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Archive for the category “books”

Pet Sematary

Pet SemataryPet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The other night they showed the film of Pet Sematary on TV, and I thought it was quite good, and stuck quite closely to the book. Well it would, since Stephen King wrote the screenplay. So after seeing the film, I thought it was time to reread the book, which I had last read about 25 years ago.

On rereading it I decided to up its rating to 5 stars. I really think it’s the best of Stephen King‘s books, and that was confirmed for me in rereading it after seeing the film. The difference in the number of stars is because I’ve come to think differently about his monsters since I first read it. I used to think that evil monsters in fiction should tell use something about the nature of evil. I suppose I was thinking that the protagonist, who is good, fights the monster, who is evil;. That, at least, is what happens in Dracula.

It was only afterwards that I really understood that in this book, as in some of other books, the monster just just a prompt to the battle of good and evil that takes place in the protagonist’s heart. I’ve written more about that in another blog post, dealing with another of Stephen King’s books that I have recently reread, here Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya.

That post also contains a review (with spoilers] of Pet Sematary, which doesn’t leave much to say about it here, other than a plot summary that doesn’t give away too much of the story.

Louis Creed, a medical doctor, gets a new job at a university clinic in Ludlow, Maine, and moves there with his wife Rachel and children Eileen aged 5 and Gage aged 18 months. They are happy in their new house, and their neighbours across the road, a retired couple, Jud and Norma Cranston, make them welcome. Behind the house is a wood, part of which is included in the Creeds’ property, but it goes on for 50 miles, and beyond the Creed land is a wilderness whose ownership is disputed between the US Federal Government, the State of Maine and the Micmac Indians. A path leads up into the woods to a pet cemetery, where generations of the children of the town have buried their pets.

Jud Cranston takes the family on a walk to the pet cemetery, and tells how he had buried his own pet dog there when he was a child. The path seems to go on beyond the cemetery, but the way is blocked by a fallen tree, and Jud Colston warns that it would be too dangerous to try to climb over it.

On his first day in his new job Louis Creed is faced with a badly injured student, who was knocked down by a car while jogging. The dying student apparently knows his name, and warns him to stay away from the pet cemetery, and above all not to go beyond it.

See also:

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Genius, shades, ancestors and more

Our literary coffee klatsch this morning was quite long, and in fact lasted well into the afternoon. I can’t remember everything that we talked about or all the books that were mentioned, and I’m writing this mainly to confirm a couple of half-remembered titles. And this will be a blog post in the original sense of the word — a web log, with lots of links to click on if you want to know more

David Levey said he had been reading a lot of short stories lately, mainly science-fiction. Among them was an anthology by Brian Aldiss, A Science Fiction Omnibus.

The story that particularly struck him was The Answer by Fredric Brown, and he mentioned that another in the anthology has a metaphysical significance: Sole Solution by Eric Frank Russell, in which a deity comes into being, experiencing excruciating loneliness. He/she/it creates infinite worlds and creatures to escape this condition.

About a dozen other short SF stories have religious resonances, collected in other anthologies, They are by luminaries such as Arthur C Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God, and Isaac Asimov, The Last Question and Hell-Fire. The finest, though, is by Ursula K le Guin, The Field of Vision. An astronaut sees God, and goes not only mad but blind.

Janneke Weidema had brought along a book of essays by John Woolman, and was particularly impressed with what he had written about Quakers and slaves. He had said that Quakers should not own slaves. Not only was slavery bad for the slaves, it was bad for the slave owners as well, and dehumanised both.

Literary Coffee Klatsch at Cafe 41 on Eastwood Road. Left to Right: Val Hayes, Tony McGregor, Janneke Weidema, David Levey

Val mentioned The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which we had both read, a story of a person’s life pieced together from diaries, letters, newspaper cuttings etc., some real, some fictional. The protagonist was an associate of a famous artist, Diego Rivera, who sheltered Trotsky when he was on the run from Stalin, and it gives one a feel for some aspects of the history of the period.

That reminded me of another similar story with a local flavour, Recessional for Grace, by Marguerite Poland — A student of African languages comes across an incomplete dictionary of African cattle terms, and decides to write on it for her doctoral thesis. As she does her research, however, she becomes more and more interested in the compiler, a Dr C.J. Godfrey, who died in 1963, and her research tends towards biography, which disconcerts her supervisor. She visits the place where he was born, and the school he attended, and the place where he did his research, and also becomes interested in his relationship with Mrs Grace Wilmot, a war widow and teacher at the local school, who assisted him in his research. The cattle and their names are gradually revealed as a metaphor for love. The descriptions in the book range from very accurate to sloppily researched. Rural shops are described in evocative detail, but with the Methodist Church it is all wrong.

Another one by the same author, also set in the Eastern Cape, was Shades, also a historical novel, and an “eternal triangle” love story.

Another one I had read recently was The Writer’s Voice: A Workshop for Writers in Africa, by Dorian Haarhoff, which stressed the need for people who did not think they could write to tell their stories.

I noted in my review that the author had several motivational anecdotes designed to inspire people to write, but which I found interesting in their own right, as things to write about. One of these was the ancient Roman concept of Genius,, which Haarhoff mentioned in passing was similar to African concepts of ancestor veneration. “If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living”.

I recalled learning about lares and penates in Latin lessons at school, but had not made the link between them and the genius. The lares were particularly associated with the hearth, and that seemed to me remarkably similar to the Zulu belief that one could meet one’s deceased grandfather, sometimes in the form of a snake, by the fireplace (isiko). And perhaps this is related to the biblical account of Rachel and her father’s gods (Genesis 31:17-55).

I was aware that one reason that early Christians were persecuted because they refused to worship the Genius of Caesar — they were not expected to worship the flesh and blood emperor. Only one emperor thought he was a god in his flesh and blood, Caligula, and even his contemporaries knew that he was nuts.

But the concept of genius is interesting, and I found more about it in another book I had just returned to the library, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes and Goblins: an Encyclopedia of the Little People, by Carol Rose.

There was the Russian concept of domovoi, the household spirit that lived by the stove. In Russia, with its cold winters the stove is a much bigger affair than the Zulu isiko, but the principle is the same. And in the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson at least one of the books mentions “the ancestor behind the stove”.

All this puts me in mind of the “little gods” referred to in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the Christian concept of guardian angels.  And perhaps egregores, too (clicking that link will take you to a lot of stuff).

On the theme of ancestors, and also with links to the Eastern Cape, Janneke Weidema spoke of someone South African Quakers regarded as a spiritual ancestor, Richard Gush of Salem. Guy Butler had written a play about him. Another whom they regarded as a spiritual ancestor was King Moshoeshoe I of Lesotho, That caused a few raised eyebrows among the rest of us — Richard Gush was a Quaker, King Moshoeshoe wasn’t, in his lifetime at least. Did the Quakers, like the Mormons, admit people to membership after death. Janneke hastened to assure us that that was not the case. But Moshoeshoe was a peaceable monarch, and so was regarded as an ancestor in the genealogy of ideas. David mentioned the Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who had said that good pagans were “anonymous Christians” as a possibly similar idea. Tony mentioned a booklet he had been reading, Islam is…, which said, in effect that everyone is a Muslim only they don’t know it yet. It also said that Islam did not condone war.

Tony had also been reading books by Bishop John Robinson, most recently In the end, God. Tony thought I didn’t like John Robinson, but that’s not quite true. I think when he writes in his own field, the New Testament, his books are quite good. It’s when he strays into dogmatic theology that I disagree, because I think he represents Bourgeois theology | Khanya.

We strayed into lots of other topics not directly concerned with books. Among these topics was politics, and we thought that with a general election looming in 2019, we were all wishing that someone would start a party we could vote for. None of the existing main parties seem any good. Janneke summed them up with a simple phrase: Job Creation, Livlihood Destruction.

 

The Writer’s Voice

The Writer's Voice: A workbook for writers in AfricaThe Writer’s Voice: A workbook for writers in Africa by Dorian Haarhoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about writing and encouraging people to write. I’ve read or looked at quite a number of these over the last few years, and you can find lots of advice for aspiring writers on the Web as well. I glance at a few of them when they appear in my Twitter feed, but there is a remarkable sameness about them all. I suspect that the writers of advice for writers have read very little other than books of advice to writers, and rehash it in blog articles and the like. I think if any aspiring writers took that advice seriously, all novels would be boring and formulaic, and eventually no one would read fiction anymore.

This one is somewhat different. For a start it is written for people in Southern Africa, and it is urging people who wouldn’t normally think of writing to tell their stories. I think that is a laudable aim. The convoluted history of Southern Africa over the last 70 years is a story that needs to be told if we are to make sense of it and of our lives, and it needs to be told from many different viewpoints.

So it lacks the usual advice on how to start your novel in the middle of things, with startling and violent events, and let the explanation of them percolate through afterwards. It also is a bit thin on practical advice on how to prepare your manuscript for publication and send it to a publisher. Perhaps that is wise, because such information easily becomes dated.

So much of the book is motivational, where to find your inspiration. And there are many different ways and places to find inspiration, so most readers of the book will find at least a few that may inspire them. Many of them are designed for use in a group, and so they won’t appeal to the solitary reader of the book.

One of the motivational stories he gives is of the writer’s genius. The Romans believed in the idea of a genius. The genius, a personal spirit, arrived at birth. And it carried a person’s full potential. He offers this quote:

The genius was considered a birthright, but it had to be nourished in order to survive… the ancient Roman was expected to make a birthday sacrifice to his or her genius. If one served one’s genius well during life, the genius became a lar, or household god, after one’s death. If one neglected one’s potential the genius became a spook, a troublesome spirit who plagues the living (Dove 1995:17).

The myth is not so far removed from some African belief systems. I believe we are born with a writer’s genius, a writer’s potential. For those of us who are literate, this belief contains a challenge which John Irving the novelist, calls ‘the necessary strict toiling with the language.’

I quite liked that, but I would be inclined to use it in a different way — to incororporate a genius into my story, rather than use it as an inspiration for a story.
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The Sword of Shannara

The Sword of ShannaraThe Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve seen books in the Shannara series around in bookshops and libraries for many years, but they never seemed to have the first book so I always gave it a miss. Then I found this one in the library, and I thought it might be worth a look to see what it was about, quite soon after reading Stephen King’s comment that if The Lord of the Rights had been written in “sword and sorcery” style, Sauron would have been the hero.

This one wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t very good either. I’ve read a couple of others in the genre — Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is one, but this one was a bit better than that.

I suppose the point of comparison with The Lord of the Rings is that this is a quest novel — a group of people are assembled by a mysterious figure (A Druid called Allanon in this case) to go on a long journey with many adventures on the way try to get hold of a mysterious talisman (the eponymous Sword of Shannara) before the bad guy does.

The world in which the story takes place is both over-described and under-described. Desolate places are described rather unconvincingly at great length — marshes and dry places in which nothing lives. But it is not until page 512 (of 664 in my edition) that there is any inkling that this world has horses, cavalry and wheeled vehicles. Until that point all travel seems to be on foot.

There are other odd inconsistencies — when those on the quest come to the Druid castle, which has just been captured by hostile gnomes, they find all the empty underground passages conveniently lighted by torches, and one wonders who lit them and replaced the torches when they burnt out. In the land there are four races, Men, Trolls, Gnomes and Dwarfs, but in various places they are all described as men or as human beings.

Not a very bad read, but not a very good one either. I don’t think I’ll be looking for the rest of the trilogy.

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Did Not Finish — books only half-read

It seems that lots of readers on GoodReads are using the Did Not Finish or DNF shelf. In my GoodReads shelving I’ve used Abandoned for such books. The 15 Most Common Books Never Finished, According To Goodreads:

Deciding not to finish a book can be a freeing experience. Our time as readers is limited and there are SO MANY good books out there. Choosing to DNF (or “did not finish” a book) isn’t an indictment of the book itself—usually—but a necessary aspect of the reader’s life nowadays. Some books, though, get DNFed more often than others.

What I would like to see is GoodReads making that shelf, or tag, official, like Read, Currently Reading and Want to Read. At the moment I’ve got a whole bunch of them sitting on my Currently Reading because I haven’t read them and I don’t want to read them, so I must be currently reading them, only I’m not.

When I read the article cited above two books that I hadn’t finished immediately sprang to mind: Jane Eyre and War and Peace. I could look at my Abandoned shelf to find more, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind. We actually have two copies of War and Peace — one, whose cover is illustrated here, and a much older single volume edition. Perhaps I should try the older translation, because one of the things I didn’t like about the translation by Rosemary Edmonds was the rendering of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy as “Mass”. I also found the notion of the spirituality of Freemasons rather alien, though perhaps they were different in Russia in 1812 from what they were in South Africa a hundred years later, when most of our grandfathers seemed to be involved in Freemasonry. My picture of Freemasons is solemn moustachioed stout gents in Edwardian suits with waistcoats and silver watch chains wearing fancy aprons, with all the spirituality of a bourgeois grocer.

Anyway I pulled out my copy to check the ISBN, and found my bookmark still in place on page 522 where I had stopped reading, two-thirds of the way through volume 1.

I checked some of the other books on my Abandoned shelf and found Underworld by Don DeLillo, The story of the last thought by Edgar Hilsenrath — I must admit that I was attracted to that one by its cover, a good example of why one should not judge a book by its cover.

Others were The Shack by William Paul Young, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Inklings by Melanie M. Jeschke, and The Information by Martin Amis.

Also sundry books by Charlotte Bingham, which I had bought in error, perhaps because we had enjoyed a book called Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, and I’d later confused it with the name of the author of a number of mediocre novels. We released them into the wild on BookCrossing, and no one has responded saying they’d found and enjoyed them, so they must have ended up in the well of lost plots.

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

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Things fall apart

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a short novel set in eastern Nigeria in the late 19th century. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a man of renown in his village, first as a wrestler, and then as a self-made man who has worked hard to attain a position of respect in the community. But he is also hot tempered and something of a domestic tyrant over his family. He despises weakness in others, and in himself.

The traditional way of life of the village is disturbed by the coming of white men — missionaries, traders and colonial rulers. Okonkwo does not like the social changes they bring to the village, and urges others to resist them, but this resistance, and the manner of it, bring about his downfall.

The first half of the story is fairly static. It describes the village and its social life, the seasons of planting and harvesting, in a manner reminiscent of George Eliot. It enables the reader to experience something of the atmosphere of rural life. To readers from elsewhere, the description makes the unfamiliar become familiar. The main crops may be unknown in other places, but we are told enough about the farming methods to become familiar with the rhythms of rainy seasons and dry seasons, seed-time and harvest, and thus to appreciate something of the shock of social change when it comes.

As a missiologist and church historian I found the social change wrought by the missionaries particularly interesting. There are two missionaries in the story, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, The names are generic, deliberately so, I think. They represent two types of missionaries, and two different approaches to Christian mission in the 19th century.

The first, Mr Brown, represents the missionaries who preceded the New Imperialism of the 1870s and later. He is interested in the culture of the local people, and has religious discussions with them. I think this part is worth quoting in full, as it has much to say about Christian mission in general, and is thus of interest to missiologists:

(Mr Brown) made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on his frequent visits to the neighbouring villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. One of the great men in that village was called Akunna and he had given one of his sons to be taught the white man’s knowledge in Mr Brown’s school.

Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other, but they learnt more about their different beliefs.

‘You say that there is one supreme God who made heaven and earth,’ said Akunna on one of Mr Brown’s visits. ‘We also believe in him and call him Chukwu. He made all the world and the other gods.’

‘There are no other gods,’ said Mr Brown. ‘Chukwu is the only God and all the others are false. You carve a piece of wood — like that one’ (he pointed at the rafters from which Akunna’s carved Ikenga hung), ‘and you call it a god, but it is still a piece of wood.’

‘Yes,’ said Akunna, ‘It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church.’

‘No,’ protested Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church is God himself.’

‘I know,’ said Akunna, ‘but there must be a head in this world among men. Somebody like yourself must be the head here.’

‘No,’ said Mr Brown. ‘The head of my church in that sense is in England.’

‘That is exactly what I am saying. The head of your church is in your country, He has sent you here as his messenger. And you have also appointed your own messengers and servants. Or let me take another example, the District Commissioner. He is sent by your king.’

‘They have a Queen,’ said the interpreter on his own account.

‘Your queen sends her messenger, the District Commissioner. He finds that he cannot do the work alone and so he appoints kotma to help him. It is the same with God, or Chukwu. He appoints the smaller gods to help him because the work is too great for one person.’

‘You should not think of his as a person,’ said Mr Brown. ‘It is because you do so that you imagine that he must need helpers. And the worst thing about it is that you give all the worship to the false gods you have created.’

‘That is not so. We make sacrifices to the little gods, but when they fail and there is no one else to turn to we go to Chukwu. It is right to do so. We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them because we are afraid to worry their master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka — “Chukwu is Supreme.’

‘You said one interesting thing,’ said Mr Brown. ‘You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do his will.’

‘But we must fear him when we are not doing his will,’ said Akunna. ‘And who is to tell his will? It is too great to be known.’

In Achebe’s report of these discussions, which is probably a condensed report of thousands of such conversations, it strikes me that Mr Brown’s interlocutor, Akunna, had a better grasp of Christian theology than Mr Brown himself had.

Last week I heard someone speaking about Christianity in relation to Graeco-Roman and ancient Egyptian paganism, and some of the issues that arose from that seem remarkably similar. Mr Brown and Akunna represent two different approaches, and in Things fall apart the first approach, that the gods of the pagans are human inventions, is presented as Christian, and the second, that there is a great God, the Creator, who made the little gods, is presented as pagan. That was also the approach of the speaker I heard on Friday. But if we read the Christian holy scriptures, we can find both approaches.

Akunna’s remarks seem to echo Psalm 94/95:3 — For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods; or, in the Septuagint, ὅτι θεὸς μέγας κύριος καὶ βασιλεὺς μέγας ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς θεούς·.

This is seen even more clearly in Psalm 81/82, which is sung with great jubilation in Orthodox Churches on Holy Saturday, and perhaps indicates the line that Mr Brown should have taken with Akunna — that the little gods have messed up. They have ruled the nations unjustly, and the Psalmist prays “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations.”

And just before his death Jesus announces that he has come in answer to that very prayer: Now is the hour of judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out, and I when I am lifted up, shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32)

That’s not what Akunna said, but it’s not what Mr Brown said either. Mr Brown missed the point.

This can be seen more clearly in Deuteronomy 32, where both approaches can be seen. In verses:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

That implies that while all the nations had their own national spirits (Akunna’s “little gods”), Israel alone could by-pass the middle man, and approach the Almighty directly. The “to Thee belong all nations” cry in Psalm 81/82 is a plea that this will come to an end, and when Jesus says he will draw “all men” to himself, he is saying that the time has come. That is why mission organisations in the Orthodox Church use the slogan “panta ta ethne” — “all nations”.

Also interesting is that Akunna speaks of the little gods as “messengers” of the great King above all gods, and the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

ὅτε διεμέριζεν ὁ ὕψιστος ἔθνη, ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Αδαμ, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, καὶ ἐγενήθη μερὶς κυρίου λαὸς αὐτοῦ Ιακωβ, σχοίνισμα κληρονομίας αὐτ

When the Most High divided the nations, he divided them according to the number of the angels (ie messengers) of God. In other words, the little gods are angels, or messengers of God, which Mr Brown failed to recognise, though Akunna knew it.

And back in the second century St Justin Martyr explained that the pagan gods of ancient Greece and Rome were angels, albeit fallen ones, as the Psalmist laments in Psalm 81/82. But I’ve written more about that here.

Though Mr Brown had his shortcomings, however, he also had his good points. It was missionaries of Mr Brown’s type who, earlier in the century, had consecrated Samuel Adjai Crowther, a freed Yoruba slave, as a bishop in western Nigeria.

Mt Smith, who followed Mr Brown, represents the new-style missionaries who came after the New Imperialism. They were more confident in themselves, more convinced of their own superiority, and less willing to learn anything from the local people. They were generally racist, and denounced their predecessors who had consecrated a native bishop in the person of Samuel Adjai Crowther, saying that it was premature, and the natives “weren’t ready for it”. For the Mr Smiths it would take centuries if not millennia of white tutelage before Africans were ready for a black bishop.

The Mr Smith-type of missionary was dominant until 1914, when the First World War shook European complacency and the tide of the New Imperialism began to recede. Achebe doesn’t take us that far, however. He just shows us the effect that it has on Okonkwo.

Achebe also shows how colonialism introduced or exacerbated corruption in African society, and how Christian mission became entangled with colonialism. If these things were unique to one small part of eastern Nigeria, it would perhaps make the novel less interesting, but in its very particularity, the story is universal. The society may change, its economy may change, but rural societies have often undergone such changes. The detailed descriptions at the beginning enable the reader from a different culture to feel at home in the society, to feel that it is not so strange. I’ve never seen or tasted a yam, but in reading the book I become aware that yams in that society play the same role as mealies in southern Africa, or wheat in England, or oats in Scotland. Achebe does that particularly well.

I find it interesting that one can learn quite a lot of missiology from works of fiction like this book. There are others that come to mind as well. The Poisonwood Bile by Barbara Kingsolver tells of an American missionary in what is now the Democratic Republic of congo, who is a Mr Smith-type missionary, and fails to come to terms with the local culture, and all the members of his family make their own different adaptations. Another that deals with modern mission, this time in South America, is At play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiesen. In all these instances the missionaries have been immersed in modern culture, and come unstuck when they encounter premodern culture.

For a novel that deals with premodern missionaries and premodern people, an interesting one is Credo by Melvin Bragg.

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The crystal skull

2012: The Crystal Skull2012: The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps this would have been more interesting if I had read it before 21 December 2012, when, according to the author and several other people, the world was supposed to end. It’s set in two different periods, the 16th century and the 21st century. In the earlier period the possessor of a crystal skull hides it in a cave, and in the later one someone discovers it in the cave, and has the task of taking it to its proper place in preparation for 21 December 2012, when it will combine forces with 12 similar skulls in different parts of the world to create a magical dragon or worm, the Ouroboros, which will either save or destroy the world.

The theme of legendary artefacts playing a part in a current adventure is quite common, and this particular one, of the crystal skulls, also featured in one of the Indiana Jones films. The notion that crystal skulls were ancient Mayan artefacts has been refuted, but that should not get in the way of a good story. As a McGuffin a crystal skull is as good as any. but the problem with this book does not lie in the choice of McGuffin, but rather in the characters and plot.

The 21st-century characters are followed to the cave where the skull lies hidden by someone sinister whose who attacks them, but whose identity and motives are only revealed at the end. But the behaviour is unexplained and the motives ring hollow. Much is made of the injuries and medical treatment of the victims of the mysterious attacker, but the role of this villain seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. In an Indiana Jones-type scenario, there must be villains, so the villains pop up at intervals, but just when they have done their worst the scene jumps to the other century, and by the time one gets back to the aftermath of the attack, the details have been forgotten. What was it that happened that this character ended up in hospital? Oh, a fire? Or was it a fall in a cave?

The 16th-century characters are even more confusing. They fear being arrested and charged with “heresy”, but just what that heresy might have been is not clear. They are given hospitality by a Jesuit missionary who is portrayed as both welcoming and a threat, and this ambiguity is never resolved. They are pursued by Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, for clear reasons that are irrelevant to the plot, and the relevant reasons are unclear.

So one is left with the impression that the crystal skull is the protagonist, and the human characters are mere props. But at least that fits with the title of the book.

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I heard the old men say

I Heard The Old Men SayI Heard The Old Men Say by Lawrence G. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished a long leisurely read through of this book by Lawrence G. Green. I classify it as history because he explores some historical byways of the Cape Peninsula, but more as a journalist than as a historian. As a journalist he must have kept copious notebooks, and draws on some of this material in his writing, but this particular book was sparked off by his purchase of a second-hand guide to the city of Cape Town, published in 1904.

He goes well beyond the guide book, however, telling stories about old people and houses of the city, its trees and flowers, its hotels and restaurants, its vaults and kramats, its churches and their bells. He is always on the lookout for forgotten mysteries, secrets that can be told when all the people involved have died, and so on. In these mysteries he is more inclined to titillate the reader than to be strictly historically accurate, so what he writes always needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Green claims to have solved three historical mysteries.

(1) Was Governor Simon van der Stel a coloured man.
(2) Was George Rex of Knysna an illegitimate son of King George III?
(3) Was a certain cottage the place where Dutch troops signed articles of surrender to the British in 1806?

Green concludes that Simon van der Stel was coloured, that George Rex was probably an illegitimate son of George III, and that the treaty was signed at the cottage.

I’m not sure about (1) and (3), but I have my doubts about (2). Green ignores all the historical evidence and reaches his conclusion on the Rex royal descent based on the supposed physical resemblances between George Rex’s family and that of George III.

My wife Val’s Green family has a similar legend of royal descent of her ancesttor William John Green, which Lawrence G. Green (no relation) has also dealt with in two of his other books, Thunder on the Blaauberg and Lords of the last frontier. A lot of the stories about that are also based on supposed physical resemblances, but the legend has been pretty conclusively refuted — a man could not be the father of a child born in Quebec if he only arrived there in the year following the child’s birth.

But even if Lawrence Green’s conclusion was off, not everything he wrote about those events was untrue, and his accounts contained a lot of useful family information that might have been lost if he had not preserved it. You can read more about our royal legend here Mystery cousins and royal legends | Hayes & Greene family history.

Zonnebloem College today

In this book Green also reveals more of his own political and social opinions than he does in most of his other books. In most of his books he seems to be studiously apolitical, perhaps to avoid offendi9ng the racist sentiments of at least some of his readers. But this one is more revealing. In his chapter on places of execution in Cape Town he emphasises how strongly opposed he is to capital pinishment. And he also notes that at the beginning of the 20th century Zonnebloem College was a beacon of nonracial education. That was at the height of the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, when racism was at its height of approval, and so I was rather surprised to read it.

I think what Green Green (1964:185) has to say about Zonnebloem is worth quoting:

Zonnebloem, on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, a wine farm early in the eighteenth century, has survived because it was bought by Bishop Gray and used for the education of the sons of native chiefs. The wine cellar became a chapel. Girl boarders now occupy the old slave quarters.

White students attended Zonnebloem for many years, and one who left in 1906 wrote as follows, “Zonnebloem has peculiar characteristics of its own. Among these is the unrivalled opportunity it gives for becoming acquainted with a variety of people, habits and characters. How cosmopolitan Zonnebloem has always been! There have always been representatives of many peoples — Zulus, Xosas, Pondos, Basutos, Barotses, Bechuanas, Balolongs, Matabeles, Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Dutchmen from Holland as well as from the Transvaal and a host of others. Yet there is never discord, but perfect unity between all, each respecting the other.”

Perhaps it is appropriate to recall this now, as Zonnebloem College has just celebrated its 160th anniversary.
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A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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