Archive for January, 2016

Books of 2015: 6 January

January 6, 2016

My 3 favourite books from last year. None are new, only new to me.

Pelagia and the White Bulldog by ‘Boris Akunin’ (2000, translated 2006) An engaging, devious, intelligent, whodunit which takes Christian faith seriously as part of Russian life.

Pelagia is a young 19th Century nun, working under Bishop Mitrofani in a small rural town. She is sent to the estate of the bishop’s aunt, a fanatic breeder of white bulldogs one of which has mysteriously died. Soon there are other deaths, with multiple suspects. Sister Pelagia has to use her quiet observation, her hunches, her ‘English’ physical education training, her looks, her vow of obedience, and her sharp mind.

‘Boris Akunin’ is the pen name of a Russian academic and popular author of Georgian and Jewish origin. It is remarkable that he has chosen to write with knowledge and sympathy about intelligent likeable Christian religious people, as well as notable Christian hypocrites. His Bishop is a charismatic leader in his community who ruminates on how to lead people out of the corrupt law of the jungle and, Akunin writes, succeeds. No doubt this is intended to apply to the 21st Century as much as the 19th. Akunin depicts the Church and its leadership, within society, more than Dickens, Eliot or even Trollope.

Akunin gives us good believable drama: interesting characters in a well-paced plot. I look forward to reading the sequel early this year.

Two Brothers by Ben Elton (2012) The story of Nazi Germany (and, less so, of its Communist aftermath) seen through the story of ‘twin’ brothers brought up in a Jewish family in Berlin.

One brother is adopted and not ethnically Jewish which makes all the difference in the culture of rabid official racism. For a while we do not know which brother is which and we care for both. Elton’s page-turning plot covers all the key moments and developments in the history with painstaking accuracy and believable roles for the main characters.

Two Brothers would be a purely enjoyable, exciting, first class, thriller if the history it portrays was not so grim. At times I needed to put the book down, overwhelmed by the horrors unfolding. I was always glad then to pick the book up again and follow, to the end, the engaging story and the beloved characters.

Reading Two Brothers is the best way I know for anyone to find out what life was like in Nazi Germany. A severe, sensitive, and scintillating story.

The Islamist Ed Husain (2007) Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left. A fascinating personal account of the attraction, history and danger of political Islamism for a young British man.

Husain achieves the right balance between his own story, thoughts and feelings, and explanation of the ideologies, their history and official responses to them, especially in Britain. His progression from spiritual to political Islam is understandable. His concern for fellow Moslems across the world, awakened especially by searing one-sided publicity of the plight of the Kosovans, is laudable. His grasp of the various schools of thought and practice is comprehensive and he conveys the nuances well. He points out the naivety and probable superciliousness of the British Establishment who turned blind eyes and deaf ears to the growth of political Islamism in the UK. He explains calmly how some people in this country and elsewhere moved on to calling for a Caliphate, long before the emergence of IS / Daesh. He describes how the rhetoric of Islamic brotherhood is belied by the practice of Islamists and how much good, beautiful, longstanding Islamic religious practice is stamped out by the political Islamists.

Husain gives some hope that many others will, like him, make the journey away from IS but, without a stronger moderate Islam, how strong can that hope be?