Sunday, September 14, 2014

Books read in September 2014

1. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier  

Set in 1850s Ohio this is a beautifully told story of a young Quaker girl from Dorset experiencing a new life in a new country. At the centre of the story is her desire to help blacks escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad to Canada. A federal Fugitive Slave act means severe penalties for anyone in a free state like Ohio refusing to aid in the capture of runaways. Qakers who detest slavery are forced to chose between Christian charity and the law of the land. The ethical dilemma is well portrayed as are the newness of America, its flora, fauna, people and slave hunting. There is also much about family loyalty and the importance of quilts. The one thing I question is the likelihood of a young Quaker virgin lying in the corn with a man and so becoming pregnant.

2- Lewis in the Passing - Calum Ferguson

I was given this book when going to holiday in Lewis. A previous holiday in the Outer Hebrides showed me that this was a different world to mainland UK. This book shows how life in Lewis changed in the last century though the memories of Lewis people. Some chapters are in Gaelic and I cannot comment on those. What I learned about was the passing of the crofting life. Many of the contributors were born in black houses, traditional dwellings with no modern facilities, even no fireplace or chimney. The crops were barley, oats and potatoes. Fuel was peat which had to be cut and dried. Work was strictly divided between the sexes. Women had most of the hard manual work at home. Men were often fishermen or left home to be sailors. The basic diet was salted fish and potatoes. Tuberculosis was a killer. Many of the men describe wartime service. Most were sailors but no-one testifying rose to be an officer. The place of Gaelic was very important and life was very much a community affair. Most of the testimonies tell of strong church observance and Christian faith though for some it seems the gospel of salvation by grace alone has not overcome a works based religion. But there is no rigid sectarianism. All in all this is a moving account of a passing way of life. Read and learn. Note that these memories do not seem to be edited to check some of the facts e.g the number of survivors from HMS Hood is inflated. The one thing the book does lack is an index.

3.  The Soap Man -  Roger Hutchinson

Sometimes one reads fact which seem stranger than fiction. Such is the story of Lord Leverhulmes failed attempt to run Lewis and Harris the way he had built up the commercial empire now known as Unilever. Lever started life as the son of a Bolton grocer. He became through his benign capitalism, a multi millionaire. He was also a megalomaniac who did not believe in compromise. Before he owned Lewis he had been unsuccesfull in persuading Solomon Islanders and Congolese that a cash economy was better than traditional life. He had not learned from these lesson and thought he could develop Lewis, with a population of 30,000 into an industrial economy of 200,000 people. He failed because the fishing industry on which he based his plans went into post war decline. He was also frustrated by the crofters who did not want Lever's industry, they did not even want to be owner occupiers. They wanted to continue with their subsistence crofting economy and have more land made over for crofting. ever never understood this. He even called their traditional black houses  'dwellings not fit for kaffirs'. It is a story in line with Burns' stanza, 'The best laid plan of mice and men gang aft agley, and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy'. But I doubt if Lever ever read much Burns. I spotted one factual error. Sir George Goldie did not in 1897 name 500,000 square miles of Africa, Nigeris. Nigeria was formed in 1914 when the protectorates of southern and northern Nigeria were joined by Lagos colony as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.

4. The Stornoway Black Pudding Bible by Seumas MacInnes

On a recent visit to Scotland I was introduced to this delicacy and the recipe book. A life long black pudding eater, Stornoway's is softer and spicier than those south of the border or the French version. I look forward to using the recipes but fear I may have to use English ingredient. The recipes look great. Cannot wait to cook and sample.

5.  Stirrett of the Sudan by Douglas C. PERCY

Stirrett spent 47 years as a missionary in the north of Nigeria dying in Jos in 1948. This is the story of a giant of the faith, a pioneer devoted to spreading the gospel, among the Hausas says the book, but in fact among all peoples in northern Nigeria. He gave up all his wordily wealth being two pharmacies and property in Canada, given to the Sudan Interior Mission before they accept him for service. He even went to Nigeria at his own expense before acceptance by SIM. He was a man of great energy, love, prayer and a daily preacher of the gospel. I would like to find his book on medicine and his Hausa concordance and glossary. He was a major contributor to the first Hausa bible translation.

6. The Railway Man by Eric Lomax 

I saw the film first and was told the book was significantly different. It is far more harrowing and moving. I have never read such an horrific account of torture. It was so bad that Eric Lomax could not recall some of it himself but the Japanese interpreter reunited it in his retelling of his wartime work. This is a book about the long term effects of torture and the reality of forgiveness. True forgiveness comes on the basis of the offender's repentance and Lomax finds real evidence of a Japanese translator who was really repentant about his part in the terrible evils done by his compatriots in WW2.  One thing that saddened me was Lomax's describing Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh as a cult. It has a good reputation as a baptist church. Sadly Lomax's experience was of members there who did not live out the Christian message of love for others.

7. The Man Who Gave Away His Island: A Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna by Ray Perman 

I read this after visiting Canna and reading two books about Lewis and how it had suffered under lairds who did not care for the welfare of their crofting tenants. Although coming from the Argyllshire aristocracy,  John Lorne Campbell was different. He was a shy man in person, but in print a campaigner for the ordinary crofting people and a Gaelic scholar. Against financial odds he bought and farmed Canna and approaching his end sought to secure the future of his beloved canna by gifting it to the ownership on the National Trust for Scotland. It was not an easy journey for him, nor an easy one for canna since his death. It is the sort of factual history that would not sound realistic as a fiction. He was a nationalist passionate about Gaelic culture and language which he and his American wife did much to record. A man who went against the flow to his great credit and for the good of the island culture.

8.  The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand

This is a most controversial book. It is academic and not an easy read but a most stimulating one. First there is a long chapter on what constitutes a nation. Then we learn why the author does not accept at face value the biblical account of the origin of the Jews. He accepts the higher critical view that the old testament was not written at the times and by the authors it claims like Moses. He also asserts that the archaeological evidence does not support the biblical accounts of the exodus, the conquest of canaan or the kingdoms of David and Solomon and of course the patriarchs are mere figures of myth, not history. In short his view of the bible is that of critical rationalism. There is no place for the Bible as divine revelation or history.
   Next Sand asserts that there was no expulsion of the Jews from their land after AD70. Jews had migrated of their own accord all round the Roman empire which is not in dispute, But controversially he says that the jews were a proselytising people so many converts were made, so many that you cannot say that jews today have one ethnicity. He also relates that there were Judaistic  convert kingdoms in southern Arabia and the Caucasus. As to the land of Judea, he believes that Jews remains there but most converted to Islam after the Muslim invasion because it was easier to convert than to be taxed. So he asserts that today's Palestinians are not really ethnicaly Arab, but are of the same stock as Jews. This is all part of his thesis that being Jewish cannot be defined ethically but religiously and culturally.
   The last part of the book deals with the State of Israel and the impossibility of it being a democracy when it defines itself as a Jewish state giving the right of return to anyone claiming to be a Jew, yet denying citizenship to non-jewish residents. His solution to the problem of Israel is a two nation state in Palestine. The solution is offered more in hope than expectation.

9. Vagabond by Gerald Seymour

Seymour is back on top form. I have read all his novels and this ranks with the best from this the top thriller writer. He has thankfully left his standard recent format of starting off with three or four seemingly unrelated scenarios than bringing them together in his climax.  This has a more united feel but he does have the annoying habit of changing scene and starting with personal pronouns so you have to workout who we are with now and where. I also found the first few pages confusing as to where we were and with whom. But these are minor criticisms. Here is a masterpiece in the murky world of counter terrorism, murders, touts and loyalties betrayed. Vagabond, the hero is a troubled man. Will his end be troubled too? I will not write the answer and so spoil enjoyment. How this plot will end is kept hidden right up to the end. It is only a little earlier we find out the real purpose of the operation for which Vagabond has been called back. Great writing and very moving concerning Dunkirk, Dieppe and D Day.

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