Saturday, 12 November 2016

He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek

He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek with Daniel Flaherty

As the author explains in the prologue, he wrote With God In Russia (which came out in 1964) on his return to America, about the story of his adventures and sufferings on his Russian mission; but He Leadeth Me, coming some years later (in 1972), is actually “the book I wanted to write”, about the things he experienced and learnt on the inside, because of the circumstances, and by reflecting on them.

HLM retells the essentials of WGIR, so that it can be read as a standalone. On the other hand, having read WGIR first has the advantage that it provides background and colour to much that is related in HLM, so the reader gets a much fuller picture and can appreciate the contents of HLM more deeply.

Some readers felt that the title is not a good one. One has to bear in mind that it was written over 40 years ago, but for today’s readers the word “leadeth” can be opaque and off-putting, unless they recognise it as a quotation from Psalm 22, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. As a matter of fact, the title contains the essential message of the book – all the good that Ciszek drew from his appalling experiences, and all the good that he was able to do, were, he explains over and over again, because he “simply” followed God’s lead, and allowed God to act.

When reading the book it is notable how often the words from the Morning Offering prayer are quoted or referred to, just in passing, as though it was a permanent attitude in Ciszek that became second nature to him, offering everything in him and all that he did to God. In fact this book really is spiritual reading, a deep, even mystical book, but certainly accessible and easy to read for someone with Christian faith. Having read it, one is not surprised to hear that Ciszek’s cause of canonization has been opened: he is officially titled “Servant of God”.

Key points in the book – Ciszek makes several of these the central point of different chapters:
- His realization, and deepening understanding and acceptance, during his five years in Lubianka, that the Will of God is here and now, not somewhere else. The situations themselves are God’s Will for each person. His reaction to his failures is to abandon himself more fully in God, and results in a purifying of his spirit; this is followed immediately by a fresh testing (pp. 70ff.), followed by renewed and deeper abandonment (p. 76).
- He was led to reflect deeply on the nature of human work, and its true value, by being stripped of absolutely everything except the bare physical task itself. When God became man, he became a workman.
- Praying for others is not a matter of praying for them to help me or do what I want, but of praying for them for themselves.
- On freedom: that letting God work through me is the essence of freedom, however paradoxical it sounds.

Catholics should note that at the time Ciszek was in Russia, Church discipline required a person to fast from midnight before in order to receive Holy Communion. Ciszek, and other priests and faithful in the various labour camps, did this heroically when they were starving and in sub-zero temperatures (pp. 124, 126 and elsewhere).

Everyone agreed that this is a book to re-read, quite possibly on a yearly basis.


Sunday, 9 October 2016

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

variously subtitled:
Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance
Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes – But Some Do
and
The Surprising Truth About Success

Enjoyable and interesting, this book covers a fairly wide range of ideas including “cognitive dissonance” – blinding oneself to the evidence where it contradicts one’s own convictions. We all suffer from this, both in ourselves and in others, and the book is a useful stimulus in learning to stand back and look at how, where and why.

The main theme of the book is that mistakes and failures are to be seen positively, as part and parcel of the creative process. Of course, this brings to mind the familiar quotation from Edison about the invention of the light-bulb: “I didn’t fail a thousand times; the light-bulb was an invention with a thousand steps.” In some areas we may be happy to fail and take this positive approach to it; in other areas, we may react very differently.

Another useful theme is that of “incremental gains” – not expecting to succeed magnificently at the first attempt, but chipping away at a project little by little, for a whole chain of small improvements.

Good quotations: the “minimal viable product” (in the case of Dropbox), that can be launched, and then re-worked in response to real-life use.
“What is the point of preserving self-esteem that is so brittle that it can’t cope with failure?” pp. 291-2.
“A progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution” p. 12.

However, there are some definite weak points in the book as a whole. On pp. 139-140 Syed happily quotes Richard Dawkins – not the most intelligent or objective of authorities – and his “wonderful” book The Blind Watchmaker, imagining that since Dawkins has proved to his own satisfaction that he doesn’t need to posit God as Creator, everyone else must be equally satisfied.

Similarly, while the book contains some very thought-provoking ideas, insights and suggestions, the overall impression is that it is two-dimensional. Just a couple of examples from the main part of the book:

Syed describes in detail Pixar’s creative process in developing its computer-animated cartoon films. Specifically, he looks at the development process of Finding Nemo, a massively popular box-office success. However, Finding Nemo was catastrophic for the clownfish that were its heroes. After seeing the film, parents and children wanted a clownfish as a pet. Thousands and thousands of clownfish were caught and sold as pets – into captivity!, devastating the clownfish population and doing a lot of damage to the reefs that were their habitat. And as they cannot survive for more than a few days in fish-tanks, capture was a short-term death-sentence for each fish.

The second example is Dyson’s vacuum-cleaners and hand-dryers. Syed explains how and why Dyson works on his inventions, as a prime instance of the inventive/creative mind at its best. Dyson vacuum-cleaners, working on the cyclone system, famously maintain their strong suction power (as bag-filter vacuum-cleaners cannot, getting clogged up with dust instead). What Syed never stops to consider is that the stronger the suction, the more of the actual carpet pile the vacuum-cleaner removes, meaning that it wears out an ordinary domestic carpet much more quickly (obviously this is not a problem when vacuum-cleaning hard floors). On carpets, Dyson vacuum-cleaners have much the same effect as constant tumble-drying has on clothes.

As for the famous Dyson Airblade hand-dryers, they are the most efficient way so far discovered of spreading bacteria and viruses. They blast bacteria-laden droplets of water from wet hands much further even than other electric hand-dryers. If children are around, the hand-dryers are at exactly the right level to blow the bacteria and viruses straight in their faces.

All of the above are well-known facts freely available. It is taking far too narrow a view simply to look at an invention and say it is efficient in its purpose and is a commercial success. Syed needs to step back and see the whole picture.

Indeed, the last chapter of the book is entitled “Coda: The Big Picture”. Here you might hope that Syed would set things to rights with regard to the questions raised above. Far from it; instead he launches on a survey of history... and as he is not a historian, the results are painful. His object is to show what happens when people lose the positive attitude towards mistakes and failure, as part of the creative process.

Unfortunately, the best he can do is parrot Francis Bacon (17th-century philosopher). “As Bacon wrote in Novum Organum (...), ‘The sciences which we possess come for the most part from the Greeks. [But] from all these systems of the Greeks, and their ramifications through particular sciences, there can hardly after the lapse of so many years be adduced a single experiment which tends to relieve and benefit the condition of man.’ This was a truly devastating assessment.” He attributes this to the (clich├ęd but imaginary) baneful influence of the Church smacking down on anything that questions dogmatic truths, and thus stifling creativity by making people afraid to make mistakes.

I am not using the word “parrot” to be rude: Syed appears to have no knowledge of history so he simply repeats what Bacon said, without taking the trouble to think any further. Bacon said that there were no scientific discoveries that benefited mankind between the classical Greek period and the 17th century. Syed unreflectingly takes this as fact. Strangely enough, though, he has already referred to the invention of printing on p. 213: “... this act of connectivity is another central feature of innovation. Johannes Gutenberg invented mass printing by applying the pressing of wine [Syed means grapes] (...) to the pressing of pages.” In fact, an interesting example of cognitive dissonance...

If he had thought a little, he would have realised that the Romans were, among other things, incredible engineers, and the Middle Ages were hugely creative and inventive, with the flourishing of sculpture, painting, poetry and other literature, architecture, textiles, law, stained glass and glassworking, and much more – even if he looked no further than Europe. So this is not all “science”? But it certainly falls within Syed’s own terms of reference and certainly benefited mankind. And as he himself is ready to recognise when it suits him, invention and creativity are an organic process.

The kindest thing to think about all this was that Syed was simply in such a hurry to get his book finished that he did not stop to think about what he was writing. As a concluding chapter, however, it leaves the reader deeply unsatisfied.


Saturday, 17 September 2016

Imperium by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris, 2006, 2009

Imperium

This book in many respects seems to have been written with Hollywood already in mind. It is vivid, action-packed, and the episodes often almost beg to be filmed as scenes.
All the characters are carefully drawn and differ convincingly and memorably from one another. In particular, Pompey is the larger-than-life type, so that reading his “scenes” one can feel him as almost physically present. The episode of the pirates – the sudden menace that made it “necessary” to grant Pompey extra powers to deal with them, which he then did with literally incredible rapidity – was strongly reminiscent of Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein’s WMDs in 2003.
Robert Harris has clearly done a lot of research. He refers to this briefly at the end of this book, and in more detail at the end of the third book in the series, Dictator. His chosen approach is to present, and to some extent fictionalise, Cicero’s life and the events that ended the Roman Republic, as a modern-day political thriller. The book is easy and compelling reading. This means that people who have no idea about and perhaps minimal interest in history as a subject (including some of us, who weren’t sure whether the book was set in the fifth century BC, fifth century AD, or somewhere in between), can read about it and acquire a fair picture of what went on.
This approach, of course, has its problems. Anachronisms are not altogether absent: references to a “drawing-room”, and others.
There is also the risk of being carried away by enjoyment of the story and suspending critical judgement.
Another problem is that some of the episodes that Harris does invent are totally unbelievable from start to finish – especially where he has Tiro (Cicero’s private secretary) taking copious notes of a top-secret meeting of Cicero’s enemies while hiding in a hole behind a tapestry.
The choice of Tiro as first-person narrator seemed in some ways rather laboured, in that it involves inventing more or less likely reasons why he was present at all the episodes he describes, and how it is that he remembers them or has all his notes of them. N.B. notes were normally made by scratching on wax tablets – not a method that really lent itself to extensive long-term preservation, particularly not through the various exiles and escapes that Tiro experienced in his life.
There are some wonderful quotations. “If it’s gratitude you want, get a dog.” “The ability to listen to bores requires stamina…” “Gossip is a trade…” “There can never have been anyone quite so worldly in their pursuit of unworldliness as Titus Pomponius Atticus.” “Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?” “The trouble with Lucius is that he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.”

What the book brings home is the sheer brutality of the ancient world, which it is not, unfortunately, impossible to parallel in today’s world. Worst of all of these, in many ways, was Verres’ hideous underground prison in Sicily. All of Verres’ crimes as discovered and detailed by Cicero are fact.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1945; 1992)

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There are plenty of claims on the internet that “this book saved my life” and many more that "this book changed my life". It is easy to see why.

Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist living in Austria before the Second World War. After the Anschluss, he and his whole family were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Viktor himself survived, but his parents, wife, and siblings were killed. The first part of this very short book describes, fairly briefly, his horrific experiences in the concentration camps, together with some of the reflections and lessons that he drew from them. The second part is an even briefer account of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy which he founded.

Although it is so short, the first part of the book touches on many subjects: religion and spiritualism; love; beauty; inner life; the meaning of life; death; “the last human freedom”, much quoted (“everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”); hope; time; suffering; “collective psychotherapy”; the dividing-line between good and evil; and morality. A quotation from Nietzsche is key: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Prisoners who had a reason for living were more likely to survive the starvation and brutality of the camps. Frankl’s understanding of love, which he describes almost in terms of a revelation, is perhaps the most striking of all:

But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise (...)

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."

In the second part Frankl explains the fundamental approach of logotherapy, which is the conviction of the “will to meaning” as being the most essential driving force in the human mind, more so than the will to power or the will to pleasure. He then describes how this is applied to all sorts of different situations and problems. He covers freedom and conditioning;
responsibleness, which he terms “the very essence of human existence” (“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the east coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast”); the existential vacuum; love; happiness; the meaning of suffering; the error of Freudian psychotherapy; freedom; euthanasia; “paradoxical intention” as a means of combating phobias or compulsive behaviour.

A very important point is what he calls “the self-transcendence of human existence”. He says: “What is called self-actualization [self-fulfilment] is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” Or, in the words of the Second Vatican Council often quoted by Pope John Paul II among others, “Man can only find himself through the sincere gift of self”.

Frankl says very much the same about happiness. It is not to be aimed for directly; it comes as the result of finding meaning in life.

On love, Frankl declares:

No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being until he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby - notes

Names, as always in Dickens, are often invented for comical or other effect, starting with Dotheboys Hall (apparently in one audiobook version it was pronounced to rhyme more or less with Sotheby’s – completely obscuring Dickens’ intention).

Reading Dickens takes commitment these days. He published his books as serials, and the result is what we might be tempted to see as a colossal “waste of space” (e.g. the storytelling about the Five Sisters of York and Baron Grogzwig; all the business with the Kenwigs and Mr Lillyvick; and, of course, Mrs Nickleby). Several bookclubbers listened to audiobook versions, which were really excellent as far as expression and characterisation were concerned. However, his elaborate descriptions are hugely enjoyable, e.g. of the Infant Phenomenon, who is used to show what a complete sham the theatrical world is.

Another thing that strikes the modern reader is the number of married couples: husbands and wives who, with all their faults or even wickedness, still loved each other in their way – the Squeers, the Mantalinis, the Crummles.

The Cheeryble brothers, extreme philanthropists, balance the extreme evil of Ralph Nickleby and Squeers.

Dickens’ work is modern writing in that his humour stands the test of time, and still makes readers laugh aloud; it is not staid or dated. There was a recent West End show of Nicholas Nickleby – British humour is a cultural thing, often consisting of laughing at ourselves.

Kindness and mercy are completely absent in Squeers (and Mrs Squeers). Dickens plays with horrible effect on their affection for each other in combination of their cruelty towards the boys, as when Mr Squeers is about to beat Smike for running away:
'Have you anything to say?' demanded Squeers again: giving his right arm two or three flourishes to try its power and suppleness. 'Stand a little out of the way, Mrs. Squeers, my dear; I've hardly got room enough.'
'Spare me, sir!' cried Smike.
'Oh! that's all, is it?' said Squeers. 'Yes, I'll flog you within an inch of your life, and spare you that.'

Mercy is also absent from Ralph Nickleby. He does soften slightly at the sight of Kate’s beauty and gentleness, though not much, often, or for long. The theme of mercy is brought home very tellingly by Charles Cheeryble at the end of the book: he offers mercy to Ralph, who contemptuously rejects it, only to fall prey to bitter remorse without repentance.


Connected with mercy is solidarity and brotherhood, notable especially in Nicholas’ behaviour towards Smike throughout the book.

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, 2009


This book has already been discussed and reviewed very extensively. It is a good read, convincingly written so that you can, or imagine you can, hear the Tanzanians and Rwandans speaking. It invites comparisons with Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency books, but is in a way much more serious, being set in post-genocide Kigali, with the multiple problems of “truth and justice”, Aids, malaria, orphaned street-children, and more.

A very telling aspect is how the various characters work together to rebuild Rwanda, at a very local and personal level.
Angel, the central figure, makes cakes to order. Each chapter is broadly built around a different cake, and the Cake Order Form, is one of the devices that unite the narrative into a whole. Angel also has a habit of polishing her glasses when she needs time to think; and making hot steaming mugs of sweet, spicy tea.

Parkin clearly draws very extensively on her own experience as an HIV-Aids counsellor in Kigali. What is conspicuous by its absence is any coherent notion of marriage or of the value of morality, continence, chastity or faithfulness. In the many incidents and discussions in the book which touch on weddings, marriage, and couples, there is no understanding of marriage and love as self-giving.

Certainly, Angel and Pius are faithfully married, and Angel refers with deep disapproval to the way a young woman called Linda dresses: “she had never seen a man look at Linda’s face; there were always other parts of her body that were asking more urgently to be observed.” Angel has good values, but does not reflect on them. She and Pius are Catholics, but they know that some Catholics, even nuns and priests, took part in the killing in 1994. “In Rwanda we’re simply Christians. I’m nervous of attending just one church here, of listening to just one priest. Because how can we know what is truly in that priest’s heart after so many showed that love and peace were only words in their mouths? So we attend a different church every second week; in between, we still attend our local Catholic church” (p.85).

At the very start of the book, Angel explains that when she and her husband got married (they are now grandparents), they were “pioneers” of contraception, and were careful to have only two children “so that we could afford to educate them well.” In the event, their children, having had children of their own, both lost their respective spouses and died before the start of the book, and Angel and her husband Pius are now starting all over again, bringing up their five grandchildren as their own children. The book does not point the moral, but it is actually a clear instance of how wrong-headed it is to contracept in order to have fewer children and hence more money.

A fairly important figure in the book is Jeanne d’Arc, who, having been orphaned and gang-raped during the genocide at the age of eleven, has been a prostitute for the past seven years in order to support herself, her two sisters, and a small boy they found abandoned. Angel is able to help Jeanne d’Arc in many different ways, finally putting her in touch with someone who can teach her to sew to be able to earn her living in a “safer” way. But, at the same time, she jokes with someone else about Jeanne d’Arc and her “business”. Perhaps she develops more compassion for Jeanne d’Arc in the course of the book.

Angel is able to help people in many ways in the course of her business. One often has the impression that the author had a list of themes she wanted to bring in, and worked through them – FGM, the mayibobo (street children), truthfulness to oneself and to others, Catholicism in Rwanda – chapter by chapter, through the book.

Overall it is a good read, ideal for provoking enjoyable discussions, which need to take each theme a lot deeper, with a lot more informed input, than the book itself is able to do.


Sunday, 20 March 2016

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce



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     The book is a “journey” book – Harold discovers more and more about himself as he walks from Devon to Berwick-on-Tweed, and the reader gradually finds out about the secrets in his life. It is certainly formulaic, but still very fresh. A good read, absorbing and lively: people who would not have chosen to read it themselves were surprised to find how they enjoyed it. One, in her 20s, was surprised to find herself relating to someone more than forty years older than herself. Some found Harold painfully awkward, and annoyingly so – he could not even take the step of buying proper walking-shoes. Some readers asked if this was realistic or unbelievably exaggerated, but one said she knows someone who is in fact exactly like that. As for buying walking-shoes, it underlines the fact that people have familiar, comfortable things that they will always refuse to change for something new even if it would be much better.
     Harold and Maureen both lacked the capacity for self-reflection. They actually loved each other but had no idea how to express their love, let alone develop it, and as a result each felt unloved by the other. Their love was embryonic. Interestingly enough, at the very end of the book they revert to, and replay, their first meeting; their love appears to be adolescent again, unmatured, almost reduced to the mere “chemistry” of their first attraction. But before this they have gone through the explanations and confessions that they needed to make to each other.
     Obviously, Harold’s disastrous non-relationship with his appalling parents was the reason why he could not manage his relationship with Maureen – or David. After his mother had left, his father had introduced a succession of “aunts” into the house. Then “his father had presented him with an overcoat on his sixteenth birthday and shown him the door.” (p. 158), which was why he had never even had a proper education.
**SPOILER ALERT**     David’s suicide was his attempt to destroy not only himself, but both his parents too. He was manipulative, playing each parent off against the other; he was more intelligent than either of them, but this only made him despise them. This left him deeply unhappy and led him to ruin himself with drink and drugs. Yet Harold loved David just as much as Maureen did and, twenty years on, still agonises over his loss.
      Harold blames himself for David’s suicide, and for the apparent failure of his marriage with Maureen, and for Queenie’s departure from the brewery. He is tormented by these things but, perhaps surprisingly, his self-blame does not produce bitterness in him.
     Harold’s and Maureen’s lives are extremely small, extremely narrow, but also extraordinary. “... a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time” (p.180).
The amount of detail is satisfying and not over-done. Especially, of course, the descriptions of the sky, the plants, that Harold gets more and more involved in as he walks.
     Then comes the existential question: if Maureen has lived Harold’s life for him for most of their marriage, “Then who am I?” By getting away from her, he found out. He had not had any early relationships in order to be able to work out his own self.
     It is through some of the different people Harold meets and talks to that Harold – and the reader – discover more and more about Queenie’s cancer. **SPOILER ALERT** This prepares to some extent for Harold’s actual arrival and seeing Queenie, but it is still a shock, and the reader has to ask why it has to be such a horrible one – her tongue cut out, half her throat gone, and her face ballooned with a tumour?
     Harold is non-judgemental throughout: he helped the people who confided in him by being honest and not opinionated. He has an unexpressed well of compassion within, and suffers with people’s sufferings. “... he knew that in meeting her, and listening, he was carrying another weight in his heart and he wasn’t sure how much more of that he could take” (p. 148).
     His compassion grows as he walks on: “He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other” (p. 180).
     The journey is a pilgrimage in many senses, and Harold learns the meaning of freedom of spirit, firstly in his need to be in the open, and then in his realisation that he has to get rid of all the things he is carrying with him, all the props that he has been relying on. In the end, significantly, he loses his precious compass.
     The question of religious faith runs through the book, and is never resolved, although the nuns praying for Queenie do point to the affirmative at the end of the book. “If we can’t be open, Maureen thought, if we can’t accept what we don’t know, then there really is no hope.”