Book Reviews

 

Book reviews

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers – Paul Hoffman

I read a little book recently. It was dedicated to a man famous
among mathematicians but otherwise little known. It has been argued he
was among the greatest men in his field but it was not his genius or the
huge work he contributed to science that made me admire him. It was his
simple way of life and his readiness to help others.

Paul Erdös owned less than it took to fill two suitcases of
clothes, which for the most part were described as shabby at best. No
investment caught his attention nor any desire to be wealthy. If he met
someone who needed money he gave it freely and unconditionally. He only
had time for his mathematical art, and in applying such he gave
assistance to any and all who needed advice or help with a theory.

The tale made me feel inadequate and jealous of a man who could be
happy without the consumerism that besets the rest of us mortals. I
often say I could live under a tree in a shed but I harbour doubts. I
too am afflicted with the desire to surround myself with the mundane,
the false sense of security that possessions give me.

Perhaps the hour I try to spend at Meeting lets me forget the base
world I belong to. I certainly feel better afterward. At least I hope
the hour goes someway to making me a little better a person.

Paul Erdös was not a religious man. He referred to god as “The
Supreme Fascist” if he referred to god at all. He would tell people that
“The Supreme Fascist” kept “The Book” in which were kept all the
answers that men strived to know and laughed at their feeble attempts to
find them.

Religious or not, I believe he was closer to the Spirit than I and
closer than many who would claim to be. If he crossed to an afterlife
with consciousness intact, I hope he enjoys reading “The Book”.

Owen Evans


Quakers in Politics – Adrian Glamorgan

We Quakers involve ourselves in politics at our spiritual peril, yet it is a risk that devotion requires.

It is easy to be unseated. Religion is about the eternal; politics about
the temporal. Religion is about what is right; politics about what is
possible. Religion seeks to accept God’s offer of closeness, but
requires obedience. Politics seeks popularity, and too often entails
license.

Friends have been engaged in politics ever since the early
seekers sought a Commonwealth of England. George Fox set up an office
for Quakers just round the corner from the palace, and on the accession
of James II to the crown, spoke truth to power. Penn tried an experiment
in the New World. While there were benefits, there were also
self-deception and collusion: the Pennsylvanian parliament allocated
funds for the “King’s chaff,” a euphemism for gunpowder that attempted
to save the uneasy from First Day embarrassment.

In Western Australia, Friend Laurie Wilkinson was a Senator for
the Australian Labor Party in the 1960s, at a time of turbulence and
great hope for another experiment, the one that became the Whitlam
years. Many of us would welcome recollections about this time and
Laurie’s contribution.

Friend Jo Vallentine in 1984 astounded many by being elected a
Nuclear Disarmament Party senator, ultimately representing the state for
the Greens. She bore the burdens of political struggle, and paid a toll
on her health in the process, but she inspired, she would undoubtedly
blush to hear, tens of thousands of people around the country and gained
the grudging respect of many in parliament. Her trademark red hair and
firebrand style, engaged in grassroots actions seemed to embody what
Quakerism could be. Her time since then has continued to lead others
through example.

Yet not everyone wears this style as comfortably. Some are
contemplative, engaged in works serving God in less prominent style. We
are as rich for this as those more overtly political. It is vital to
remember that we cannot know how each of us vote. Some do not vote Green
or (despite what Garrison Keillor once wrote about the Quakers of Lake
Woebegone!) Labor. Hopefully all are as welcome at the Meeting, and
respected for their free choice, as any other.

What is more in contention is how well we support the difficult
business of working in the world but not being of it. If a Quaker’s
involvement – or non-involvement – in any political work is about
surface altruism or ignorance, stems solely from an ideological or
indifferent temperament, and does not involve close communion with the
still, small voice, we will have lost our way indeed. No vote in a
ballot box can recover that loss, whoever wins. Quaker politics, like
Quaker anything, comes as the outward gesture of an inner listening, or
it is nothing.


Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language – by Harvey Gillman

Two reviews:

Harvey Gillman has written a series of essays that deal with the
“the very human search for meaning and how we express this area of human
experience”. He explores how our expression of this search is affected
by the language of our culture and our personal ‘questing’. The title
of the book arises because a blackbird visited him with song whilst
writing it.

He begins with his personal experience as he sees this as our
primary teacher. He next discusses the layers of meaning that can be
associated with the words spirit (sometimes spelt with capital ‘S’ and
other times lower case), spirituality, soul and religion. The theme of
story plays an important part in his deliberations. He sees story as
‘narrative embodied in the life of the storyteller and his or her
people’.

Other areas explored include systems of belief and how we
construct meaning in our lives, belonging, and myth and science. The
book is based very much on Harvey’s personal experiences but offers much
for the reader to reflect upon.

Allan Knight

* * *
It is exciting when a book resonates
with, and expands, lines of thought you have already been following.
This was such a book for me. In his own words from the preface:

I am aware that we are living in a time of conflicting stories
and of grave if not lethal misunderstandings. But somehow among the
cries of despair and calls for vengeance there needs to be a time when
we can quietly reflect on what we mean by the stories and the images in
which we try to embody our truths. It is often in the name of truth that
at best we tolerate those who are different, and at worst try to
eliminate them. It is important then that we try to understand what we
mean by “truth.”. This book is a series of essays on spirituality and
language. I am trying to explore what we mean by spirituality, story and
myth; how we use language and metaphor; what role the scientific method
of discovering truth (or truths) may play here and how the artistic
process may help us to express the truths we discover.

It is a short book, extremely well written. For me it helped to
clarify the role that story and myth play in helping us to connect with
and experience the ultimate mystery and how language starts to become
inadequate in this very experience. I think it is also relevant to some
of the discussions we are having in WARM. One of the queries to come out
of our July discernment day was “The different expressions of faith in
WARM – are they merely semantic or are they more profound?”

My thought after reading this book is that semantic often IS profound.

From the book: “When we use a word we are playing with its whole
history. ….Meanings are iridescent; they change according to the lights
of their users and the cultures in which they were and are used.” For
example, when we use (or refrain from using) the word “God” it has to be
interpreted in the context of our whole life experience.

There is a lot more in the book and I highly recommend it. There is a copy available in the library.

Jim Thom


Ground and Spring – Beth Allen

(Swarthmore lecture 2007)

From the back cover:

Beth Allen offers her understanding of faithful discipleship,
starting with how we experience and think about God. She explores how we
can think and worship today in integrity to our inner selves and to our
knowledge of the world, and takes a practical approach to theological
and philosophical concepts, from her Quaker and Anglican experience.

We need a solid foundation to ground us as we reach for the
ideals, the actions which will make peace and justice real today. For
Quakers, this starts with the meeting for worship, and continues with
the experience of God found in words from Quaker and other traditions.
The cool stillness of the Spirit is the source of enormous, exuberant
life.

Published by QUAKER books:

ISBN 0 901689 67 X

Tricia Wood


A Peaceable Kingdom – Jan de Hartog

I have been reading A Peaceable Kingdom by Jan de Hartog (in the
Quaker library) and am pondering still some of the questions it provoked
in me. The novel is an account of George Fox’s first visits to
Swarthmoor Hall, his impression on Margaret Fell, and her household, and
the subsequent disruption of their orderly lives.

The author paints a picture of the joy and freedom of fervent
religious conversion. He also explores the complex chain of events which
follow Fox’s challenge to the status quo; the predictable anger and
punitive reaction of the church and local magistrates (including
Margaret’s husband, Thomas). He draws on early writings and history to
imagine how and why the ‘children of the Light’ acted on their newfound
personal relationship with God and the consequent relationships of
equality across servant/mistress boundaries it required.

The author explores the consequences of these shifts – what
happens after a charismatic call to God? What does ‘that of God in
everyone’ actually mean to different people?

Is a fiery call to salvation enough if the love offered is
abstract, an awakening without follow-through or responsibility taken
for the consequent chaos, suffering and imprisonment?

What is a miracle – the suspension of the laws of nature or a
more everyday awakening of love and humanity through service inspired by
the Spirit?

Fascinating questions. But the most valuable part of reading this
book for me was a closer connection to the beginnings of my faith
tradition; a feeling of admiration and affection for those brave,
visionary, joyous and all too human Early Friends.

Reviewed by Brenda Roy (now enthralled in the 2nd volume – deep in the Pennsylvanian woods).


No Shame, No Fear – by Ann Turnbull.

Walker Books Ltd. (Available in the Meeting House Library)

OMG. Can you like imagine the easiness of life without the TEE?
This chick can’t even read! On the other hand … she doesn’t get a
School ball. Or even a mirror.

OK, OK. To be accurate, this is not the 21st century. This is
1662 and the girl in question is Susannah, a teen Quaker. Ann Turnbull’s
“No Shame, No Fear” is her story, as well as the story of William, a 17
year old who comes from a very different, wealthy background. The novel
proceeds slowly but steadily, as the two fall in love amidst a quite
accurate historical setting. But their love is threatened by the clashes
of faith and culture, and the deep prejudices that pervaded English
society at the time.

The voices of the text are calm and strong, and narrate a neat
and enjoyable story – in this text primarily suited to 11-15 year olds.

In short, (despite the off-putting cover art ? so not designed
for a teen audience … so totally homely!) the novel “No Shame, No
Fear” is deserving of a solid 3 and a half stars. The sequel, “Forged in
the Fire”, (published 2006) is now also available.

Martha Wood


The Quaker Way; Serious Religion Without Priest, Creed or Eucharist – David Johnson.

The 20 page booklet sells for $5.00, and is available from
Friends Book Sales in Adelaide (Friends Book Sales, PO Box 181, GLEN
OSMOND SA 5064 or sales@quakers.org.au)

This would make a very good introduction to Quakerism, but also
presents reminders and challenges for the more mature Quaker. The
preface says: “Quakers are sure that the Spirit can speak to each of us
directly. Priests, creeds and sacraments are not required to enhance our
spiritual lives or guide our actions for a better world. This freedom
to worship means we must take personal responsibility to nurture our own
relationship with the Spirit. In this pamphlet David Johnson explores
both the origins of the Quaker practice dating back to George Fox, and
also how we might respond today.”


Endeavors to Mend: Perspectives on British Quaker work in the world today. Edited by Brian Phillips and John Lampen

The title of this book comes from William Penn’s message that
“True Godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live
better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it”.

The book is a collection of essays describing recent examples of
Quaker global witness arising within Britain Yearly Meeting and also in
association with the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), Geneva. We are
introduced to Friends activities in many spheres of conflict and need
through the work done by individuals and their various Quaker support
groups. We read of the work done amongst asylum seekers in Britain,
community peace making in the North Caucasus and relief efforts in the
Balkans and of Quaker peace witness at home. Rachel Brett’s chapter
deals with the work done by QUNO towards changing international laws
regarding Child Soldiers.

If we are wondering whether there is a continuing Quaker
tradition of witness for peace and justice in the world today, this book
shows what is being achieved by some committed groups and individuals
in their endeavours to be ‘patterns and examples’ answering that of God
in everyone.


For information about the Quaker Library at the Meeting House in Mt Lawley, leave contact details on (08) 9272 1268

From the library

Quaker Artist Greets the Light

Somewhere between his Sky Space for Live Oak Meeting House in
Houston, Texas and his Deershelter Skyspace in the Yorkshire Sculpture
Park in England, James Turrell returned to his Quaker roots and became a
convinced Friend. Turrell lives and works in New Mexico, USA. Much
younger than his siblings, Turrell relates that he was frequently left
with his conservative Quaker grandmother (in California), who dressed
him with Quaker simplicity, including the broadbrimmed black hat. In
most of his many interviews, he tells the story of his introduction to
The Light by his grandmother:

“We had very early Meetings, or earlier Meetings. Some of them
were longer than one hour. And so it’s something for a child to be
introduced to the Meeting. And there was this time when you no longer
are in first day school, but you actually come and joing the Meeting.
And my grandmother was trying to tell me what you did. So her
explanation to me was you went inside to greet the light.”

It was this memory that has continued to guide Turrell’s art in
his chosen medium, “the perception of light.” In the Library, we have
two books and a collection of articles on his art:

The Herbert book became a part of the WARM Extension Library
(“Country Boxes”) in January. First stop, Bridgetown. In April, the
collection of writings titled “Light As Art” will follow the path of the
Herbert book. Butterfield’s book features a number of other artists in
addition to Turrell and will stay at home in the WARM Library in Mount
Lawley.

In September 2007, High Flats Meeting House in England, as part
of its Quaker Week arts programme, premiered a twelve-minute film about
Turrell’s Deershelter Skyspace. Narrated by Judi Dench, the film is a
product of Yorkshire Quaker Arts Project, “with spiritual and financial
support from Quaker Outreach in Yorkshire and enthusiastic co-operation
from YSP [Yorkshire Sculpture Park.]” Cost, including international
shipping, is about £10. As one might guess, this film is on the
Library’s Wish List. Having already missed Santa and the Great Channukah
Candle, are there any elves, menehunes, gnomes, leprechauns, or book
fairies in broad-brimmed black hats out there? Read about it here.

Don’t forget you can peruse reviews and other information about the whole collection at librarything.com.

Janice Stensrude.

Discovering God as Companion

About twelve years ago, a group of American Quakers began
publishing a quarterly newsletter that they named What Canst Thou Say.
Everyone associated with the publication — writers, editors, and
publishers — were, and continue to be, volunteers. Each of them had a
personal mystical experience that demanded telling, and they sought out
others who, too, had revelatory stories to share.

In celebration of their tenth anniversary, the group have
published God As Companion, a collection of 65 stories and poems that
were previously published in the newsletter. Editor Mariellen Gilpin has
written an introductory essay to each of the five sections: God
Breaking In, God in Nature, God in Times of Pain and Despair, Living
Faithfully, and In Celebration. Every piece is beautifully written,
especially the poems, which are sparsely scattered throughout. The
writers give their experiences of turning to God, discovering God,
rediscovering God, and even being discovered by God. Each of these
offerings is clearly a response to George Fox’s question: “Art thou a
child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou
speakest, is it inwardly from God?”

These true tales represent our most joyful moments — moments of
discovery, moments of epiphany, moments of profound gratitude or
grateful relief. Demaris Wehr offers the perfect prayer: a heartfelt,
deeply sincere “Dear God, help me.” Rita Varley shares her experience of
feeling a connection build as she prays for a stranger. Marti Matthews
joyously relates her discovery of flossing as a spiritual practice.

Those among us who are tender and weepy by nature, or transiting
through one of those times in life when tears and sympathy are easily
aroused, will find adequate cause to exercise those delicate emotions.
Allison Randall, a survivor of sexual abuse, tells us that a little
wooden angel, with a knothole where the heart would be, reminds her that
she “might still be of use to God.” A grown daughter remembers her
horribly abusive childhood at the hands of her mother, who now lies
dying, and heals them both as she is guided to hold her mother and croon
her into the arms of God. Your heartstrings are not wantonly jerked.
Each of these writers relates an experience of Spirit that left them
stronger and more whole.

Discovering God as Companion is a devotional, a hymnal, a
spiritual memoir, a reminder of the mystical presence of God in the
lives of people we know. Read it and be inspired, be comforted,
experience goodness, experience God, the Spirit, Oneness, the Force,
Universal Energy — Love. Feel supported in your own mystical
experiences; be inspired to share them.

As Mariellen Gilpin reminds us in her Afterword, “Not only do the
stories in Discovering God as Companion reveal God’s desire to be our
friend and companion, they tell us God is still active, just as the
prophets said. God has not stopped speaking to us just because Jesus and
the apostles no longer walk the earth. We discover revelation is
ongoing, rather than frozen in some past time and place.”

Discovering God as Companion is available in the WARM Library. To learn more about What Canst Thou Say? the newsletter, see their website.

Janice Stensrude

NEW ACCESSIONS

The Messenger That Goes Before: Reading Margaret Fell for Spiritual Nurture – Michael Birkel, 2008. 36 p. Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 398. (Call no. PHP/398)
from back cover: “Michael Birkel has discovered the letters of
Margaret Fell, one of the founding members of the Religious Society of
Friends, a ‘treasure trove’ of wise and loving counsel for those on the
spiritual journey. In a careful exploration of passages from some of
these letters, he shows modern readers how to find the gems of wisdom
embedded in the rich language of early Friends, the unique use of
Biblical imagery, and the meditative practice of ‘reading within.’
Margaret Fell’s guidance is rich in good advice for the spiritual seeker
and for those called to nurture others in their spiritual lives.
Discussion questions included.”

The Diary of Louisa Clifton: Some unique impressions – Louisa Clifton (P. U. Henn, Ed.), 1941. 13 p. Pamphlet. (Call no. B/CLI/1746)
Louisa Clifton was the eldest of the fifteen children of Marshall
Waller Clifton and his Quaker wife, Elinor Bell Clifton. Though her
husband maintained his ties with the Anglican Church, Elinor followed
her Quaker roots, worshipping in the manner of Friends and maintaining
the discrete manner of Quaker dress that she had grown up with. Louisa
was twenty-four at the time she began her diary on April 19, 1840. It
falls into four sections: her last weeks in France, preparation for the
voyage and last days in London, the voyage, and the landing and first
weeks in the colony. There was a lot to distress Louisa Clifton when her
family set foot on the shores of Western Australia. She greeted the
local natives’ ceremony of welcome with shock, rather than gratitude:
“Two of the natives dressed up for the occasion, visited the ship this
morning. They were both covered but I was more shocked than I can
express at their appearance. I never witnessed so affecting a sight as
this display of the degradation of humanity. They do not look like human
beings, so thin, so hideous, so filthy, oiled and painted red faces and
hair, and pieces of rush passed through their hair. They danced and
distressed us still more; in fact I feel distressed at the idea of
living among such a people, so low, so degraded a race.” All was not
sordid and distressing, however. Louisa’s father was an important
personage in the new colony, and she reports a number of quite civilized
dinner events with the other educated English colonists involved in the
administration of the settlement. Her longing for London breaks through
the narrative from time to time. This is a valuable record of a young
woman’s first impressions as she embarks on a new life very far away
from the familiar places of her childhood.

The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering: A story for anyone who thinks she can’t save the world – Sharon Mehdi, 2005. 47 p. Hardcover. (Call No. K2/MEH/1757)
Mehdi’s little tome is forty-seven very small pages with generous
thirteen-point type. In other words, this is a short story. “On a
buffety, blustery, early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky
turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live.”
That’s how it starts, and if I tell you more, I’m in danger of this
little review being longer than the little book, which, incidentally,
deserves its own cover and its own place in the sun, not trapped with
other stories to detract from it.

 

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