Thursday, November 04, 2010

Books read in November 2010

1. The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography by Barbara K. Lewalski

This is not an easy to read book. It is a detailed, very scholarly work. it is more than a biography for Milton lived at the most turbulent period of English history and held important office under The Commonwealth. So we learn a lot of English history too as well as having commentary on Milton's poetry and prose.
This is the life of one of England's most illustrious sons. Fluent in eight languages, he went blind in his early forties. He never saw his second or third wife and wrote a notorious book on divorce when estranged temporarily from his first wife. The main apologist in print for regicide and republic it was amazing that he survived the Restoration alive. He had friends in high places and an international scholarly reputation in his favour. Defender of liberty and unorthodox in his Christianity he remains the man to give the lie to the stereotype of a joyless Puritan age where the arts were not valued.

2. The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk

The memoirs of a noted journalist who has covered most of the conflicts in the Muslim world for several decades are exceedingly long and detailed. In fact they are an endurance test which I failed in the end. Unremitting brutality, folly and torture need in my opinion a shorter presentation before this reader is wearied too much by it all. He starts in headline fashion relating his interviews with Osama Bin Laden then his coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then we have the Iranian revolution and the war with Iraq. Most interesting for me were his personal family history of his father and then his account of the Armenian genocide and the continuing failure of the West to make Turkey admit to its atrocities.

3. A Journey by Tony Blair

I have read the autobiographies of the two previous prime ministers but with their policies I had sympathy. Reading Blair I am dealing with a man whose politics are not mine. In fact I find him arrogant in his dismissal of those who disagree with him over things he merely takes for granted like the EU, removal of hereditary peers and civil partnerships. However, the fascination of the book is the insiders view of life at the top of the greasy pole and the anecdotes concerning the mighty.

Blair comes across as very human. I assume his account is honest. He describes his apprehension at taking his only ever government post, prime minister. He confesses apprehension. He says he had not been favorite to be Labour leader. Brown, who lost out, is the chancellor he could not replace, but the man who coveted the premiership and who would move from Blair's New Labour path.

One is surprised at some whom Blair liked as men, Paisley and Bush. He defends the latter as a man of intelligence and integrity. He was though not the skilled political operator like Clinton. Clinton in common with Labour colleagues caught up in sexual scandals is sympathetically excused. According to Blair politicians enjoy extra-marital sex as a relaxation form the job. For Tony, that relaxation was holidays overseas.

Blair's most positive achievement in his career seems to be the Good Friday Agreement. How it was achieved is detailed and fascinating, as are the accounts of Diana's death, 9/11 and 7/7. Policy wise there are it seems no regrets, certainly not over Iraq. He does though wish he had not wasted so much time over fox hunting which he now seems to view with relative sympathy.

Blair is a man who knows and feels responsibility, especially that of sending people into combat. He has a sense of humour and tells some good stories These anecdotes make the book entertaining and not a mere political bore.

Blair does not wear his professedly Christian heart on his sleeve. There are few references to any faith motivation, his faith being as liberal as his politics.

What will history's verdict be? For me he is an able leader who made Labour electable. He brought us peace in Ireland and war overseas. I can admire the man and dislike his policies.

4. Leading from the Front: An autobiography by General Sir Richard Dannatt

I read this book because I was impressed by the author's Christian testimony in the press. It is here in the book but I think muted in a typical traditional Anglican way. So I was rather disappointed that there was not more about how his faith influenced his life.

The general got to the top army post and was only denied charge of all the armed forces because of his outspoken standing up for the interests of his troops in a way the Labour government did not appreciate. One admires his courage on behalf of his troops and also his courage under fire in Northern Ireland.

If one is not into the technicalities of the army large parts of the book are hard going but Dannatt comes across as a first rate soldier and family man.

5. A farm in Perivale by Eva Farley

This book is more than the title may lead you to believe. It is a history of Perivale and Ealing from the earliest times as well as the account of the author's family life in the farm at the foot of Horsenden Hill. Most interesting is how a farming village was in the 1930s transformed into a London suburb. The photos are of poor quality but it is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the locality.

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