Book Notes: 2013–2015 (Vancouver)

First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.

  1. Go to notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
  2. Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
  3. Currently reading most notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
  4. Go to current book notes (Summer 2015 –)

The following are my book notes during my time in Vancouver when I was a postdoc at the University of British Columbia. We did not live in the city of Vancouver proper, but rather the Endowment Lands, so I could not get a free library card in Vancouver. Most of these books, therefore, were from the UBC library system. Here is a picture of the books I borrowed during the 2014/2015 academic year.

  1. Three Men in a Boat
  2. Homage to Catalonia
  3. The Poisonwood Bible
  4. Of Human Bondage
  5. The Cry of the Kalahari
  6. Galileo's Daughter
  7. Twelfth Night
  8. Measure for Measure
  9. Friends of God
  10. The Map that Changed the World
  11. The Virginians
  12. With God in Russia
  13. The Shadow of the Torturer
  14. The Claw of the Conciliator
  15. Phineas Redux
  16. The Sword of the Lictor
  17. Dramatic Lyrics
  18. A Nest of Gentlefolk, and Other Stories
  19. Left to Tell
  20. Smoke
  21. The Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox
  22. Surprised by Joy
  23. The Shallows
  24. Paradise Regained
  25. Edmund Campion
  26. To Have and Have Not
  27. The Experience of God
  28. The Age of Innocence
  29. The Painted Veil
  30. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
  31. Poverty of Spirit
  32. The World of Robert Bateman
  33. Theological Highlights of Vatican II
  34. The Door Into Summer
  35. Hotel
  36. Airport
  37. The Pastures of Heaven
  38. The Confessions of St. Augustine
  39. Son
  40. War and Peace
  41. Characters of the Reformation
  42. Orley Farm
  43. Cannery Row
  44. The Orenda
  45. Fantastic Mr. Dahl
  46. Pride and Prejudice
  47. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  48. Mansfield Park
  49. The Best of Cordwainer Smith
  50. The Boat Who Wouldn't Float
  51. The Selected Poems of Francis Thompson
  52. Forming Intentional Disciples
  53. Wulf
  54. The Biography of a Silver-Fox
  55. Eichmann in Jerusalem
  56. The Word for World is Forest
  57. Taras Bulba and Other Tales
  58. Clouds of Witness
  59. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing About the Dog)   [Top]
Jerome K. Jerome. First reading. 17 August 2013.

A friend gave me this book a couple of years ago, and after stalling on the first chapter a couple of times, I finally got around to blazing through the whole thing. It is a delightfully whimsical little travelogue (if it can so be classified); the Tale of the Tub-esque digressions are quite diverting. As the characters progress further upstream the Thames, the style gives way to a gentle sentimentality. Some have criticised this, even calling the prose purple, but I thought it was just the thing for a lazy jaunt up the river with good company and a well-stocked hamper of victuals.

Homage to Catalonia   [Top]
George Orwell. First reading. 17 August 2013.

I have been wanting to get to these memoirs from the Spanish Civil War for a few years, especially after very much enjoying Down and Out in London and Paris. Strangely, I have not had good luck finding it in the library when I have looked for it, having run into this infelicitous misfortune on a couple of occasions. But recently I recalled that Orwell's works are now in the public domain in Canada—he having died more than fifty years ago—and was able to find an e-version online.

Homage to Catalonia is not as great a book, in my estimation, as Down and Out. Despite the subject matter, the scope seems somewhat more limited. One has the impression that Orwell got a very narrow view of the war, which he admits as much. This being said, it is still a fascinating read, and especially curious to see how he documents the rapid alteration in the revolutionary climate among the republicans. When the book opens, no one in Barcelona wants to appear to be bourgeois in the slightest; half a year later, anyone who wants any attention at all dresses like one. Orwell notes the change with a resigned sadness.

One thing the book does convey is the utter weariness of war. It is also shocking at how ill-equipped both sides of the front were.

The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid learning is mañana—'tomorrow' (literally, 'the morning'). Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until mañana. This is so notorious that even the Spaniards themselves make jokes about it. In Spain nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time. As a general rule things happen too late, but just occasionally—just so that you shan't even be able to depend on their happening late—they happen too early. A train which is due to leave at eight will normally leave at any time between nine and ten, but perhaps once a week, thanks to some private whim of the engine-driver, it leaves at half past seven. Such things can be a little trying. In theory I rather admire the Spaniards for not sharing our Northern time-neurosis; but unfortunately I share it myself. (Ch. 1)

The Poisonwood Bible   [Top]
Barbara Kingsolver. First reading. 20 August 2013.

This book was independently recommended to me by a couple of people, so I thought it would be worth picking up. While I found it well-written and interesting enough to finish to the end, I disliked it. There is an unsalutary air of misanthropy throughout and I found its exploration of African (post-)colonialism unbalanced.

Of Human Bondage   [Top]
W. Somerset Maugham. First reading. 20 August 2013.

This was my introduction to Maugham and an impressive one at that. He has a matter-of-fact style which is a bit disarming at first, but eventually you learn that he is building the story up layer by layer. He shows just as much as he tells: the mark of a good artist.

This is a great Bildungsroman and it kept me wanting to read ‘just one more chapter’. Philip, the protagonist, is a compelling and human character. Thankfully, this helps undercut an overarching nihilistic tone that pervades the novel. I wrote a bit elsewhere about the religious themes in the book, which are complex but ultimately unsatisfying.

One of the book's strengths, perhaps unintended, is that it provides a fascinating look into the early twentieth century. Philip's life as an artist in Paris as well as his various adventures in London paint vivid, everyday pictures of those cities. This aspect of the novel reminded me a bit of the accounts in Down and Out (which I had recently been reminded of through another book). Perhaps, though, it is simply that they were set roughly in the same era rather than that they overlapped in what they described.

Apparently, three filmed versions of the novel have been made, and they seem to focus on Philip's relationship with Mildred. This is odd. Frankly, I found the narrative of this relationship (which comprises only a fraction of the novel) rather tedious and overlong.

Cry of the Kalahari   [Top]
Mark & Delia Owens (Fontana/Collins, 1986). First reading. 20 August 2013.

I have on more than one occasion wondered what lay behind the spine of this book on my parents' bookshelf, but on a recent visit with them I picked it up for the first time, when I was unable to fall asleep one night due to mild jet-lag, and got hooked. ‘An entrancing story,’ proclaims the review from the Sunday Times on the front cover of the paperback version I read, and I concur.

The book chronicles the authors' seven years of wildlife research in the Kalahari desert of Botswana. Taking a gamble, they interrupted their graduate studies and spent their life-savings to leave the United States and make a start at some scientific research, penetrating deep into the wilderness in a run-down Land Rover with distressingly minimal supplies. With much persistence and a bit of luck they were gradually able to cobble together enough funding to expand their programme, and eventually could afford a small bush plane to greatly expand the scope of their operations.

The whole feel of the desert and its active ecosystem are vividly transmitted; one grows to know their rustic camp and the individual animals they track over the years. They have the quintessentially American pioneering spirit. My sole criticism of the story is their seeming complete lack of interest in the local peoples: it is only when they have left behind all human settlement that they let out a sigh of relief and exclaim that they have finally reached ‘the real Africa’. This being said, they seem genuinely tolerant of the many human pressures competing with wildlife preservation and express willingness to seek for middle ground that benefits both man and beast.

My parents said they read this soon before we ourselves embarked on a camping trip through the same desert when I was a child; that trip, and a visit a few years later to Gemsbock National Park left a vivid impression on me. Reading it myself, these many years later, recalled these trips to me and the call of the wilderness echoed again.

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love   [Top]
Dava Sobel (Penguin, 2000). First reading. 20 August 2013.

This book was another recommendation (it seemed to be a theme this summer), and one that I enjoyed. My only other in-depth introduction to Galileo was from Brodrick's excellent biography of Robert Bellarmine, and this is a worthy complement. (In fact, I see from Sobel's bibliography that Brodrick devoted a book to Galileo, which might be worth reading at some point.

Sobel's conceit is to weave Galileo's story around a collection of surviving letters that were written to him from his daughter, a Poor Clare in a monastery near Florence. It is a clever way to approach the subject matter, since it provides a window into Galileo's everyday life, including his very frequent maladies and infirmities. At times, though, this way of structuring the story seems stretched, as the narrations of the intrigues between Galileo and the powers of his day get interrupted by the inclusion a letter that has little to do with the story surrounding it. Nevertheless, Sobel is a deft enough writer that she navigates this difficulty as well as is probably possible.

The presentation of Galileo and his misfortunes seems fair. Sobel does not appear to have an agenda, and does not reduce what is a very complicated affair (and even somewhat historically difficult to pin down, as far as I can tell) to anything simplistic. In many ways, the book is a study of how the human spirit can paint itself into a corner through a series of ill-considered decisions. But what comes through strongest in Sobel's telling is Galileo's genius, and his brilliance leaps up from every page: even when he is being particularly intractable he is still somehow likeable.

Twelfth Night, or, What You Will   [Top]
Shakspere. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 8 September 2013.

Last weekend I went to see a production of Measure for Measure at Vancouver's ‘Bard on the Beach’ festival. On the night we went, the other theatre was playing Twelfth Night, so I decided to revisit it. (The production we saw was very competent, and there should be a note below shortly on that play.)

Twelfth Night is easy to revisit; a familiar but always diverting read. I paid a bit more attention this time to the ‘downstairs’ plot, if the play can be thought to have an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ element. But I must confess that it is rather strange. Though Sir Toby and friends are good fun, I am never sure exactly what to think of their treatment of Malvolio. There is something in the atmosphere of the final scene signalling that it has ceased being funny. And Feste: is he a melancholy or a mirthful clown? I need to see more people play him, I suppose: I confess that I always imagine Ben Kingsley delivering the lines, and he was definitely more the former.

[Sir Toby to Malvolio, encapsulating the ‘downstairs’ tension:] Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Measure for Measure   [Top]
Shake-speare. Third reading. 15 September 2013.

Samuel Johnson was on to something when he remarked of this play, ‘… The grave scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour than elegance. The plot is rather intricate than artful.’ As a morality story it is superb, and explores a remarkable range of psychological and moral terrain. But as a piece of theatre it sometimes plods.

In this vein, it was instructive reading it on the heels of Twelfth Night, for I noticed a contrast. Measure for Measure simply lacks what many of Shakespeare's other works possess in abundance: great and memorable characters. Angelo provides interesting psychological insights, but is not as engrossing as Iago; the Duke is a noble soul, but is not nearly as arresting as his counterpart in As You Like It; Isabella is a model of virtue, but lacks the spark of a Cordelia or a Portia; Elbow sometimes makes one chuckle, but his malformed expressions fall short of Dogberry's.

Nonetheless, Lucio did stand out as a somewhat successful character, partly for his curious mixture of vice and natural goodness; he at least one can remember distinctly. Perhaps, then, his character—a sort of miniature of the whole theme of ‘measure for measure’—can be for me a point of re-entry into the world of the play when I recall it to mind in the future.

Friends of God: Joseph Chiwatenhwa and Marie Aonetta   [Top]
Bruce Henry (Tomiko Publicatins, North Bay, 1991). First reading. 13 October 2013.

Of Joseph Chiwatenhwa, one of the first Hurons to convert to Christianity, the Jesuit missionary St. Charles Garnier said, ‘It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God.’ I have remained interested in and inspired by Joseph Chiwatenhwa ever since learning about him in a biography of Jean de Brébeuf. He was a man of conviction, courage, and deep prayer—in fact, he was the first layman to do the Spiritual Exercises in what is now Ontario, under the direction of the Jesuit missionaries. During this retreat, he composed a long prayer that was recorded by Fr. Jérome Lalemant, beginning, ‘O God, at last I start to understand you.’

This short book is a biography of Joseph and his wife Marie Aonetto. (About the latter, unfortunately, we seem to know much less, though it is clear that she was also an extraordinary Christian.) The writing and the content is simple—almost too much so for my tastes—but it does give the arc of their lives. I would not be sorry to see a longer and more scholarly treatment of their lives. It is likely, though, that the only direct source of information about them is a handful of chapters from the Jesuit Relations, in which case a fuller biography would have to be supplemented with conjecture and contextualised with historical and cultural background. At any rate, it was still a pleasure to read this little book.

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology   [Top]
Simon Winchester. First reading. 13 October 2013.

My enjoyment of Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything was the main reason I started this book after spotting it on a bookshelf. I had never heard of William Smith before, nor had I had a particular interest in maps of geological strata, but I thought that it could be interesting.

However, I found this a pretty mediocre book, despite the accolades from major reviewers. To start with, Winchester adopts a surprisingly thick-headed position when it comes the relationship of faith and science. Over and over again he tells the reader how the study of geology was part of a movement of enlightenment during which the blind errors of faith were sloughed off, reason prevailed, the manifest silliness of religion was vanquished, etc., etc. Not only is this a hopeless simplification, but it rapidly becomes plain tiresome. The following paragraph is typical of many others that are sprinkled throughout the book ad nauseum:

For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity. A science—an elemental, basic science that would in due course allow mankind to exploit the almost limitless treasures of the underworld—had at last broken free from the age-old constraints of doctrine and canonical instruction. (Ch. IX)

The repetitiveness of this viewpoint mirrors an overall repetitiveness; other themes, such as Smith's struggle against the aristocratic scientific establishment, are explained again and again. Further, a formulaic structure to the work soon becomes evident: almost every chapter opens with some kind of contemporary anecdote—a trip to the museum to see Smith's collection, a visit to his old home, an account of Winchester's examination of the Doverian cliffs, etc., etc.. At first this is at first interesting but rapidly becomes distracting.

Nevertheless, the book does pick up a bit about two-thirds of the way through. One gets the impression that Winchester had a bit more source material for the latter part of Smith's life and did not need as much of the filler that bogs down the earlier portions. I also enjoyed learning about how the English countryside was rapidly altering at the turn of the nineteenth century, and particularly how farming was fast evolving.

This book probably hasn't turned me off of Simon Winchester for good (I'm still interested in reading The Professor and the Madman), but it has dampened the enthusiasm elicited by The Meaning of Everything.

The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century   [Top]
Thackeray. First reading. 28 October 2013.

This is a fat book—one Henry James apparently called a ‘loose baggy monster’. Anthony Trollope, though also critical, was a bit more forgiving:

There is not a page of it vacant or dull. But he who takes it up to read as a whole, will find that it is the work of a desultory writer, to whom it is not infrequently difficult to remember the incidents of his own narrative.

Now, James was dismissive because he must have been expecting another novel—if Thackeray wanted a serialised, variegated plot, why should we be upset if it is ‘baggy’? It is like going to an opera and complaining that the story is too melodramatic. On the other hand, while Trollope is right that the novel is always entertaining, I find the rest of his assessment a little puzzling. Perhaps I did not read The Virginians as closely as Trollope, but I did not find it ‘desultory’.

All this not to say that I disagree that the novel is flawed, but rather to say I think it is flawed for different reasons. My own disappointment was the unused potential. The best parts of the book are those which adhere to the historical events in the New World: the conquest of New France and the American War of Independence. These I would have amplified to fill the book; instead, one finds the Warrington brothers trotting around England having trite adventures—which are, admittedly, entertaining and do make it an engaging book. But I found it odd, and disappointing, that while Thackeray seemed to have no difficulty filling chapters with Henry Warrington's attempts to escape from an ill-advised engagement with his much elder cousin, there is only a single chapter recounting his participation in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

The novel contains unrelenting sentimentalisation of the domestic hearth. Home and family are noble subjects, but Thackeray seems to idolise them.

The switch in narrative voice to George Warrington somewhere in the third volume was abrupt and unexplained.

Of interest is Thackeray's attitude towards the Revolution (if we can assume that George Warrington's opinions reflect the author's). He seems perplexed by the fact that the colonists should have resented being taxed, but somewhat sympathetic towards them in their struggle, while still maintaining that the mother country was in the right. The war over, he is not too upset about the result and is simply eager that everyone should be friends again.

With God in Russia   [Top]
Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. & Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J.. First reading. 15 December 2013.

I would not classify many of the books I read as ‘page-turners’, but this one certainly was. It chronicles the years that Fr. Ciszek, an American Jesuit, spent in the Soviet Union, the majority of it in prisons and labour camps after he illegally entered the country to minister to the Polish Catholic population.

I found two aspects of these memoirs remarkable. First, the brutality of the prison and labour system is palpable. In terms of the basics, for example, the amount of food that the prisoners were expected to live upon is astonishing: I found myself constantly thinking how hungry I would be with the rations they were giving, and I do not even do hard labour for twelve hours a day. There is then also the fact that Fr. Ciszek was held for years without clear charges, let alone a sentence, and was then sentenced on trumped-up charges to an inordinately long term.

But the second remarkable thing about the memoirs is how humble, even matter-of-fact that Fr. Ciszek was about the whole experience. There is rarely a note of complaint, and never self-pity; one eventually realises that he is not relaying the full extent of the suffering he underwent. Moreover, in the middle of this excruciating life, he made his priestly ministry a priority, baptising, celebrating masses, hearing confessions and counselling the Christians in the prisons camps with him; later, when he was released from prison but forced to remain in the Soviet Union, he was deeply involved in the huge but illegal house churches that sprung up in the cities he lived in.

Fr. Ciszek's cause for canonisation was opened in the 1990's and remains active.

The Shadow of the Torturer   [Top]
Gene Wolfe. First reading. 15 December 2013.

I had not heard of Gene Wolfe until I recently learned that he is highly revered by many contemporary science fiction writers; this is the first book in his most acclaimed series, The Book of the New Sun. It is set far, far in the future of Earth, when the sun is dying out: our own times exist only in distant and obscure legends; the genre is just as much fantasy as science fiction.

It is a unique novel in that one is thrown into a completely alien world with no points of reference: one only slowly comes to become acquainted with the larger picture through chance remarks and passing references. For this reason, it is a strange read. Though I was not definitively hooked, it piqued my interest enough to get the next book in the series out of the library.

The Claw of the Conciliator   [Top]
Gene Wolfe. First reading. 18 December 2013.

This is the second book in the Book of the New Sun. I found myself more accustomed to the world of the story; there are Christian themes and allusions sprinkled throughout, though they are very subtle. In addition to the almost complete lack of historical exposition, another strange aspect of the series is that the main contemporary events are also only referenced in passing. The main character, Severian, simply drifts in and out of the major world-events that are slowly taking on shape.

I continue to be intrigued by the series.

Phineas Redux   [Top]
Anthony Trollope. First reading. 1 February 2014.

Phineas Finn was my introduction to Trollope a few years ago and a delightful introduction it was. Finally I have been able to read the sequel—after reading all but one of the other books of this Palliser series.

Phineas Redux is enjoyable, but not quite as fresh as its predecessor. This is partly by design. The hero is older and more world-wise; his romantic interests too have been aged by the troubles of life.

I was not expecting the story to turn into a murder mystery; it does not quite do so, as the genre hardly existed when Trollope was writing, but it does come awfully close. It is done as well as one might expect; the effect on Phineas is well-executed, though the dénouement is a little drawn out and repetitive.

The downfall of Laura Kennedy is awful and I almost think Trollope was too cruel with her.

On maintaining friendships at a distance:

Distance in time and place, but especially in time, will diminish friendship. It is a rule of nature that it should be so, and thus the friendships which a man most fosters are those which he can best enjoy. If your friend leave you, and seek a residence in Patagonia, make a niche for him in your memory, and keep him there as warm as you may. Perchance he may return from Patagonia and the old joys may be repeated. But never think that those joys can be maintained by the assistance of ocean postage, let it be at never so cheap a rate. (Ch. II)

Caveat evangelizator:

Could it be that any human being really preferred a long sermon to a short one,—except the being who preached it or read it aloud?

The Sword of the Lictor   [Top]
Gene Wolfe. First reading. 22 February 2014.

A few chapters into this book I wondered whether I would even continue to the fourth book and complete the series. I was not finding it particularly engaging. But about a third of the way through, things picked up and I actually began enjoying the story. So I think I shall actually continue to the end.

Bells and Pomegranates No. III: Dramatic Lyrics   [Top]
Browning. First reading. 22 February 2014.

Browning is a gap in my literary acquaintance, this being the first collection of his work I have read. But I did so sporadically over a while, so it was not the most coherent introduction. Further, he can be a very difficult poet to follow, and I did not attempt to read the complex poems closely, so I likely missed much.

This collection includes ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’: I think this was the first time I had actually read the original version.

A Nest of Gentlefolk; A Quiet Backwater; First Love; A Lear of the Steppes   [Top]
Turgenev; translated by Jessie Coulson (Oxford University Press, 1959). First reading. 9 March 2014.

I had only ever previously read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for which my mild complaint was that it was too short. The volume I have just read contains four stories which I found more satisfactorily short: the titular tale, A Nest of Gentlefolk, is sometimes billed as a novel, but surely, like the rest of the pieces in the collection, it is better classified as a novella.

At any rate, these are very fine stories. Though all are tragic, none is purely nihilistic; the tragedies are deeply human tragedies. I will probably be picking up another of his works in the near future.

Turgenev, more than any other (of the few) Russian writers I have read, is consciously writing for a western European audience. This is helpful, for he more clearly brings out what is distinctly Russian about his characters and settings.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust   [Top]
Immaculée Ilibagiza & Steve Erwin (Hay House, 2006). First reading. 30 March 2014.

The title of this book is accurately chosen. This book is not simply a chronicle of survival—though it is that, as the author incredibly was able to avoid slaughter despite several close calls—but also a story of faith. She spent several months crammed into a tiny bathroom with several other women and girls, hiding from the murderous hordes literally on the other side of the walls; and it was there that she most profoundly discovered God's love. It is also a chronicle of the struggle to forgive—the only family member of hers that survived was studying abroad—and one that she successfully conquers and thereby finds peace.

When I read memoirs like these that have coauthors there is always a question in the back of my mind: what is the author's voice and what is her coauthor's interpretation or embellishment? Presumably very little of the latter, but one can kind of pick out passages or turns of phrase that are designed to be narrative or explanatory in quality; is the dialogue his recreation or direct from her memory?

But this is a merely harmless distraction, I think. At the end of the day, I certainly recommend this book: if Mrs. Ilibagiza can forgive, let no one say that forgiveness is impossible.

Smoke   [Top]
Turgenev; translated by Constance B. Garnett. First reading. 30 March 2014.

Turgenev can be compared to Tolstoy, I think, for the depth of his psychological insights. Smoke reminded me a bit of Anna Karenina, though certainly much reduced in scope (again, I would call it a novella rather than a novel), focusing on the man rather than the woman, and having a redemptive ending, for him at least. Though it has strong elements of satire, this psychological aspect is the story's strong point, at least for someone like me who is far removed from the machinations of the Russian aristocracy.

In particular, there are two layers of will and determination running through Litvinov's mind throughout his affair with Irina: the clear prattle of his more conscious self, reminding himself of his moral obligations and his higher desires, but swimming on top of a deeper, more obscure self that is madly in love with Irina. Turgenev masterly creates the interior monologues of the clearer self that subtly reveal the dangerous currents that lie beneath and which, at least for a time, overpower him. It is an excellent portrait of the complexity of the human soul, without (crucially) reducing the soul to the unconscious, as Freud would do a few decades later.

On the sickening nature of sin:

The thing was done, but how was he to face his judge? And if only his judge would come to meet him—an angel with a flaming sword; that would be easier for a sinning heart … instead of which he had himself to plunge the knife in. (XIX)

On the relative unimportance of instinct in man:

Take an ant in a forest and set it down a mile from its ant-hill, it will find its way home; man can do nothing like it; but what of it? do you suppose he’s inferior to the ant? Instinct, be it ever so unerring, is unworthy of man; sense, simple, straightforward, common sense—that’s our heritage, our pride; sense won’t perform any such tricks, but it’s that that everything rests upon. (XIV)

Vanitas vanitatum:

What stale, what unprofitable nonsense, what wretched trivialities were absorbing all these heads and hearts, and not for that one evening, not in society only, but at home too, every hour and every day, in all the depth and breadth of their existence! And what ignorance, when all is said! What lack of understanding of all on which human life is built, all by which life is made beautiful! (XV)

The Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox   [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. First reading. 26 April 2014.

I was moved to read this book by my recent visit to Oxford, after hearing a little about Ronald Knox and also observing that both he and Evelyn Waugh had connexions to Campion Hall, where I was staying. Apart from that, and having seen this book on lists of Waugh's œuvre, I knew nothing about Msgr. Knox.

This biography was a bit too long and detailed for my interest: Knox lived a life of the mind, which does not make for an eventful life. It would have been better, in fact, if the length of Waugh's biography of St. Edmund Campion were exchanged with this, for the former is certainly more full of adventure and intrigue.

Nonetheless, if someone had to write a long life of Knox, Waugh was the man to do so, for despite the lack of eventfulness, the prose and storytelling remains captivating. Waugh's skill as a stylist is even more evident in his non-fiction works than his novels. His humour remains here; often tickling below the surface but occasionally protruding with a sort of mock-pompous dignity. For example, he assiduously notes all of the occasions upon which Knox's middle name (Arbuthnott) is misspelled on official documents. Or consider the following description of his childhood home, from before his future stepmother enlivened things a bit:

They occupied the larger part of a house divided in two, with an empty stable, a prolific walled garden, and a small paddock which was the children's sole place of recreation. Indoors there was only work; no games, no novels, no easy-chairs, no visitors. They never stayed away or entertained other children. Ruskin's works were banned as frivolous. The halfpenny a week pocket money was devoted to the church plate … At normal times they were given one slice with either butter or jam at each of [the] meals. Dry bread was always unlimited in quantity. At mid-day there was a solid dinner. Their clothes were home-made and seemingly indestructible, passing from one growing child to the next. They seldom suffered the humiliation of comparing them with other children's. Once or twice they were taken to a party in the neighbourhood, but always removed hungry at the start of the round dances which preceded the supper. They made no friends and caught no infectious diseases. (Ch. 1)

Only Dickens could describe such an existence so vividly, and he would have done so much less economically.

Waugh makes a great deal of the friendships Knox had with younger women, particularly Daphne Acton and Katharine Asquith, and how they helped rejuvenate his intellectual powers in middle life. Of note is that he never questions the innocence of these deep and fervent friendships, a temptation that few other biographers would easily pass by.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life   [Top]
C. S. Lewis. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 26 April 2014.

Similar to Waugh's biography of Ronald Knox, I was inspired to reread this book after my visit to Campion Hall and spying it on one of the library shelves there.

I have read these memoirs many times and so I was surprised that I got a great deal out of them this time around. In particular, this is the first time I have read the book since studying philosophy, and I had not appreciated before how deeply Lewis's young adult life was shaped by his study of philosophy. In particular, I would not have guessed that he was, for all intents and purposes, a Hegelian idealist as a young man, although I had some vague sense that he had Platonic leanings (even after embracing the Christian faith). But the real drama of the story is the convergence of his existential desires with his intellectual life. This involves not a curtailment of philosophy, but an embrace of its authentic meaning:

Once, when [Griffiths] and Barfield were lunching in my room, I happened to refer to philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘It wasn't a subject to Plato,’ said Barfield, ‘it was a way.’ The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity. Enough had been though, and said, and felt, and imagined. It was about time that something should be done. (Ch. XIV)

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains   [Top]
Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010). First reading. 26 April 2014.

This is a critical look at how the internet is shaping our minds. I mean critical in the true sense of the word, for Carr's analysis is no knee-jerk reaction to a new technology, but a reasoned approach that relies on scientific research, introspection and moral judgement. His basic thesis is revealed in the title of the work. The way we read, gather information and even socialise on the internet encourages shallowness. In the footsteps of Marshall McLuhan, Carr argues that this has more to do with the medium itself than the content. Thus, the expectations that the almost infinite access to information will lead to deeper intellectual engagement do not take into account the fact that this technology is not simply a vessel from which we draw knowledge, but a tool that shapes the way we think. The internet, which is designed around hyperlinks and rewards speed and skimming, does not allow us to engage as profoundly with text as the codex does.

There is ample evidence from the social- and neurosciences to support Carr's thesis, and much of the book is dedicated to summarising this body of work—almost to the point of repetitiveness.

I had a few small quibbles with Carr's approach.

First, he never explicitly addresses the question of epistemology and psychology (in the philosophical sense), which he might well have done. Thus, for example, one gets the impression that he believes that consciousness is a merely material phenomenon, and though he does distinguish between the ‘mind’ and the ‘brain’, it is never quite clear what he means by this. Again, he speaks of Cartesian dualism in moderate detail, but then shuffles off the issue without argument, as though dualism has somehow been disproven by modern neuroscience; in fact, the question is more philosophical than a scientific.

Second, he might have explored more deeply what contemplation really is; at one point he seems to equate it with introspection, which is sloppy and inaccurate. He also seems to take as a given the fact that our human ancestors in their primitive state were constantly responding to stimuli and did not focus on much; this seems at odds with his later proposal that being out of the city and in nature is a great cure for our restlessness and can promote deep thinking.

Nevertheless, these do not seriously affect the central arguments of the book.

One of its biggest strengths is the chapter on memory. Carr demolishes the naif view that computer memory can replace human memory. In fact, as he demonstrates, human memory is bound up in human intelligence; the notion that we can ‘free up’ our minds for more important thing by allowing computers to store information is seriously mistaken. Memory is constitutive of a healthy mind, and it is more than mere storage. When we remember we amplify, abstract, make connexions, relive and reinterpret what has gone by.

In fact, Carr is justly critical of contemporary views of artificial intelligence as reductionistic. He points out the paucity of the notion championed by Google that mere access to information and resources is enough for human flourishing. On the other hand, he would have done well to try and identify what intelligence is with greater precision.

Perhaps the following summarises Carr's thesis:

The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn't just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what's at stake. ‘I come from a tradition of Western culture,’ he wrote, ‘in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.’ But now, he continued, ‘I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”.’ As we are drained of our ‘inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,’ Foreman concluded, we risk being turned into ‘pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.’ (p. 196)

Paradise Regained   [Top]
Milton. Second reading. 4 May 2014.

If one reads this in the same way as Paradise Lost, one is bound to be disappointed. It is a sort of sequel, but it is not the great epic that its precursor is, nor was really meant to be. This is a compact and dense study, and if read as such is rewarding.

I think Milton is on to something in the way that the temptations of Christ are presented. Christ is never really moved by Satan's offers; there is no hesitation in his mind. What Milton really shows us is how Satan is defeated, and inevitably so. The real victory of Christ is not over his own indecision or doubts—they really don't exist—but rather the demonstration that Satan's lies no longer have any power.

Most men admire / Virtue who follow not her lore.

Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr   [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. Second reading. 4 May 2014.

I thought I would round out the life of Ronald Knox with this brief biography that I read for the first time only a few years ago; I enjoyed it once again. Waugh captures the gentlemanliness of Campion, which is epitomised in the last paragraph of Campion's Brag, in which he addresses Queen Elizabeth:

If thse my offers be refused, and my endeavours can take no place, and I, having run thousands of miles to do you good, shall be rewarded with rigour, I have no more to say but to recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of Hearts, who send us His grace, and set us at accord before the day of payment, to the end we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.

To Have and Have Not   [Top]
Ernest Hemmingway. First reading. 22 June 2014.

Hemmingway is spotty. This novel, like Across the River and into the Trees is quite third-rate. It is made a bit interesting by the social commentary provided by the Gordon characters and their circle who emerge near the end, but this is not enough to give depth to the story. Hemmingway's distinctive prose style can never be enough on its own.

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss   [Top]
David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, 2013). First reading. 22 June 2014.

The purported aim of this book ‘is simply to offer a definition of the word “God”’, for Hart thinks that most of the debate between theists and atheists today is actually at cross-purposes due to a failure to define the terms of the argument. His programme is to look at three things we experience that most great religious traditions teach point to God: being, consciousness and bliss. The thesis of the book is quite simple: not only is God is the ground and the culmination of all being, consciousness and bliss, but he is in fact all of these things in capital letters: absolute Being, absolute Consciousness, absolute Bliss.

His method is deliberately to rely on the well-known traditions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sihkism and others to show that not only are their approaches to God philosophically similar, but also intellectually compelling. In this regard, he goes beyond his purported aim and argues not only for a conceptual framework for speaking about God but also makes a series of arguments for his existence: none of them original, but this by design. He also offers withering critiques of current, popular atheistic arguments for God's non-existence. I do not think he intended anyone to take him at face value when he said he was merely trying to lay out the terms of the argument, for he spends so much time on the actual arguments that it is difficult to believe otherwise.

His strongest section is on being and I found myself agreeing with much of what he said. He repeats age-old arguments with eloquence and in a way that is relevant to today's discourse. In particular, I think he very effectively analyses and criticises the doctrine of naturalism which is, consciously or unconsciously, pervasive in our culture.

There are weaknesses to the work. First, he is repetitive. Time and time again he says that he need not say any more on a given subject (‘I do not want to dwell on this at unnecessary length …’), and then proceeds to say more on it. Many of his points, particularly about being, are given several times in only slightly different ways.

Second, though his prose is often quite catching, it is frequently simply over the top in its flourish. For example: ‘… our species has not yet proved anywhere near so perdurable as that debonair stranger to all pity, the insouciant crocodile’. This kind of style makes one smile the first time, but when one keeps encountering it one wishes he would stop making love to his employment.

Finally, I thought at times that his philosophical acumen flagged a little, particularly on the second part of the book, dealing with consciousness. He argues persuasively for a non-materialistic account of consciousness, as well as against a thorough-going Cartesian dualism. However, he seems to follow Kant down the road quite far in his acknowledgement of ‘categories’ of thought, without specifying what those categories actually are and without continuing to proceed with the critical project one needs either to extricate oneself from the Kantian doctrines of phenomena and noumina or to endorse them. Now, he claims not to fully endorse Kant, but goes no further. One is left hanging: on the one hand there are (as far as I can make out) transcendental categories of reason, on the other Kant's epistemology is wrong. This left me perplexed. For example, he claims:

To understand the world, the mind must in some sense compose the world, by which I mean supply the conditions necessary for its comprehension. So said Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), at least, and the point seems fairly difficult to dispute. One does not have to embrace Kantian epistemology as a whole (as I certainly do not) to recognise the truth that it is only as organised under a set of a priori categories that experience becomes intelligible, and that those categories are not impressed upon the mind by physical reality but must always precede empirical experience. (p. 190)

But what he has just said is, to my understanding, the very cornerstone of Kantian epistemology, which at the same time claims not to embrace. This left me quite confused as to what he really means when he says, for example: ‘The category of cause could not be abstracted from nature were it not already present in the mind's perception of nature (ibid).’

At the very least, he has to fill us in a bit as to how his epistemology parts way exactly with Kant; as it stands, it leaves one wondering if he actually knows.

All in all, then, Hart could have made this book shorter; he could have completed important ideas in places; he could have stuck more to good, simple Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. But in the end, it is a worthwhile read. His knowledge of many religious texts and traditions is breathtaking and extremely enriching; his recapitulations of classical theistic arguments are clear. Hopefully the influence of this work will be widespread.

The Age of Innocence   [Top]
Edith Wharton. First reading. 22 June 2014.

I was captured from the first page of this book. The love-triangle is an ancient theme, but here it is weaved into a social criticism—nineteenth century New York's ‘tissue of elaborate mutual dissimulation’—and a psychological study that, together with a great command of style, make this a magnificent example of the genre.

The Painted Veil   [Top]
W. Somerset Maugham. First reading. 27 June 2014.

In reading this novel I was in the curious and uncommon position of having watched the 2006 film adaptation beforehand; normally the order is reversed. And in this case, there are major differences between the film and the book. The film I quite admired, and it turns out to be a romanticised version of Maugham's original story—not in a bad sense, and even in some ways the screenplay is an improvement: for example, in its increased focus on Walter's actual work against the cholera in the village. But the end result is that they are really two different stories.

All this being said, an engaging little novel, or perhaps novella. It is not as good as Of Human Bondage, though partly this is because it is simply more limited in scope. The portrayal of Kitty is good. Her ‘relapse’ near the end of the novel is thought-provoking and ultimately, I think, gives some depth to the story. The ending is a touch too sentimental.

The paperback edition that I read had a terribly silly cover, with a sensual drawing of a man and woman embracing (this despite the restrained treatment of the adultery in the actual book), and the following sentence in bold letters at the bottom: ‘The famous novel about a woman who violated God's Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.’ It was enough to make me embarrassed to read it in public.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1809–1882). With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his granddaughter Nora Barlow   [Top]
Charles Darwin. First reading. 14 August 2014.

Having enjoyed Darwin's books and as I admire his scientific work, this seemed like a good follow-up. In the main I enjoyed it, but not as much as I had anticipated. The interesting parts—his childhood, his travels and the back-stories to his scientific insights—are offset by long and less interesting information on his acquaintance with other leading figures of the day and and dull anecdote. Over all, though, it was worth reading, especially as it is quite short.

Of interest, naturally, are his religious views. (I read the 1958 edition, prepared by his granddaughter, in which some passages that were originally expunged by the family have been restored.) He lays out his reasons for his agnosticism, which I found not so much feeble as half-hearted.

Poverty of Spirit   [Top]
Johann B. Metz; translated by John Drury (Paulist Press). First reading. 14 August 2014.

A good, dense little book—more like a long article, in fact. The theory of the temptations of Christ is compelling. The basic thesis is that poverty of spirit is not only first of the Beatitudes in number but also in priority.

The World of Robert Bateman   [Top]
Robert Bateman & Ramsay Derry. First reading. 14 August 2014.

I have never put a coffee-table art book in these notes before, but it seemed appropriate in this case, as I did read it from cover to cover, which included the longish introduction plus Bateman's own commentary on a large number of colour plates.

Before, I knew nothing about Robert Bateman besides the name, though surely I had seen one or two of his paintings in passing. I did not even know that he was Canadian. But I learnt quite a lot reading about him, his paintings and his views on the natural world. Of particular interest was to learn that his works, which strike one at first for their realism, are in fact more heavily influenced—in Bateman's mind, at least—by the abstract movement (in his composition) and cubism (in his rendering of figures and natural details).

Theological Highlights of Vatican II   [Top]
Joseph Ratzinger. First reading. 14 August 2014.

This is a collection of four essays on the Second Vatican Council, each dealing with one of the four plenary sessions in the Vatican between 1963 and 1965. It was published in 1966, when the Council had barely finished, and hence gives a perspective on the events when they were still fresh in the world's consciousness.

Ratzinger does not hesitate to proclaim that he was on the progressive side of the issues of the day. He is at pains, however, to frame the debates not in terms of liberals versus conservatives (though he frequently calls the non-progressives the ‘conservatives’), but rather as those who sided with the status quo of the Roman curia and those who desired an authentic ressourcement. Hence, in line with his more recent commentaries, he believes that the correct hermeneutic for understanding Vatican II is neither that of ‘continuity’ or ‘discontinuity’, but rather of reform. (Thomas Rausch, S.J., who wrote the introduction to the 2009 Paulist edition I read, comments that Ratzinger's views on the Council have remained remarkable consistent over the decades.)

The book is about the chief theological outcomes of the Council, which I will not attempt to fully summarise. But there were a few points that interested me.

First, Ratzinger places perhaps the greatest emphasis on the doctrine of episcopal collegiality that emerged from the Council. He presents it as a genuinely new development, and views it not only as an important complement to the Petrine doctrines, developed in recent memory by the First Vatican Council, but also a great step forward for ecumenical progress.

Second, he is quite frank in his criticism of the preconciliar liturgy, and the overriding sentiment in his discussion of the new liturgical norms might accurately be identified as relief. This was, for him, a key practical result of the Council. It was also tied to the point above, since local episcopal authority over certain liturgical practices was affirmed.

Third, he does not hide his dissatisfaction with some elements of the Constitution on the Modern World (or Gaudium et Spes). In his view, the document does not fully succeed in presenting a compelling synthesis of Catholicism and genuine modern progress. If anything, Ratzinger fears that a fully Biblical faith is distanced even further from the concerns of modern man due to an approach that eschewed any explicit or deep theological analysis. Rather, as he complains at one point, Gaudium et Spes seems to promote a sort of ‘recondite philosophy’. I do not know Gaudium et Spes well enough to comment on (or even to fully understand) any of this. But Ratzinger's opinion is noteworthy in light of the fact that it was an immensely important document for John Paul II's pontificate, at least if one considers how frequently he referred to it in speeches and writings.

Other points of interest are Ratzinger's commentary on the Council's treatment of marriage as well as its doctrine on religious freedom and the Church's relationship to other religions. Finally, though it is by no means his focus, he does give some ‘behind the scenes’ context for who was influential and how the debates proceeded. Touchingly, he ends on a personal note, expressing gratitude for the generosity of the Council Fathers, as well as a reminder that as councils come and go over the centuries, the faith of the People of God remains a constant. The latter point, he concludes, should never be forgotten.

The Door Into Summer   [Top]
Robert Heinlein. First reading. 14 August 2014.

The only other Heinlein I had read before this was Stranger in a Strange Land, years before. I didn't care too much for it. But I enjoyed this other novel, The Door Into Summer, probably partly because its ambition is modest, and my main intent was merely to be entertained (which I was).

The basic plot is about an inventor who is cheated of his work in 1970, put in a cryogenic sleep, and awoken in the year 2000, at which time time travel is possible and he can return to 1970 to rectify things. (The novel was written in the mid-1950's.) All-in-all, the time-travel is handled cleverly. The speculations about the future (even about the 1970's) are of course interesting and typically hit and miss. But most enjoyable was simply the good pacing and interesting content.

Hotel   [Top]
Arthur Hailey. First reading. 14 August 2014.

In my previous community, there was a man who, if a film was proposed to him on a Friday night after a long and tiring week, would ask, ‘Will this make me a better person?’ If the answer was ‘yes’, he figured it was going to be too intellectual and would pass. This was the kind of mood I was in when I picked this book off a shelf of random novels on vacation. Now, it wasn't trash—it didn't make me a worse person!—but it certainly did entertain me, which was exactly my aim.

The novel covers four days at a busy hotel, and there are numerous strands of plot and several main characters, expertly weaved together. Even though I am highly doubtful that any hotel is so exciting behind the scenes, I was quite willing to suspend disbelief as I kept turning the pages.

Airport   [Top]
Arthur Hailey. First reading. 17 August 2014.

The same bookshelf that yielded the above also had Airport, by the same author. The conceit is similar: a brief but intense look at the operations of an airport and some of the characters that help run it. Whereas Hotel took place over a few days, Airport takes place over about ten hours. I found this one a bit formulaic, and perhaps a bit more sensational, but still entertaining. I can't imagine a time when there was no security before boarding aeroplanes, but this lack allowed for a major plot point in this novel (which was written in 1968).

The Pastures of Heaven   [Top]
John Steinbeck. First reading. 17 August 2014.

This is a collection of short stories, all set in a sleepy Californian valley named The Pastures of Heaven for its great natural beauty. They are enjoyable, whimsical, nostalgic stories, sometimes ending tragically but always somehow gently. I was reminded of the magical realism genre. Even though there is never any magic, many of the stories are bizarre or dream-like enough that they have a magical feel.

Confessions   [Top]
Augustine of Hippo, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Second reading. 28 September 2014.

I should have re-read this long before now. I had one of those experiences of reading a book that you know is a ‘classic’ before you start it, and yet are still surprised at how incredibly good it is.

A few things stayed with me from this reading. First, Augustine's joyful and absolute single-mindedness in his desire for God. His passion permeates the work and yet doesn't wear one down. Second, his constant recognition of his complete dependence on God, which he acknowledges over and over—even his ability to ‘confess’ in these writings he recognises as a gift. Third, I found his meditations on the nature of sin and evil to be truly profound and spiritually helpful.

Augustine displays a remarkable knowledge of scripture, constantly quoting verses or snippets of verses here and there. But I soon realised that they are limited almost exclusively to the Psalms and the letters of Paul. These clearly comprised the heart of his prayer.

I was quite happy with Pine-Coffin's translation.

Son   [Top]
Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). First reading. 28 September 2014.

I became aware of this book's existence due to the recent film adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 masterpiece The Giver. (The film left me of two minds: it was a flawed adaptation, being another tiresome example of a screenwriter's alteration of elements that he should have left well alone, but on the other hand it managed hit the right notes at times.)

Son is the fourth novel in the ‘quartet’ begun by The Giver. I found the second and third books remarkably mediocre, but thought I would give this new book a chance. It too was poor. What might be defended as a terse, episodic storytelling style is, in my judgement, in fact laziness that avoids exposition. Throughout it has an insular feeling, with its world is centred on just a handful of characters and obscurity beyond. The first part of the book, which takes place concurrently with The Giver, is remarkably flat and dull, lacking all the novelty of the latter. The second part is perhaps the strongest, but is rather conventional in its depiction of a rustic fishing community. The third part, taking place in Jonas and Gabriel's new community for refugees from the various post-apocalyptic societies, returns to a flat storytelling style. Finally, the character of the Trademaster, a sort of evil spirit in human body, is just plain bizarre. Why he was introduced into the story is not clear; his being ‘pure evil’ is problematic from a metaphysical point of view; and his final defeat is clichéed and, in the end, rather uninteresting.

War and Peace   [Top]
Tolstoy. Translated by Anthony Briggs (Penguin). Second reading. 19 October 2014.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are inevitably mentioned together when the great Russian novelists are brought up, and perhaps rightly so, but this perhaps gives the misleading impression that because Dostoevsky's books are long and dense, how much the more must Tolstoy's be. In fact, Tolstoy's works read fast and almost effortlessly. Now, like Dostoevsky, what Tolstoy has to offer is profound, moving, captivating and thought-provoking; but he simply offers it in a completely different style.

I think this is important to establish for anyone contemplating reading either of Tolstoy's great novels. War and Peace is certainly daunting by its sheer size, but it is not a slog. It is big simply because Tolstoy wanted to capture everything—an impossibility, certainly, but he needed to illustrate in a performative kind of way the major theme of the book: the complexity of history and the importance of every person involved in that history for shaping it.

The subject matter of history is the life of peoples and humanity. To catch hold of and express in words, to describe directly, the life of a single people, let alone the whole of humanity, is beyond possiblity. (Epilogue, II, i)

Since this is ‘beyond possibility’, the best he can do is follow a few characters upclose and then provide a whole tapestry of vignettes from the minor characters, complemented with dramatisations of historical events and characters as well as short essays on said events. The result is remarkable.

I think I shall simply leave it there—to try and comment on all that struck me throughout the novel would simply be too long! I shall have to revisit it in another decade, should I be so fortunate.

Characters of the Reformation   [Top]
Hillaire Belloc. First reading. 29 November 2014.

This is the first book by Belloc that I have read (if one excepts his children's rhymes!), and I found in his writing a style whose praise I have heard and which praise I can now judge just. There is a cleanness and economy of the prose that leads you right to the point of interest.

I do not know enough about the Protestant Reformation to evaluate the work as history, but I did find it fascinating. Belloc makes no attempt to hide his opinion that the schism of the sixteenth century has been a disaster for Europe. The Catholic side, for him, is the right one, even if he is willing to show the warts of some of its leaders; the Protestant side introduced a split into the countries of Europe that have devastated the continent. I will not wade into an analysis of this thesis.

The sketches of the ‘characters’ of the Reformation are weighted heavily to Englishmen: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, William Cecil and Oliver Cromwell are all treated; if we can add Catherine of Aragon and James I to the ‘Englishmen’, this nationality makes up more than half of the twenty-three personages in the book. This is because Belloc believes that the Reformation never would have succeeded unless it gained a foothold in England first. Curiously, Henry VIII was not consciously part of the Reformation, according to Belloc. In religious practice and belief, he remained very Catholic: he simply wanted to do so without a pope. And as Belloc points out, Catholic doctrine on Petrine primacy was not as developed in the sixteenth century as in the twentieth. He argues,

Henry tried to keep England Catholic without the Pope, but he failed, and after his death in 1547 the break-up of religion in England began. It was powerfully aided by the fact that Thomas Cromwell had urged the King to dissolve the monasteries and seize their wealth. But of this wealth the English landed classes, who were everywhere the local leaders, received the bulk, so it was to their interest to further the Reformation, and it was this financial reason more than any other which worked unceasingly to drag England unceasingly away from Catholicism.

This paragraph, near the beginning of the book, introduces one of the major characters that is never refered to as such: the aristocracy. One of Belloc's central claims is that it was the covetousness of the nobles of England, and then on the continent, for the land and produce of the monasteries that propelled the Reformation.

I was surprised by the sketch of Elizabeth I. It is completely at odds with portrayals of her as a strong and vigorous leader of a flowering nation; in Belloc's view, she was certainly a strong-willed and capable woman, but was in the end ‘the puppet or figurehead of the new group of millionaires established upon the loot of religion begun in her father's time’. William Cecil was the real leader; further, Belloc contends that this was actually a period of economic decline for England.

One of the characters in the book is Blaise Pascal, one of the only with whom I have any familiarity, and I found the sketch wanting. He is portrayed as an ‘emotionalist’, over against the ‘rationalism’ of Descartes. This is too facile. It is one thing for Pascal to write, ‘Nous connaissons la vérité non seulement par la raison mais encore par le cœur,’ and another to claim that he is all ‘cœur’ and no ‘raison’: after all, this is the man who elsewhere claimed, ‘Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée’.

At any rate, if my dissatisfaction of Belloc's characterisation of Pascal led me to wonder how trustworthy the other sketches are, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Hopefully it will not be long before another Belloc comes my way.

Orley Farm   [Top]
Anthony Trollope. First reading. 13 December 2014.

This was apparently Trollope's personal favourite of all his novels. I enjoyed the book, but I don't agree with the author. He has written better. Orley Farm could have benefited from some editing; the whole plot of the will and codicil and trial is good, but padded too much, leaving one waiting too long for the court-room scenes (which are well enough done when they come). Interestingly, the copy I got is from the UBC Law Library, presumably because of all the legal elements in the plot!

I think of Trollope as a fairly worldly author: even his clerical books are really about the concerns of this world. This novel, though still stolidly down-to-earth, has many religious references and overtones, particularly in its theme of forgiveness. I found this interesting.

That being said, here is Trollope at his worldly best:
There is great doubt as to what may be the most enviable time of life with a man. I am inclined to think that it is at that period when his children have all been born but have not yet began to go astray or to vex him with disappointment; when his own pecuniary prospects are settled, and he knows pretty well what his tether will allow him; when the appetite is still good and the digestive organs at their full power; when he has ceased to care as to the length of his girdle, and before the doctor warns him against solid breakfasts and port wine after dinner; when his affectations are over and his infirmities have not yet come upon him; while he can still walk his ten miles, and feel some little pride in being able to do so; while he has still nerve to ride his horse to hounds, and can look with some scorn on the ignorance of younger men who have hardly yet learned that noble art. (Ch. LIX)

Cannery Row   [Top]
John Steinbeck. First reading. 30 December 2014.

This book is kind of half-way between being a string of connected short stories and a novella, and the effect is to make it an engaging but light read. It has been years since I have read any of Steinbeck's novels (as opposed to short works like this and this) and there seems to be a marked difference in, shall we say, literary importance between them. But perhaps if I revisited something like The Grapes of Wrath I would find my memory is too faded for this to bear this impression up.

At any rate, a good quick read, but not as memorable as The Pastures of Heaven.

The Orenda   [Top]
Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). First reading. 30 December 2014.

I felt an obligation to read The Orenda after having so many people ask me what I thought about it due to its being set in Huronia during the time of the Jesuit missions there in the seventeenth century.

It is a very readable book; I finished it rapidly. It follows the narrative voice of three characters—Bird, a Wendat warrior; Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl captured by the Wendat and adopted into Bird's family; and Christophe, a Jesuit priest—whose lives become more intertwined as the novel unfolds.

Ultimately I enjoyed the novel, but found its historical setting rather odd. First, the historical Jesuit mission in Huronia lasted almost twenty-five years and involved many priests. In the novel, events seem to be collapsed into just a few years, and there are only ever three priests present. There are further historical differences like this—Ste.-Marie was never overrun by the Iroquois, for example, but was deliberately burned by the missionaries before it could be captured. It seems a strange way to write historical fiction, if it can be called that.

Second, Boyden clearly uses historical personages as the basis for his characters (the Jesuits in particular): Christophe is modelled after Jean de Brébeuf and Isaac has similar biographical details to Isaac Jogues. But similarities are seemingly randomly chosen: the fictional Isaac, for example, seems to have little in common with the historical figure apart from his having survived capture and torture by the Iroquois; the fictional Gabriel seems to have nothing in common with Gabriel Lalemant. So I found the choice of names confusing and was never sure if Boyden was attempting to interpret the personalities of actual people or wanted to create original characters.

I'm not well-versed enough in the history to comment much further; nor will I attempt to assess the novel's presentation of the characters' spiritualities; but all this being said, it is a still a solid novel.

Is it an ‘epic’, as some reviewers on the book jacket claim? Given the fact that The Orenda telescopes so much history into a not-too-large novel, I would be inclined to disagree. When compared to an an undisputed epic I recently re-read confirms me in this judgement. But it is a compelling and original perspective into a fascinating period of our history.

Fantastic Mr. Dahl   [Top]
Michael Rosen (Puffin, 2012). First reading. 5 January 2015.

Much of the material in this slim volume is rehashed from Boy and Going Solo, but interspersed with some interesting commentary. It is a children's book, but the tone could probably have been aimed a bit higher without losing its intended audience. As a primer in how to be a writer, which it seems to want to be, it is not super-inspiring. But a generally diverting book with good pictures and photographs, though colour plates would have been welcome.

Pride and Prejudice   [Top]
Jane Austen. Nth reading (N ≫ 1). 11 January 2015.

There is a particular pleasure in reading a book one knows well. The plot and characters are familiar, and one is more free simply to contemplate the book. And this renders mere observations, such as I usually make on this page, rather uninteresting.

‘I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,’ said Darcy. ‘Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Every thing nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.’ [Elizabeth] (Ch. IX)
‘The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized of the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.’ [Darcy] (Ch. X)

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions   [Top]
Thomas S. Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 2012, 4th ed., 50th anniversary ed.). 1st reading. 22 February 2015.

I have been meaning to read this now-classic of the philosophy of science for a while now, and I'm glad that I finally got around to it. I found it a thought-provoking and stimulating read.

Everyone has heard of ‘paradigm shifts’: this was the book that made the phrase popular, as the author's central thesis is that scientific revolutions usher in fundamental shifts in scientific ‘paradigms’. In popular parlance, ‘paradigm shift’ is used rather synonymously with ‘scientific revolution’, but Kuhn's idea is, of course, much more radical. For him, a revolution is not a new watermark in an accumulating body of scientific knowledge, but rather a transition to a completely new way of looking at the world that is in important regards incommensurate with the previous worldview. In this sense, the word ‘revolution’, with its political parallels, is appropriate. The new paradigm not only determines how scientists understand reality, but also sets which questions are relevant and which are irrelevant.

I found a few elements of Kuhn's essay compelling. First, I think he is exactly right when he characterises what he terms ‘normal science’, or the periods of research between revolutions, as ‘puzzle solving’. This is my own experience. The scientific community has a series of agreed-upon research goals that it wants to solve, and we go about figuring these puzzles out.

Second, I found his observations of the role of textbooks and the distortion of the history of science that commonly occurs in university science classes to be insightful. From my own experience, it is definitely true that the history of science (or of physics at least), is presented in classes in a purely pedagogical way to illustrate the current paradigm presented by current textbooks. Any nuance or insight into what historic figures were actually trying to look for is lost. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but my own experience when I finally took a course on the history of physics was surprise at how simplified my view had been before. For instance, the law of conservation of energy is presented in modern freshman classes as the most basic of principles in physics; in historical reality, however, it is something that wasn't proposed well into the nineteenth century. Generations of physicists worked happily away without assuming that energy was conserved—and moreover certainly having very different ideas about what ‘energy’ actually is.

Third, Kuhn is insightful in his realisation that there is a relationship between paradigms and research questions; he even argues that a paradigm ‘changes’ the world, in the sense that when a person adopts a new paradigm it causes him to experience the world in a completely new way. This fact is often overlooked. We tend to naively think that the universe is just ‘out there’ and that our detached, scientific interest in it uncovers it in a straightforward manner. But, as Kuhn argues, what you discover ‘out there’ depends on what you are searching for. He has a nice example of this when he explores the question of who ‘discovered’ oxygen, showing that the very question itself tacitly assumes a paradigm. (This is what Bernard Lonergan was getting at when he spoke of empirical method having a ‘canon of operations’.)

This being said, I think there are criticisms to be had against Kuhn. I would join the common protest that he overstates the incommensurability between pre- and post-revolutionary paradigms. It seems too facile to me, for example, to claim that Einsteinian dynamics is irreducible to Newtonian dynamics; there is, of course, a radical reinterpretation of space and time in the former, but it is not as though there was a single, agreed-upon conception of space and time in Newtonian dynamics; nor was the principle of relativity unknown: it is just that Einstein figured out how to apply it in a self-consistent way.

But more importantly, there seems to be a constant, underlying spirit of reductionism in this work. It is subtle, because Kuhn's thought is very post-modern: he is, after all, arguing in many ways that what scientists believe about the world is just perspectival, dependent on a subjective, socially-constructed paradigm. But undergirding this whole argument is what seems to me to be a tacit assumption that because the paradigms are irreducible to each other (on Kuhn's view), then they can't really be true explanations of an objective universe. In other words, the only way that science could actual reveal solid truths about the physical universe is if there had only ever been one paradigm to which the universe could be reduced; but since there isn't, then science isn't what we have thought it was all along. But this line of reasoning—which is always more implicit than argued out loud—relies, of course, on a reductionist assumption.

There is more that could be said (for example, about his rather odd view that neuroscience and computer modelling will shed light on the nature of paradigm shifts, as though these disciplines don't themselves operate in their own paradigms) and obviously I think the answer is to be found in rejecting a reductionist philosophy. But here is not the place to develop a counter-essay to Kuhn's and I certainly wouldn't equal to it, for he has a very fine mind; and even what I have sketched above would require a great deal of amplification to hold any water.

What I can say is that this is a book that has given me useful critical tools for examining what exactly it is that I do when I do science. And in the midst of the problem-solving of normal science, which is what I do day to day, that is quite refreshing.

Mansfield Park   [Top]
Jane Austen. Second reading. 22 February 2015.

I remember enjoying this book when I read it many years ago, and when I noticed that it came after Pride and Prejudice in my Austen omnibus I decided to revisit it.

It is a novel that starts out a little unsure of itself; some of the plot elements seem contrived. The whole incident with the play, for example, seems ill-chosen and is a rather forced way of revealing character traits. It is at times awkwardly written. Nevertheless, the story picks up and one can almost feel the authoress become more self-assured as she continues.

In the end, Mansfield Park is an insightful exploration of the constancy of human character. One thing I found particularly interesting was the depiction of Fanny's lower-class family in contrast to her more upper-class home; neither is presented in a particularly favourable light, but the comparison is done without any trite stereotypes.

The Best of Cordwainer Smith   [Top]
Cordwainer Smith (Ballantine, 1975). First reading. 5 March 2015.

A friend loaned me this book of short stories by the science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith; it spans his whole career, though the style and themes fairly constant. They are fascinating stories, particularly because one is thrown right into a very strange and different world (they are all set thousands of years in the future) but given practically no context: even some important vocabulary goes unexplained.

As usual with science fiction from fifty years ago, it is amusing to see how the future is pictured. Microcomputers did not exist for much of Smith's life, and so the future seems less technologically advanced than our own times in certain respects. But this is neither here nor there, as his imagination is not nearly quenched by this lack of foresight.

The Boat Who Wouldn't Float   [Top]
Farley Mowat. First reading. 5 March 2015.

I was given this book by a friend the other day soon before an aeroplane flight; my connecting flight ended up getting cancelled (twice), lengthening my trip by a day, so I was glad to have this little memoir. It chronicles Mowat's misadventures in a leaky old sailboat around the Canadian Maritimes, and, eventually, up the St. Lawrence to Montréal for Expo '67.

It is a whimsical book, though more solidly funny than another nautical book I read a little while ago that I also described as whimsical. Amidst the humour it is also a nostalgic introduction to Newfoundland, one of the two provinces I have never visited.

When I received the book, I realised that the only other book by Farley Mowat I have ever read was Lost in the Barrens, as a child, and The Boat Who Wouldn't Float seems very different than my memory of that boy's adventure book. Perhaps I should revisit the latter—or explore his works further.

Selected Poems of Francis Thompson, with a Biographical Note by Wilfrid Meynell   [Top]
Francis Thompson (Menthuen, 1911). First reading. 29 March 2015.

Before reading this collection, I really only knew Francis Thompson as the author of ‘The Hound of Heaven’. I thought I should make some acquaintance with him. But because I only dipped into this book over a long period of time, it was not the most coherent introduction, much like my recent reading of Browning. And like Browning, Thompson requires your full attention.

What groweth to its height demands no higher;
The limit limits not, but the desire.
—‘Epilogue to the Poet's Sitter’

From stones and poets you may know,
Nothing so active is, as that which least seems so.

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
—‘The Kingdom of God’

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus   [Top]
Sherry A. Weddell (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). First reading. 29 March 2015.

A lot of people are talking about this little book, and with good reason. The product of years of evangelising experience on the part of the author combined with a lot of data from surveys of religious practice and belief in the United States, it is important if only for the statistical story it tells about Catholic culture in the America (and probably, much of the time, Canada as well). But it is also a valuable book because of its insistence that the kerygma be central to the practice of the faith; moreover, there is much that is practical on this subject to be found in the book. Finally, Ms. Weddell is one of those rare voices in western Catholicism to which one would be hard-pressed to attach a label: her real interest is merely (to coin a word from C.S. Lewis) Catholic. Definitely recommended.

Wulf   [Top]
Hamish Clayton (Penguin, 2011). First reading. 29 March 2015.

This novel was given to me as a gift by someone who has an oblique acquaintance (at least mediated via someone else) with the author. I mention this because otherwise I don't see how I would end up with a book from an emerging novelist in New Zealand. But I am glad that I did. While not without some rough patches, Wulf is a compelling piece of historical fiction, immersing one in the violent but fascinating ‘incident’ of the Elizabeth.

Clayton does a good job of transporting one back to the early nineteenth century and placing one in an atmosphere of danger and discovery. The plot is slow-moving; however, this is a virtue of the story rather than a vice. The prose is at times too consciously poetic, but once the author finds his rhythm things even out. On the other hand, the dialogue is in general too refined for sailors.

The title of the book is an allusion to the great Anglo Saxon poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’. Though only nineteen lines, it is a fascinating work because of its deep ambiguities. These are almost certainly intentional—once nice clue of this is that the word giedd in the last line, which is often translated ‘song’ in this poem (my glossary suggests ‘harmonious relationship’ as a figurative meaning), also means ‘riddle’. Clayton thus reads the incident of the Elizabeth through the lens of the poem: a neat idea, though perhaps it causes him to overstretch a little at times.

I worked through Wulf and Eadwacer before starting the novel and wondered if the most interesting possibility is that it is a sort of fable: could the narratrix be a beast and Wulf not a man but a wolf? But I digress; for this is certainly not Clayton's interpretation. And I found the novel enjoyable.

The Biography of a Silver-Fox, or, Domino Reynard of Goldur Town. With Over 100 Drawings   [Top]
Ernest Thompson Seton (The Century Col, 1909). First reading. 9 May 2015.

This may be thought of as a continued tour of Canadiana after my excursion with Farley Mowat, although as is often common, the author can be claimed by more than one country, and this book is set in New England. It is an engaging little book, and quite original in its depiction of the protagonist and his family. Domino remains solidly a fox, as Seton is quite careful never to slip into anthropomorphism. At the same time, one is able to get inside Domino's mind, so to speak.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil   [Top]
Hannah Arendt. First reading. 9 May 2015.

I found Hannah Arendt's book on The Human Condition very thought-provoking when I was studying philosophy and have been meaning for while to read some of her other work; this report is one of her other well-known works. I was a bit disoriented at first because I didn't realise that it is largely journalistic in nature when I was expecting something more philosophical, but I did not remain under the sway of my expectations for long.

Perhaps what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply gave me a better factual background of the Holocaust; Arendt gives a wide background of all the machinations and movements and policies that Adolph Eichmann was accused and found guilty of organising. It was helpful to learn about the various stages that led up to the unspeakable culmination of anti-Semitism in Nazi-controlled Europe; it was inspiring to learn of the few (alas, too few) instances, such as in Denmark, in which people heroically refused to cooperate with the programme of annihilation.

Arendt's subtext throughout the book is articulated in the subtitle. Eichmann was not a brutal man in the conventional sense; in fact he was rather squeamish and certainly physically cowardly. He was ‘merely’ carrying out a function of the state, which is what makes the whole thing so chilling:

What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique … which must therefore be difficult to bear. This was important, because the murderers were not sadists or killers by nature; on the contrary, a systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did. (Ch. VI)

In order to make the above possible, a whole edifice of ‘language rules’ was devised by the Nazi leadership in order that they could refer to their programme with more palatable and indeed bureaucratic language. (This reminds one of George Orwell's strenuous insistence that the preservation of language is of the utmost importance in combating totalitarianism.)

Another point that Arendt insists upon is the distinction between genocide and murder; planning the annihilation of a race is not merely murder en masse, as far as she is concerned, but it is a crime against humanity itself precisely because it is attacking the very diversity that makes humanity what it is.

The book was quite controversial when it was published, partly because Arendt did not gloss over any of the circumstances that made various people uncomfortable and partly because many detractors read the book somewhat selectively; the edition I read acknowledges this but adds that the controversy has subsided somewhat and that it can now be approached more objectively. I for one found it a worthwhile read.

The Word for World is Forest   [Top]
Ursula Le Guin. First reading. 16 May 2015.

Ursula Le Guin rarely disappoints. This is a captivating little novella, if not always easy to read given the heavy themes it explores. There are some mild resonances with The Lathe of Heaven, which was written about a year before this, in local race's practice of dreaming. It has also been suggested as an influence on James Cameron's film Avatar, but I think that is a somewhat tenuous claim.

Taras Bulba and Other Tales; The Inspector General   [Top]
Nikolay Gogol. First reading. 28 May 2015.

In addition to the titular story and the play, this collection included: ‘St. John's Eve’, ‘The Nose’, ‘How the Two Ivans Quarrelled’, ‘The Mysterious Portrait’ and ‘The Calash’.

Taras Bulba was perhaps not the best introduction to Gogol; it is not necessarily more earnest than his other stories: they have their own sort of earnestness: but it is more assiduously serious. It does have a fast moving story-line and a memorable protagonist. However, what seriously marred it for me was what I can only characterise as anti-Semitism—and that in addition to the general intolerance sprinkled throughout.

‘The Nose’ lived up to its reputation; ‘The Mysterious Portrait’ was perhaps a bit didactic but generally well done. The most enjoyable story for me, however, was ‘The Calash’: a compact, well-crafted story with a perfectly-timed ending that elicited a quite unexpected guffaw as I read the final sentence.

It is sometimes hard to judge a play without seeing it staged, and I was left unsure of what to make of The Inspector General. It reads well as a half-farcical half-absurd morality story; how exactly this translates on the stage would be interesting to see. The directions for the final ‘tableau’ are quite detailed, but it was unclear exactly what effect it is supposed to achieve. All-in-all, it was a rather different, and therefore in a strange way pleasant, experience reading this play.

Clouds of Witness   [Top]
Dorothy Sayers. First reading. 28 June 2015.

I think this is the first mystery novel I have actually enjoyed. I got the book out of the library not really knowing what its genre was, and almost abandoned it when I found out that it was a detective story because I thought it could not retain my interest. And indeed, I was beginning to find the plot somewhat contrived. But I stuck with it, and about halfway through began enjoying it more and more. Eventually I realised that the contrivance is in fact part of the fun of the genre. And the court scene near the end of the book is quite expertly written.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa   [Top]
Peter Godwin (Back Bay Books, 2008). First reading. 28 June 2015.

I was on a brief holiday when I picked up this memoir, and read it in the space of not much more than twenty-four hours, it being so engaging. The Zimbabwean author writes about the period between 1996 and 2004 when the seizure of white-owned farms was most intense and the economy started collapsing. There is also a twist in the author's family story that is interwoven into the political account in a compelling way, making the story doubly interesting.