This year (2020)

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Nigel Hinton:
    The Heart of the Valley
Mike Gayle:
    Half A World Away
Rodney Stark:
    God's Battalions

The Heart of the Valley, by Nigel Hinton

     The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock", something I had never heard of before, but apparently the more common name is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes place somewhere in the English countryside, near a couple of farms. And we follow the drama of this little hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
    There are so many of these little birds peeping and tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species, yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
    The book starts off in the winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
    The story then shifts to Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert, then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
    Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic birds?
    Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.

Half A World Away, by Mike Gayle

     The story is concerned with adaptation. For one reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution for dealing with the situation.
    In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is more or less looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and her baby brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken into care. The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near Primrose Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law courts of London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home with other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning other peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
    Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact them would they release such information.
    We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
    Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
    Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.

God's Battalions, by Rodney Stark

     This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades", thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers; throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive, violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont, addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
    Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture? And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
    Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620 Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia, first through attacks on caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab warriors who came after Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands, including Jerusalem.
    It is said that the system which developed was tolerant, world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But is this really true?
    Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh, intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the world adhere to that religion?
    Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions. And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed, tortured, killed.
    The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed; the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
    Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
    And finally we have the fact that these days, many Muslims consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.