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Set in a rather more prosaic setting – England’s heavily industrialised ‘Potteries’ district in the late 1800s – Arnold Bennett’s highly acclaimed novel, The Old Wives’ Tale is no less compelling. The story follows the lives of two sisters, the adventurous, unconventional Sophia, and Constance, her more dour and custom-bound sibling. It is by turns, uplifting, amusing – and sombre, viz. Sophia’s piercing observation as an old woman: “The riddle of life itself was killing her, and she seemed to drown in a sea of inexpressible sorrow.”
A title with as much relevance to critical thinking as any modern-day book on the subject, is Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates. Read it and see if you don’t end up applying Socrates’ method of incisive cross-examination to your opinions and, even better, to current political and social debate. But this 2000 year-old tool kit of logical dissection comes with a warning: it needs a clear head, so should not to be applied after your evening glass of wine!
All of our seven new titles are cited below. Click on the thumbnail images of the front covers for more details.
Born in India, Rudyard Kipling is renowned for his varied tales of the sub-continent. Less well-known is the Nobel laureate’s attachment to the United States and especially to Vermont, where he lived (in Brattleboro) for over four years. Here he made the acquaintance of Dr. James Conland who had fished with the Grand Banks fleet as a youth. Dr. Conland’s nautical reminiscences sparked Kipling’s creative mind and, “rejoicing to escape from the dread respectability of our little town” the two men ran off to “the shore front, and to the old T-wharf of Boston Harbour, and to queer meals in sailors’ eating-houses… we boarded every craft that looked as if she might be useful, and we delighted ourselves to the limit of delight.”
Captains Courageous is the fruit of Kipling’s Boston escapade. It charts the tale of Harvey Cheyne, a rich, spoilt 15 year-old, who falls from an ocean-going liner, is rescued by the fishing boat We’re Here - and is forced to spend the next three months with the crew, earning his living as a deck-hand among the huge waves and treacherous currents of the Grand Banks. The experience is the making of Harvey, transforming the pampered, boastful boy into a self-reliant young man who knows the value - and the responsibilities - of friendship and honest work. A unique book of American adventure from the archetypal Indian writer.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton's book is ostensibly a work of Science Fiction. It deals with an underground race of advanced beings, masters of Vril energy - a strange power that can both heal and destroy - who intend to leave their subterranean existence and conquer the world. But the book has been seen by many as a barely concealed account of Hidden Wisdom, a theory that has attracted many strange bed-fellows, including the French author Louis Jacolliot, the Polish explorer Ferdinand Ossendowsky, and Adolf Hitler.
Arnold Bennett was born in England's heavily industrialised 'Potteries' district (his fictional 'Five Towns'), leaving for London in 1898, aged 21. Following the success of his first novel, in 1903 he moved to that mecca for all things avant-garde and artistic – Paris.
Bennett was drawn to the French literary styles of naturalism and realism, evolving a brilliant synthesis of the two techniques that he uses with such effect in The Old Wives' Tale. In his his journal, he speaks of having been inspired to write the novel by observing an old lady in a cafe in Paris and, looking past the rather uninspiring picture she presented, he thought of how her life might have been lived and the youthful aspirations and disappointments she may have experienced.
By turns sombre, uplifting and thought-provoking, the story follows the lives of two sisters, the adventurous, unconventional Sophia, and Constance, he more dour and custom-bound sibling. Sophia elopes with her lover to Paris, is ultimately abandoned by him, and survives the bloody uprising of the Paris Commune to establish a thriving boarding house. Constance never leaves her family home, marries locally, has a child, and continues the family business.
In their declining years, the sisters are brought together again and, despite their different paths, they share in their own ways the pride, pathos and banality of life – and their love for each other.
Acknowledged as one of the most profound modern commentators on Christian mysticism, Evelyn Underhill did not easily find her own spiritual path. Between 1911 and 1921 she wrestled to understand spiritual experiences via academic research into early Christian mysticism and the life of individual mystics. This led her into active contemplation and, eventually, to the formation of her own profound view of the mystical path.
The Spiritual Life derives from a series of four talks, broadcast on the BBC during the 1930s; its purpose is to circumvent technical theological terminology and to describe “some of the great truths concerning man’s spiritual life in simple language”. In this Underhill succeeds admirably, and the book has become a well-deserved classic. The Spiral Path is a longer study, describing the Christian path of fifteen mysteries that are to be followed in the soul’s ascent to God.
Both works are written in plain, easy-to-understand language - garnished with the wit and gentle wisdom that has made Evelyn Underhill a must-read for all who struggle to follow a spiritual life in the modern world.
‘The seven Christians stood together in the bright sunlight, bound with strong ropes, singing a hymn to their foreign Saviour as the spearmen advanced. Around them a crowd of jostling men, women and children, over sixty thousand strong... cheered enthusiastically as the spears were driven home and, one by one, the men and women fell and writhed on the sandy ground, their hymn fading slowly into silence, replaced by the groans and shrieks of the dying. Above the still-squirming bodies, on a ridge, a score of crosses stood in mute witness, carrying their ghastly burdens, some of whom still lived despite the day and a half they had hung upon the wood.’
As European colonial powers scrambled for control of Africa, a leader arose in the red island of Madagascar who, with ruthless determination, thwarted all their ambitions. This bastion of native defiance was no mighty warrior, but a diminutive woman of middle years, Ranavalona Manjaka, Queen of Madagascar, known to her subjects more simply as Ma Dieu. Under Ranavalona’s despotic rule, hundreds of thousands of her people - possibly one-half of the entire population - were murdered, starved, or simply worked to death by her express command. In stark contrast to her benighted subjects, the Queen gloried in an eccentric and debauched lifestyle that put the worst of the Roman Emperors to shame. Small wonder European history remembers this sanguinary queen as the Female Caligula.
In 399 B.C., Socrates was tried for religious and political crimes: refusing to recognise the gods of Athens, introducing new deities, and corrupting the youth. The verdict was guilty as charged, the penalty – death by poisoning.
Despite growing up in Greece’s “Golden Age” of liberalism and democracy, Socrates was not a democrat. Influencing young men with his idea that people needed direction from wise men rather than self-government, was likely perceived as a threat to the cherished Athenian republic. Socrates likened himself to a gadfly stinging the “lazy horse” of Athens and did this with zeal, believing his God-assigned purpose was to expose false wisdom as ignorance. Awareness of one’s ignorance was a key first step towards true wisdom or virtue, he declared, emphasising that although he, too, was ignorant, he knew it. And that, he argued, was the reason the oracle of Delphi proclaimed “there was no man wiser than Socrates”. Little wonder, then, that egos were pricked and enemies made.
Socrates did not record any of his work, and it was left to some of his young disciples – Plato, being the most famous – to give an account of their master’s dialogues with Athenians from all walks of life. The Trial and Death of Socrates is a collection of four such dialogues – Euthyphron, Apology, Crito and Phaedo – covering the period from just before Socrates’ trial through his last few days in prison, to his courageous death. The reader makes contact with the Socratic method of debate known as elenchus – an unwavering and incisive form of cross-examination that involved a series of questions and answers. For Socrates, definitions and rational, syllogistic argument were key tools in discussing and dissecting subjects such as piety, virtue, the immortality of the soul and the difference between right and wrong.
A misfit in his time, Socrates was arguably the world’s first martyr for free speech, and one that passed on an enduring legacy of questioning societal norms.
is rightly famous as one of the most heroic, and most poignant, of all the Icelandic narratives. Epic in scale, with battles, blood-feuds and storm-filled voyages that stretch across the breadth of the Scandinavian World, the tale is spiced with strange apparitions, ghostly singing and prophetic dreams. The anonymous author brings to life a variety of compelling personalities: the formidable Gunnar who excels in war yet detests violence, the scheming Flosi, Gudmund the Powerful, and Njal himself, gifted with second sight yet unable to save his family from a terrible doom.
The Saga also treats of more homely matters, from family disputes and divided loyalties to farming and failed marriages, giving the modern-day reader a broader, more nuanced perception of a people we too readily dismiss as axe-wielding, bloodthirsty barbarians.
This Aziloth Books edition includes both an introduction to the tale by its translator Professor Sir George Dasent, and a map of Viking Iceland.
Leo Tolstoy was much more than a writer of world famous novels. An avid social thinker, he was a supporter of ‘Georgism’ a revolutionary economic theory that advocated the abolition of all taxes except those on land ownership (see Progress and Poverty, Aziloth Book).
But in early middle age Tolstoy suffered a spiritual crisis, enduring recurrent bouts of religious and moral misgivings which took over three decades to resolve. ‘My Confession’ (the original title, better known today as ‘A Confession’) is the great man’s account of these trials, of his anguish, confusion and missteps, and of his final reconciliation with faith, Deity and the purpose of life.
This simple, beautifully constructed account of a great writer’s spiritual journey will chime with all those who have sought after the true meaning of existence and the transcendent verities lying behind all religious life. While you may not fully agree with his conclusion, Tolstoy’s My Confession will both uplift and give new insights into the multifarious - and at times surprising - associations between emotion, reason and faith.