who writes the introduction to the Folio edition of the novel notes that there is a Jewish cemetery in Ferrara which includes a “Mura degli Angeli (The Wall of the Angels) and there was a large house and garden with a tennis court owned by a Jewish Professor Silvio Magrini with a son Uberto who died young of  lumphogranuloma like Michòl’s brother Alberto in the novel. The Magrani  family were indeed deported to Germany in 1943 and perished in a German concentration camp. There was, however, no Michòl in the Margrani family, so the thwarted love affair is fictional. 

Jamie McKendrick’s sensitive translation adds greatly to the readability of this sensuous and delicate novel and helpfully includes translations of the  excerpts from various Italian poets included in the text.  A thought provoking and oblique look at the darkest period of C20th history and its impact on “normal” Jewish family life.  5 stars.

Jane Smiley:  A Thousand Acres, London,  Flamingo 1992 (1991).

An epic family drama reminiscent of the Forsyte Saga in which a farming family of just two generations manages to both gain and lose one thousand acres of top quality arable crop and pig farming land in Iowa. The novel throws a glance at Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with the three sisters in the narrative paying out big time (with some justification in this case) on their father. Along the way Smiley manages to include incestuous parental upbringing of children alongside cruelty and domination of women, adultery, sexual promiscuity and unfaithfulness in marriage, attempted murder, religious, marital and sisterly jealousy,  legal and financial manipulation, small town bigotry,  anti-Vietnam War conscription sympathy, ecologically based farming vs large scale long term crop production for profit and if I think long enough several other themes. The story is told through Ginny, one of three daughters of the overbearing and morally unpleasant and ambitious father whose wife had died while the children were young and vulnerable.

 I found the weight of all these very unsatisfactory people and circumstances hard work and struggled to maintain interest in the novel. The novel does build to a quite tensing climax but then fades away to a benign and rather hopeless drab and somewhat meaningless life for the key narrator. The truth is that there is not even a glimpse of a morally good or strong person in this narrative or even someone with a burning ideal.  I found myself asking..what is the point of this novel? What is it trying to tell us. Is it “trust absolutely no-one?”. In which case it is a highly successful novel! 3 stars.

Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, Melbourne, Wyatt & Watts, 1947 (1941)

Paul Gallico

American novelist Paul Gallico wrote this little World War 11 Dunkirk story loosely based on English ornithologist , conservationist and painter Peter Scott. The hero Philip Rhayader is a crippled painter and sea-bird lover who builds a sea-bird sanctuary on the English southern coast near Chelmbury. A young Saxon girl Frith brings him an injured North American snow goose blown off course by a major storm. Rhayader heals the bird and a friendship develops between the painter, the bird and Frith. During the Dunkirk evacuation, Rhayader plays a major role with his row boat ferrying British soldiers from the beach to waiting ships in the Channel with the snow goose flying above dodging bullets like an omen of safety. It is a touching story designed to encourage heroic bravery during the war and still carries an emotional power.   4 stars.

Lady Sarashina: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, translated with notes by Ivan Morris, Ringwood, Penguin, 1983

Lady Sarashina is the author’s invented name for the unknown author of this amazing C11th Japanese narrative and set of poems which takes in the whole life of a woman frustrated by the tension between her father and her career as a lady in court, later her husband and her career in court and her own desire to deepen her spirtual life with courageous pilgrimages to remote Buddhist temples as well as the poems with which she records her life and interactions with others.
Ivan Morris..outstanding translator of many significant early Japanese works otherwise unavailable in readable English. Morris’s detailed notes and historical background are extraordinary in their depth and scholarship.

Eleventh Century Japanese prose and poetic recollections of a woman whose true name is not known , spent largely in Kyoto but also some time in an eastern province where her father was the governor.  Her story includes beautifully detailed descriptions of natural scenery especially in her travels to far-flung monasteries to which she made pilgrimages.  The narrative includes her frustration when both her father and eventually her husband were posted to positions far away while she remained in the capital. She was intermittently a lady-in-waiting to the princess as well as caring for her father and eventually her husband and children. Translator Morris notes that the poems in Lady Sarashrina’s book are all “thiry-one syllable tanka constructed in five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The narrative contains over one hundred poems of which three quarters were written by Lady Sarashina.  Although her life is un-exceptional and somewhat frustrating I found the poems restful and soothing. The book makes several references to the much more well known Tale of Genji from a similar period.   The introduction, maps and detailed notes by Ivan Morris are impressive indeed and give a fascinating insight into C11th  upper middle class Japanese life. 4 stars.

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BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2019

Allan Bullock (Editor): The Marshall Cavendish Learning System: History, London WI, Marshall Cavendish Books, 1969

Historian Sir Alan Bullock
example of Marshall Cavendish learning system books.

This self-help learning system is astonishing for the vast amount of material put together with impressive academic credentials and accuracy but in a very readable manner and in a relatively short compass.  I have been long interested in the origin and rise of civilisations and the first two books in this outstanding series are particularly helpful. A key feature is the pictorial illustration of key eras and personalities. 

Title H1-  Cradles of Civilisation deals with the civilisations of  Sumer and Akkad; the Indus civilisation of north west India around Harappa; the rise of the Assyrian Nation; the Hittite Empire; the ancient empires of Egypt; the vast Persian Empire, and the later Ptolemaic empires of Egypt closing with Cleopatra’s failure to seduce Octavian and the conquering of Egypt by Rome.

Title H2 – Asia:The Dawn of History, deals with the creation of the  mysterious and ancient temples of South East Asia including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the “menace of the invading T’ai. This is followed by an account of the amalgamation of the earliest Chinese territories of Han, Wei, Chu, Chi and Yen under the banner of Ying Cheng, prince of Ch’in, from whence comes the name ‘China’. It becomes clear how much  Confucius’ influence is so significant for much of Chinese history in spite of the burning of his books and others by Li Ssu and the murder of the K’ung scholars under the Chi’n dynasty. These atrocities were made worse when the Chi’n dynasty itself fell under the power of Liu Pang’s peasant army who also burned the royal library—the only surviving complete collection of China’s ancient classics. 

This history is followed by the account of the youthful Chandragupta Maurya a one time supporter of Alexander the Great’s invasion who eventually led an army from northern India to conquer the Macedonian Seleucus Nicator’s  army and effectively become the first Indian leader to unite the various tribes of northern and central/south India. With the advice of his brahman advisor Kautilya  he ruled an increasing area of India from his capital Pataliputra in northern India. The narrative also deals with the development of India’s ancient faiths based on the influence of three amazing teachers Mahavira who developed Jainism, Gosala maskariputra who founded the Ajivikas movement and of course Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The narrative then turns to India’s cultural conquest of South East Asia, and in particular the spread of Buddhism and the tension between developments in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism throughout South East Asia, including the magnificent Borubudur temple in central Java,  leaving Hinduism to a tiny remnant in Bali. In the late C13th the situation was altered again as South East Asia reeled under the Mongol attack from northern China and a new powerful influence arrived across the Indian Ocean —Islam which eventually controlled the Malayan Peninsula and all of the East Indies except Bali. The final two chapters deal with the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties prior to the invincible power of the final Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan and the golden age of his grandson Kublai Khan who ruled as Emperor of China for 35 years becoming the dynastic leader of the Yuan dynasty, and known to amazed Europeans through the writings of Venetian trader Marco Polo who lived in the Khan’s court from 1275-1292. After Kublai Khan’s death the vast Mongol empire which stretched from China to Europe could not be held together in spite of the fierce power of Timur the lame (Tamerlane) who waged brutal  destruction over all until his death in 1405.The Golden Horde, Persia, the Mamelukes and new Chinese dynasties arose to claim their own place under the sun.

Whilst I am sure all of this can be found online these days it is handy to have such a beautifully illustrated and professionally written accounts in two small books totalling 128 pages still available cheaply on line second hand!  5 stars.

Alice Walker: The Color Purple, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019 (1983).

Alice Walker

Complex rambling novel in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots, looking at the life of post-emancipation black Africans especially in relation to the treatment of women and their fight for equality, education and standing. Written in the compressed language of everyday black Americans the essence of the novel is the different paths taken and eventual reunion of two sisters, Nettie and Celie, Celie as a young girl was repeatedly raped by a man she called Pa who turned out not to be Pa.  Pushed into an unhappy and servile marriage her life is turned around by an unlikely black female jazz singer Shugg who inspires her and also teachers her how to make genuine love.

Nettie is a determinedly self-educated woman protected early at home by Celie and who, by a complex set of circumstances ends up as a missionary in Africa. This enables Walker to describe and unpick the damage done to post-colonial Africans by the Western money grabbing “developmental” destruction of native vegetation, wild life and food sources, destroying much of the livelihood and lifestyle of many native Africans creating what is in effect a new kind of slavery. The narrative also underscores the complexity and hardships of Christian missionary work..a theme revisited in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Although there is some reconciliation in the conclusion, this narrative tells a harrowing tale of thoughtless and cruel white behaviour towards blacks in general as well as the environment and the equally cruel treatment of black women by their often uncaring and misogynist partners.    A powerful and harrowing novel which continues to make a big impact even after nearly half a century.  5 stars.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne: The Essayes Or Morall, Politike and Militarie of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Knight: The Second Book, translated from the French by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [1580 in Middle French; Florio’s English translation 1603]

Unlike the first book of Montaigne’s essays published at the same time, this second book is absolutely dominated by the towering chapter 12, An Apologie of Raymond Sebonde, which extends to 202 pages, well over half the book. Sebonde was a  C15th Catalan scholar, teacher of medicine and philosophy and a Professor of Theology at Toulouse. Sebonde’s major work had been given to Montaigne’s father by Peter Bunel who had been staying with him on his estate. Bunel was himself an outstanding scholar and linguist from Toulouse and expert in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. 

Sebonde’s book was written in Spanish and Montaigne’s father asked his son Michel to translate it for him into French.  Montaigne was clearly deeply influenced by Sebonde’s ideas and hence his remarkable essay and “apologie” of Raymond Sebonde. His essay/book ranges widely, commencing with the new bangles of Luther’s ideas which he saw were to shake the foundation of our ancient beleefe (p121), and this budding disease would easily turn to an execrable Atheisme. Seybonde wrote his book to establish and verifie all the articles of Christian religion against Atheists. (p122). 

Montaigne takes off from this starting point and commences a major examination and defence of the Christian faith. I was not expecting this because one of my criticisms of Book 1 of Montaigne’s Essays ( published at the same time and reviewed in this blog in August 2019) was that in spite of his vast collection of classical quotations from Greek and Latin authors and occasionally Augustine, there was virtually no reference to the Bible whatsoever. 

Here on the contrary we have a stirring theological/philosophical defence of the Christian faith including debates with Plato (p.128); about the immortality of the soul; about faith in Christ and the grace of God (p131); about Augustine (p133); about the nature of Heaven (p136); about natural theology at considerable length; about human sinfulness and vulnerability (p144); about procreation and marriage including some naughty bits (p164);  about the scope and genius of God’s natural creation; about wisdom (p178); against Stoicism; about human weakness and sickness; an aside about the evils of lawyers (p194); about the mystery of God (God is better known by our not knowing! (p195); about wonder above reason; about the long search to know we know nothing (p192); about the confusions and contradictions of the classical philosophers and the extremities of doubt (p199); about the probability of the reality of faith (p203); about Paul in Athens (p211); about the contradictions of Greek scientific ideas (p213); about our transformed heavenly bodies (p217); about the confusions of the classical account of the gods..(behold and read in Plato the gibberish of the gods, p249); about divine justice (p260); about the limitations of human reason (p275); about the “new found” learning of Copernicus (p281); about the absurdities of non-Christian cultures including Islam; about the dangers of the “changing English religion” ie the Reformation (p292); about the conflicting “faiths” produced by various philosophies..this section with a lengthy debt to Lucretius; and finally about the fleeting passing of time and the changing of all things.

In addition to this substantial book within a book Montaigne continues to entertain with provocative and thoughtful essays on subjects as trivial and as serious as human inconsistency, drunkenness, weird cultural customs, conscience, exercise, honours, children, much about warfare especially Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, books and authors (chapter 10..very interesting for book lovers like me), cruelty (Montaigne hates cruelty in war), death, desire, glory, presumption, telling lies, idleness, sickness, virtue, Siamese twins, anger, in defence of Seneca and Plutarch, good women and good men, and a finally a bitter and tumultuous tirade against the incompetence and gross errors and practices of the medical profession of his day. (for which he apologises to the Lady of Estissac to whom he had dedicated both Books 1 and 2. 

Some quotations from Book 2 which struck me as singular or of their time.

p63   Aristotle on loving others above self: profit is not so much to be esteemed or loved as honesty

p67  that which cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion, can never be attained by force and constraint.

p77  Re children and marriage…and ill hath their father brought them up, if he cannot hope, these coming to yeares of discretion, they shall have no more wit, reason, and sufficiencie, than his wife, considering the weakness of their sexe.

p90  I am not greatly affected to new books, because ancient Authors are in my judgement more full and pithy..

p104  Virtue provoked adds much to itself (Epanimandas);  to do well, where there was both peril and opposition, was the peculiar office of a man of virtue. (Metullus);  virtue rejecteth facilitie to be her companion.

p112  Against Stoicism: they are sharp-wittie subtilties, and without substance, about which Philosophy doth often busie itself.

p120  Knowledge is without all contradiction, a most profitable and chiefe ornament: Those who despise it declare evidently their sottishness..

p123  On Christianity: …Christians wrong themselves much, in that they ground their beleefe upon humane reasons, which is conceived but by faith, and by a particular inspiration of God.

p127  On Christian warfare: Our religion was ordained to root out vices, but it shrowdeth, fostrethand provoketh them. 

p132  To an Atheist all writings make for Atheism.

p178  Health I say, which is the goodliest and richest present, nature can impart unto us.

p181 ..onely humility and submission is able to make a perfect honest man.

p195  Augustine: God is better knowen by our not knowing him. 

p199  On philosophy: If we can know nothing, we cannot be certain that we know nothing.

p208 On wisdom: …it must not be thought strange if men desparing of the goale have yet taken pleasure in the chase of it.

p210  Plato…for the benefit of men, it is often necessary to deceive them…

p210  What greater vanitie can there be, than to goe about by our proportions and conjectures to guesse at God? And to governe both him and the world according to our capacitie and laws?

p211  On God:  …an incomprehensible power…

p226  On multiple universes: ..Now, if there be divers worlds, as Democritus, Epicurus, and well neere all Philosophy hath thought, what know wee, whether the principles and the rules of this one concerne or touch likewise the others?

p227 Mansiphanes said…that nothing is certaine, but uncertainty.

p240  Have I not seen this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an ænigmaticall poesie?….Plato is but a loose poet. 

p297  Metrocles somewhat indiscreetly, as he was disputing in his Schole, in presence of his Auditorie let a fart, for shame whereof he afterwards kept his house, and could not be drawen abroad, untill such time as Crates went to visit him, who to his perswasions and reason, adding the example of his liberty, began to fart a vie with him, and to remove this scruple from his conscience…

p330  Pliny: This onely is sure, that there is nothing sure; and nothing more miserable, and yet more arrogant than man.

p343  Our glory is the testimony of our conscience.

p400  Vespasian: ..an Emperour should die standing upright.

p481  Homer..the first and last of poets.

Montaigne’s C15th language is hard work at times but becomes easier with familiarity. There is amazing triviality alongside impressive classical and historical analysis and much philosophical, moral and religious argument to think about. At times tedious, at others outrageous, nearly always thought provoking. It is worth the effort.  4 stars for me. 

Pearl S. Buck: The Good Earth, London, Pocket Books, 2005 (1931).

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck (née Sydenstricker),  was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Good Earth, her second novel, published in 1931, won the Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal and was made into a major MGM movie in 1937 although its Hollywood romantic ending makes a travesty of the novel.  She was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and lived most of her childhood in China becoming fluent in Chinese and English.  After graduating in the USA in 1914 she married agricultural economist John Lossing Buck and they returned immediately to China living in the impoverished community of Nanhsuchou. By the time of her death in 1973 she had published over seventy books.

The Good Earth, is the chronicle of humble but very determined and money wise rural farmer Wang Lung and his lifelong relationship with the land and its crops, set in the early C20th prior to Mao’s cultural revolution.  It is an epic and very personal journey of success and disaster,  drought causing famines, floods and locust ruined crops,  marriages and families, children and grand-children, his relationship to his gods, His outlaw relatives, starvation and begging, wealth and poverty and the impact of wealth on simple family life in a village setting.  The key players are his first wife O-lan, his second wife Lotus, his three sons and two daughters and his extended family. The narrative is told largely from within Wang Lung’s personal and private thoughts and words. The novel has an almost musical compelling harmony and progression of highs and lows, echoing and perhaps explaining the initial introductory opening of a quotation from Proust’s imaginary musical composer Vinteuil. I could not put this book down. It is a compelling read, 5 stars.

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BOOKS READ AUGUST 2019

James M Barrie: Peter Pan, Scholastic, n.d. with Introduction by Jack Gantos.

JAMES BARRIE
Peter Pan

J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a play in 1904 and it became his best known work.  He later retold the story as a narrative called Peter Pan and Wendy in 1911.  Although I have read “Peter Pan” many times as a child and in a children’s version this is the first time I have read the unabridged narrative. I have always been interested in the idea of humans flying and for many years in my youth I used to dream very realistically that I was flying, not just around my room, but outside over the twenty acre former CEBS site in Frankston where my father was the Camp Warden and my mother was the chef.  I always awoke refreshed and excited by these dreams remembering how I could look down on our house and the oval and tennis court  and the hall from above and that it was exhilarating to be flying fast and far. I have never forgotten these dreams and I used to feel very sad when I totally woke up and realised I couldn’t actually fly on demand! 

Children’s story Peter Pan  may well be,  but the original narrative is actually a novel for adults more than children. It has a dark side from the beginning with its description of Peter Pan as selfish, even spiteful, a tease, quite dangerous when teaching the children to fly and seldom concerned for the feelings of others. Captain Hook is living out his revenge for all his enemies from his English public school  days  and has a sensitive musical side with his ability on the harpsichord.  The  surprise pirate attack on the redskins is a vicious slaughter and Tinkerbell’s jealous plot to get Tootles to kill the “Wendy bird” is a tragic and threatening little event. Nevertheless Tinkerbell is surely redeemed by her sacrificial drinking of the poison Hook had prepared for Peter Pan and it is indeed good to know that fairies will come alive again as long as children believe in them

 Adults fare no better with the Darling’s parenting coming under withering fire both at the beginning and at the end of the narrative. The whole narrative has an edgy feel unlike anything in Lewis Carol or A A Milne. Even in Tolkien the heroes may be tempted to turn aside but they are never mean spirited.  In spite of this uneasiness the story of the “boy who refuses to grow up” and the dream of Never land being passed on from Wendy to her daughter and grand-daughter tugs at the heart-strings of all our memory of childhood.  J M Barrie was a complex man and this story, like many of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen has some powerful messages for adults as well as children about the realities of our true selves and of life.    3 stars.                                                                                      

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne:  The Essayes, or Morall, Politike and Miliitarie Discourses of Lo. Michael de Montaigne, Book 1, translated by John Florio, London, The Folio Society, 2006 [ Florio’s original translation 1603; Montaigne’s original Book 1 published in French in 1588.]

Montaigne [1533 – 1592] was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance and had a vast and profound influence on Western philosophy and literature including Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche and most probably towards the end of his writing, William Shakespeare.  Montaigne popularised the essay as a literary genre and in Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of  One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Montaigne stands in the first lustre, along with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton and Tolstoy. I have only read Book 1 so far so I will reserve judgment because there are two more huge books to come!

Lord Montaigne
Essays Book 1

Book 1 contains 57 essays of varying lengths and significance. Some of forty pages and some of one or two pages. Some of weighty issues eg “the institution and education of children”  and others of triviality eg “ A  trick of Certaine Ambassadors”. Florio’s translation is brilliant but the early C17th English takes some getting used to eg the often used “whilome” means “of former times”  and there are some wonderful French words that are not translated at all for example “embabuinized” (in Essay 39, On Cicero).  which is not in my Harrap’s French Dictionary either. 

Montaigne’s writing is filled with Latin and Greek quotations from the Classical period. His formal education, organised with great care by his father,  was undertaken entirely in Latin by a master who had no French and Montaigne thus became a fluent Latinist and indeed Latin was his first language He was taught Greek at the same time by a teacher who used games and fun activities not formal grammar. The major classical influences on his writing are from Plutarch, Seneca and Plato but many others are frequently mentioned including Juvenal, Lucretius. Horace, Herodotus, Ovid, Lucan, Cicero, Aristotle, Martial, Virgil, and some more modern authors for his day including Dante. This list is far from complete. Fortunately in Florio’s translation these quotations are printed in Latin or Greek and then translated into very clever English.   I understand from elsewhere that Many of Montaigne’s Latin translations come from Erasmus’ Adagia including all his quotations from Socrates.   Plutarch and Seneca were his other major sources. A large number of the essays are about military battles and individual feats of bravery or cowardice both ancient and in his own time. One thing that did surprise me was that Montaigne, a devout Roman Catholic but bitterly opposed to the French war against Protestantism,  at least in Book 1,  takes not a single quotation from the Bible in spite of a careful defence of  conservative Catholic Christianity in Essay 56. 

Essays which I found particularly impressive and interesting were chapter 8 on Idleness; 

Chapter 19 – That to Philsophize, is to learn how to die (at least four major essays in Book 1 centre on death);

Chapter 22 Of Customs, and how a received law should not easily be changed;

Chapter 23 On Honesty and Justice in Politics; and 

Chapter 24 On Pedantisme (Pedantry)

Individual quotations that stood out for me included:

p126: “those whose sufficiencie is placed in their sumptuous libraries!  Hmmm! (ch.24)

p132: “We can never be wise, but by our own wisdom”. (ch.24)

p132  “The role of education is religion, truth and virtue, self-control and courage.

p135  Montaigne is critical of his own learning, admitting that he only knows well Seneca and Plutarch.  (ch.24)

p144 “according to Platoes mind, who saith, constancie, faith, and sinceritie, are true Philosphie”. (ch. 25)

p144 “..visiting of forraine countries, and observing of strange fashions , are very necessary…” (ch. 25)

p157  “ She loveth life ; she delights in beautie, in glorie, and in health. But her proper and particular office is, first to know how to use such goods temperately, and how to lose them constantly.  (ch 25).

p158  “We are taught to live, when our life is well-nigh spent”  (ch 25) …Montaigne is of the view that by the age of 20 we should know all we need to know and learn and we should then be out and about getting on with a serious vocation, because life is very short.

p.215 “…said Plato,”it is an easie matter to please, speaking of the nature of the Gods, than of men.”  (ch.30) “…nothing is so firmly beleeved, as that which a man knows least. “…”But I utterly disalow al common custome amongst us, which is to ground and establish our religion on the  prosperitie of our enterprises.

p231 “Even from my infancie, Poesie hath the virtue to transpierce and transport me” (ch.36)

p236  “..we are not borne for our particular, but for the publick good.”  (ch38).

p246 Bookes are delightfull; but if by continuall frequenting them, we in the end lose both health and cheerfulnesse (our best parts) let us leave them. I am one of those who thinke their fruit can no way countervaile this losse. (ch38)

p247 We must tooth and naile retain the use of this lives pleasures, which our yeares snatch from us, one after another. (ch.38)

p249  “Let honest Ideaes still represent themselves before your mind….(Seneca) ..be contented with your selfe; to borrow nothing but from your self…(Ch.39)

p252  “Wise men say, that in respect of knowledge, there is nothing but Philsophy, and in regard of effects, but Vertue. (Seneca).  (ch.39)

p262  Regarding pain: “I have no commerce or dealing with her: But it is in our power, if not to disanull, at least to diminish the same, through patience: And thought the body should be moved thereat, yet to keepe the minde and reason in good temper.. “(ch 40)

p269   “Verily,  it is not want, but rather plentie that causeth avarice.”   (ch40).

p276   “This is the totall summe of all, that you be master of your selfe”  (Cicero) (ch.41)

p336  “Whatsoever it be that falleth into our knowledge and jovisance, we finde, it doth not satisfie us, and we still follow and gape after future, uncertaine, and unknowne things, because the present and knowne please us not, and doe not satisfie us….Man supposing it is the vice and fault of things he possesseth, feedeth and filleth himselfe with other things, which he neither knoweth, nor hath understanding of…. (Ch53)

p340  “… if these Essayes were worthy to be judged of, it might in my opinion happen, that they would not greatly please the common and vulgar spirits, and as little of them, the latter over much; they might perhaps live and rub out in the middle region. (ch.54)

Mary Renault: The Mask of Apollo, London, New English Library, 1968 (1966).

Mary Renault was an outstanding English novelist and historian of Ancient Greece and its literature. . The Mask of Apollo is one of eight novels she wrote in this genre and tells the double story of Plato’s Academy and substantial role in the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily and secondly the tragic story of Syracuse itself under the tyrant Dionysius 1 (423 -367 BCE), his son Dionysius  11 (who ruled Syracuse as tyrant from 367-357 and from 346-334, and40 his son-in-law Dion (408 – 354) who also ruled as tyrant of Syracuse. Told through the eyes of the fictional actor Nikeratos, the novel is a slow burner. Without any background the reader takes some time to get the feel and sense of the novel and the culture but within a few chapters the narrative has a mesmeric effect which makes it difficult to put down. An unsettling element is the homosexuality and bisexuality of Nikeratos which makes no material impact on the narrative but is everywhere present. Renault had a life-long relationship with fellow nurse Julie Mallard and the couple moved from England to live permanently in Durban South Africa seeking a more liberal and less repressing atmosphere to continue their life together and it is at least possible that C4th BCE Greek sexual mores suited her historical research. This is rich reading indeed. Reader’s of Plato’s The Republic and Greek philosophy in general  will be interested to see a more personal side of Socrates, Speusippus, Xenocrates,  Aristotle and Alexander the Great as well as constant reference to the Greek dramatists.   5 stars. 

The Mask of Apollo
Mary Renault

Henry James: The Europeans, Camberwell VIC, Penguin, 2005 (1878)

Henry James

American born Henry James, brother of renowned psychologist William James,  studied law at Harvard before moving  to Europe at age 32 and becoming a writer.  He lived first in Paris for one year before settling in England and eventually becoming a naturalised citizen one year before his death in 1916. He wrote some twenty novels of which Portrait of a Lady is perhaps the most well known. James also wrote short stories, plays, books of criticism, autobiography and travel. 

The Europeans records the adventures of two siblings, Eugenia and Felix,  born to American parents living in Europe.  Eugenia is the central character of the novel. She is  a thirty something attractive, stylish and ambiguous figure  seeking an escape and financial security away from an unhappy morganatic marriage to a German aristocrat.  Felix, her younger brother is a painter with an indefatigable joie de vivre and a permanently sunny disposition. They have both enjoyed a peripatetic somewhat bohemian  lifestyle in Europe before deciding to seek out their American relatives in Boston. Their Boston relatives, the Wentworths are serious minded, stable, steady Puritans and the cultural clash and interaction is the substance of the novel, in particular the  romantic relationship between the rebellious Gertrude Wentworth and the whimsical bohemian  Felix. This relationship is matched by the equally complex and uncertain  relationship between Eugenia and another cousin, successful entrepreneur Robert Acton, a strangely laconic, unemotional and calculating figure.The back cover of my Penguin edition describes the novel as a subtle and gently ironic examination of manners and morals.   I agree and found this novel to be engaging, clever, and very enjoyable.  5 stars.

Mick Pope: All Things New: God’s Plan to Renew the World, Reservoir VIC, Morning Star Publishing, 2018.

Scientist Mick Pope has a Ph.D in Meteorology and is completing a Masters in Theology at the University of Divinity.  He is a lecturer in Meteorology, Professor in Environmental Theology at Missional University, an on-line Christian Centre of Higher Education based in North Augusta, South Carolina, and a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Public Policy attached to the University of Divinity.  He has also lived in India with his family for 16 years, working with the urban poor,  and has published two previous books on climate, the second with Claire Dawson. 

This is a complex and demanding read for all sorts of reasons. Even the cover is complex. It contains a kintsuge style image of a beautiful white sphere with cracks that have been repaired by pure gold…creating from something broken something else far more beautiful than before. Pope’s  reach is vast and  global, starting with 9/11 and the falling man— an event which for Pope underscores the existence of pure evil (although we do not have to look far in the history of the C20th to find even more telling examples). If the philosophy of evil is a difficult start, Pope quickly moves to the 2013 super typhoon of Haiyan in the Philippines which annihilated 6,300 people and severely affected over 11 million others. 

This catastrophe serves as his introduction to a very detailed analysis of global warming. Using the data from a variety of sources to highlight the imminent danger of rising sea levels. This data includes analysis of the vast increase in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere arising from greenhouse gas emissions, massive forest clearing and cement production; the dramatic acceleration of human economic activity in the last seventy years,  booming population growth,  massive use of fertilisers, urbanisation, ocean acidification from warming, extinction rates, ozone depletion rates (which have been reduced substantially) but still impacts rainfall in Australia and New Zealand, biogeochemical flows, 2.4 billion people still lacking access to sanitation, depleted and unreplaceable agquifers, clearing vast tracts of land for farming, atmospheric aerosol loading and air pollution, large scale ice melting at the poles, (curiously cleaning up air pollution will increase global warming will increase the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface), declining global crop yields and rainfall, increased impact of lyme disease and other pathogens that flourish in hot conditions, and the danger of anthrax arising from melted ancient prehistoric animal carsasses. 

Pope acknowledges that some gains have been made. The news is not all bad. Rates of homicide have fallen by a factor of 50 and death in war by a factor of 20 and gains have been made in world poverty. But the unbridled confidence of the likes of cognitive psychologist  Stephen Pinker,  (Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress)  and zoologist and journalist  Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) have been savaged by Terry Eagleton (Hope Without Optimism),  and historian Peter Harrison amongst  others. Pope summarises  Eagleton’s critique of  Pinkerton as essentially a conservative, ruling-class ideology that tells us things are basically ok and assures us that the future will be a benign version of the present.  (p25)

Up to this point the average reader would think they are reading a science based textbook about how to deal with an out of control humanity’s mindless assault on our physical environment.  But in Chapter 3 Pope turns to theology for some analysis and solutions to the state of our struggling planet. Like Jordan Edwards, Pope turns to the  Genesis creation and flood narrative and the disorder and chaos caused by mankind’s rejection of God’s love and will for mankind and suggests that we start to take seriously the danger of structural evil as a spiritual power, using Walter Wink’s concept of the “Powers”.  Pope suggests some spiritual humility before a Christian reading of Scripture will help us to understand that greed is not good, that the comfort of the West has been built on the rape of the rest of the world and that Paul’s image of the creation groaning in torment awaiting a new creation In Romans 8 is not far from our present reality. 

In Chapter 4 Pope takes issue with  some science fiction and eco-technological  solutions to solve our ailing earth problems including physicist  Margaret Wertheim’s argument that cyberspace may provide an alternative to an out of date heaven, cosmologist Carl Sagan’s techno-Gnosticism and futurist Ray Kurzweil’s faith in Artificial Intelligence to solve all our earthly problems. Pope does not deny that technology will play a role in preventing the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change and he discusses these solutions in some detail along with their limitations. More frightening are the American  “Doomsday Preppers” who are hoarding supplies and arms against the inevitable breakdown of society à la Cormack McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road, and the anxiety we all feel about the potential for a new arms race in the Trump era. It will surprise no-one that Pope is no fan of Mr Trump!

If all this wasn’t difficult enough Pope turns his attention in chapters 5 – 8 to an analysis of the most complex book in the Bible, Revelation.  Pope works with some excellent scholars including N T Wright,  Richard Baulkham, Leon Morris,  Michael J Gorman and Stanley Grenz to show that the traumatic events threatening to engulf our fragile planet have already been laid out in this C1st apocalyptic book of the Seer,  John the Divine. Revelation was a warning to Christians suffering under the persecution of Roman tyranny but it is also a warning to us in the C21st suffering under the tyranny of our own selfishness, greed and failure to grasp obvious reality. At the same time Pope is keen to demonstrate that a simplistic view of “Heaven” as some sort of ethereal paradise elsewhere after death where we will have peace and love and live free of the perils and realities of planet earth is not a biblical view at all. In fact Revelation, Romans 8, Isaiah and Jeremiah all point to a renewal of humanity and of the earth in a kingdom of God in which all of creation and life will be recreated. We have not only a part to play in this renewal, it is our Christian task and responsibility as stewards. Flying off to heaven in some sort of weird rapture based on a faulty reading of 1 Thessalonians and a few “Left Behind” movies won’t cut it.  

Chapters 9 – 11 spell out this renewed Kingdom of God.  We will need a renewed economics, of course a renewed physical earth and above all, a renewed imagination to envisage and see through the trauma to the hope of a new creation. This is our task, our stewardship. The stakes are high.  Here is a fine handbook to achieve the goal and it comes complete with an excellent study guide for group discussion.  5 stars.

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Thought starters from Mick Pope’s “All Things New: God’s Plan to Renew the World.

SOME THOUGHT STARTERS FROM MICK POPE: All Things New: God’s Plan to Renew the World,  Reservoir ViC, Morningstar Publishing, 2018.

p67 We are being made homeless in judgment over our failures to bear the divine image…to tend the garden.

p69 …One significant issue with computer games is the way that violence is portrayed, in particular what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence”. This myth suggests that violent acts can solve problems, save people, and bring lasting peace. [in Walter Wink: The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, New York Galilee, Doubleday, 1999, p. 49]

p70  Why do people want to spend so much time in games and not in the real world? p70. [cf the Second LIfe phenomenon including the many problems that have arisen within it.   See Wikipedial article]  p71 American game designer, Jane McGonigal, claims that ‘reality is broken’ and that games can change the world….why should we needlessly spend the majority of our lives in boredom and anxiety? [Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, London, Vintage Books, 2012 cf Margaret Wertheim: games and the internet are, for some, a replacement for heaven. [Margaret Wertheim: The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A  History of Space from Dante to the Internet, Sydney, Doubleday, 2000.

p74  Raymond Kurzweil, futurist and inventor and Google’s Head of Engineering has predicted that we will achieve a complete map of the human brain, allowing us to enhance our own intelligence using nanobots, tiny robots at or close to the scale of a nanometre (10-9 metres); Human and technology will no longer be separate, but one….

p75 Will technology provided the magic beans to fix all?

p81  The American Doomsday Preppers …heavily armed survivalists building isolated bolt holes in the wild with stores to last a siege and weapons to protect it.  The unprecedented comfort, ease, and freedom form violence that Stephen Pinker boasts of, is perhaps not as stable as we might think. Whether or not you believe climate change played a role in Hurricane Sandy, the fact that some residents in New York City armed themselves with booby traps, baseball bats, and bows and arrows in The Walking Dead style to protect themselves from potential looters, shows that our civility is paper thin…what might the church look like, should society start to crumble around us?  

p83   The Bible was written for us, but not to us. What I mean is that there were original human authors who wrote to original audiences. [eg in Revelation 3..the letters to the seven churches….we are not free to randomly twist the text to our situation in a way that is not faithful to the original meaning.

p107   Our priestly role is one of mediation between God and the world. And what a bad job we have done of this.  When church leaders abuse women and children and try to cover it up, we do not mediate between the world and God.  When we join with empire oppress indigenous peoples and take it upon ourselves to try to extinguish their culture and languages in the name of the gospel, we do not mediate between the world and God.  When we refuse to acknowledge that we worship on stolen land, we do not mediate between the world and God. When we sell a message of consumerism that looks little different to that which the world offers, we do not mediate between the world and God. When we treat the environment as disposable and ignore the fact that we are undermining the beauty and variety of the natural world, and ability to support human flourishing, we do not mediate between the world and God….

p108  Let’s face it: the sorts of Christians who most want the power to reign on earth are the ones who should be casting their crowns  before the throne. Here in Revelation 5:10 is a message of encouragement for those who suffer under the impacts of war, famine, climate change, human misrule and cruelty. It is a message for Palestinian Christians who suffer under Israeli rule while American Christians fund the resettlement of the Holy Land in order to bring about the Apocalypse. It is hope for Kiribati Christians whose homes are disappearing beneath the waves. It is hope for Chinese Christians persecuted by their government…it’s time we started to feel uncomfortable in Babylon if we want to feel comforted about ruling on earth.

p138  …This is not to say that only westerners are sinful.  However, given that we have exercised the power of empire over the majority of the world for centuries, burnt fossil fuels for longer, and used resources more intensively, we bear a particular blame for the state of the world.

P143   Donella Meadows, who was an author on the 1972 Limits to Growth report, describes the growth obsession as “one of the stupidest purposes ever invented for any culture.” What kind of assumptions about human beings and the world is encapsulated by an exponentially growing curve? How can such a thing be made green, sustainable, or smart? IN the 1860’s, social thinker,  John Ruskin, declared that “there is no wealth but life…That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy beings.”

P172  Who are the four riders of the apocalypse? Michael Gorman sees them as representing a chain of events that is all too well known in human history, including military conquest and the breakdown of peace; death, economic injustice, famine and the disease that follows. Not only are these events permitted to happen but are a direct judgement on sin. Gorman stressed that we must not divide human sin and divine punishment: this is a ‘false dichotomy and asks for an unnecessary choice.  [Michael Gorman: Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness. Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Eugene OR/Cascade Books, 2011]

p177f   Food Justice….farmers are forced to buy into a system where the seeds sold are non-renewable, under patents, and they ensure ‘an absolute monopoly and an end to our diversity.’ [Dr. Vandana Shiva & Ruchi Shroff: Seed Satyagraha: Civil Disobedience To End Seed Slavery, New Delhi, Navdanya, 2015, p5]

p180f  In praise of the vegan diet.   A recent study has shown that a vegan diet “ is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidiification,  eutrophication, land use and water use [Damian Carrington: “The Guardian, 1 June 2018]….For those not ready to take the vegan plunge, at least try reducing  your meat and dairy intake. 

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BOOKS READ JULY 2019

BOOKS READ JULY 2019

John Dickson: The Christ Files: How Historians Know What They Know About Jesus, Sydney, Bluebottle Books, 2000

Australian John Dickson is an outstanding historian and theologian who manages to say more things in fewer words than any other person I have read. He also manages to communicate without using too much long and inscrutable vocabulary. In just 100 pages Dickson deals succinctly with:

  1. types of historical scholarship In New Testament studies (the sceptical, the apologetic and the mainstream….The mainstream historians publish in reputable journals open to the criticism and review by  their academic and trained peers; such sources are our best guide.
  2. The references to Jesus in pagan writers ..giving precise detail and analysis of  the comments by Josephus, Thallos, Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata and Celsus.
  3. The references to Jesus in early Jewish writers – helpful detail about the comments by Josephus, the Talmud, (baraitha Sanhedrin 43 a-b  and baraitha Shabbat 104b) and a summary of the Jewish understanding of Jesus (quite detailed when you see the list altogether on p 31f).
  4. The sources and historical veracity of the New Testament Gospel materials including a very balanced discussion of the priority of Mark and the possible existence of “Q”. This chapter includes a very useful discussion of how a historian goes about the task of weighing up the value  a variety of independent historical sources within and behind the New Testament. This analysis included the criteria of coherence,  dissimilarity, archaic style (the Gospels were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic); the criteria of embarrassment, memorability and date.
  5. A discussion about Jesus in oral tradition…”Jesus Remembered.” (the title of a useful book by James Dunn). This chapter contains very instructive analysis of two parables of the same story and comments on the differences within them and the possible reasons for the differences.
  6. A discussion about the background context for the study of Jesus. Obvious candidates here are the Jewish Tanakh (The Old Testament); the Dead Sea Scrolls; the Mishnah; Josephus; Old Testament Pseudopigrapha; Graeco-Roman writers; Archaeology (especially the last 25 years); and the so-called Secret Gospels.

John Dickson concludes in part with this sentence: … I suspect one of the reasons we modern people avoid discussing Jesus and the Gospels is that our last brush with these topics was simplistic and shallow. Sometimes this is because we were six years old when we last gave consideration to Jesus ‘meek and mild’. Other times it is because the Christians we have encountered talked about their faith in facile and unreflective ways. But the Gospels surely deserve a second look!…the influence of Jesus is incalculable..the Gospels were composed after a very sophisticated process of eyewitness reporting, oral traditioning, source examination and critical reflection…tor these reasons and more, the Gospels deserve to be read seriously by believers and unbelievers, scholars and laymen alike.  5 stars and rising!

N T Wright: The Challenge of Jesus: Second Edition, London, SPCK, 2015 (1st edition 2000)

THE CHALLENGE OF JESUS 2ND EDITION
N T WRIGHT

In his new preface to this edition Tom Wright reminds us that in January 1999, nobody imagined..what would happen less than three years later, as planes smashed into buildings and the world changed forever. The Western world , and the Western Church, was embarrassingly unprepared not just for the terrible and wicked deeds of September 11, 2001 but for the world-view challenges that it offered. For far too long, Western Christianity had believed, at least implicitly, that religion and politics were two such separate things that one didn’t really need to think too hard about how they might engage with one another. The reaction to the atrocity was then predictable: meet fire with fire…into this strange, dark new world, we urgently need new light. Jesus of Nazareth brought that light a long time ago. The world, and the Church, has found it too dazzling, and we have done our best to cover it up, talking busily about a private spirituality in the present and a ‘heavenly’ salvation. But when Jesus taught us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done, on earth as in heaven, he actually meant it. (p.ix)

Wright’s solution to this problem is to challenge his readers to think historically about Jesus of Nazareth not theologically. He writes about Jesus as a historian not as a systematic theologian or a Biblical literature theorist. The result is indeed a fresh and startling book although careful readers of his foundational works Jesus and the Victory of God and The New Testament and the People of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God will be familiar with much of the detail of the defence of these ideas. What has changed from the first edition, apart from the new Preface, is not the content of the first edition but the context …The Western world is rapidly moving into a non-Christian, not to say anti-Christian understanding as the modernist world disintegrates and the post-modern replacement drifts in fits and starts  on every vaporous current of ideas that flits past us, bur remorselessly always in a non-Christian direction in a google-saturated world. In this environment Wright calls us not just to be kingdom announcers, modelling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross-bearers. This is a strange and dark theme which is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. (p145). …It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world…(p146)…we are cracked vessels full of glory, wounded healers. (p149).  

The essence of Wright’s argument about Jesus is summed up neatly in chapter 4 “The crucified Messiah”.  Of course we understand that Jesus was a prophet announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. (Unless you are a disciple of John Crossan’s theory of Jesus the Galilean peasant who was a spinner of whimsical and gnostic tales). But Jesus was far more than a prophet. His teaching (when it is not stripped bare by inadequate, faulty and unsubstantiated mid C20th modernist criticism which reduces his message to a bare thread), is unique, powerful, cutting, incisive and life changing and demonstrates that Jesus was a theologian…a theologian of huge originality and power. But of course, there is more! Was Jesus the Son of God? people ask and Wright’s answer is that this is the wrong question. We cannot study Jesus’s psychology but we can study what he says about his vocation.  When we do we quickly learn that Jesus regarded himself at the embodiment of the Jewish Messiah…the longed hoped for saviour of the Jewish people who would free them from exile and slavery. 

Analysis of second temple Jewish literature shows that large numbers of Jews in the C1st A.D. were longing for their deliverer to come in power, overcome the Romans and bring in the long awaited and prophesied kingdom of God. The Gospels show that Jesus did indeed believe himself to be the Messiah but a very different Messiah from the one the Jewish community was looking for. He was a servant Messiah not a warrior Messiah.  Jesus’ violent acts in the temple, his warnings about the coming destruction of the temple, his authoritative offer of forgiveness of sins replacing temple offerings,  his parables of the landlord’s son coming to claim ownership and getting killed, his announcements in the Nazareth synagogue when he invoked Isaiah’s prophecy as his task, his courageous establishment of a new covenant in his crucified body and blood and much more besides clearly shows us that Jesus knew quite clearly and determinedly who we was. To ask “did Jesus know he was  God?”  is the wrong question.  Jesus’s vocation was to be God’s Messiah and he knew from Isaiah that the task would involve his death. Of course this is why Jesus’ disciples were so despondent after Jesus’ crucifixion. 

As for the resurrection, Wright argues again historically and not theoretically or theologically. He notes there is no evidence for a form of early Christianity in which the resurrection was not the central belief. Wright moves on to show what resurrection belief was not. It was not some sort of “ultimate non-physical bliss” as seen in Philo’s account;  nor was it some sort of disembodied existence in some heavenly state as in the apocryphal Book of Wisdom. Wright demonstrates that from the prophecy of Ezekiel 37 and Jeremiah  onwards there was a sense in which “resurrection” would mean Israel’s return from exile and the renewal of their covenant in the inauguration of a new age. (p101). For the Jews who did believe in the resurrection (and there were many who did not eg the Sadducees) their view of resurrection was a reembodiment of God’s chosen people… believing Jews – an event for all true Jewish believers.  As Wright notes,  the early Christian notion of the resurrection of just one person, the Messiah (Jesus or any other Messiah),  was nowhere on the second Temple Jewish wavelength. For just one person to be resurrected was a very singular and peculiar thing indeed.  The Christian claim that, apart from the earliest appearances noted in 1 Corinthians 15,  believers came to know to know the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread and in a sense of the power of the Holy Spirit was also a completely new deal although clearly foretold in Jeremiah’s prophecy. (p107) Of course Paul did go further and write about the eventual  “resurrection body” in the future and here Wright explicates well the problems of the RSV and NRSV use of the terms  the “spiritual” and the “physical” body and moves us again towards the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on a recreated and redeemed earth.

As I write this I fully understand that this book is full of demanding and difficult ideas and for someone looking for a simple answer when they are asked “Who is Jesus?” they may not have the stamina to stay with this analysis. In response Wright simply returns to the post-modern world outlined above. Evangelical Christianity in particular has tended to “deify” Jesus of Nazareth turning him into a “docetic” Christ… not a normal man at all.  But Jesus was in fact a man, a human being… a man sent by God as John writes. And that man, from childhood it seems, had the deepest possible sense of his vocation as the long awaited Jewish Messiah. A Messiah who had to show the Jewish nation that true messiahship must incorporate the prophesied suffering servant of Isaiah rather than the military might of a Davidic King.  Jesus of Nazareth was not at all interested in repeating the ultimately doomed fight of the Maccebean rebels against Roman oppression. If we are to be able to explain to non-believers the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” we must read the Bible historically and not (only) theologically and we may get further.   I heartily commend this book.  5 stars. 

Alex Miller: The Sitters, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2003

Interesting and engaging novella by brilliant English/Australian author Alex Miller about art, love and family. This was his fourth novel following his multi-award winning The Ancestor Game which won the Miles Franklin award among many others and was simply a most stunning novel. The Sitters is far less complex but still, as always with Miller, engages he mind with many twists and turn. Ittells an intriguing story of an artist on the brink of fame and his on again off again relationship with university colleague Jessica. As in many Miller novels the action eventually centres on the  dreamy and remote Australian rural outback, this time the Araluen Valley in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. All of Miler’s trademark skills are in evidence once more including philosophic, artistic and literary references, fine characterisations, complex family relationships and links between Australia and England.  A very readable and thoughtful novel, interesting and engaging, without reaching great heights.   4 stars. 

Tim Winton: Breath, Camberwell, VIC, Penguin, 2008

Complex and troubling novel by Tim Winton who never fails to surprise his readers with his characters drawn with searing honesty, weaknesses as well as strengths, and who often fall into very deep waters indeed but always finishing with some form of redemption. Bruce Pike’s life story, growing up in a small country town in South Western Australia, his adventures with surfing, school and sex and his adult life as a paramedic provide Winton with a rich array of interesting characters of whom by far the most interesting is the ageing surfing superstar Sando. The “breath” theme emerges in many and unexpected places and the novel also has much to say about changing friendship patterns, deep water writers and scientists Hans Has and Jacques Coosteau and Peruvian American mystic Carlos Castaneda. Winton also manages to interweave Christian themes into his novel as well as reflections on fame, loss and mental illness.  The deepest theme of all, however, is the majesty, spirituality, danger and power of the surf and the deep sea and its seemingly endless ability to entice its true believers into ever increasing trials of strength. This is a novel full of very powerful images, some very difficult to delete from the mind.  5 stars.

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John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personnel God; for, you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captive, and proves weak or untrue,

Yet dearly ‘I love you, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy,

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I

Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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Books read June 2019

BOOKS READ JUNE 2019

Bob Slosser: Miracle in Darien, Plainfield, NJ, Logos International, 1979

New You journalist and writer Bob Slosser

New York journalist with the New York Times and the National Courier Bob Slosser has written a unique portrait of the creation of a megachurch, St Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Darien, Connecticut. Slosser was a member of this church prior to and throughout the 17 year tenure of Everett L. “Terry” Fullam and he writes with a journalist’s eye and with what could only be actual notes taken at the time of sermons, prayers and even Fullam’s expressions of humour and other characteristics.  

Terry Fullam was a Christian musician turned philosopher and theologian who graduated from Harvard with an MA and from Barrington College with a Doctorate in Theology and was a well-known speaker and song leader.  He attended a service lead by the Revd Dennis Bennett, Rector of St Mark’s Van Nuys and was baptised in the Holy Spirit and became committed to charismatic renewal in the Episcopalian Church. 

Called to be the new Rector of St Paul’s Darien in 1972 Fullam was ordained without attending a seminary program, by the Bishop of Rhode Island, and made an immediate impact on what was already a well-attended “standard” Episcopalian church.  Fullam’s ministry based on the model of “everyone in the church is a minister”  and his exceptional musical talents and with the help of his team exploded St Paul’s into a dynamic ministry with several pastors, major support staff who worked in counselling, welfare, finance for folk in trouble, youth and childrens ministry, prison ministry and a raft of other services.  Fullam himself spent up to fifty per cent of his time on speaking engagements and missions outside the parish and after retiring from the parish he spent nine years travelling overseas encouraging spiritual renewal including over fifty separate visits to Israel. It is reasonable to say that Fullam was widely regarded as the leader of charismatic renewal in the North American Episcopalian Church deeply strengthening the beleaguered evangelical minority in that denomination.

Slosser’s writing is measured, detailed, full of scriptural references but does not beatify Fullam and demonstrates his weaknesses and challenges as well as his successes. An up to date reprint has been re-set at a more general and less personal level as a handbook for church spiritual growth and is highly regarded.  

I was not sure what to expect from Miracle in Darien. In the end I could not put it down. It is a well – crafted, wise and spiritually thoughtful and uplifting read.   5 stars. 

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York & Canada, New Directions, 1972 (1962)

Thomas Merton American Trappist Monk and author

In spite of this non-speaking isolation Merton gained a wide reputation as a writer, social critic, and progressive thinker by the time of his death at fifty-two. He wrote more than seventy books, diaries, biographies, poetry, meditative writing and political essays as well as hundreds of journal articles.

Born in Prades, France, the son of artists who died when he was young, Merton lived in Bermuda and Britain before enrolling briefly in Cambridge University in England. In 1934 he entered Columbia University in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree in English, studying under Mark Van Doren. It was at this time that he went from agnostic to Roman Catholic.  In 1941 after teaching English in a Harlem settlement house, he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, a cloistered Trappist monastery in central Kentucky. 

New Seeds of Contemplation, is an impressive series of brief essays surrounding the “art” and process of Christian contemplation. It contains many profound and thought provoking ideas, theological insights, many practical suggestions and a number of warnings about the traps of leading a contemplative life. The chapter entitled “the moral theology of the Devil” is profound and chapter 15 “Sentences” contains wise advice including Sentence 1: To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore make up your mind to risk frustration, and sentence 7: If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn. Contemplation is a serious undertaking and not something one drifts into. There are salutary warnings and vast wisdom contained here but it is not all easy reading.  4 stars.

David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars, Maryborough Vic., Bloomsbury, 1994 (paperback film tie-in edition) originally published, UK, 1995.

Complex first novel by American writer, poet and journalist David Guterson and made into a major international movie success directed by Australian Scott Hicks.  The novel is set in the mid 1950’s in the bitter winter of the North West Pacific Puget Sound area of the Washington coast, in a  fishing and agricultural  town settled by a significant number of Japanese strawberry and raspberry crop growers.  Guterson has weaved an engrossing account of a murder trial centred on a death of a German/American fisherman at sea and a longstanding dispute over a land deal with the prime suspect being a Japanese man who had fought for the US in world war 11. The key players in the novel are Ishmail Chambers, a newspaper editor who lost an arm fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, Hatsue Imada, his Japanese childhood sweetheart whose relationship deepened into young adulthood and Kabuo Miyamoto the fisherman/farmer murderer suspect who was married to Hatsue Imada when all Japanese where interned in prison camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The snow falling on tall cedar forests in the midst of a violent storm is the constant visual and emotive backdrop of this visceral novel. Guterson also describes in some detail the trauma for interned Japanese families living in appalling conditions in remote camps in the USA  as well as the bitter hand to hand fighting in the Pacific islands as the US entered the war and began to win back territory occupied by the Japanese. An engrossing and challenging read with perhaps a need for stronger editing in parts.   4 stars.

John Julius Norwich: Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe, London, John Murray, 2017

author of “Four Princes”

It is an extraordinary coincidence that in the decade between 1491 and 1500 four of the most influential leaders ever to hold power in Europe should be born. In the same half century came the explosion of the Reformation, the invention of the printing press, the beginnings of modern science and the age of world exploration.  

John Julius Norwich has the remarkable gift of making history not only come alive but fascinating and enjoyable as well as informed. Henry VIII needs no introduction ..his six wives, mercurial temperament, lust for power and passion to win France for England, quite apart from his challenge to papal power and authority is a story often told but Norwich manages to introduce us to a more personal Henry ..his doubts and fears as well as his bombast. Francis 1, King of France,  lusted after his Italian possessions especially Milan as much as Henry wanted France. Francis 1 was sandwiched between the two flanks of the mighty Holy Roman Empire, with Spain to the west and Germany, the low countries and the Balkans to the east. Frequently in opposition to Papal authority as well as Henry V111 he had few friends and needed the support of the Ottoman Muslim leader Suleiman the Magnificent to even the scales of power. Charles V,  Hapsburg King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was certainly made in the tradition of Charlemagne.  Multi-lingual, a fierce warrior, cunning diplomat,  creative leader and fierce opponent of the Reformation,  he also had no qualms about sacking Rome and effectively imprisoning the Pope.

  Here were three high powered personalities indeed but the fourth was the greatest of all. Suleiman the Magnificent ruled the vast and complex Ottoman Empire with flair, intelligence and brutal power mercilessly quashing opposition from any quarter for over forty years. He was the only one of the four rulers to reach the age of 60, living into his 70s. The Ottoman rulers before him had already taken complete control of the Balkans and under Suleiman’s rule they annexed Hungary from the Hapsburgs  before laying siege to Vienna itself. In addition with the help of the naval pirate Barbarossa Suleiman controlled the Mediterranean and Aegean coast from the Barbary Coast in  North Africa in the South to Rhodes, the Balearic Islands  and even Nice and laying siege to Malta. Suleiman was a statesman, a patron of the arts, a legislator and first and foremost a soldier with unparalleled strategic skills and died with his troops in battle.

With superb skill Norwich integrates the stories of these four amazing leaders seamlessly interleaving his considerable knowledge of the role of the papacy throughout this whole period. It is difficult to find a paragraph that is not memorable in this account. The pace never weakens and it is an adventure narrative full of pathos, drama, extreme violence, political and religious intrigue as well as dirty dealing when needed. One of the saddest parts of the narrative is the appalling treatment and annihilation of Protestant Christians in both France and the Balkans…a terror whose results are still seen today.  I cannot think of a better entry to the study of  European history than this energetic and stylishly fluent account.  5 stars.

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Meditating with Merton on contemplation and the spiritual life

QUESTIONS/COMMENTS FROM Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York & Canada, New Directions, 1972 (1962).

p  15:   The love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good.

p  45    The cowardice that does what is demanded, in order to escape sacrifice.

p  49     ..the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence.

p  50    The sin? of Christian activity.  In what way is Christian activity sinful?

p. 52f   Solitude is not separation from other humans..If you go into the desert to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils…go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God.

p  54     There is no more dangerous solitude that that of the man who is lost in a crowd, who does not know he is alone and who does not function as a person in a community either. 

p  56    God does not give us graces or talents or virtues for ourselves alone.

p  57    In humility is the greatest freedom.

p  61f   The holiness of God is seen in God becoming man and dwelling among sinners. God was not holy enough for man so they crucified him.

p 68    The trinity is an example of fellowship being possible in one person.

p  71   Christ is massacred in His members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in men.

p  72   Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish. 

p  75   The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. 

p 76    Contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.  

p  79   The flight from the world is nothing but the flight from self-concern…it is dangerous to go i into solitude merely because you like to be alone.

p  82f   Let there always be quiet dark churches in which men can take refuge… a place somewhere …where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.  There can be no contemplation where there is no secret.

p  84   Do everything you can to avoid the noise and business of men…Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their radios. Do not bother with their unearthly songs. Do not read their advertisements…no man who who seeks spiritual freedom, can afford to yield passively to all the appeals of a society of salesmen, advertisers and consumers. There is no doubt that life cannot be lived on a human level without certain legitimate pleasures. But to say that all the pleasures which offer themselves to us as necessities are not “legitimate” is quite another story.

p 85.    We must be able to say no to our appetites.

p 85f    No contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline …drinking, smoking, eating, tv, sex and today data!…

p  86    Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air. Work, if you can, under His sky.

p  87   Keep your sense of compassion for the men who have forgotten the very concept of solitude.  You, at least, into that it exists and it is the source of peace and joy.

p 96f   Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps be all more or less at fault. …the moral theology of the devil grants an altogether unusual amount of importance to …the devil…one soon comes to find out that he is the very centre of the whole system, that he is behind everything…and that there is every chance of his doing so because, it now appears, his power is equal to God, or perhaps superior to it. In one word, the theology of the devil is purely and simply that the devil is god.

p 100   It is not humility to insist on being someone that you are not….how do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?

pp104-111 Sentences:  To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore make up your mind to risk frustration

Do not be one of those who, rather than risk failure, never attempts anything.

Our minds are like crows.  They pick up everything that glitters, no matter how uncomfortable our nests get with all that metal in them.

If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticised, he will never write anything that can be read.  If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some people will condemn.

You cannot be a man of faith unless you know how to doubt.

True faith is never merely a source of spiritual comfort. It may indeed bring peace, but before it does so it must involve us in a struggle.

We are so convinced that past evils must repeat themselves that we make them repeat themselves.

The really “new” is that which, at every moment, springs freshly into new existence.

We need to learn how to renounce our resentment towards the absurdity and moral anarchy of modern society without becoming complicit or arrogant…we reject society’s  premise by the liberty given to us by our faith in God..we are commanded to come out of Egypt!

The poet enters into himself in order to create. The contemplative enters into God in order to be created.

p 125  Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world  because they are also the most bored and the ones who find life most tedious.

p127f  Faith is first of all an intellectual assent..faith is not expected to give complete satisfaction to the intellect …yet it does not frustrate the intellect or deny it…the act of faith is an act in which the intellect is content to know God by loving Him and accepting His statements about Himself on His own terms.

p 128  Faith is also a grasp, a contact, a communion of wills…one must assent to God.

p 130  Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe.

p 133  It is unwise to try to unlock the meaning of the three persons in one nature.

p 134  We feel the weakness and instability of our spirit in the presence of the awful mystery of God…a subjective sense of our own helplessness is perfectly compatible with true faith.  

p  139  φυχος (psuchos) = animal soul;    νους (nous)  = mind, reason, knowledge;   πνευμα (pneuma)   = spirit;  σοφια (sophia)  = wisdom, an alternative name for God in the Old Testament Wisdom literature.

p  142  The Church is at the same time esentially traditional and essentially revolutionary… Christianity is a living and perpetual revolution. 

p145   “…the dry outer crust of formality which the Church sometimes acquires.”

p 146  Mysticism and dogma are not opposed..they need each other. 

p 146   …therefore beware of the contemplative who says that theology is all straw before he has ever bothered to read any.

p 151   No one can be quite sure just how Christ looked….No one can dismiss the man Christ from his interior life on the pretext that he has now entered by contemplation into direct communication with the Word.

p 153  The “what” in Christ is vastly less important than the “who”. 

p 154   Do we need a “picture” of Christ to help us in our prayers?

p 160   People waste their whole lives in appalling labour and difficulty and sacrifice to get things that make real life impossible.

p 163   Life in Christ is life in the hidden mystery of the Cross.

p 165   Reference to “the real Presence” and p. 168 all graces come to men through Mary. 

p  169  Mary is as nothing in the presence of God. 

p 176  Do not think you can show your love for Christ by hating those who seem to be his enemies on earth…He loves them.

p  178   A man cannot be a perfect Christian – that is, a saint, unless he is also a communist. Try to share some or the poverty of the poor. 

p 180   Despair is the ultimate extreme of self-love…because our resources inevitably fail us, we are all, more or less, subject to discouragement or despair.

p 181    The beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness…if we were incapable of humility we would be incapable of joy.

p187    Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine!

p 196  We must distinguish between self-will and liberty.

p  204   …many never come to suspect how much they are governed by unconscious forms of selfishness, how much their virtuous acts are prompted by a narrow and human self-interest.

p 210 striving for complete emptinesscf 231 Be empty and see that I am God”…cf p 265 ..but in the contemplative, all complexities have now begun to straighten themselves out and dissolve into unity and emptiness and interior peace…cf p268 ..emptied of attachments..cf p 278 the experience of God opens out inside you as a terrific emptinesscf p287f  ..can such union with God be the object of inordinate desire?…you cannot inordinately desire that God’s will be done for  His own sake. But it is in these two desires perfectly conceived and fulfilled that we are emptied into Him and transformed into His joy and it is in these that we cannot sin. cf p291f ..the union of the simple light of God with the simple light of man’s spirit, in love, is contemplation. The two simplicities are one. They form, as it were, an emptiness in which there is no addition but rather the taking away of names, of forms. of content, of subject matter, of identities.

p 212   The most important thing in life is a feeling of interior peace.

p 217  Meditation…teaches you how to become aware of the presence of God : and most of all it aims at bringing you to a state of almost constant loving attention to God, and dependence on Him.

p221  If you have never had any distractions  you don’t know how to pray. 

p223 It is no use trying to clear your mind of all the material things at the moment of meditation if you do nothing to cut down the pressures of work outside that time.

p235 Let us never forget that the ordinary way to contemplation lies through a desert without tread without beauty and without water…ie contemplation comes through a suffering journey..with no refreshment for their imagination and intellect and for the desires of their nature. 

p 243  There is no such thing as a kind of prayer in which you do absolutely nothing.

p 247  Merton refers to “stigmata” but offers no comment on whether or not it actually happens.

p 250  Christ came on earth to form contemplatives??  Is this why Christ came?

p 253  A contemplative cannot operate in a situation of extreme poverty.

p 254  Contemplation …is the normal perfection of theology…unless they are united, there is no fervour, no life and no spiritual welfare in theology, no meaning and no sure orientation in theology. 

p 259  Do not look for rest in any pleasure, because you were not created for pleasure: you were created for spiritual JOY. And if you do not know the difference between pleasure and spiritual joy you have not yet begun to live.

p 266 [The contemplative’s] life is a prolonged immersion in the rivers of tranquillity that flow from God into the whole universe and draw all things back into God.

p 269  ..if your experience of God comes from God, one of the signs may be a great diffidence in telling others about it. 

p 271  No-one teaches contemplation except God.

p 279f  Merton introduces a definition of a human person which includes the person (the spiritual and hidden self, united to God) and the ego  (the exterior, empirical self…a kind of mask for the hidden self….it is our whole reality (not a distinction between “body” and “soul”). This insist self ..has its own way of knowing, loving and experiencing, which is a divine way and not a human one…. What do we think about this division?

p 285  Merton  refers to this perfect contemplation in which the should vanishes out of itself by the perfect renunciation of all desires and all things…is such perfect contemplation on earth possible?

p 288   [Contemplatives} are the strength of the world…they are the ones who keep the universe from being destroyed…. They shall inherit the land…They see God. He does their will, because His Will is there own… hmmm..

p 290  God made the world in order that He Himself might descend into the world.

p. 295  God’s presence in the world as Man depends, in some measure, upon men.

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