Book Reviews: In Search Of Birds And Black Lilies, Or Feel Better And Beg To Differ

September 8, 2020

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By ROB HOFMEYR, MARION HOFMEYR, NIGEL WILLIS, KATE DENNILL & BRUCE DENNILL

Play The Man by Mark Batterson

Featherings: True Stories In Search Of Birds edited by Vernon RL Head

I Beg To Differ: Ministry Amid The Teargas by Peter Storey

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

Feel Better Fast And Make It Last by Daniel G Amen

Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

 

Here is a Mark Batterson book I like! I do not say that without reservation, but on balance, Play The Man is a good book. The emphasis on “Man” in the title can easily be distorted. Heresy is saying something simple and claiming it as the whole truth. Let’s accept that caveat and look at the book. Batterson deals with what he terms the “seven virtues of manhood”. Each is unexceptional. None of them is actually restricted to the male gender. There are as many women as men who demonstrate the same virtues, even if they do not cry, as Batterson does, “I am a man”. I certainly disagree strongly with Batterson that our Lord demonstrated “male” virtues and in the Incarnation was an archetypal male. But Batterson is writing for a male readership who will identify with his style of thinking and illustration. Heroes are so often a male construct. If American males will be challenged by this book, it is good. If they become chauvinists, they are misreading it. The first virtue is “toughness” (I am not sure why he calls it “tough love”, which has other connotations). He could perhaps have used the word “endurance”. I like the sentence, “A true tough guy sacrifices himself for the sake of others”. Toughness does not mean lack of compassion. Batterson makes that clear. It does mean being hard on yourself and taking difficult decisions and sticking with them. The second virtue is “childlike wonder”. We do not know enough; we often have closed minds; we need humility; we need to be prepared to learn. The third virtue is “willpower”. I’m not certain that the content of this chapter can be summed up in that phrase. There is good stuff about taking responsibility for oneself, especially the reference to Viktor Frankl’s response to suffering in a death camp. Learning to say “no” to oneself, “exousia”, resisting temptation, these are attributed to strong will power. Good, but this raises questions about our God-dependence. The fourth virtue is “raw passion”. No, not what you think. This is fierce determination, willingness to tackle great challenges. Quoting CS Lewis, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures…” But under this heading, Batterson does deal also with sexual desires – strongly and frankly. The fifth virtue is “true grit”. I see only a slightly different emphasis to the preceding virtues. There are some good illustrations from American life – President Eisenhower provides some good anecdotes. It’s all about making decisions and carrying them out. “Whether it’s looking at pornography, losing your temper, or cutting corners on your tax return, stop it.” These stories are all good and moral, and not necessarily enacted by Christians. I have a problem with ordinary ability to make tough decisions without the Spirit’s help. Batterson is saying in effect that if non-believers can show “true grit”, Christians should do no less. The sixth virtue is “clear vision”. This is a mixed bag of thinking. General Andrew Jackson fought 13 duels, at least, for the sake of “honour”. Then we are taken into Jesus’ ministry and the clear vision He had. Batterson’s own mentor in ministry was a man of clear vision. Batterson and his family developed a family vision. Make your way through the haphazard thinking and find some good stuff here. The seventh virtue is “moral courage”. By now I am realising that Batterson is finding good illustrations and making them into a series of sermons, each loosely held together by a single “virtue”. Here the emphasis is on boldness and humility. He closes with a lengthy description of the rite of passage he crafted for his eldest son, then approaching 12 years. The power of these chapters is in the challenge Batterson felt in regard to his children, his responsibility for their future. It is American in style. But it does, like so much of the book, give us reason to examine how we think and live. We may feel ill at ease with some of the theology, some of the formulae, but have we anything comparable to write about? – RH

 

Featherings takes the reader on a journey to see birds that they may never get a chance to see. It is a remarkable collection of birding stories, written by some of South Africa’s most intrepid bird observers. These stories will hopefully convert a new generation of South African ornithologists and watchers of the wilderness. The chapters are written by well-known ornithologists, most of whom will be recognised as being experts in their field. Some of the birds mentioned are birds that the majority of twitchers have seen and identified. But other chapters deal with rare species. David Allan writes about the Rudds lark, usually found in the Wakkerstroom area. Mark Anderson, head of Birdlife South Africa, writes about the three species of Sandgrouse. Vernon Head writes about birding in the Strandfontein Sewage Works outside Cape Town. Then there are chapters on more elusive birds. David Letsoalao writes about the Buff-spotted flufftail, and Rob Little writes about the Shoebill. This bird is, I’m sure, on most serious birders’ wish lists – and having driven up to the Bangweula Swamps in Zambia myself, I enjoyed this description of the Kasanka National Park. As with most such trips, it is the birds one sees on the way that are as captivating as the bird one wishes to see. I would have liked to have seen some photographs included, but that was obviously not possible. – MH

 

The Methodist Church and the South African Council of Churches (SACC) were at the heart of the struggle, inside South Africa, against apartheid. Peter Storey was prominent in the leadership of both institutions.  He was President of the Methodist Conference and later, bishop, once it adopted a more ‘episcopal’ organisation structure. I got to know Storey’s wife, Elizabeth, fairly well. One of the stalwarts of the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA), she worked there for many years. I was one of IMSSA’s founding panellists, an alternate member of its board and undertook many mediations and arbitrations under its auspices. Running like a refrain through this autobiographical book, I Beg to Differ is  Storey’s tribute to her. She died in 2014. So utterly consistent were his accounts and description of Elizabeth with my own observations, that I have become convinced that this is one of the most reliable and truthful stories of the times and many of the personalities involved the drama of South Africa becoming what it is today. Storey is a sensitive and perceptive man. His truthfulness is both gripping and moving at the same time. He deals, for example, with the fact that he is and always has been a white, English- speaking, South African man. It is the best portrait I have encountered of the anomalies, contradictions, ambiguities, strengths and weakness that are inherent in that destiny. A life-long lover of the sea, Storey enrolled with the navy after school and embarked on an officer’s course. As the time for receiving his first commission approached, he received a call to enter the ministry. A calling it undoubtedly was, but the fact that his beloved father was a minster in the Methodist church could not have been mere coincidence.  An agnostic will benefit from reading his explanation for why he believes in God. The passing reference, later in the book, to the desert origins of the three great Abrahamic religions is powerful. Storey was never a supporter of apartheid, but the strength of his opposition to it grew with time. A turning point came when the leadership of the Methodist church in those days considered the chaplaincy to Robben Island to be a chore. With this frame of mind, they gave the task to Storey who was then a freshly ordained minister at a white parish on the Atlantic coast in Cape Town. Meeting, on the island, people like Nelson Mandela – who changed considerably over time – Robert Sobukwe, Govan Mbeki and other icons of the anti-apartheid struggle profoundly affected him. PW Botha called Storey a ‘communist sympathiser’ to his face. Yet Storey’s ministry took him to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall. He describes how appallingly miserable life was in that country at that time. Desmond Tutu has, for many years, been a close friend of Storey. I have often heard Tutu preach at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town and elsewhere. I met him a few times. Storey is right in describing Tutu as man of deep spirituality, despite his ebullience and occasionally exasperating manner. His spirituality is almost ‘spooky’. Tutu has been criticised for being intellectually weak as a theologian. As Storey points out, Tutu has, in fact, a gift for being able to express complex theological concepts in a starkly simple way. At times he is outstanding. Storey is no fawning admirer of everyone who has had a distinguished ‘struggle history’. Richard Goldstone, George Bizos, Beyers Naudé, Nthato Motlana and Albertina Sisulu, for example, do not escape criticism. On the other hand, people whom I have known and with whom I have worked over many years in the past like Fink Haysom, Charles Nupen, Geoff Budlender, Edwin Cameron and Azhar Cachalia are rightly lauded for their decency, competence and commitment in their opposition to apartheid. Cachalia deserves a special mention for his particularly courageous stance in what is widely, if somewhat euphemistically known as ‘the Winnie Mandela saga’. As a matter of historical record, the lasting value of this book probably lies in his account of that saga. This is of singular significance in the light of the outpouring of public emotion, arising from Madikizela-Mandela’s death. It was comparable to that in Britain following the demise of Diana, the Princess of Wales or, in Argentina, the case of Eva Peron. There is, as yet, no adequate explanation for the potency of the mass response when these iconic female figures died. We may need the help of psychologists. Interestingly, each of these women was strikingly beautiful – indeed, ‘sexy’. Storey sets out in granular detail the account of his personal dealings and experiences with Madikizela-Mandela, Stompie Seipei, the ‘Mandela United Football Club’ and related events. Storey concludes that she was responsible for grotesque evil. He attributes this to the fact that she was severely damaged by the manner in which the authorities had treated her during the apartheid era.  The truth of her misdeeds was not only embarrassing for the political movement of which she was so prominent a leader but also many in responsible positions did not believe it because it was inconvenient to do so. History can be the gravest of judges, even of distinguished reputations. Christianity recognises that the Church is not uncontaminated by the society in which it is located and of which it is a part. After several years doing a successful stint at Duke University in America, Storey was asked to assist in the establishment of a Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg. The project was beset with intrigues and racial bigotry, with tragic consequences. To an extent greater than any other province in South Africa, Kwazulu-Natal has probably been the most severely affected by its political history. It will take a long time to heal. The book is an eloquent testimony to a life that has indeed been well lived. – NW

 

The boundaries of the science fiction genre have bled somewhat over time, so it is unsurprising that when a writer emerges who diligently follows the archetypal tenets and structures, simultaneously demonstrating intriguing creativity and originality, that excitement and acknowledgment ensue. Emerging in China in the 1980s, Cixin Liu has written a significant body of both novels and short story collections. The Wandering Earth is such a collection, comprising ten short stories with a remarkable and stimulating range of ideas and concepts. The title story has also achieved box office success and is the bearer of China’s hopes of realising greater international recognition in the film scene. The reader will also be moved by profound wistfulness in With Her Eyes, challenged by societal paradigms in For The Benefit Of Humankind and inspired to reach new heights in Sun Of China. Winner of multiple awards, Liu deserves to become a firm favourite worldwide. – KD

 

Feel Better Fast And Make It Last is a comprehensive book on physical and mental health. It is partly “how to do it yourself” and partly “what resources to seek”. Daniel Amen is a Christian and a psychiatrist, and, also a well-known TV presenter. He obviously copes with a busy schedule, which includes consultations, lectures, administering a group of clinics and writing books: I count 24 in his CV. This volume appears to be a synopsis of a number of other works, so it offers the benefit of being brief and readable rather than too detailed. It’s a good book. It covers a spectrum of helpful insights and programmes for personal application. What appeals to me is that there are explanations which are readily accessible to lay readers. Obviously, I can’t offer expert critiques on his neurology, especially his claims regarding SPECT scans, which help identify actual disorders or damage to the brain. It is clear, however that the brain as an organ has an enormous impact on our behaviour and health. Its health as an organ is critically important to our well-being. Amen illustrates this with a number of case studies, particularly children with ADHD, but also severe disorders, including criminal behaviour. The good news is that organic disorders of the brain can be reversed by a number of measures, including diet, supplements, medications and physical interventions. This “brain health” is fundamental to the book, but even without the opportunity of  having the SPECT scans, there is much the ordinary person can note and apply. The chapter on the PFC (‘pre-frontal cortex’ for us uninformed laity) is amusing and informative. We can learn to exercise the controls necessary to avoid bad decisions and make good ones! Master your rational mind, conquering worry and negativity! One of the best sections is on healing and rebuilding relationships. There is a great deal of popular literature on this topic, but this is as good as any I have read, and it is in the broader context of health. It is not all about listening and speaking; it is also about eating and living healthily. The chapters on nourishment are part of a huge range of literature and although Amen has plenty of “scientific back-up” for what he writes, I am always wary of “this is it” claims in this field. How can a lay person possibly critique all the published work? Apart from TV programmes, chat shows and inspirational talks? I can simply take what I regard as a common sense approach, finding common denominators and avoiding anything that appears to claim too much. Amen comes up with some good thinking. First he highlights how the food industry lures us into “feel-good” traps. Then he tackles behavioural problems, urgency and quick-fix thinking. There is a detailed nutrition plan, which I can’t reflect here in detail, but suffice to say he tackles the business of fats, proteins and carbohydrates sensibly. Banting is not his answer. Vegetables and fruits are good. Sugar is a danger, as are sweeteners. On the expensive side, there are plenty of “nutraceuticals” or brain boosters. I am sceptical about multivitamins, while Amen is not. Omega 3 is universally accepted as good. Apart from those, read for yourself and come to a reasoned decision. And remember, you can get anti-oxidants from well-brewed rooibos rather from the pharmacy. Good, sound thinking about yourself and others (Mark 12.31) – love, in other words – has a whole chapter to itself. The book is an easy read, full of information and wisdom and some good case studies that may throw light on our own experiences. Obviously, it’s value is only in the practical outcomes. As with all good teaching, we have to apply it to our lives. – RH

 

It often feels like murder mysteries set outside of the usual locations (big cities, generally, and often in the US, for some reason) are somehow richer and more gripping for not featuring a version of the same sort of police prodecural process exposed to the nth degree in CSI or Law & Order. Black Water Lilies takes place in the small village of Giverny, a place whose fortunes are forever linked to its most famous past resident, Claude Monet. The locals are a distinctive breed, aware of their reliance on outsiders for their income and yet desirous of keeping the beauty and quaintness of their surroundings intact. A murder in Giverny, especially of an influential, wealthy man, sends out ripples that affect everyone, from a young painting prodigy to the mysterious old woman who lives in what used to be the village mill. What most of them don’t want is an investigator like the cynical interloper Laurenc Serenac arriving in town and taking charge, which he does, forming strong opinions about what my have happened. Author Michel Bussi writes a very good, innovative thriller, but then adds a whole extra dimension with a twist that is also a layer of the narrative throughout the book. It’s hugely satisfying stuff, and a step above most of the mainstream thrillers pitched to the same audience.

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