Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Books read 2017 (excluding whodunits)

The usual short(ish) reviews. It's not been a great year in terms of "serious" reading but I did get through a couple of real doorstops - War And Peace and The Man On The Donkey.

For review of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, see here.

Detective story reviews here.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation
Rod Dreher
There is a terrible flood coming, and you’re still sitting in your back garden knocking back beers and planning a new extension to your house. That’s the starting point of this long-awaited, endlessly discussed, and oft-criticised book. Rod writes in a chatty and engaging style, weaving anecdote and interview and analysis together to make a very compelling case for his central thesis that we are facing a new Dark Age for Christianity and that traditional believers must act to preserve the faith in an unprecedentedly hostile culture. “Politics is no substitute for personal holiness”, he writes, and this rejection of the religious right’s traditional political approach is the credo underlying the whole book. I have my quibbles with the broad brush presentation of the chapter on how Christianity lost the Western mind, from Ockham to Obergefell, but this isn’t a scholarly book, it’s a book written to be accessible for a wide audience with relatively little historical knowledge. The chapter on the monks of Nursia is particularly fascinating, but there are marvellous pen portraits of all kinds of Christian intentional communities all over the USA. It’s an open question how well Rod’s prescriptions translate over the Atlantic, but we do have things to learn. And I think Rod’s “alarmism”, as it has been called, is more than justified, even if the timescales might be a little longer than he thinks.

War And Peace
Leo Tolstoy
Well. It’s not easy to write a review of a book like this. In some ways it’s more like a moral-philosophical treatise than a novel. Throughout the book, and particularly in the third volume, there are long, long excursuses on history and historiography, alongside the vast and complex narrative. Tolstoy, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, questions the conventions of then-contemporary history writing, which focuses on great men and their decisions, and thus imposes what he regards as arbitrary and artificially neat narratives on essentially chaotic events which are moulded by both a mysterious impersonal force, and by a multitude of individual choices and decisions which cannot be analysed in the way that conventional historical sources can be. This is particularly true, in the Tolstoyan view, of battles, which almost never go to plan – and indeed cannot be planned or directed in any meaningful sense because of the impossibility of instant communications and the thousands of individual split-second decisions which affect the outcome. He is highly critical of the conventional view of Napoleon as some kind of military genius, noting that Bonaparte made a series of stupid mistakes in the late summer and autumn of 1812, with terrible consequences for the French army, and that the Emperor’s dispositions and actions at Borodino, a battle which ultimately turned out to have been a failure for the French, were essentially indistinguishable from his dispositions and actions at Austerlitz and Jena, and other great French victories of the Napoleonic wars. More broadly, in history and in other matters, Tolstoy asks how we understand the roles of free will and necessity. Obviously no-one can entirely escape the fact that their actions are determined to some degree; but equally all of us have a deep and fundamental experience of living as free beings.

The story itself picks up some of the threads mentioned above. Many of the characters are struggling to impose meaning on their lives, to assert their free will in the face of a universe that seems to have laid down their fates, to develop a place in their world and to understand how they must act. Pierre Bezukhov, probably the closest thing the book has to a hero, faces this task. Early on he marries the unsuitable Helene, almost in spite of himself, and must go through many trials and false starts to obtain harmony with the world, which manifests itself as a kind of lightness and humility. Almost all the main characters acquire hard-won wisdom, and in many ways this is a book about wisdom, which is often illustrated by contrasting it with folly, pride, cruelty and stupidity. Andrew and Mary Bolkonsky, Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, Sonya – all change and grow and develop, with their weaknesses and strengths and fears. Interestingly we are only offered resolutions for the core characters. Others drift in and out of the story, and their threads are lost. The hundreds of minor characters act as a sort of chorus or “way in” to events for ordinary people.

It is also a wonderful insight into Russia, on some deep level. It is a hugely powerful, moving and exciting story imbued with Russian culture and national spirit. No wonder the USSR produced a lavish and apparently brilliant epic TV version in the 1960s; it is not very Communist, to say the least – in fact it is a rather conservative and religious work, even deeply mystical in parts (Platon Karataev!) – but it is a superb work of national celebration, and surprisingly funny. I am keen now to read more Russian literature and history.

To return to the argumentative parts of the text, I’m still mulling over my views on Tolstoy’s points. He is plainly right that the way history was written in his day was too neat, that commands and decisions from on high do not make history in the straightforward way that historians supposedly like to pretend, and that Napoleon was often simply lucky. But equally I think he is too dismissive of the possibility of individuals and individual decisions making history – Napoleon cannot have simply been lucky for a whole career! And his attacks on Great Man theory and the conceptions of history that he finds uncongenial, whether because too deterministic or too libertarian, often have a whiff of the straw man about them.

The Story Of Christianity
David Bentley Hart
Very good single volume history of the faith – or at least, of the main events and persons that have shaped the institutional, liturgical, theological and national expressions of the main traditions within Christianity. DBH himself makes the point that a true history of the faith, as it has lived in the hearts of its hundreds of millions of adherents, is impossible. DBH doesn’t neglect the less well-known – to Europeans, at any rate – churches of the East and Ethiopia, and outlines the fascinating history, and in some cases present, of Christians in China, central Asia and India. I was only vaguely aware, for example, of the extent of Christianity in China, south central Asia and India during the early medieval period (it was mostly obliterated in the first two places by Mongols and Chinese Emperors).

Uncle Fred In The Springtime
PG Wodehouse
One thing you forget about Plum’s sparklingly brilliant books is how intricately and deftly plotted they are. This is a particularly fine example. As usual a motley crew of good-natured impostors arrive at Blandings with various schemes in hand, and as usual chaos ensues. The Empress of Blandings, as ever, looms large. These stories are pure joy.

Full Moon
PG Wodehouse
One of the best Blandings books, if such an accolade is really meaningful. Galahad descends on the pile to ensure the nuptials of Bill Lister and Prudence Garland, and Tipton Plimsoll and Veronica Wedge. The ensuing glorious farce unfolds with marvellous intricacy.

God Or Nothing
Robert, Cardinal Sarah
Book-length interview with the man who will, perhaps, be the first African Pope (yes, there are the guys from Roman North Africa from back in the day, but given their ethnic and cultural distance from modern Africa, the accolade seems to be meaningful). The first half is mostly autobiographical, telling his frankly extraordinary life story. He grew up in a small village in a remote part of Guinea, the only son of subsistence farmers from a traditionally animist culture who had been evangelised by French missionary priests from the Holy Ghost Fathers, of whom he speaks highly and warmly throughout the book. Early in his life a brutal Communist dictatorship took control of Guinea and made life extremely difficult for the Church, but he managed to complete seminary, later studying in Rome, France and Jerusalem before returning to his home country and being appointed Archbishop by John Paul II at the age of just 34 (around the same time his predecessor was released from prison after eight years). At that time he was the youngest bishop anywhere in the world. Later he was appointed to various positions in the Roman Curia, and now serves as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He has had a deservedly accomplished career in the Church.

The second part is mostly theological reflection and thoughts on the state of the Church. Sarah is a conservative but he is also a bona fide intellectual and has the kind of deep, fierce, unashamed orthodox faith that is increasingly rare among Western Christians. A constant theme in his thought seems to be the importance of cultivating authentic interiority. He speaks very highly of monastic life, particularly of contemplative monastic life, and keeps returning to the importance of prayer. As Archbishop of Conakry he used to go on three day retreats all by himself and fast from all food except the Sacrament. Indeed his most recent book is all about silence.

I have reservations about some of his stances. He does not really seem to grasp the scale of the Catholic episcopacy’s failure to respond to child sex abuse by priests, and states, in my view rather complacently, that such abuse is not really a problem in Africa (this suggests to me, sadly, that in several decades’ time the African Church will be dealing with more or less the same fallout from cover-ups and enabling of abuse that the Church in Europe and the Anglosphere has been facing since the 1990s). He takes what seems to me to be an excessively hard line on gays, showing no interest in or awareness of the insights of initiatives like Aelred’s Friends or Living Out. Instead he goes on at some length about neo-colonial attempts by Western countries to undermine the developing world’s sexual morality. It’s not that he’s entirely wrong; rather he doesn’t even consider the fact that maybe large parts of the developing world do have pretty awful attitudes to gays and the Church needs to do more about that than quote piously from Catechism 2358. He similarly gives the impression of not having considered in much detail the best arguments put forward for the “Kasper proposal” on Communion for the divorced and remarried. These are more than quibbles, given the likely prominence of the pelvic issues in attacks on the Church over the next few decades, but they are not enough to shake my overall admiration for the man.    

Service With A Smile
PG Wodehouse
Uncle Fred (Lord Ickenham) descends on Blandings once again to reunite sundered hearts. This time the hearts in question belong to Bill “Cuthbert Meriweather” Bailey and Myra Schoonmaker, and to Archie Gilpin and Millicent Rigby. Meanwhile the Empress is under threat again, from the Duke of Dunstable and Lord Tilbury, and the Church Lads encampment is troubling Lord Emsworth. Light and inconsequential and ludicrous, but wonderful – and much-needed in these troubled and troubling times.

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week – From The Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection
Pope Benedict XVI
Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is how personal and accessible it is. Although I generally have little interest in, or aptitude for, serious theology, it piqued and held my interest very well. It would be stretching a point to call Benedict’s style chatty, but you do get the sense of an ordinary scholar sharing his own reflections, the outcome of his own deep study of and meditation on the Gospels. Engaging largely with German theologians, as you might imagine, he disagrees gently but firmly with the demythologisers and the more sceptical of the historical-critical school, to paint a picture of the Jesus of Holy Week which is orthodox but thoughtful. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the interaction of Christ’s two natures, in the context of the Agony of the Garden, and the exploration of the mystery of the Resurrection and Christ’s post-Resurrection life. There are also some very interesting historical discussions about the Triumphal Entry vs the crowd before Pilate (no reason to think the same crowds were involved in both), about when the Last Supper actually occurred and what kind of meal it actually was, and what happened at Jesus’ trial. Benedict is surprisingly generous towards Pilate, recognising the real dilemma with which he was faced – while also using his calculated pragmatism as a jumping-off point for some thoughts on the need for truth to underpin political order. A very fine piece of work overall, I must read the other two.   

The Killer And The Slain: A Strange Story
Hugh Walpole
Exactly what it says on the tin, a very unusual book indeed. It starts off as a reasonably conventional inverted whodunit, about a quiet, reserved novelist who kills the man who has tormented him ever since they were boys together, only to find himself increasingly troubled by his conscience after an initial period of relief and triumph. Then about halfway through it turns into something else, much closer to a psychological horror story with some highly melodramatic elements, finally building to a pretty scary and compelling climax. The first half of the book works better than the second, in my view, with its more disciplined and restrained style, although some of the horror story elements work well, especially Walpole’s refusal to ever quite commit himself to an explanation of the mysterious link between John Talbot and James Tunstall. I was torn between on the one hand finding it all a bit much, and on the other remembering that I believe in the power of supernatural evil, and that there are people who choose to murder, who do monstrous things because of monstrous visions and preoccupations, who lose all sanity and balance.

Walpole is very good – in this book at least – in describing atmosphere, unease, the dynamics of relationships and the way in which people struggle quietly and make compromises with life. Terrifying dreams and uncanny visions are described; and he knows well the seductive glamour of wrongdoing, the way in which vice allures and then imprisons people. The running theme of the battle between good and evil is often clunkily handled but it is a crucial part of the book. Walpole obviously understood the feelings of the bullied child and the effects such bullying can have.   

England, Their England
AG Macdonell
Very funny and affectionate look at interwar England, through the eyes of a fictionalised version of the author, a young Scot invalided home from the Western Front who is commissioned to write a book about England and the English. The best-known and most highly-regarded section of the book, justly so, is the village cricket match, a masterpiece of comic writing in the tradition of Wodehouse and Jerome. But almost the whole book is excellent, from the early scathing satire on the conduct of the war, to the account of a fox hunt, which cleverly juxtaposes bucolic clich├ęs about the rituals of the hunt with some scathing though indirect criticism of the practice and its adherents. Other very entertaining sections lampoon the absurdities of the English country house party and British diplomacy.

Some of the later passages are less comic and more sentimental, especially the bit where a character is given a rather clunky sermonette about the superior kindness and gentleness of the English compared to all other races (ask the Irish or the Boers about that). The finale, set in Winchester, where the main character experiences a sort of vision of a parade of warrior poets representing the English psyche, is affecting – I am very vulnerable to such patriotic flights of fancy – but not easy to take entirely seriously, and feels out of step with the light and ironical tone of most of the book (this is also an issue with some parts of Three Men In A Boat).  

The Story Of Classic Crime In 100 Books
Martin Edwards
I had thought that I was developing a pretty decent knowledge of the Golden Age. I’ve read all of Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Christie and Sayers, most of Marsh, and a decent sample of Allingham. I’ve read enough of several other writers to be able to make an informed judgment about their work; Bude, Bellairs, Crofts and Freeman come to mind. But compared to Edwards I am the merest dabbler and dilettante. This is an enormously comprehensive and enjoyable encyclopaedia of the classic detective story, from its first stirrings in the late nineteenth century to its peak in the inter-war period and its gradual evolution into the modern crime novel. I may have to buy a hard copy (I read this on Kindle) for reference purposes.

What I like about Edwards is that he is a thoughtful critic writing in good faith, that is to say he considers classic crime on its own terms. Perhaps because he is a crime writer himself, there is none of the sneering or the throwaway barbs that can mar literary considerations of the Golden Age. I have my quibbles with some of his judgments – for example, he rates Milne’s The Red House Mystery, Sprigg’s Death Of An Airman, Collins’ The Moonstone and Leroux’s The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, none of which I particularly enjoyed (the first two in particular are stinkers). But on the whole I am enormously grateful to him for opening up a whole new world of books to enjoy, and reminding me of the diversity, inventiveness and brilliance to be found within the genre. 

The Man On The Donkey
HFM Prescott
Superb historical novel detailing the lives of a few of the individuals who became entangled with the Pilgrimage of Grace and its aftermath. We follow Christabel Cowper, the Prioress of Marrick Priory; Lord Darcy, a fiercely independent northern peer; Gilbert Dawe, a troubled, fiery, conflicted convert to Protestantism (“the New Learning”); Robert Aske, honourable and devout Yorkshire gentleman; and Julian Savage, a difficult, confused, vulnerable girl who falls in love with Aske. Cowper, Darcy and Aske were all real people, and their characterisation in this book is apparently closely based on what information about them we have available.
It’s a sprawling work, with the proverbial cast of thousands, discursive and slow-burning. But the ever-relevant central theme – how to act with integrity at a time when the state or society make unacceptable demands on your conscience – is deftly and humanely explored in the lives of the main characters. The obvious comparison is with Hilary Mantel; I think Prescott surpasses Mantel. She has a textured, subtle & sympathetic take on early sixteenth century Christianity, and the dilemmas thereof, in a way that I don’t think Mantel quite managed. Prescott’s quietly damning portrait of Cromwell is a lot more plausible than Mantel’s sympathetic stance, and is of a piece with the novel’s overarching scepticism about worldly power.
One other concern of Prescott’s that elevates the book is her stress on the importance of small acts of charity and kindness, perhaps unnoticed by their recipient and perhaps unknown to anyone except God – and on the converse, our frequent small failures of charity and kindness. Gilbert Dawe, for example, is a passionate advocate for the reform of the Church and for Christian faith, but to the real individuals whom God has placed around him as objects of his love he is frequently cruel, irritable and abusive. Prescott for the most part does not stand in judgment over her characters, or at any rate not explicitly. She knows that virtue is hard, that courage is hard, that not everyone can be a Robert Aske – who as an unmarried younger son of a minor gentry family had relatively little to lose by his leadership of the rebellion against Henry, unlike many of those who stayed aloof. 
There is also a streak of mysticism in the book, in a way that reminded me a little of War And Peace (in particular of the enigmatic Platon Karataev). Through the character Malle, a mysterious and strange woman with what we would now call learning disabilities who experiences –  or appears to experience – visions of Christ, Prescott constantly recalls us to the heart of Christianity, the terrifying and impossible truth of the Incarnation. The implicit contrast between the simplicity of Malle, the childlike purity of her faith, and the power politics and violence with which more official representatives of Christianity have allowed themselves to become entangled, is a running theme, though once again Prescott resists glib answers. Not all Christians can be like Malle or the Church could never survive. There have to be those who wrangle about doctrine, and those who administer and organise and enforce the rules. There is a real thoughtfulness and moral seriousness in the sincere soul-searching about the morality of violent resistance to attacks on the Church that she gives to Aske and Darcy. And it is by guile and a certain amount of worldly ruthlessness that Prioress Cowper (temporarily) saves the Priory, and the livelihoods of its inmates, from Cromwell’s depredations. Who cannot sympathise with her insistence that all her Ladies take the Oath of Supremacy in order to avoid the destruction of the community?

The Dark Lantern
Henry Williamson
The first part of Williamson’s Chronicle Of Ancient Sunlight saga, telling the story of the clandestine romance between Richard Maddison and Hetty Turney, their secret wedding, and the difficult early months of their marriage, culminating in the birth of their first son, Phillip (whose life story forms the core of the series, which spans the first two thirds of the twentieth century as well as the last few years of the nineteenth). It’s a deeply textured and involving read, painting a vivid picture of London in the 1890s, but it really comes into its own when Williamson describes nature. The depiction of
the fields and lanes and mills of the north-west Kent and north Surrey countryside that still existed in the late Victorian age, but had largely been swallowed up for ever by suburbia when HW was writing c.1950, are especially poignant.          

The cast of characters, many of whom will presumably return in later instalments, is diverse and drawn well, with the melodrama kept to a minimum. Thomas Turney, the unpleasant patriarch, comes close to being a one-dimensional villain at times, though his behaviour after the birth of his grandson hints at the possibility of some measure of future redemption. Several characters represent the different social and intellectual currents of late Victorian Britain. We have in Richard Maddison the Tory nostalgist for old pre-industrial England, a son of the land, hostile to Free Trade and socialism, devoted to nature. His vegetarian socialist sister Theodora represents a different strain of thinking altogether; pacifist, idealistic, mystical, proto-feminist. Thomas Turney is the archetypal Victorian self-made man, hard-headed, money-minded, crudely Darwinian in his socio-economic views, often cruel and unfeeling. Hugh Turney is the weak, decadent son of the demanding father; Hetty the timid but bright girl made unhappy by the ignorance, self-abasement and obsession with correct behaviour demanded by the norms of her sex and class (cf. the many occasions on which she is made very anxious about social interactions which should be straightforward and relaxed).
The way in which Richard and Hetty’s relationship is damaged by their failure to communicate, and the resultant unhappiness they both endure, is a strong theme in the second half of the book. She thinks her role is to make him happy regardless of any other considerations; she dreads angering or contradicting him and must endure his frequent patronising lectures. He is something of a prig, humourless and insensitive, with fixed ideas about women’s responsibilities and place, and so cannot conceive of entering into a partnership of equals. The sheer number of subjects that they seem unable to discuss meaningfully, and the misunderstandings that result from their mutual incomprehension, creates a tension between them. However, Williamson does portray them both with sympathy and nuance, as they begin to doubt the wisdom of their marriage. Hetty’s lack of confidence is at least in part the fault of her overbearing father (and more broadly the social system which gave women little recourse when oppressed by tyrannical fathers and husbands). Richard’s excessive serious-mindedness and self-contained nature also seem to come from his childhood and his complicated relationship with his father. Richard is alienated from his father, but retains an admiration for him, and Maddison pere’s anti-modern, anti-industrial worldview, as expressed in the diaries which Richard reads after his death, is a great influence on his son.         

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