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Monday, May 27, 2013

A Skeptical Pilgrim. From Paris to the Pyrenees by David Downie

After David Downie suffers from various health problems, he decides to take the 'road least travelled' and walk the way of Saint James with his wife.  He goes on a different route from most pilgrims.  As he walks through the haunting scenery of the Morvan, he reflects on its ancient history, the role of the Resistance, and he also describes the people who he meets.

I thought that this was more of a travel book than the story of a pilgrimage.  However, I enjoyed reading it, especially the history about Mitterrand and the history of the Resistance.  Downie's condescending attitude to religion was annoying, however, and I am sure that many readers won't care for his anti-Catholicism.

I have one of his books about Paris, and I prefer that.  I think that his heart lies there, but I also enjoyed this.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians by Paul Marshall

Christians belong to the most persecuted religion in the world.  This book contains a dreadful litany of the persecution of Christians around the world, ranging from legal difficulties to not being allowed to practice their religion at all and killings and terrorism.  The list is long. This ill treatment is especially vicious in the strictest Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and in Communist countries like China and Vietnam.  In North Korea, Christians are often killed or disappear if they're simply found to have a Bible.  Churches are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.  Even in democracies such as Indonesia and India, there have been bombings of churches and Christians have been murdered.  Muslims have been harshly punished for apostasy and 'forced conversions' and blasphemy.  The case that shocked me was that of Graham Staines, an Australian missionary who was viciously murdered in India after working amongst lepers for twenty years.

The Arab Spring is not helping. In many countries formerly governed by dictatorships such as Egypt, strict Islamists are taking over governments, and hostility toward Christians is increasing. Christians vie to leave these countries in droves. Christians are scared in Syria, for example, because they are scared of the power of fanatical Islamists. Attacks on Coptic Christians are increasing in Egypt. Marshall writes about the historical importance of Christianity to the Middle East, and the significance of the loss of the values of Christianity to these countries.

I found this book difficult to read, because it is so depressing.  Marshall goes through the list of wrongs to Christians country by country, and it is an excellent analysis.  Thankfully, there are suggestions about ways to help combat persecution towards Christians at the end of the book.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Elizabeth's Bedfellows by Anna Whitelock

Did Elizabeth 1 sleep with Robert Dudley?  Did she fall in love with any of her suitors?  Was she involved in Amy Robsart's death? Anna Whitelock covers all of these questions in her enjoyable analysis of the scandals surrounding the great Queen.  She also discusses Queen Elizabeth's relationship with her 'bedfellows' - her ladies-in-waiting.  These included Mary Sydney and Katherine Grey.

Queen Elizabeth was quite tough on many of her ladies-in-waiting.  Poor Mary Sydney, for example, nursed the Queen when Elizabeth was ill with smallpox, and caught it herself.  She never recovered her former beauty.  Instead of being sympathetic, the Queen didn't want to see her, and treated her badly.

The Queen always hated it when her ladies married without her permission - a punishable offence.  She would ban them from court, and sometimes send them to the Tower.  She became especially vicious when the beautiful Lettice Knowles, her cousin, married her beloved Robert Dudley.

I enjoyed this book, but I felt that Anna Whitelock did rely a lot on the gossip that surrounded the Queen at the time, and there was too little emphasis on Elizabeth 1's religion which was deeply felt.  She gives the impression of being rather unsympathetic to this Queen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal

Wilhelm Canaris, a heroic German

Maggie Hope sets off on another exciting adventure in this memorable and enjoyable novel by Susan Elia MacNeal.  This time she is an S.O.E. operative dropped into the middle of Nazi Germany.  Here, she discovers a deadly secret, and meets her half-sister, a Catholic nurse who is also fighting against the evils of the Nazi regime.  Unfortunately, the pair have to combat their Nazi mother, a beautiful opera singer.

Much of His Majesty's Hope is based on research about the German resistance, and based on real people such as Wilhelm Canaris and the Catholic Bishop of Berlin, Bishop Preysing, who spoke out against Hitler's murders of innocent people.  This makes the book more exciting and interesting than the last novel in the Maggie Hope series, although I enjoyed that novel immensely as well.

I also enjoyed the philosophical discussions in this book, and the history about Catholicism and the Nazis.  Catholicism and German Catholics have received a beating about their role in Germany during the Second World War, so it was good to read a novel that will make people more aware of Catholic and Protestant heroes who did play their parts in the German resistance.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

 Henry II ordered Thomas Beckett to give a beggar the expensive coat that he was wearing.  Surprisingly, Beckett loved luxury and sumptuous clothes, so he was reluctant to do this, but he could hardly refuse the King's orders.

This is one of the many fascinating anecdotes in Dan Jones's book, The Plantagenets.  Jones brings English history to life as he describes the many colourful monarchs of this era, including the evil King John who murdered his own nephew, Henry II who introduced many reforms to England, and the weak King Edward II.  My favourite (and Jones's favourite) is the story of the heroic Edward III, although his reign unfortunately ended in misery and paranoia.  I also enjoyed reading about his intrepid mother, Isabella of France, and her affair with the power-hungry Roger Mortimer.

There are a lot of characters and wars in this book, so it can become quite confusing, but it always remains lively and interesting as well as being an excellent reference book. Jones includes sources and more research suggestions for every chapter, so I'm going to have a good look at them.  I'm pleased to see that this young and brilliant historian is writing a book about the Wars of the Roses, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Country Girl by Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien's evocative memoir takes the reader on a wild ride from her idyllic country upbringing in Ireland where her grandmother churned milk to Bohemian life in London and huge success.  One can almost smell the fresh milk and cream when O'Brien describes her old-fashioned country upbringing in Ireland.  As a young girl, she had to endure her teacher's bullying and her father's drunkenness, but she was certainly brought up in a beautiful landscape.

She became a chemist in Dublin in the '50's, and writes about a backward city in which the Bishop spied on unmarried couples and everyone knew what everyone else was doing.  Here, she fell in with a crowd of writers, including Patrick Kavanagh.  He was with 'a lady of the night' while a priest called him from the street.

O'Brien went through a harrowing time with her brooding and abusive husband, and had to fight him for custody.  This is an upsetting part of the book, but her success gave her the life in London that she'd always dreamed about.  I enjoyed this part of the book the best.  Here, she went home from a party with a talkative and handsome Robert Mitchum, and surprised her sons by bringing Paul McCartney home to sing to them.

She also loved New York and became good friends with Jackie Kennedy.  I enjoyed reading about this friendship, and a more intimate account of Jackie Kennedy. 

The chapter about the IRA and the 'Irish Problem' is deeply troubling, and O'Brien's description will stay in your mind.  It's well worth reading.

This is a beautifully written series of vignettes which any fan of Edna O'Brien will enjoy.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

When Anne of A Thousand Days was screened in London recently, audiences cheered Anne's defiant speech when she said that her daughter would be a great Queen.  No one who saw Genevieve Bujold make this speech could ever forget it, because she is so fiery, independent and proud.

The Anne of this film became a feminist icon for many young girls and women who saw this film.  Before this, Anne had often been represented as a nasty, scheming, ambitious woman who was venomous to Queen Catherine and her daughter Mary.  As Susan Bordo points out, this version came straight from Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, and he had every reason to dislike 'the concubine', as he called her.  Many historians even today also rely on Chapuys, without verifying his statements.  David Starkey, for example, writes about Anne in a rather critical way.  Yet there is little evidence to support many of Chapuys's writings about Anne.

Susan Bordo summarises Anne's story, and she then looks at the many different versions of Anne over the years. Unfortunately, as she points out, Anne has again become the nasty 'other woman' in the eyes of many people.  This is largely due to Phillipa Gregory.  I was pleased that she takes a harsh attitude to Phillipa Gregory's version of Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl, and she lists the historical inaccuracies in the film.
Phillipa Gregory has even accused Anne of murder with no evidence at all!

Bordo enlivens the book by telling readers personal anecdotes, and her interviews with people who have played Anne, such as Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer.  I especially enjoyed her interview with Genevieve Bujold.  I liked Bujold's answer to the question about which actress she would recommend to play Anne, but I won't tell you what it is.  You will have to read the book!

I did take issue with Bordo's argument about Queen Catherine.  She thinks that Queen Catherine should have accepted King Henry's suggestion that she should enter a convent.  However, Catherine of Aragon didn't want her daughter to be made illegitimate, and she was, arguably, right.  She was also a strong woman who insisted on her rights, and I think that Bordo's argument here is inconsistent with her admiration of Anne's strength of character.

This is a hugely enjoyable book for anyone who is interested in Anne Boleyn.  I highly recommend it!

Monday, May 06, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Needle’s Eye:The World's Greatest Detective Tackles the Bible's Ultimate Mysteries by Len Bailey

I read the first chapter of this book, and I felt that Bailey captured the Victorian atmosphere and the character of Holmes well.  I enjoyed this adventure.  However, the book seems to require a lot of concentration, and I just can't get into it at the moment.

Christian fans of the great Sherlock Holmes may enjoy it.