I’ve started 2015 trying to finish reading a few books that have been on my ‘current’ shelf for too long, and I’ve set myself an ambitious reading list for the year. I’m also trying to revive the discipline of writing a brief personal response on finishing a book.
While I have still not decided what to say about Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (which it feels almost sacrilegious to comment on) and Giordano Bruno’s ‘De Umbris Idearum’ (which I probably need to re-read), or how to comment best on a couple of – excellent – books authored by friends of mine, I’ve found something to say about some other recent reads.
The Complete Illustrated Stories of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
One of the few things I can conclude from this book is that neither the brothers Grimm nor the good people who narrated these tales to them were sober at the time. That doesn’t negate the work as a pretty extraordinary record of the dark, moralistic, occasionally humorous but rarely original landscape of 19th century German folklore.
Grimm seems to be back in vogue at the moment, in Hollywood, in fresh anthologies of fan fiction, in a counter-movement to ‘disneyfication’. Many of these tales certainly beg to be retold and made relevant in our day. Some of them are downright funny and have great punchlines. A few of them provide novel variations on stories we think we know. Most of them simply recombine the same tropes like cards drawn at random from a deck of superstitions.
In the world of Grimm you must be kind and generous and it’s even more to your credit if you are poor; beautiful people are good and ugly people are evil; you should avoid forests and bodies water, especially if you are a child; you can generally trust elderly people; women are either barren or remarkably fecund; children should respect their parents and compete against their siblings for their affection; parents shouldn’t spoil their children; life is pretty cheap; cunning always prevails against brute force and being a smart arse is admirable. Given how much these values are at odds with those of the 21st century I’m at a loss to explain the revival of interest …
Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Charles Williams’ take on Church History: I found it much harder to understand than his book “Witchcraft”, which feels rather like a companion to this work. Nevertheless, I glimpsed much through the shifting clouds of his prose, and what I saw, I liked. Williams does this in his fiction as in his non-fiction: he sees the whole of reality in a different way and hardly bothers to spell it out for his readers. You sort of go along for the ride and the stuff he says about the passing vistas makes you see them as he does for a few breathless moments that seem to invoke a Jungian sense of ‘oneness’.
On discovering huge gaps in my understanding of classical thought, literature and history, I have only been provoked to read more and explore further. Centrally, though, I’m broadly comforted by Williams’ essential recasting of the bloody, shameful and dark moments in Christian history. His vision enables him to discern God at work in diverse and contradictory movements, frequently pitted against each other. Central to this is his unique theological formulation of ‘co-inherence’ – that process by which humankind incubates the Kingdom of God.
There is a lot of assumed knowledge he expects in his readers, which makes some parts of the text almost inaccessible to those outside the orbit of his intellect (including me). However, a bit of background in Williams’ theology, namely the formulations of co-inherence and the ‘Way of Affirmation’ versus the ‘Negative Way’, will open up much of this to a new reader, as will a prior reading of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’.
I will strive to be equal to a second reading of this book when I come to it, and in the meantime I have copied out a good few of Williams’ perfectly turned phrases to chew on and extended my reading list for the coming year.
Chaos: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Before reading this book, all I knew about chaos theory came from reading Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels back in my teens. After reading it, I don’t feel as if I know a great deal more. Obviously chaos is hard for a non-mathematician to fathom, and this book needs a rudimentary grasp of a lot of related concepts which it only mentions.
It does a good job of surveying the history and development of chaos theory with specific reference to the important pieces of research and the people who published them. All the ways that chaos theory touches into economics, biology, physics, engineering and other fields is given a broad treatment.
As I tried to wrap my mind around the text, it would have been helpful to have some diagrams – it’s a ‘graphic’ guide after all. But the illustrations were abstract and pretty unhelpful. They consisted mostly of collage-style cartoons of people with romano cabbages instead of hair, interacting with scribbly representations of strange-attractor curves and a model chart of fish population growth. I can see how the gradual incorporation of different elements in the collages reflected the addition of new concepts as the book progressed, but they didn’t really shed new light on the topic. It feels like a missed opportunity to clarify things with good graphic material. ‘Strange attractors’ seem to be really important to the whole thing, but I felt that they were glossed in the early sections and still don’t quite get it.
However, I managed to grasp the stuff on fractals, time, turbulence, markets and there were a few moments when the penny dropped in spite of the brevity of the text and the obscurity of the illustrations. I have also found my awareness of chaos has expanded and I’m more likely to spot it at work and factor it into the way I see the world around me – this is a good thing. I have another book in the series – on fractals specifically – to read next, and I’m looking forward to it.
A Friend in Every City – One Global Family – A Networking Vision for the Twenty First Century by Penny Power
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although it was published in 2006, and social and online business networking has moved on very rapidly since then, there are still many useful parts in this book. Plenty of it’s predictions have come true and the overall vision of a global family is still working itself out.
I read it partly as an interesting documentary on the state of social networks back in the days when they were less populated, and partly as a handy guide to the practicalities of networking. Advice on setting up profiles, branding, developing an open and generous attitude (rather than only selling) and the bits on team and personality profiling were all good to chew on.
Lots of case studies and stories keep the interest going, but it has dated quite a lot in the last 7 years.
View all my reviews on Goodreads
Read my more in-depth review of Richard Crompton’s ‘Hells Gate’ over at Orion Fiction’s Murder Room blog.