Book Notes, April to June 2017
Christianity by Linda Woodhead — It’s strange when I read histories of Christianity having spent my childhood in one branch of it. Things I think I know well seen from a different angle. In fact though she covers most churches, Woodhead doesn’t mention JWs.
Most interesting in this brief review was to read about the early divide in church versus biblical Christianity. Also the role of mystical Christianity and the Catholic church’s successful absorption of the monastic movement to bring it under its own control.
Deep Work by Cal Newport— This book felt important, and I just counted the number of passages I’ve added to my notes from it: 94, which is maybe a record. This is close enough to the central thesis:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
And this from a section on life satisfaction:
Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
The Yellow Dog (Maigret #6) by Georges Simenon — A typical Maigret setting of a murder and a conspiratorial group of men in a small French town, this time Concarneau. Maigret sorts it all out with a few frothy beers of course.
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy — The last in the Border Trilogy brings John Grady Cole and Billy Parham together soon after the Second World War, in work on a ranch. The Old Testament Cities of the Plain were Sodom and Gomorrah, so we know the old world is in fire and brimstone. They make the crossing of the Rio Grande once more to find the last of it. As always McCarthy writes horses better than women.
The man smiled at him a sly smile. As if they knew a secret between them, these two. Something of age and youth and their claims and the justice of those claims. And of their claims upon them. The world past, the world to come. Their common transciencies. Above all a knowing deep in the bone that beauty and loss are one.
Also this, from the New York Times review:
That brief moment between a culture’s existence and extinction – this is the border that McCarthy’s characters keep crossing and recrossing, and the one story, as he’s forever writing, that contains all others. Throughout the trilogy, we keep encountering witnesses – former revolutionaries, priests, gypsies – in whose testimony alone human history survives. As in Proust, the storytellers are inseparable from their tales.
The Spanish Civil War by Helen Graham — I’m putting together a reading pile on the Spanish Civil War, and I like these short intros for a place to start. I’d never considered that there’s no Civil War museum, though maybe in Barcelona soon. Francoists “always referred to the war as a ‘crusade’ or ‘fight for national liberation’”. A reminder how quickly people can turn to killing their own neighbours, even relatives, when scared and told these people are the danger. Britain’s non-intervention.
The military coup unleashed what was in effect a series of culture wars: urban culture and cosmopolitan lifestyles versus rural tradition, secular against religious; authoritarianism against liberal political cultures; centre versus periphery; traditional gender roles versus the ‘new woman’; even youth against age, since generational conflicts were also present.
New culture war, same as the old culture war.
Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway — This second set of stories was published in 1927. It’s the one with Hills Like White Elephants and The Killers. The stories flow through the gaps, and you know he’s reporting life where he’s seen it, whether bullfighting in The Undefeated, boxing in Fifty Grand or war on the Italian Front in Now I Lay Me and In Another Country.
I can remember feeling so awful about the first war that I couldn’t write about it for ten years,” he said, suddenly very angry. “The wound combat makes in you, as a writer, is a very slow-healing one. I wrote three stories about it in the old days—‘In Another Country,’ ‘A Way You’ll Never Be,’ and ‘Now I Lay Me.’
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt— This and The Secret History are two of the most enjoyable novels I can remember reading in a long time. Recommended by everyone, and now by me.
Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only–if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — Saint-Ex wrote this memoir of his daring adventures as an early aviator for the French Aéropostale, expanding into his thoughts on friendship, death and living a meaningful life. He was a pioneer of the mail routes over the Sahara and the Andes. In undependable aircraft, over mountain terrain with navigation by landmarks on the ground or the stars at night, this was a perilous occupation.
Nothing, in truth, can ever replace a lost companion. Old comrades cannot be manufactured. There is nothing that can equal the treasure of so many shared memories, so many bad times endured together, so many quarrels, reconciliations, heartfelt impulses. Friendships like that cannot be reconstructed. If you plant an oak, you will hope in vain to sit soon under its shade. For such is life. We grow rich as we plant through the early years, but then come the years when time undoes our work and cuts down our trees. One by one our comrades deprive us of their shade, and within our mourning we always feel now the secret grief of growing old.