Book Notes: Current
First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.
- Go to notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
- Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
- Go to notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
- Currently reading current book notes (Summer 2015 –)
The following are notes about books I have recently read. I restrict myself chiefly to what I read for pleasure and general cultivation; strictly scholarly reading, as well as more spiritual reading, as far as one can distinguish these scopes from the former, generally do not make their way into these pages.
- Strong Poison
- Roughing It in the Bush
- The Five Red Herrings
- Henry V
- King Lear
- A Christmas Carol
- The Hyperion Omnibus
- The Life of Anthony
- Jane Eyre
- I, Claudius
- The Chrysalids
- Love in the Ruins
- An Experiment in Criticism
- The Folk of the Fringe
- The Ladybird
- Theophilus North
- Ils sont nos piliers
- The Rise of Endymion
- The Green Hills of Africa
- Animal Farm
- Brave New World
- Framley Parsonage
- Surprised by Joy
- Island of the World
- What is Marriage?
- Nineteen Eighty-Four
- The Old Man and the Sea
- The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems
- Claudius the God and his Wife Messilina
- A Separate Peace
- The Forsyte Saga
- Odd John
- Transposition, and Other Addresses
- Anna Karenina
- A Shropshire Lad
- The Captain's Daughter
- Shake Hands with the Devil
- The Moviegoer
- The Bridal Wreath
- The Master & Margarita
- The Mistress of Husaby
- The Life and Letters of Saint Francis Xavier
- Jerusalem: The Biography
- The Chosen; The Promise
- Brideshead Revisited
- The Lathe of Heaven
- Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
- Born a Crime
- Cakes and Ale
- Nabokov's Quartet
- The Potter's Field
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- Ethan Frome
- Five Get into a Fix
- Goodbye, Columbus
- A Memoir of Jane Austen
- When the Sleeper Wakes
- Double Exposure
- The Flame Trees of Thika
- To the Other Towns
- The Summer Before the Dark
- My Early Life
Strong Poison [Top]
Dorothy Sayers. First reading. 19 July 2015.
Opening the story with a long court case is a clever conceit and the story ends up revolving around proving innocence rather than guilt. A nice, light read and a worthy follow-up to my enjoyable first foray into the mysteries of Dorothy Sayers.
Roughing It in the Bush: or, Forest Life in Canada [Top]
Susanna Moodie. First reading. 30 July 2015.
Susanna Moodie emigrated to Upper Canada in 1832 with her husband and first child. Once arrived they encountered many hardships. As they tried to make a go of it as pioneer farmers near Peterborough their savings gradually dwindled away in their struggles against bad luck, inexperience and unscrupulous neighbours who took advantage of their generosity. This book is a memoir of those first few years, describing their voyage, their first abortive settlement, and then their longer, unsuccessful attempt to farm in the ‘bush’ of Ontario.
It is impressive how different a place Ontario was less than two hundred years ago; indeed, in the foreword written in for the 1871 edition, Moodie remarks how much the country has changed since she arrived fifty years before. One gets the impression that not only was the country much rougher, but the people as well; the authoress is frequently appalled at the lack of manners and dignity of some of her neighbours, be they Loyalists or more recently arrived.
I particularly enjoyed reading about their generally cordial relations with their First Nations neighbours. Moodie paints a sympathetic but matter-of-fact portrait of them.
At times I found her style a little too flighty; she heads each chapter with a few verses of poetry, most of it her own, which I judged quite mediocre.
[On a midnight excursion by canoe:] We bounded down the steep bank to the lake shore. Life is a blessing, a precious boon indeed, in such an hour, and we felt happy in the mere consciousness of existence—the glorious privilege of pouring out the silent adoration of the heart to the Great Father in his universal temple. (Ch. XIII)
The Five Red Herrings [Top]
Dorothy Sayers. First reading. 2 September 2015.
I think my fascination with detective stories has reached an end. I did not not enjoy this novel, but it didn't have the same charm as its predecesors. The setting is well done, but the whole thing was a little bit too mechanical and I didn't have the wherewithal to try and follow the intricacies of the plot.
The Cronicle History of Henry the Fift [Top]
Shackspeare. Fifth (?) reading. 2 September 2015.
The word ‘mock’ and its relatives figure prominently in Henry V, starting midway through the magnificent speech of I.ii.268–306:
And tell the pleasant prince [i.e., the Dauphin] this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls [i.e., the tennis balls] to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore-charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.
This speech is echoed by Exeter in II.iv, and then the word pops up here and there later in the play, finishing in the banter between Henry and Katherine in the final scene in which mockery is finally softened from war to peace (‘good Kate, mock me mercifully’). The word is also used at one point by the chorus, who bids us to ‘[mind] true things by what their mockeries be’ (IV).
This latter use of the word expands its meaning. The play does not just militate (so to speak) against mockery as a form of condescension or ridicule. (Surely in this sense we are invited to recall the constant mockery of Henry in his youth.) It is itself a ‘mockery’ of reality: not in a way that ridicules reality, but in a way that draws out what is important, as a mock-up can give us a new view of the real thing. In his very first speech the chorus announces the players as ‘ciphers’ in relation to the complexities of history: clearly the primary sense intended in the original sense, that is, a zero, or figuratively, a nobody; but a cipher can also refer to something that bears an underlying, hidden meaning, and thus in the mockery of history we get a glimpse of the human soul: and what a glimpse!
There could be a much longer study, I imagine, on mockery in Henry V beyond the sketch I have just made: one thinks of the mockery the episode of the exchanged gloves, or the mockery and banter between the different nationalities on Henry's side, or the mockery which is the betrayal of Cambridge, Scroop and Northumberland, and so on. But to dig deeper here would be, I fear, but a mockery.
True Chronicle Historie of the Life and Death of King Lear and his three Daughters, with the Unfortunate Life of Edgar, Sonne and Heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his Sullen and Assumed Humor of Tom of Bedlam [Top]
Shaksper. Fifth (?) reading. 12 September 2015.
The title of the quarto edition, which I have replicated above, highlights Edgar's character. I find it suitable after this reading, in which I noticed his particular heroism more than normal.
George Eliot. Second reading. 12 October 2015.
I had always meant to return some day to this novel, and given its Italian setting and my recent move to the same country (but not the same city) I thought the time was ripe.
In my previous thoughts on this book, I mused that it is ‘perhaps even as great as Middlemarch’. Having re-read both novels, I do not really think a comparison is fair: Middlemarch is a much wider story about many people, whereas Romola is really about the titular character, even if it does paint vivid portraits of the people that surround her, Tito and Savonarola in particular. In terms of artistic potency they are perhaps comparable, but as novels they are simply different.
Once again I was impressed by Tito's slide into corruption—Eliot surely does show that ‘the contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires’ (Ch. IX).
Given Eliot's freethinking, one might be tempted to consider her depiction of the Catholic Church as generous and large-minded. This is true to an extent, but on the other hand, it was probably the only candidate Eliot had at hand to provide a spiritual impetus to Romola's development, and it becomes clear that Romola herself views it as such. She follows Catholic religious observances because they are comme il faut for one seeking the good life, but her real interest is in finding her own path: her own realisation (at the risk of putting it tritely). Her path ends up being quite admirable, for it consists in service and self-abnegation. She is, at the end of the day, a stoic. But as noble as Eliot's vision is, it is rather moralistic when compared to an authentically Christian spirituality. Whenever I read her novels I find myself wishing she would take a small step further: she goes far in her spiritual exploration, but always hovers this side of an unconditional abandonment to God and the claims that that would entail.
Lawrence Durrell. First reading. 21 October 2015.
When I picked this book off the shelf, I admit I confused the author with his brother, one of whose books I read a few years ago. That being said, I was expecting a serious novel, so at least that wasn't a shock.
Apparently Lawrence Durrell was almost awarded the Nobel Prize based on his achievement in this novel and its three sequels; the excerpts of reviews on the back cover are unabashedly enthusiastic. For my part, I appreciated Durrell's literary power. (And seldom have I had to have recourse to an English dictionary as often as while I was reading this novel, learning words such as mumchance, phthistic and systole.) The construction of the novel is well done, gradually, but never definitively, moving from a sort of stream-of-consciousness to a more conventional narrative. He does, however, rely too often on the Dickensian trick of writing short sentences without verbs to set a mood.
As for the substance of the book: it is a story of tangled romantic relationships though Durrell thankfully refrains from ever descending into prurience. In this theme of love he is supposed to be profound, but I confess to having learnt very little about love. In fact, it is generally difficult for me to appreciate a story in which adultery is central to the relationships being explored but is treated with a faux sophistication. In the end, I found the story decadent rather than deep. Perhaps the following passage sums up my bemusement:
I realised then all the truth about love: that it is an absolute which takes all or forfeits all. The other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on, exist only on the periphery and belong to the constructions of society and habit. But she herself—austere and merciless Aphrodite—is a pagan. It is not our brains or instincts which she picks—but our very bones. (Near the start of Part II.)
The idea starts well. Love does make absolute demands. So far so good, and he puts it well. But then I resist the position that love's attendant emotions and desires are reducible to ‘the constructions of society and habit’. And then finally he makes the identification of love with the pagan goddess, and I realise that throughout the book it is not really love that he is interested in, but love's tainted copy: a love that at heart does not escape self-interest and eschews the discipline of moral claims. That is the false love that becomes a goddess in of herself—and at her worse, becomes an actual idol. A real commitment to the absolute demands of love leads to conversion, not to the endless, narcissistic self-reflexion.
Will I continue in the series? For the moment, I think not. I fear that there may be nothing new. But the characters are fascinating and the style winning, so perhaps sometime in the future I shall return.
Marilynne Robinson. First reading. 8 November 2015.
It is a slender and simple novel, but worth reading for the atmosphere it unceasingly builds up. The ending makes one reflect: your first reaction is to think it terribly sad, but then you wonder why—it is sad from the point of view of the town of Fingerbone, perhaps, but what is it that is sad in itself? Perhaps Ruth and Sylvie are really like the wandering saints of the east.
James Joyce. First reading. 3 January 2016.
Besides general busyness (which is always with us) the reason I haven't added anything to this page for a couple of months is that I was spending them reading Ulysses. I had always wondered if I would read it: clearly it is part of the twentieth century canon (‘Everybody knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century,’ according to Anthony Burgess), but was never quite sure if I would have the stamina to take it on.
As I began reading, though, I realised that my expectations were exaggerated. It is no walk in the literary park, that is for sure, but it is definitely more readable than I had imagined and, apart from a couple of the more difficult chapters, I found it kept my interest remarkably well.
There were a few chapters that I particularly enjoyed. (Annoyingly, the edition I had did not see fit to insert chapter titles and so I had to make constant reference to a table in the introduction.) The ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ chapter (in the library) was a fun romp through Shakespeare, and I very much enjoyed the tour of English style from Anglo Saxon metre through Middle English and so on up until the present in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ (in the hospital). But perhaps my favourite was the penultimate chapter, ‘Ithaca’ (in the house), which, I later found out, was also Joyce's favourite. The question-and-answer organisation, with the floridly technical style, if I may put it that way, was quite amusing.
It has been remarked that anyone who took the trouble to spend ten years playing with words and recording mundane stream-of-consciousness could have produced Ulysses. This is nonsense. Joyce was clearly a master with words. The opening, for instance, is almost perfect in its composition (while withholding any comments about the religious subtext that follows):
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air.
Or, to take another example, Joyce apparently spent two days constructing the following sentences: ‘Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely he mutely craved to adore.’ The result, though idiosyncratic at first, is striking. Of course, in many places the prose is a staccato of words in the more stream-of-consciousness passages, but even here it is not the random, slapdash work of an amateur.
This stream-of-consciousness is one of the things for which the book is famous, and it made me introspective about my own thoughts. I concluded that one cannot take what Joyce has done to be a complete representation of our mental states. For one, a lot of the time our thoughts are without words—my mind, for instance, is frequently occupied with snatches of music. The ebb and flow of the background of the consciousnes is impossible to fully represent in words. Further, even the thoughts that do get mentally vocalised are far more mundane and repetitive than Joyce represents. In the final chapter of this novel, for instance, there is a progression and motion to Molly's consciousness that are probably rarely sustained for so long in the real human mind. The mistake, of course, would be to reduce the human mind to these fleeting thoughts: Joyce doesn't do so, of course, but as a reader, the danger is to assume that stream-of-consciousness is somehow ‘really’ what goes on in the human mind. In reality, there are higher levels of consciousness in which solid thoughts and lasting contemplation exist.
Now, all of the above being said, I must confess that I cannot see this novel as much more than an important experiment. True, it may have had an important impact on culture and subsequent literature (one sees, for instance, its influence on a book like Justine); neither have I by any means plumbed its depths in a way that a close (and probably annotated) reading would accomplish. But as a work in of itself I do not see it exerting as great an influence on my mind as other ‘great books’.
A Christmas Carol [Top]
Dickens. Second reading. 3 January 2016.
Since reading this eight years ago, I have seen a couple of stage-productions and been to a live reading, so it is a story I have become quite familiar with, but never tired of. I had wondered before if the public recitations were abbreviated and concluded that they were after coming across several passages that were more unfamiliar.
The Hyperion Omnibus: Hyperion, and The Fall of Hyperion [Top]
Dan Simmons. First reading. 28 February 2016.
These novels are science fiction on a grand scale, in the tradition of Asimov's Foundation series, and I found them astonishingly rich in ideas and details. I imagine that I'll continue onto their sequels at some point.
There is much that I could comment on, but it seems natural to mention something about the religious themes, which are a major part of the story. There are a variety of religious systems presented, and all are treated without a trace of derision, in contrast to a perhaps more classical strand of science fiction. Hence, the larger ideas of the book can be approached through a religious lens in addition to philosophical or scientific lenses: for instance, the story of the binding of Isaac is an important motif. On the other hand, religion is basically a matter of personal preference or style, so to speak. In other words, Simmons's approach is postmodern: man's religious nature is taken to be a fact, but there is no pretending that religion can ever be universally normative. It is something that people just do. It is helpful for living and it provides interesting perspectives into the world.
Of interest, of course, is that one of the main characters is a Jesuit. The Catholicism of the novel, however, has ‘evolved’ to a point where it is in many ways no longer really Catholic. The cult of Teilhard de Chardin, who is venerated as a saint, is another interesting touch, though his ideas have been transformed into a sort of pop-Hegelianism: for all the controversy around his thought, the few ‘Teilhardian’ ideas that get presented are a misrepresentation as far as I can tell.
What I found perhaps most interesting is how Simmons's imagines technology developing, particularly the role of artificial intelligence and the various ways that technology interconnects human beings. There are both positive and negative aspects to this, but perhaps most intelligently Simmons's imagines how this interconnectedness can in fact retard human progress.
A final detail: the poet John Keats is a major character in the novels and there are allusions to his sojourn and eventual death in Rome. These scenes I could read with particular vividness as I visited his old rooms not too long ago, which are now kept has a museum; his grave is also not too far away.
The Life of St. Anthony [Top]
Athanasius of Alexandria, trans. H. Ellershaw. First reading. 28 February 2016.
This was a ‘best-seller’ of the fourth century, and for all his monumental theological work, it is in this work that Athanasius has probably reached the greatest number of readers directly. (Indirectly, of course, he has touched everyone in the whole Christian world through his indefatigable defence and articulation of orthodoxy.) It is an inspiring little life; not very long; with a great deal of spiritual insight.
On literacy and illiteracy:
And again others such as these met him in the outer mountain and thought to mock him because he had not learned letters. And Antony said to them, ‘What say ye? which is first, mind or letters? And which is the cause of which—mind of letters or letters of mind?’ And when they answered mind is first and the inventor of letters, Antony said, ‘Whoever, therefore, hath a sound mind hath not need of letters.’ This answer amazed both the bystanders and the philosophers, and they departed marvelling that they had seen so much understanding in an ignorant man. For his manners were not rough as though he had been reared in the mountain and there grown old, but graceful and polite, and his speech was seasoned with the divine salt, so that no one was envious, but rather all rejoiced over him who visited him (§73).
Jane Eyre [Top]
Charlotte Brontë. Third reading. 13 March 2016.
This is the third time I have read Jane Eyre and for the third time I found myself unexpectedly astonished at how good it is. The first time, I was chiefly impressed by the book as a whole; the second time, I was struck by the counter-position of Rochester and St. John. This time I was similarly impressed, but perhaps most of all by the psychological aspects of Jane's journey to and residence at Moor-House.
Marilynne Robinson. First reading. 13 March 2016.
While well-written, I did not find the first two-thirds or so of this novel terribly engaging: it was only when a plot emerged between the narrator and his namesake that my interest was captured.
Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defence.
I, Claudius. From the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. Born B.C. X. Murdered and deified A.D. LIV. [Top]
Robert Graves. First reading. 2 April 2016.
I thought this would be a good read for one who has moved to Rome; however, as historical fiction goes there is not much scene-setting: the real story is the family drama, which might have been set in some other epoch with minor changes. That being said, I was still very entertained and will likely read its sequel: this volume spans from Claudius's childhood right up until he is declared emperor after Caligula is assassinated, so one naturally wants to find out how Claudius himself fares in the position.
I am no historian, so I often wondered which details of the story were from history (even if unreliable history) and which were invented.
The Crysalids [Top]
John Wyndham. Second reading. 2 April 2016.
It is not often that I have the luxury of spending an afternoon with a book, but last week I was able to read this short science fiction novel in a sitting. I had read it as a teenager and this time around I found it quite fresh: well-paced and always interesting. The main characters are telepathic and their nonverbal dialogue is convincingly captured.
I had forgotten the particular ‘message’ of the ending of the book, about the need for man to continually evolve and not to get slowed down by those who refuse to acknowledge change. It has a rather chilling edge, though, in which less-evolved people can be coolly dispatched if they stand in the way of progress. But in fact, any project that has no place for the weaker is not in fact progress. To be man is to have a transcendent drive while remaining limited and passible, and rejecting the latter will smother the former.
Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World [Top]
Walker Percy. First reading. 24 April 2016.
Not counting an abortive attempt at Lancelot, this was my first foray into Walker Percy. Love in the Ruins is certainly a unique novel: a sort of science fiction Juvenalian satire set in the not-too-distant future that takes aim at American religion, race-relations, psychology, sexuality, politics—basically, every facet of society. The protagonist, Thomas More (a descendent of the eponymous saint) has invented a device called the ontological lapsometer which can diagnose the psychological states that trouble the individuals of this sharply divided world. He himself—a heavy-drinking womaniser—is no stranger to the maladies of his age and yet at the same time sees many of the contradictions that surround him for what they are.
I thought it a solid read: certainly entertaining once I had my bearings. On the other hand, the satire, while it often ran true, did not really show me much that is new. Perhaps most compelling is the character Dr. More himself, a sinner who is nonetheless likeable and who you suspect will pull through in the end. What differentiates him from many of the other characters is not so much a moral superiority as a lack of hypocrisy: for that seems to be the real malady of Paradise, Lousiana.
An Experiment in Criticism [Top]
C.S. Lewis. Second reading. 24 April 2016.
I was surprised at how little I remembered from this essay: I thought I knew the basic idea, but there was more to it than my vague recollection. The core of his ‘experiment’ is subjective:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality … In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself when I do. (Epilogue)
The value of a literary book lies chiefly, then, in how effectively it draws the reader into itself and helps him to see the world on its own terms—or perhaps sometimes better, to see its world. Lewis rejects (and is generally fairly tired of) literary criticism that evaluates books outside of this criterion, arguing that this simply results in literary metrics that reflect the philosophies and mores of the critics. This means that what makes a book ‘good’ changes with every generation. But if Dickens (to take an author whose stock in the critical circles has fallen and risen) writes good books, this must not be because of external, pseudo-objective criteria, but rather because Dickens has made worlds that are compelling on their own terms and which have expanded the worlds of their many generations of readers.
So saith C.S. Lewis, and I think there is a good measure of sense to it. At any rate, I think the following is quite astute and still (perhaps more than ever) relevant:
The sort of misreading I here protest against is unfortunately encouraged by the increasing importance of ‘English Literature’ as an academic discipline. This directs to the study of literature a great meany talented, ingenious, and diligent people whose real interests are not specifically literary at all. Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about? Hence literature becomes for them religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, a psychotherapy, a sociology—anything rather than a collection of works of art.
This I have certainly encountered: for instance, at one of the universities I have been associated with, I ended up meeting at various points scholars from the Department of English. One studied history of science, another theology, another feminism and twentieth-century thought, but none of them seemed to really study books as art. Or again, I recall a doctoral student in English Literature explaining to me that Tolkien did not write important literature because his books did not come from a serious engagement with his own age. (The minor premise of this assertion is itself doubtful, though it is the basic argument I take issue with here.) I myself am not well-versed enough in critical theory to evaluate Lewis's thesis, but it certainly has the merit that it explains the root problem with such examples.
The Folk of the Fringe [Top]
Orson Scott Card. First reading. 24 March 2016.
This is a collection of short stories set in a post-apocalyptic America as the people in the west of the United States start recovering the vestiges of order and civilisation while the rest of the continent remains in anarchy. What is unique about the situation is that it is a Mormon society, and here for the first time (I had read about half a dozen of his novels previously) I saw Orson Scott Card's religion explicitly on display.
The Mormons in this story are virtuous, industrious and friendly, though Card does not hesitate to introduce warts, conflicts and hubris into the stories. They are, above all, thoroughly American, and when I found, in the epilogue, Card referring to Mormonism as a ‘curiously secular religion’ it struck me as exquisitely descriptive of the world of this book.
All of these stories are compelling and display a real sensitivity for what motivates human behaviour. The ecological aspect in the background was almost like an inchoate version of Dune.
The Ladybird [Top]
D. H. Lawrence. First reading. 13 June 2016.
This is a collection of three long short stories or novellas: The Ladybird, The Fox, The Captain's Doll. The shorter format makes Lawrence a more disciplined storyteller: though these works are thematically similar to his novels, they are far more compact, and therefore, somewhat intense—that is, somewhat more psychologically oppressive, given his whole outlook on life.
Theophilus North [Top]
Thornton Wilder. First reading. 13 June 2016.
Theophilus North, a well-educated but poor twenty nine year-old, moves into the town of Newport, Rhode Island for the summer and earns his keep by tutoring the children of its well-heeled inhabitants; along the way, he chivalrously helps many of the town's citizens escape from various entanglements.
On the one hand, this is a well-crafted, entertaining and charming cycle of stories, written (as one reviewer put it) by an ‘elder statesman of American fiction’. On the other hand, I was left disappointed. I expected Wilder to be profound; Mr. North, on the other hand, always remains a millimetre too aloof from all his adventures to make him truly compelling. He observes life and can comment on it intelligently, but he never quite enters into it. And this is to say nothing of his own private behaviour, which on one occasion involves seducing a young woman so that she can provide her physically abusive husband with a child … At any rate, while I did quite enjoy reading this book—it certainly has some great yarns—it made me wonder who it really was that wrote Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, and, if I revisited them, whether I would value them less.
Ils sont nos piliers [Top]
Jean Vanier. First reading. 18 July 2016.
This was more of a pamphlet or essay in booklet form than a proper book, and it didn't take long to read at all, but I think it worth remembering. Vanier has collected memories and testimonies of the saintliness of two members of L'Arche, brothers René and Georges, both intellectually disabled and burdened with various health problems. But despite their suffering they were deeply spiritual men, devoted to prayer and to serving their communities. They brought many people to God. Thus they were the piliers—the pillars—of the people around them. The booklet is a small but powerful testament to the importance of L'Arche and what it gives to the Church and to all people of good will.
Dan Simmons. First reading. 18 July 2016.
This is a sequel to the Hyperion novels, set several hundred years in the future. I enjoyed it the most of the series, perhaps because it contains fewer attempts at philosophy and is more of an adventure story; in this novel, Simmons's inventiveness and imagination have free reign and the result is magnificent. Reducing the plot-lines from many in the Hyperion novels to only two in this novel is also an improvement, and the interspersing of the two stories is handled skilfully.
One quibble I kept having was with the notion of simultaneity. Leaving aside the question of faster-than-light travel, for which I grudgingly suspend disbelief, Simmons normally emphasises well the relativistic effects of the travel by keeping track of the ‘time debt’ that interstellar travellers incur. (That is, travellers age more rapidly compared to those who remain behind.) However, he seems to presume a universal clock so that something in one planetary system can happen ‘at the exact same time’as something is happening light-years away. Now, I suppose the Pax (the theocratic government of the novel's world) could have a well-defined reference frame for an official clock, but I kept suspecting that Simmons intended simultaneity as something universal.
Of the role of the Catholic Church—or rather, an institution bearing that name but having veered from the rule of faith—I shall not comment much. Simmons has done research, obviously, into things like the Holy Office, but his knowledge is a curious blend of technical detail and weird lacunae. For instance, on the latter point, he has people praying the Angelus in the evening, and mentions Jesuit ‘monasteries’. But more telling is that, apart from an acquaintance with Teilhard, he does not seem at all interested in Catholic spirituality.
The Rise of Endymion [Top]
Dan Simmons. First reading. 29 July 2016.
Not nearly as enjoyable as the previous book, largely because there are some long stretches of talking heads that I didn't find particularly interesting; I found that Simmons, while having some novel ideas, oversteps his philosophical and religious acumen. (I was reminded at one point, when Simmons was trotting out the worn but still popular thesis that Jesus's disciples distorted his ‘original’ message, of how C.S. Lewis in an essay from God in the Dock describes how certain religious words are understood today. One of them is: ‘Dogma: Used by the people only in a bad sense to mean “unproved assertion delivered in an arrogant manner”’.)
Still, Simmons remains highly inventive, especially in creating new worlds: T'ien Shan, with its soaring rock faces, elegant buildings and fast zip-lines, is quite memorable, for instance. So, in the end, I enjoyed the read and was happy to have spent the time with the series.
The Green Hills of Africa [Top]
Ernest Hemmingway. Second reading. 29 July 2016.
I read this book for the first time in Kenya; this second time, I was travelling through the countryside of Congo (Brazzaville). On the outbound trip I had absorbed the scenery, and on the return trip I was absorbed by this book, though never incognizant of the landscape around me. Once again I quite enjoyed this little memoir; in fact, I think Hemmingway rarely gets better than when he is writing autobiography: A Movable Feast, for instance, is one of his finest books in my opinion.
Animal Farm [Top]
George Orwell. Third reading. 29 July 2016.
Still fresh the third time around.
Brave New World [Top]
Aldous Huxley. Second reading. 29 July 2016.
I last read this as a teenager; while I remember enjoying it, I do not remember it being this good. I (re?)discovered that it is not only a book of important ideas, but it is also well written. The technique of cutting back and forth more and more rapidly between conversations, for instance, is used to great effect (particularly in the third chapter).
Though Nietzsche is not explicitly mentioned in the conversation with Mustapha Mond near the end of the book (Ch. XVII), Huxley clearly understands what he was getting at with his famous dictum that ‘God is dead’. Nietzsche never meant for it to be the banal truism that so many people today assume it to be. Like Nietzsche, Mustapha Mond realises that without God, man's life becomes radically different, and that furthermore, the way one lives greatly determines one's position about God.
Ultimately Huxley hits on something deeply important when he has Mond remark that in order for the whole edifice of the Brave New World to exist, ‘The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much.’
Framley Parsonage [Top]
Anthony Trollope. First reading. 16 August 2016.
Oh dear. As happened with the Palliser series, I appear to be reading the Barsetshire books out of order; I only realised this about three quarters of the way through when I ran across the character Dr. Thorne, vaguely remembered that name, and then realised I had not read the previous book in the series bearing his name as its title. But I don't think this will be a huge step backwards in my literary education. It just means that I should proceed to Doctor Thorne when I next crack open my Trollope omnibus.
This hiccup aside, I really enjoyed this novel. It has the pacing and the careful balance of light-heartedness and moralising that one expects from Trollope; the only defect is that some minor characters end up mildly encumbering the plot near the end. However, the real jewel of the story is Lucy Robarts, who is in my estimation one of Trollope's greatest characters. She is not the protagonist, but she has an arrestingly original and believable personality. Chapter XXI, in which she discusses Lord Lufton's prospects while riding Puck alongside her sister-in-law, has some masterly writing.
Surprised by Joy. [Top]
C. S. Lewis. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 16 August 2016.
I picked this up and began idly reading the first few pages one evening, and discovered a couple of days later that I had finished reading it. Not as memorable as the last time, but clearly still engaging giving the rapidity with which I read it.
Island of the World [Top]
Michael O'Brien. 1st reading. 16 September 2016.
I read this upon the recommendation of a friend who had just visited Croatia, where much of the novel is set. I enjoyed it too, and it greatly increased my knowledge of the history of Croatia in the last century.
What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense [Top]
Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George (Encounter Books, 2012). 1st reading. 16 September 2016.
I was acquainted with the first two authors of this work in graduate school, and this piqued my interested when I spied their book in a friends' house, so I decided to give it a read through. I found it to be a good synthesis of many of the arguments for ‘traditional marriage’, drawing chiefly on philosophical reasons, but also looking to legal traditions. Their aim is not to explore the morality of various types of relationships per se but rather to argue why the conjugal union of man and woman merits particular legal recognitions and privileges from the state. This they do with conviction and precision.
Nineteen Eighty-Four [Top]
George Orwell. 3rd reading. 16 September 2016.
A brilliant book, if always chilling: especially the last four words. It rounds out nicely my unplanned revisitation of futuristic, British dystopian novels written last century—not including the American ones.
The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke [Top]
Shaksper. Nth reading, N ≫ 1. 16 September 2016.
Ought to be read at least once a year.
The Old Man and the Sea [Top]
Ernest Hemingway. 2nd reading. 16 September 2016.
It had been ages since I read this, which I did this time in a couple of sittings, though perhaps would be best to read all at once. The style is so recognisably Hemmingway's—that style that is so easy to caricature in gentle mockery by writing long sentences with short words—but is just perfect for this work.
The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems [Top]
E. J. Pratt. 1st reading. 16 September 2016.
The only other work I have read by this Canadian poet of the last century is his magnificent Brébeuf and his Brethren (which I can't find anywhere among my book notes, even though I seem to recall having read it not too many years ago). This slim volume of poetry was enjoyable if not of the first tier. ‘A Prayer Medley’ was quite clever, and I also thought ‘The Baritone’ good.
The Troublesome Reign of Tiberius Claudius Caesar, Emperor of the Romans (Born 10 B.C., Died A.D. 54), as Described by Himself; Also his Murder at the Hands of the Notorious Agrippina (Mother of the Emperor Nero) and his Subsequent Deification, as Described by Others [Top]
Robert Graves. 1st reading. 5 November 2016.
I liked this sequel better than its predecessor, largely for what I judged to be missing in the latter: a wider picture of ancient Rome and her empire. One of the fascinating subplots was that of Herod Agrippa: Graves reconstructs a portrait of him that is, naturally, far more ample than the few references in the New Testament; whether this portrait is just or not, I have no way of knowing, being unfamiliar with Josephus's account or any other secular history. But it did help me to understand a bit more the role of the eastern part of the empire, and gave a picture of the place of the Jews within it.
An important theme in Grave's reconstructed history is Claudius's inability to restore the Republic, a cause he was very sympathetic to, but which, upon becoming emperor (much against his own personal inclination), he discovered to be practically impossible. That said, Graves has written Claudius's first-person memoir in such a way that we are never quite convinced that Claudius is always honest with himself. While he is a liberal and generally responsible ruler, he is not free from the occasional selfish motive or whimsical impulse. This often comes through when he judges court cases.
I actually read the novel in two sections: about five-sixths of it back in June, and then, not having taken it with me for my summer travels, finished it this fall. So my experience of it was a bit disjointed, but it did hold together after all.
A Separate Peace [Top]
John Knowles. 1st reading. 5 November 2016.
I think I had heard of the title of this little novel before, but knew nothing of it. It is a remarkable story, simple and full of true human feeling, with prose that is close to flawless. Phineas is a supremely memorable character: I suspect that everyone meets someone like him at some significant period of his life: a person that breathes freedom and honesty into the world around him.
The narrator has a moment of self-understanding:
It was only after that I recognised sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak (Ch. 2).
On time and reality:
Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality’ he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever. (Ch. 3)
Now that Phineas was back it seemed time to start saying prayers again. After the lights went out the special quality of my silence let him know that I was saying them, and he kept quiet for approximately three minutes. Then he began to talk; he never went to sleep without talking first and he seemed to feel that prayers lasting more than three minutes were showing off. God was always unoccupied in Finny's universe, ready to lend an ear at any time at all. Anyone who failed to get his message through in three minutes, as I sometimes failed to do when trying to impress him, Phineas, with my sanctity, wasn't trying. (Ch. 8)
The Forsyte Saga [Top]
John Galsworthy. 1st reading. 27 November 2016.
Earlier this year I watched the 2002–3 miniseries of the same title (not having read the books) and was fascinated. Here is a story that is pretty much wholly secular and yet at the same time, perhaps unwittingly, shows why man needs God as we see the cycles of sin playing out generation after generation. It is not as though the characters are notably malicious or spectacularly wicked: in fact, they are all treated sympathetically and are generally likeable despite their general greediness. But in the end they are unable to find happiness, and beauty—which the author insists they all, in some way, are living for—is elusive and bitter-sweet. The story of Jon and Fleur of the youngest generation, from the later novels, is particularly captivating, due to a clever conceit: a man and a woman divorce, each remarries, with the woman marrying her former brother-in-law; one has a son and the other a daughter, who subsequently fall in love ignorant of their family history. And hence the whole web of pain, lies and betrayal begins unwinding and one sees that, in the ways of the world, how the sins of the father are laid on the head of the son, and indeed how even the son repeats the sins of the father.
So I decided to read the novels, The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let, which, together with two short stories, Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakening, are now generally issued as a fat volume known simply as The Forsyte Saga. At first I was confused by the maze of characters: there are ten siblings in the oldest generation, five in the next and seven in the youngest. But eventually I was able to recognise who was who and begin following their stories.
Since I was naturally comparing it to the screen version, I was struck with the contrasts between novels and adaptation. In the former the moral playing-field is more level, so to speak. Characters like Irene and Young Jolyon are less admirable and Soames is more sympathetic. One notable exception to this trend occurs when Soames sees his baby daughter, Fleur, for the first time. In the novel this satifies his sense of property and is a most chilling scene; in the television version, we are led to believe that his heart is opened up and that the newborn makes him forget, at least partially, his greedy self-centredness. But of all characters, the most changed by the adaptation is Michael Mont. On screen is an intelligent, kind fellow but in the novel he is an air-headed fop. Though he is a more minor character, this quite alters the triangle between him, Fleur and Jon.
I feel as though while there is plenty of literature about Victorian times and Edwardian/post-war times, there is little that bridges the gap—at least that I have read. In the world of the Forsytes, however, the 1850's onwards are in living memory into the 1920's, which was something I hadn't thought about before, curiously: for some reason in my head there was a dividing line between nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as though one generation finished and another began, all in unison.
John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize in 1932, largely due to these novels (and the sequels, gathered together in a collection of short stories and two more omnibuses consisting of eight more novels in total). This reinforces for me that the Nobel Prizes in literature aren't a completely reliable indicator of quality. These are fine and absorbing novels, but not, I would argue, in the first tier of literature.
I have never seen a novelist use more exclamation points. Doubtless it is an over-estimate, but it seemed to me that a quarter or a third of the sentences in this volume ended with an exclamation mark.
Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Ernest [sic] [Top]
Olaf Stapledon. 1st reading. 27 November 2016.
This is, supposedly, the first ‘superman’ science fiction story. It is a well-told tale that held my attention. Naturally, though, I found Stapledon's anthropology problematic. The moral distinction made between homo sapiens and homo superior seems based chiefly on a superiority of brain-power than any spiritual quality, which rather odd given that the later spend a lot of time developing spiritual powers: but perhaps not so odd if the spiritual realm is a matter of heightened intelligence, as seems to be depicted.
The spelling of `ernest' in the title is thus, but I cannot find that this spelling is widely used. Could it actually be a typo in my edition (Berkley Medallion Books, 1965)?
Transposition, and Other Addresses [Top]
C.S. Lewis. 2nd [?] reading. 31 December 2016.
I believe I had read all of the essays in this volume (all of which were composed to be delivered as invited talks) before: ‘Transposition’, ‘The Weight of Glory’, ‘Membership’, ‘Learning in War-Time’ and ‘The Inner Ring’. However, I'm not sure if it was in this particular collection or not.
‘The Weight of Glory’, is justly famous. In fact, it may not even be a stretch to say that this is one of the great sermons of history, for the depth and maturity of its spirituality, for how it goes to the heart of the Gospel, and how it inflames the soul to live that same Gospel.
Nonetheless, all of the pieces are first-rate. ‘Transposition’ is a respectable, and, I believe, an effective philosophical defence of the reality of formal meaning over the collapsed metaphysics of ‘lovers of sights and sounds’ (to coin a platonic phrase). ‘Membership’ is Lewis at his best in exploring the meaning of a word, with all its important consequences. ‘Learning in War-Time’, defends the principle of the importance of scholarship in its own right which is close to my heart. ‘The Inner Ring’ might be considered a condensed version of That Hideous Strength but in essay form.On the perverse desire to be popular among an exclusive set:
Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.On the value of friendship:
It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it.
Anna Karenina [Top]
Tolstoy (trans. Louise & Aylmer Maude). 2nd reading. 15 February 2017.
It would be an exaggeration to call this the greatest novel ever written, but it would be safe to say that it is one of the greatest three or four. Tolstoy was reluctant to call War and Peace a novel because its scope was so vast, but the same is not true with this work, revolving as it does more tightly around a small cast of principle characters.
One could obviously write at great length about this book, but let me limit myself to a few things that struck me the second time around. First, I found the character of Count Vronsky more interesting than I had remembered. As the novel progresses he loses a measure of his self-centredness, being willing to sacrifice, to a degree at least, his career and ambitions for Anna's sake. This is not to say that he ceases being generally selfish or vicious; perhaps it is more that his horizon of concern grows a little bit to include another person. Nevertheless, the situation still becomes suffocating for them both.
Interestingly, Tolstoy was branded a conservative by some of his contemporaries for having depicted adultery as inexorably leading to ruinous consequences. I think a more sensitive reading shows, however, that he is interested in examining his characters rather than doing a morality study. This is not to say that he doesn't have moral feeling towards the situation, but simply to point out that he is more interested in exploring the workings of the human spirit. One is left with the impression that the outcome of the story would have been very different if it were not Anna and the two Alexises involved, but wholly other people with different personalities.
The scene between Levin's brother Koznyshev and Kitty's friend Varkenka near the beginning of Part VI, brief and simple as it is, is marvellously done. One can feel in one's gut the anticlimax when their conversation—which never deviates from the mushroom-picking that on the surface of things is their activity—takes the slightest of turns and the moment for Koznyshev's proposal passes. It is a little scene like this, set off in relief against the conversation of Kitty and Levin back at the house, that makes Tolstoy truly great.
Finally, there are a couple of moments of spiritual insight. The first occurs after the famous scene in which Levin and Kitty have become engaged by communicating via writing chalk letters. The next day, Levin walks out in the street, feeling as though he is walking on air.
And what he then saw he never saw again. Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker's window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth. It all happened at the same time; one of the boys ran after a pigeon and looked smilingly up at Levin; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered up, glittering in the sunshine amid the snow dust that trembled in the air; from the window came the scent of fresh-baked bread and the loaves were put out. All these things were so unusually beautiful that Levin laughed and cried with joy. (Part IV, Ch. 15)
It is an example of what the philosophers might call, in various ways, an encounter with being: an experience that shows that ‘lovers of sights and sounds’ cannot possibly have grasped the whole truth about the world.
The second moment occurs during the birth of his son, when he begins, to his great surprise, to pray, and to find, despite his professed unbelief, that he does so with sincerity. It is as though the momentousness of the event helps reality break in upon him and sweep away facile convictions. Now, with a lesser writer, the ecstasy would have continued when he finally met his newborn son; Tolstoy, though, knows that the human spirit is a complex thing, and while he feels ‘unspeakable bliss’ that Kitty has survived the birth, he regards the child as a strange thing: ‘It seemed something superfluous, something overflowing, and for a long time he was unable to get used it it’ (VII.15). The chapters narrating all of this are masterly.
A Shropshire Lad [Top]
A. E. Housman. 1st reading. 15 February 2017.
Before reading it, I knew nothing of this cycle of short poems apart from the title, so went in expecting nothing and came out with admiration. I read it in two sittings, but in retrospect it is a book to read right through, at a measured, unrushed pace, and without interruption.
The Captain's Daughter and Other Great Stories [Top]
Alexander Pushkin (trans. N. Duddington & T. Keane; Random House, 1936). 1st reading. 15 February 2017.
Apart from the titular novella, there were in this volume The Tales of Belkin (consisting of six short stories), The Queen of Spades (the inspiration for Tchaikovsky's opera), Kirdjali and The Negro of Peter the Great (an unfinished novel).
The back cover of my edition states that it is the titular story that exerted the most influence on successive Russian writers, which I found curious because I did not think it terribly good. It is not awful—it keeps the attention, certainly—but it is little more than a series of events, as exciting as they may be. The Queen of Spades was much better, showing real originality and imagination.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda [Top]
Roméo Dallaire. 1st reading. 1 April 2017.
I have always been vaguely interested in this book, and heard Gen. Dallaire speak a couple of years ago, so when I saw it on a shelf in my community decided to give it a read.
It is a blow-by-blow account of the events immediately leading up to the genocide in Rwanda as well as the terrible events themselves, mainly as seen from the UN HQ in Kigali. Dallaire really helps the reader enter his head and feel his frustration, anger, compassion, sense of duty and, at times, despair. The only complaint I might have is that the account is too detailed: it is surely invaluable as an historical document but for the ordinary reader like me a more compact version may have been better.
I found fascinating Dallaire's accounts of Paul Kagame, commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and later (and still currently) president of the country. I heard Mr. Kagame speak too, years ago at Princeton, and remember finding it hard to believe that this mild-mannered head of state had once been general of a desperate rebel force. Dallaire shows great respect for him as a military leader—‘possibly one of the greatest practitioners of manoeuvre warfare in modern military history’ (Ch. 11)—while at the same time being openly critical of some his failures to protect civilians or securing peace.
The Bridal Wreath [Top]
Sigrid Undset (trans. Charles Archer & J.S. Scott). 1st reading. 13 May 2017.
I was not sure how well I would get into this novel—the first in the Kristin Lavarnsdatter trilogy—largely because of its rather peculiar rendering into English. The translators opted for an archaic mode of expression, with lots of 'twas, wont, trow etc. I'm not sure if it reflects the style of the original Norwegian, but in English it comes across as a hackneyed imitation of Walter Scott.
Nevertheless, I did get used to it after a short while and was then able to enjoy the story. It was darker and more intense than I had expected—it is not a quaint tale of ye old Norway—though I hasten to add that it is not a gloomy or depressing book, but rather one that shows the messiness of life in amidst its beauty. Undset was famously a convert to the Catholic faith, a rarity in Norway, and, in a way that is far from being heavy-handed, one can perceive this in how she writes about her characters and their world.
I have taken an interlude before continuing on to its two sequels, but I do look forward to returning to them.
The Master and Margarita [Top]
Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin, 1997). 1st reading. 28 May 2017.
It is at once a satire of Communist Russia, a whimsical fantasy and a metaphysical parable. But yet I confess to not have understood it very well. I shall have to find someone that can explain it to me …
Mark Pattison. 1st reading. 4 July 2017.
I knew very little about Milton besides his rough dates and the fact that he went blind. This life, written by an Oxonian clergyman in 1879, filled me in quite nicely. I would wager that knowing a writer's biography does not always help you appreciate his work, but in Milton's case this was not the situation.
To start with, it now makes much more sense to me why his poetic output was relatively limited—in quantity, of course. He did not die young, and had by no means a desultory or idle personality; quite the opposite. But what I had not realised was how involved he was in the republican cause during the civil war. He even held a government post. His polemical, political prose output was in fact quite vast, and would be forgotten to history if it had not been written by the author of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, perhaps with the exception of Areopagitica. The former were written after the Restoration, when his pen was no longer useful for his political cause. He was by then, incidentally, completely blind.
One thing Pattison stresses is that Milton spent his first thirty years or so preparing himself to be a poet. He read very widely but always deliberately: deeply rather then broadly: he was not a polymath—‘He repudiates the love of learning for his own sake; knowledge is not an end, it is only equipment for performance’ (Ch. XIII). He was, in fact, adhering to his own definition of education:
I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.
In his case, these offices were first political and then literary.
His voyage to France and Italy in the late 1630's was extensive—he travelled for over a year, and would have stayed abroad longer if he had not felt it his duty to return to England and employ his pen for the Puritan and republican causes. Famously, he visited Galileo in his villa outside Florence where the latter was serving his house arrest: here he met a great man gone blind, which would be his own fate.
Pattison does not hesitate to show anti-Catholic colours. But today, his constant reminders of the narrow-mindedness and oppression of popery, especially during Milton's Italian tour, come across as more quaintly self-righteous than anything else. At one point, he refers to anti-Milton tracts as being in the tradition of the ‘infamous productions, hatched by celibate pendants in the foul atmosphere of the Jesuit colleges’.
The Mistress of Husaby [Top]
Sigrid Undset (trans. Charles Archer). 1st reading. 4 July 2017.
I found this sequel to The Bridal Wreath started well, then languished, and then picked up by the end.
The Life and Letters of Saint Francis Xavier [Top]
Henry James Coleridge. 1st reading. 1 August 2017.
This is about as complete as a biography can be. Naturally, most of it is about the last decade of St. Francis's life, when he was a missionary in Asia: this is his most fruitful period and also that from which, I presume, we have the best records. What made this book compelling, though, was that it contains translations of all 124 of his extant letters. Perhaps half of the book's volume is taken up by his correspondence. A good number of his letters are very long: they had to be, as often he was taking the only opportunity he knew he would have for months, if not years, of sending news back to Europe—or even to Goa, which was his base in Asia. The biography plus the letters makes for a fairly fat book (around 750 pages), so not for the faint of heart, nor for someone looking for a brief introduction.
I was very taken, again, with Francis's story. It is hard not to be inspired by his indefatigable zeal, his concern for all souls and particularly the poor and the oppressed, and his trust in Providence. Coleridge, who was writing in the nineteenth century, does not have the same scepticism towards the many miracles attributed to St. Francis as one would find in a biography of the next century; I found this refreshing. This is not to say that there is no place for a critical reading of hagiographical sources, but rather that there is place for a life of a saint that simply incorporates what his contemporaries said about him. And many, many people claimed that he had wrought miracles among them. I had not heard before, for instance, that he was said to have the gift of tongues, enabling him to preach in languages he had never learnt.
The following excerpt from his 31 Dec. 1543 letter from Cochin to Rome, is justly famous and worth reproducing here:
There is now in these parts a very large number of persons who have only one reason for not becoming Christian, and that is that there is no one to make them Christians. It often comes into my mind to go round all the Universities of Europe, and especially that of Paris, crying out everyone like a madman, and saying to all the learned men there whose learning is so much greater than their charity, ‘Ah! what a multitude of souls is through your fault shut out of heaven and falling into hell!’ Would to God that these men who labour so much in gaining knowledge would give much thought to the account they must one day give to God of the use they have made of their learning and of the talents entrusted to them!
Francis asks a Japanese man why they write from the top of the page to the bottom, rather than left to right. He responds:
Why rather do not you write as we do? The head of a man is at the top and his feet at the bottom, and so it is proper that when men write it should be straight down from top to bottom.
An important motivation of Francis's missionary activity his his concern for human dignity. At heart he is operating out of a deeply biblical theology, for he often refers in his letters to the new peoples he meets as ‘images of God’.
Jerusalem: The Biography [Top]
Simon Sebag Montefiore. 1st reading. 1 August 2017.
I was in Israel & Palestine this past month and so read this book to learn a bit more about the history of the land's most important city. Montefiore (whose ancestor Moses Montefiore, incidentally, was an important influence on the early Zionist movement), does a good job at collapsing 4,000 years into just under 700 pages. At times, though, he does have to gallop through the decades and, particularly in the Roman and Byzantine epochs, I got the sense that it was one name and anecdote after the other. On some topics that I know something about—like historical Jesus scholarship or the theology of the early œcumenical councils—I found that he wavered at times in the precision of his presentation and in his grasp of the issues at hand. But apart from these quibbles a good and informative read.
The Chosen; The Promise [Top]
Chaim Potok. 2nd reading. 1 August 2017.
The visit that prompted my reading of the previous title also prompted me to revisit these two novels which I enjoyed for the first time eight years ago. I found them just as fine the second time around. Interestingly, I enjoyed the sequel, The Promise, more than The Chosen on this occasion.
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. 4th reading. 19 August 2017.
I thought it had been much more recently that I read Brideshead Revisited, but it seems as though it has been a good twelve years since my last enjoyment of it. Once again I was completely taken, and was more impressed than ever at Waugh's prose. He has very few equals in sheer command of the language; perhaps no equals among his contemporaries. I shall not feel it a guilty pleasure if I return to the novel in far fewer than twelve years.
It is a story that you will seriously misunderstand if you misunderstand or neglect the last few sentences of the book; these illuminate all the precedes. Hence, the novel is not primarily an elegy for an age that has passed. To think so is to miss the point.
Shogun: A Novel of Japan [Top]
James Clavell. 1st reading. 19 August 2017.
This was a holiday novel, selected in the same manner and spirit as my vacation novels of three years ago when I was last at the same summer home. It is, as the back cover reviews promised, an engrossing page-turner, though I did find that it flagged a bit for the last couple of hundred of pages.
I come away with the impression that the novel was well-researched (it is set in sixteenth-century Japan), though I was not reading it with sufficient attention to come away well-educated about the period.
I had not anticipated that Jesuits would be important characters in the novel, but they are central to the plot. While they are not quite at the level of shifty-eyed Machiavellians, they do certainly fit a certain stereotype accepted by the English-speaking world into late last century as political opportunists and, to some degree, fanatics.
The principle character, Blackthorne, an unpredictable and resourceful Englishman, is likeable. But the main romance is overwrought—it is contrived that the only language in which the lovers can speak in private is Latin, which surely in real life in sixteenth century Japan would be somewhat ridiculous (especially when their soppy declarations of ‘thou’ are rendered as a flat ‘tu’—which any Portuguese speaker would presumably understand anyways, hence defeating the purpose of switching to Latin). Even less convincing—or else more unsettling—is that their adultery troubles neither one of them.
The Lathe of Heaven [Top]
Ursula Le Guin. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 21 September 2017.
I always enjoy this novel; I'm still pondering then significance of ‘A Little Help from my Friends’.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood [Top]
Alexandra Fuller. 1st reading. 21 September 2017.
There is a large body of African memoir—the one I read a couple of years ago as well as the next entry are only a couple of examples—but Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight really is exceptionally good. Perhaps its best strength, on a literary level, is how Ms. Fuller slowly reveals her characters. The portrait of her mother, for instance, is masterly. One's first impression is of a drunken racist—which she remains—but as the book unfolds one learns of her terrible suffering, and one's sympathy cannot help being aroused; this in turn makes one understand better the authoress herself.
It is not at all a romantic memoir: ‘raw’ is the adjective that comes most readily to mind. But it is the best new memoir I have read in years, and it will remain with me for a long time, I dare say.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood [Top]
Trevor Noah. 1st reading. 21 September 2017.
Trevor Noah is, I have learnt, the current host of The Daily Show in the United States. But he grew up in Johannesburg, the son of a black mother and a white father—hence the book's title, as such a union was illegal under the apartheid regime of the time.
The book kept my attention enough for me to finish it, but not by much. Noah is not a terribly gifted writer. One annoyance for me was his casual use of foul language. There is arguably a time and a place for profanity in literature, but when used in a comic sense it comes across as lazy and gratuitous. It does not have the effect, at least on me, that he must have intended. It was simply, in every sense of the word, vulgar.
Despite the foregoing criticisms, I did find it a fresh persepctive on growing up in South Africa, and as an inside-view of apartheid and its aftermath. This was enough to keep me reading with moderate interest to the end.
Erewhon, Or Over the Range [Top]
Samuel Butler. 1st reading. 21 September 2017.
My only other acquaintance with Samuel Butler was through The Way of All Flesh, which impressed me many years ago now. Erewhon is not a Bildungsroman like this other work but a utopian vision—as much essay as novel—in the line of Swift rather than More. Butler creates an effective satire of Victorian society, but his central questions, such as to what degree are our moral actions are truly free and to what degree are we constrained by psychology and circumstance, remain thought-provoking. Definitely worth reading.
The Erewhonian philosophy of science:
[The gods] have a law that two pieces of matter may not occupy the same space at the same moment, which law is presided over and administered by the gods of time and space jointly, so that if a flying stone and a man's head attempt to outrage these gods, by ‘arrogating a right which they do not possess’ (for so it is written in one of their books), and to occupy the same space simultaneously, a severe punishment, sometimes even death itself, is sure to follow, without any regard to whether the stone knew that they man's head was there, or the head the stone; this at least is their view of the common accidents of life. (Ch. XVI)
Cakes and Ale, or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard [Top]
W. Somerset Maugham. 1st reading. 15 October 2017.
Maugham said that this was his favourite novel, while not contesting the widespread critical opinion that Of Human Bondage was his best. Certainly in my opinion widespread critical opinion is on the right side of things. Cakes and Ale is an enjoyable novel, but not very well constructed. The best bits are the narrator's retelling of his boyhood in the country; but the contemporary part of the plot, dealing with the literary world of London and its various prejudices, I found a bit flat. Apparently Maugham's characters were thinly-veiled caricatures of real-life novelists: perhaps this would lend a certain interest or even depth to those who moved in the right circles when the book was written, but now, more than 80 years later, they are of little interest to me.
The following brought back a fond memory of a bicycle ride in England the previous summer:
And as you rode along in the warm, keen air you had a sensation that the world was standing still and life would last for ever. Although you were pedalling with such energy you had a delicious feeling of laziness. (Ch. XI).
Nabokov's Quartet [Top]
Vladimir Nabokov. 1st reading. 21 September 2017.
This is a collection of four short stories: ‘An Affair of Honour’, ‘Lik’, ‘The Vane Sisters’ and ‘The Visit to the Museum’. I enjoyed them but fear they shall not prove memorable, except perhaps the first, mildly so.
The Potter's Field [Top]
Ellis Peters. 1st reading. 21 September 2017.
The Potter's Field is the seventeenth instalment of the Cadfael mysteries, but the first that I have read. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in Shropshire in the mid-twelfth century, and it was this setting that attracted me to the book rather than the genre (murder mystery: I have mentioned before in these notes that mystery is not a genre that easily captures me).
It was a satisfying read because it is a very well-done book. Not world-class literature, not particularly deep or probing, but solidly executed, entertaining and capable of drawing you into a world that is clearly grounded in real historical knowledge. And there is something to be said for book that is thoroughly competent without being, or even trying to be, spectacular. Perhaps I shall try another in the series.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [Top]
Betty Smith. 1st reading. 19 November 2017.
I was under the impression that I overuse the term Bildungsroman in these book notes, but when I made a word cloud of all my book notes to date I found to my surprise that it doesn't appear at all—in fact, it appears but three times in total. Hence I feel no compunction in increasing the frequency by two-thirds in this particular note.
To the point: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a truly remarkably Bildungsroman. I picked it off the shelf knowing nothing of it except a vague recollection of the title from somewhere. But this story of girl growing up in an impoverished family in early-20th century Brooklyn draws you in from the very start. Here we have a child's-eye view of poverty; this has been done before, of course, most notably by Dickens, but here there are no Dickensian ‘adventures’ or travels; the setting is almost wholly domestic, and it is Francie's relationships with her family members that is the engine of the novel.
Francie's parents are remarkably constructed characters. Perhaps never before have I seen the evils of alcoholism and sympathy for the alcoholic combined as well as they are in Francie's father, Johnny. He is someone everyone instantly likes and in many ways a wonderful family man, and yet tragically doomed.
The ending is happy without, oddly, seeming to be a stretch.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold [Top]
John Le Carré. 1st reading. 19 November 2017.
I had read a few of John Le Carré's novels before, but this was easily my favourite. The plot is tight and not too complex to follow when one is reading for entertainment. The characters are believable and human. But above all, it is the oppressive atmosphere, even hellishness, of the whole business that is what makes this novel memorable.
Now, many people say that this is the best spy story ever written. I don't have enough experience to assess this. But if this be the case, I can't see that it is a very deep genre. Notwithstanding my enjoyment of it, it is not a great novel.
Ethan Frome [Top]
Edith Wharton. 1st reading. 19 November 2017.
A remarkable novella, which easily bears comparison to her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.
Five Get into a Fix [Top]
Enid Blyton. 1st reading. 19 November 2017.
I forgot to chronicle this book, which I read back in August when I was visiting my sister—a book currently waiting for my nephews to become literate, but in the meantime being used by adults to revisit their childhoods. I probably read all of the books in this series, but only had a vague memory of this installment.
May I confess that I find the quality of the prose much poorer than I remembered, and the plot more contrived? But it was still a comfortable voyage back in time.
Goodbye, Columbus [Top]
Philip Roth. 1st reading. 20 January 2018.
My introduction to Philip Roth. Well-written stories which held my interest, though there is a sort of oppressive dullness at the centre of them, which may be, after all, the point.
A Memoir of Jane Austen [Top]
James Edward Austen-Leigh. 1st reading. 20 January 2018.
This first biography of Jane Austen was written by her nephew and published in 1870; it apparently (I learn from the brief introduction) prompted a resurgence of interest in her work, particularly among the general reading public, and provided the chief image of her character for many years. Naturally, being the first biography and written with the help and consent of other members of her family, it presents a particular portrait that is, above all, domestic.
Anyone who has read any of her letters has realised what a sharp and playful wit she had—even more than is evident in her novels. She must have been a very fun person to be around, even in her last illness. Here, for instance, is what she says in a letter after reading Waverley:
Walter Scott has no business to write novels; especially good ones. It is not fair. He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and ought not to be taking the bread out of other people's mouths. I do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it, but I fear I must.
Austen-Leigh delights in her good humour, but with Victorian scrupulosity hastens remind us that despite her irony and jocularity she was also a deeply religious person, albeit in an unassuming way.
Speaking of Victorianism, one interesting aspect is how distant the author feels from the world in which Jane Austen grew up. She died twenty years before Victoria ascended to the throne and was therefore of a different era—of a time long before railways, and when the Industrial Revolution was barely under way. Hence, for instance, Austen-Leigh describes the simplicity of the dwellings of her childhood:
There was a general deficiency of carpeting in sitting-rooms, bed-rooms and passages. A pianoforte, or rather a spinet or harpsichord, was by no means a necessary appendage … There would often be but one sofa in the house, and that was a stiff, angular, uncomfortable article. There were no deep easy-chairs, nor other appliances for lounging; for to lie down, or even to lean back, was a luxury permitted only to old persons or invalids. (Ch. II)
In sum, not only was it a window in into the life of the authoress, but also her times.
When the Sleeper Wakes [Top]
H. G. Wells. 1st reading. 20 January 2018.
As might be expected, when reading an old science fiction novel, one is just as interested in the time it was written (1899; the original, serialised version rather than the slightly modified 1910 model) as in the time that it takes place (2100). As one arrives in the future with Graham, who has woken up from a 200-year coma, one slowly learns with him that the dazzling surface of the future society is not very deep. This is hence a political prophecy more than a technological one.
By no means in the top tier of science fiction, but still worthwhile.
Double Exposure [Top]
Donald Mackenzie. 1st reading. 20 January 2018.
A crime novel picked off a shelf when I needed a book for a couple of days; what Graham Greene would call an ‘entertainment’. In this regard it was satisfactory: a pass, but not a high mark.
Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa [Top]
Peter Godwin. 1st reading. 31 March 2018.
Having really enjoyed Godwin's other memoir, and having had this one recommended to my by my father, I began it with pleasure. I think I prefer When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, but that might have just been my mood when I was reading it; this other memoir of Godwin's childhood and early adulthood in Rhodesia—later, of course, Zimbabwe—is really quite excellent.
There are many ways to represent one's life in literary form, and Godwin consciously chooses a particular style, as he explains in the preface: ‘I have tried not to be wise after the event but to describe things as they seemed at the time, even where that may have portrayed us unattractively. I have tried not to preach or to politic. I have tried not be sentimental or censorious.’ He has been quite successful in these goals; and while he is right that it is not sentimental, this does does not mean that it is written without feeling. In fact, if it were sentimental, one would feel less, since the subject matter is often brutal and raw; it would be in bad taste to paint a rosy picture.
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood [Top]
Elspeth Huxley. 1st reading. 31 March 2018.
While the previous memoir was written from the perspective of the author as he was at the time being written about, Huxley writes hers from the vantage point of her grown self. In many ways, in fact, her book is about her parents and their grown-up friends just as much, or even more, than about her childhood.
This work has been widely praised, and in many ways I would say justly. However, it never quite sat comfortably with me: ultimately it is a portrait of white adventurers coming into a land as colonisers. They seem to have been kind, good humoured people, but their mindset still was, it appears, that this was land for the taking, and that they would be able to give the local peoples a leg-up by providing gainful employment. Now, one reviewer commented, ‘She knows East Africa and she loves it—the people, black and white, and the wild beauty of the countryside—with a critical and understanding sympathy.’ Yes, certainly, but it seems more that she loved a certain version of the people, black and white; to what degree it was ‘critical’ seems debatable to me.
On the other hand, it is all too easy to judge from the twenty first century; and notwithstanding the above criticism, this is a readable and engrossing entry in the genre of African memoir.
Jane Austen. 2nd reading. 31 March 2018.
It is half a lifetime ago that I read this novel, and I hardly remembered it. I enjoyed revisiting it, though I would certainly judge it to be second-rate Austen—which, given that first-rate Austen is the best of the best, is by no means a slight.
One thing it suffers from is immobility: in her other novels the characters move around a bit more; here, they all seem a bit too shut in until the excursion to Box Hill.
Mr. Woodhouse is one of her best realised characters.
To the Other Towns. A Life of Blessed Peter Favre: First Companion of Saint Ignatius [Top]
William V. Bangert, S.J. 1st reading. 14 April 2018.
Peter Favre was canonised only in 2013, despite being one of the key founders of the Society of Jesus and looked up to as a holy man during his life and after his death, especially in his native Savoy. And just as the Church took a while to formally recognise his sanctity, so I have taken a while to become acquainted with the details of his life.
Bangert's biography was solid, and I thought he hit on the right balance between the personal biography of Favre and the communal biography of the early Society. He also provided enough, but not too much, historical and geographical background for me. Occasionally he overreaches his capabilities as a writer, producing prose whose ornament is strained, but it is a minor and infrequent defect. The Kindle edition, which I read, had frequent typographical errors which, while not completely distracting, could easily have been corrected if the publisher had bothered to have a copy editor go over the text.
Fascinating with me was his time in Germany. After having studied Church History, it was full of names with which I was familiar. Favre, however, always had a reserved role which keeps him out of the headlines of reformation history but which, more importantly, meant that he was doing significant and enduring pastoral work behind the scenes. Particularly interesting was his relationship with Albert of Brandenburg, whose sale of indulgences was one of the provocations for Luther's 95 theses, and to whom they were formally sent. As Bangert relates, Favre was charmed by the cardinal's cordial reception, but at the same time was nonplussed by his wealthy lifestyle.
On the fickleness of feelings in the spiritual life:
For it is not a great accomplishment to conquer and have dominion over oneself when we have the fervent feeling of being near to Christ. The really true victory and effective rule over ourselves are recognised with greater certainty at that very time when our King seems far removed from us. (From the Memorial, cited in the Epilogue)
On having pure intentions:
It is in this attention to the things of God that a man makes spiritual progress, and not, as I have done heretofore, in simply seeking relief from perplexities, temptations and sadness. For the man who would seek God and His blessings primarily in order to get rid of temptations and sadness would show himself to be spiritually immature and little appreciative of the grace of devotion except in periods of trial. (From the Memorial, cited in the Epilogue)
The Summer Before the Dark [Top]
Doris Lessing. 1st reading. 21 May 2018.
This was for me a compelling introduction to Doris Lessing. I was deeply impressed by her skill and feeling as a writer.
Curiously, I had a similar experience reading this to that of The Forsyte Saga: it is a novel that shows remarkable perception about life, but life on a wholly secular plane. Here I use the word secular in its more original sense, as having to do with life unfolding in the here and now of history. Now, the secular, in this sense, is not necessarily in contraposition to religion, but in the case of this novel, religion, or the transcendent in general, is absent. So the narrative is remarkably perceptive but in a qualified sense: that is, only insofar as it explores man without God. But of course this means that it wildly misses the mark if being a human being means searching for and coming to know God.
Still, I feel I got a lot out of this novel.
My Early Life, or, A Roving Commission [Top]
Winston S. Churchill. 1st reading. 21 May 2018.
Like the previous entry this was an introduction to a new author for me, in this case Churchill. This is a truly entertaining memoir, and the rare book that can make you laugh out loud at some of the turns of phrase. For instance, here are some samples from the early chapters.
[On visiting a park in Ireland with an old stone tower:] I was told it had been blown up by Oliver Cromwell. I understood definitely that he had blown up all sorts of things and was therefore a very great man. (Ch. 1)
We only just caught the train. If we had missed it, it would have been the end of the world. However, we didn't, and the world went on. (Ch. 1).
[On writing an entrance exam:] I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question "I". After much reflection I put a bracket around it thus "(I)". But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle: and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Head-master's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. (Ch. 2)
[The wonders of mathematics:] Of course I had progressed far beyond Vulgar Fractions and the Decimal System. We were arrived in an ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ world, at the portals of which stood ‘A Quadratic Equation’. (Ch. 3)In the edition of Wheelock's I used for studying Latin back in the day, the epigraph cited Churchill on how he would assign language studies to boys, quoting the following: ‘I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.’ This quote is found in this memoir, but, as I discovered, is a misleading snippet taken out of context. Here is a more representative selection:
By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. … Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinctions for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biassed in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek for a treat. … (Ch. 3)
The whole thrust of this passage is that English is the real thing; he was actually quite sceptical of the utility of the ancient languages. And so the talent for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature owes nothing to mastery of Latin or Greek, but to a life-long cultivation of his mother tongue. Nor was it completely natural to him. His speech-making, for which he is famous, was the result of hours of composition and memorisation. He would spend weeks writing and then memorising speeches for the House of Commons or other occasions—at least early in his career, which this book covers.
Though I have lingered on the opening, boyhood chapters, most of this memoir is about his military career, which usually involved him writing lots of letters to get a commission wherever there happened to be some interesting action; with a sort of wistfulness he treats of warfare before 1914 as being a much less dangerous and more civilised affair: while there must be a grain of truth to this, I can hardly think that his apparent view that battles in the British colonies were good sport is truly representative of reality. He was certainly a dyed-in-the-wool colonialist and is widely considered to have had racist views. His description of the Boer War in this book, for instance, shows little interest in the fate of the land's original inhabitants.
In sum, an engrossing book: often feeling and perceptive, almost always entertaining, but told from a very particular point of view: Winston Churchill's.
David Brin. 1st reading. 21 May 2018.
I enjoyed this novel more than Earth, the only other work by Brin I have read. Not the greatest literature, but readable and, at times, providing interesting ideas about what it might mean to live in a universe flush with intelligent life. I may well continue with some of the subsequent ‘Uplift’ books in the series.