Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Books read in October 2014

1.  C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath 

This is a detailed account of Lewis's life and his writings. His life was one with many ups and downs. Hard were the loss of his mother when a child, his unhappy public schooling in England, WW1 service, estrangement from his father, the demands and dementia of his friend Mrs Moore, his brother's alcoholism, the death of his wife and the petty politics of Oxford and academics who resented his popular acclaim. Lewis did not have an easy life but it was one transformed by a reluctant conversion to Christian faith. Lewis as popular apologist and clear defender of the faith as well as the masterful author of Narnia are well related. The theory as to the literary background to Narnia is fascinating and convincing.

2.  Charles H. Robinson, Author Of "Hausaland", "Studies In The Character Of Christ" Etc; A Record Of Travel And Work by Florence. Robinson

I found this gem in The Evangelical Library. It is the biography of an outstanding Anglican clergyman who devoted his life to Christian mission. His first journey was to present day Turket to see if the Church of England could aid the struggling Armenian church there. It was a difficult and dangerous journey but it paled in comparison with his epic journey into unexplored Hausaland going to Kano from the south. His elder brother had eariier died in what is present day Nigeria, but he had translated Matthew's gospel into Hausa. Robinson continues studies in Hausa producing a dictionary then a grammar and more gospel translation. The difficulty of travel in those regions, both from robbers and sickness are horrific. But even worse is the thriving slave raiding and trade witnessed by Robinson and only ended with the colonisation of Northern  Nigeria in 1900. For those who think colonialism a wholly bad affair, read this book and see how Africa was before colonisation. Robinson returned to England and wrote many works on mission. He was a man 100% committed to spreading the gospel.

3. The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth

This thriller starts well as a mystery as to the identity of The Preacher who is encouraging Muslims to be suicide murderers. There is much detail as to how The Tracker finds who he is and where, then a very clinical finish in killing him with the help of an autistic genius teenage hacker and the use of high tech surveillance drones. All very thrilling but lacking in surpasses, twists and turns. Nowadays it is Gerald Seymour who gets my prize for thrillers. Forsyth's work is well researched but he has lost his edge.


There are not many books I have deemed worthy of a second read. I first borrowed this from The Evangelical Library 31 years ago. It is a classic of missionary autobiography written by Miller on his retirement from the Church Missionary Society after 36 years in the north of Nigeria. He eventually returned to Nigeria, dying there after 55 years of missionary work. He is unique in planting a church from Hausa Muslims, the Isawa people who were waiting for someone to tell them more of the prophet Isa than what they knew from the Koran. Miller met a people prepared by God to receive the gospel. He went on to be the premier translator among those who translated the Hausa Bible. What comes across very strongly in this book is the way in which Miller really loved the Hausa and Fulani and how confident he was in the transforming power of the gospel. Reading this after Robinson's account of Kano before 1900 one again reads of the horror of slavery. Miller had very good relations with the colonial government but is not backward in putting into print what he believed to be the way forward for civil government. Miller had good personal relations with many Muslim emirs but is not sparing in his criticism of the effects of Islam in Nigeria. A classic work that can bring tears to one's eyes.

5.  Out of the Storm: Questions and Consolations from the Book of Job by Christopher Ash

Concise and helpful overview of Job. Job is seen as a book not primarily about suffering but about God, how he deals with his followers. Well written and with practical insight. It is particularly helpful in showing how this book speaks of Christ and his suffering. God is good. He is sovereign. Facing suffering the believer may well be perplexed but this book gives practical pastoral counsel.

6.  Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger 

Junger was a junior infantry officer who served throughout WWI and despite no less than 14 injuries survived to tell this epic account of front line battle. The descriptions of being under artillery barrages left one wondering how anyone could survive without chronic shell shock. The German officers seemed to have plentiful supplies of drink and tobacco but poor rations. I was surprised too at seeming friendly relations with the French and Belgian civilians near the front. There is no criticism of his commending officers nor any questioning of the ability and bravery of his enemies. The carnage is horrific. Junger was much decorated, deservedly so. The one thing sorely absent is maps to show us where the battles raged.

7.  The Imam's Daughter by Hannah Shah 

As an autobiography this is an horrific book. It shows that it can take many years for an abused child to tell what has happened. The book shows how a culture can turn Islam into an abusive misogynist patriarchy. Hannah's father was probably a psychopathic pervert but his religion did not restrain him. She rightly says that Islam means submission, not peace, and the submission required of a Muslim girl can be absolute, domestic drudgery and forced marriage. For Hannah it involved child rape too. But when she was able to study Islam at university and read the Koran in English commentary she realised that much of what she has been taught as Koranic orthodoxy was in fact Pakistani custom. She also learned how ignorant most Muslims are concerning the meaning of the Koran for what learning they have is by rote in incomprehensible classical Arabic. They do not know that Jesus is mentioned far more often than Mohammed
   Though Hannah does not make the point one can read this book as a discourse on the futility and failure of multiculturalism. Older Pakistanis may be skilled in exploiting the benefits system while despising and hating the host culture. Any integration is discouraged. Their community is dominated by shame, the ultimate being apostasy. Hannah becomes a Christian so deserves to die. She is condemned to hide from her family and community.
   The book also shows how unhelpful is a failed political correctness which would send a British male Pakistani social worker to help a girl who is accusing her respected Imam father of domestic violence. What is heartwarming is the story of how teachers and lecturers helped Hannah. This led to her interest in Christianity with its portrayal of God as a loving father. Hannah finds love and hope among Christians who in no way seem pushy evangelists. Hannah becomes an outspoken advocate for abused Asian women and girls, offering counsel and help.

8. No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth

Forsyth is a masterful storyteller. Each of these tales has a delightful twist, usually a surprising one. The tales are usually quite moral. Evil does not iin out. Greed usually does mot pay. Only Archer seems to be in the same league of modern masters.

9.  Silent Witnesses: Lessons on Theology, Life and the Church from Christians of the Past by Garry J. Williams

This is a unique book. It draws biographical sketches of nine christians and two historical episodes, examines their theological import and gives application for the present. It concludes with a chapter showing there is no neutral history, it either looks for God's work or denies its reality. The target reader is the thinking Christian as well as those in Christian leadership. Some chapters will stretch the understanding, particularly on religious affections. Some will surprise you, such as the happy defence of Mary as mother of God and Luther's insistence that preachers be conversant with the biblical languages. The is much to inform, warm the heart and challenge the reader to devotion, obedience and thoughtful application. I hope this will not stay unique. I hope the author gives us more and perhaps he may lead to others writing in the same most helpful way.

10.  Lewis: A History of the Island by Donald MacDonald 

This is a comprehensive history of Lewis from the prehistoric and the Norse invasions up to the present time. Different aspects of life on the island are related in a comprehensive social history. The most fascinating chapters for me were on famine, smuggling, the armed forces, evictions, emigration and land agitation.

11. Scottish Presbyterian Pulpit Ministry by Wayne Pearce 

The people of Skye and Harris are blessed to have such a pulpit ministry. The addresses here are biblical in the reformed tradition, clear and passionate. There are some chapters addressing controversial matters. The charismatic movement is firmly critiqued but in a gracious spirit. A good case is put forward for exclusive unaccompanied psalmody in worship though this reviewer remains unconvinced. I was a little surprised by the chapter on the Lord's Supper which while saying this is a means of grace did not seem to be giving more than a remembrance of Christ's sacrifice.  I do not read here of feasting on Christ by faith, of the soul being really strengthened as the body is by bread and wine. But this is a valuable book which will challenge, inform and edify. May Scotland have more of like ministry.

12. A Children's Treasury of Milligan: Classic Stories and Poems by Spike Milligan  

Milligan was a comic genius and this book attests to that. The title says 'A Children's Treasury' but this is for children of all ages, especially those who love The Goons. This is anarchic humour at its finest. Read and laugh. Read it to children and I am sure they will identify too though some of the jokes will not dawn on them until they are older.

13. Loving Amy: A Mother's Story by Janis Winehouse 

This is a terribly tragic story. Amy was to popular music what George Best was to football - a talent sadly lost to alcohol. The overwhelming feeling I had from this brutally honest account was that of a loving, grieving mother helpless seeing her beloved daughter self destruct. Why, with the music world at her feet did Amy drink herself to death? Why did she effuse professional help?  The book offers no answers. The reader might wonder what if her father had not abandoned the family when Amy was young but understandably her mother does not go there. Unless an alcoholic is prepared to admit their need of help there is nothing family and friends can do. This was the tragedy of Amy and her family. The one happiness at the end is the good work now being done by the foundation set up in Amy's name. One thing I did not put on the Amazon review is that I knew the author professionally when she did locums for me at the pharmacy I managed in Finchley. I remember she kindly brought my staff autographed programmes from the BRIT awards.

14.  Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War:  by John Lewis-Stempel

Those most likely to die in WWI were the young junior officers leading the men in the trenches, a life expectancy of six weeks. They were on the whole young public school boys trained in their schools' Officer Training Corps. Their background was upper and upper middle class. Taught to be loyal, patriotic and Christian they quickly learned how to command and lead men who were usually older. They established bonds that transcended class divides. They above all showed courage under fire and proved to be men that others would gladly follow. This book paints the grim reality of life in the trenches, shells and shrapnel, mud and vermin, cold and wet. These officers would lead night patrols to enemy lines, some delighted in being snipers. All were ready to go over the top often nonchalantly smoking pipe or cigarette. The horrors and the bravery are here with wounds and death aplenty. Many excepts from letters home and last letters to be open-end in the event of death. There is a lot of poetry. I think this book gives you a real feel of the war in the trenches.

15. Great Britain's Great War by Jeremy Paxman

A well written concise history of the war, not only on the battle field but also the home front. Why the war happened, how so many volunteered and the political currents are well documented. The rumour mongering, spite against Germans and the attempts to keep the reality of the conflict from the people are often shocking. Paxman produces very readable history.

16. One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

Once again Bryson proves to be a most readable author of non-fiction. Lindbergh is the central hero of 1927 with his remarkable achievement of solo crossing of the Atlantic at a time when many died in the attempt and those who succeeded could not navigate like Lindberg. He landed where he intended. Others crossed the ocean only not to know where they landed. The other great hero of the year was the incomparable Babe Ruth. A glossary of baseball terms would help non-americans to understand his achievements. The folly of prohibition is exposed and the awful popularity of eugenics and endemic racism. Lindbergh was the all American hero until his anti-semitism was evidenced. I found the account of anarchist bombings to be a surprise. There was much to like and loathe in 1927 America. This is a great book of social and political history.

17. Murder in Samarkand - A British Ambassador's Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror by Craig Murray

Once again where a factual book is stranger than fiction. This is a terrible indictment of New Labour spin, of Blair the tail wagged by the Bush dog. When Murray was sent on his first ambassadorial posting, Uzbekistan was no longer pa`rt of the USSR but is was still a communist style corrupt oligarchy. But because it was providing a large US air base and helping in the war on terror, Murray's reports of government torture rendered him a target of accusations from his Foreign Office employers (FCO) under Jack Straw. Murray was depicted as an irresponsible philandering alcoholic and prevented from contacting witnesses to help defend himself. He refused to resign and was eventually relieved of his post with no accusations proved except disobeying the order which prevented him marshalling witnesses in his defence. Murray comes across as a hard working, dedicated, popular, fearless and unorthodox. The evidence points to Straw dismissing him on orders from Number 10. An amazing roller coaster, a thrilling story. If Murray is to believe Blair's regime turned a bond eye to torture in order to keep the special relationship of intelligence sharing with the USA, this despite the House of Lords ruling against any complicity in torture. Though Murray the public figure is to be commended, he does not cover himself with glory in private. He refused to give up a young Uzbek mistress, not his first extra-marital affair. His wife had enough and rightly divorced him. A pity his public integrity did not extend to his private file.

18. The Admiral's Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare by Charles Stephenson

This is the story of how, a hundred years before WWI, a British admiral developed the concept of chemical warfare, burning sulphur to produce sulphur dioxide to incapacitate the enemy. Plans were submitted to the Admiralty but rejected as of doubtful practicality and not being civilised. Detailed plans were submitted for use in the Crimean War both in the Baltic and at Sebastopol. If they has been used many lives might have been saved. But the plans were left as a family secret with the admiral's descendants. In 1914 they were again offered and rejected. Then in 1915 the Germans were the first to use a gas attack, chlorine at Ypres. The question remains unanswered as to whether the German attack was based on the century old plan of the British admiral. A fascinating study in the history of warfare.

19. The Antipope (Brentford Trilogy) by Robert Rankin 

I am not usually a reader of fantasy but made an exception for this besause of its setting in my locality. The author is a skilful, imaginative and above all a humorous writer. He has interested me enough to tempt me to read more of this Brentford novels.

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Blogger Bw Smith said...

Thanks was wondering about this biography -- will put it on my list -- have just started a bio of Ogden Nash, a poet I so love.

2:48 pm  
Blogger said...

I just finished the Kill List. It strikes me that FF always has a positive attitude towards the services. And in the end it is not the machine that wins but the strength, the will, the mind of a man. This time he is again very much uptodate with his content.

4:27 pm  

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