Category Archives: Book Reviews

Where I review the books I read.

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

Book Review: The Bible – A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

You might think that I’d be fairly familiar with the bible, right? I’ve read it cover to cover once and dip into it most days. But it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of exactly what it is we’re reading. Having earlier in the year looked at it through the eyes of an American fundamentalist, this is a take from “a white, male, European, English-born, Anglican Christian teaching New Testament in a Scottish University.”

Riches begins by comparing the most widely read and the most influential books of all time. While he cites Das Kapital as an influential book, few have read it. Popular crime thrillers and romances may be widely read, but have had little lasting impact on the shape of the world. The bible (I stick with the lower case, as usual) has the unusual quality of being both widely read and hugely influential. It is this combination that makes of great interest to the literary scholar, sociologist, historian and just about anyone else who operates in the spheres where the bible has had an effect. He cites the Koran as another similar example, but makes no further comment, so I would refer readers to the VSI on that work.

Part of the reason it is so widely read is the variety of audiences that it speaks to. Riches gives some examples, including pro and anti apartheid campaigners, a Benedictine sister in the Philippines, a bishop in Mozambique as well as American fundamentalists (here Riches uses Timothy La Haye as his example).

The book really gets going with a brief overview of how the bible was written. This is soon followed by how it came to be put together. These twin topics could never be covered comprehensively in just a couple of dozen pages. Interestingly, Riches takes the view that a fair bit of the New Testament could have been written after A.D. 70. Clearly this goes against the view of F.F. Bruce and is not as extensively reasoned as the latter’s viewpoint. It almost seems to me like an axiomatic assertion upon which one’s view of the bible is shaped.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Bible in the world of believers’ Riches looks at one passage in particular and tries to view it from several viewpoints. That passage is from Genesis, where Abraham took Lot up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him. It’s quite pertinent, as that is one of the passages I struggle with the most. Riches doesn’t answer the moral dilemma here, but gives a brief look at a few possibilities. However, the length of the book prevents a satisfactory answer; for that the author can hardly be deemed at fault.

There follows a chapter on biblical criticism, which starts with Martin Luther and ends with later German higher criticism. This is a really a whistle-stop tour of what this reader finds a very interesting field of study. Again, there is really insufficient room to do justice to the subject, but for one who is unfamiliar with biblical criticism, this serves as a useful taster.

In a chapter on the bible in culture, we get to see some of the art that has been inspired by episodes from the bible and the ideas within it. The focus here is on so-called “higher” culture, so many who consider themselves connoisseurs of art may well find themselves on familiar territory, though no doubt they may mutter at the omission of their favourite artists. I certainly chuntered at the lack of Titian. However, there was a greater oversight here which I cannot let pass. The chapter doesn’t mention the destruction of artwork by some of the more over-zealous reformers. For me, an understanding of christian art cannot be anywhere near complete unless one understands the use of art as a means of education for the illiterate, the artistic license that was taken which gave rise to poor theological thinking, the basis for accusations of idolatry by the reformers and the centuries of regress and subsequent marginalistion of art as a means of worship.

The book finishes with a chapter on the bible in politics. Once again, Riches hit upon one of the themes that particularly interests me and it was good to see him give the anabaptists and Quakers a mention here. Riches gives a carefully balanced view which will likely both enrage and encourage people from all political backgrounds.

As I finished the book, I tried to think of what a certain reader might take away with them. This is a reader who is unfamiliar with the message of the bible but who is enquiring and wishes to gain an overview before embarking on the detail. Would they finish the book with a fair impression? I’m afraid the answer to that has to be no. There is much of some interest here, but it seems that the wood has been lost for a close examination of the shape of some of some of the leaves and the structure of the bark.

Book Review: Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Before I begin, it should be noted that this book has two titles. In the UK it was released under the title Cranky, Beautiful Faith but in the US it was released under the title Pastrix. I am not aware of any significant differences in the contents of the book, but just in case you’d read Pastrix and were thinking of getting this book, I believe they are the same. All I can say is that the American spelling mistakes were left in the edition I read, published by the Canterbury Press imprint of Hymns, Ancient & Modern.

So what’s it all about? This a personal testimony, a memoir of half a life. For those who’ve never come across Nadia before, she is the minister at House For All Sinners & Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Yet this hasn’t always been her occupation. We get a whistlestop tour of how she came to be a pastor, having been “the religious one” in a group of friends of junkies, drop-outs and alcoholics. When one of them died at a hideously young age, she took his funeral. From then on, she took it upon herself to become a pastor. Yet Bolz-Weber was never going to be conventional.

Her first thing to do was to get a tattoo of Mary Magdalene (readily visible on the front cover of the book). There never seems to have been much of a plan either. The book is told almost as a series of anecdotes. Yes, there is a story that emerges and yes, it’s roughly linear in time, but each chapter lives in its own little space, with slightly thin walls separating it from the next, so that you can faintly hear the shouting from the room you’ve just left as you enter the new one.

The style of writing is probably what will appeal to most people. It has the peculiar feeling of being both rough n’ ready as well as being thoroughly thought through. It is as though it has been carefully crafted to sound uncrafted. In this respect, it is like a less staccato, less annoying version of Rob Bell’s writings. At least Bolz-Weber manages to write in paragraphs!

Bolz-Weber often gets rather close to the bone. One of the incidents that stuck firmest in my memory was her recounting a time when she was conned by a pimp posing as a survivor of hurricane Katrina. This is just one example of a world which, to this British middle-class accountant, seems rather alien. Yet there is a familiarity to the kind of situations and characters described. They are just so much more exaggerated than one normally faces.

One of the things that shines through is her passion for the inclusion of the outsider. The church she established, HFASS, became known as welcoming those who…..how can we put it…..aren’t generally associated with church. Not because they shouldn’t be, but because churches have done a dastardly good job of shutting people out or demanding conformity. The question of inclusion of the LGBT community is possibly one of the most divisive issues in the Church today. In noting that it is needlessly so, I am in full agreement with Bolz-Weber.

Yet while Bolz-Weber may come across as wonderfully liberal and rather bucking against conformity, she stills holds to quite a conservative, pro-liturgy ecclesiology. Throughout the book, then, there’s this tension between the liberal and the conservative. Just when you think you’re agreeing with her, she drops something in there that makes you think “Really? I’m not sure about that.” An example of this would be that while the book is heavy on practical and thin on the academic side, one of the few theologians she speaks highly of is the late Marcus Borg (see here for why I find this a questionable stance).

Holding these contrasts together, there is something beautiful in Bolz-Weber’s testimony. Not everyone will share in her extremes, but there is a vein of great honesty that feeds her narrative and makes for compelling reading. I’ve already compared her to Rob Bell, but I know that he annoys many and that some may be put off by that. So let me add two more names whose voices I heard echoed or imitated here: Rachel Mann and Stanley Hauerwas. If you’ve read them and found them stimulating, then this is definitely a book that will interest you. If not, then I still recommend it to you as a work to make you smile, shake your fist, weep and think.

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.

Book Review: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

Disclaimer: This book is published by Taylor & Francis, a subsidiary of the company that I work for. I bought this book of my own volition and was not asked by anyone at work to review it. As ever, I write and publish these reviews purely on my own accord.

Simone Weil is a writer whose name I have heard a few times, but never really knew anything about her. Part-way between a philosopher and a mystic, she is an intriguing prospect. Jewish by birth, but choosing to be a christian, with activism amongst some on the radical left, this melting pot of cultures and thought seemed almost bound to result in fresh expressions of thought, of belief and highlighting aspects of life in ways alien to many, offputting to some and captivating to others.

It needs to be noted, as is made clear in the extensive introduction by her friend and confidante, Gustave Thibon, that this is not a book she set out to write. Rather, it was put together by Thibon from notes that she left him before she died. This is then the collection of those notes, ordered by approximate them.

The introduction gives an insightful background into Weil’s personality and her politics. It is very valuable, though does drag on a bit. The only word of caution I would give is that Thibon was a catholic, and as such he is rather muddled in his thinking and frequently conflates catholicism with christianity. This isn’t always the case, though. He does state that Weil wasn’t a catholic, though when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this work, my friend was adamant that she was; just one who refused to take the sacraments. In a few references, her take is rather ambiguous and I would conclude that she certainly wasn’t catholic but neither did she fit into any recognisable stream of christianity. If anything, she might be regarded as a supreme non-conformist!

The idea behind the title begins with gravity. What Weil does is to adopt a well-known concept from physics (natural philosophy) and turn into a metaphysical analogy, even if it is more akin to entropy what she describes. The idea is that “nature” tends to descend, to fall to a lowest state. This is what she calls gravity. In this sense, low is regarded as being degenerate. My thought was that she was driving at the state of sin, though I don’t think this was mentioned quite so explicitly. The opposite of this is grace, which is something that defies this descent into entropy, a kind of anti-gravity.

The aphoristic nature of the book does make it somewhat to review, as there is no central idea being put forward and one paragraph may be nearly wholly unrelated to the one that either precedes or follows it. Some of the aphorisms are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial; others are verging on the incomprehensible. Unfortunately, this tendency increased as the book went on and I found it harder to take her seriously. At times, it was like looking down a bad Twitter feed where someone, puffed up with self-confidence, is pumping out material they think it deep, but which is just nonsense.

It made me think of a term used by the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: deepity. There are some incredibly mundane and nonsensical things said here, but which have a thin veneer of thought on them. If one wants to believe that Weil says something profound, then you can fool yourself into thinking that she does, when in fact there are times when there is simply no substance to her writing. In contradistinction to Dennett, however, I would be willing to give Weil the benefit of some doubt and say that she was merely a poor communicator. But then, as this is a book review, it means I can’t recommend the book. There are good things said here, but they are too few and far between.

It’s not a book that will linger long with me and I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Readers of this blog with a good memory will recall this I picked this up at a bookshop around Crystal Palace/Gipsy Hill back in February after having walked some way to get there. During some of the summer following I continued to walk some of the South Downs Way and began on the North Downs Way. So I decided to read Solnit’s work, which I understood to be a collection of essays, on the subject of walking. Indeed, the book carries the subtitle ‘A History of Walking’. In a few other works I’ve picked up on the subject, Solnit is constantly referred to.

I must note that the editors put in a lovely touch. The book is printed in fairly small print, so the reader is forced to take their time, almost squinting at the page, in order to read. This slows the reader and evokes the slowing to a walking pace from the rush of everyday life. At the bottom of every page there is a quote in some way related to walking. But they are not restricted to a single page, some run over for a few pages, as they only include one per page, in what looks like an old fashioned share price ticker. So as you read the text, underneath it is a steady stream of words of beauty that evoke the feeling of walking by a river, with the words flowing like the water.

What of the content of the book?

Solnit’s work covers a huge range of subjects, which one might not expect for a book about walking, but it is a fascinating and enlightening work, written with prose of the highest calibre. She covers the romantic poets (in particular Wordsworth), the peripatetic philosophers, urbanisation, the flaneurs (check spelling) of Paris, walking as a leisure activity, as an act of protest (e.g. through Reclaim The Streets), an act of pilgrimage, as art and a whole host of other things. It is so wide-ranging, it’s quite staggering that one person could so confidently and adroitly write with such wit and grace on these, intertwined with her own reflections on some personal encounters while walking in the western United States.

This may all sound rather gushing, as though I had lost all my critical senses, but let me assure that such high praise is well deserved. From page to page, one has (in the proper sense of the word) an apocalypse, an unveiling of a world we may have been faintly aware was there, but which is revealed to us now in splendid glory. I thought I liked walking and am generally regarded as “a walker” but I can see that I have had such a narrow definition that it seems hardly anyone can be. My walking is restricted to a little urban travel when I have the time, some long distance paths in sunny weather and the occasional protest.

In reading through the book, there are some paths we wander down several times. The one most frequently trod is the one marked ‘social history’, but there are other than are near parallel such as ‘politics’ and ‘culture’, while at times we may go off in other directions entirely. Yet with this range of topics, there is a risk that the book could lack cohesion, but it doesn’t. It all hangs together as one. Given the small print, and the fact that it runs for some 300 pages, it’s not a thin book to read over the course of a weekend. It is a book to be savoured.

I probably ought to add that from the time I started to the time I finished, I covered about 55 miles (a little over half) of the North Downs Way. Since starting the book, I’ve taken to collecting a few more volumes of walking literature, as Wanderlust has given me a real taste for the genre. In particular, I look forward to The Old Ways and A Philosophy of Walking.

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

This was one of the books that was recommended to me at the start of the year as one to challenge my view. It does seem, though, that it was merely a recommendation from a friend of the author who was just trying to boost sales by 1. But I got it anyway.

Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Drori.

The story centres on Etsy. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Etsy has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Etsy and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of cliché. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.