Reviews of some books I’ve read

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SEE ALSO MY GOOREADS ‘READ’ LIST

MOST RECENT:

Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident

Peter Stanford 2017

Peter Stanford has a gift of presenting potentially difficult theology and religious history in an easy and entertaining style, and Catholic Dissident is no different in this respect. He has his own gently challenging viewpoints such as his suggestion that the Catholic faith today has moved so far towards Luther’s position that the brave reformer might now be wondering what the fuss was about. The clue is in the title of his book – and indeed it is a refreshing idea – that is that Protestantism has firm roots in the faith of his birth. In fact perhaps what was most revolutionary about Luther is that his reforms have now become so widely accepted and translated into secular life that he’s not even perceived as radical by today’s standards. Stanford wonders what might have happened if Luther stuck with his faith tradition of birth. The suggestion is that Luther initially at least only wanted an enlightenment within the papacy, but insatiable forces of German nationalism, class conflict, and the print press did much to alter his theological challenge into something much bigger and highly political. The key role of his Germanic prince protectors is made clear. With such a wealth of new books out on the 400 year anniversary of his theses there may be more historically detailed volumes out there I guess. However Stanford uses his unique psychological insight into the character of Luther and so gets us into the tenacious monk’s head in a very modern way, making an agreeable read for the lay person. And what am I saying, thanks to Luther there’s no more laity, we can all join a universal priesthood – Catholic and Protestant alike.

PREVIOUS FROM 2015:

John Le Carre – Mission Song 2006: a romance with African ethnicity and feudalism, not a great deal actually happens by Le Carre standards

Alan Warner – Their Lips Talk of Mischief 2014: Closely focused interpersonal drama set in 1980s Acton town tower block. Needed bit of dedication before events exploded at the end.

June 2015
Rob Magnuson Smith – Scorper: Whimsical horror. Bill Bryson meets Wicker Man. Anglophilles have such amusing insights and the prose style was innately familiar.

June 2015
A.N.Wilson – A Jealous Ghost 2005: Delicious admixture of cruelty and erotic suggestion. However present too is a stiff-shirted Anglican spirituality or spiritualism, above all a profound wit and a master of the exciting climax. His characters a slightly 2D perhaps but serve here just right for a cracking good novelette.

July 2015
Ian McEwan – The Children Act 2014: A book I ran out of time to read in prison. Glad I returned to it. A softly bittersweet tale with a great female High Court judge protagonist – how he gets into the head of such a character! I had a little weep at the ending, which suddenly pulled up almost out of nowhere. He does human imperfection so well. Trademark existential close-focus sections that warp the passage of time. Virtuoso.

August 2015
Ian McEwan – The Innocent 1989: Interesting play with some true historical events. However knowing what Blake had done to betray the tunnel project from the outset rather dulled the suspense. Still the excruciating close focus was still there but not as well developed twenty years on in his writing. The dismembering of the lover’s ex-husband’s corpse will linger in the memory. Despite knowing about Blake, the ending was as unexpected and transfixing as ever. Still the usual emotional masochism which seems McEwan’s specialty.

September 2015
John le Carre – The Secret Pilgrim 1991: Not just one story but a compendium of reminiscences of the Smiley era told through Ned, a pupil of his. At 408 pages it demanded a bit of loyalty from me reading it. I struggled with the global picture, began to forget the actors spanning the stories as it is a bit of a long pilgrimage of Ned’s. The mood is however deliberately ambiguous, and brooding, even jaded; a masterly end note to that period of Cold War skulduggery. Smiley never appears in le Carré’s novels again.

September 2015
Melvyn Bragg – The Book of Books – The radical impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011 2011: (P/R) The veteran broadcaster starts with a thrilling blow by blow account of the bravery and vitriol of the gestation and birth of the KJB supplemented by a lucky airing of his documentary on surely England’s greatest martyr William Tyndale. After that it became rather academic with chapters on the role of the book in various areas of life. He seems a typically timid Anglican and in danger I believe like many or his generation of Christians to have mistaken the huge power of this work for some kind of linguistic magic of the early modern style of the KJV; he has no thought for the need to communicate the message in contemporary English. He talking about the impact of Bible as intellectual property, but confounds this with the particular turns of phrase of the KJV. Rather I believe the countless benefits of the KJV he alludes to were not ultimately thanks the 15C translators, but the real credit rests with GOD alone. I think Tyndale would have agreed with me.

September 2015
William P. Farley – Gospel-Powered Humility 2011: The author brings back from the dead key Puritan thinkers and gives a dogmatic exposition of concepts almost forgotten in contemporary churches such as the moral peril of humanity, original sin, the wrath of God and the day of judgement. These aren’t easy ideas and he turns to frequent repetition and Biblical quotes especially from Paul of Tarsus. I’m sure it’s important in my spiritual edification but God only knows how I can share some of this message which is a natural antidote to a lukewarm and listless kind of Christianity all too prevalent. But he seems too right wing and abrasive for an Anglican Quaker like me, and a single comment he made about homosexuality risked spoiling his whole argument.

September 2015

Fred Uhlman – Reunion 1971: A daintily told little story of a friendship between two boys in Germany in the lead up to WWII. Certainly moving, romantic, but I found it all too short – more a ‘novella’ or a short story at 74 pages. I suppose I must be a philistine for wondering whether I got my money’s worth (seven pounds) for this rare book, not available in the library, recommended by McEwan in the Guardian. Uhlman is an interesting man, German Jew, having become an accomplished painter living in exile in Britain, dying in 1985. Appetite now whetted for his other 2 books – wonder what the page per pound ratio is for them.

Roddy Doyle – The Woman Who Walked Into Doors 1996: Gritty is a word. I was curious about a male writer who tries to get into a female character’s head and heart and of course I don’t know but it stirred me in fact it was quite scary and depressing, as the woman is dignified but badly treated and it ended pretty violently but with her still standing. Working class Irish setting. Reading good novels teaches one, to be sure.

November 2015

Tom Wright – Simply Good News 2015: After hearing him speak at St.Pauls in October I was keen to read his work as Tom has an air of authority and conviction about him in his perspective which is perfectly orthodox as far as I can tell. It was really eye-opening and he unloads so much empty dogma and confounding beliefs in both the Christian world and without. The central premise is that Christ bursting into the flow of history in the 1st century was above all an event that had and continues to have glorious implications for humanity as God makes his kingdom on earth as in heaven. His style contrasts with the somewhat doom-filled approach of certain American preachers I’ve read and I feel like a weight has been lifted, or you might say I’ve found a yoke that fits and is easy.

J.G.Ballard – The Unlimited Dream Company 1979: Surreal is a word, but it is also firmly rooted in the consumer banality and parochial life of the town of Shepperton The kaliedoscopic taxonomy, the studied natural history, the passion and processes of life and death so detailed make it a kind of Science Fiction as well. But in the end this exquisite and unique style defies description. At times erotic, also grotesque, Ballard proves to have totally unbridled imaginative powers that makes for an alien sort of read, a dream-cum-nightmare. But is also deeply sacred, with themes found in St. John the Divine’s Apocalypse (or the Book of Revelation), looking forward to a renewing of all creation and a triumph over death and corruption. It’s a sort of post-modern messianic tale with the glorious cataclysm this time taking place in, and in the skies above a sleepy Surrey town.

January 2016
C.S.Lewis – The Great Divorce 1946: This small volume in the new Signature Series of paperbacks I found to be a surprisingly light but still clever and incisive novel with a popular theology basis. It concerns certain characters in hell/purgatory and in the foothills of heaven that I found moderately entertaining. Lewis seems especially concerned with ethics and morality but is also strong on love and various shades of human affection. It reminded me a little in its allegorical style with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I may get around to reading Lewis’s 1933 Pilgrim’s Regress or indeed return to his Narnia works with a more adult perspective, as I expects he wends all kinds of interesting theological themes into his fiction.

February 2016

Rowan Williams – Meeting God in Mark 2014: I know he’s not to everyone’s taste but after hearing him speak in public I have become a little entranced by this holy Welsh poet, priest and theologian. This little book brings a welcome admission of the deliberate difficulties and challenges of the diminutive Mark’s Gospel. The punchy, economic, sub-cultural narrative is and always was going to be met with bafflement in key places and Rowan encourages us, obliquely, to read, re-read, and read again, continually really. He points out it’s not just the reader but the eye-witnesses that are baffled, and we hear the gospel is widely believed to be an account of Peter penned by Mark, and Peter is of course the archetypal perplexed in Mark’s brutally honest telling of the story. I like Rowan’s Jesus as ‘constantly taking us in and out of silence’, and his reminder of the gospel’s subversive reversal of everything we might think we knew about power and authority. The book is more of a primer than an exhaustive commentary, in fact a lot like Mark is itself, Rowan explains, its a foundation, a beginning of the gospels. Mark’s abrupt ending is described as intentional, as challenging us to carry on and say something of what the women at the empty tomb are to dumbstruck to remark upon.

February 2016

Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita 1955: Humbert describes Lolita’s facial complexion after crying: “… All blurred and inflamed, and morbidly alluring.” In his revealing end-note from 1956 Nabokov suggests the novel is something of a record of his (unrequited) love affair with the English language. Nabokov is passionate and a perfectionist as an artist, as self-exacting as H. H.. But his prose really is exquisite, rich with subliminal power and with a profound devotion to characters, to humanity. It is deftly devoid of obscene content – only subtle suggestion, and it is rather less about Lolita than its is about his archetypal comic-tragic figure Humbert Humbert. This man’s old world constitution confronting the new world of America in the early 1950s. He is lamentable, but not abhorrent as a subject and herein lies Nabokov’s genius in creating him. Fiction depends on the stuff of reality. One sees the futility of his self-delusions, the suffocating narcissism, grandiosity, his own awareness of the abhorrence of his crimes. The humour is deliciously jet-black. Humbert Humbert is hopelessly hilarious, and doomed from the start, writing in a prison cell or insane asylum. For me what drives this character is an antagonism between self-idealisation and self-hatred, a well-paved road to hell… ‘”Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur.”‘

March 2016
A.N.Wilson – The Book of the People 2015: The master story-teller is deliberately oblique and conversational here, adamant not to seem to harangue or preach. His use of an old friend, the late ‘L.’, who provided for him the pretext to write the book and many of his ideas, works very well. I think I have been taught something about the nature of the Bible even though I needed no encouragement to take it seriously. The Bible is the ‘book of the people’ in that it is a living document, or set of documents that chronicle not facts but belief, and mankind’s sense of itself in relation to God. It’s mythology, poetry, metaphor cannot be proven or disproven, much like the search for the historical Jesus is a wild goose chase. It is humanity in all its diversity. The readers over the ages have been the writers as ancient themes are taken up for instance in the depiction of Jesus. ‘L’ writes to the author p 174 that the Bible is ‘partly the gift of God to his people, but also the gift of the people to God. They have fashioned it. They have read it.’ A.N.Wilson does a good job making fundamentalists of both the religious and secular variety look pretty stupid treating the Bible as a once-off precept as opposed to the mosaic rich with meaning that it is. I’m encouraged to read he finds in his own spirituality more to Jesus than Tolstoy tried to reduce him to. The more I think about the way the central claims of the Christian church — the living church that preceded the writing of the Gospels — have remained held together by the testimony of two millennia, it seems to me folly to conclude they all weren’t really onto something from the very beginning.

 

 

High-Rise
by J.G. Ballard

1975

November 2016

Ballard’s weird quasi-psychotic quasi-prophetic tales are both a sadistic indulgence and at the same time a sobering reflection of contemporary society. The high-rise is the urban landscape, anywhere and anytime in the ‘developed’ world, and the 40 years since its inception have not dated it. He exposes the thin veneer of civility that holds us in place and he shows with forensic detail how a social pathology romps onward given half a chance. The failure to dispose of some rubbish bags, the toleration of sporadic power failures herald a descent into savagery. The imagery of the last half is relentlessly horrific as Ballard lets his rich imagination fly. I can’t wait to see how they adapted this into a recent movie but I doubt film does his febrile visions any justice as it’s just too horrible. There are 3 main characters who meet like passing ships but the work as a whole is bigger than them. The final impression is of a cautionary note for urban humanity, and a warning of a contagion of disorder to come. This and other of Ballard’s works remain so ‘spot on’ today as ever. He virtually invented the ‘selfie’, and YouTube, as evidenced here with characters making short violent films of themselves to share soon after in improvised movie houses. He mapped the direction of post-modernity while I was still running around in nappies. Read it, laugh, marvel, and weep.

 
Dream Children
by A.N. Wilson

1998

March 19, 2017 – Finished Reading

This is about a tight ensemble of women and a girl orbiting around a Humbert Humbert type character but without the existential intensity of Nabakov’s deviant male. Neither has it the darkest humour of Lolita, however it is not without its charms. I found the attempt at addressing this controversial material rather brave, if not foolhardy one might say, but I think our highly sensitized society needs this kind of fiction as opposed to sticking its head in the sand about it. There is an element of threat and menace at the end, but on the whole I dare say it is deftly light with the morality and spins a good yarn with a number of entertaining twists. Wilson is an accomplished writer and historian and has the calibre to take on this kind of matter and keep it engaging and fairly empathetic. It feels fresh and contemporary and would make a nice little play. If good fiction writing is about inhabiting the heads and hearts of a diversity of characters then this is just that. In fact what would be the point of fiction if it only represented the perfectly honest and above-board? Humans can be much more twisted and compromised in reality. It’s what makes life interesting.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things
by J.T. LeRoy

1999

March 2017

This for me goes to show the difference between writing based on true experience vs. fantasy, i.e. good vs. bad. This has a fractured tedium which reminded me of the interminable De Sade’s 120 Days… Like trying to paint from the imagination as opposed to really looking, really feeling, it’s sadly going to be one dimensional and uninformative. With the greatest respect to real people in similar situations, this sounded to me like the kind of confabulatory story spun by an attention-seeking child. I’ve carefully read the glowing reviews but I sadly can’t share the adulation. There is so much realistic fiction out there – elsewhere. I’m thrown as to what fictional genre I’d put it in, and to give it maybe too much credit I’d call it American Gothic as it more exploitative style than substance. Its a Marmite… love or loathe it. I gave it an extra star because of how much it disappointed me. Now I was someone mind you who found Catcher in the Rye tiresome. Some may say it has that kind of cultural import, but I think its more just an over-hyped media phenomenon, masterminded by a female Malcom McLaren – but without the raw honesty of the Sex Pistols behind it. It’s clever yes, a clever fake

 

 

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