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Archive for the category “books”

Tulku (book review)

TulkuTulku by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just read it for the third time. Perhaps that should make me an expert on the book, but reading it at intervals of 19 years meant that I don’t remember much from one reading to the next.

Theodore Tewker, orphaned 13-year-old son of an American missionary in China, meets up with an Englishwoman who is collecting botanical specimens. They travel together to Tibet (which at that time was independent of China) and spend some time at a Buddhist monastery. That much I remember from two readings, and I could have learnt it from the blurb. So it was like reading it for the first time.

I’ve read other books by Peter Dickinson, and as with this one, I find it had to remember the plot. The others were children’s books, and I remember that one of them was about Merlin, and that it reminded me a bit of That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, which I have also read several times, but in that case I remember the plot pretty well. So that is an interesting phenomenon. I re-read C.S. Lewis’s books, even though I am familiar with the plot, for the small details and nuances that I may have missed on previous readings. One such in That Hideous Strength was a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes — see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

But Tulku I re-read not for the finer details, but because I had forgotten the broad outlines of the plot. I would like to re-read some of Dickinson’s other children’s books, but neither bookshop nor library seems to have them.

Tulku isn’t exactly a children’s book, though the protagonist, Theodore, is a child bang in the middle of puberty. At least it doesn’t feel like a children’s book. If my recollections of being that age are accurate, then I suppose my thought processes were pretty similar to Theodore’s, but I didn’t really take much time to reflect on my thought processes, and reading this book at age 13 would lay on me the demand that I did.

The other day a 13-year-old asked a question on the question-and-answer web site Quora, saying that he preferred to read adult books and found children’s books boring. And I dare say he might have found Tulku boring too. When I was 13 I read an “adult” book, The Wages of Fear by Georges Arnaud. I found it was gripping stuff, and made me think I wanted to be a lorry driver when I grew up. I wanted to see the film, but it had an age restriction — no persons 4-16 — but I persuaded my mother to take me to see it, and pretended I was 16. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as the book, and I was mystified by the age restriction. But my comment to the 13-year-old who found children’s books boring was that he might enjoy them more when he was older. And I suspect that that may be the case with Tulku.

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Some books we read in 2019

At our first literary coffee klatsch of 2020 we listed some of the books we had read towards the end of 2019, and there was quite a variety. I mentioned Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, which Janneke Weidema had mentioned at an earlier meeting, and that had got me interested. She said she had liked the story of Solly Mahlangu using the government’s rand-for-rand scheme to provide better schools in KwaNdebele.

I mentioned some of the other books I had been reading recently, most of which were covered in reviews on my blogs — see here:

The last of these, Be born in us today by Anglican bishop John Davies was designed to be used by parish study groups on the meaning of Christmas, and I had been reading it as a Christmas book. Janneke said she had been reading What Quakers believe, but after reading it she still wasn’t sure that she knew any more about what Quakers believe. She said they might be using it for a study group in their Quaker meeting.

Johnnie Aukamp mentioned and recommended The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, which deals with Nazi tyranny. He also mentioned a book called The Cheese and the Worms, but I forgot to note the author, so I am not sure if it was this one or this one. He had also read The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein.

On of the first books I have started reading this year is one by Johnnie Aukamp himself, though I’m not sure whether I should mention the title, as he wrote it under a pseudonym. But one of the interesting features of this book is that it mentioned a fictitious ancient manuscript which was an important key to the story.

The fictitious ancient document is quite a common trope in fantasy literature, and one of the ones that springs to mind for me is the De Angelis of Marcellus Victorinus of Bologna, published in the year 1514. at Paris, and dedicated to Leo X. Someone has tagged it in the linked catalogue entry as “practical joke”.

The De Angelis is mentioned in The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, where it appears to be a commentary on a commentary on The Celestial Hierarchy by Dionysius of the Areopagite. In it, Williams seems to throw considerable light on the role of eagles in the writings of his fellow-Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, though it was actually first published in 1931, before The Hobbit, so perhaps Tolkien was influenced by Williams in his use of eagles.

Val recalled that our son Simon, like one of the characters in The Place of the Lion, used to work in a bookshop, and one day a man came into the shop and asked for a copy of a book by Professor Robert Langdon. It may have been The Symbology of Secret Sects, or possibly The Art of the Illuminati, which was cited in The da Vinci code by Dan Brown. But whatever the title was, Simon pointed out that it was a fictitious book. The customer got quite angry, and pointed at the mention of it in The da Vinci code. Simon pointed out that The da Vinci code was itself a work of fiction, and just because a book was mentioned there did not mean that the book actually existed.

Something similar happened a few years earlier: Professor Irving Hexham, of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary said something similar had happened in connection with H.P. Lovecraft’s fictitious work, the Necronomicon, and some had even built a new religious movement on it. For more on that see C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me | Khanya.

Val and I had both read and enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a science fiction book about a time-travelling history student — more in my review at Time travelling historian gets stuck in the past | Khanya.

We also discussed reading in general, and changes in language and the meaning of words. Most of us had enjoyed books by authors like Enid Blyton as children, and though she was not a brilliant author and her writing had many flaws, her books instilled in us a love of reading, and I recalled a lot of things I had learnt from them that I had not realised I had learnt, like some commonly used idiomatic phrases like “the coast is clear”. For a fuller list of such idioms see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground.

Be born in us today

Be Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation TodayBe Born in Us Today: the Message of the Incarnation Today by John Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known John Davies for 60 years. Back in 1959 he was a parish priest of a somewhat distant, largely rural parish in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, and he came a couple of times to speak to students at Wits Univeresity. On one of those occasions he spoke about Christian art, but I have forgotten the other. A couple of years later he spoke to students from all over South Africa on the topic of Religion versus God, and I remember quite a lot of what he said then, as it had an enormous influence on my theological understanding. It was reinforced seven years later by reading For the life of the world by Father Alexander Schmemann.

That makes it a bit difficult to review a book he has written, since his thinking has influenced my own thinking to such an extent that it is difficult to be objective and critical. So let the reader beware.

This book, as the title suggests, is about Christmas, the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of the Incarnation. What do we mean when we say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, both divine and human? The book is intended to be used by parish study groups, and so is divided into chapters with a scripture passage relating to the birth of Christ, intended to be read aloud by several voices,. a brief meditation on the passage, and suggestions for discussion and activities at the end.

But at the beginning there is an introduction, where John Davies describes his first Christmas as a parish priest, which shaped the understanding that lies behind the book, and is perhaps the most useful part to concentrate on in a review.

The parish was in what is now Mpumalanga, and in it there was a gold mine, and the Christmas service was in the hostel for black miners. They normally held the service in a classroom, but it was locked up with many people being away for Christmas, so they had it in the miners’ common room, which was also occupied by some of the fowls the miners kept. Davies writes:

My most abiding memory of that Christmas is of a candle-lit congregation singing the praises of the coming of Christ in half-a-dozen different languages, accompanied by the intermittent complaints of poultry whose sleep-pattern had been so strangely disturbed,

He notes some of the things that struck him about that service, which helped to shape his understanding of the scriptural texts (I can only give a much abbreviated version here).

  • It happened in a borrowed room, an annexe to a public meeting place.
  • It was a hidden event, not publicized much in advance.
  • It happened in the dark. Few people saw or understood what was happening; most were asleep.
  • It happened in the company of farmyard creatures, humanity’s close companions.
  • It happened among people who were poor and voteless non-citizens. They were not “simple” or “ordinary” people; most of them were people of valuable skill and courage in the gold-mining industry, but they were people of no status within the systems controlled by the political and economic dominances of the day.
  • It was an occasion which affirmed the value of material things; bread and alcoholic drink could both be sources of argument and fighting and killing; but here they were being claimed as ways for God to be present among people.

There are many other parallels that Davies notes. He notes that they are all history, but they are slanted history. They are selective, and were written down forty years after the event, just as the gospel stories of the Nartivity were themselves written down about 40 years after the events themselves. The details he notes are not recorded anywhere else.

There will be no reference to that Christmas gathering in the archives of the mine administration, or in those of the Magisterial District of Bethal in the Transvaal. There are all sorts of assumptions in what I have written… I have recorded the event because of its meaning to me. I cannot be sure that my understanding of the regulations concerning the use of mine property is correct, or that I have remembered accurately the conditions on which non-mine-employees were allowed on the site. I cannot even be sure what sorts of bread and wine were used or what the sermon was about. But my purpose is not to give a specimen of the social history of the mine, but to give an account of what I believe to have been an example of God’s presence in the world. On that basis, and only on that basis, judge my story. Similarly, we do not go to Luke to get details of the Roman taxation system, or to Matthew to get astronomical information. We go to find something concerning the meaning and manner of God’s presence in the world.

And that is what this book is about.

Theology, science, alternative history, literature

In our literary coffee klatch this month we discussed a fairly wide range of books, some of which I have blogged about separately in a discussion of teaching theology and literature in a Bible college or seminary.

David Levey had been reading nonfiction for a change and kicked off with a book about Galileo, science and religion, written by a Wits professor of astronomy, God and Galileo by David L. Block. It was based on an old letter in the Vatican archives that few people had looked at, and threw new light on debates about science and religion.

I too have been reading nonfiction — currently The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I should have read it 50 years ago, but only saw it in the library this week. I had always thought it was fiction, and indeed it was in the fiction shelves of the library, but I then discovered that Tom Wolfe had written his first fiction work about 20 years later, and this was in fact a kind of journalistic look at the hippie drug scene of the late 1960s. The other nonfiction book I am reading is Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, from which I have been learning a great deal. I’ll comment more on these when I’ve finished reading them. We had discussed Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch at one of our earlier gatherings, and David mentioned another book that dealt with lives of sharecroppers in South Africa. These books throw a lot of light on current debates about land.

Val has been re-reading historical novels, especially ones by C.J. Sansom, dealing with the period of the English Reformation and the reign of King Henry VIII. The first of the series is called Dissolution, and deals with the dissolution of the monasteries (my review here)..Sansom wrote a series featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, but has also written historical novels set in other periods, such as the Spanish Civil War, and also, in a slightly different  genre, Alternative History, or the historical might have beens, Dominion, predicated on a successful German invasion of Britain in World War II (my review here)..

While discussing the alternative history genre David mentioned SS-GB by Len Deighton, and we had both recently read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which we had both found disappointing (my review here). David said that the second volume of that series was coming out soon, and promised better things. It is The Secret Commonwealth. We mentioned other books where sequels had proved disappointing, like the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, and William Horwood’s Duncton series, where everything after the first book was disappointing. That one, and many of the others, seemed like cases of a publisher pushing a reluctant author who had run out of inspiration. And for those who like Alternative History, David recommended the What might have been series by Gregory Benford.

For the rest of what we discussed, see here.


Not The Shack

Waking LazarusWaking Lazarus by T.L. Hines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library the blurb looked quite interesting and I was in a hurry so I grabbed it. When I got home and began to read it, I began to have misgivings. A “Christian” book about abducted children from an evangelical publisher… was it going to be a re-run of The Shack. To my relief, it wasn’t. I found The Shack utterly twee and cringeworthy, a novel, ostensibly for adults, written in the style of Enid Blyton.

But it turned out to be quite readable, with some nice plot twists, a whodunit that keep the reader guessing, and with some strong elements of fantasy, and not too preachy. .

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Ghost stories by authors surnamed James

The House on Cold Hill (House on Cold Hill, #1)The House on Cold Hill by Peter James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read a book of ghost stories by Henry James (see my review here) and was somewhat less than impressed. I had previously read one of the stories, “The Turn of the Screw”, and found the style convoluted and almost unreadable. It wasn’t improved on a second reading. I was in the library looking for ghost stories by Montague James, whose stories are said to be better, but they didn’t have any, but next to Henry James on the shelf was Peter James, and so I took out The House on Cold Hill.

I know Peter James primarily as a writer of detective stories featuring detective Roy Grace in Brighton in the south of England. I’d read a couple of Peter James’s non-detective stories before, and had not been very impressed. I thought he would do better to stick to crime fiction. But The House on Cold Hill is different. And I was not disappointed. When it comes to authors surnamed “James”, Peter undoubtedly writes better ghost stories than Henry. For a start they are written in plain English, where you don’t have to read every sentence three times to try to puzzle out the author’s meaning.

I suppose they could also be classified as horror. Not all ghost stories are scary. Some are meant to be scary but fail; this one succeeds. I was reminded of Phil Rickman, who began writing stories in the supernatural horror genre and gradually shifted to writing crime stories. Perhaps Peter James is on the opposite route — having started writing whodunits, he is now writing ghost stories like the early Phil Rickman. I’ll be looking out for more like this. I won’t say that Peter James is the new Phil Rickman, but perhaps he’s the old one revived, like an old ghost.

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The Müller-Fokker Effect

The Müller-Fokker EffectThe Müller-Fokker Effect by John Sladek

A couple of weeks ago I read Singularity, which is about a hypotheitcal moment when computers surpass human intelligence and human consciousness. That reminded me of this book, which I read 45 years ago, since it is also about digitising human consciousness. So I thought I would re-read this one to remind me what it was about, and to compare it with the kind of things people are saying about “the Singularity”

In this book Bob Shairp works for National Arsenamid, and is transferred to a different branch where his new task is to be the guinea-pig in an experiment to see if it is possible to back up a human being on tape. The recording process is under way when some white supremacists break into the lab, convinced that it is an attempt to transplant a nigger brain into a white man, so they kill Bob, and the tapes are dispersed. One of them falls into the hands of an evangelist, who captures himself on it and programs an android to preach for him when he is ill or would rather be doing something else. Another falls into the hands of the military.

Bob’s son, Spot, is sent to a military school where he is desperately unhappy, and his mother goes into advertising, where she meets a salesman for a process of freezing people. Bob Shairp has a series of bizarre adventures in his taped form, as do most of the other characters, though for the most part in their actual bodies rather than on tape.

It’s an extended satire on 1970s America, sending up manufacturing, advertising, the military and militarism, journalism (notably Playboy), politics and ideologies, especially white supremacy and fanatical anti-communist conspiracy theorists.

Concerning the last, one can read it as a send-up of The Da Vinci Code, as the conspiracy theorists decipher codes that are more and more complex. A nice touch, satirising a book before it is published. Of course it’s not the only one to have done that. Umberto Eco, the author of Foucault’s Pendulum, insisted that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci code, was a character in one of his novels.  In that respect it anticipates several books. It also predicts that Ronald Reagan would become US president (Nixon was president at the time it was written).

After 45 years I’d forgotten how funny it was (in parts, anyway), and in retrospect it also throws light on some subsequent developments, technical (the Singularity), cultural and political.

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Inklings on the Internet

One of my interests is the English literary group of the 1920s to 1940s that called themselves “The Inklings”, and as a number of other people share this interest I’ve tried at various times to find ways of using the Internet to make and maintain contact with such people and share thoughts and opinions and so on.

One way of doing this is through blog posts, many bloggers announce new posts on Twitter. I also discovered a web site called that produced a digest of tweets on various topics. Some of them seem to be devoted to hash tags, and I succeeded in creating one for missiology (another interest of mine), There were several created by other people on various topics that interested me — on literature, genealogy, family history and more. There’s one for children’s literature, which some of the Inklings wrote,

But there was no such digest devoted to the #inklings hashtag.

So I thought that if I could create one for #missiology, I could create one for #inklings.

Too late. The people at had stopped doing that very useful thing. Whenever i tried to do it, they created something called “The Steve Hayes Daily”, and I already had one of those. But eventually they fiddled with it to turn it into The Inklings Daily.

The only trouble is that it doesn’t seem to work. Either people are not using the #inklings hashtag, or else when they do use it, The Inklings Daily simply isn’t picking it up. All I see on it most days is either a message that there is no content, or a couple of irrelevant photos. So as a way of following blog posts about the Inklings it has turned out to be pretty useless.

The last straw was when the owners of YahooGroups announced that they were closing that service, and there were a couple of Inklings forums there that would be affected by the closure, and so it was important to let people know, and I blogged about that. But in spite of using the #inklings #hashtag failed to pick it up in The Inklings Daily.

So I’ll give it a couple more weeks, and see if The Inklings Daily picks up this article, and any others on the Inklings, and if there’s no improvement, I’ll delete The Inklings Daily, as it will obviously be serving no purpose. I’ll rely on my blogroll for picking up who is blogging about the Inklings. And if you’d like to know more about the new Inklings forum, see Inklings Forum Revived, or go directly to Inklings on

For what it’s worth, the main members of the Inklings were:


Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience, #2)Singularity by Steven James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three years ago I heard Izak Potgieter speak at TGIF about The Singularity. According to him,  The Singularity is a milestone in the foreseeable future where technology, or non-biological intelligenc-
e, will reach the ability of its human creators, themselves largely non-biological by that point, and then transcend it at a rate that “will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”.

I had previously heard of singularities as some kind of mathematical thing relating to the topological characteristics of Mobius strips, but Izak assured us that this was not just any old singularity, but The Singularity. And he described himself as a Singularitarian,.

So when we went to TGIF last week, and I saw a book with the title Singularity, I was moved by curiosity to buy it.

What is it about?

A mysterious death, mysterious semi-government research institutes where some dodgy research is going on, hints of connections with organised crime and bent cops — mix those ingredients and you can be sure that the protagonist and those he loves will be getting deeper into danger as the story progresses.

The protagonist is Jevin Banks, a stage musician who performs in Las Vegas, and his associates Charlene Antioch and Xavier Wray. Xavier Wray, like Izak Potgieter, is a Singularitarian.

The “singularity” of the title concerns the development of Artificial Intelligence and the point at which it overtakes human intelligence, and the book raises several questions about that. But these questions are not new, and I recall reading books published more than 50 years ago on the same topic. And some of the elements were also found in speculative fiction, in novels like The Müller-Fokker Effect, which spoke of capturing someone’s consciousness and storing it as digital data.

And over the years I’ve often used that as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that when we die God has us all backed up on tape somewhere, and when the last day comes he’ll restore it in new and improved hardware and reboot us.

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Stranger in a strange land

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought this book and had read about two-thirds of this original uncut version when I left it on a bus. I thought of buying another copy to see what happened in the end, but I didn’t think it was all that good, so I left it. Then when I saw a copy in the library I thought it was my chance to find out what happened, so I took it out and re-read it from the beginning because after 27 years I’d forgotten too much to just pick it up where I left off. And having reached the end, my verdict is unchanged. It’s not really worth paying good money for.The first half is OK, and I’d give it 3 stars on the GoodReads Scale. The second half is excruciatingly boring and preachy, and would get 1 star from me, so 2 stars for the whole thing.

The story concerns the first manned expedition to Mars, which disappears without trace. The second expedition finds there was a survivor — a child of two of the crew members who was born on Mars and named Michael Alexander Smith, and was brought up by Martians after his parents died. The second expedition brought him, now a young adult, back to earth, where he suffers from culture shock, and is perceived as a threat by vested interests on earth, and so is kept incommunicado by the government.

The book was at least partly responsible for starting a New Religious Movement (NRM), the Church of All Worlds, and perhaps the best comment on that comes from Drawing Down the Moon by Diane Adler:

The Church of All Worlds has been called everything from ‘a sub-culture science-fiction Grok-flock’ to ‘a bunch of crazy hippie freaks.’ But the real origins of CAW lead back to a small group of friends who, along with untold numbers of middle-class high school and college students in the late 1950s and early 1960s, became infatuated with the romantic, heroic, compelling right-wing ideas of Ayn Rand. It is a sign of the peculiarity of North American consciousness that thousands of young students, at one time or another, have become possessed by her novels – Atlas shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem. Jerome Tucille, in his witty, tongue-in-cheek tour of the libertarian right, It usually begins with Ayn Rand, could not have been more precise in his choice of title. He noted that Rand’s works were particularly appealing ‘to those in the process of escaping a regimented religious background.’ Despite the author’s rigid philosophy of Objectivism, she stirred a libertarian impulse, and Atlas shrugged became a ‘New Marxism of the Right’.

And the second half of Stranger in a Strange Land is like nothing so much as John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged, only about three times as long.

It was written in the late 1950s, and is stamped with American culture of that period, including their vision of the future. This included future technology — flying cars, yes, but no personal computers, no cell phones, no digital photography. It is also full of the male chauvinist piggery of the period, though some of the language seems strange for a novel set in the USA — lots of “chaps” and “blokes” around. I didn’t know there were so many of those in the US, either back in the 1950s or now.

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