2016 books round-up

booksmontage2016

It’s January, so it’s time for my annual summary of the books I’ve read during the previous year (previous years: 2013 | 2014 | 2015). As usual, these are categorised as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before.

The overall picture can be seen from these charts. First, by category:

category

Second, by format/source (with “other” shown in pale blue):

format

In other words, while I was hitting the library pretty hard, it was mostly for reading comic books.

Fiction

This was another good year for reading fiction (after the shocker in 2014 when I read only ten novels). One intentional theme throughout the year was reading novels by women, including three major sequences: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. Of the three, my favourite was the Gilead trilogy, and of those I’ve singled out Lila as one of my two favourite novels of the year.

My other favourite for the year is Luther Blissett’s astonishing Reformation-era historical novel, Q. But pretty much all the listed books are worth reading. Other particular highlights include Ali Smith’s lovely, life-affirming novella Girl Meets Boy, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Paul Kingsnorth’s extraordinary novel the Norman Conquest, Wake, written in a form of cod Anglo-Saxon.

Non-fiction

The usual mishmash under this category. Edward Ross’s Filmish, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Kate Evans’ Red Rosa are all good enough to get listed here rather than under graphic novels. The Silk Roads is a fascinating (even if, towards the end, slightly over-cooked) presentation of a part of the world, and eras of history, that are too obscure for most of us. The implosion of the Labour party and the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader sent me scurrying back to Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Very hard to select two favourites from this, so in the interests of balance I’ve gone for two works of English history from sharply contrasting political viewpoints: Robert Tombs’ affably magisterial history of the English people, and Selina Todd’s account of the twentieth century working class, combining vivid eyewitness testimony with a sharp political analysis, held together by an effective use of the life of pools winner Viv “spend, spend, spend!” Nicholson as a framing device.

Theology

My main aim this year was to read more Lutheran theology. For the first half of the year, I made a reasonably good effort at this, with a particular focus on Luther’s theology of the “captive will” (see the books by Joshua Miller, Oswald Bayer and Gerhard Forde, as well as Luther’s own Bondage of the Will).

Around September, though, there was a change of direction, as I realised that, with only one or two exceptions, it had been years – well over a decade, in fact – since I’d read books that engage directly with the Bible, whether as introductions or commentaries. Originally I intended this to be my 2017 reading focus, but I soon realised I wanted to start right away. I also switched Bible reading plan to one that aims at reading the whole Bible systematically over the course of a year.

The nature of the project is summarised by the title of Marcus Borg’s flawed but stimulating book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: specifically, reading with an openness to mainstream scholarly understandings of the biblical books’ content, origins and authorship. Above all else, this was prompted by reading an essay by Peter Enns in which Enns describes a colleague who was shocked to discover how far scholarship was from what he’d been taught at his evangelical college. He asked his former professor why this was, only to be told:

Our job was to protect you from this information so as not to shipwreck your faith.

Upon reading that, I realised I no longer wanted to be protected from “this information” – while at the same time wanting to hold on to the Bible as Christian scripture. Hence a mixture of books that are strongly historically-critical in their approach (such as Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament) and writers such as Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis who, without rejecting the insights of biblical criticism, focus on how the Bible as we have received it, in all its plurality, reveals God to us.

This is another category from which it’s difficult to pick favourites, so I’ve selected one from each of the year’s main foci: Joshua Miller’s Hanging by a Promise, a profound and thought-provoking account of God’s hiddenness, and Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God, not least for her brilliant chapters on Old Testament wisdom literature.

Other

As will be seen from the charts at the start, this category is mostly the story of me and my library card attacking Southwark’s large collection of comic books and graphic novels. It’s also the story of having finished watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer earlier in the year and making a start on the “season 8” series of comic books (though deciding that I’d had enough of a good thing after four volumes). The one non-comic book is Mallory Ortberg’s splendid literary parody, Texts from Jane Eyre.

Favourites from this category, again chosen fairly arbitrarily: Dan Dare, for the retro nostalgia but also the superb artwork (which has dated less badly than the politics and gender relations), and Evan Dahm’s Kickstarter-funded Vattu series, also mostly on visual grounds.

Plans for 2017

No hard-and-fast plans, but some overall aims:

  • continue reading “books about the Bible”
  • read more theology by women (recommendations are warmly invited)
  • dip my toe into the vast and deep waters that are Karl Barth
  • make more headway on my to-read shelves than I managed this year…
  • more poetry, War & Peace, “and a pony”…

Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

auroraThe dream of humanity escaping its “cradle” to colonise the stars is the subject – or perhaps a better word would be “target” – of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel (the first of his that I’ve read), Aurora.

This book expands on the thesis advanced by Robinson in this recent essay for BoingBoing: that the dream of interstellar colonisation will never actually come true. Robinson does this by telling the story of a spaceship carrying 2,000 pioneer colonists to the Tau Ceti system, 11.9 light years from Earth. He depicts their attempts to overcome the insuperable difficulties – “ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological” – which their mission faces, despite the best efforts of both the mission’s original designers and subsequent generations of colonists on board.

For Robinson, the science fiction “eschatology” of humanity colonising the stars is not just a harmless dream, but can become a dangerous delusion to the extent that it makes us think that there is any long-term alternative to Earth for humanity’s survival. As a character puts it towards the end:

The idea […] that Earth is humanity’s cradle is part of what trashed the Earth in the first place. (p.439)

The positive lesson that Robinson wants to drum home is that:

life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. […] So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. (p.178)

Human beings have evolved to live in a complex symbiosis with our environment; indeed, we are each of us ourselves a complex ecosystem in which my health as an individual is dependent on maintaining a balance with the microbes that inhabit my body.

Towards the end, a character summarises Robinson’s argument in words that are worth quoting in full:

“No starship voyage will work,” [Aram] says abruptly. “This is an idea some of you have, which ignores the biological realities of the situation. We from Tau Ceti know this better than anyone. There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work. The physical problems of propulsion have captured your fancy, and perhaps these problems can be solved, but they are the easy ones. The biological problems cannot be solved. And no matter how much you want to ignore them, they will exist for the people you send out inside these vehicles.

“The bottom line is the biomes you can propel at the speeds needed to cross such great distances are too small to hold viable ecologies. The distances between here and any truly habitable planets are too great. And the differences between other planets and Earth are too great. Other planets are either alive or dead. Living planets are alive with their own indigenous life, and dead planets can’t be terraformed quickly enough for the colonizing population to survive the time in enclosure. Only a true Earth twin not yet occupied by life would allow this plan to work, and these may exist somewhere, the galaxy after all is big, but they are too far away from us. Viable planets, if they exist, are simply too—far—away.”

Aram pauses for a moment to collect himself. Then he waves a hand and says more calmly, “That’s why you aren’t hearing from anyone out there. That’s why the great silence persists. There are many other living intelligences out there, no doubt, but they can’t leave their home planets any more than we can, because life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.” (p.428)

Of course, many will continue to dispute Robinson’s assertion that interstellar colonisation is impossible. He foresees this in the debates he describes between his characters on the prospects of success:

This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.

“It’s not me being negative,” Aram would reply. “It’s the universe obeying its laws. Science isn’t magic! We aren’t fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand.” (p.195)

Hence Robinson’s answer to Fermi’s paradox (the supposed mystery of why interstellar civilisations haven’t arrived at Earth yet):

“…by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. […]

“So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. […] But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” (pp.178f.)

If all this makes the book sound rather dry and didactic, it’s not: Robinson is an effective storyteller, and I found myself gripped from start to (near) finish. During the first half of the book, this was heading towards being my favourite book of the year. It went off the boil a little in the second half, for reasons which are hard to describe without posting spoilers (see after the fold if you want to know more), but it’s still an important, enjoyable and persuasive work of science fiction. Highly recommended.


 

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS >>> 

Continue reading “Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora”

The wandering of peoples

Map from Europe: A History, p.216.
Map of first millennium migrations into Europe. From Europe: A History, p.216.

Norman Davies, in his book Europe: A History (see previous post), describes the waves of migration that transformed Europe during the first millennium AD.

One of Davies’ chief aims throughout his history of Europe is to correct the tendency to view history, especially European history, from an exclusively western European perspective. As he observes, this tendency has strongly influenced our view of “the Barbarian Invasions” during the twilight of the western Roman empire (or “the Roman empire”, as we’ve tended to call it in the west, ignoring the fact it continued for another millennium in the east).

In fact, the influx of Angles, Saxons, Franks, Jutes, Visigoths, Huns and the rest was:

[a] massive historical process which, from the standpoint of the Empire, has been called ‘the Barbarian Invasions’ and which, from the parochial standpoint of Western Europe, has often been reduced to ‘the Germanic Invasions’. To the Germans it is known as the Völkerwanderung, the ‘Wandering of Peoples’—an apt term which could well be applied to its Germanic and non-Germanic participants alike. In reality, it engulfed the greater part of the European Peninsula, East and West, and continued throughout the first millennium AD and beyond, until all the wanderers had found a permanent abode. (pp.217f.)

The waves of migration proceeded in a ripple effect, with the ultimate impetus for a westward movement often lying far away to the east:

The critical cause of any displacement might lie far away on the steppes of central Asia; and a ‘shunting effect’ is clearly observable. Changes at one end of the chain of peoples could set off ripples along all the links of the chain. Like the last wagon of a train in the shunting yards, the last tribe on the western end of the chain could be propelled from its resting-place with great force. (p.215)

Hence “the Huns caused ripples in the West long before they themselves appeared.” The Huns had been based in modern Turkestan, east of the Caspian Sea, but gradually shifted west. In turn they pushed the Ostrogoths and Visigoths into the Roman empire.

The causes of individual bursts of migration sound familiar to modern ears, as does the nervous reaction of “civilised” Europe:

The irregular rhythms of migration depended on a complex equation involving climatic changes, food supply, demographic growth, local rivalries, distant crises. For the Romans watching anxiously on the frontier, they were entirely unpredictable. (p.215)

Which brings us to today, and how to deal with what is variously referred to as a “migrant crisis” or a “refugee crisis” – mostly depending on how sympathetic the speaker is to the plight of those (literally) washing up on Europe’s beaches from the Middle East and north Africa.

Many will point out, quite correctly, that there is a difference between a “refugee” fleeing persecution, a “migrant” seeking better economic conditions, and an “immigrant” coming for a particular job or course of study. It is certainly possible to look at any individual, ask which of those categories they fall under, and have differing policies for each.

However, if we are (as seems likely) in a new era of “great migrations”, driven by many of the same factors as in the first millennium – climate change, demographics, war – then it can become absurd to make a Manichaean distinction between “good” refugees and “bad” migrants. If someone flees conflict and persecution in, say, Somalia, they are a “refugee”, and hence “good”; if they are born in a refugee camp just outside Somalia and, having endured abject poverty, flee in search of a better life, they are a “migrant”, and hence “bad”. A similar winnowing could have been attempted in the first millennium: are you fleeing the Huns who burned your village? Refugee. Climate change dried up your water supply? Migrant. It would have been as blunt an instrument then as it is now, and it wouldn’t have altered the overall process one iota.

The difference today is that we – the heirs, most of us, of those former waves of “refugees” and “migrants” into Europe, but often sharing the western-centric perspective of fifth century Romans – are not just fearfully standing on the imperial border waiting for the next ripple to arrive. We can see what’s happening far (and not so far) away. I don’t know what the answer is for how Europe should deal with this situation – but the UK approach of higher fences and each-country-for-itself is manifestly inadequate.

The dos and don’ts of spitting

No spittingJust to bring things back down to earth with a bump after the elegant, spare prose of St Augustine, here’s a post about spitting.

I’m currently working through Norman Davies’ magnum opus, Europe: A History. As well as the main narrative, stretching over 1,000 pages, Davies includes around 300 “mini-essays” on specific topics, which he calls “capsules”. One of these is on “Mores” (pp.346f.), and looks at how social etiquette has varied over the years.

Davies opens with the story of a Byzantine princess who arrived in Venice in the late 11th century to marry the Doge, and was reprimanded for her “anti-social” use of a fork to eat her food:

People in the medieval West took meat with their fingers from a common dish. The fork only came into general use during the Renaissance, and only for lifting morsels to one’s own plate. The table set of knife, fork, and spoon was an eighteenth-century innovation.

He goes on to describe the equally dramatic reversal that has occurred in the etiquette of spitting. Quoting the German writer Norbert Elias, he sets out injunctions on spitting from various etiquette guides over the centuries:

  • Do not spit over or on the table. (English, c.1463)
  • Do not spit across the table as hunters do. (German, 15th cent.)
  • Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls to the ground, it should be trodden upon. (Erasmus, 1530)
  • You should abstain from spitting at table, if possible. (Italian, 1558)
  • Formerly. it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank. … Today, that is an indecency. (French. 1572)
  • Frequent spitting is disagreeable. At important houses, one spits into one’s handkerchief … Do not spit so far that you have to look for the saliva to stamp on it. (Liege, 1714)
  • It is very ill-mannered to swallow what should be spat … After spitting into your handkerchief, you should fold it once, without looking at it, and put it in your pocket. (La Salle, 1729)
  • It is unpardonably gross for children to spit in the faces of their playmates. (La Salle, 1774)
  • Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. Besides being coarse and atrocious, it is very bad for the health. (English, 1859)
  • Have you noticed that today we [hide] what our fathers did not hesitate to display openly? … The spittoon is a piece of furniture no longer found in modern households. (Cabanes, 1910)

As the quotations above suggest, spitting’s social acceptability declined rapidly in the nineteenth century, possibly due to fears about tuberculosis. However, as late as the 1960s, Davies recalls, London buses still considered it necessary to display signs saying “NO SPITTING”.

Just in case you find yourself transported back to medieval times and wish to avoid any social faux pas, here are some other examples which Davies quotes (again from Elias) of the etiquette of the time:

  • It is bad manners … to wear a helmet when serving ladies.
  • Don’t blow your nose with the fingers you hold the meat with.
  • If you have to scrape [the back of] your throat, do so politely with your coat.
  • Farts may be concealed by coughing.
  • Before you sit down, make sure that your seat has not been fouled.
  • It is impolite to greet someone who is urinating or defecating.

The last item on the list, though, is one that today’s wealthy guzzlers might also consider adopting:

  • When you eat, do not forget the poor. God will reward you.

Augustine for Latin lovers

St Augustine in his Study, by Sandro BotticelliThe feast of St Augustine of Hippo was a couple of days ago, which provides a slightly belated excuse to share some Augustine which I’ve been meaning to post for a while.

Eugene Rogers, in his book Sexuality and the Christian Body, quotes a couple of St Augustine’s best-known sayings, but then also gives the original Latin – which, as Rogers observes, “is worth savouring”, even for those of us who don’t understand Latin.

Both are from the Confessions. The first is this (from book 3, ch. 1, translation by Peter Brown):

I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with love … To love and to have my love returned was my heart’s desire.

Here’s the original. Worth reading in parallel with the translation, to appreciate Augustine’s elegance and economy:

Nondum amabam, et amare amabam … amare et amari dulce mihi erat.

Then there is this celebrated passage from book 10, ch. 27, here in the translation by the magnificently named R.S. Pine-Coffin:

I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! I have learnt to love you late! … The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace.

As Rogers observes, the original is again “sparer”:

Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova! sero te amavi! Et ecce intus eras et ego foris et ibi te quaerebam; et in ista formosa quae fecisti deformis irruebam. Mecum eras et tecum non eram. Ea me tenebant longe a te, quae si in te non essent, non essent. Vocasti et clamasti et rupisti surditatem meam. Coruscasti, splenduisti et fugasti caecitatem meam. Fragrasti et duxi spiritum et anhelo tibi. Gustavi et esurio et sitio. Tetigisti me et exami in pacem tuam.

Language to feast upon, even if you don’t understand a word of it…

“Not going to let Hitler mess me around”

Dad's ArmyToday is the 70th anniversary of VE Day. To commemorate it, here are the answers given by my wife’s paternal grandmother (who died in January at the age of 94) to some questions our middle son asked her about the Second World War for his homework a couple of years ago:

1. What happened to you during the war?

I was living in Salisbury, working as a hairdresser. The government said I had to go to Bristol and make guns in a factory. They sent me to a house where the lady provided bed and breakfast. The factory gave me lunch and supper. I was hungry for the whole war, from 1940 to 1945.

2. What responsibilities did you have?

Mainly making sure the guns I made were properly made so they didn’t blow up and kill our own men. Once a fortnight I had to be on fire watch all night – I was on the roof of the factory, looking out for fire bombs. Other buildings were hit, but ours was not.

3. What job did you get at that time?

Cutting huge metal blocks with a machine – workmen lifted the blocks on to the bench, and I used the cutter to make the right holes. All day, every day for 4 years.

4. Where were you at what times?

Bristol from September 1940 to 1945. Allowed to go home for a 1 day visit every 2 weeks. I worked 1 week on day shift, 7am to 5pm, followed by 1 week on night shift 5pm to 7am.

5. Did you face any serious problems, and how were they solved?

  • shortage of food – was hungry for 5 years. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • had to wear head scarf at all times in the factory to keep hair out of the cutting machine – worst bit of the war. Solved by beating Hitler.
  • the factory foreman hated having women working in his factory – a terrifying man, much more frightened of him than of the Germans and their bombs. Solved by going home as soon as we had beaten Hitler.

6. What was your most dangerous moment?
Bombed whilst shopping in Bristol – town centre badly damaged. They missed me, so I went on shopping. Not going to let Hitler mess me around.

7. What times were you in mortal danger?
Air raids at work at night – all lights out – factory stopped working – everyone waiting – heard bombs whistling and hitting CRUMP elsewhere – all clear siren – back to work – more guns for our men.

Lots of love from Grannie Magpies