Monthly Archives: April 2015

Book Review: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.

She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.

The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.

It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…

The idolisation of doubt

Of late, there has been an increasing trend of christians extolling the virtue of doubt. One quote in particular which epitomises this is:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

The quote is actually from Anne Lamott, though it seems to be frequently misattributed to Paul Tillich.

The trouble with the usage the way this quote is used, and the way that doubt is spoken of sometimes, it comes across that doubt is the end goal, the point of enlightenment. This can tip over into hubris, whereby there can be a kind sneering at those who stand firm in their convictions.

Doubt is indeed a useful thing, but then again, so is medicine. Medicine doesn’t do much good unless you use it. It’s no good parading it around, saying “Look, I have medicine.” You actually have to take the medicine and allow it to perform it’s healing work. Likewise, doubt has to be used for something. It has to be the basis of enquiry, of searching for the answers.

One of the conundrums when dealing with questions of faith, doubt and certainty is that there can be a certainty that nothing is certain. OK, that’s a bit twisty, let’s try putting it another. The idea that ‘everything can be doubted’ is itself an idea that is so certain in some people’s minds that it has become an unquestionable dogma, precisely of the kind the same people so frequently oppose.

If I doubt something, I investigate. The fluidity of that doubt may firm up as I learn more and understand more. If I have the same doubts in a year’s time, is that a sign of maturity? I think not; it is stagnation. It’s a giving up in the face of a tough problem.

Compare the quote at the top with that from the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Another translation has ‘confidence’ and ‘assurance’ in place of ‘substance’ and ‘evidence’. The relevant Greek words being translated are hypostasis and elenchos. To equate faith with doubt here seems like a wrong way of reading the passage. And yes, I do think it is possible to state that some ideas that some christians hold about christianity are wrong.

Please don’t mistake me. I am not arguing for dogmatic, unquestionable assertions here. My point is that the way doubt is spoken of is that it is an end in itself and that there can be a temptation to humble-brag about having doubts. Such a display is, in my opinion, little more than an example of blowing one’s own trumpet or of being the self-righteous Pharisee. Instead, it is preferable for us to be firm in our convictions, not swayed or tossed by the winds of the latest opinion, but to have those convictions open to challenge. For firmness does not the mean the same as immovability. We must be open to learning, to being corrected, yet to be so to a reasonable degree.

Book Review: The History of the Church by Eusebius

Anyone who is interested in the history of christianity and has taken a cursory look into the subject will have heard various tidbits of information and will have seen then repeated in many a modern take on the first few centuries of the church. Some of these get trotted out in the occasional sermon, such as the idea that Peter was crucified upside down. Yet I’ve often wondered where they came from. It seems that the answer is Eusebius.

It is worth noting, since it has come in many versions over the years, that I read the Penguin Classics version, translated by G.A. Williamson with a very helpful introduction by Andrew Louth. According to this introduction, one cannot help but question Eusebius’ credibility as an historian. Famously, the Victorian historian of the ancient world, Edward Gibbon, had little regard for Eusebius. He is not the only one to cast doubt on the reliability of Eusebius’ work. Certainly, by the standards of modern historiography, Eusebius leaves a lot to be desired. While it is impossible to be neutral in writing history, Eusebius’ agenda and bias should be clear for all to see. But such a critical view should not be interpreted as meaning he is useless. Far from it; he is a source of great wealth, not least due to his habit of extensively quoting from earlier sources.

In some ways this is indicative of the maxim ‘history is written by the winners’ particularly here when it comes to questions of christian orthodoxy. He displays open contempt for those who were regarded as heretics and is also indicative of the rise of catholicism.

At the start of the work, Eusebius lays out his objectives. These are quite telling in themselves.

  1. line of succession of the apostles
  2. names and dates of various heretics
  3. the history of Judaism, post-Jesus
  4. the persecutions faced by the early church
  5. the martyrdoms that happened in those persecutions

The work is split into 10 books. An interesting point made in the introduction is that the work may initially have consisted of 8 books with the last two books being added some time later.

His opening book lays out his christology, which is demonstrative of a seemingly very high view. This is interesting in itself, seeing as Eusebius sided with Arius at the first council of Nicaea, an event which is never mentioned anywhere in this work. We get a sort of recapitulation of gospels, but viewed with the hindsight and interpretation of the very early church. For clarity, when some use the phrase “early church” they have in mind a period of the first few centuries of christian history. I use the phrase to mean the first few decades, with the most obvious event marking the transition between ages being the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, by which time the books that comprise our New Testament had been written and were in circulation.

From this opening, which is more of a background than anything else, we begin to get into the heart of the narrative. Here, the main sources seem to be Acts and Josephus, which makes for an interesting pairing. Our timeline seems to skip back and forth a little bit, so when we think we’ve moved into a distinctly post New Testament period, we come back to the odd reference from Luke’s latter work. Or was Luke the author? Well, even though the gospels were all anonymous, and it is reasonable to think that the author of Luke and Acts are the same person, it is from Eusebius that we get the names, particularly as he quotes Papias of Hierapolis, where we get the intriguing possibility that Matthew’s gospel was first composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic.

There are lots of little vignettes throughout the book that are useful and interesting to get an understanding of certain aspects of the history of the later church. But when it comes to the early church, there is scant all reliable detail. The aims are also indicative of quite a late mindset that is quite different from that as evidenced in the gospels and book of Acts. For example, point 1) above shows that there has become an obsession with the notion of apostolic succession, yet the only evidence Eusebius has for the first few links is “tradition” which is no evidence at all. Even the idea that Peter was ever a bishop of Rome is highly questionable.

The heresiological aspects of Eusebius are quite interesting, particularly to help see the kinds of ideas that were being bandied about. We never quite get to Nicaea here (recall that Eusebius sided with Arius at the council in 425) which is a shame, but we walk part of the path towards it.

Most of the books, though, are taken up with the rather gory tales of martyrdom. Be in no doubt, it does make for some highly graphic and deeply disturbing reading. One might almost consider, if you’ll indulge the anachronism, that Eusebius is aiming to gross-out his readers by being as visceral as possible. All this, though, does make for some quite turgid reading. It goes on and on and on. The only relief comes as the book ends with the rise of Constantine and his favourable treatment of the christians.

One of the sourest elements, though, comes with the exploration of point c). Eusebius comes across as what we would now describe as anti-Semitic. There is clear ethnic and religious prejudice against the Jewish people. So what the modern historian can infer is that in just a few centuries the church went from being a predominantly Jewish phenomenon, albeit with a reformed twist to its messianic eschatology, to being a gentile religion that had forgotten its roots and bore a grudge against the Jews.

Overall, I can’t say it was the greatest book to read. It is one of the great tragedies of christianity that there are no contemporary histories written of the early church other than the book of Acts. By the time we’ve come to Eusebius, we have a very different beast with a different set of priorities. There is plenty of value in here, though. It’s just that one might need to read through Eusebius a bit to get to it.

Walking by faith, not by sight

A few Saturdays ago I had to go shopping in the city centre, very close to where I work. In fact the most convenient way to get there was to use the route of my normal commute. In doing this, I travelled a familiar route but at an unfamiliar time and with travelling companions who weren’t familiar with this stretch of the London underground.

I knew which carriage I needed to be on and which side the doors would open on. When I got off the train I knew when to turn left and when to turn right. I didn’t need to look too hard in order to know where I was going. My eyes were open and I made sure I didn’t walk into other people, but I had assurance of where I was going so I could step out in confidence. In contrast, the tourists around me were hesitant. They had to stop and look at the signs in order to get where they were going. Even after having seen the signs, their steps were still faltering and they kept looking behind them.

We all ended up in the same place eventually, using the same route, but just with different mindsets. It was as I ascended the steps into the spring sunshine that this gave me a refreshed understanding of what we mean by “walking by faith, not by sight”. I wasn’t blind as I walked through the corridors, but having done the route so many times, it wasn’t necessary for me to constantly look out to make sure I was on the right path. I had confidence, based on the evidence of my experience, that I was going the right way. This was a demonstration of faith in my own ability to navigate.

When we speak of faith, there ought to be two elements included to give proper meaning. The first of these is the object of our faith. i.e. what is our faith in? In the case above, it was faith in a particular skill. The other element is the basis of faith. i.e. what is the epistemological source for that faith? In the case above, it was the experience of having done that route hundreds of times before.

So that’s my challenge both to myself and to you: when we speak of faith, let it not be left dangling, in isolation, prone to misinterpretation. Let’s be clear about the object and basis of our faith.

Book Review: Cover Her Face by P.D. James

After asking for suggestions for what to read this year, one idea that cropped up was to read a murder mystery. It’s not my normal cup of tea so this was a step out of my comfort zone as far as fiction reading goes. Like my picking up of Iain Banks last year, P.D. James was another writer of whom I had only heard, but was reminded of when she died a few months ago.

While I have had an aversion to reading murder mysteries, I have seen quite a few adaptations, though I don’t recall seeing any that were taken from the works of P.D. James. Much more commonly adapted are the works of Agatha Christie. They tend to be extremely formulaic with a murder happening after some gathering where there is a disagreement and the location is isolated, with just a handful of possible suspects.

It is a formula that P.D. James sticks to rigorously here. We open with a very old fashioned dinner party. The one variation is that the people present at the dinner party aren’t the ones who end up in the house. So one may notice the presence of a vicar here but he is a fleeting character who doesn’t appear again (a violation of Chekhov’s Gun). I think what frustrated me was that in anticipation of a murder (for that is what the reader knows they will get, even before reading the first sentence) one tries to see in the characters who will be murdered and who the suspects are. So we instantly start with a slanted view that one doesn’t read any other kind of fiction – or at least none that I can think of readily as I write this at quarter to eleven in the evening.

As morning breaks, we discover that someone has been killed, which should come as no surprise. As an aside, it might be interesting to market a book as a murder mystery, where the mystery is when will it occur, but it never does. Shortly afterwards, we get to meet the detective who will solve the crime, Adam Dalgleish. He does not come across as a particularly multi-dimensional character. There is an attempt at giving him a backstory, but it feels rather forced and doesn’t sit within the narrative terribly well.

That said, the start of the investigation did keep me turning over the pages. Though it was relatively easy to put down, it wasn’t the kind of book that you get half way through and then peer at out of the corner of your eye, not really wanting to finish it. There were a number of irritating features. For one, there were characters (one important) who were introduced after the murder, so it seems that the idea of working it out for yourself is not on the cards. If there is to be any joy in a murder mystery, it is having all the facts available at an early stage that allow you to be able to work it out. The rest of the book may shed light on these pieces of evidence, making you think about them in new ways. This is not what P.D. James does, though.

So I was just wanting to get to the end in order to see who did it, but even when the murderer was revealed, there was no great line of reasoning. They just confessed under no real pressure. There was no incontrovertible evidence presented that compelled them to confess. All the way through the book, the sympathy for the victim seems sorely lacking. There is all the sense of a mystery, with one family in particular coming under a suspicion that no one dares speak aloud, but there is no sense of tragedy.

The proliferation of characters in a relatively short book means there is no space to give any of them depth. So as I write this review about a week after having finished it, not one of the characters really stuck in my mind. They are like the faces I see on the Underground every day; they may have some distinctive features, but not one of them lingers.

If there is anything to be said by way of mitigation, it is that this is the first of the Adam Dalgleish novels and so may well represent a writer who is aping those who have gone before her and who has not yet found her voice. I may come back and read a later novel in the series, but I’m no great hurry to do so.

The delight of a murder mystery?

*trigger warning: I here discuss quite plainly both murder and rape*

As stated at the start of the year, I aimed to read at least some books this year that I either disagree with or that are off my beaten track. One of those that was suggested to me was anything by P.D. James, the murder mystery writer who died last autumn. At the time of writing this, I am about a third of the way through her first Adam Dalgleish novel, Cover Her Face. I will be posting my review of the book in a couple of days.

As a preface to that, though, I wanted to explore why it is that I find murder mystery stories so offputting. The primary objection has to be that it makes light of a hideous crime. The wilful ending of another’s life is an unspeakable act of evil and to turn it into a form of entertainment seems perverse. There are plenty of things in the world that are entertaining; it is decidedly odd that so much attention is focused on this one form.

It could be argued that the entertainment is not in the murder but in the mystery. If this is so, then why is the murder such an important feature? It is possible to have mysteries in other forms, there seems to be no pressing need for a wrongful death to kick start the plot. I have wondered if a ghost story might differ, though that also might well begin with a wrongful death, though we are not witness to the act, merely the aftermath.

What about a robbery? It is not always clear from the outset who committed them, so are inherently mysterious, but they are solvable, just like murders. Yet this is still a crime. Could we think of another form of mystery that doesn’t entail any breaking of the law?

The one that springs to my mind is that of a scientific discovery. I don’t recall too many shelves in bookshops that contain fictional scientific discoveries. Possibly the reason this hasn’t taken off is that science is concerned with well-evidenced facts about the universe that are universal. If one fictionalises it, it could easily be debunked as nonsense. That said, fanciful, falsifiable rubbish never stopped Dan Brown.

There is a further crime to consider here. It is the one crime that has, in recent years, been the focus of attention from many a feminist campaigner: Rape. Imagine the outcry there would be if an author (and the publisher allowed it) wrote a series of novels, launching a whole genre whereby the impetus for the plot was the vile, violent act of sexual intrusion. I strongly doubt it would become a readily accepted form of literature. The closest we got recently was the much publicised (and from what I hear, awfully written) Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured a certain of BDSM and abuse. The film adaptation yielded some protests, yet I can’t think that if one went further and had an adaptation of a “rape mystery” then the protests would be much more vocal and widespread.

If that supposition is correct, then why do we, as a culture, see murder as more acceptable than rape? Both are despicable, violent acts which in one case ends a life and in the other devastates a life. It is tempting to think that we have simply become desensitised to murder as a result of the literary and cinematic portrayals of it, whereas rape remains taboo. But I’m not convinced that view is right. If it were, then it fails to explain how murder mystery became such a popular genre. If it had been equally as taboo as rape, then how did it gain traction without giving rise to protest? At least, I’m not aware that the works of Agatha Christie were the subject of much controversy at the time they were written. Nor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is, as far I understand, one of the early examples of what we would understand to be a murder mystery story.

Without thoroughly investigating the history of the genre, I cannot give a firm answer. I have only my opinion. And that opinion is that there is something deeply disturbing about the glibness with which we, as a whole, treat murder in fiction. But I’m willing to have that opinion changed; so, as stated at the top, I shall read and review a novel by P.D. James.

Book Review: The British Constitution – A Very Short Introduction by Martin Loughlin

When reading the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I find them to be ideal for subjects where one has some modicum of understanding, but where any level of detail is currently unknown to me. Having grown up and lived in Britain all my life, and having observed our politics for most of my adult life, I get an idea of what it means for something to be “constitutional”. Unlike the Americans, we don’t have a fixed, codified constitution. It is very much something of a ‘sense’ that we have, but which is instilled in us through roughly 800 years of history since the signing of the Magna Carta. As we mark the octocentenary of that famous document it seemed appropriate to have a read of this.

The opening discourse is about the nature of a constitution and what could count as one. The most famous example is, of course, the American constitution, but it’s noted that that’s quite an odd example as it was designed as a founding document to a country with no history, no legal precedent of its own. So Thomas Paine (whose Rights of Man I have, but haven’t read yet) makes a rather post hoc argument defining a constitution as a single document with several features which just happen to coincide with a description of the American one.

One might well think, as I did at the outset, that there would be considerable focus on the Magna Carta and its legacy, but its role in British constitutional history is heavily downplayed here. Instead, Loughlin opts for a “common law” approach, claiming that what we understand as the British constitution is the combined history and tradition of the laws of the land. In order to colour the picture in we get a rundown of some specific pieces of legislation that have been passed over the centuries and their effect on the democratic make-up of what we now know as the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, the author never mentions Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure. This prompted me to then have a look at the author’s background, and here we can see that perhaps Loughlin was not the best choice to author a book on the constitution, as his expertise is in law. So it is little wonder that he views the constitution as the combination of various laws passed through the centuries. If it were labelled as “British legal history – A Very Short Introduction” then we might be less disillusioned.

In amongst a bit of a hodge podge of pieces, there is some really good stuff. For example, we get a good summary of the political history of the various unions that have taken place to give us the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we now have. Interestingly, it’s very much a book of its time, as it frequently references the current coalition government. So it will be interesting to see how later editions may be changed to reflect the government of the day.

Book Review: 50 Ways the World Could End by Alok Jha

This has been my coffee table book for the last couple of months. Consisting of short chapters of about 7 pages each, we get a tour of 50 possible scenarios that could result in the destruction of at least the human race. But please don’t think that this is a book of scaremongering. At the risk of judging a book by its cover, the graphics and font are all rather jovial hinting that this is a relatively light look at the matters in hand.

For some unknown reason, Jha opted not to include any kind of preface or introduction which makes his overall purpose slightly obscured when you begin by diving straight into the first scenario.

One of the early chapters is on the question of overpopulation where Jha reappraises some of Thomas Malthus’ works. Considering the reputation Malthus has, this is certainly a brave move, but not an unreasonable one.

The various scenarios are grouped by theme, though there is some overlap between the themes. There’s also some overlap between the specific scenarios. I couldn’t help but think on occasion that a few of them could have been merged, or rather that they have been artificially split into two in order to make up a predetermined quota of 50.

Some of the more technologically-focused scenarios are going to be worth visiting in years to come, given the rate of change in our collective technological abilities. These may prove to be incredibly insightful prophecies though I suspect that some may prove to be slightly wide of the mark.

The wide variety of scenarios require Jha to be a bit of a jack of all scientific trades, though the vast majority fall within the fields of physics or biology. One of the slightly misleading things about the title, though understandably so, is that it’s very anthropocentric. A more accurate, though less aesthetically pleasing title might be 50 Ways Human Civilization Might End. Some are decidedly end of the world situations, some result in the world carrying on just with the absence of humans.

In each case, there is some attempt to say how likely each is to occur. In most cases, it’s “[not very likely]” though what might have made a good addendum would be a summary. After all, anyone whose studied statistics could look at 50 fairly unlikely events and reason that the chances of at least one happening may not be insignificant. But Jha isn’t out to scare us. If you put the book down and straight away start looking bunker designs then I think you may have got the wrong end of the stick.

It’s a reasonably entertaining, well-written, informative book that is worth dipping into. I wouldn’t be in a rush to encourage any and all to read it, but if the title appeals to you then you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect to be overwhelmed.

Why read?

As the number of book reviews on this blog approaches 200, there’s never been an explanation here of why I read quite so much.

I haven’t always been a bookworm. I really only started to read more extensively and intensively since I finished all forms of examinations when I qualified as a chartered accountant. Through my higher and postgraduate education, I was far more focused on my studies that I barely had time to read. What little I did was often of a low quality. For example, most of the 4 years of my degree were supplemented by Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. While the first instalment, The Gunslinger, was very good and the follow up was OK, but the rest was an awful drag and I’ve been put off fantasy ever since. This is why, despite numerous recommendations, I have never read any of the volumes of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This might seem out of character, as in my youth I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I read the whole lot between my GCSE mock exams and the finals, subsequently dropping a grade in nearly every subject.

It was around that formative time that I learned to hate Jane Austen. We studied Pride and Prejudice to death, sucking out any joy that might have been there. I’m still no fan of hers and have no desire to pick up Northanger Abbey any time within the next few decades.

I suppose the main reason I started to read a lot was because of my commuting. At the time I worked as an auditor so rarely worked in the same place for more than a week at a time. I tended to either be in central or south London, Kent or various industrial estates around Sussex. Spending upwards of 3 hours a day on various trains can be rather boring, even if some of the countryside around the South Downs is rather picturesque.

Perhaps it was this rural world that I would pass through on my way to a factory floor that drew me to Thomas Hardy. Though not all have been reviewed here, I’ve read most of Hardy’s work. The only extant published novels of his which I haven’t yet read are: A Laodicean, Two on a Tower and The Hand of Ethelberta. As I saw dwellings other than those of a city or a large town, I could imagine the characters making their way in life in the very locations that I passed, separated only by time.

But fiction is not my only passion. My primary passion in reading has been science. It’s a peculiar consequence of when I set up this blog that there aren’t more science books listed. The fact is, I had increased my level of reading before I started reviewing. So it may be a case that if I run out of good science books to review that I’ve found in a shop recently, then I may re-read some of the great works that don’t currently have a review on this website. For example, if you look at the index by author, you may get the impression that I haven’t read much Richard Feynman. That is a false impression; I simply read most of his more popular works before I started this blog.

This is all before I get to the category that forms the majority of my reading: christianity. I think the reason why I have read so much more on christianity in recent years than any other subject is because I’m catching up. I used to pretty much study the bible either by myself or in church and had quite a small selection of study guides. It wasn’t really until I started to read around a little more widely that I began to get a glimpse of how much more I didn’t know or didn’t understand. So I began to consume theology and apologetics quite voraciously.

This then gets to the heart of my current reason for why I read so much these days. It is to try to fill the gaps in my understanding in order that I may hold informed opinions and make informed decisions. To be somewhat self critical, this is because of an awareness that others are almost invariably better informed than I on matters about which we converse. It is rather a treadmill where nomatter how much you learn, there is always someone who can simply stroll past you. So I admit to a kind of envy of the learning of others. I see myself as a child with short legs who has to put in a lot of effort to run, just to keep up with the long-legged stroll of their parents.

This way of thinking about reading has then extended into the other non fiction. This used to be a casual break from the more serious reading that I did, but of late it has extended into more learning, particularly about history, philosophy and economics. There is no real end goal to this. I am not aiming to get a point where I could claim “I know it all” or to be more informed than anyone else. Others might consider me well read or reasonably well informed, but many of those same people have read plenty that I haven’t, know things which I don’t or have life experience that I will never have.

Yet at the same time, it would be unreasonable to play myself down too much, that would be false modesty. I am reasonably well informed on the subjects in which I am interested, for someone who has had the opportunities in life that have been afforded to me. My point is that this cannot be grounds for complacency or to arrogantly think that I know more than any person I may pass on the street. I’m just trying to keep up, and books are the easiest means available to me.

Contrast this with travel. I am very poorly travelled compared to many people. Having only been on overseas holidays twice in the last 15 years, there are many who have had great wealth that have allowed them gap years, annual holidays or the like in which they have gained far more life experience than I have. My exposure to other cultures comes through words, translated into English, that have come mostly from single sources. I have never laid eyes on many of the great sights that the world has to offer and probably never will. While such travel is limited to the very privileged, reading is far more democratic.

That’s my motivation for reading. What’s yours?

Book Review: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

There are occasions when I return to books that I’ve read in the past, particularly if I recall being fond of them without actually being able to recall the details of the book. It has been some years since I’ve read this much-acclaimed work from Eric Carle, so I came with a nagging fear that it wouldn’t live up to my memory of it, as has happened before, most notably with Jamaica Inn.

Though the title implies that the book is about a caterpillar, Carle opts to open with the backstory to the main character. One might expect, in keeping with modern trends, that he might have opted to put this into the middle of the book as a sort of flashback scene. His keeping to a linear timeline certainly appeals to me, as stories which jump back and forth generally annoy me. The only work I’ve read recently which employs such nonlinearity and which didn’t bug me was The Night Circus.

So it is that we first meet an egg. The egg is anonymous, but seems to symbolise a world of promise. Most readers should be able to guess what sort of egg it is, so it comes as little surprise that we swiftly move on from envisioning a panoply of possibilities and focus down to our main character, who is unimaginatively just called a caterpillar. The caterpillar has no name nor is there any indication of a family around it. Perhaps Carle means to imply that the caterpillar is an orphan, reflecting the troubles faced by children in a society where parents are increasingly absent, living as though they were orphans, having to make their own way in the world.

As well as the issue of parentlessness, the other main theme running through it is the greed of modern society. This is expressed by the caterpillar having an insatiable greed to consume all that it encounters, though some joker in the publishing department even put holes in the pages, as though to indicate that the caterpillar had eaten through the work. It seems a juvenile gesture that detracts from this work of allegory.

At times, though, that allegory is extremely strained as we move into absurdist modes when one considers what the caterpillar eats. We begin with an apple, which is just about believable, though more suited to a maggot than to a caterpillar, but we might forgive a little artistic license here. But it soon starts to stretch plausibility when we get into distinctly non-caterpillar type foods such as a piece of chocolate cake, a slice of salami and even a sausage!

One cannot but get the impression that having started with a clear vision, Carle’s writing ran away from him and he found himself getting into such absurdist nonsense. So at this point in the novel my attention began to drift and became hard to find the motivation to turn another page. It became repetitive and formulaic so one can anticipate beforehand that the caterpillar is only going to eat something else next.

At no point is there any dialogue or other characters against which we can compare the central figure. There seems to be rationale behind his actions. It may be a stroke of genius though, as on reflection it could be seen as a parody of consumerism, whereby we are all compelled to consume, to buy to want for things without ever having a good reason to do so. In which case the caterpillar is a mirror of you and of me, wanting things that are not natural to us, that serve no good purpose but which only sate us for a short while, before we move on again.

If that is the case, then it is strange to think that Carle chose a caterpillar for such a metaphor, as a swarm of locusts might have been the more logical choice.

Eventually, though, Carle brings the story back on track by having the caterpillar eat a green leaf. This seems to be the thing that tips the balance and at last the caterpillar is full (and a little nauseated). I couldn’t help but think that this was a tamer version of the “waffer thin mint” that finished off Mr Creosote.

I shan’t spoil for you exactly how the book ends, though those of you familiar with the life cycle of the caterpillar, you might be able to guess at what happens, even if the colouring is suspiciously psychedelic.

In conclusion, it’s a muddled work with moments of great joy and some utter confusion, with an undercurrent of social commentary that cannot be avoided. Not a terribly long novel, I managed to get through it within a week. It reminded me of a children’s book I read many years ago, though I can’t recall what that one was called.