Book Reviews: Life And Consequences, Or A Deep Diary Of Voltaire

May 15, 2022


A Praying Life by Paul E Miller

A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

Diary Of A Body by Daniel Pennac

Skin Deep by Gavin Evans

Love Voltaire Us Apart by Julia Edelman and Hallie Bateman

9 Ways To Hold On When You Want To Give Up by James Merritt


There are too many books on prayer. I suspect that reading books becomes a substitute for the actual doing,  rather like the plethora of unused recipe books on many shelves. I can, however, recommend A Praying Life for two reasons: it is extremely practical, and it is born of hard experience. There is no triumphalism. We do not have suspect success stories. The writer’s personal path thus far has been tough and the future may be equally daunting. He has an autistic daughter and she has needed, since early childhood, special care and consideration and will need special accommodation and care into the future. The other children have in various ways had to learn to live around this special needs situation and it has been hard to nurture in them the understanding of a problem which God seems unable to resolve. Sane theology underpins the whole book: “American Christians have an allergic reaction to [the suffering] in the gospels. We love to hear about God’s love for us, but suffering does not mesh with our right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’. So we pray to escape a gospel story when that is the best gift the Father can give us.” There are many insights drawing on personal experience and on Scripture. There are practical suggestions about the prayer life in a busy schedule. Walking to catch a train became the moment of reflection and deep prayer. Or taking ‘baby-steps’ instead of launching into an ambitious programme of prayer which is bound to fall apart. However, there is a challenge to a long-term commitment to scheduled and adequate prayer times. There are 34 chapters, some longer, some much shorter, each one a practical step in learning to pray. There are some that combine the practical with the theological or discursive. There are two which focus on dealing with cynicism. Miller tackles serious problems in down-to-earth ways. A good book. Both a challenge and encouragement. – RH


It may be an unfair generalisation, but many contemporary novelists appear to write with their eyes more on the clock and the bank balance than with a true desire to create and craft a proper layered novel. A Banquet of Consequences certainly lives up to its name as it is a feast of a book, offering a journey with multiple tantalising side roads that twist and turn and move backwards and forwards in time. From a psychological point of view, it is challenging and not for the faint-hearted. No character is straightforward and readers who are already familiar with Lynley and Havers will enjoy the next stratum being unveiled in the story behind the story. The consequences of the novel are far-reaching and for the most part believable, and the story is certainly convincing. – KD


There’s a line in the publicity material for Diary Of A Body that mentions it in the same breath as The Diary Of Adrian Mole, but that’s a lazy, misleading notion: Daniel Pennac’s book is more complex, more difficult to read, more thought-provoking and ultimately, more satisfying than that perhaps more well-known title. Pennac’s protagonist processes his entire world – you could call it dysfunctional, but that would only be fair in certain instances, and then only from a subjective point of view – via the way his body reacts to the circumstances in which he finds himself. This extends to situations romantic and sexual, intellectual and creative, and private and public. The character’s observations are often banal – an unfamiliar spot on the hand with which he is writing – but they often speak to significant scenarios (potential illness, in that case). As such, it’s impossible to not identify with the man at the centre of this story: all of us have had an itch, or a feeling of love or lust, or a moment of courage or cowardice. He may come across as finicky and even paranoid from time to time, but even that is relatively normal, as the minutiae of our days generally do feel more important to us than whatever major event may have occurred somewhere out in the world. – BD


Dr Gavin Evans grew up in South Africa, though he’s now working in London. The son of an Anglican bishop who was highly critical of the apartheid legislation and active in opposing it, Gavin learned and understood from an early age the appalling appeal and destructive power of racism. Observing the emergence of “scientific racism” in the First World, and its growing following, he has written a third book on the subject. In this magisterial work he demolishes the so-called evidence and the arguments for believing that our race is our destiny. Skin Deep is a wide-ranging book, and begins properly with a review of  current palaeo-anthropology and archaeology, intriguingly taking us beyond the common contemporary thesis that Homo sapiens developed in Africa and migrated from there in various groupings over millennia to ‘colonise’ the rest  of the world. His is a more nuanced position, looking at interbreeding with earlier hominids during the migrations. Recent research shows just how mixed we all are genetically. For all human existence, populations have replaced each other, absorbed each other and blended with each other. This is a book of challenges: are we smarter than our ancestors? How did “scientific racism” emerge and why is it so enduring, despite the evidence that negates it? Are race groups real? Here we have a more nuanced response, based on the 1972 work of Richard Lewontin. The important issue is that we not stereotype by racial definitions nor pretend that no relevant biological distinctions exist between populations, or that it’s dangerous to allude to them, ie not ‘PC’. This leads to the examination of athletic prowess: he scotches the popular belief that Kenyan and Ethiopian genes endow their runners with extraordinary powers. Or that “French genes” are responsible for cycling success and so on. Successes in various fields are attributable to many factors, especially social and economic. Do intelligence-related genes differ substantially among populations and races? Don’t IQ scores prove that they do? What is IQ and is it hardwired? The discussion continues: do rising IQs suggest genetic or environmental change? The Bell Curve: what’s it all about and why is it  back? This is a reference to totally discredited book which received wide acclaim when fist published, and which despite its proven deficiencies is still quoted by politicians as if it were gospel. Are Jews smarter than everyone else? Can white men jump and black men swim? Do some population groups have different brains from others? Under each heading, Evans meticulously dissects the research published and what is important, what the darlings of our pop culture, notably Jordan Peterson and his ilk, trumpet as “science”. Yuval Harari and many other celebrity writers do not escape unscathed. This is itself a book of popular science, not a work of original research, but it serves a very important purpose in a time when “scientific racism” is both gaining new platforms and feeding the thinking and policy-making of important politicians, not least Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, inter alia. There are aspects which I do not like, however. Evans does tend to brand anyone who would take a contrary view as “racist”, even when their work does not suggest any such bias. It is possible in this complex area to arrive at very different conclusions. While he quotes eminent scientists to refute Richard Dawkins, (‘a journalist rather than a scientist’) that does not put Dawkins in the racist camp. I find it intriguing that Evans, despite his South African connections, hardly refers to any South African authorities, including pioneers such as Lewis-Williams, Tobias, Berger, and many others. The South African universities also go unmentioned. Why? Perhaps Evans finds himself happily entrenched in the Northern Hemisphere community which for the most part ignores its lowly counterparts ‘down under’, according little credit where much is due. Can one speak of ‘hemispherism’? Whatever else might be said, though, this is a good and useful book. – RH


A quick read or a great gift idea for a friend who enjoys literature and has a sense of humour, Love Voltaire Us Apart is a collection of short passages, questions and answers to questions and quotes from famous (and infamous) philosophers, or written in the style of those philosophers – to hilarious effect. So there are imagined love letters, pick-up lines or break-up messages from Descartes and Camus, Marx and Sartre. There are signs to look for of your partner is writing a manifesto and a quiz to help you determine your philosopher crush. It’s all delightfully silly, but in a way that celebrates the intellect as much as it does matters of the heart, and which will leave you with a smile on your face and an appreciation of our shared desire for love and acceptance. – BD


Self-help books often have to overcome the hurdle of their readers’ state of mind in order to have any effectiveness. In this instance, pastor and author James Merritt is hoping to speak to those struggling to keep going, for whatever reason, and not all of that group are likely to want to – or have the energy to – invest in the time and effort it takes to read a book, even one as slim as 9 Ways To Hold On When You Want To Give Up. This makes Merritt’s approach both a wise choice from a publishing point of view and an emotionally sensitive strategy that arguably gives his insights the greatest possible chance of hitting home where they might be useful. It’s a simple approach – nothing too sophisticated: Merritt unpacks anecdotes from either his own life or from other contemporary individuals, and then relates those to Biblical characters, explaining how their hardships were either addressed or served to play an important role in some greater narrative. What he gets right is the tone: there is empathy and compassion, but never condescension. This means writing that is simple, but not simplistic – easy to understand, but never trite. This aids an immediate identification with both Merritt and the many personalities peopling the pages of this book. There are obvious lessons to learn, and if you feel like you’re unable to apply them personally, it should be impossible to read this and still imagine yourself alone in your difficulties. – BD