Book Reviews: Imagine Missing Architects, Or Remembering Orphans

June 11, 2021

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By DRIES BRUNT, OWEN FRANKLIN, ROB HOFMEYR & BRUCE DENNILL

If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana

Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering The Future Of Civilisation by John Browne

Where Architects Sleep: The Most Stylish Hotels In The World by Sarah Miller

Missing Jesus? by John Wessels

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Remembering Rhinos by Wildlife Photographers United

 

If I Stay Right Here deals with a stumbling relationship between two people with completely different personalities and backgrounds.  Yet, with a strong emotional and sexual attachment, they keep on stumbling forward. This tale is not for the faint-hearted. The writer calls a spade a spade, which makes writing this story a courageous enterprise. Is too much of a good thing too much, though? I think the charm of the friendship gets lost in the tumultuous way of life of the characters. There’s a deep sadness in reading about the lifestyle of two very talented people wrestling with existential issues.  All in all, this is a brilliant account of empty living that ensnares a pair of interesting people. – DB

 

Make, Think, Imagine, a substantial volume by Lord John Browne, CEO of BP from 1995 to 2007, is a most fascinating read. The author, an engineer by training, gives an overview of how engineering has contributed positively to human civilisation. Born in 1948, Browne lists major achievements in his lifetime: “… at least twenty new vaccines have been engineered and produced, eradicating or limiting the spread of many crippling diseases.  The proportion of the world’s children that die before they reach the age of five has dropped from more than one in five to fewer than one in twenty-five. In the world’s richest countries, the infant survival rate is ten times better still. Average life expectancy has increased  by more than two decades. The prime instigators of these advances have been the systems we have engineered to provide medicine, food, water, sewerage, energy and, in its fullest and most liberating sense, prosperity. And whereas nearly three-quarters of all people lived in extreme poverty in 1950, less than 10 per cent do today. People are, on average, not just better off; they are also better informed and educated – global literacy rates have climbed from just 35 per cent to more than 85 per cent during the same period.” In writing this book, Browne met with over 100 experts in their different fields and included many of their observations. There are more than 75 black and white illustrations, from early computers to the James Webb Space Telescope constructed in 2017. Browne does not shy away from key questions about the negative possibilities of technological advances. Are the decisions about our health, security and finances made by computer programmes inexplicable and biased? Are robots going to take our jobs? Will better healthcare lead to an ageing population that cannot be cared for? Will we all be terrorised by autonomous drones that can identify and kill us, one by one? And has our demand for energy driven the Earth’s climate to the edge of catastrophe? Browne is articulate and intelligible in arguing that we need not and must not put the brakes on technological advance. He argues compellingly that the same spark that triggers each innovation can be used to counter its negative consequences. Make, Think, Imagine provides an eloquent blueprint for how we can keep moving towards a brighter future. – OF

 

Phaidon continue to publish books that catch their imagination rather than anything that seems to be a sure bet in the mainstream sense. Where Architects Sleep, a robust, hardcover volume is really nothing more than a list of fine hotels, the result of 1,200 recommendations from 270 architects from around the world. There are no pictures, and the most detailed part of each recommendation is a short quote from one of the arguments. There is 500 pages of this, without a single picture, and for the bulk of readers, most of the hotels would likely be out of reach in budget terms. And yet, it’s a strangely satisfying exercise dipping in and out of the list, if only because the content is shaped by people who look for slightly different facets in places to stay than those of us checking Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet for good deals. And where the endorsement involves the phrase “Wish I’d Designed”, curiosity is immediately aroused, meaning reader follow-up will often take place. Very niche, but pleasing. – BD

 

Missing Jesus? has developed over years of careful preparation and teaching, and is the culmination of pastoral experience, careful application of that experience and rigorous re-writing. Understandably it carries endorsements from highly respected pastors and teachers, including Alan Boesak, Trevor Hudson, Mamphela Ramphele and Faith Whitby. It is a guide for group and individual study, and for a congregational programme of Bible study, preaching and leadership development. If I were a minister or priest in charge of a church, I’d seriously consider setting aside half a year dedicated to following this book. John Wessels is a Methodist minister who is passionate about Jesus and His Kingdom, believing that the message of the Kingdom is hugely important in Southern Africa today. His intention is that Christians, or “church members” build an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than be “consumers” of religion. The book is carefully structured, so that each chapter or study presents the teaching material, followed by suggestions for discussion, revision, reflection and application., suited to both group and individual reflection Although there is good, meaty Bible study and theology, the reader is not let off the hook without considering the personal and practical implications of the teaching. The first chapter is simply, “Missing Jesus” and is the keystone of the whole book. It is followed by chapters on community, fellowship and division, all born of pastoral experience. The second set is on the person, nature and mission of Jesus. Here again, beautifully spelled out theology, together with illustrations from our lives as well as those of 1st Century followers. The nature of Jesus’ kingdom teaching is extraordinarily well set out: a blend of deep reflections on the New Testament and practical outworkings in the life of the contemporary church and the lives of individuals. We are not in this alone; we are part of a citizenry which gives shape and communal purpose to our own faith. Our individual commitment must have a bigger and richer life in fellowship and joint action. The final section consists of several chapters on the Holy Spirit, each one valuable and important in itself. I was struck by the chapter on the Holy Spirit and the Christian’s relationship with the environment. The book concludes with reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, appropriately. “”Your Kingdom come”. This is one of a number of such series, but is easily the most appropriate for the Church in Southern Africa today. It is tough and yet encouraging, challenging and supportive. I’d highly recommend it to pastors and leaders. – RH

 

Orphan Train is a very enjoyable novel, now in reprint. It has had enormous success, and understandably so. It is of a genre that takes us back into our own roots, our family history and our identity: somewhere between a scientific genealogical study and a discovery of interesting family memorabilia and photographs in the attic. Between 1854 and 1929 “orphan trains” ran regularly from the East Coast cities to the farmlands of the Midwest. Abandoned children, orphans, and often unidentified immigrant children were ferried from the slumlands to towns and farms where they would become real members of families, household drudges or unpaid farmhands. Age, physical attractiveness and attitude all played a role in the selection process, one not unlike a slave market, where the children were on display. Niamh Power is one of the last of these children, on a train in 1929. In 21st Century Maine another orphan, the teenage Molly Ayer, finds herself moving from one foster home to another. Rebellious and unwanted, she must atone for her latest transgressions and as her community service duty, she spends many hours with an elderly woman Vivian Daly, helping her comb through the contents of her attic. As the days pass, they discover how much they have in common, for this lovely octogenarian is in fact Niamh Power. In this kinship each is able to come to an understanding of the other and in fact of themselves. Each individual story is well told, with vivid accounts of the harsh realities of being unwanted children, the struggle for survival and for identity, especially in welfare systems that almost a century apart both lack sensitivity and grace. There are times of joy and happy friendships, testimonies to human resilience. The interweaving of these two stories makes for a good, worthwhile read. – RH

 

Part of a series of large-format coffee table books utilising the talents of a collection of gifted photographers to highlight both the beauty and the plight of a number of endangered species (cheetahs, lions, elephants and great apes among them), Remembering Rhinos carries on the work of making readers aware of what has and is being done in the conservation effort around these animals, and the scope of what remains to be achieved. Rhinos receive a great deal of press, which can have the effect of diluting the effect of the message being proclaimed. The strength of this publication is in its bringing artistry to the equation, with gorgeous pics making striking statements of their own. It is also not merely a document of South African rhino species, which receive perhaps the lion’s share (to mix a wildlife metaphor) of the creatures’ coverage, also including majestic photographs of the Sumatran, Javan and Indian rhinos alongside the well-known (in South Africa, at any rate) white and black varieties. As much a gallery experience as a book, this collection of pictures is a tribute – that term given extra heft given that the photographs are all donated by their creators, to a wonderful, fascinating group of animals. And given that all profits earned from the sale of the title are invested in rhino protection programmes in both Africa and Asia, it’s a gift that will hopefully keep on giving for some time to come. – BD

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