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Book review: The Crossway, by Guy Stagg

In 2013, following his partial recovery after a long period of mental illness, which included alcoholism and a suicide attempt, Guy Stagg set out on a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem, following medieval pilgrim routes. Although an atheist, he hoped that the religious ritual of pilgrimage would somehow heal him after his illness. He walked for ten months and covered 5,500 km, passing through 11 countries if you include England.

This is a travel book in at least two senses: it narrates the author's arduous journey on foot and it also describes the acccompanying inner journey through his own mind and memories. It's a long book—over 400 pages—and I have to say that I found reading it somewhat of a pilgrimage myself. I needed to take breaks in which I read other books to change the mood. Although there is certainly a sense of constant movement through different landscapes and variety in the encounters with people met on the way, this did not always counteract a sense of claustrophobia induced by the author's descriptions of his earlier depressive states. [Continue reading]

Book review: On Faith and Science, by Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse

The relation between religion and science has a long history and it has gone through various phases, some amicable, some not. At present, thanks partly to a loosely knit group of writers who have been called the new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet. A.C. Grayling and others—relations are bad. But there are some non-believers who want to find common ground with religion, and Ruse has long been one of these; not that you would know it from this book, for both he and his co-author Larson are reticent about their own religious views.* No doubt this is due to a wish to appear even-handed, but I think it leads to a certain softening of focus throughout. [Continue reading]

Book review: An Introduction to Western Medical Acupuncture (Adrian White, Mike Cummings, Jacqueline Filshie)

This is a book about the modern medical version of acupuncture, often called Western medical acupuncture (WMA) which is widely practised by health professionals today. It is the second edition of the work (the first appeared in 2008) and is described as a companion to Medical Acupuncture: A Western Scientific Approach (Elsevier, Edinburgh, 2016), now also in its second edition. The authors are all among the foremost proponents of WMA in Britain and so are well placed to produce a book of this kind.

Its primary intended audience is health professionals who have recently completed a training programme in modern acupuncture and want to consolidate and extend their knowledge of the subject. But it will also interest more experienced practitioners, because it includes a large amount of up-to-date research evidence for acupuncture that is otherwise not easy to find gathered together in an accessible form. [Continue reading]

Book review: Man and the Natural World, by Keith Thomas

It is becoming almost a chiché today to say that we are living through the sixth great extinction, in which an ever-increasing number of species are being driven to extinction by human activity. The writer and broadcaster David Attenborough has acquired the status of conscience of the nation by making television documentaries that bring home to a wide audience the effects of our way of life on the natural world. The latest example is his demonstration of pollution of the oceans by a deluge of plastic that is proving lethal to many of their inhabitants. The widespread media attention that all this gets today may make us think it is a modern phenomenon, but Thomas shows that its roots go back to the early modern period, when profound changes in outlook occurred. [Continue reading]

Book review: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

There is an abundance of ideas in this novel but the central concept is an evolutionary one: a population of spiders acquires a technological civilisation capable of space exploration. There is no question of aliens here; the spiders belong to a species named Portia labiata, which exists on Earth today.

The world on which the spiders live has been created by terraforming carried out by humans from Earth, and is one of a number of similar projects undertaken in the remote past by the 'Old Empire'. But civil war led to the destruction of that civilisation, and Dr Avrana Kern, the scientist in charge of the spiders' world, had been left on her own for millennia. (Individuals can live for centuries in a form of artificial hibernation, although by this time she has largely uploaded herself into a computer to ensure the survival of her monitoring capacity.) [Continue reading]

Book review: The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England, by Keith Thomas

'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' So wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel The Go-Between, and that would be a good epigraph for Keith Thomas's scholarly but very readable study, in which he examines what the men and women of early modern England sought to make of themselves, what goals they pursued, and what were the objectives which, they believed, gave their lives meaning. Thomas uses the same metaphor as Hartley to describe his purpose in writing. [Cpntinue reading]

Book review: Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas tells us that this book began as an attempt to make sense of why some now outmoded belief systems, which he terms collectively magical, were current in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. As he wrote he found that there was a close relationship between these beliefs and the religious ideas of the period; sometimes the two seemed to be closely connected, at others they were in conflict. He therefore enlarged the scope of his study to include an examination of these interactions. Inevitably the result was a very long book, even though he deliberately confined the discussion to England, with only brief glances at Wales; he made no attempt to include Scotland or Ireland, let alone continental Europe.

This is probably the most comprehensive and widely cited study of these subjects to have appeared in the last half-century. Although it is a scholarly work, it scores highly for readability. [Continue reading]

Book review: The Mind Is Flat, by Nick Chater

Sigmund Freud did not invent the notion of the unconscious—in one form or another it goes back to antiquity—but he undoubtedly popularised it. Thanks largely to him, many people today think of their minds in terms of the iceberg metaphor, which implies that much of what goes on in our minds is largely or completely unknown to us. The idea of the unconscious is deeply infused in art, literature, and many other aspects of our life; in fact, it is so widespread that it is practically impossible to escape.

But why has it remained so popular? Probably because it corresponds with how we think of ourselves intuitively. (At least, this is true for Westerners; whether the idea is so deeply ingrained in other cultures I'm not sure.) And yet some psychologists and philosophers have rejected the notion of an unconscious mind. This where Chater stands, although, as he tells us, he came to this view only after a long struggle. [Continue reading]

Book review: Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

At the end of the third volume of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion, a lot of threads were left dangling. Here they are all tidied up pretty completely, against the background of life in post-war Britain, which still has plenty of hardships to be endured more or less stoically. Rationing of food, clothing, and fuel is still there or is even increasing under the Labour government, and there are the famous London smogs, one of which Howard describes vividly. [Continue reading]

Book review: The Stories of English, by David Crystal

There have been many histories of English but nearly all of them focus on what Crystal terms Standard English. His book, he claims, is different. Its title is "The Stories of English" and not "The Story of English", because it sets Standard English in the context of the numerous other varieties of the language that have existed and still exist today. All of these, Crystal believes, are equally valid and deserving of respect.

The book covers the whole history of English, starting with Old English and continuing up to the twenty-first century. At all stages on the way we meet a great number of variations, which are illustrated with often lengthy quotations (this is a long book). Continue reading

Book review: Christian Beginnings, by Geza Vermes

Geza Vermes, who died in 2014, was an advocate for the view that Jesus can only be properly understood in a Jewish context, something he argued in more than twelve books; see, for example, The Changing Faces of Jesus. He portrays Jesus as a rural Galilean prophet, exorcist and healer who preached the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God but made no claim to divine status.

Christian Beginnings, as Vermes explains in his introduction, takes the story further. It is "an attempt to sketch the historical continuity between Jesus portrayed in his Galilean charismatic setting and the first ecumenical council held at Nicaea in AD 325, which solemnly proclaimed his divinity as a dogma of Christianity". [Continue reading]

Book review: This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Adam Kay is now a comedian and writer for television and film. Before that he was a junior doctor in the NHS for six years and this book contains the diaries he kept at that time. We follow him as he embarks on his career after qualifying, and quickly finds that his medical training has not prepared him for what awaits him: not just responsibility for the lives of his patients but frequent relocations, substandard accommodation, and above all lack of sleep. The experiences he describes will no doubt surprise anyone whose idea of hospital medicine has been formed by a diet of medical soaps but will be entirely familiar to readers who have been there themselves. [Continue reading]

Book review: Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill

This book was written in old age, when Athill was about to turn 90 (she is now 100). But although the experience of growing old and facing death is one of her themes, it is far from the only one. She writes perceptively about people she has known and objectively and frankly about herself and her earlier life, including her many love affairs. Hers has been a pretty full life, one would think, but she wishes it could have been even fuller—one regret is that she would have liked to learn modern Greek and to have lived and worked in Greece.

Although she had previously published a collection of short stories and a novel, she didn't think of herself as a writer, and discovering in old age that she could produce memoirs that people wanted to read came as a delightful surprise. It shouldn't have done. She is moro of a 'writer' than are many of those who ostentatiously describe themselves as such. [Continue reading]

Book review: Candide, by Voltaire

Voltaire's satirical novel Candide is probably known by reputation to more people, at least in the English-speaking world, than have actually read it. This is a pity, because it scores very highly for readability as well as importance. It is quite short and the narrative moves along at a cracking pace; there is no time to be bored. Read more