Monday, April 09, 2007

Books read in April 2007 (10)

My reading has been hit by sleep apnoea. It seems I do not sleep well at night with breathing irregularity disrupting rest. The result is day time drowsiness. When I sit to read or watch TV I quickly fall asleep. I am under investigation at Charing Cross Hospital and hope for the aid of a machine which promotes good breathing while asleep.But in the meantime I remain a frustrated somnolent reader....and some authors do not help.

1. God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams
by David F. Wells

Wells has written a good critique of the modern (American) church which has been squeezed into the mould of this world. He believes the church in an attempt to be popular, has compromised, become worldly, and lost its distinctiveness. his critique is addressed to the evangelical church even more than the liberal. He sees American Christianity as miles wide but inches deep. God has become weightless, unreal, immanent not transcendent. The church needs to return to proclaiming a holy, demanding God and his grace in Christ to a world obsessed with consumerism and personal choice.
The message is the right message but this is not an easy read. Wells is addressing church leaders or potential readers. it is a hard book for an average Christian as Wells does not win any prizes for gripping writing or style. Good but hard going. A lot of statistical surveying is appended to support his thesis. The post modern world needs the truth proclaimed by an uncompromising church.

2. Porridge and Passion: An Autobiography by Jonathan Aitken

It is very rare that one comes across non-fiction that is as hard to put down as a good thriller. This is a case where truth is much more gripping than fiction.
After I read Aitken's first autobiographical volume I heard him tell in a local church the story of his imprisonment in the first part of this book. He is a very gifted speaker and writer. You can see why he was a cabinet minister. His life was ruined by one mistake but his is a story of God's grace in adversity. His experience of prison is shocking and spellbinding.He had no extra privileges due to his former status only extra visitors and extra problems. Was any prisoner ever so mercilessly hounded by the press? No open prison wanted him because of the media interest. At best the press come across as intrusive, at worst downright corrupt in bribing prisoners to set Aitken up. No-one else has had an ex-con break into prison to photograph and interview him.
Throughout all these problems Aitken testifies to God's strengthening grace and a growing faith and knowledge of Christ. Aitken's Christian circles may not be every one's cup of tea as they include the charismatic and the Catholic but there is no doubt about his own faith and the reality of God at work in and through him.
This is a fascinating portrayal of what it is like to be imprisoned in both a high security and an open prison. By and large, with a few jobsworth officious exceptions, prison officers come out well. Their union does not.
Aitken's battles with his creditors are recorded, his family's support, the help of many friends, his theological studies and subsequent remarriage and budding literary career as well as his shunning by Conservative central office. Here you will find an education in rhyming slang and an encouragement to read more from this most gifted author.

3. The Mystery of Overend and Gurney: Adventures in the Victorian Financial Underworld by Geoffrey Elliott

The love of money is the root of all evil, so the Bible tells us as does Geoffrey Elliott. What else could have driven respected Quaker bankers to the worst financial collapse of the Victorian era?

This book is more than an account of financial failure in the City. The author sets his scene well with a history of banking and Quakerism at the time. Over their heads with bad debts the bank went public. The Gurneys lost a lot of money but were not ruined. Their investors were saddled with debt and one of the sued. The directors were found not guilty of issuing a fraudulent share prospectus.Here is a salutary warning to all investors.

The author writes well and introduces us to some of the wide boys of Victorian finance as well as respected Quakers. I read this because I married an Overend. We do have not established a line of descent but are pleased to know that when the collapse came, the founding Overend had long departed the ruined company.

4. America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by Mark Steyn

Steyn is the most gifted and hard hitting author I have read on the Islamist challenge to the West. His writing is gripping and packs a punch. But he suffers from the usual pattern defect of all such books, long on telling us about the problem, very short on ideas to resolve it.

Steyn is the most pessimistic of authors concerning the problem in Europe. His view is that the demography shows that European countries are dying as we know them for the native European population is demographically doomed. It is not reproducing. It Ia addicted to social security and welfare. It needs immigration to maintain the economy and those immigrants are Muslims whose religion is a political force dedicated to world domination. Steyn thinks Europe has a suicidal multicultural ethic, one shared by his own native land, Canada. America alone stands against this trend with some pride in its culture. Well the conservative part of America does.

But what is the solution. Reproduce. Change the demography. He also wants fiscal breaks for families. Less government more personal responsibility is called for.He wants Islam reformed from inside bit does not tell us how this can be done. He wants a stop to infiltration of the West by Saudi financed Islamists and their propaganda when necessary.

I think Steyn is right about the battle but omits the best possible solution. The impact of peaceful Christian witness to Muslims to encourage them to leave their religion. Real Christians should live and speak in such a way that commends their faith and shows Muslims something better than their umma. Christian revival in the West will defeat a resurgent Islam. Secularism has no solution. We should also be producing larger families.

5. Oliver Cromwell by John Buchan

There is no parallel in history to this iron man of action whose consuming purpose was at all times the making of his soul.(p.525). This is Buchan's sympathetic summary of the most controversial man in English history.

This is a detailed biography of Oliver and his times. Oliver is evaluated as a man, soldier and political leader. Here is a unique leader who in one year in his forties went from captain of horse to major-general, a man who never lost a military battle. The account of his victory against the odds at Dunbar is particularly moving. Also related is that though his rule may be accounted a failure at home, abroad the prestige of England was enormously enhanced by Cromwell's foreign policies.

Buchan is critical of Cromwell at the two favorite points of the critics, Ireland and the execution of the king. I believe later scholarship has been less critical of the Irish campaign, denying the killing of civilians. Certainly there seems no contemporary criticism of a campaign which though harsh was not in breach of the standards of the time. It is the fact that Cromwell behaved with more mercy towards English and Scots which made the Irish campaign stand out. As to the king's death, the court may well have dubious legality but it was in Oliver's reputed words, a cruel necessity. Nothing else could have dealt with this duplicitous monarch whose most memorable accomplishment was the manner in which he faced death.

Buchan shows real understanding of Oliver's religion, his personal tenderness, his providentialism. It is a worthy story of God's Englishman.

6. A Prison Diary: Volume 1 - Hell by Jeffrey Archer

I have enjoyed Archer's fiction despite it being panned by journalists (envy?). His factual writing is just as good. This is his beginning a harsh four year prison term. I wish he had told us a little more about the trial as he seems to assume it is fresh in the readers's memory. Imprisonment starts with 22 days in Bellmarch, a top security prison. Archer is the epitome of the stiff upper lip. He shows no airs and graces save for his fussiness over the prison food. He prefers to privately supplement a vegetarian diet. He collects the stories of fellow prisoners and makes a thoroughly entertaining story.

7. Purgatory: A Prison Diary Volume 2 (Prison Diaries)by Jeffrey Archer

In his second volume Archer is transferred from high security to a lower category prison, Wayland in Norfolk for 77 days . He should have been in an open prison but he was accused by Emma Nicholson, a fellow peer, of not properly using funds he had collected for Kurdish relief. There was no substance to the accusation but the investigation dragged on and because of it Archer suffered a tougher prison than was his desert. Archer is resilient and resourceful disciplining himself to continue writing just as he would do when free. His is a frank portrayal of the realities of prison life with its idiosyncratic rules. Among his fellow inmates, a Colombian manages to get him a bargain emerald for his wife's Christmas present but he fails to supply a sought after piece of modern art. Archer keeps busy in the gym and with his writing. The extent of drug abuse appalls him.

8. Heaven (Prison Diary) by Jeffrey Archer

Finally transferred to an open prison Archer completes 636 remaining days his sentence in a more relaxed regime until he unwittingly breaks the conditions of a home visit. At the insistence of home secretary Blunkett, who seemed to believe tabloid untruths about Archer receiving preferential treatment, he is sent to the harsher regime of Lincoln until after 23 days an enquiry shows the prison service at fault.

Archer is shown to have received a far harsher sentence than is normal or his crime. but supposed friends who could have exposed judicial prejudice against him, refused to testify. One finishes these volumes with a lot of respect for Archer and his ability to endure adversity.

One learns you cannot escape from an open prison, only abscond, and some do even when nearing completion of sentence. Another surprise is the number of murdererd qualifying for open prison. Most will have killed family members and are no longer seen as a threat to others.

9. Three Stories: "Father! Father! Burning Bright", "The Clothes They Stood Up In", "The Laying on of Hands" by Alan Bennett

These are three clever stories as well written as you expect from this gifted author. However I think they are spoiled by two things. When you stop and think about them they are three unlikely tales, not realistic in any world I recognise. Secondly they all have a strong sexual theme. Some people seem obsessed by sex. Does it really loom large when one is visiting a dying father?

10. Ann Widdecombe: Right from the Beginning by Nick Kochan

Anne Widdicombe is the most prominent professed Christian in the Conservative Party.Here we learn the family, education and faith backgrounds that have influenced her. She is a very strong character not afraid to be in a minority from early years when she stood out as a protestant in a Roman catholic convent school. She read classics at Birmingham then went to Oxford where Union debates seem to have been more important than academic concerns. Her debating skills meant she was noticed but she had to fight prejudice and two unwinnable by elections before being offered a safe seat. When an MP, her progress was hindered by her principled pro-life stand. Thatcher's government ignored her promise because of her passion against abortion. Major promoted her but when she became a minister in was in Howard's home office where she was prisons minister and her boss was at loggerheads with Derek Lewis, director of prisons. Anne believed Lewis was unfairly dismissed by Howard. She was close to resignation but her moment of vindication was delayed until Major stepped down. Her speech in the Commons and saying there was something of the night about Howard meant he was not the man to lead after Major. This book ends in 2000 with Anne as shadow home secretary.

We also learn that Anne's faith went from a strong evangelical one to a time of seeming agnosticism. Then after rediscovery of faith she was increasingly critical ot the lack of a clear witness from the Church of England. When the general Synod went for the ordination of women it was too much for Anne. She left Anglicanism and soon became Roman Catholic. It was an ecclesiastical U trn which one could not envisage her doing politically.

Here we have a strong, warm hearted woman who is fulfilled in her singleness. She shows you an be a Christian politician but inevitably it will involve some compromises you will make and others you will not. Climbing to the top of the pole is not the aim.

A fascinating study of a remarkable woman, surely the only public figure who is proud of virginity.

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